West ‘walking into abyss’ on Syria

Charles Lister writes: IS remains a potent force in Syria and must be countered, but it will not be marching on Damascus anytime soon, contrary to some uninformed fear mongering. Al-Qaeda also poses a pressing and more long-term threat, perhaps more so than has been acknowledged. But at the end of the day, the root cause of the entire Syrian crisis is Assad and his regime.

While an unenviable challenge, it remains the international community’s moral and political responsibility to find a solution in Syria that ensures the best chance of a sustainable peace. This means genuinely engaging with Syrians of all stripes, including the armed opposition and incorporating their views into a potential solution.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Syrian armed opposition is not divided, but has in fact spent much of the past year focused on developing a clear and unified political vision. These are all groups composed of and led by Syrians and which explicitly limit their objectives to within Syria’s national boundaries – not IS and roughly a dozen Al-Qaeda-linked factions.

Simply put, this amounts to a core of roughly 100 factions. Amid the threat of being excluded from determining their country’s future, dozens of the most powerful of these armed groups are now negotiating the establishment of a single “political office”.

Western governments are ignoring the armed opposition at our own peril. [Continue reading…]

Hassan Hassan writes: The Russians will help the regime to secure and fortify its bases, but not to claw back lost territories. The problem for the regime is not firepower but ground forces capable of pushing back incessant rebel attacks, something that Hizbollah and Iranian fighters are better equipped to provide in the Syrian terrain. Hizbollah has made successive gains against the rebels in some areas but it also suffered defeats or impasse, including in areas where it has a strategic depth, notably near the Lebanese border. A Hizbollah-led three-month offensive in Zabadani, for example, failed to clear a few hundred rebel fighters, compelling Iran to negotiate a truce with the militants.

The idea that Russian fighters will enable the regime to reclaim territory is a fantasy. Russia also has little to offer against ISIL in eastern Syria, except perhaps to reinforce three airbases under attack by ISIL in Deir Ezzor, Aleppo and Homs. Moscow will bolster the regime’s capabilities to defend itself in key towns and cities, but nothing more.

Western officials are therefore greatly misguided to signal a softening towards Mr Al Assad in the wake of the Russian intervention. They should recognise they are fast losing any shred of credibility among the opposition. [Continue reading…]


Jihadis see wide-ranging ceasefire deal brokered by Iran and Turkey as a historic victory

Hassan Hassan reports: Syrian Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida have struck a wide-ranging ceasefire deal with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. If it holds, the agreement will in effect cede sovereignty of the city of Idlib, create a de facto no-fly zone, and freeze the conflict in several hotspots.

The 25-point deal was brokered by Iran, acting for Damascus, and by Turkey, representing the rebel coalition Jaish al-Fateh, which includes the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. The deal, which urges UN monitoring and implementation, covers 14 towns in the north and south of the country, where intense fighting along sectarian lines had devastated the ranks of all those fighting, taken a bloody toll on civilians left in the area and ravaged towns and infrastructure.

The accord may not hold, especially now that Russia is scouting targets in the ceasefire zone and after reports that renewed clashes erupted between the two sides when pro-regime forces fired into Taftanaz, a town north of Idlib specified in the deal. But the deal itself and the circumstances that led to it are worth pondering.

If it holds it will be a remarkable development in the Syrian conflict. Rebels are claiming the deal as a strategic triumph at a time when Russia is sending extra forces to help prop up Assad’s regime, and western voices that once called for the president’s ousting are apparently softening. It also follows a three-month offensive by pro-Assad Hezbollah forces to clear Al-Zabadani, a southern city near the Lebanese border. It suggests that, even as the tide of foreign opinion is turning towards him, Assad is so hard-pushed he is willing to accept unpalatable realities on the ground in return for military breathing space.

Sources from Jabhat al-Nusra said terms were seen as favourable to Jaish al-Fateh. The jihadi coalition’s chief cleric, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, also heralded the deal as a historic victory for the anti-Assad forces.

Most important, the agreement prohibits the regime from flying helicopters or planes in certain areas controlled by Jaish al-Fateh in Idlib, even to drop aid and ammunition to fighters on the ground. That deprives Damascus of the air power that has been perhaps its biggest advantage over rebel forces, sowing both death and fear around the country. [Continue reading…]


U.S.-trained fighters in Syria gave equipment to al-Qaeda affiliate

The Washington Post reports: American-trained Syrian fighters gave at least a quarter of their U.S.-provided equipment to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria early this week, the U.S. Central Command said late Friday.

In a statement correcting earlier assertions that reports of the turnover were a “lie” and a militant propaganda ploy, the command said it was subsequently notified that the Syrian unit had “surrendered” some of its equipment — including six pickup trucks and a portion of its ammunition — to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria.

The acknowledgment is the latest discouraging report regarding the $500 million train-and-equip program, which Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of Central Command, said last week had only “four or five” trained Syrian fighters active in Syria. Since then, the military has said approximately 70 fighters have been added.

The Centcom statement called the new information on the equipment, “if accurate . . . very concerning and a violation of the Syria train and equip program guidelines.”

It said the equipment had been turned over voluntarily, adding that the New Syrian Force had indicated that on Monday and Tuesday, it “gave” the equipment to a suspected Jabhat al-Nusra “intermediary.” [Continue reading…]


Iran released top members of Al Qaeda in a trade

The New York Times reports: The government of Iran released five senior members of Al Qaeda earlier this year, including the man who stepped in to serve as the terrorist group’s interim leader immediately after Osama bin Laden’s death, and who is the subject of a $5 million bounty, according to an American official who had been briefed on the matter.

Iran’s release of the five men was part of a prisoner swap in March with Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the group holding an Iranian diplomat, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht. Mr. Nikbakht was kidnapped in the Yemeni capital of Sana in July 2013.

The Iranian government, in a statement on Thursday after the release was reported by Sky News earlier this week, denied that the five men had been freed. The American official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the matter, confirmed the release of Saif al-Adl, a senior member of Al Qaeda’s ruling body, known as the Shura Council, who oversaw the organization immediately after bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011. [Continue reading…]


The United States of ISIS: More popular than Al Qaeda ever was

The Daily Beast reports: In April, a 16-year-old in South Carolina was charged with illegal weapons possession in family court, but this was no routine gun case. Prosecutors claimed the Syrian-American teen planned to shoot up a U.S. Army base for ISIS. He and an older man allegedly planned to move to Syria and continue fighting for ISIS there.

Police said they found an ISIS flag in the teen’s room during a search. Because South Carolina doesn’t have its own terrorism statute, the state charged him with possession of a firearm by a minor. He pleaded out and is in juvenile detention, where he might remain until age 21.

This overlooked case is one of more than 66 against Americans for making common cause with ISIS since the beginning of 2014. For all the talk of al Qaeda “sleeper cells” after the 9/11 attacks, the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS has drawn far more people to its cause inside the U.S. and from a broad swath of the Muslim population.

“The typical American recruit is anything but typical,” Seamus Hughes of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism told The Daily Beast. “They run a spectrum between loners online to hardened fighters.”

The majority of the ISIS cases, involving several dozen people, allege they planned to join the caliphate in the Middle East. Half of the total cases involved FBI informants and agents, which has opened the U.S. government to criticism of inflating the ISIS threat through entrapment. [Continue reading…]


Al Qaeda plays a long game in Syria

Charles Lister writes: Al-Qa`ida’s role in Syria has evolved considerably since its humble beginnings as a wing of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in mid-to-late 2011. Formally established by seven prominent Islamists in October 2011 after four months of secret meetings, Jabhat al-Nusra did not publicly emerge until January 23, 2012. In its first six months of publicly acknowledged operations, Jabhat al-Nusra was deeply unpopular within Syria’s rapidly expanding insurgency. Although it had not admitted its links to the ISI or al-Qa`ida, its rhetoric, imagery, and tactics made its international jihadist links clear. A revolutionary opposition, still clinging to nationalist ideals, feared what appeared to be ISI-like terrorist cells emerging within its midst.

By fall 2012, however, Jabhat al-Nusra had evolved from a terrorist organization into an expanding insurgent movement. Its forces had begun integrating into the broader armed opposition, especially in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. By December 11, 2012, when the U.S. government designated it an alias of al-Qa`ida in Iraq, and a terrorist organization, Jabhat al-Nusra was operating as a fully fledged, de facto opposition actor, albeit on an extreme end of the ideological spectrum.

Two-and-a-half years later, aided in particular by the protracted Syrian conflict and the brutal rise of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most powerful armed groups in Syria. Its consistent balancing of ideologically driven jihadist objectives with local sensitivities and revolutionary ideals has placed Jabhat al-Nusra in an advantageous position. Rarely will any Syrian opposition group commit genuinely to both denouncing the role of Jabhat al-Nusra in the conflict and permanently ceasing battlefield cooperation with it.

Jabhat al-Nusra remains an al-Qa`ida affiliate, however, and it has occasionally displayed the fundamentalist behavior one would ordinarily expect. From sectarian killings to harsh legal restrictions and executions, the true and extremist nature of Jabhat al-Nusra has periodically been revealed.

Throughout its existence, Jabhat al-Nusra and its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, have generally maintained the group’s jihadist credibility while making its stance within the complex conflict as accommodating as possible. In so doing, al-Qa`ida has played a strategic long game in Syria, which has allowed it to establish a new stronghold on Israel’s border and in sight of Europe. [Continue reading…]


Obama will be judged as an accomplice in the historic betrayal of the Syrian people

Hisham Melhem writes: Former President George W. Bush bequeathed to Barack Obama a precarious and partially broken Arab World. A spectacularly ambitious imperial attempt at remaking the region, beginning in Mesopotamia, crumbled mightily in the inhospitable desert of Iraq.

The dream of planting a Jeffersonian democracy in the land of the two rivers, metamorphosed into an unprecedented sectarian bloodletting. Bush’s freedom agenda, coming after he admitted – correctly – that for more than fifty years U.S. administrations neglected human rights in the Middle East in the name of maintaining stability, the free flow of oil, and striking alliances against the Soviet Union, was ill-conceived, naively pursued, and badly executed.

Bush’s ‘War on Terrorism’ was equally flawed; Al-Qaeda was cut to pieces, but like the mythical Hydra it metastasized and produced the monstrous ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS). But hard as it is to conceive, President Obama will bequeath to his successor a breathtakingly pulverized – figuratively and, yes, physically – region, where in some states like Syria and Iraq whole communities have been uprooted and once great ancient cities have been ransacked, and precious cultural and religious jewels have been destroyed.

There are no more streets in some Syrian cities; The Assad regime turned them into shallow valleys of broken concrete, twisted metal and shattered personal artifacts indicating that they were once full of life. If hell has streets, they will surely look like the streets of Syria’s cities today. It shall be written, that the words of a sitting American President in the second decade of the 21st century justifying his inaction and his inane silence in the face of the staggering savagery of the Syrian regime – which repeatedly used chemical weapons, barrel bombs, medieval sieges and starvation against his own people – were stunning in their moral vacuity. The President of the United States will be judged as an accomplice in the historic betrayal of the Syrian people – and, to a lesser extent, the Iraqi and Libyan peoples – and in the creation of the worst refugee problem in the Middle East in a century.

Surely, the primary responsibility for the agonies of the peoples of the Middle East lies in the hands of the political and cultural classes that inherited the new political structures erected in modern times by the colonial powers over the remnants of old civilizations.

True, European powers drew artificial boundaries – most countries have such borders – not taking into consideration the wishes of the affected peoples, whose promises were rarely honored. This left behind wounds that have yet to heal. But in subsequent years, the ideologues of Arab Nationalism and Political Islam, the military strongmen who perfected military coups along with some atavistic hereditary rulers maintained the ossified status quo or destroyed nascent and relatively open, diverse societies and representative forms of governance in countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Tunisia.

However, Western meddling and military intervention contributed to the rise of Arab autocracy and despotism. The American invasion of Iraq did not cause sectarianism in that tortured land; that dormant scourge was awakened by years of Ba’athist despotism and Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980.

But the way the American invasion was conceived and executed accelerated Iraq’s descent into the abyss. Hence America’s partial political and moral responsibility for Iraq’s current torment. President Obama’s eagerness to disengage himself and his administration from Bush’s Iraq burden explains his reticence to push for a residual force after 2011, or to seriously and personally continue to engage Iraqis and help those forces willing to live in a unitary civil state, his deafness to repeated warnings that former Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s sectarian policies were deepening the sectarian fissures, makes him a partial owner of Iraq’s chaos. [Continue reading…]


Zawahiri argues ISIS’s caliphate is illegitimate in newly released message

Thomas Joscelyn writes: Al Qaeda has released a message from Ayman al Zawahiri, who rebukes Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the Islamic State, arguing the so-called “caliphate” is illegitimate. Ever since the rivalry between the two jihadist poles boiled over in early 2014, Zawahiri has allowed others to take the lead in al Qaeda’s attempt to undermine the Islamic State’s credentials. Zawahiri has criticized the Islamic State, but he has not unleashed a full broadside.

In the message released today, however, Zawahiri doesn’t hold back. He emphasizes that al Qaeda doesn’t recognize Baghdadi’s so-called “caliphate,” saying it is not qualified to lead Muslims. [Continue reading…]


Residents of Idlib protest against Jabhat a-Nusra’s bloated bureaucracy

Syria Direct reports: Residents of a town in the southern Idlib countryside took to the streets against Jabhat a-Nusra on Tuesday, calling for the fall of the group’s leader after partisans arrested the sheikhs of a local mosque earlier in the day, accusing them of practicing mystical Islam.

“The sheikhs resented Nusra’s practices in the town, so Nusra fabricated this charge that they are Sufis,” Abu Fawz al-Sayyed, a resident of the town of Khan Sheikhoun told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“Nusra’s administration is a failure,” said al-Sayyed, adding that they have 600 members working in the small town’s administration “when they only need 50.”

Videos taken at the protest show dozens of protestors marching through the streets of Khan Sheikhoun chanting “the people want the fall of Golani,” Nusra’s leader, and calling for the group’s departure from the town. [Continue reading…]


Four years after the U.S. assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, his influence on jihadists is greater than ever

The New York Times reports: Type “Anwar al-Awlaki” into YouTube’s search bar, and you get 40,000 hits. Most of them bring up the earnest, smiling face and placid voice of the first American citizen to be hunted and killed without trial by his own government since the Civil War. Here is Awlaki on what makes a good marriage; on the nature of paradise; on Jesus Christ, considered a prophet by Muslims; on tolerance; on the holy month of Ramadan; and, more quirkily, on ‘‘obesity and overeating in Islam.’’ Here is Awlaki, or Sheikh Anwar, as his many admirers still call him, easily mixing Quranic Arabic with American English in chapters from his 53-CD series on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, once a best seller among English-speaking Muslims.

But in the same queue of videos is material of an altogether different nature. You will find Awlaki explaining why you should never trust a non-Muslim; how the United States is at war with Islam; why Nidal Hasan, who fatally shot 13 people at Fort Hood, and Umar Farouk Abulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit, were heroes. There is, finally, his culminating ‘‘Call to Jihad,’’ recorded in 2010 when he was already on President Obama’s kill list and on the run in Yemen’s tribal badlands. In it, with the confidence and poise of a YouTube handyman explaining how to caulk a window, he details just why, exactly, it is every Muslim’s religious duty to kill Americans.

This is the digital legacy of Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. Addressing a V.F.W. convention in Pittsburgh last month, President Obama championed the counterterrorism record of his administration. ‘‘I’ve shown,’’ he said, ‘‘I will not hesitate to use force to protect our nation, including from the threat of terrorism.’’ He listed some of the terrorists killed on his watch. ‘‘Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen — gone,’’ Obama said to applause.

The government has a portentous euphemism — ‘‘removed from the battlefield’’ — for the targeted killing of terrorists. But Awlaki has by no means been removed from the most important battlefield in any ideological conflict, the battlefield of ideas. Five days before the president spoke, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, a troubled 24-year-old electrical engineer, opened fire at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn., killing four Marines and a sailor. F.B.I. investigators who examined his computer discovered that he had been watching Awlaki videos in the weeks before the shootings.

They could not have been surprised. [Continue reading…]


Turkish intelligence said to have orchestrated kidnapping of U.S.-trained Syrians rebels

McClatchy reports: The kidnapping of a group of U.S.-trained moderate Syrians moments after they entered Syria last month to confront the Islamic State was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence, multiple rebel sources have told McClatchy.

The rebels say that the tipoff to al Qaida’s Nusra Front enabled Nusra to snatch many of the 54 graduates of the $500 million program on July 29 as soon as they entered Syria, dealing a humiliating blow to the Obama administration’s plans for confronting the Islamic State.

Rebels familiar with the events said they believe the arrival plans were leaked because Turkish officials were worried that while the group’s intended target was the Islamic State, the U.S.-trained Syrians would form a vanguard for attacking Islamist fighters that Turkey is close to, including Nusra and another major Islamist force, Ahrar al Sham. [Continue reading…]


The catastrophic war on terror

Jason Burke writes: Fourteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a series of misconceptions about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida became widely accepted. Some focused on the person of Bin Laden himself – his wealth, health and history. The group that he led, until then relatively marginal with no real support base and only a few hundred members, was portrayed as a sprawling global terrorist organisation, with obedient “operatives” and “sleeper cells” on every continent, and an ability to mobilise, radicalise and attack far beyond its real capacities. Historic incidents with no connection to the group or its leader were suddenly recast as “al-Qaida operations”. Any incident, anywhere in the world, could become an al-Qaida attack.

This had an impact on the western reaction to the events of 11 September 2001. The threat posed by al-Qaida was described in apocalyptic terms, and a response of an equally massive scale was seen as necessary. The group’s ideological motivations were ignored, while the individual agency of its leaders was emphasised. If they were killed, the logic went, the problem would disappear. Al-Qaida’s links with other terrorist or extremist organisations were distorted, often by political leaders who hoped for domestic gain and international support. So too were supposed links – all imaginary – to the governments of several states. One result was the “global war on terror”, a monumentally misconceived strategy that is in part to blame for the spread of radical Islamic militancy over the past decade.

Despite the lessons learned over the years, and the very different approach of political leaders in the US and Europe, there is a danger that at least some of those mistakes will be repeated with Islamic State. Already there are parallels. The emergence of Isis in 2013 prompted reactions that resemble those in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and that, despite the generally sensible analysis of the administration of Barack Obama, risk influencing policy. Isis, despite no real evidence, has, like al-Qaida, been linked to plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction, as well as, ludicrously, to send Ebola-infected “operatives” against its enemies. Media in the US reported a network of Isis “sleeper cells” in the “homeland”, and “sleeper agents” in Europe, exactly as they had with al-Qaida in 2002. These claims were, at best, a gross misrepresentation of how either organisation operates and how individuals are radicalised. The atmosphere in Europe following the attacks in Paris of January 2015, only indirectly connected with Isis, also recalled that of a decade earlier, with US commentators making the same hysterical claims of “no-go zones” in European cities where Islamic law had supposedly been imposed. [Continue reading…]


This is not Bin Laden’s jihad

William McCants writes: We’re used to thinking of al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden as the baddest of the bad, but the Islamic State is worse. Bin Laden tamped down messianic fervor and sought popular Muslim support; the return of the early Islamic empire, or caliphate, was a distant dream. In contrast, the Islamic State’s members fight and govern by their own version of Machiavelli’s dictum “It is far safer to be feared than loved.” They stir messianic fervor rather than suppress it. They want God’s kingdom now rather than later. This is not Bin Laden’s jihad.

In some ways, the difference between Bin Laden and the Islamic State’s leaders is generational. For Bin Laden’s cohort, the apocalypse wasn’t a great recruiting pitch. Governments in the Middle East two decades ago were more stable, and sectarianism was more subdued. It was better to recruit by calling to arms against corruption and tyranny than against the Antichrist. Today, though, the apocalyptic recruiting pitch makes more sense. Titanic upheavals convulse the region in the very places mentioned in the prophecies. Sunnis and Shi’a are at war, both appealing to their own versions of prophecies to justify their politics.

The French scholar of Muslim apocalypticism, Jean-Pierre Filiu, has argued that most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. It was something the Shi’a or the conspiracy-addled fringe obsessed over, not right-thinking Sunnis. Sure, the Sunni fringe wrote books about the fulfillment of Islamic prophecies. They mixed Muslim apocalyptic villains in with UFOs, the Bermuda triangle, Nostradamus and the prognostications of evangelical Christians, all to reveal the hidden hand of the international Jew, the Antichrist, who cunningly shaped world events. But the books were commercial duds.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the stupendous violence that followed dramatically increased the Sunni public’s appetite for apocalyptic explanations of a world turned upside down. [Continue reading…]


Turkey’s close relationship with Ahrar al-Sham raises serious questions about Ankara’s aims in Syria

Sam Heller and Aaron Stein write: In April 2012, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu authored a paper that was to be the basis for Turkey’s Arab Spring doctrine — a “values-based foreign policy” for a region in flux. Davutoglu articulated an interventionist approach according to which Turkey would pursue greater regional integration and encourage representative democracy. He also repeated a central theme from his book, Strategic Depth, pledging that Turkey would work to avoid “new tensions and polarizations” in the region, particularly along sectarian and political lines.

Three years later, the positive vision of Davutoglu’s manifesto seems jarring, and nowhere more so than in neighboring Syria. Turkey has gone to incredible lengths to assist Syrian civilians in need, and it has cultivated ties with an array of political and military actors in the Syrian opposition. Yet Turkey has also invested heavily in rebel allies that both reject democracy and espouse extreme sectarianism. In particular, Turkey has developed a close relationship with Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist rebel movement that espouses a Syrian focus, but also has roots in global jihadism and maintains close ties with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah. Aside from the Islamic State, Ahrar is now the single strongest rebel force in Syria. Turkey’s role in supporting Ahrar illustrates how Turkey has compromised its ambitious policy goals in Syria and raises questions about Ankara’s reported planned intervention in Aleppo to carve out a “safe zone” along its border with Syria. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Prospects for a period of instability in Turkey increased on Tuesday after attempts by the dominant party to form a new coalition government officially ended in failure.

The development helped create the basis for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call for a new election, which would mean the installation of a temporary government just as Turkey is facing new threats from Islamic State militants in neighboring Syria and a re-energized Kurdish insurgency at home. An Islamic State video released on Monday called for Turkish Muslims to revolt against the president. [Continue reading…]


Osama Bin Laden tape collection reveals he was inspired by Gandhi

Richard Fenton-Smith writes about a collection of 1500 tapes found in 2001, which formed al-Qaeda’s audio library: The collection also features speeches given by Bin Laden in the late 1980s and early 1990s to audiences in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

“What’s fascinating is how Bin Laden is speaking about the ways in which the Arabian Peninsula is threatened – but who is the enemy? It’s not the United States, as we often think, or the West. It’s other Muslims,” says [Flagg] Miller [an expert in Arabic literature and culture from the University of California, Davis].

While the US would eventually become Bin Laden’s prime target, there is almost no reference to “the far enemy” in these early speeches. For several years he was much more concerned with what he called “disbelief” among Muslims who did not adhere to his strict, literalist interpretation of Islam.

“They are Shia first and foremost. They are Iraqi Baathists. They are Communists and Egyptian Nasserists,” explains Miller.

“Bin Laden wanted to bring jihad to the question of who is a true Muslim.”

[An] unexpected name to make an appearance in the tapes is Mahatma Gandhi, who is cited as an inspiration by Osama Bin Laden in a speech made in September 1993.

This is also the first speech in the collection in which Bin Laden calls on supporters to take action against the US… by boycotting its goods.

“Consider the case of Great Britain, an empire so vast that some say the sun never set on it,” says Bin Laden.

“Britain was forced to withdraw from one of its largest colonies when Gandhi the Hindu declared a boycott against their goods. We must do the same thing today with America.”

Bin Laden also encourages his audience to write letters to US embassies, to raise concern about America’s role in the Middle East conflict. Still no mention of violence against America. [Continue reading…]


The mystery of ISIS

The business of political analysis is all about offering plausible answers to difficult questions. In the constant churning of events, those answers don’t have to acquire lasting traction, but they need to reinforce the perception that the analyst has a clue. Rarely in print or on television is space given to an expert who confesses he is baffled. Indeed, such an admission would generally be viewed as evidence of a lack of expertise.

It is refreshing, then, to see an article in the New York Review of Books which goes to some lengths in explaining how little we understand ISIS and how inexplicable its success has been.

The author understandably yet disappointingly has chosen to remain anonymous, though we are told that he or she “was formerly an official of a NATO country” and has “wide experience in the Middle East.”

The clearest evidence that we do not understand this phenomenon is our consistent inability to predict — still less control — these developments. Who predicted that [the movement’s founder, Abu Musab al] Zarqawi would grow in strength after the US destroyed his training camps in 2001? It seemed unlikely to almost everyone that the movement would regroup so quickly after his death in 2006, or again after the surge in 2007. We now know more and more facts about the movement and its members, but this did not prevent most analysts from believing as recently as two months ago that the defeats in Kobane and Tikrit had tipped the scales against the movement, and that it was unlikely to take Ramadi. We are missing something.

Part of the problem may be that commentators still prefer to focus on political, financial, and physical explanations, such as anti-Sunni discrimination, corruption, lack of government services in captured territories, and ISIS’s use of violence. Western audiences are, therefore, rarely forced to focus on ISIS’s bewildering ideological appeal. I was surprised when I saw that even a Syrian opponent of ISIS was deeply moved by a video showing how ISIS destroyed the “Sykes-Picot border” between Iraq and Syria, established since 1916, and how it went on to reunite divided tribes. I was intrigued by the condemnation issued by Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar — one of the most revered Sunni clerics in the world: “This group is Satanic — they should have their limbs amputated or they should be crucified.” I was taken aback by bin Laden’s elegy for Zarqawi: his “story will live forever with the stories of the nobles…. Even if we lost one of our greatest knights and princes, we are happy that we have found a symbol….”

But the “ideology” of ISIS is also an insufficient explanation. Al-Qaeda understood better than anyone the peculiar blend of Koranic verses, Arab nationalism, crusader history, poetic reference, sentimentalism, and horror that can animate and sustain such movements. But even its leaders thought that Zarqawi’s particular approach was irrational, culturally inappropriate, and unappealing. In 2005, for example, al-Qaeda leaders sent messages advising Zarqawi to stop publicizing his horrors. They used modern strategy jargon — “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media” — and told him that the “lesson” of Afghanistan was that the Taliban had lost because they had relied — like Zarqawi — on too narrow a sectarian base. And the al-Qaeda leaders were not the only Salafi jihadists who assumed that their core supporters preferred serious religious teachings to snuff videos (just as al-Tayeb apparently assumed that an Islamist movement would not burn a Sunni Arab pilot alive in a cage).

Much of what ISIS has done clearly contradicts the moral intuitions and principles of many of its supporters. And we sense — through Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss’s careful interviews [in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror] — that its supporters are at least partially aware of this contradiction. Again, we can list the different external groups that have provided funding and support to ISIS. But there are no logical connections of ideology, identity, or interests that should link Iran, the Taliban, and the Baathists to one another or to ISIS. Rather, each case suggests that institutions that are starkly divided in theology, politics, and culture perpetually improvise lethal and even self-defeating partnerships of convenience.

The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.

I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough — even in hindsight — to have predicted the movement’s rise.

We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.


Al Qaeda in Syria leaves area where Turkey seeks buffer

Reuters reports: The al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front says it has quit frontline positions against Islamic State north of Aleppo and ceded them to other rebels, leaving an area of northern Syria where Turkey wants to set up a buffer zone.

A Nusra Front statement dated Sunday criticized a Turkish-U.S. plan to drive Islamic State from the Syrian-Turkish border area, saying the aim was to serve “Turkey’s national security” rather than the fight against President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States and Turkey last month announced their intention to drive Islamic State from a strip of territory in northern Syria near the Turkish border in a campaign that would provide air cover for Syrian rebels in the area.

Though Nusra is an enemy of Islamic State, its foothold in northern Syria has been a problem for the U.S.-led campaign against the ultra-hardline group. Late last month, Nusra attacked Syrian rebels trained as part of the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State, calling them agents of U.S. interests. [Continue reading…]


As rifts open up in Syria’s al-Qaeda franchise, secrets spill out

Aron Lund writes: In July, the al-Qaeda branch known as the Nusra Front expelled one of its founding members a man known as Saleh al-Hamawi. As described in Friday’s post, another founding member of the group, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, has reportedly been sidelined and stripped of power.

With the Syrian jihadis’ internal debates increasingly spilling online, one recent social media posting has revealed new details about the Nusra Front’s mysterious leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Hudheifa Azzam is the son of the legendary Palestinian Islamist ideologue Abdullah Azzam. The elder Azzam is often regarded as the founder of the modern jihadi movement, although it is not obvious he would have liked the direction it later took. Differences between Azzam and his junior associate in 1980s Afghanistan and Pakistan, a Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden, were already apparent at the time of Azzam’s mysterious death in 1989.

As a young man, Azzam’s son Hudheifa worked with his father in support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union, and he remained active on the jihadi scene. Recently, he left Jordan to settle in northern Syria, where he has presented himself as an independent scholar. He seems to work closely with Syrian Islamist hardliners like Ahrar al-Sham, but he is a strong opponent of the Islamic State and has been critical of the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda as well.

Like many other independent Islamist figures in Syria, Hudheifa Azzam has found Twitter to be an excellent means of broadcasting his opinions. On July 21, he fired off a series of tweets targeted at the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The information in these tweets was vouched for by two Nusra Front dissidents, Saleh al-Hamawi and Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who were to varying degrees involved in the events he describes.

In short, Azzam’s story is as follows, with the addition of a great deal of context for clarity. Whether you think his information is to be trusted or not is up to you. [Continue reading…]