Al-Monitor reports: In a new attempt to shuffle the cards in northern Syria, which is currently witnessing conflicts at different levels, the jihadist and extremist factions have launched rocket attacks, mostly reaching the government-controlled neighborhoods in the southwestern part of Aleppo. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra has deployed its forces near demarcation lines with the Syrian army, as a way to lead the battle after other groups have failed to break into the city.
More than 300 rockets and shells descended on the city, killing 42 civilians and wounding about 200, which made [June 15] the bloodiest in Aleppo since the outbreak of the crisis about five years ago.
A pro-opposition source told As-Safir that the armed factions began to unite their ranks three months ago under a “single operations room” — dubbed “Aleppo Conquest Operations Room” — in order to storm the city. The countries supporting the factions, namely Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, started to send the weapons and equipment needed to break into the city, according to a major plan to conquer Idlib and Aleppo. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The CIA did not know in advance that al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen was among the suspected militants targeted in a lethal drone strike last week, according to U.S. officials who said that the operation went forward under counterterrorism guidelines that were eased by the Obama administration after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Yemen this year.
The officials said that Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who also served as al-Qaeda’s overall second-in-command, was killed in a “signature strike,” in which the CIA is permitted to fire based on patterns of suspected militant activity even if the agency does not know the identities of those who could be killed.
The disclosure indicates that the CIA continues to employ a controversial targeting method that the administration had signaled in 2013 that it intended to phase out, particularly in Yemen, which U.S. officials have said is subject to more stringent rules on the use of lethal force than in Pakistan. [Continue reading…]
Following the death of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen a few days ago, a spokesman for the group made a surprise announcement:
Although there remain several candidates for his replacement, our first choice is a senior fellow from the Brookings Institution who for obvious reasons will henceforth only be referred to by his nom de guerre, al-Moderation.
Much as al-Wuhayshi’s loss is regrettable, it opens up new opportunities for fresh blood, allowing younger, more liberally-minded members of AQAP to now explore non-violent avenues to achieve our objectives.
Hard to imagine that drone strikes might have this effect? No doubt, but what’s equally lacking in credibility is the kind of claim that predictably followed the latest strike.
With a triumphalist tone, the spokesman for the National Security Council, Ned Price, said al-Wuhayshi’s death was a “major blow” to the militant group. He said it “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
In an effort to perpetuate the grandiose spirit with which Obama began his drone warfare campaign, Price said: “The president has been clear that terrorists who threaten the United States will not find safe haven in any corner of the globe.”
Yet in Yemen, that corner of the globe where Obama’s drone campaign has largely been focused, the assessment of the former U.S. ambassador, Stephen Seche, is that: “If you’re looking for logic here, you’re not going to find much.”
Why? Because as the U.S. launches occasional drone strikes against AQAP, it is also offering logistical support to Saudi Arabia in its attacks against the group’s principal opponents, the Houthi rebels.
With the promotion of Qasim al-Raymi, the group apparently had no trouble in choosing a new leader.
Orlando Crowcroft writes:
“I think if you were going to guess who would replace al-Wuhayshi, this would [be] the guy. It makes a lot of sense,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Although the loss of four key figures in as many months is a blow for AQAP, the group is having a great deal of success in Yemen in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi rebels. That conflict has largely affected the north and west of the country, allowing al-Qaeda to seize huge swathes of the east, its traditional Sunni tribal heartland.
“It is a great time for AQAP […] when you look at the situation on the ground. As long as the war continues, as long as Yemen continues inching further and further into the abyss of being a failed state, AQAP and other groups will continue to capitalise,” said Baron.
“Celebrating the death of al-Wuhayshi as if it means the death of AQAP is a very flawed way to look at this.”
If the Al Qaeda central leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was ever to come into the sights of an American drone operator, the wisest response would be to hold fire, and yet the simplistic assumption behind President Obama’s strategy of eliminating so-called high value targets, is that terrorist groups suffer potentially crippling blows whenever their leaders are eliminated — an assumption that is nothing more than an exercise in wishful thinking.
When it comes to the leadership of terrorist organizations, more often than not, it tends to be a case of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
As much as politicians and pundits would prefer terrorists to be seen as extraterrestrial beings, they do in reality exhibit many traits common to their fellow men, one of which is that aging quite often has the effect of curtailing aggression. And even if aging doesn’t lead to moderation, it almost always diminishes the capacities of adaptation.
Even so, over the last decade and a half, a constant refrain from America’s military leaders has been that they struggle against highly adaptable foes. No one seems to recognize that this adaptability is not simply a challenge; it is also an effect of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.
If Obama’s own mysterious strategy extends further than crossing dates off the calendar as he looks forward to leaving office, it is perhaps one of conflict maintenance — to keep the war on terrorism on a slow simmer. Not too hot, nor too cool, but just hot enough to ensure that national security has its required prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign and that whoever enters the White House in January, 2017, will be able to continue with business as usual in America’s ongoing wars.
If 9/11 was the product of a failure of imagination, so is the war on terrorism.
And if for Obama, drone warfare once looked like a magic bullet whose power derived from its precision, it now represents the impotence of a strategy leading nowhere.
Deeyah Khan writes: In Exposure – Jihad: A British Story, I investigate the roots of Islamic extremism in the UK, speaking to many reformed extremists as well as ordinary young Muslims to answer the burning question of why some young British Muslims join fanatical jihadi cults like ISIS. Why is the message of extremism and jihadism appealing to young Muslims in the UK and Europe? [Continue reading…]
Malise Ruthven writes: In November 2001, two months after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, James Buchan, a novelist and a former Middle East correspondent, published an article in the London Guardian in which he imagined the triumphant entry into Mecca of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist:
It was no ordinary evening, but possibly the holiest in the holiest month of Islam, the so-called Lailat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, on which, according to the Koran, God’s revelation was sent down to the Prophet Mohammed…. More than 50,000 people had gathered on the hot pavement of the mosque enclosure and in the streets outside to pass the evening in prayer. Millions of others were watching on a live television broadcast at home.
As Sheikh Abdul Rahman, famous all over the Islamic world for the beauty of his voice, mounted the pulpit, a hand reached up and tugged at his robe. There was a commotion, and in the place of the Imam stood a tall man, unarmed and dressed in the white cloth of the pilgrim…, and recognisable from a million television screens: Osama bin Laden, flanked by his lieutenants….
Armed young men appeared from the crowd and could be seen padlocking the gates, and taking up firing positions in the galleries.
So began the insurrection that was to overturn the kingdom of Saudi Arabia….
While the details in Buchan’s fantasy describing “the west’s worst nightmare” have changed, the scenario he outlined appears more plausible today than it did fourteen years ago. Bin Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s official successor as leader of “al-Qa‘ida central,” looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden’s true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As “Commander of the Faithful” in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes—including the Saudi kingdom—that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.
One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.” [Continue reading…]
Max Fisher writes: Late on Friday, the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General finally released the findings of its internal investigation, concluded in 2005, into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The few sections left un-redacted in the 500-page report do not appear to offer any major revelations.
But the very final section of the report, titled “Issues related to Saudi Arabia,” touches on a question that has swirled around US inquiries into 9/11 since the first weeks after the attacks: Was there any involvement by the government of Saudi Arabia?
This section of the report is entirely redacted save for three brief paragraphs, which say the investigation was inconclusive but found “no evidence that the Saudi government knowingly and willingly supported the al-Qaeda terrorists.” However, it adds, some members of the CIA’s Near East and Counterterrorism divisions speculated that rogue Saudi officials may have aided al-Qaeda’s actions.
The findings, though frustratingly inconclusive, are in line with what many analysts and journalists have long suspected: that, while the Saudi government was probably not involved, rogue Saudi officials sympathetic to al-Qaeda may have been. Like so many investigations into Saudi links to 9/11, this report adds credence to the “rogue officials” theory, but it ultimately settles nothing. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Pakistani authorities expelled the U.S.-based aid agency Save the Children from the country on Thursday, sealing its office in the capital and giving staff members 15 days to leave because of “anti-Pakistan activities,” according to the Interior Ministry.
The move, which could have a chilling effect on dozens of charities that work in Pakistan, was carried out after extensive monitoring of the group’s members and activities, a ministry official said in an interview.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, declined to discuss the specific reason for the action. But the move appeared to be related to long-standing allegations of Save the Children’s ties to the Pakistani physician recruited to help the CIA gain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts prior to the 2011 U.S. military mission that killed him in northwestern Pakistan. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: On 5 February, Jordanian officials confirmed that the intellectual godfather of al-Qaida, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, had been released from prison. Though he is little known in the west, Maqdisi’s importance in the canon of radical Islamic thought is unrivalled by anyone alive. The 56-year-old Palestinian rose to prominence in the 1980s, when he became the first significant radical Islamic scholar to declare the Saudi royal family were apostates, and therefore legitimate targets of jihad. At the time, Maqdisi’s writings were so radical that even Osama bin Laden thought they were too extreme.
Today, Maqdisi counts the leader of al‑Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a personal friend, and he is held in the highest esteem by the rest of al-Qaida’s regional heads, from North Africa to Yemen. His numerous books and pamphlets are required reading for Islamic militants around the world, who eagerly follow the latest proclamations on Maqdisi’s website, the Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad. But he may be best known for personally mentoring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the organisation that would later become Isis, while the two men were jailed together on terrorism charges in Jordan in the mid-1990s. Zarqawi was released in 1999 and, after swearing allegiance to al-Qaida, went on to become one of the most notorious figures in postwar Iraq, unleashing a brutal campaign of sectarian terror, which led Maqdisi to publicly upbraid his most famous student in a series of devastating public critiques.
Now the man US terrorism analysts call “the most influential living jihadi theorist” has turned his ire toward Isis – and emerged, in the last year, as one of the group’s most powerful critics. Soon after the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a caliphate last June, Maqdisi released a long tract castigating Isis as ignorant and misguided, accusing them of subverting the “Islamic project” that he has long nurtured.
Maqdisi’s war of words with Isis is emblematic of the new fratricidal split within violent Islamic radicalism – but it is also a sign that al-Qaida, once the world’s most feared terrorist network, knows it has been surpassed. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: In the three-way war ravaging Syria, should the local al Qaeda branch be seen as the lesser evil to be wooed rather than bombed?
This is increasingly the view of some of America’s regional allies and even some Western officials. In a war now in its fifth year, in which 230,000 people have been killed and another 7.6 million uprooted, few good options remain for how to tackle the crisis.
The three main forces left on the ground today are the Assad regime, Islamic State and an Islamist rebel alliance in which the Nusra Front — an al Qaeda affiliate designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and the United Nations — plays a major role.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the more secular, Western-backed rebels have found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nusra in key battlefields. As the Assad regime wobbles and Islamic State, or ISIS, gains ground in both Syria and Iraq, reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community, supporters of this approach argue. [Continue reading…]
Hassan Hassan writes: Over the past few years, various Syrian rebel groups claiming to adhere to an Islamic agenda have found themselves forced to engage in double talk. It has long been recognised among Syria watchers that many of these groups adopted Islamic slogans to obtain funding, without necessarily having such an agenda. But more recently, some of these groups seem to have done the reverse.
Groups such as Ahrar Al Sham, Jaish Al Islam and Jabhat Al Nusra have tried to signal that they have national agendas that would not exclude other sections of Syrian society. But because they also have to consider their constituencies, their rhetoric has become contradictory or distorted.
Last week’s Al Jazeera TV interview with Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed Al Jolani, is a case in point. Al Jolani tried to portray his group as part of the fabric of Syrian society. He even appeared to dress deliberately like a famous character in the popular Syrian soap opera Bab Al Hara, which has been shown on Arab satellite channels for the past few years. The character, Ageed Abu Shihab, is a heroic and brave leader of a neighbourhood in old Damascus during the French occupation of Syria.
Al Jolani clearly wanted to portray himself as a national hero. But his attempt may have backfired. He lost the plot as he went into detail with regards to these key subjects: religious minorities, the group’s affiliation with Al Qaeda and about the Muslim Brotherhood. [Continue reading…]
Charles Lister writes: In a three-hour lightening assault launched on the evening of Thursday 28 May, a coalition of Syrian opposition fighters successfully captured the last remaining major regime-held town in the governorate of Idlib. In taking control of Ariha, the largely Islamist Jaish al-Fateh coalition and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions have successfully imposed a near-total province-wide strategic defeat upon the Bashar al-Assad regime.
With Idlib therefore effectively out of regime control — with the exception of the now isolated Abu Duhour Airbase and several small pockets of villages — opposition attention can now shift south to Hama, west to the regime stronghold of Latakia, and east to Syria’s largest city of Aleppo. All seem likely candidates.
Parts of northern Latakia are now dangerously exposed and one of the leading Islamist commanders active there has told this author to expect “a lot of surprises” in the coming weeks. Other insurgent commanders say a large multi-group operations room is in the midst of being formed in Aleppo amid escalating fighting south of the city. “We’re feeling more confident than ever and sooner or later, the regime will experience the consequences of that — Idlib was just the first stage of a more comprehensive plan,” claimed one prominent Islamist commander now in Idlib. However, a renewed Islamic State (IS) offensive north of Aleppo may prove a dangerous distraction to the implementation of the next stages of that more ‘comprehensive plan.’
A majority of the media coverage of Jaish al-Fateh’s advances across Idlib has focused on the role of al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra over and above the part played by Syrian opposition factions. Admittedly, Jabhat al-Nusra and its close ally Jund al-Aqsa have indeed played a key role in frontline operations in Ariha and previous battles in Idlib city, Jisr al-Shughour, Al-Mastouma and many other Idlib fronts. However, according to interviews with multiple commanders involved in Jaish al-Fateh operations, it has in fact been more expressly Syrian factions that have lent the most combined manpower and led much of the decision making within the operations room. Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham — two groups increasingly close at both leadership and ground level — have been particularly central. Moreover, none of the major victories in Idlib since early-April would have been possible without the crucial rearguard actions of U.S.– and Western-backed FSA units and their externally-supplied artillery shells, mortars and American-manufactured BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile systems.
Thus the reality on the ground is more complex than YouTube videos and media headlines would suggest. As this author revealed in early-May, the depth of coordination between Western-backed FSA factions, Islamists, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadists has increased markedly in Idlib since April, both due to a natural need for cooperation on the ground, but also thanks to a tacit order to do so from the U.S.- and Saudi-led coordination room in southern Turkey. Having spoken extensively with leading commanders from across the Syrian spectrum in recent weeks, it is clear this cooperation has at least partly been motivated by a desire to ensure victories in Idlib do not become strategic gains for al Qaeda. After all, it has been starkly clear since the summer of 2014 that Idlib in particular represents Jabhat al-Nusra’s most valuable powerbase. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: In Idlib province, they are known as “the strangers with the horses”. Among the senior ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra, they are referred to as “our friends”. In Europe and the US, the small band of jihadis is known by the contentious name “Khorasan” and blamed for hatching plots to attack the west.
All seem to agree on one thing: just what the highly secretive group is up to in northern Syria remains one of the civil war’s enduring mysteries. This week, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra claimed there was no such group as Khorasan and said he had been directed by al-Qaida’s central leadership to concentrate his group’s energies on Syria.
Abu Mohamed al-Jolani’s remarks, in an interview with al-Jazeera, were the first time that al-Nusra – a jihadi organisation with links to al-Qaida and a formidable player in the Syrian war – had addressed the issue of Khorasan, which the US accuses of collaborating with al-Nusra to target western interests outside of Syria.
The remarks were immediately rejected by western officials and residents of Idlib. Two senior Islamists with close links to al-Nusra have also outlined to the Guardian in recent weeks their understanding of Khorasan’s intent and its close ties to homegrown jihadi groups.
“Until recently they wanted nothing to do with the Syrian war,” said one ranking official. “They only wanted to use Syria as a stadium for whatever they were up to elsewhere.
“But that’s different now. In the attack on Idlib city they played a direct role. They co-ordinated most of the dangerous attacks. Without them, Idlib would not have fallen.”
The claim that Khorasan had played a direct role in helping jihadi and mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition seize a major city marks the first time that any official has been prepared to acknowledge working alongside the group. “They are a very big secret, you know,” the official said. “They work directly for [al-Qaida leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri.”
Until recently, all residents and jihadis interviewed by the Guardian had painted a picture of a remote and impenetrable outfit that kept entirely to itself and whose members regularly moved to avoid US air strikes. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera reports: The leader of the Nusra Front, one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, has said that his group’s main mission is to dislodge the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and that it has no agenda to target the West unless provoked.
“We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others,” Abu Mohammed al-Golani said in an exclusive interview aired on Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
“Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that but not here in Syria,” he said.
But his statements did include a warning against the US over its attacks on the armed group, which has been blacklisted a “terrorist organisation” by the US.
“Our options are open when it comes to targeting the Americans if they will continue their attacks against us in Syria. Everyone has the right to defend themselves,” he said in an interview with the Doha-based network. [Continue reading…]
Al-Jolani says any funding that's conditional is dangerous and will be politicised. Ours is self-funding & we absolutely receive no funding
— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan) May 27, 2015
Al-Jolani says if Alawites abandon the regime & prevent their children from fighting & abandoned their beliefs, they become our brothers.
— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan) May 27, 2015
Al-Jolani says we aren't at war with Christians – we're at war with those fighting us. Under an Islamic rule, they become subject to it.
— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan) May 27, 2015
The Wall Street Journal reports: When a Muslim cleric criticized the Nusra Front last year for taking over his Syrian city and raising its menacing black flags, a representative of the jihadist group took to Facebook to send him an ominous message.
“Oh secularist, oh infidel,” the note read. “Sit quietly or your time will come.”
Yet when wider protests over Nusra’s draconian practices and rigid religious views soon followed in cleric Murhaf Shaarawi’s home city of Maraat Numan and elsewhere in Idlib province, the group took note. It curbed its threats to clerics and its attempts to spread its brand of Islam, said Mr. Shaarawi and other current and former residents of the province.
The response to public pressure underscores how Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that is designated a terrorist group by the U.S., the U.K. and Turkey, in recent months has introduced a measure of constraint and conciliation into areas of Syria where it operates, the residents said. It is even sometimes doing so alongside Western-backed rebel factions.
That has put it at odds with its main jihadist rival, Islamic State. While both groups seek to establish a state governed by a strict reading of Islam, Islamic State has relied on violence or the threat of violence to achieve that goal. Nusra, on the other hand, is seeking to win a degree of consent from those it rules and has voiced an interest in governing with other rebel groups.
Nusra, one of the strongest rebel factions fighting President Bashar al-Assad, hasn’t lost its reputation for brutality. Syrian rights groups point to a litany of abuses against civilians since Nusra was formed more than three years ago, including disappearances and summary executions for alleged blasphemy and collaboration.
Still, the group appears to have started easing some its most unpopular religious edicts, not least its ban on the sale and smoking of cigarettes—an especially reviled measure in a country where a majority of men smoke.
It has also stopped requiring women to cover their faces and wear floor-length robes, and has moved to punish some fighters for harassing or assaulting civilians, a resident of Maraat Numan said. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: More than half the countries in the world are currently generating Islamist extremist fighters for groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State, the UN has said.
A report by the UN security council says there are more than 25,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” currently involved in jihadi conflicts and they are “travelling from more than 100 member states”.
The number of fighters may have increased by more than 70% worldwide in the past nine months or so, the report says, adding that they “pose an “immediate and long-term [terrorist] threat”.
The sudden rise, though possibly explained by better data, will raise concern about the apparently growing appeal of extremism. The geographic spread of states touched by the phenomenon has expanded, too. [Continue reading…]
AFP reports: Weakened by years of war, Syria’s government appears ready for the country’s de facto partition, defending strategically important areas and leaving much of the country to rebels and jihadists, experts and diplomats say.
The strategy was in evidence last week with the army’s retreat from the ancient central city of Palmyra after an advance by the Islamic State group.
“It is quite understandable that the Syrian army withdraws to protect large cities where much of the population is located,” said Waddah Abded Rabbo, director of Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime.
“The world must think about whether the establishment of two terrorist states is in its interests or not,” he said, in reference to IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front’s plans for its own “emirate” in northern Syria.
Syria’s government labels all those fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad “terrorists,” and has pointed to the emergence of IS and Al-Nusra as evidence that opponents of the regime are extremists.
Since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests, the government has lost more than three-quarters of the country’s territory, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
But the territory the regime controls accounts for about 50 to 60 percent of the population, according to French geographer and Syria expert Fabrice Balanche.
He said 10-15 percent of Syria’s population is now in areas controlled by IS, 20-25 percent in territory controlled by Al-Nusra or rebel groups and another five to 10 percent in areas controlled by Kurdish forces. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press: European governments agreed Tuesday to synchronize their laws to bar citizens from going abroad to fight for the Islamic State group and other extremists.
A document signed by foreign ministers from the 47-nation Council of Europe requires countries to outlaw specific actions, including intentionally taking part in terrorist groups, receiving terrorist training or traveling abroad for the purpose of engaging in terrorism.
Analysts say European laws vary, with some countries like France charging people with crimes if they plan to leave to join a violent extremist group, and others, such as in Scandinavia, lacking a legal way to prevent their citizens from becoming foreign fighters.