Seymour Hersh’s 10,000-word bin Laden story — told five years ago in 640 words by Larry Johnson

When Seymour Hersh releases each of his blockbuster reports, what supposedly makes his claims authoritative is, more than anything else, the mere fact that they come from Seymour Hersh.

The reader is meant to trust the word of retired intelligence officials, consultants, and other unnamed experts, because Hersh trusts them. And we are meant to trust Hersh because of his stature as a veteran investigative journalist.

We are being invited to join a circle of confidence. Which is to say, we are being hooked by a confidence trick. Hersh is the confidant of (mostly) anonymous sources of inside information of inestimable quality, and we then become confidants of Hersh when he lets us in on the secrets.

To say this is not to imply that everything Hersh reports should be doubted, but simply to note that his egotistical investment in his own work — the fact that Hersh’s stories invariably end up being in part stories about Hersh — inevitably clouds the picture.

As a result, ensuing debate about the credibility of Hersh’s reports tends to devolve into polarized contests of allegiance. Each side sees the other as having been duped — either duped by a conspiracy theorist (Hersh) or duped by government officials and the mainstream media.

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A week after Osama bin Laden was killed, Larry Johnson wrote a blog post that reads like an outline draft of Hersh’s latest report. Johnson is a retired senior intelligence official who claims to be knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Maybe he was the “major U.S. source” on whom Hersh relied.

On May 9, 2011, Johnson wrote:

I’ve learned some things from friends who are still active that dramatically alter the picture the White House is desperately trying to paint. Here is what really happened. The U.S. Government learned of Bin Laden’s whereabouts last August when a person walked into a U.S. Embassy and claimed that Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) had Bin Laden under control in Abottabad, Pakistan. Naturally the CIA personnel who received this information were skeptical. That’s why the CIA set up a safehouse in Abottabad in September 2010 as reported yesterday in the Washington Post.

The claim that we found Bin Laden because of a courier and the use of enhanced interrogation is simply a cover story. It appears to be an effective cover story because it has many Bush supporters pressing the case that enhanced interrogation worked. The Obama operatives in the White House are quite content to let the Bushies share in this part of the “credit.” Why? It keeps most folks from looking at the claims that don’t add up.

Anyway, the intel collection at the safe house escalated and the CIA began pressing Pakistan’s ISI to come clean on Osama.

As Pakistan’s Dawn notes in an editorial, the Pakistani version of events — the Abbottabad Commission report — has yet to be officially released.

Buried after initial promises that it would be made public, one version of the report has already seen the light of day via a leaked copy to Al Jazeera. That version alone contains a deep, systematic, even fundamental critique of the manner in which the ISI operates.

Surely, it is morally and legally indefensible of the state to hide from the public the only systematic inquiry into the events surrounding perhaps the most humiliating incident in decades here. National security will not be undermined by the publication of a report; national security was undermined by the presence of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

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Pakistanis knew where bin Laden was, say U.S. sources

NBC News reports: Two intelligence sources tell NBC News that the year before the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a “walk in” asset from Pakistani intelligence told the CIA where the most wanted man in the world was hiding – and these two sources plus a third say that the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding all along.

The U.S. government has always characterized the heroic raid by Seal Team Six that killed bin Laden as a unilateral U.S. operation, and has maintained that the CIA found him by tracking couriers to his walled complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The new revelations do not necessarily cast doubt on the overall narrative that the White House began circulating within hours of the May 2011 operation. The official story about how bin Laden was found was constructed in a way that protected the identity and existence of the asset, who also knew who inside the Pakistani government was aware of the Pakistani intelligence agency’s operation to hide bin Laden, according to a special operations officer with prior knowledge of the bin Laden mission. The official story focused on a long hunt for bin Laden’s presumed courier, Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

While NBC News has long been pursuing leads about a “walk in” and about what Pakistani intelligence knew, both assertions were made public in a London Review of Books article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Hersh’s story, published over the weekend, raises numerous questions about the White House account of the SEAL operation. It has been strongly disputed both on and off the record by the Obama administration and current and former national security officials. [Continue reading…]

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Blogger accuses Seymour Hersh of ‘plagiarism’ for bin Laden raid story

Politico: In the day following the publication of Seymour Hersh’s scandalous alternative account of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the prize-winning investigative journalist has been pilloried as a fabulist, a fool, and even a fibber.

But one national security expert has a new insult to throw into the mix: plagiarist.

R.J. Hillhouse, a national security blogger and former college professor, wrote on her blog, “The Spy Who Billed Me” that she had accused the Obama administration of fabricating accounts of its raid that killed Osama bin Laden back in August 2011. Hersh’s story, published in the London Review of Books on Sunday, is “either plagiarism or unoriginal,” wrote Hillhouse.

The blog post Hillhouse is referring to dates back to August 7, 2011, only a few months after Osama bin Laden’s death. In it Hillhouse wrote, like Hersh, that the informant who led the CIA to bin Laden was a walk-in seeking financial compensation, that Pakistani officials were keeping bin Laden under house arrest with Saudi financial support, and that Pakistani officials had cooperated with the clandestine U.S. operation that killed him. [Continue reading…]

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The many problems with Seymour Hersh’s latest conspiracy theory

Max Fisher writes: On Sunday, the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh finally released a story that he has been rumored to have been working on for years: the truth about the killing of Osama bin Laden. According to Hersh’s 10,000-word story in the London Review of Books, the official history of bin Laden’s death — in which the US tracked him to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan; killed him in a secret raid that infuriated Pakistan; and then buried him at sea — is a lie.

Hersh’s story is amazing to read, alleging a vast American-Pakistani conspiracy to stage the raid and even to fake high-level diplomatic incidents as a sort of cover. But his allegations are largely supported only by two sources, neither of whom has direct knowledge of what happened, both of whom are retired, and one of whom is anonymous. The story is riven with internal contradictions and inconsistencies.

The story simply does not hold up to scrutiny — and, sadly, is in line with Hersh’s recent turn away from the investigative reporting that made him famous into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

A decade ago, Hersh was one of the most respected investigative journalists on the planet, having broken major stories from the 1969 My Lai massacre to the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal. But more recently, his reports have become less and less credible. He’s claimed that much of the US special forces is controlled by secret members of Opus Dei, that the US military flew Iranian terrorists to Nevada for training, and that the 2014 chemical weapons attack in Syria was a “false flag” staged by the government of Turkey. Those reports have had little proof and, rather than being borne out by subsequent investigations, have been either unsubstantiated or outright debunked. A close reading of Hersh’s bin Laden story suggests it is likely to suffer the same fate. [Continue reading…]

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Seymour Hersh: Osama bin Laden was held hostage by Pakistan’s intelligence services from 2006 until he was killed

Seymour Hersh writes: It’s been four years since a group of US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account. The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida’s operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.

The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times Magazine of 19 March 2014. Gall, who spent 12 years as the Times correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she’d been told by a ‘Pakistani official’ that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that he’d spoken to four undercover intelligence officers who – reflecting a widely held local view – asserted that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation. The issue was raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, told an al-Jazeera interviewer that it was ‘quite possible’ that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had been hiding, ‘but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.’

This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the Seals to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey holds prosecutors over spy agency’s Syria-bound truck

Reuters: Turkey on Wednesday arrested four prosecutors and a gendarme officer for trying to carry out a search of Syria-bound trucks belonging to the state intelligence agency that they suspected of illegally carrying arms for rebels fighting Syria’s government.

Local media said the arrests were part of a crackdown by President Tayyip Erdogan on followers, within the judiciary and police, of a U.S.-based Islamic cleric he accuses of trying to oust him. Seventeen army officers were held last month in the same case.

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Why Assad is losing

Charles Lister writes: After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.

However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent.

So what is happening in Syria? Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival.

The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.

However, diplomacy alone will be unlikely to provide a path out of Syria’s conflict. Even as a broad swathe of the international community talks behind closed doors about launching a major new diplomatic initiative on Syria, it will ultimately be military pressure inside Syria that will determine whether such an initiative has any chance of success. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s rebels on winning streak

The Daily Beast reports: The thumbs-up a top rebel commander flashes at me as he returns to this Turkish border town from the front-lines of northern Syria’s battlefields speaks volumes.

There has been little for Syrian insurgents to cheer about in recent months. Even a few weeks ago this man was downcast and appeared adrift and unable to imagine an end to a war that has claimed the lives of 6,000 of his men.

But a new Islamist alliance of brigades backed by al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra is moving ahead aggressively against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the emboldened insurgents, fresh from two significant battlefield gains, say that the four-year-long civil war is entering a new and critical phase — one that didn’t appear likely, or even possible, as recently as February.

And as the gains pile up, talk is intensifying within Jabhat al Nusra, and especially among the group’s Syrian commanders and fighters, of breaking with al Qaeda — a move they hope might entice the West to support this offensive and impose a no-fly zone across northern Syria. [Continue reading…]

CNN reports: Analysts put this change in the dynamics down to both cooperation between rebel groups who once fought each other and also greater coordination between their Sunni and Gulf backers — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese army general who now teaches at the American University of Beirut, said, “Two years ago they were fighting each other, now they are fighting together. Moreover there is a major shift in the regional issue in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I think they are preparing something and helping indirectly with weapons, training, and backing.”

Joshua Landis, associate professor in the School of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the change in regional postures was a result of the new King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, deciding that Iran was a more pressing challenge to his state than the House of Saud’s other long-term foe, the Muslim Brotherhood.

“This allows him to coordinate with Turkey and Qatar taking down Assad, even if it means arming Nusra and other Islamist forces,” he said. Landis said he believes the U.S. has “acquiesced” to this new position. [Continue reading…]

Al-Hayat reports: US administration would support military escalation in Syria, but it wants a clear political-military plan for the post-Assad stage, according to Western diplomatic sources

Western diplomatic sources confirmed to al-Hayat that “the US administration does not mind supporting a military escalation in Syria, but it wants a clear political-military plan for the next stage (following the departure of President Bashar al-Assad)”.


The diplomatic sources said President Barack Obama’s administration listened to proposals from Turkish and Arab officials to “establish a buffer zones”, or provide air cover for troops that are trained and equipped in cooperation with the Pentagon. The Obama administration showed “openness towards the proposals”, but requested a “complete political-military plan for the post-Assad stage”. The sources noted that Washington would be willing to support its allies if they presented a plan that deals with “Assad’s departure while maintaining the structure of the Syrian institutions, ensuring the rights and protection of minorities while providing a political solution that prevents a long-term militia war in Syria, as is the case in Libya”.

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Four years after bin Laden’s death, man who helped track him is in prison

McClatchy reports: Four years after U.S. forces shot dead Osama bin Laden at a house half a mile from Pakistan’s top military academy, the Pakistani doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination program for the CIA to find the al Qaida chief – but didn’t find him – is serving a long prison term on questionable charges of aiding an insurgent Pakistani militant group, his attorney said.

Suspected CIA operative Shakil Afridi has paid a heavy price for the huge embarrassment caused to Pakistan’s powerful military and its security services by the discovery of bin Laden: In addition to his 23-year term, his family lives in hiding and the lead attorney of his defense team was shot dead in March in the northern city of Peshawar.

His situation is in stark contrast to that of the two Pakistani militant groups that helped resettle bin Laden in Pakistan in 2002. Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-i-Mohammed provided bin Laden with dedicated security teams as he moved around the north of the country before settling in the town of Abbottabad in 2005, retired militants familiar with the operation told McClatchy.

Since Pakistan’s return to democracy in 2008, the two groups have re-emerged as Islamic charities, and their leaders have joined religious parties in political campaigns widely considered to be backed by the Pakistani military’s security services.

“When the sheikh (bin Laden) moved, armed 12-man teams would travel ahead and behind his vehicle. He’d travel with two to four men with good local knowledge of the area they were moving in; they’d be unarmed and disguised,” said a ranking former Harakat operative. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing the dangers of reprisal by former colleagues and arrest by the Pakistani authorities.

The security escorts were part of a Pakistan-wide arrangement provided by the groups to al Qaida and Afghan Taliban VIPs who were fleeing the American forces that invaded Afghanistan after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the former militants said. [Continue reading…]

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Why Nusra Front represents the middle ground for many Syrians

Lauren Williams reports: Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, has long been a central player in Syria’s civil war. But while the group may get less media coverage than the Islamic State (IS) or the Syrian government forces led by President Bashar al-Assad, recent gains have prompted some analysts to predict that the group will outlast both of these rival factions, or at the very least cement its role in the region for years to come.

The al-Nusra Front has been busy making steady gains in northern and southern Syria, consolidating ground support and controlling more and more territory.

Of particular significance was the group’s conquest of Idlib last month. The city was taken by a Nusra-led coalition of fighters from the Jund al-Aqsa, Jaish al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, Ajnad al-Sham and Faynad al-Sha brigades. Together, they managed to wrest control of the city from government forces after months of fierce fighting.

While also battling the Assad government forces, the Nusra-led coalition was able to drive out other rebel opponents, fighting for Hazm Movement, a so-called moderate opposition faction. This came after the new Nusra-led coalition managed to rout another moderate coalition, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, in the province in November last year. Last week, the Nusra-led rebel coalition managed to extend these gains further, taking the city of Jisr al-Shugour, also in Idlib province, from government forces.

The victory saw Nusra and its new allies secure an important win. Not only do they now control most of Idlib, which stretches to the Turkish border, but they also have edged closer to Assad’s Alawite heartland of Latakia province.

The string of advances have helped to demonstrate Nusra’s military prowess as well as its ability to absorb other Islamist brigades, with fresh waves of recruits reportedly now trying to join Nusra.
– See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/analysis-why-nusra-front-represents-middle-ground-many-syrians-553681406#sthash.qcVsChes.dpuf [Continue reading…]

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Life and death of an al Qaeda spokesman

Iona Craig writes: The voice on the phone was a mere whisper. The spokesman for al-Qaeda’s most notorious affiliate, AQAP, sounded nervous.

The man who scores of reporters around the world came to know over the last year under the alias of “Muhannad Ghallab” was not what I expected. One of the pictures he sent me showed him with long hair, dressed in a blue T-shirt with the words “Men gone surfing” printed across it.

Muhannad first contacted me in 2012 when I was living in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, working as a freelance journalist. I became, as he later joked, his personal “experiment” as AQAP’s initial attempt to reach out to the international media, putting up an English-speaking voice to counter the Washington and Western media narrative. Eventually, Muhannad would be quoted widely in international media outlets — usually just as a nameless spokesman — providing a rare insight into AQAP. [Continue reading…]

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Drone strikes killing hostages were aimed at unknown targets

The Guardian reports: The targets of the deadly drone strikes that killed two hostages and two suspected American members of al-Qaida were “al-Qaida compounds” rather than specific terrorist suspects, the White House disclosed on Thursday.

The lack of specificity suggests that despite a much-publicized 2013 policy change by Barack Obama restricting drone killings by, among other things, requiring “near certainty that the terrorist target is present”, the US continues to launch lethal operations without the necessity of knowing who specifically it seeks to kill, a practice that has come to be known as a “signature strike”.

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, acknowledged that the January deaths of hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto might prompt the tightening of targeting standards ahead of lethal drone and other counter-terrorism strikes. A White House review is under way. [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda in Yemen using chaos of war to carve out terrorism haven

The Los Angeles Times reports: A brazen territorial grab by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen — together with a $1-million bank heist, a prison break and capture of a military base — has given the terrorist group fundraising and recruitment tools that suggest it is following the brutal path blazed by Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was long forced into the shadows by U.S. drone strikes and commando raids, has taken advantage of the growing chaos in Yemen’s multi-sided war to carve out a potential haven that counter-terrorism experts say could help it launch terrorist attacks.

After seizing a regional airport and a coastal oil terminal this week, Al Qaeda militants consolidated their gains Friday in Mukalla, an Arabian Sea port. Fighters stormed a weapons depot and seized armored vehicles and rockets after apparently forging a truce with local tribes and forcing government troops to flee. [Continue reading…]

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Al-Qaeda seizes airport in eastern Yemen

The Washington Post: Al-Qaeda has seized an airport in eastern Yemen, an intelligence official confirmed Thursday, signaling that the extremist group is exploiting the chaos caused by the Saudi-led attacks in the country.

Fighters from the Yemeni branch of the militant group, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on Tuesday seized the Riyan Airport in the city of Mukalla, said the Yemeni intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The group was already in control of areas around the airfield, including the nearby city of Mukalla, which is the capital of Yemen’s Hadhramaut Province. According to the intelligence official, the militants faced no resistance when taking the airport, suggesting that AQAP receives significant support in the area.

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In Yemen chaos, al Qaeda may be the biggest winners

Harriet Salem and Sama’a al Hamdani report: Standing beneath an ornate chandelier, Khaled Batarfi, a high-ranking member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), poses for a snapshot in the governor’s palatial residence in the port city of al Mukalla. Trampling on the Yemeni national flag, the bespectacled jihadi raises his index finger in salute as he grins at the cameraman.


Batarfi has plenty to smile about. As Yemen descends into a full-scale war between Shia Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabia-backed forces of its president-in-exile, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, dormant AQAP factions — backed by a handful of Sunni tribes — have surged out of their heartlands into towns and cities across the country’s central and southern provinces.

Last week, in a lightning offensive, fighters from the group stormed al Mukalla, capital of the oil-rich Hadhramaut province. Entering in the dead of night by morning they had taken over government buildings, emptied the city’s bank vaults of the equivalent of $80 million, and freed 300 prisoners, including Batarfi and several other high-ranking members of AQAP, from the local jail.

But for the power hungry group, the snatch of al Mukalla is just the tip of the iceberg. The lawlessness that followed the revolution of 2011, coupled with the recent outbreak of war, has enabled AQAP to secure a stronghold in at least seven governorates: ‘Ibb, Al-Jawf, Ma’rib, Hadhramout, Lahj, Abyan, and Shabwah. [Continue reading…]

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Come out and live, Shabab told Kenya students — and then killed them

The New York Times reports: Elosy Karimi curled up in a crawl space, immobilized by fear.

Her classmates were flooding out of the dorms, in boxer shorts and thin nightgowns. Gunfire was ringing all around her. People were screaming. It was predawn and pitch black.

“If you want to survive, come out!” the militants yelled. “If you want to die, stay inside!”

In the terrifying confusion, Ms. Karimi, 23, decided to risk it inside, she said, and stayed hidden in the ceiling above her bunk bed for the next 28 and a half hours.

“I knew those guys were lying,” she said at the hospital, having just arrived to be checked after the ordeal.

New details emerged on Friday about how a handful of fighters from the Shabab militant group, with just a few light weapons, managed to kill nearly 150 students in Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi.

Survivors said many students had fallen for the militants’ trick, voluntarily leaving their dorm rooms and obeying commands to lie down in neat rows, only to be shot in the back of the head. [Continue reading…]

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Kenya attack: al-Shabaab’s violent radicalism can’t be tackled by force alone

By Stefan Wolff, University of Birmingham

The terrorist group al-Shabaab has claimed an attack on Garissa University College in eastern Kenya, in which an unclear number have been killed and many others taken hostage.

The attack is another step in the ongoing escalation of the terrorist group’s activities, and a clear indicator that the security situation in East Africa is deteriorating fast.

Somalia-based al-Shabaab has been behind a string of recent attacks in Kenya, the most well-known of them being the massacre at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi in 2013.

Cross-border raids into Kenya by the group, however, date back to 2011. Al-Shabaab incursions triggered a military response by the government in Nairobi, which sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union mission in support of Somalia’s internationally recognised government that had been under pressure from al-Shabaab and other militants for several years.

Al-Shabaab is predominantly driven by the same radical interpretation of the Koran as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, but also employs more opportunistic approaches to shoring up local support. Its origins lie in Al-Ittihad al-Islami (Unity of Islam), one of several militant factions that emerged in the wake of the fall of Siad Barre in 1991. These disparate groups fought each other and a UN peacekeeping mission in the Somali civil war that led to the complete collapse of the country, from which it has yet to recover almost quarter of a century later.

An evolving threat

Al-Shabaab (literally “the Youth”) split from Unity of Islam in 2003 and merged with another radical Islamist group, the so-called Islamic Courts Union. As their alliance obtained control of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in 2006, Ethiopia, the only majority Christian country in the region, took military action against the group. The offensive weakened al-Shabaab and pushed it back into the rural areas of central and southern Somalia, but it failed to defeat it.

To the contrary, Ethiopia’s invasion and occupation of parts of Somalia – although invited by the Somali government and backed by the African Union – enabled al-Shabaab to partially re-invent itself as both an Islamist and nationalist force opposing a foreign “Christian” invasion.

Initially, the group primarily attacked Ethiopian forces, but soon began to “expand” its activities against the Somali government as well. The first attack outside Somalia was in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in 2010. Soon after this, cross-border raids in Kenya began, predominantly targeting Christians.

Aftermath of an al-Shabaab suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia in December 2014
EPA/Said Yusuf Warsame

Increasing its links with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab declared its full allegiance in 2012 – and it is not clear whether it will switch allegiances to Islamic State. Much will depend on how the relationships between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a long-time ally of al-Shabaab based in Yemen, and Islamic State develop.

[Read more…]

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To beat the terrorists Kenya must break free of Western thinking

Mwenda Kailemia writes: On Wednesday night, life was normal for the close to 800 students of a university college in the remote part of Kenya’s north east, which borders Somalia. And then, at dawn on Thursday, all hell broke lose: Masked gunmen stormed the fortified campus dormitories shooting indiscriminately at the fleeing students before taking several hundred hostages. The dawn-to-dusk siege ended when the four gunmen detonated their suicide vests, with a fifth arrested. The attack left at least 147 people dead, mostly students, with survivors afterward recounting how the militants singled out and executed Christians.

It is the deadliest attack yet by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated Somali militant group, which declared war on Kenya after the country sent its troops into Somalia in 2011. In a similar attack in 2013, armed gunmen stormed the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, selectively killing Christians and taking many people hostage. By the time the guns fell silent three days later close to 70 people had been killed.

The attacks have raised fundamental questions about Kenya’s security strategy. Recent commentary has emphasised the toxic mix of corruption and the structural alienation of Kenya’s Muslim population. Immigration and police officials, it is argued, can be bought by the highest bidder. Recently there have been widely publicised accounts of how foreigners have managed to acquire Kenyan passports within a few weeks of sneaking into the country. This corruption has played into the hands of both al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a secessionist outfit in the country’s coastal regions, with both capitalising on popular disenchantment of the Kenyan Muslim minority for their recruitment.

Following yesterday’s attacks, it took security services several hours to arrive at the site of the siege because of bad roads in the area. Neglect by successive administrations has ensured that Garissa, like most of Kenya’s north east, is part of Kenya by name only: before this week’s attack, the local leadership had given the government an ultimatum: either ensure security or allow locals to take up arms to defend themselves from threats that range from al-Shabaab attacks to cattle rustling and inter-clan warfare. Thus, while the story of Kenya’s struggle with terrorism has been dominated by images of urban sieges, the untold story – until yesterday anyway– was the insecurity and neglect that the people of north eastern Kenya have had to endure for decades. The country may have won international acclaim for major investments in infrastructure, but it is not lost on locals that the whole region bordering Somalia has less than 100 miles of tarmacked roads. [Continue reading…]

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