How our leaders, and would-be leaders, became accomplices in terrorism

Christopher Dickey writes: When President Barack Obama says there will be no more 9/11s, he almost certainly is right, although what’s left of the core al Qaeda leadership still longs for an atrocity worthy of disaster-film director Roland Emmerich.

The bad news: in the Age of Anxiety, as my colleague Michael Weiss calls it, the jihadists have learned they get almost as much social, political and economic impact out of minor events, and even failure, as they do out of “successful” atrocities.

And that’s not so much because of the bad guys as it is because of us.

The terror perpetrated by the few has become a tool used by demagogues — our demagogues — to frighten and sometimes to stampede the masses. (Am I thinking of Donald Trump? Marine Le Pen? Geert Wilders? Boris Johnson in Brexit mode? Yes.)

What we have lost in the 15 years since the horrors of September 11, 2001, is a sense of perspective about the scale of the threat we face. [Continue reading…]

The threat from terrorism is asymmetrical in obvious ways, but fearmongers — with the help of the media — obscure the most significant asymmetry that is evident in the immediate aftermath of every atrocity: the inhumanity of the perpetrators is dwarfed by the humanity evident in the responses of the survivors. In the face of terror, the people who reach out to help each other, vastly outnumber the terrorists. Those whose fears are most susceptible to being purposefully amplified are those who get terrorized at a distance.

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Here’s why Turkey’s Syria intervention is a huge gamble

Borzou Daragahi reports: Abu Mostafa was elated. Backed by Turkey’s armed forces, his Free Syrian Army unit racked up a series of rare victories against ISIS fighters in northern Syria this week, retaking five villages from the jihadi group on Tuesday.

Turkey’s intervention in Syria is meant to push ISIS and Kurdish militants away from a narrow strip of the northern Aleppo province along its southern borders. But Abu Mostafa, a nom de guerre, and the fighters from his Abu Bakir al-Sadeeq brigade already harbor grander ambitions.

“We are aiming for more than those areas, hopefully even the liberation of all of Syria and not only Aleppo,” he told BuzzFeed News this week over a spotty internet connection. “The Turks do not command us.”

A few weeks after a surprise ground incursion, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian rebel groups managed to carve out a long-sought buffer zone along Syrian territory to prevent cross-border infiltrations by jihadi and Kurdish militant organizations, while designating a potential safe zone for civilians fleeing the conflict. The Turks launched a ground operation, backed by Turkish and US air support, after reassuring Russia and Iran that their aims were solely to roll back the territories under the control of ISIS fighters and Kurdish-led fighting groups with separatist agendas.

But Turkey’s calibrated strategy depends in part on both limiting its own involvement and reining in the ambitions of its FSA partners, whose battles against ISIS and Kurdish-led militias in northern Syria are secondary to their goal of bringing down the regime of Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]

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A reminder of the permanent wars: Dozens of U.S. airstrikes in six countries

The Washington Post reports: While Americans savored the last moments of summer this Labor Day weekend, the U.S. military was busy overseas as warplanes conducted strikes in six countries in a flurry of attacks. The bombing runs across Asia, Africa and the Middle East spotlighted the diffuse terrorist threats that have persisted into the final days of the Obama presidency — conflicts that the next president is now certain to inherit.

In Iraq and Syria, between Saturday and Monday, the United States conducted about 45 strikes against Islamic State targets. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Libyan city of Sirte, U.S. forces also hit fighters with the militant group. On Sunday in Yemen, a U.S. drone strike killed six suspected members of ­al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, just across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, the Pentagon targeted al-Shabab, another group aligned with ­al-Qaeda. The military also conducted several counterterrorism strikes over the weekend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Islamic State are on the offensive.

Militants in each of those countries have been attacked before, but the convergence of so many strikes on so many fronts in such a short period served as a reminder of the endurance and geographic spread of al-Qaeda and its mutations.

“This administration really wanted to end these wars,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security. “Now, we’ve got U.S. combat operations on multiple fronts and we’re dropping bombs in six countries. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the terrorism threat today.”

In meeting those threats, Obama has sought to limit the large-scale deployments of the past, instead relying on air power, including drones; isolated Special Operations raids; and support for foreign forces.

But militant groups have defied eight years of these sustained counterterrorism efforts.

Nowhere are the unexpected turns of Obama’s foreign-policy record more visible than in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops returned after the 2011 withdrawal to support local forces’ battle against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Americans are more worried about terrorism than they were after 9/11

The Atlantic reports: In 2002, with the footage of collapsing World Trade Centers still fresh in American minds, the pollsters at Pew Research posed a question. “Do you think the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the U.S.,” they asked, “is greater, the same, or less than it was at the time of the September 11th terrorist attacks?”

A slim plurality of respondents, 39 percent, said nothing had changed in the past year. A third allowed that things had gotten better. The rest — 22 percent — said America was actually less safe, despite the billions spent on a military incursion into Afghanistan and the creation of an entire new cabinet-level department devoted to homeland security.

It turns out 2002 was a relatively optimistic year. According to Pew’s latest figures, 40 percent of Americans now believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was in 2001, the highest ever. Republicans lead that charge: More than half think terrorists have grown stronger, while only a third of Democrats agree. And if the GOP is scared, Donald Trump is there to help — or rile things up. “If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have our country anymore,” he said in June, following the mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. “There will be nothing — absolutely nothing –left.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. gets ready to assist offensive with additional troops to retake Mosul from ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. is gearing up to assist in an offensive to reclaim the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State, and has sent 400 additional troops to the country in anticipation Iraqi forces will begin the long-delayed battle in October, officials said.

The troops have been sent into Iraq to assist Iraqi forces consolidating south of Mosul in what is known as the launchpad for the allied operation in the city of Qayyarah, defense officials said on Thursday. There now are more than 5,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.

Despite rising optimism over chances for success in Mosul, the new commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said he thinks the battle to retake the jihadist group’s last major Iraqi stronghold will be a difficult and dangerous operation.

“We’re preparing for a hard fight, a long, difficult fight” in Mosul, Gen. Townsend told The Wall Street Journal late Wednesday here at his office at the coalition’s base in Baghdad. “Really, it’s a siege I’m talking about here.” [Continue reading…]

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An ISIS plot to blow up Notre Dame cathedral — and rule the world?

Michael Weiss writes: Abu Muhammed al-Adnani’s last communique as ISIS’s spokesman and overseer of international operations came in late May of this year. Anticipating the further loss of cities and villages, he cautioned the faithful not to despair and again emphasized the exportation of holy war as an obligation of all Muslims, a motif that has been serially mischaracterized in the media as a shift or pivot in ISIS’s long-term strategy.

In reality, it is the culmination of a long-held fever-dream of world domination, one that began in the late 1990s and was intermittently implemented, mainly in Mesopotamia and the Levant, under the guidance of the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founding father of ISIS’s first incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Zarqawi’s expansionism was ultimately apocalyptic: he was fond of citing a hadith, or saying attributable to the Prophet Muhammed, that foretold the inevitable clash between the Armies of Rome and the Armies of Islam in a scruffy little town in the Syrian province of Aleppo known as Dabiq, now also the name of ISIS’s two year-old propaganda magazine. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq,” Zarqawi said, in one of his own sayings that has furnished the epigraph of every issue of this grim periodical, “and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” (ISIS currently holds Dabiq, although in the coming weeks it will likely lose it either to American-backed Kurdish guerrillas or Turkish-backed Arabs rebels, assuming they’re not too busy fighting each other.)

Lately, Zarqawi’s fever-dream has been reified as a declaration of total war against disbelievers wherever they may be. Does this mean, in the near term, that ISIS envisages driving Abrams tanks and Humvees down Pennsylvania Avenue or the Champs-Élysées the way it drove them into Mosul two years ago? No. It means sowing mayhem and destruction in the Land of Disbelievers and watching these societies cannibalize themselves in advance of the future Islamic conquest. The sequence of war was written up centuries ago. [Continue reading…]

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Losing ground, fighters and morale – is it all over for ISIS?

Martin Chulov reports: It has been a bad few months for Islamic State (Isis). For the first time since the terror group laid claim to much of Iraq and Syria, it no longer has a direct path to Europe. Black flags are no longer flying over towns and villages near the Turkish border and the militants of the so-called caliphate are on the run. If the decay continues, Isis will soon lose much of its remaining foothold in Syria. Its last bastion will be Raqqa and the north-eastern deserts, where it all began for the group’s latest incarnation in April 2013, and from where much of its subsequent rampage was plotted.

Since mid-July, Isis has been methodically pushed from towns and villages it controlled near the Turkish frontier by the most concerted ground advance of the past two years. The jihadist group now looks to be far less of a threat to the regional order than when its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed his rule over a swath of eastern Syria and western Iraq in mid-2014.

But little about what comes next is clear. The group’s loss of territory has shifted geopolitical ground in ways that could not easily have been predicted. And, in the eyes of many European governments, its danger has metastasised into a global threat that a loss of land won’t mitigate. A military victory over one of modern history’s most savage band of marauders may yet prove pyrrhic. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS loses all territory along Syria-Turkey border

The Associated Press reports: Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels expelled the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group from the last strip of territory it controlled along the Syrian-Turkish border on Sunday, effectively sealing the extremists’ self-styled caliphate off from the outside world, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported.

Also on Sunday, Syrian pro-government forces backed by airstrikes launched a wide offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, capturing areas they lost last month and besieging rebel-held neighbourhoods, state media and opposition activists said.

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels have cleared the area between the northern Syrian border towns of Azaz and Jarablus, the Anadolu news agency reported. It said the advance “has removed terror organization Daesh’s physical contact with the Turkish border in northern Syria.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

The FSA’s advance shut down key supply lines used by ISIS to bring in foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition. [Continue reading…]

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Remember the 3 Americans kidnapped in Iraq? Here’s the real story

McClatchy reports: January 15 was a relatively quiet day for Baghdad, the bomb-battered capital where Waiel El-Maadawy, an Army veteran and former Florida sheriff’s deputy, had spent years as a contractor for the U.S.-led effort to train Iraqi security forces.

El-Maadawy was feeling relieved. He’d just hired an Iraqi he knew, a man nicknamed Abu Marina, as an interpreter to help with the urgent task of training Iraqi commandos to fight Islamic State jihadists. He and two fellow contractors – his cousin, Amr Mohamed, of Bullhead City, Arizona, and Russell Frost, of Wichita, Kansas, sealed the deal over tea at Abu Marina’s apartment in southeastern Baghdad.

About half an hour into their visit, the commander of a Shiite Muslim militia showed up, demanding to know who the Americans were and ordering them to stay put. At first, the contractors scoffed at the intrusion – they had pistols on their hips and Iraqi Special Forces authorization in their pockets.

“We walk outside and he was right – we can’t leave. There were 40 guys there with heavy weapons,” El-Maadawy recalled. “That’s when everything went downhill. We realized we were going to be taken.”

That was the beginning of a 31-day ordeal the Obama administration has never explained, and which is described in detail here for the first time, through a series of interviews with El-Maadawy, a phone interview with Frost, and with the cooperation of Mohamed, who is currently out of the country. [Continue reading…]

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While Twitter chases ISIS accounts away, it allows homegrown extremists to thrive

Quartz reports: Twitter has earned a reputation for being a recruiting ground for the Islamic State, but the terror group only represents a fraction of the site’s extremist landscape.

White nationalists and self-identified Nazi supporters — who’ve been around much longer than ISIL — have grown their follower count more than six-fold over the last four years, according to a new study published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. With ISIL’s social media tactics gaining traction in 2014, other groups have mimicked its propaganda techniques to further their reach. Currently, the white extremist accounts post tweets more often than their ISIL counterparts.

The researchers first identified the most prominent white nationalist organizations and leaders, who had a strong offline presence too. Then, they downloaded accounts following these influencers — over 25,000 of them — and scraped the 200 most recent tweets from them. In 2012, the same technique had yielded only 3,500 accounts. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s intervention in Syria, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force [the YPG] as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.[Continue reading…]

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Why the U.S. Army is worried about insurgents turning to remote-controlled weapons

The Washington Post reports: As conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya continue, battlefields in the region have turned into technological incubators for groups looking to find new and improved ways to kill one another.

While homemade munitions and Mad Max-style modifications to civilian equipment have been a staple of 21st-century warfare, a new Army report released last week by the branch’s Foreign Military Studies Office points to the growing trend of insurgent and terrorist groups using remote-controlled or “tele-operated” weaponry.

The report looks at 21 case studies — gathered mainly through social media and news reports — of remote-controlled rifles and machine guns used by groups such as the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army and the now rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Twenty of the weapons are from groups in Iraq and Syria, while one is from Libya in 2011. The modified weapons are mostly older Soviet variants, though at least one Syrian rebel group appeared to be using a U.S.-style rifle in one of its systems. The designs are rudimentary but include the necessary components — a small screen and operating cables — for firing the weapon from a distance. Some of the designs are stationary, while others are mounted on wheels or tracks. One such weapon, photographed with rebels in Misurata, Libya, appears to be a medium machine gun affixed to a toy truck. [Continue reading…]

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