ISIS and the strategy of managed savagery

Management of Savagery, by Abu Bakr Naji has been described as “al-Qaeda’s playbook.” Although ISIS (often referred to by its adversaries as Da’ish) has ideological differences with al Qaeda and should not be viewed as an affiliate of the older jihadist group, Alastair Crooke believes that Naji’s text outlines the strategy which ISIS is now following in Iraq.

In 2006, in a review of jihadist theorists, Lawrence Wright wrote:

Naji writes in the dry, oddly temperate style that characterizes many Al Qaeda strategy studies. And, like all jihadi theorists, he embeds his analysis in the tradition of Ibn Taymiyya, the thirteenth-century Arab theologian whose ideas undergird the Salafi, or Wahhabi, tradition; bin Laden frequently refers to Ibn Taymiyya in his speeches. The remarks of bin Laden and Zawahiri play only a modest part in Naji’s work. Indeed, Naji is a more attentive reader of Western thinkers: the thesis of “The Management of Savagery” is drawn from the observation of the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in his book “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (1987), that imperial overreach leads to the downfall of empires.

Alastair Crooke now writes:

The term “management or administration of savagery,” a term detailed in Abu Bakr Naji’s treatise, in fact refers to that hiatus which occurs between the waning of one power and the consolidation of power of another. What is being assumed here is that a certain chaos will pertain, and that the disputed territory will be ravaged by violence as power oscillates back and forth between the “old” power and its incoming successor (the Islamic State).

In this period, according to its literature, the ISIS will have limited aims: achieving internal security and preserving it; fixing its frontiers; feeding the population; establishing Shariah and Islamic justice — and most importantly fixing the establishment of a “fighting society,” at all levels within the community.

According to The Management of Savagery, in this stage, security will require the elimination of spies and “deterring the hypocrites with proof and other means and forcing them to repress and conceal their hypocrisy, to hide their discouraged opinions, and to comply with those in authority, until their evil is put in check.” In short, we might expect that this will comprise ISIS’ aims for the coming period.

In other words, any move on Baghdad, which Da’ish insists will come, is unlikely to be imminent, but will have to wait until the area already seized is ‘secured’, and its frontiers controlled.

This phase also marks the “plundering the financial resources” for the purposes of the “project.” The implication here is that ISIS has as its aim eventually to become financially self-sufficient. Indeed, it clearly has been pursuing this objective in Syria (taking oil fields, seizing the arms warehouses of the SNC, and selling to Turks much of the industrial infrastructure of Aleppo and northern Syria).

This also suggests that, whilst ISIS is not presently contesting militarily the Peshmerga takeover in Kirkuk (with its substantial oil resources), it is only a matter of time before Da’ish seeks to acquire such an obvious source of funding – just as it has fought other jihadist groups in Syria for control of Raqa’a’s oil revenue.

But this second phase (administering the violent hiatus until the State is consolidated) — more ominously — signals the start of “massacring the enemy and making him frightened.” The literature underlines that anyone who has actually experienced conflict (in contrast to those who simply theorize about it) understands that slaughter and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy is in the nature of war.

The point is made by citing the Companions (of the Prophet) who “burned (people) with fire, even though it is odious, because they knew the effect of rough violence in times of need.”

The author of The Management of Savagery treatise bluntly states that there is no room for “softness”: “Softness” is the ingredient for failure: “our enemies will not be merciful to us, so it compels us to make them think one thousand times, before they dare attack us.”

It is here that we see the second key Zarqawrist notion: the reading given by ISIS to the military campaigns conducted by first Caliph. This “reading” highlights (and seeks to legitimize) the need to use “rough violence” during this period of hiatus, when Islamic power was not yet fully consolidated. It was a moment, following the death of the Prophet that several Arab tribes refused to pay Zakat to Abu Bakr (as they had earlier to the Prophet when he was alive), and held (in accordance with the prevailing Arab tradition) that their tribal allegiance to the Prophet naturally expired with the leader’s death. There followed the brutal Wars of the Ridda (or the Wars of Apostasy).

What is significant here, too, is the narrow construction placed on apostasy — a definition to which Da’ish adheres closely.

In sum, the beheadings and other violence practiced by ISIS are not some whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy. The military strategy pursued by ISIS in Iraq, too, is neither spontaneous nor some populist adventure, but rather reflects very professional well-prepared military planning. [Continue reading...]

While the re-creation of the caliphate is ISIS’s stated goal, its desire to establish an Islamic state and its declaration that it has already succeeded in accomplishing this goal, begs the question of how it envisions governance. If Naji serves as a reliable guide, it sounds as though the jihadists want to assert ideological control while handing over administrative responsibilities to hired employees.

Lawrence Wright writes:

Alone among Al Qaeda theorists, Naji briefly addresses whether jihadis are prepared to run a state should they succeed in toppling one. He quotes a colleague who posed the question “Assuming that we get rid of the apostate regimes today, who will take over the ministry of agriculture, trade, economics, etc.?” Beyond the simplistic notion of imposing a caliphate and establishing the rule of Islamic law, the leaders of the organization appear never to have thought about the most basic facts of government. What kind of economic model would they follow? How would they cope with unemployment, so rampant in the Muslim world? Where do they stand on the environment? Health care? The truth, as Naji essentially concedes, is that the radical Islamists have no interest in government; they are interested only in jihad. In his book, Naji breezily answers his friend as follows: “It is not a prerequisite that the mujahid movement has to be prepared especially for agriculture, trade, and industry. . . . As for the one who manages the techniques in each ministry, he can be a paid employee who has no interest in policy and is not a member of the movement or the party. There are many examples of that and a proper explanation would take a long time.”

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The war between ISIS and Al Qaeda

Aaron Y. Zelin writes: Al-Qaeda is having a difficult time, given ISIS battlefield gains in both Syria and Iraq. Continued success for ISIS, of course, is by no means guaranteed, especially given the group’s tendency to overplay its hand with locals. But unlike in Iraq a decade ago, there is no force like the United States on the ground to consolidate insurgent gains against ISIS. As seen in Syria since January, many nationalists, mainstream Islamists, and even JN [Jabhat al-Nusra] have been unable to strategically defeat ISIS. And now that ISIS has gained new resources in the recent Iraq battles, it is pouring them into new offenses and regaining lost territory. Further, the reality of a proto-state and ISIS’s willingness to try to govern — this khilafa project, as many within the group call it — is quite appealing to jihadists. ISIS is not only talking the talk about establishing an Islamic state, it is walking the walk. This has attracted many foreign fighters to its side.

In becoming the beacon for foreign fighters over the past year, ISIS now controls many recruitment and facilitation/logistics networks. Further, those who have fought with ISIS have made connections with one another and will likely keep in touch when they return to their places of origin. The solidarity and brotherhood established through fighting on the front lines and enduring the same hardships cements these relationships, which will be important for the future of the jihadist movement. Additionally, individuals like winners and, unlike al-Qaeda, which has not had a clear victory in a decade, ISIS continues to build its prestige and legitimacy within the overall movement.

The composition of foreign fighter flows to Syria (and now to Iraq again) indicates that the movement’s future is being decided by Saudis, Libyans, Tunisians, and Jordanians. In terms of the Saudis, one question to be answered is whether returnees to AQAP can flip or execute a coup against AQAP’s leadership. AQAP remains loyal to Zawahiri given its emir Nasir al-Wihayshi’s relations with bin Laden, which go back to Afghanistan. That said, if Wihayshi is killed in an American drone strike, anything could happen. AQAP, still viewed as al-Qaeda’s strongest branch, is a bellwether and if it leans toward ISIS in the near to medium future, ISIS will have won the war against al-Qaeda. Similarly, with ISIS’s victories next door in Iraq, members of JN may have more cause to defect back to ISIS, which could be a fatal blow to al-Qaeda as well.

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Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, Assad, and the Syrian revolution

Rania Abouzeid writes: The eight men, beards trimmed, explosive belts fastened, pistols and grenades concealed in their clothing, waited until nightfall before stealing across the flat, porous Iraqi border. They navigated the berms and trenches along the frontier, traversing two-way smuggling routes used to ferry cigarettes, livestock, weapons — and jihadis to enter the northeastern Syrian province of Hasaka. It was August 2011, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and Syria was five months into a still largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Their leader was a Syrian emissary from the al Qaeda affiliate forged in the bloody conflict next door. He called himself Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and the young fighter, about whom little is known for sure except that he is a veteran of that war against the Americans in Iraq, had been authorized by his boss, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and al Qaeda’s central command to set up a Syrian offshoot of the notorious group. His mission, made clear in subsequent public statements, was nothing less than to bring down the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state in its place. No one knew it at the time, but that trip across the border would turn out to be a crucial turning point in the Syrian civil war, a key factor in the metastasizing of an internal conflict into a regional conflagration that now threatens the regime in Iraq as well as Syria.

Before Golani’s nighttime trek from Iraq into Syria, al Qaeda was looking increasingly like a spent force. Osama bin Laden had been killed a few months earlier. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had bin Laden’s passion but little of his charisma, and the Middle East was still in the throes of the so-called Arab Spring, experimenting with peaceful protests rather than violence as a means to bring about change.

But over the next few years, at times even aided by the cynical Assad regime, Golani would rejuvenate the al Qaeda brand and establish a firm base in Syria. His group, called Jabhat al-Nusra l’Ahl as-Sham (meaning Support Front for the People of the Sham, an Arabic term encompassing Damascus, Syria and the Levant), would create a whole new generation of jihadists from around the Islamic world, fighters who have become a crucial force in a Syrian civil war that has claimed well over 140,000 lives and displaced nine million Syrians, both internally and into neighboring countries.

Just as dangerously, Nusra’s very success would create a massive rift with its jihadist parent organization, the al Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq. By April of 2013, that group would rebrand itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a new name that indicated its transnational ambitions. By this June, ISIL (also known as ISIS) had become so powerful that it would brazenly undertake a blitzkrieg-like advance across northern and western Iraq, rapidly capturing the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and underscoring the seeming irrelevance of Zawahiri and the old al Qaeda leadership, somewhere in hiding off in South Asia, far from the newest jihadi battlefields.

Now, as a result of ISIL’s victories, U.S. President Barack Obama, a man who campaigned on extricating the United States from “dumb” wars in the Middle East, finds himself potentially embroiled in another one. He is sending a small contingent of special forces to work with the Iraqi military, but many in Washington are urging him to take more decisive action against the ISIL militants sweeping across Iraq, seizing territory and oil facilities and threatening to sow chaos in Baghdad and beyond.

This was not inevitable. The Syrian revolution—and the hesitant, confused international reaction to it—paved the way for the resurrection of a militant Islam that would turn vast regions of Iraq and Syria into borderless jihadi strongholds and inch closer to redrawing the map of the Middle East—in practical terms if not on paper. This is the story, pieced together over several trips into Syria and rare interviews with highly placed jihadi commanders on the front lines, of how it happened. [Continue reading...]

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The war on terror has been a total failure, so it must continue

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism,” President Obama said at West Point last week.

If the war on terror was conceived as a never-ending war, then I guess its continuation can be regarded as a success in the sense that relentless war has been normalized.

But the success for which neither the current nor previous administration will take credit is that the U.S. government, through its actions over the last thirteen years, has been instrumental in transforming al Qaeda from an organization into a movement.

Obama’s proudest accomplishment — overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden — turned out to be the hollowest victory. For the sake of grabbing a bloody trophy, a genuine historic opportunity was sacrificed: the open trial of the al Qaeda leader.

The failure of the war on terror was built in from its conception. A refusal to address the political dimensions of terrorism has guaranteed that the ideological questions are only being raised and answered by one side, thereby reinforcing a perception that the U.S. and the West fight from an indefensible position.

Since relatively few Americans are willing to admit that 9/11 triggered a national psychosis and a foreign policy debacle, the sentiment now, in the face of failure, is that what is called for is persistence.

I’m reminded of a story about Mullah Nasrudin:

Nasrudin is sitting outside an Arabian spice shop. He’s sitting beside a huge basket of red hot ‘dynamite chillies’. Nasrudin’s eyes are filled with tears as he takes chillies from the basket and bites into one after another. His friend comes along and sees Nasrudin sweating and crying. “Nasrudin what are you doing. You’re crying and sweating. Why are you chewing on those chillies?” Nasrudin answers, “I’m trying to find a sweet one.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reprises the narrative of a never-ending threat that necessitates a never-ending fight:

Al-Qaida has decentralized, yet it’s unclear whether the terrorist network is weaker and less likely to launch a Sept. 11-style attack against the United States, as President Barack Obama says, or remains potent despite the deaths of several leaders.

Obama said in his foreign policy speech last week that the prime threat comes not from al-Qaida’s core leadership, but from affiliates and extremists with their sights trained on targets in the Middle East and Africa, where they are based. This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-type attacks against America, the president said.

“But it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi,” he said, referring to the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Experts argue that this restructured al-Qaida is perhaps even stronger than it has been in recent years, and that the potential for attacks on U.S. soil endures.

“We have never been on a path to strategically defeat al-Qaida. All we’ve been able to do is suppress some of its tactical abilities. But strategically, we have never had an effective way of taking it on. That’s why it continues to mutate, adapt and evolve to get stronger,” said David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Decentralization does not mean weakness, he said. [Continue reading...]

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Syrian al Qaeda reach foothills of Israeli-held Golan

Reuters reports: Atop the hill of Tel Ahmar just a few kilometers from Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, Syrian Islamist fighters hoist the al Qaeda flag and praise their mentor Osama bin Laden.

One of the men, a leader of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, compares their battlefield – a lush agricultural region where dead soldiers lie on the ground near a charred Soviet-era tank – with the struggle their comrades waged years ago in Afghanistan.

“This view reminds us of the lion of the mujahideen, Osama bin Laden, on the mountains of Tora Bora,” he can be heard saying in a video posted by the group, which shows the fighters in sight of Israeli jeeps patrolling the fortified frontier.

Last month’s capture of the post was followed days later by the seizure of the Syrian army’s 61 Infantry Brigade base near the town of Nawa, one of the biggest rebel gains in the south during the three years of Syria’s war.

The advances are important not just because they expand rebel control close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the Jordanian border, but because President Bashar al-Assad’s power base in Damascus lies just 40 miles to the north. [Continue reading...]

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Jihadis burn their passports before heading where?

The act of publicly destroying ones passport is a powerful political statement, but one thing I deduce from the spectacle of a throng of young men burning their passports — it’s reasonable to assume they did so while in Syria — is that these are young men who are not making travel plans. At least that’s what I deduce.

Patrick Cockburn thinks otherwise:

It is only a matter of time before jihadis in al-Qa’ida-type groups that have taken over much of eastern Syria and western Iraq have a violent impact on the world outside these two countries. The road is open wide to new attacks along the lines of 9/11 and 7/7, and it may be too late to close it.

Those who doubt that these are the jihadis’ long-term intentions should have a look at a chilling but fascinating video posted recently by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), formerly al-Qa’ida in Iraq. It shows a group of foreign fighters burning their passports to emphasise their permanent commitment to jihad. Many of the passports thrown into the flames have grass-green covers and are Saudi; others are dark blue and must be Jordanian. Some of the fighters show their faces while others are masked. As each one destroys his passport, sometimes tearing it in half before throwing it into the fire, he makes a declaration of faith and a promise to fight against the ruler of the country from which he comes.

A Canadian makes a short speech in English before switching to Arabic, saying: “It is a message to Canada, to all American powers. We are coming and we will destroy you.” A Jordanian says: “I say to the tyrant of Jordan: we are the descendants of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [the Jordanian founder of al-Qa'ida in Iraq killed by US aircraft in 2006] and we are coming to kill you.” A Saudi, an Egyptian and a Chechen make similar threats.

These can’t be dismissed as idle threats, but neither can they be treated as imminent threats.

I would surmise that whoever burns their passport in Syria probably expects to die in Syria.

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Australians killed in U.S. drone strike in Yemen

The Australian reports: Two Australian citizens have been killed in a US airstrike in Yemen in what is the first known example of Australian extremists dying as a result of Washington’s highly controversial use of predator drones.

The Australian has been told the two men, believed to be in their 20s, were killed in a Predator drone strike on five al-Qa’ida militants travelling in a convoy of cars in Hadramout, in eastern Yemen, on November 19.

The men were Christopher Harvard of Townsville and a New Zealand dual citizen who went by the name “Muslim bin John” and fought under the alias “Abu ­Suhaib al-Australi.”

The Australian government, which insists it was given no ­advance warning of the strike, has positively identified the remains of the men using DNA analysis, with samples taken from families of the two men.

It is understood at least one of the men, Harvard, was buried in Yemen, possibly as recently as last week, following prolonged discussions with his family, which hoped to repatriate his remains.

A senior counter-terrorism source told The Australian the men were “foot soldiers” for al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa’ida’s regional franchise based in Yemen.

It is understood US authorities notified Australian officials about the possibility Australian citizens might have been “collateral damage” in the strike, part of an ongoing campaign by the US and Yemeni governments to wipe out AQAP militants. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. still believes terrorism is more dangerous than authoritarian rule

Reuters reports: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday Washington was looking to increase its security assistance to Algeria to help it tackle militancy in the vast Sahel region to its south, home to one of the world’s most active branches of al Qaeda.

Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe, is already a key partner in Washington’s campaign against Islamist fighters who have tried to spread across the Maghreb after the French military drove them out of Mali last year.

Kerry was originally scheduled to visit Algeria late last year but arrived just weeks before President Abdelaziz Bouteflika runs for re-election in a vote in which he is widely expected to win a fourth term.

“We really want to work in a cooperative way, and we want to do this so that Algerian security services have the tools and the training needed in order to defeat al Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” Kerry told a news conference.

Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said the United States should give the region more access to its intelligence.

“What the U.S. can do, because nobody else can do it, is for instance, share electronic intelligence with the armed forces and security agencies in the region. This is a qualitative edge that only the US can provide,” he said.

Neighbouring Libya is struggling to curb the turmoil that has continued unabated since the 2011 revolt against Muammar Gaddafi. Islamist fighters have exploited the chaos, taking shelter in Libya’s southern deserts but also in remote mountains in Tunisia.

Attacks in Algeria are rare since the country ended an 11-year conflict with Islamists in 2002, but the risks are still high. Last year, al Qaeda fighters raided a gas plant in the Algerian southern desert, killing 40 oil workers, all but one of whom were foreigners.

Kerry also said the United States would do more to build stronger commercial and investment ties between the countries. He said large-scale youth unemployment in Algeria was troubling and greater investment would help bolster job creation.

He was due to meet later on Thursday with Bouteflika, the 77-year-old independence veteran who has governed Algeria for 15 years since helping to end the North African state’s war which killed around 200,000 people.

Bouteflika is expected to easily win another five-year term after 15 years in power in the vote on April 17, despite concerns over his health since suffering a stroke last year.

Some in the Algerian opposition described the timing of Kerry’s visit as odd, saying it was an indirect statement of support to Bouteflika’s election bid.

“We look forward to elections that are transparent and in line with international standards, and the United States will work with the president that the people of Algeria choose,” Kerry said.

Human Rights Watch: On April 15, 2011, after popular protests ousted authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and were challenging Libya’s, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised a package of political and legislative reforms. But the new law on associations, promulgated in January 2012, has in numerous ways proven more restrictive than the law it replaced, Human Rights Watch found.

The vacuity of Kerry’s pro forma endorsement of a democratic process becomes clear when you understand the powers of the Algerian presidency and the fact that Bouteflika has removed the obstacles to his holding such powers for the rest of his life.

Ahmad Shahine writes: The Algerian presidency has such importance because of the vast authority the constitution accords the post. The president of the republic is head of the executive branch, and he is assisted by the prime minister (head of government). The president also serves as the head of the judiciary, being the chief magistrate of the country. He appoints one-third of the members of parliament’s upper house, has the right to issue decrees between parliamentary sessions and can dissolve the parliament. These rights practically make him absolute ruler.

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The notorious Gitmo prisoner as a young man

f13-iconJason Leopold writes: When Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah and Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha were teenagers, they scoured record shops in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, desperately trying to track down the video for “Billie Jean,” the latest single from Michael Jackson’s global smash album “Thriller.”

Sawalha and everyone else knew his friend as Hani, who was a huge fan of Jackson and would sometimes “dance foolishly” when Sawalha put a cassette of the King of Pop’s music into a tape deck.

Eventually, they scored a grainy copy of the video and watched it over and over again as they tried to mimic Jackson’s signature dance moves.

Those were the innocent days of the mid-1980s, Sawalha said, before Hani became an alleged terrorist mastermind.

In November, Al Jazeera exclusively obtained six volumes of diaries Abu Zubaydah wrote between 1990 and eight days before his capture in Pakistan, 12 years ago Friday. The diaries, translated from Arabic to English by government translators, contain revelatory details about the Afghan civil war, the birth of Al-Qaeda, the rise of international terrorism and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.

It was Al Jazeera’s first report on Abu Zubaydah’s diaries, the publication of volume one of the documents and the subsequent media attention about Abu Zubaydah’s normality that caught Sawalha’s attention.

He read the diary and spotted his name in a crucial entry, one of the most important in terms of understanding how Abu Zubaydah ended up embracing jihad.

In that June 1990 entry, Abu Zubaydah wrote that one night, while driving home with friends in Riyadh, he had disagreed sharply with Sawalha over the way jihad should be waged in Palestine. [Continue reading...]

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How Assad created a haven for al Qaeda in Syria

Peter Neumann lays out the history of Bashar al-Assad’s nurturing and manipulation of jihadists in Syria, as a consequence of which for most of 2003 the bulk of foreign fighters joining the insurgency in Iraq were Syrians.

The most significant, long-term consequence of Assad’s policy arose from the opening up of Syria to international jihadist networks. Before he turned his country into a transit point for foreign fighters, Syrian jihadists had been largely homegrown. If international links existed, they were to neighbouring countries. Al-Qaida had always had prominent Syrians as members – the strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, for example, or Abu Dahdah, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Spain – but they had fled the country in the early 1980s, and there is no evidence that they directed jihadist activities inside Syria, sought to organise them, or even showed any interest in doing so. The terrorism experts were not entirely wrong, therefore, in believing that – for some time at least – Syria was outside al-Qaida’s orbit.

This changed in 2003 when Assad allowed the jihadists in his country to link up with Zarqawi and become part of a foreign fighter pipeline stretching from Lebanon to Iraq, with way points, safehouses and facilitators dotted across the country. With the active help of Assad’s intelligence services, Syria was opened to the influx – and influence – of experienced and well-connected jihadists from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco, who brought with them their contact books, money and skills. Within a few years, the country ceased to be a black spot on the global jihadist map: by the late 2000s it was familiar terrain to foreign jihadists, while jihadists from Syria had become valued members of al-Qaida in Iraq, where they gained combat experience and acquired the international contacts and expertise needed to turn Syria into the next battlefront.

When the current conflict broke out, it was hardly surprising that jihadist structures first emerged in the eastern parts of the country, where the entry points into Iraq were located, and in places like Homs and Idlib, which were close to Lebanon; or that it was jihadists – not the Muslim Brothers – who could offer the most dedicated and experienced fighters with the skills, resources, discipline and organisation to hit back at the government. They were also the ones who found it easiest to prevail on international networks of wealthy sympathisers, especially in the Gulf, to supply weapons and funding. The clearest example is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a viciously sectarian player in the current conflict, descended from Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which draws on the same networks and supply lines that enabled the transfer of fighters from Syria to Iraq – except that now, of course, the traffic flows in both directions.

Given the history and genesis of groups like ISIS, many Syrian opposition figures now claim that the jihadist groups in Syria are puppets of Assad, and that they continue to be used and manipulated by Syrian intelligence in its efforts to discredit the revolution, divide the opposition and deter the West from intervening on their behalf. Indeed, there can be little doubt that many of the older and more senior figures in groups like ISIS will have records with Syrian intelligence, and that some are likely to be collaborating with the regime. Nor is there any question that the Syrian government, which is fighting large numbers of secular defectors from its own forces, has an interest in portraying the opposition as crazy fanatics, or that some of its actions – such as releasing more Islamists from Sednaya prison, or sparing ISIS-controlled areas from attack – have been designed to strengthen the jihadists vis-à-vis their rivals. There still is no solid evidence, however, that the jihadists as a whole are controlled by the regime, despite repeated announcements by opposition figures that such evidence would be forthcoming. No one doubts that jihadist groups in Syria draw on external support and international networks, including foreign fighters from across the Middle East and even Europe. But the reason they were able to mobilise them – and mobilise them quickly – is that Assad’s government had helped to set them up.

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What Pakistan knew about Bin Laden

f13-iconIn a long extract from her upcoming book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, Carlotta Gall writes: Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, I went to live and report for The New York Times in Afghanistan. I would spend most of the next 12 years there, following the overthrow of the Taliban, feeling the excitement of the freedom and prosperity that was promised in its wake and then watching the gradual dissolution of that hope. A new Constitution and two rounds of elections did not improve the lives of ordinary Afghans; the Taliban regrouped and found increasing numbers of supporters for their guerrilla actions; by 2006, as they mounted an ambitious offensive to retake southern Afghanistan and unleashed more than a hundred suicide bombers, it was clear that a deadly and determined opponent was growing in strength, not losing it. As I toured the bomb sites and battlegrounds of the Taliban resurgence, Afghans kept telling me the same thing: The organizers of the insurgency were in Pakistan, specifically in the western district of Quetta. Police investigators were finding that many of the bombers, too, were coming from Pakistan.

In December 2006, I flew to Quetta, where I met with several Pakistani reporters and a photographer. Together we found families who were grappling with the realization that their sons had blown themselves up in Afghanistan. Some were not even sure whether to believe the news, relayed in anonymous phone calls or secondhand through someone in the community. All of them were scared to say how their sons died and who recruited them, fearing trouble from members of the ISI, Pakistan’s main intelligence service.

After our first day of reporting in Quetta, we noticed that an intelligence agent on a motorbike was following us, and everyone we interviewed was visited afterward by ISI agents. We visited a neighborhood called Pashtunabad, “town of the Pashtuns,” a close-knit community of narrow alleys inhabited largely by Afghan refugees who over the years spread up the hillside, building one-story houses from mud and straw. The people are working class: laborers, bus drivers and shopkeepers. The neighborhood is also home to several members of the Taliban, who live in larger houses behind high walls, often next to the mosques and madrasas they run. [Continue reading...]

This article appeared in most of the international editions of the New York Times with the exception of the Express Tribune in Pakistan. There, the paper’s printer removed the article.

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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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