Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.

U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.

For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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White House still claims Yemen is a counter-terrorism success story

McClatchy: Yemen’s president is reportedly on the run amid rebel advances, but the White House insisted Wednesday that the country continues to be a model for its counter terrorism initiatives and that the U.S. continues to have extremists there “in the cross hairs.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he could not confirm the whereabouts of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – “I have my hands full confirming the whereabouts of one world leader,” – but said the country remains a template for thwarting terrorism.

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists. Because the United States continues to have the ability to place significant pressure on them.”

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Nusra Front quietly rises in Syria as ISIS is targeted

The Associated Press reports: The Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, is consolidating power in territory stretching from the Turkish border to central and southern Syria, crushing moderate opponents and forcibly converting minorities using tactics akin to its ultraconservative rival, the Islamic State group.

But while the Islamic State group gets most of the attention largely because its penchant for gruesome propaganda, the Nusra Front quietly has become one of the key players in the four-year civil war, compromising other rebel groups the West may try to work with while increasingly enforcing its own brutal version of Islamic law.

Its scope of influence now abuts the Golan Heights bordering Israel, and its membership largely composed of Syrian nationals refuse any negotiations with the government of embattled President Bashar Assad, further complicating the brutal conflict.

“The Nusra Front will most likely outlast ISIS in Syria, and will represent a severe and existential threat to the aspirations of the Syrian people in terms of a pluralistic, democratic society,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, using an alternate acronym for the extremist group. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen, long on the brink of catastrophe, may have tipped over the edge

The Wall Street Journal reports: The militant group that controls Yemen’s capital moved to extend its power southward with an attack on a major city, deepening chaos that has given terror groups greater room to proliferate and forced the U.S. to suspend military operations inside the country.

American officials now see Yemen teetering on the brink of a civil war involving the besieged president, a former president and a patchwork of militant groups. The leader of the Houthi militant group behind the southern offensive and a United Nations envoy both warned that Yemen is in imminent danger of becoming another Iraq, Syria or Libya — a conflict fueled by sectarian violence and warring terrorist networks.

The U.S. withdrew its remaining 100 military personnel from a base in southern Yemen over the weekend, American officials said on Sunday. Special Operations Forces had to halt, at least temporarily, the training of Yemeni troops and cooperation in operations against one of the world’s most dangerous al Qaeda offshoots. The U.S. had already closed its embassy in the capital San’a last month. [Continue reading…]

Brian Whitaker writes: Yemen has often been portrayed as a country on the brink of catastrophe. Equally often, it has defied expectations and muddled through – if only just. But the suicide attacks on two mosques that left at least 142 people dead in Sana’a last Friday are one sign, among many, that it has finally tipped over the edge.

The UN is warning helplessly about a rapid downward spiral and calling for a resumption of efforts towards a political settlement, but the prospects of that happening are virtually nil and the scene is set for a protracted civil war with multiple protagonists.

Inside Yemen, the lineup of forces is complicated. One key player is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from the presidency in 2012 after 34 years in power and has been causing trouble ever since.

Saleh appears to be colluding with the Houthis, whom he previously fought in a series of wars in the far north of the country. His alliance with the Houthis is seen by many as a tactical move aimed at eventually installing his son, Ahmad, as president. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports from Aden: This port city, perched on an extinct volcano protruding into the Arabian Sea on Yemen’s far southern edge, has become perhaps the last refuge of the country’s embattled president, and it feels like now all his enemies are bearing down on it.

Driven out of the capital, Sanaa, by Shiite rebels who have taken over much of the north, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the remains of his government have made Aden their provisional capital. If they lose here, Hadi – the man the U.S. had hoped would stabilize the chaotic nation and fight al-Qaida’s powerful branch – likely will fall, plunging Yemen into a civil war.

In his first speech since fleeing Sanaa, Hadi on Saturday denounced the rebel takeover as “a coup against constitutional legitimacy” and declared Aden the country’s “temporary capital.” [Continue reading…]

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Yemeni implosion pushes southern Sunnis into arms of al Qaida and ISIS

The intrepid, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reports: In a hollow in the sands of eastern Yemen, a line of pickup trucks carrying tribal fighters idled. A squat man with a shock of black hair, dressed in an overflowing dusty dishdasha, walked around slowly, inspecting the men and the vehicles, loaded with heavy machine guns and light artillery.

“The Houthis are behind that hill,” he shouted, pointing at a rocky outcrop sheltering the imaginary foe – northern Yemenis who overthrew the government last autumn, and seized the country’s third largest city on Sunday, according to security and military officials. “We will start by shelling their positions, and then you will storm the hill by cars and finally climb the hill on foot.”

His men call him the Biss – the Cat. After a rather desultory attempt to overrun the supposed adversary, they discovered that he had claws. “If the Houthis were actually there, they could have ended you all with one shell,” the Cat spat.

It’s a forlorn landscape, but one that contains compelling clues as to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, and the new faultlines.

In Yemen there is little history of sectarian strife. The two main sects, Shia Zaidi and Sunni Shafi, have traditionally been seen as moderate with minimal differences.

But this changed when the Houthis, followers of an obscure Shia tradition who are accused of serving Iranian interests in Yemen, stormed the capital, Sana’a, in September, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the southern port city of Aden.

Their advance had a galvanising effect in the country’s Sunni-dominated south, where al-Qaida is particularly strong and the jihadis of Islamic State are just starting to secure a toehold. [Continue reading…]

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Are Syrian Islamists moving to counterbalance al Qaeda? Will it last?

Charles Lister writes: On March 22, the Syrian insurgency witnessed the latest in a series of mergers, when the Islamist Suqor al-Sham faction effectively subsumed itself into one of the country’s most powerful organizations, Ahrar al-Sham. Both groups had been amongst the very first armed groups to form in Syria in mid-2011 and although Suqor al-Sham has reduced in size over the past 12-months, both have consistently been amongst the most consequential actors in the fight against the Assad regime. Following the union, Ahrar al-Sham now finds itself in command of approximately 15,000 fighters across Syria, with active operations in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates.

This merger was only the latest sign that Ahrar al-Sham has begun re-asserting its preeminent position within the broader Syrian insurgency. Although its membership had not necessarily declined throughout 2014, the year had been a challenging one due in part to a serious cut back in funding and support from Qatar and Turkey and also to the group’s key role in fighting against the Islamic State (IS), alongside its military ally Jabhat al-Nusra — Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.

Now finding themselves involved in the fifth year of a brutal civil conflict that has left at least 220,000 people dead, displaced 10 million others inside and outside the country, and trapped over 640,000 under military siege, the strategic thinking within the Syrian insurgency is subtly shifting. Since October and November 2014, the leaderships of countless Syrian insurgent groups — encompassing ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA), mainstream Islamists and hardline Syrian Salafists — have been expressing private concern in person to this author regarding the worrying evolution of their long-time ally Jabhat al-Nusra. Back in November 2014, an Ahrar al-Sham leader described the group as leading the revolution “down the wrong path,” while a moderate Islamist from Aleppo exclaimed that “Nusra no longer wants what we want — Al-Qaeda is taking over.”

Despite inaccurate reports that the latest merger of Ahrar al-Sham and Suqor al-Sham represented a hardening of the group’s ideological stance, the unity initiative has instead been described to this author by several Syrian Islamist officials as a conscious attempt to balance Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing power, particularly in the northwest governorate of Idlib. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. unclear on impact of bombing on al Qaida group in Syria

The Associated Press: The U.S. military has hit as many as 17 separate targets connected to a shadowy al-Qaida cell in Syria known as the Khorasan group, U.S. officials say, as part of a little-discussed air campaign aimed at disrupting the group’s capacity to plot attacks against Western aviation.

U.S. intelligence analysts disagree about whether the attacks have significantly diminished the group’s capabilities, according to the officials, showing how difficult it has been to develop a clear picture of what is happening on the ground in Syria.

American officials briefed on the matter agree that the air attacks have forced militants into hiding and made their use of cellphones, email or other modern communications extremely risky. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified assessments.

There is some disagreement about how much the airstrikes have undermined the group’s ability to pose an imminent threat, U.S. officials say. Some U.S. officials say the military believes the strikes have lowered the threat, while the CIA and other intelligence agencies emphasize that the group remains as capable as ever of attacking the West.

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CIA cash ended up in coffers of Al Qaeda

The New York Times reports: In the spring of 2010, Afghan officials struck a deal to free an Afghan diplomat held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the price was steep — $5 million — and senior security officials were scrambling to come up with the money.

They first turned to a secret fund that the Central Intelligence Agency bankrolled with monthly cash deliveries to the presidential palace in Kabul, according to several Afghan officials involved in the episode. The Afghan government, they said, had already squirreled away about $1 million from that fund.

Within weeks, that money and $4 million more provided from other countries was handed over to Al Qaeda, replenishing its coffers after a relentless C.I.A. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan had decimated the militant network’s upper ranks.

“God blessed us with a good amount of money this month,” Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the group’s general manager, wrote in a letter to Osama bin Laden in June 2010, noting that the cash would be used for weapons and other operational needs. [Continue reading…]

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Rising out of chaos: ISIS in Libya

Frederic Wehrey and Ala’ Alrababa’h write: Recent attacks in Libya by the so-called Islamic State, including the brutal slaughter of Egyptian Copts, the Corinthia Hotel attacks, car bombings in Qubbah that killed at least 45 people, and an attack on the Iranian embassy, have brought the spread of extremism in Libya to the forefront. While the Islamic State has intensified its activity in recent weeks, its spread into Libya began early in 2014 as Libyan jihadists began to return from Syria.

Jihadi groups in Libya were already deeply fragmented and localized, but the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2013 and 2014 sparked new debates, eventually dividing the Libyan jihadis between supporters of the Islamic State and supporters of al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates—mainly al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa and the Nusra Front in Syria.

Libyans had already begun traveling to fight in Syria in 2011, joining existing jihadi factions or starting their own. In 2012, one group of Libyans in Syria declared the establishment of the Battar Brigade in a statement laden with anti-Shia sectarianism. The Battar Brigade founders also thanked “the citizens of Derna,” a city in northeastern Libya long known as a hotbed of radical Islamism, for their support for the struggle in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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In campaign against terrorism, U.S. enters period of pessimism and gloom

The Washington Post reports: U.S. counterterrorism officials and experts, never known for their sunny dispositions, have entered a period of particular gloom.

In congressional testimony recently, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. went beyond the usual litany of threats to say that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.”

Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, told participants on a counter­terrorism strategy call that he regarded the Islamic State as a greater menace than al-Qaeda ever was.

Speaking at a New York police terrorism conference, Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, said he had come to doubt that he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda and its spawn. “This is long term,” he said. “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”

The assessments reflect a pessimism that has descended on the U.S. counterterrorism community over the past year amid a series of discouraging developments. Among them are the growth of the Islamic State, the ongoing influx of foreign fighters into Syria, the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Yemen and the downward spiral of Libya’s security situation. The latest complication came Saturday, when the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria carried out a series of suicide bombings and reportedly declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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FBI plotted arrest of American Al Qaeda blogger, but dropped plan

McClatchy reports: A North Carolina blogger who became a major propagandist for al Qaida before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, was a subject of close FBI surveillance for years and a much bigger concern for U.S. authorities than previously known, according to records obtained by McClatchy.

Samir Khan, 25, was a big enough worry while he lived in Charlotte, N.C., that before he disappeared in 2009, federal agents asked the FBI’s special forces unit, Hostage Rescue Team, to help with a likely arrest, the files show. But no arrest was made, and Khan disappeared, reemerging months later in Yemen where he launched an English-language al Qaida magazine, Inspire, that has been influential in radicalizing and recruiting extremists worldwide. He was killed Sept. 30, 2011.

Khan’s case, along with those of the perpetrators of attacks that include the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, reflects a new reality for those seeking to thwart terrorism: Many of the lone wolf-style attacks authorities fear most are the work of people already known to U.S. and international intelligence agencies.

Experts say future terrorists are becoming radicalized under the very noses of intelligence officials, who struggle to balance civil liberties with stopping potentially dangerous individuals now being referred to as “known wolves.” [Continue reading…]

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Al-Nusra Front leader, commanders reported killed in Syria

AFP: The military chief and several top commanders of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front have been reported killed in northwestern Syria, where the jihadist militia has been making major gains in recent months.

Syrian state media, a monitoring group and a local activist reported that Abu Hammam al-Shami had been killed but information on the circumstances of his death was contradictory.

Official Nusra sources did not announce the death of the jihadist, who is believed to have fought with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

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Syria’s Nusra Front may leave Qaeda to form new entity

Reuters reports: Leaders of Syria’s Nusra Front are considering cutting their links with al Qaeda to form a new entity backed by some Gulf states trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, sources said.

Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding.

The exercise could transform Nusra from a weakened militia group into a force capable of taking on Islamic State at a time when it is under pressure from bombing raids and advances by Kurdish and Iraqi military forces.

It could also boost the influence of Qatar and its allies in the campaign to oust Assad, in line with the Gulf state’s growing diplomatic ambitions in the region. [Continue reading…]

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A founder member of al Qaeda who became a spy for Britain

Aimen Dean is a founder member of al-Qaeda, who changed tack in 1998 and became a spy for Britain’s security and intelligence services, MI5 and MI6. He spoke to the BBC: By the end of the Bosnian conflict I started to notice something else within my comrades. Those who survived started to adopt a rather more anti-Western, anti-globalisation feeling that the global community were conspiring against the Muslims in Bosnia because they were turning the tide of the war in their favour – so they wanted to end the war there and then before they score any more victories.

At least that’s the perception. And with that perception, I think they started to feel that the West is fighting Islam as a religion… and that led to further radicalisation that made it easy for them to make the transformation from being mujahideen into being jihad operatives.

Bosnia was a school in which many talented leaders of al-Qaeda were born. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed [accused of being the architect of the 9/11 attacks] was one of those people who were in Bosnia.

The impression I had at that time, was that he was there in Bosnia in order to spot talent, let’s put it this way, in order to you know scout for talents who will be useful for the later struggle.

I remember that one of the things he said, and it was in a wedding where we were seated next to each other basically, and one of the things he said, he said, “Well, the Bosnian war seems to be ending here, that you know the end is in sight but what will happen after the war? The question is are we going to roam the globe from one hopeless battle to another trying to save a Muslim population until someone else, and then someone else come and reap the reward?”

In other words, there will be a government that is secular and doesn’t rule by the rules of Sharia. He says that this cycle need to end and that we have to think about another front where we can serve Islam and basically resurrect the spirit of jihad within the Muslim world. I think that little speech was the first indication that things are moving from jihad being an instrument to defend Muslim populations on the frontiers to an instrument to bring down regimes and to fight a terror war… against the US interests in the region. [Continue reading…]

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Lure of the Caliphate

Malise Ruthven writes: As Dounia Bouzar shows in Ils cherchent le paradis ils ont trouvé l’enfer (They looked for Paradise and found Hell), her poignant account of French “orphan parents” who lose their children to the jihadist cause, French middle-class teenagers and medical students from atheist families are far from being immune to seduction by these jihadists groups. Bouzar’s story focuses on Adèle, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a professional couple in Paris who joins Jabhat al-Nusra after an online conversion by her handler “Brother Mustafa.” In a farewell note to her mother she leaves behind, Adèle writes:

My own darling Mamaman (Mamaman à moi)
…Its because I love you that that I have gone.
When you read these lines I’ll be far away.
I will be in the Promised Land, the Sham, in safe hands.
Because its there that I have to die to go to Paradise.
… I have been chosen and I have been guided.
And I know what you do not know: we’re all going to die,
punished by the wrath of God.
It’s the end of the world, Mamaman.
There is too much misery, too much injustice…
And everyone will end up in hell.
Except for those who have fought with the last Imam in the Sham,
Except for us.

Adèle’s family does not know exactly how she first became drawn to Islam. But as with so many other young recruits from Europe, the Internet seems to have played a crucial part. On Adèle’s computer, they discover pictures of her in a black niqab, as well as a record of her online conversion and rapid indoctrination by Brother Mustapha, in a hidden Facebook account in which she calls herself Oum Hawwa (“Mother of Eve”).

Her conversion appears to have been influenced by the sudden death of Cathy, her much-loved aunt, from an aneurysm at the age of forty. In the Facebook dialogue, Mustapha consoles her about her loss and asks: “Have you reflected on what I explained?”

“Yes, thanks be to God, my spirit is clearer. God called aunt Cathy back to bring me closer to Him. He did this so I would see the Signs that the ignorant don’t hear.”

“This is how He tests us,” says Mustapha. “Everything is written—there is always an underlying meaning. Allah wanted you to learn. But He must send you a trigger so you can leave the ignorance in which you have been kept up till now. Your reasoning is merely human. Allah reasons as Master of the Universe.…”

As Adèle’s engagement strengthens, Mustapha becomes more strident, moving into grooming mode:

When I tell you to call me you must call me. I want you pious and submissive to Allah and to me. I can’t wait to see your two little eyes beneath the niqab.

The story ends tragically: in Syria, the girl is briefly married to Omar, a jihadi chosen by the Emir of her group. Then one day Adèle’s parents receive a text from Adèle’s cellphone: “Oum Hawwa died today. She was not chosen by God. She didn’t die a martyr: just a stray bullet. May you hope she doesn’t go to hell.”

In the hope of retrieving her daughter, Adèle’s mother, Sophie, receives help from Samy, a practicing French Muslim. He has just come back from Syria after failing to rescue his own fourteen-year-old younger brother, Hocine, who also joined al-Nusra. Samy explains the all-embracing ideology that drives the jihadists. After being kidnapped in Northern Syria, Samy had been brought before a leader of the French division of al-Nusra. “There were young French boys everywhere. An entire town of French recruits,” Samy recalls. He is told that the Syrian jihad and the restoration of the caliphate is a prelude to the final battle at the End of Time. He is warned not to listen to the Salafists (orthodox believers) who claim that waging jihad is subject to certain limitations. “God has chosen us! We have the Truth! You’re either with us or you’re a traitor,” he is told, in a phrase that echoes George W. Bush. “Only those who fight with the Mahdi” — the Muslim messiah, who will restore the caliphate — “will enter paradise.” [Continue reading…]

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Bernard Haykel on the roots of ISIS and al Qaeda

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Why Turkey backs Al-Nusra but shuns ISIS

Aaron Stein writes: In April 2011, senior members of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) met in Ankara to discuss the unrest in Syria. The meeting focused on Syria and how the government should respond to Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of antigovernment demonstrations. For the AKP, the unrest posed a unique set of challenges. Since 2002, Turkey had prioritized good relations with Damascus, arguing that areas of northern Syria were part of what they called Turkey’s “natural hinterland.”

In the end, the meeting’s participants decided to cautiously support Assad, albeit while prodding him to make political concessions to allow the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to reenter Syrian politics. Unlike during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, when Turkey called on President Hosni Mubarak to step down after only eight days of rallies, Ankara’s initial preference in Syria was for the regime to reform and remain in power. To this end, Recep Tayyip Erdogan—then prime minister and now president—dispatched two trusted advisers to try to convince Assad to make cosmetic democratic reforms to appease the protesters. In April 2011, he sent Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan to try to convince Assad to deescalate the unfolding crisis. Thereafter, he dispatched Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister at the time and now prime minister, on numerous occasions. Despite these efforts, neither man was successful. In September 2011, Turkey severed ties with the regime and began to take active part in regional efforts to overthrow the Syrian dictator. [Continue reading…]

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Syria death toll now exceeds 210,000

Reuters reports: The death toll after nearly four years of civil war in Syria has risen to 210,060, nearly half of them civilians, but the real figure is probably much higher, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday.

The Observatory, which is based in Britain and has a network of activists across Syria, said that 10,664 children and 6,783 women were among the dead.

Reuters tried to contact Syrian authorities for comment, but they were not immediately available.

Peaceful protests against four decades of rule by President Bashar al-Assad’s family in March 2011 degenerated into an armed insurgency following a fierce security crackdown.

The rights group said it had counted 35,827 Syrian rebels and 45,385 Syrian army soldiers killed. The Observatory’s toll could not be independently verified by Reuters.

Among the Observatory’s documented deaths were 24,989 foreign jihadist fighters, including radical Sunni rebel groups such as Al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front and Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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