Syria: The roots of Jabhat Al Nusra’s pragmatism

Abu-Musab-al-SuriHassan Hassan writes: A top Sharia official in Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda formal affiliate in Syria, has acknowledged for the first time that his faction is influenced by the teachings of Abu Musab Al Suri, a Syrian jihadist who fought the Assad regime in the 1970s and 1980s, before becoming one of the world’s most renowned jihadist ideologues. The acknowledgement did not spark much media attention, but is hugely significant for understanding the ideological underpinnings of Syria’s jihadist groups.

Dr Sami Al Oraidi – who was mentioned by Jabhat Al Nusra leader Abu Muhammad Al Jolani in his only media interview as an official who represents the group’s ideology – listed 19 recommendations by Abu Musab on his Twitter account, writing: “We have been able to implement some of them, but we could not implement others.”

The idea that the group is influenced by Abu Musab’s teachings had been long suspected by some jihadist watchers. On this day last year, I wrote in this space that multiple sources had told me that the ideologue’s writings had been cited privately by members and leaders of Jabhat Al Nusra. But the revelation by the group’s official is the first evidence to the claims. In practice, the influence by Abu Musab can help to explain the group’s dynamism, relative to like-minded groups.

The essence of Abu Musab’s teachings is that a new generation of jihadists should be committed to an “individualised” jihad, which places their ideology above and beyond any organisational affiliation. This way of thinking is geared towards shielding the jihad from organisational mistakes through decentralisation: jihadists could pursue their aims without waiting to be guided by an elite vanguard that made all the important decisions.

In the United States and Europe, the legacy of Abu Musab is often associated with lone-wolf attacks, which pose a profound security challenge for the West. But in Muslim-dominated societies such as in Syria, “individualised jihad” and other aspects of Abu Musab’s teachings play out differently.

In practice, jihadists in Syria focus on ensuring that the country will remain a place to wage jihad on a personal or group level, regardless of the political outcome. The priority is to establish deep ties with local communities even if that requires flexibility on some principles.

The strategies derived from Abu Musab’s guidelines to win hearts and minds are largely four-fold: provide services to people, avoid being seen as extremists, maintain strong relationships with communities and other fighting groups, and put the focus on fighting the regime. [Continue reading...]

In 2006, Lawrence Wright wrote: Suri was born into a middle-class family in Aleppo, Syria, in 1958, the year of bin Laden’s birth. Red-haired and sturdily built, he has a black belt in judo; his real name is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar. He became involved in politics at the University of Aleppo, where he studied engineering. Later, he moved to Jordan, where he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that opposed Syria’s dictator, Hafez al-Assad. In 1982, Assad decided that the Brotherhood posed a threat to his authority, and his troops slaughtered as many as thirty thousand people in the city of Hama, one of the group’s strongholds. The ruthlessness of Assad’s response shocked Suri. He renounced the Brotherhood, which he held responsible for provoking the destruction of Hama, and took refuge in Europe for several years. In 1985, he moved to Spain, where he married and became a Spanish citizen; two years later, he found his way to Afghanistan, where he met Osama bin Laden. [Read more...]

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Mole who met Bin Laden killed by Al Qaeda in Bosnia

n13-iconNBC News reports: An FBI mole who provided valuable intelligence on al Qaeda and met with Osama bin Laden was lured away from the FBI to work for the CIA, but was killed by al Qaeda operatives in Bosnia who suspected he was an informant, NBC News has learned exclusively.

The informant, a Sudan-born driver and confidante to “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, the radical Muslim cleric who allegedly masterminded the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center, had been the sole human asset providing first-person information about al Qaeda in the mid-1990s as the terror group gained strength around the globe.

According to sources familiar with the management of the mole, the FBI recruited him in 1993 because he was a known associate of the Blind Sheikh. [Continue reading...]

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FBI had human source in contact with bin Laden as far back as 1993

n13-iconThe Washington Times reports: In a revelation missing from the official investigations of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI placed a human source in direct contact with Osama bin Laden in 1993 and ascertained that the al Qaeda leader was looking to finance terrorist attacks in the United States, according to court testimony in a little-noticed employment dispute case.

The information the FBI gleaned back then was so specific that it helped thwart a terrorist plot against a Masonic lodge in Los Angeles, the court records reviewed by The Washington Times show.

“It was the only source I know in the bureau where we had a source right in al Qaeda, directly involved,” Edward J. Curran, a former top official in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, told the court in support of a discrimination lawsuit filed against the bureau by his former agent Bassem Youssef.

Mr. Curran gave the testimony in 2010 to an essentially empty courtroom, and thus it escaped notice from the media or terrorism specialists. The Times was recently alerted to the existence of the testimony while working on a broader report about al Qaeda’s origins.

Members of the Sept. 11 commission, congressional intelligence committees and terrorism analysts told The Times they are floored that the information is just now emerging publicly and that it raises questions about what else Americans might not have been told about the origins of al Qaeda and its early interest in attacking the United States.

“I think it raises a lot of questions about why that information didn’t become public and why the 9/11 Commission or the congressional intelligence committees weren’t told about it,” said former Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, who chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2004 through 2007 when lawmakers dealt with the fallout from the 9/11 Commission’s official report.

“This is just one more of these examples that will go into the conspiracy theorists’ notebooks, who say the authorities are not telling us everything,” Mr. Hoekstra told The Times in an interview last week. “That’s bad for the intelligence community. It’s bad for law enforcement and it’s bad for government.”

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission with former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said that as far as he can remember, the FBI never told the commission that it had been working a source so close to bin Laden that many years before 9/11.

“I do not recall the FBI advising us of a direct contact with Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Hamilton told The Times in a recent interview. [Continue reading...]

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A jihadist’s account of how ‘Al Qa’eda mediator’ Abu Khaled Al-Suri was assassinated

Abu Khaled al-Suri, a senior figure in the insurgent faction Ahrar al-Sham and a representative of Al Qa’eda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed on Sunday by a suicide attack in Aleppo. EA Worldview has posted a translation of a jihadist’s account of al-Suri’s death:

al-suriMay Allah damn these suicides and may those who sent them be damned.

(Al-Suri) was a remarkable man. He was a colleague and friend of Osama Bin Laden, a fellow campaigner and representative of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Syria. He was given the task of making peace between the Mujahideen in Syria.

We met him more than once when our brigade was in Hama. He gave us great, extensive help when we were there. I did not meet a more pleasant man. Joyful, pleasant, his face shone with goodwill and wisdom.

In conversation he was very gracious and attentive to the person to whom he was talking. He was very simple and direct with people. When any questions arose that demanded his participation he said, “I am a slave of Allah and your servant. Speak, ask, and I will do everything in my power for you.”

He waged jihad for over 20 years. The infidels were trying to kill him for many years already. The USA’s CIA put a price on his head.

Now he is no more. This is not just a loss for his brigade and for Syria but it is no exaggeration to say for the Ummah as well.

That gang of arrogant villains who planned this evil act will be sorry for it.

Of course everyone is asking, who did it?

Right now it’s hard to say. It’s only possible to describe those who did it. Their arrogance is good for cowardice and stupidity. Dumb and brainless agents carrying out the orders of the arrogant.

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Is Iranian support for ‘al Qaeda’ in Syria unimaginable?

UPI reports: U.S. officials allege Iranian intelligence is actively helping al-Qaida fighters in Syria, even though the jihadists are battling to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s key Arab ally.

At first glance, this would seem to fly in the face of a high-profile effort by U.S. President Barack Obama to achieve detente with Iran, America’s longtime adversary, which — if it comes off — would dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

At a deeper level, analysts say it makes sense, inasmuch as Tehran helping al-Qaida reinforce jihadist fighters engaged in vicious infighting with other Syrian rebel forces, including Islamists, means the divided insurgents are weakening themselves and not Assad’s beleaguered regime in Damascus.

The U.S. Treasury Department, targeting a diverse group of entities and individuals for allegedly evading international sanctions against Iran, aiding missile proliferation and supporting terrorism, said last week Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, was working with al-Qaida operatives directing jihadists to Syria.

Treasury has made this claim before. In February 2012, it cited the MOIS, Iran’s principal intelligence service, for supporting terrorist groups, “including al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq … again exposing the extent of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a matter of Iranian state policy.”

A year earlier, it singled out a senior al-Qaida operative it identified as a Syrian named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, aka Yasin al-Suri, as the group’s chief facilitator in Iran.

He allegedly is still operating there. Al-Jazeera reported in January al-Suri “is more active than ever.”

Analyst Thomas Joscelyn of the Long War Journal, which tracks global terrorism, says: “Al-Suri operates under an agreement that was struck between the Iranian regime and al-Qaida years ago. He first began operating inside Iran in 2005.

“It’s not clear why the Iranian government would allow al-Suri to act as a facilitator for al-Qaida’s operations in Syria. … The Iranian regime, however, has mastered duplicity and may have unknown reasons for keeping tabs on al-Qaida’s operations.”

Jason Ditz writes:

That the Assad government is literally Iran’s closest ally on the planet and that al-Qaeda is openly hostile to Iran’s Shi’ite government are both unchanged, and of course that means Iran backing al-Qaeda against Syria is literally the last thing they’d do.

Actually, the idea that Iran might provide some kind of support to a group fighting its closest ally does not require a great leap of imagination. I’ll explain why, but first note that I chose the term group.

Now more than ever, the term al Qaeda begs more questions than it answers.

There are in Syria two groups both being referred to as al Qaeda affiliates: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS aka ISIL, the successor of al Qaeda in Iraq). Yet al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently made it clear that the organization’s central command neither authorized the creation of ISIS nor views it as part of al Qaeda.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes:

[T]he media’s constant descriptions of ISIS as an “al-Qaeda affiliate” until this recent statement have been deeply misguided and reflect a misunderstanding of how ISIS has seen itself.

According to ISIS supporters and fighters I know, ISIS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), have been independent of al-Qaeda since the inception of ISI in October 2006. This line of narrative — articulated by them long before this statement — argues that when ISI was formed, it absorbed what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq (which was certainly the main component of the ISI umbrella coalition), as the pledge of allegiance was switched from al-Qaeda to the emir of ISI.

ISIS’ supporters and fighters further point to Zawahri’s statement in 2007 explicitly stating that there is no “al-Qaeda in Iraq” anymore, as it had joined other jihadist groups in the ISI.

Regardless of whether one wishes to accept this narrative of independence from al-Qaeda from the very beginning, there is no doubt that the ISI quickly became an organization capable of supporting itself financially and supplying its own manpower.

The recent Treasury Department statement made no reference to ISIS and announced:

…the designation of a key Iran-based al-Qa’ida facilitator [Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov] who supports al-Qa’ida’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities. The network also uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support al-Qa’ida-affiliated elements in Syria, including the al-Nusrah Front.

So let’s assume that Iran welcomes support flowing towards al Nusra and this story isn’t anti-Iranian propaganda manufactured in Washington, how might this serve Iranian interests?

Since al Nusra is now in conflict with ISIS and since ISIS poses a threat to the Maliki government in Iraq (which is itself closely aligned with Iran), strengthening Nusra at ISIS’s expense may help Iran. Moreover, Iran may view the fight between the two groups in a similar way that Edward N. Luttwak last year characterized the whole war in Syria: “There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.”

That is to say, as the UPI reports suggests, Iran may be fueling a fight in which it hopes all the combatants come out weaker.

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Bin Laden death images subject to purge, emails reveal

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: Eleven days after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the US military’s top special operations officer ordered subordinates to destroy any photographs of the al-Qaida founder’s corpse or turn them over to the CIA, according to a newly released email.

The email was obtained under a freedom of information request by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch. The document, released on Monday by the group, shows that Admiral William McRaven, who heads the US Special Operations Command, told military officers on 13 May 2011 that photos of Bin Laden’s remains should have been sent to the CIA or already destroyed. Bin Laden was killed by a special ops team in Pakistan on 2 May 2011.

McRaven’s order to purge the bin Laden material came 10 days after the Associated Press asked for the photos and other documents under the US Freedom of Information Act. Typically, when a freedom of information request is filed to a government agency under the Federal Records Act, the agency is obliged to preserve the material sought – even if the agency later denies the request. [Continue reading...]

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Obama pressured over drone policy amid reports U.S. citizen targeted

n13-iconThe Guardian reports: The Obama administration came under renewed pressure to disclose the legal grounds for its drone programme on Monday, amid reports that another US citizen accused of plotting attacks against Americans for al-Qaida overseas is to be assassinated.

Legal experts and civil liberties campaigners urged the White House to explain the basis for a potential strike against the suspect, alleged to be an active “facilitator” for the terrorist network and already responsible for deadly attacks on Americans.

Senior US officials were reported by the Associated Press to be weighing the benefits of killing the man against the likelihood of international condemnation and domestic criticism for targeting an American who has not been not charged with a crime. The Washington Post said it had confirmed the story.

Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, said the Obama administration “continues to fight against even basic transparency” about how it justifies the executions of thousands of people under the programme.

“The targeted killing of an American being considered right now shows the inherent danger of a killing programme based on vague and shifting legal standards, which has made it disturbingly easy for the government to operate outside the law,” she said.

Citing several US officials, the AP reported that the man was accused of planning further strikes with improvised explosive devices. He was reported to be hiding, well guarded, in a remote part of a state unwilling to allow US operations on its soil and “unable to go after him”, prompting speculation that a strike would mean the drone programme being extended into a new country, such as Libya. [Continue reading...]

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The effort to isolate ISIS, Syria’s renegade jihadists

e13-iconIf the Assad regime had wanted to plant a Trojan Horse inside the Syrian revolution, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) would have provided the perfect vehicle. Whether ISIS is actually doing the regime’s bidding is almost besides the point since by design or not, the group is undoubtedly serving Assad’s interests. For all the other rebel groups in Syria, ISIS now represents the enemy within.

The conflict within the opposition — conflict which the press conveniently describes as “infighting” — predictably presents an image of a movement that is imploding; a movement whose lack of legitimacy is rising to the surface. Again, in this narrative the interests of the Syrian government and its supporters are being served.

Yesterday’s statement issued by al Qaeda’s central leadership is significant and should probably be taken at face value. It says:

Qae’dat al-­Jihad (AQ) declares that it has no links to the ISIS group. We were not informed about it’s creation, nor counseled. Nor were we satisfied with it rather we ordered it to stop. ISIS is not a branch of AQ & we have no organizational relationship with it. Nor is al-­Qaeda responsible for its actions and behaviors.

Aron Lund provides some background to this announcement:

In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the ISI would become the ISIL by extending its activity into Syria and taking full possession of the Syria-based jihadi faction known as the Nusra Front, which Baghdadi had helped create in August 2011.

All this happened without Zawahiri being informed, to his great dismay. When he complained and attempted to assert authority over the ISI(L), ordering Baghdadi to dissolve the new cross-border entity and head back to Iraq, Baghdadi simply refused to comply. From his hideout, which is probably in Pakistan, there was little Zawahiri could do about it.

But the al-Qaeda leader didn’t leave the Syrian dispute empty-handed: he gained or regained the allegiance of the Nusra Front, whose leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, publicly declared his allegiance to Zawahiri in an attempt to avoid being gobbled up by the ISIL. Since then, the Nusra Front has functioned as a de facto al-Qaeda branch, even though it isn’t yet publicly declared as such.

This split between the ISIL and the Nusra Front, which took place in April 2013, set in motion the process that now, after almost a year, has resulted in brutal infighting in northern Syria, with the ISIL and the Nusra Front on different sides. But it also forced al-Qaeda to finally come clean about what may have been the reality for quite a while: it no longer seems to have an Iraqi wing.

Over the last few weeks, @wikibaghdady, who presents himself as an inside source, has revealed many details about the inner workings of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI/ISI).

Although Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is most often referred to as the leader, according to @wikibaghdady (see an English translation of his tweets) the core leadership is a three-man military council of former officers who served Saddam Hussein and were members of the Ba’ath Party. Brigadier General Haji Bakr led the council until his death near Aleppo in January.

General Haji Bakr first met Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi when he offered his services to him due to having experience in Saddam’s Ba’athist army. He demonstrated his dedication to him and he is now considered to be one of the closest to him. However, Haji Bakr didn’t have any previous jihadi experience before that. He was accepted to the Military Council on the one condition of providing the State [AQI / ISI] with important information about the Iraqi army. When he did that and proved his loyalty, he was then appointed as the military adviser to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hafs al-Muhajir and continuously provided them with information about previous military leaders, plans and successfully linking them with previous members of the Ba’ath Party.

Although ISIS has become infamous for its outward brutality, the account of Haji Bakr’s leadership makes it clear that he imposed his own internal reign of terror.

When Haji Bakr became a leader, a new era started that was important to Iraq as well where the amount of fear between citizens increased. A lot of people considered Haji Bakr to be arrogant next to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who many considered to be a quiet personality. In addition, Haji Bakr completely changed the way he looked where he shaved his beard off and even changed the way he speaks in the first few weeks. The main issue here is that no one in the State dared to question anything taking place because questioning was considered not trusting the other person. This issue was serious to a point where it was allowed to kill another member who considered being suspicious of another.

Haji Bakr then started holding private meetings with Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi to reshape the State. The first agreement was protecting the State from the inside and out. This involved creating a security outlet that would be able to respond to any type of danger. An important step that took place was that Haji Bakr prevented Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi from meeting with leaders from other groups so they didn’t impact or advise him in any way. The orders came from the Shura council that Abu Bakr created to ensure that all decisions made were fair. After this, the two became very close and were always with each other where many considered him to be Al Baghdadi’s private minister.

Among their plans were various assassinations that in fact took place. This first started with twenty people and within a month, the number increased to one hundred people. It is essential to understand that no one in the State AQI/ISI would dare to take any orders from anyone else but Haji Bakr or Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi during that time. Every member in the Shura was carefully chosen by Haji Bakr and most of them were in the previous Baath party. One of the members’ main responsibilities was assassinating everyone who disobeys or betrays the State.

The most recent tweets reveal:

There were about twenty to thirty fighters who split from the ISIS on a daily basis. They found that fighters from Saudi Arabia were the most likely to split and that Tunisians were the least. This is when he [Al Baghdadi?] ordered that the suicide bombers should be Saudi as much as possible, and that Tunisians shouldn’t be involved since they’re the most loyal.

If a jihadist group turns out to be run primarily by former Ba’athists — a thoroughly secular political movement — this begs the question: is ISIS being viewed through the right ideological prism?

No doubt ISIS recruits jihadists, but if it is led by men who drew their power from the security apparatus of a Ba’athist state, then their overriding interests may have less to do with the creation of a Caliphate and more to do with surviving in a harbor provided by the last remaining Ba’athist government in the Middle East.

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ISIS selling Syrian oil to Assad regime

EditorialWith the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra fighting each other, the latter fighting against the regime and the former increasingly appearing to have at least some kind of tactical alliance with the government, to continue branding them both as al Qaeda affiliates is accurate and confusing. What’s the value of giving two entities the same name if the differences between them appear more significant than the similarities?

This isn’t just a semantic issue. It’s merely one example of the ways in which Western governments with the support of the media persist in their effort to treat terrorism as a cohesive phenomenon. If disparate groups with separate and sometimes conflicting aims can all be lumped together and treated as some kind of shape-changing global entity, the primary effect is to legitimize representations of terrorism as a global threat.

Imagine if the World Health Organization had successfully argued for a massive increase in its funding in order to fight a pandemic but the pandemic turned out to be no such thing. Instead, small outbreaks of different diseases none of which were particularly contagious were occurring in various regions and yet with each new occurrence there would be alarming headlines about the spreading “pandemic” along with solemn statements from government officials promising that no effort would be spared in trying to halt the widespread threat and protect humanity.

That’s what the global terrorist threat amounts to: a fictitious pandemic.

The New York Times reports: Islamist rebels and extremist groups have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare generator of cash in the country’s war-battered economy, and are now using the proceeds to underwrite their fights against one another as well as President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.

While the oil and gas fields are in serious decline, control of them has bolstered the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both of which are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is even selling fuel to the Assad government, lending weight to allegations by opposition leaders that it is secretly working with Damascus to weaken the other rebel groups and discourage international support for their cause.

Although there is no clear evidence of direct tactical coordination between the group and Mr. Assad, American officials say that his government has facilitated the group’s rise not only by purchasing its oil but by exempting some of its headquarters from the airstrikes that have tormented other rebel groups.

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In Egypt as in Syria, al Qaeda seems to serve the interests of secular authoritarianism

BBC News reports: Militants have stepped up their campaign against security forces in Egypt with a series of explosions in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

Six people were killed and some 100 others wounded, with the biggest blast outside Cairo’s police headquarters.

The attacks come on the eve of the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

Meanwhile, seven were reported killed in clashes between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

The explosion outside Cairo’s police headquarters left four people dead and wounded at least 76.

Hours later, there were three more blasts elsewhere in the city, killing two people and injuring several more.

Local media report that an al-Qaeda-inspired militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem), has said it carried out the attack on the police headquarters.

The group previously claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on a security building in the northern city of Mansoura in December that killed 16 people and injured more than 100 others.

The authorities blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for that attack – something the group strongly denied – and declared it a terrorist group shortly afterwards. [Continue reading...]

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9/11 mastermind says Quran ‘forbids’ violence to spread Islam

Huffington Post reports: The mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks now says that the use of violence to spread Islam is forbidden by the Quran, a major shift away from the more militaristic view he had put forward previously.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s thinking is detailed in a first-of-its-kind 36-page manifesto obtained by The Huffington Post. In a departure from his previous stance, which led the Guantanamo Bay prisoner to tell a military commission, “it would have been the greatest religious duty to fight you over your infidelity,” KSM, as he’s known in intelligence circles, instead seeks to convert the court to Islam through persuasion and theological reflection, going so far as to argue that “The Holy Quran forbids us to use force as a means of converting” and that reaching “truth and reality never comes by muscles and force but by using the mind and wisdom.”

“Don’t believe the media that the Mujahedeen believe that Islam spread in the past and will prevail in the future with the sword,” writes KSM, who has previously admitted to his role in the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of Americans. He uses the bulk of the manifesto to put his newfound principle into practice, attempting to persuade his captors, prosecutors and lawyers that the path to true happiness lies in Islam. [Continue reading...]

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Al Qaeda’s real impotence and the threat from Iraq’s prime minister Maliki

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent weeks about the rising power of al Qaeda.

“Fallujah fall just the beginning — Al Qaeda virus is virulent and spreading,” an op-ed by the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes, captures the spirit of this perception of a resurgence of what some people portray as the greatest source of evil ever to appear on Planet Earth.

The thing is, viral growth of any kind cannot be reliably measured by the ability to grab headlines. However widely dispersed groups branded as al Qaeda affiliates become, the feature that distinguishes each of them is that their predilection for violence makes them unpopular. They are like psychopathic gatecrashers. Everyone knows when they show up at a party and everyone wishes they’d go some place else.

Scaring everyone around you is a good way of getting noticed but it’s not a good way of making friends and at the end of the day, whatever else one might say about these men of violence, they have profound problems making and sustaining meaningful relationships. Their dysfunctionality makes it impossible for them to become the driving force behind any popular social movement; their direct impact on the wider world will never be more than marginal.

The real global impact of al Qaeda is not one that it has the capacity to generate itself; it is the impact created by governments which either cynically or paranoiacally react to a threat whose scope they been blown out of all proportion.

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: No one can deny that al Qaeda is a violent extremist threat wherever it operates. It poses a threat in terms of transnational terrorism in the United States and Europe, and a far more direct threat to the people who live in every area it operates. It has consistently been horribly repressive, violent, and often murderous in enforcing its political control and demands for a form of social behavior that reflect the worst in tribalism and offers almost nothing in terms of real Islamic values.

Like all extreme neo-Salafi movements, al Qaeda is also an economic and social dead end. It does not offer any practical way of operating and competing in a global economy, it is too dysfunctional to allow meaningful education and social interaction, and it finances itself largely through extortion in ways that cripple the existing local economy. Moreover, it does not tolerate competition even from other Islamist fighters. In Syria, it has provoked its own civil war with other hardline Islamist movements – a civil war it now seems to be decisively losing to other Sunni rebel factions.

It is precisely that type of behavior, however, which should lead U.S. officials, analysts, and media to do a far, far better job of reporting on exactly what has really happened in Anbar, and in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. Bad as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, far too much of the evidence points to Prime Minister Maliki as an equal threat to Iraq and to U.S. interests. Ever since the 2010 election, he has become steadily more repressive, manipulated Iraq’s security forces to serve his own interests, and created a growing Sunni resistance to his practice of using Shi’ite political support to gain his own advantage.

He has refused to honor the Erbil power-sharing agreement that was supposed to create a national government that could tie together Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite, and he has increased tensions with Iraq’s Kurds. As the U.S. State Department human rights reports for Iraq, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) make all too clear; Maliki’s search for power has steadily repressed and alienated Iraq’s Sunnis on a national level. It has led to show trials and death sentences against one of Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians including former Vice President Taqris al-Hashimi, who has been living in asylum in Turkey since being convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. It has shifted the promotion structure in the Iraqi Security Forces to both give the Prime Minister personal control and has turned them into an instrument he can use against Sunnis.

Al Qaeda in Iraq – nor its recent incarnation the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – has not risen up as a rebirth of the opposition the U.S. faced in 2005-2008. In spite of attempts by the Maliki government to label virtually any major Sunni opposition as terrorists, the steady increase in that opposition orginated primarily in the form of peaceful and legitimate political protests against Maliki’s purges of elected Iraqi Sunni leaders, and a regular exclusion of Sunnis from the government – including the Sons of Iraq in areas like Anbar. It came because Maliki used the Iraqi Security Forces against segments of his own population in the name of fighting terrorists and extremists. It came because of the failure to use Iraq’s oil wealth effectively and fairly – resulting with an economy that the CIA ranks Iraq 140th in the world in per capita income. The opposition to Maliki’s government also resulted from corruption so extreme that in December 2013 Transparency International ranked Iraq the seventh most corrupt country in the world, with only Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia ranking worse than Iraq in terms of corruption.

Any analysis or news report that focuses only on al Qaeda’s very real abuses is little more than worthless – it encourages the tendency to demonize terrorism without dealing with the fact that terrorism almost always only succeeds when governments fail their people. Just as serious counterinsurgency can never be successful if it only addresses the military dimension, counterterrorism cannot succeed if it is not coupled with an effort to address the quality of the nation’s political leadership and governance, and the legitimate concerns of its people.

Any failure to analyze Maliki’s actions since the 2010 election – his disregard for the Erbil agreement that called for a true national government, his manipulation of the courts to create multiple trails and death sentences for political oppponents, including one of Iraq’s vice presidents – Tariq al-Hashemi; his use of temporary appointments to take control of key command positions in the Iraqi Security Forces; his efforts to bribe senior Iraqi Sunni politicians to support him with ministerial posts; and his steadily increasing suppression of Sunni popular opposition and protests – is dishonest, lazy, intellectual rubbish. [Continue reading...]

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Lebanon ‘holds’ al-Qaeda linked group leader

Al Jazeera reports: A Saudi man who allegedly leads a group linked to al-Qaeda which operates throughout the Middle East has been arrested by military authorities in Lebanon, according to US national security sources.

Two US sources said that media reports from Lebanon that Lebanese Armed Forces had recently captured Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades were credible.

The sources did not offer further details on the circumstances in which he was captured.

Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the November 19 twin suicide bombings that targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The explosions killed at least 23 people and left more than hundred injured.

Lebanese media reported on Tuesday that Majid had been arrested two days ago.

One report said he had lived for years in a Palestinian refugee camp before leaving for Syria a month ago, where he allegedly pledged allegiance to the leader of the Nusrah Front, one of the most violent groups fighting to oust the government of President Bashar Assad. [Continue reading...]

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The ghosts of Benghazi

David Kirkpatrick reports: Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there [on September 11, 2012] and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria’s civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests.

In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A. station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.

Mr. Abu Khattala, who denies participating in the attack, was firmly embedded in the network of Benghazi militias before and afterward. Many other Islamist leaders consider him an erratic extremist. But he was never more than a step removed from the most influential commanders who dominated Benghazi and who befriended the Americans. They were his neighbors, his fellow inmates and his comrades on the front lines in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi.

To this day, some militia leaders offer alibis for Mr. Abu Khattala. All resist quiet American pressure to turn him over to face prosecution. Last spring, one of Libya’s most influential militia leaders sought to make him a kind of local judge.

Fifteen months after Mr. Stevens’s death, the question of responsibility remains a searing issue in Washington, framed by two contradictory story lines.

One has it that the video [Innocence of Muslims], which was posted on YouTube, inspired spontaneous street protests that got out of hand. This version, based on early intelligence reports, was initially offered publicly by Susan E. Rice, who is now Mr. Obama’s national security adviser.

The other, favored by Republicans, holds that Mr. Stevens died in a carefully planned assault by Al Qaeda to mark the anniversary of its strike on the United States 11 years before. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of covering up evidence of Al Qaeda’s role to avoid undermining the president’s claim that the group has been decimated, in part because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs. [Continue reading...]

Irrespective of whatever actually happened in Benghazi, the ability of most Americans of all political stripes to view such an event without a distorted perspective is severely constrained by the degree to which terrorism has become a pillar of the American worldview.

The neoconservatives were resoundingly successful in promoting the idea of a global terrorist network — not one which has a formal, verifiable structure; but one that exists more like a mycelium of evil.

Its tentacles are subterranean, vast, and yet ethereal. It is everywhere and nowhere, elusive and yet all-powerful; at some moments about to expire and yet paradoxically always an inextinguishable force.

We are meant to fear it just as resolutely as we cling to any object of faith. Indeed, to fail to view terrorism with sufficient gravity is to fail to uphold ones responsibilities as a patriotic American.

Even though it’s more than a decade since 9/11, terrorism remains America’s cultural straightjacket — that’s why even now in popular culture we have yet to see the war on terrorism being satirized.

At the height of the Cold War, when thousands of young Americans were getting killed in Vietnam in the name of standing up against Communism, it was somehow possible for Mel Brooks to create Get Smart and poke fun at spies and the paranoiac neuroses of the era.

The world has since pulled back from the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction and yet by some spectacular defiance of logic or any sense of proportion, terrorism has been conjured as an even greater threat.

At this time, 83% of Americans believe that protecting this nation from terrorist attacks should be the U.S. government’s top foreign policy priority whereas only 37% would prioritize dealing with global climate change.

That, to my mind, is a definition of collective insanity.

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Syria: How ISIS serves the interests of the Assad regime

Sarah Birke describes the growth in power of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, ISIS, which many Syrians now regard as a foreign occupier.

A year ago, the main groups fighting on the rebel side were disorganized and badly behaved, but most of them still identified—at least in their core aims of toppling Assad and building a nation state open to all Syrians—with the street movement that started in 2011. And while Salafist-Islamist rebel groups began taking a larger part in the conflict in 2012, most of them were Syrian and viewed as part of the communities in which they established themselves.

In contrast, ISIS is a group with an international profile and an extremist view of Islamic rule. And it has shown its readiness to take on any Syrians it doesn’t like, whether opposition or regime supporters. In September ISIS ousted the moderately Islamist Ahfad al-Rasoul from Raqqa by using suicide bombings (Jabhat al-Nusra, another al-Qaeda offshoot, had clashed with the group, but had not gone this far). It pushed out Northern Storm, a local rebel band, from the town of Azaz, a staging post between Aleppo and the Turkish border. And it’s also been fighting the armed wing of Syria’s Kurdish party, the PYD, in the northeast. All of which has left little doubt about its strength, or the damage it has caused to the rebellion itself.

The mainstream opposition is in a tricky position. On December 19, its exiled leadership council, the Syrian National Coalition, issued a blunt statement accusing ISIS of “abducting people for not abiding by their self-imposed regulations” and declaring that “the Coalition does not consider ISIS a part of the opposition. Its actions serve the regime’s interests.” But the Coalition has wavered on other groups with extreme views, since disavowing them highlights the lack of fighters allied with it on the ground. For example, it denounced the US’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group in 2012 and today has an unclear relationship with other Islamist groups.

ISIS originated as an Iraq-based al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in Iraq. The organization is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi extremist who has overseen relentless attacks in Iraq, causing civilian casualties, and who was designated a Global Terrorist by the US State Department in October 2011, with a $10 million bounty on his head. As the war in Syria progressed, al-Baghdadi saw an opportunity for al-Qaeda, and in January 2012, sent some footmen to found Jabhat al-Nusra with the aim of creating a new transnational state ruled by sharia law and a belief in using violence to get there.

Over the following year Nusra steadily gained strength, and in April 2013 al-Baghdadi decided it was time to merge Nusra with al-Qaeda in Iraq, expanding the geographical spread of the organization, which doesn’t recognize national borders but seeks to unite the entire umma, or Muslim community of believers, under one rule. He declared the two branches would be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to Greater Syria, the whole expanse of the Levant that holds a special place in jihadist thought for being the heart of the region and close to Jerusalem. But Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Mohammed al-Jolani, who is Syrian, refused the merger, possibly because it had not been sanctioned by al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman Zawahiri, who later ruled that the two groups should remain separate (a ruling ignored by the ambitious Baghdadi, leading some to consider ISIS outside al-Qaeda).

In fact, while ISIS and Nusra share many aims, and both are well funded and trained, there are significant differences between the two groups. Jabhat al-Nusra stresses the fight against Assad, while ISIS tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule on conquered territory. Nusra has pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, while ISIS is far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately. And while Nusra, despite its large contingent of foreign fighters, is seen as a home-grown problem, Syrians at the border frequently described Da’ash as foreign “occupiers” in their country.

In its active online media presence ISIS, like some other groups, portrays itself as a social movement with an armed wing rather than a mere rebel group. “They are there for a political reason: to lay the groundwork for a caliphate,” Charles Lister, an analyst of Syria’s rebels, told me. In recent weeks ISIS’s attacks in Iraq have increased, making it the bloodiest period since 2008. Much of its activity has focused on the western provinces adjacent to eastern Syria, a stronghold for the group.

ISIS’s vision is phenomenally popular with hardline jihadists and their supporters—more so than Jabhat al-Nusra’s—which helps explain why the conflict has managed to attract so many foreign fighters. Fundraising campaigns on Twitter by such figures as the Kuwaiti Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajmi indicate that significant money is coming to ISIS from private donors in the Gulf. And on every trip I have made to the Turkish towns along the border with Syria in the last two years, I have come across foreign fighters heading to fight. Many of them in recent months are coming to join ISIS.

Some analysts have argued that ISIS has learned from its experience in Iraq where Sunni tribes, communities, and fellow insurgents turned against al-Qaeda, leading to the Awakenings, when tribes, funded by the US, began fighting the group. In areas of Syria where it has gained control, ISIS has begun increasing outreach to the local communities. It has just launched a newspaper in northern Syria. Videos the have posted on Twitter show tug-of-war events or festivals in village squares after Friday prayers, often packed with enthusiastic-seeming young men. In Raqqa, the group has been handing out stickers for buses telling women how to dress. Children have been a special focus. Purple gift bags have gone to girls in some rebel-held areas near Damascus, an area where the group is gradually expanding. It has ensured a food supply in towns it controls, often pushing out any other providers so as to make the population dependent on it alone.

But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.

This has caused many Syrians to despise ISIS. Since June, there have been anti-ISIS protests in Raqqa—something which requires courage given ISIS’s ruthlessness. More recently, even Islamist activists such as Hadi al-Abdullah, a prominent Syrian from Homs, have criticized the group, describing them as “Dawlet al-Baghdadi,” or Baghdadi’s state, echoing “Suria al-Assad”, Assad’s Syria, the way regime supporters refer to the country. And yet ISIS continues to recruit Syrian fighters. Some say that Syrians joined because the group offers better money and protection than other rebel outfits. In an interview posted to YouTube, Saddam al-Jamal, a former leader of Ahfad al-Rasoul, explains that he defected to ISIS, because moderate fighters are subject to too much foreign interference and are pressured to fight Islamists as well as the regime.

His view is symptomatic of how hostile many Syrians have become to outside powers, which, according to many opposition supporters, have done more harm than good by supporting the opposition just enough to continue the war, but not enough to ensure a decisive victory.

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Warren Weinstein appeals to Obama and Kerry to negotiate his release

Warren Weinstein, a U.S. government contractor kidnapped by al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan in 2011 has called on President Obama to negotiate with his captors and says he feels “totally abandoned and forgotten.” In a letter to the media, Weinstein wrote:

“I have appealed several times to President Obama to help me but to no avail. I am therefore writing now to the Media to ask that you help me to gain my release and rejoin my family – my wife, two daughters, two grandchildren and my son-in-law. I am hoping that you will take up my case on a human interest and humanitarian basis, and that you can help my family and me to convince President Obama to take action to negotiate my release.”

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