The Washington Post reports: President Obama, who had pledged to end America’s wars, described the landscape he was leaving to his successor as a state of quasi-war that could extend for years to come.
Obama, who was speaking Saturday to reporters at the NATO summit here, noted with pride that he has cut the size of the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 180,000 troops to fewer than 15,000.
But U.S. drones and fighter jets are striking targets in seven countries on a regular basis, a span of geography that is virtually unprecedented in American history outside of major wars. U.S. Special Operations forces are still conducting dangerous raids in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. [Continue reading…]
Josh Rogin writes: The Obama administration has proposed a new agreement on Syria to the Russian government that would deepen military cooperation between the two countries against some terrorists in exchange for Russia getting the Assad regime to stop bombing U.S.-supported rebels.
The United States transmitted the text of the proposed agreement to the Russian government on Monday after weeks of negotiations and internal Obama administration deliberations, an administration official told me. The crux of the deal is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Under the proposal, which was personally approved by President Obama and heavily supported by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the American and Russian militaries would cooperate at an unprecedented level, something the Russians have sought for a long time.
In exchange, the Russians would agree to pressure the Assad regime to stop bombing certain Syrian rebel groups the United States does not consider terrorists. The United States would not give Russia the exact locations of these groups, under the proposal, but would specify geographic zones that would be safe from the Assad regime’s aerial assaults.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was opposed to this plan, officials said, but was ultimately compelled to go along with the president’s decision. For many inside and outside the administration who are frustrated with the White House’s decision-making on Syria, the new plan is fatally flawed for several reasons. [Continue reading…]
The media called this statement by President Obama a ‘tirade’ — I’d call it a disquisition, with a hint of frustration born from the fact that the people who need to digest this information are mostly idiots.
Huffington Post reports: President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he refuses to describe the Islamic State and al Qaeda as groups fueled by “radical Islam” because the term grants them a religious legitimacy they don’t deserve.
“They are not religious leaders; they are terrorists,” Obama said during remarks at a White House event on countering violent extremism. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
Obama said the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is “desperate” to portray itself as a group of holy warriors defending Islam. It counts on that legitimacy, he said, to propagate the idea that Western countries are at war with Islam, which is how it recruits and radicalizes young people. [Continue reading…]
Haid Haid writes: There have recently been reports warning that the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria, is determined to declare its own Islamic emirate in Syria in the near future, but these warnings are likely jumping the gun. The argument goes that Nusra’s long term objective is establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria, but unlike the Islamic State (ISIS), they want to do so by winning the hearts and minds of the people. Two main obstacles prevent the Nusra from doing so: Nusra’s affiliation with al-Qaeda, many of whose members do not support the establishment of a caliphate, and most Syrians’ objection to the idea.
Supporting these predictions is the recent arrival of senior al-Qaeda figures to Syria, which is seen as the group’s attempt to secure enough support for the emirate by convincing other groups to join. Analysts have also interpreted al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent audio message as public approval for Nusra to dissociate itself from its parent organization in order to establish an emirate. Although these arguments are valuable, the Nusra Front is still facing many internal and external challenges, which prevent it from announcing its emirate. Moreover, these developments can also be understood as merely an attempt to help Nusra overcome the increased threats and the lack of support it is facing.
The Nusra Front was established in Syria in late 2011 and it gained a high profile among Syrians due to its valuable military contribution. The group made a name for itself fighting corruption and providing services, while avoiding politics and intervening in people’s lives, the combination of which gained it the support of local communities. However, in 2014, the group started to change its soft power strategy and began attacking some of the opposition groups, including those that receive US support, to eliminate any potential threat and to impose it unilateral control over the areas that will be part of its future emirate. This shift in the group’s strategy damaged Nusra’s public support and created tension with other rebel groups. [Continue reading…]
Hassan Hassan writes: Over the past five years in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has emerged as an important political and religious experiment. As one of the most powerful groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has struggled to reconcile the legacy of many of its founders as jihadi veterans with the need for an acceptable political discourse in the war-ravaged country. As the group engages cautiously in the political process for a transition, it is also important to understand whether it has really broken away from Salafi-jihadism.
The ideology of the group is further muddled by the fact that it works closely with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, though Ahrar al-Sham participates in political conferences and pacts that appear to deviate from the canons of jihadist organizations. After the death of its top leaders in an explosion that took place during a high-level meeting in September 2014, Ahrar al-Sham has also sought to present itself to the outside world as a moderate group and an indispensable fighting force on the ground.
Countries involved in the conflict in Syria are split about the organization. Some, primarily Russia and Iran, are pushing for its designation as a terrorist organization. Others, such as Qatar and Turkey, tried to present the organization as a moderate group and include it in the international funding scheme for nationalist rebel forces. The latter effort entailed the involvement of sponsors and clerics close to the group to steer it in that direction, combined with a public relations offensive to present the group as such.
But is Ahrar al-Sham merely a conservative Syrian faction immersed in an armed struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Or is it still a bastion of Salafi-jihadism, the movement to which its top echelon once subscribed? Ali al-Omar, the group’s deputy leader, answered some of these questions during an hour-long talk he gave on Friday, “The Place of Ahrar al-Sham Among Islamist Currents.” [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Al Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan, badly weakened after a decade of C.I.A. drone strikes, has decided that the terror group’s future lies in Syria and has secretly dispatched more than a dozen of its most seasoned veterans there, according to senior American and European intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
The movement of the senior Qaeda jihadists reflects Syria’s growing importance to the terrorist organization and most likely foreshadows an escalation of the group’s bloody rivalry with the Islamic State, Western officials say.
The operatives have been told to start the process of creating an alternate headquarters in Syria and lay the groundwork for possibly establishing an emirate through Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to compete with the Islamic State, from which Nusra broke in 2013. This would be a significant shift for Al Qaeda and its affiliate, which have resisted creating an emirate, or formal sovereign state, until they deem conditions on the ground are ready. Such an entity could also pose a heightened terrorist threat to the United States and Europe.
Qaeda operatives have moved in and out of Syria for years. Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s supreme leader in Pakistan, dispatched senior jihadists to bolster the Nusra Front in 2013. A year later, Mr. Zawahri sent to Syria a shadowy Qaeda cell called Khorasan that American officials say has been plotting attacks against the West.
But establishing a more enduring presence in Syria would present the group with an invaluable opportunity, Western analysts said. A Syria-based Qaeda state would not only be within closer striking distance of Europe but also benefit from the recruiting and logistical support of fighters from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: In a city where nightclubs and mosques coexist peacefully, Islamist violence long felt like a foreign problem — something residents watched on news clips from the Middle East or other parts of Africa.
“We just didn’t worry very much about it,” said Abdullaye Diene, the deputy imam of the country’s largest mosque. “Here you can spend your nights drinking at the disco and then shake the hand of the imam.”
But Senegal and its neighbors are facing a new threat from extremists moving far from their traditional strongholds in northwest Africa. Since November, militant groups have killed dozens of people in assaults on hotels, cafes and a beachside resort in West Africa, passing through porous borders with impunity.
The attacks have occurred in countries that had been rebounding from political turbulence, such as Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Now fears of such bloodshed are growing in this pro-Western democracy, which serves as a regional hub for international organizations. [Continue reading…]
Hassan Hassan writes: If the United States and Russia do not see that Al Qaeda’s main Syrian franchise is benefiting from the peace process, they should look again. In recent months, Jabhat Al Nusra has led a number of battles against the forces of Bashar Al Assad in the north, while poorly-executed ceasefires are causing people to question the efficiency of nationalist forces.
The reactions of some Syrians in the opposition towards the regime losses, especially in the context of the government’s violations of the recent truces, were captured by one activist’s Facebook post: “Some of us take to the streets to protest against Jabhat Al Nusra and demand that it breaks away from Al Qaeda,” he wrote. “Had jihadist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra done everything we wanted them to do, the only place in which we could raise our revolution’s flag today would be in Taksim Square in Turkey.”
For Jabhat Al Nusra, the gains against the regime do not have to hold. Mr Al Assad can retake the areas, but the fact that it is battling the regime while other forces stand by watching weakens the latter’s stance in the eyes of some Syrians. Jabhat Al Nusra has even produced footage of its recent operations using drones, including an ambush against a foreign fighter, the blowing up of a Baath party building and the storming of a government base in Aleppo. [Continue reading…]
In a review of Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Extremism and Education, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Ursula Lindsey writes: The second argument advanced by the authors to explain the “strange correlation” between studying engineering and joining a jihadist group is based on a comparative study of the political affinities of the members of radical left- and right-wing groups in the West. It shows that engineers are overrepresented among right-wing radicals generally (while humanities and social science students are more abundant among left-wing militants).
The authors suggest that Islamist and right-wing militants share a number of personality traits that have been shown to be associated with political conservatism. These include a propensity to feel disgust; a strong identification with an “in-group” and hostility toward those who don’t belong to it; and a discomfort with ambiguity and open-ended discussions (known in the literature as a “need for closure”). In Islamist circles, the authors write, “proneness to disgust is related to the strong reaction to perceived corruption of customs and a desire for social and sexual purity. In-group bias is related to a marked aversion for those who are different, be they immigrants, ethnic others, or infidels. The most multifaceted of these traits, need for closure (NFC), is related to a strong preference for hierarchy and social order and an aversion to change, which can reach the extreme of longing for a mythical past.”
Because of these underlying affinities, the authors speculate, some individuals may be “attracted to engineering as a discipline that provides concrete, unambiguous answers, and recoil from the open-ended project of natural science and the ambiguities of the humanities and social sciences.” Engineering students, “like followers of text-based religions, rely more strongly on answers that have already been given.” [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: The Obama administration may soon release 28 classified pages from a congressional investigation that allegedly links Saudis in the United States to the 9/11 attackers. A former Republican member of the 9/11 Commission alleged Thursday that there was “clear evidence” of support for the hijackers from Saudi officials.
But in Florida, a federal judge is weighing whether to declassify portions of some 80,000 classified pages that could reveal far more about the hijackers’ Saudis connections and their activities in the weeks preceding the worst attack on U.S. soil.
The still-secret files speak to one of the strangest and most enduring mysteries of the 9/11 attacks. Why did the Saudi occupants of a posh house in gated community in Sarasota, Florida, suddenly vanish in the two weeks prior to the attacks? And had they been in touch with the leader of the operation, Mohamed Atta, and two of his co-conspirators?
No way, the FBI says, even though the bureau’s own agents did initially suspect the family was linked to some of the hijackers. On further scrutiny, those connections proved unfounded, officials now say.
But a team of lawyers and investigative journalists has found what they say is hard evidence pointing in the other direction. Atta did visit the family before he led 18 men to their deaths and murdered 3,000 people, they say, and phone records connect the house to members of the 9/11 conspiracy. [Continue reading…]
Former senator Bob Graham writes: Nearly 15 years after the horrific events of 9/11, President Obama must decide whether to release 28 pages of information withheld as classified from the publicly released report of the congressional inquiry into the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans.
On April 10, the CBS program “60 Minutes” aired a story about the missing 28 pages. I was one of several former public officials — including former House Intelligence Committee chairman and CIA director Porter Goss (R-Fla.) ; Medal of Honor recipient and former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.); former Navy secretary John Lehman; and former ambassador and representative Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) — who called on the White House to declassify and release the documents.
Two days after that broadcast, I received a call from a White House staff member who told me that the president would make a decision about the 28 pages no later than June. While that official made no promises as to what Obama would do, I viewed the news as a step in the right direction. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The Qaeda bomb-making instructor carefully demonstrated for his student how to mix the chemicals to make a volatile powder, then supervised a test explosion and added a sinister final tip: tape bolts around the homemade bomb to produce lethal shrapnel.
The explosive expert’s identity, revealed by a Qaeda operative facing sentencing next week, came as a surprise: He was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who had joined Al Qaeda in Yemen and become the terrorist network’s leading English-language propagandist.
Mr. Awlaki had long been known for public oratory on behalf of Al Qaeda before he was killed in a drone strike in 2011 on President Obama’s orders, making him the first American citizen killed without criminal charges or trial in the campaign against terrorism.
But new court filings in New York offer the most detailed account yet of a hidden side of Mr. Awlaki’s work inside Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen — as a hands-on trainer who taught recruits how to make bombs, gave them money for missions and offered suggestions about how to carry out suicide attacks.
The papers, part of a sentencing memorandum submitted by the government, were filed Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan in the case of Mr. Awlaki’s former bomb-making student, Minh Quang Pham, a Vietnamese-British convert to Islam. He has pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts and is to be sentenced Monday.
In their papers, federal prosecutors suggested that 50 years would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Pham, who is in his early 30s and traveled secretly to Yemen in 2010, where he swore allegiance to Al Qaeda’s affiliate there and worked on the group’s online propaganda publication, Inspire.
The court papers make it clear that Mr. Pham admired Mr. Awlaki. He “visibly teared up” when discussing Mr. Awlaki, and he repeatedly referred to Mr. Awlaki with the honorific title “sheikh,” prosecutors wrote. [Continue reading…]
Yasir Abbas writes: Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, entered Syria in late 2011. By mid-2014, it had grown from a moderately-sized force bedeviled by conflict with more powerful armed groups to one of the few remaining key players in Northern Syria. During its early years, the group’s main and only focus was on its military operations against the Syrian regime. It rarely interfered in civil affairs and local governance. Since July 2014, however, al-Nusra has deliberately leveraged its powerful status to assert itself as a key revolutionary force, gradually insinuating itself into governance roles with the goal of implementing al-Qaeda’s political vision in Syria.
Unlike the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which relies on intimidation and shocking levels of violence to rule local populations in areas it holds and to market itself among global jihadis, al-Nusra uses persuasion and gradual change to increase its influence and control. This strategy is clearly informed by al-Qaeda’s past failures to establish grassroots support in Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq’s defeat in 2007 was largely due to its failure to tend to its base or maintain a working relationship with nationalist Iraqi insurgents and local power brokers. By contrast, a gradual approach has allowed al-Nusra to root itself in Syrian society and present its project as one the few remaining viable alternatives for the Syrian people, making a Syria ruled by al-Qaeda a scenario more plausible than ever before.
Al-Nusra starts with embedding itself in the opposition and then incrementally moving to subsume, purge, or dominate revolutionary forces, both civilian and military. It has used this approach throughout Syria. Unlike ISIL, al-Nusra’s logic of control is defined by achieving a loose military and political dominance, rather than complete control, although the latter is its long-term objective. The group carefully chooses when and where to assert its authority to maintain a careful balance between its long-term aims — full control and establishing an Islamic Emirate in Syrian — and the need to appease revolutionary forces and the local population. Upon entering new territory, for example, al-Nusra often refrains from imposing its control on the population or governance institutions. Instead, it initially shares control with the groups already in power on the ground, even if they are secularists and oppose al-Nusra’s visions for Syria. Al-Nusra uses this approach to prevent an abrupt rejection by the local population that may result in a full-fledged confrontation with opposition armed groups, as well as to diffuse its presence in opposition-held areas. But sharing control does not necessarily foster agreement. It is a tactic to delay confrontation until al-Nusra has the military and political means to dispense with its temporary allies and purge, or subsume, their members. [Continue reading…]