Al Qaeda leaders turns to Syria, with a plan to challenge ISIS

The New York Times reports: Al Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan, badly weakened after a decade of C.I.A. drone strikes, has decided that the terror group’s future lies in Syria and has secretly dispatched more than a dozen of its most seasoned veterans there, according to senior American and European intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

The movement of the senior Qaeda jihadists reflects Syria’s growing importance to the terrorist organization and most likely foreshadows an escalation of the group’s bloody rivalry with the Islamic State, Western officials say.

The operatives have been told to start the process of creating an alternate headquarters in Syria and lay the groundwork for possibly establishing an emirate through Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to compete with the Islamic State, from which Nusra broke in 2013. This would be a significant shift for Al Qaeda and its affiliate, which have resisted creating an emirate, or formal sovereign state, until they deem conditions on the ground are ready. Such an entity could also pose a heightened terrorist threat to the United States and Europe.

Qaeda operatives have moved in and out of Syria for years. Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s supreme leader in Pakistan, dispatched senior jihadists to bolster the Nusra Front in 2013. A year later, Mr. Zawahri sent to Syria a shadowy Qaeda cell called Khorasan that American officials say has been plotting attacks against the West.

But establishing a more enduring presence in Syria would present the group with an invaluable opportunity, Western analysts said. A Syria-based Qaeda state would not only be within closer striking distance of Europe but also benefit from the recruiting and logistical support of fighters from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

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Al-Qaeda affiliates are threatening West Africa’s most peaceful cities

The Washington Post reports: In a city where nightclubs and mosques coexist peacefully, Islamist violence long felt like a foreign problem — something residents watched on news clips from the Middle East or other parts of ­Africa.

“We just didn’t worry very much about it,” said Abdullaye Diene, the deputy imam of the country’s largest mosque. “Here you can spend your nights drinking at the disco and then shake the hand of the imam.”

But Senegal and its neighbors are facing a new threat from extremists moving far from their traditional strongholds in northwest Africa. Since November, militant groups have killed dozens of people in assaults on hotels, cafes and a beachside resort in West Africa, passing through porous borders with impunity.

The attacks have occurred in countries that had been rebounding from political turbulence, such as Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Now fears of such bloodshed are growing in this pro-Western democracy, which serves as a ­regional hub for international ­organizations. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s peace plan is flawed and Jabhat Al Nusra knows it

Hassan Hassan writes: If the United States and Russia do not see that Al Qaeda’s main Syrian franchise is benefiting from the peace process, they should look again. In recent months, Jabhat Al Nusra has led a number of battles against the forces of Bashar Al Assad in the north, while poorly-executed ceasefires are causing people to question the efficiency of nationalist forces.

The reactions of some Syrians in the opposition towards the regime losses, especially in the context of the government’s violations of the recent truces, were captured by one activist’s Facebook post: “Some of us take to the streets to protest against Jabhat Al Nusra and demand that it breaks away from Al Qaeda,” he wrote. “Had jihadist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra done everything we wanted them to do, the only place in which we could raise our revolution’s flag today would be in Taksim Square in Turkey.”

For Jabhat Al Nusra, the gains against the regime do not have to hold. Mr Al Assad can retake the areas, but the fact that it is battling the regime while other forces stand by watching weakens the latter’s stance in the eyes of some Syrians. Jabhat Al Nusra has even produced footage of its recent operations using drones, including an ambush against a foreign fighter, the blowing up of a Baath party building and the storming of a government base in Aleppo. [Continue reading…]

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What leads engineers to become jihadists?

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In a review of Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Extremism and Education, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Ursula Lindsey writes: The second argument advanced by the authors to explain the “strange correlation” between studying engineering and joining a jihadist group is based on a comparative study of the political affinities of the members of radical left- and right-wing groups in the West. It shows that engineers are overrepresented among right-wing radicals generally (while humanities and social science students are more abundant among left-wing militants).

The authors suggest that Islamist and right-wing militants share a number of personality traits that have been shown to be associated with political conservatism. These include a propensity to feel disgust; a strong identification with an “in-group” and hostility toward those who don’t belong to it; and a discomfort with ambiguity and open-ended discussions (known in the literature as a “need for closure”). In Islamist circles, the authors write, “proneness to disgust is related to the strong reaction to perceived corruption of customs and a desire for social and sexual purity. In-group bias is related to a marked aversion for those who are different, be they immigrants, ethnic others, or infidels. The most multifaceted of these traits, need for closure (NFC), is related to a strong preference for hierarchy and social order and an aversion to change, which can reach the extreme of longing for a mythical past.”

Because of these underlying affinities, the authors speculate, some individuals may be “attracted to engineering as a discipline that provides concrete, unambiguous answers, and recoil from the open-ended project of natural science and the ambiguities of the humanities and social sciences.” Engineering students, “like followers of text-based religions, rely more strongly on answers that have already been given.” [Continue reading…]

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The FBI is keeping 80,000 secret files on the Saudis and 9/11

The Daily Beast reports: The Obama administration may soon release 28 classified pages from a congressional investigation that allegedly links Saudis in the United States to the 9/11 attackers. A former Republican member of the 9/11 Commission alleged Thursday that there was “clear evidence” of support for the hijackers from Saudi officials.

But in Florida, a federal judge is weighing whether to declassify portions of some 80,000 classified pages that could reveal far more about the hijackers’ Saudis connections and their activities in the weeks preceding the worst attack on U.S. soil.

The still-secret files speak to one of the strangest and most enduring mysteries of the 9/11 attacks. Why did the Saudi occupants of a posh house in gated community in Sarasota, Florida, suddenly vanish in the two weeks prior to the attacks? And had they been in touch with the leader of the operation, Mohamed Atta, and two of his co-conspirators?

No way, the FBI says, even though the bureau’s own agents did initially suspect the family was linked to some of the hijackers. On further scrutiny, those connections proved unfounded, officials now say.

But a team of lawyers and investigative journalists has found what they say is hard evidence pointing in the other direction. Atta did visit the family before he led 18 men to their deaths and murdered 3,000 people, they say, and phone records connect the house to members of the 9/11 conspiracy. [Continue reading…]

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Bob Graham: Release the uncensored truth about 9/11

Former senator Bob Graham writes: Nearly 15 years after the horrific events of 9/11, President Obama must decide whether to release 28 pages of information withheld as classified from the publicly released report of the congressional inquiry into the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans.

On April 10, the CBS program “60 Minutes” aired a story about the missing 28 pages. I was one of several former public officials — including former House Intelligence Committee chairman and CIA director Porter Goss (R-Fla.) ; Medal of Honor recipient and former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.); former Navy secretary John Lehman; and former ambassador and representative Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) — who called on the White House to declassify and release the documents.

Two days after that broadcast, I received a call from a White House staff member who told me that the president would make a decision about the 28 pages no later than June. While that official made no promises as to what Obama would do, I viewed the news as a step in the right direction. [Continue reading…]

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Court papers reveal Anwar al-Awlaki’s work as trainer and bomb expert

The New York Times reports: The Qaeda bomb-making instructor carefully demonstrated for his student how to mix the chemicals to make a volatile powder, then supervised a test explosion and added a sinister final tip: tape bolts around the homemade bomb to produce lethal shrapnel.

The explosive expert’s identity, revealed by a Qaeda operative facing sentencing next week, came as a surprise: He was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who had joined Al Qaeda in Yemen and become the terrorist network’s leading English-language propagandist.

Mr. Awlaki had long been known for public oratory on behalf of Al Qaeda before he was killed in a drone strike in 2011 on President Obama’s orders, making him the first American citizen killed without criminal charges or trial in the campaign against terrorism.

But new court filings in New York offer the most detailed account yet of a hidden side of Mr. Awlaki’s work inside Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen — as a hands-on trainer who taught recruits how to make bombs, gave them money for missions and offered suggestions about how to carry out suicide attacks.

The papers, part of a sentencing memorandum submitted by the government, were filed Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan in the case of Mr. Awlaki’s former bomb-making student, Minh Quang Pham, a Vietnamese-British convert to Islam. He has pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts and is to be sentenced Monday.

In their papers, federal prosecutors suggested that 50 years would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Pham, who is in his early 30s and traveled secretly to Yemen in 2010, where he swore allegiance to Al Qaeda’s affiliate there and worked on the group’s online propaganda publication, Inspire.

The court papers make it clear that Mr. Pham admired Mr. Awlaki. He “visibly teared up” when discussing Mr. Awlaki, and he repeatedly referred to Mr. Awlaki with the honorific title “sheikh,” prosecutors wrote. [Continue reading…]

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How Al Qaeda is winning in Syria

Yasir Abbas writes: Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, entered Syria in late 2011. By mid-2014, it had grown from a moderately-sized force bedeviled by conflict with more powerful armed groups to one of the few remaining key players in Northern Syria. During its early years, the group’s main and only focus was on its military operations against the Syrian regime. It rarely interfered in civil affairs and local governance. Since July 2014, however, al-Nusra has deliberately leveraged its powerful status to assert itself as a key revolutionary force, gradually insinuating itself into governance roles with the goal of implementing al-Qaeda’s political vision in Syria.

Unlike the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which relies on intimidation and shocking levels of violence to rule local populations in areas it holds and to market itself among global jihadis, al-Nusra uses persuasion and gradual change to increase its influence and control. This strategy is clearly informed by al-Qaeda’s past failures to establish grassroots support in Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq’s defeat in 2007 was largely due to its failure to tend to its base or maintain a working relationship with nationalist Iraqi insurgents and local power brokers. By contrast, a gradual approach has allowed al-Nusra to root itself in Syrian society and present its project as one the few remaining viable alternatives for the Syrian people, making a Syria ruled by al-Qaeda a scenario more plausible than ever before.

Al-Nusra starts with embedding itself in the opposition and then incrementally moving to subsume, purge, or dominate revolutionary forces, both civilian and military. It has used this approach throughout Syria. Unlike ISIL, al-Nusra’s logic of control is defined by achieving a loose military and political dominance, rather than complete control, although the latter is its long-term objective. The group carefully chooses when and where to assert its authority to maintain a careful balance between its long-term aims — full control and establishing an Islamic Emirate in Syrian — and the need to appease revolutionary forces and the local population. Upon entering new territory, for example, al-Nusra often refrains from imposing its control on the population or governance institutions. Instead, it initially shares control with the groups already in power on the ground, even if they are secularists and oppose al-Nusra’s visions for Syria. Al-Nusra uses this approach to prevent an abrupt rejection by the local population that may result in a full-fledged confrontation with opposition armed groups, as well as to diffuse its presence in opposition-held areas. But sharing control does not necessarily foster agreement. It is a tactic to delay confrontation until al-Nusra has the military and political means to dispense with its temporary allies and purge, or subsume, their members. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-funded Somali intelligence agency has been using kids as spies

The Washington Post reports: For years they were children at war, boys given rifles and training by al-Qaeda-backed militants and sent to the front lines of this country’s bloody conflict. Many had been kidnapped from schools and soccer fields and forced to fight.

The United Nations pleaded for them to be removed from the battlefield. The United States denounced the Islamist militants for using children to plant bombs and carry out assassinations.

But when the boys were finally disarmed — some defecting and others apprehended — what awaited them was yet another dangerous role in the war. This time, the children say, they were forced to work for the Somali government.

The boys were used for years as informants by the country’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), according to interviews with the children and Somali and U.N. officials. They were marched through neighborhoods where al-Shabab insurgents were hiding and told to point out their former comrades. The faces of intelligence agents were covered, but the boys — some as young as 10 — were rarely concealed, according to the children. Several of them were killed. One tried to hang himself while in custody.

The Somali agency’s widespread use of child informants, which has not been previously documented, appears to be a flagrant violation of international law. It raises difficult questions for the U.S. government, which for years has provided substantial funding and training to the Somali agency through the CIA, according to current and former U.S. officials.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the issue. But in the past the U.S. government has supported Somali security institutions — despite well-known human rights violations — citing the urgent need to combat terrorist groups such as al-Shabab. [Continue reading…]

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Al-Qaeda leader says Syria’s Nusra free to go its own way

Al Jazeera reports: Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has released an audio recording, hinting that his organisation has no objection to if its Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front went its own way.

In the audio statement posted online, Zawahiri said many people talked and fought about the issue of al-Nusra and its al-Qaeda link.

He said if the people choose their own leadership, the organisational affiliation will not be an obstacle to what he described as “the great hopes of the Islamic nation”.

Al-Nusra, one of Syria’s main armed groups, has been excluded from peace talks between the country’s government and opposition in Geneva because of its affiliation with al-Qaeda and it remains on UN and US terror lists.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Gaziantep near the Turkey-Syria border, said Zawahiri’s message could be interpreted as a split between al-Qaeda and al-Nusra.

“This is being interpreted as a blessing from the central leadership of al-Qaeda to its branch in Syria, to dissociate itself from the group,” she said.

In recent months there have been several reports suggesting al-Nusra is trying to “rebrand” and present itself to the Syrian people, as well as outside powers such as the US, as a more moderate, purely Syrian force not linked to al-Qaeda.

But the group’s leadership was reportedly unsure about breaking the organisational bond with al-Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

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Mainstream Syrian rebels torn between giving up or joining extremists

The Wall Street Journal reports: Ali Othman is among a shrinking band of Syrian rebels in the mountains across from this border town who face an agonizing choice: accept a settlement with a regime they revile or fight alongside al Qaeda’s Islamist allies.

The Syrian army defector and his fellow fighters say they are weakened and cornered after enduring months of bombardment from Russian forces buttressing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Peace talks ended last month without progress amid a major escalation in violence in the northern city of Aleppo. On Thursday, a day after the U.S. announced a deal with Russia on a fresh cease-fire in Aleppo, Islamist groups targeted regime-held areas of the city with rocket, mortar and sniper fire, according to Syrian state media and U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“My wife begs me almost each day to leave the mountains,” Mr. Othman, 26 years old, said during a recent visit with his family in Turkey. “She keeps asking me: `Why are you still fighting?’”

The fate of Syria’s moderate rebels is critical to American efforts in the region. If rebels quit the fight or join forces with Islamist extremist groups fighting the regime, the U.S. will lose leverage to shape the war’s outcome — and potential allies against Islamic State.

Some rebel commanders close to the U.S. warn that the diplomatic deadlock and renewed airstrikes against rebel-held areas would push people into the arms of the extremists, including Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate that, like Islamic State, is designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations Security Council and excluded from any potential settlement with the regime. [Continue reading…]

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After presiding over bin Laden raid, CIA chief in Pakistan came home suspecting he was poisoned by ISI

The Washington Post reports: Two months after Osama bin Laden was killed, the CIA’s top operative in Pakistan was pulled out of the country in an abrupt move vaguely attributed to health concerns and his strained relationship with Islamabad.

In reality, the CIA station chief was so violently ill that he was often doubled over in pain, current and former U.S. officials said. Trips out of the country for treatment proved futile. And the cause of his ailment was so mysterious, the officials said, that both he and the agency began to suspect that he had been poisoned.

Mark Kelton retired from the CIA, and his health has recovered after he had abdominal surgery. But agency officials continue to think that it is plausible — if not provable — that Kelton’s sudden illness was somehow orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as the ISI. [Continue reading…]

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How to stop prisons from turning criminals into terrorists

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Cullen Thomas writes: Each time I learn of another terrorist who spent time in prison, I’m taken back to my own prison time. In 1994, I was caught smuggling hashish into South Korea and spent three and a half years imprisoned there. Since then I’ve struggled to understand the nature of confinement and its effects on the individual.

It’s a striking and clear pattern that many of the most notorious terrorists of the modern era spent time in prison. Salah Abdeslam, the suspect behind the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, was imprisoned in Belgium with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who lead the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris last November.

Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris earlier in 2015, were imprisoned in France’s massive Fleury-Mérogis, Europe’s largest prison.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, before he became right-hand man to Osama bin Laden, was radicalised in Egyptian prisons. As Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), put it, Zawahiri ‘entered prison a surgeon. He came out of it a butcher.’ [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda prepares to establish its first sovereign state in northern Syria

Charles Lister writes: Al Qaeda has big ambitions in Syria. For the past three years, an unprecedented number of veteran figures belonging to the group have arrived in the country, in what can only be described as the covert revitalization of al Qaeda’s central leadership on Europe’s doorstep. Now the jihadi group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — having spent nearly five years slowly building deep roots in the country — is laying the groundwork for al Qaeda’s first sovereign state.

The Islamic State and al Qaeda use different tactics in Syria, but their ultimate objective there is the same: the creation of an Islamic emirate. Whereas the Islamic State has imposed unilateral control over populations and rapidly proclaimed independence, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate has moved much more deliberately, seeking to build influence in the areas they hope to rule. This is a long-game strategy that the terrorist group began adopting in the late 2000s, first in Yemen, in 2011, and then in Mali, in 2012.

But the Nusra Front in Syria has proved the first potentially successful test case. After years of painstaking work to increase its sway in northern Syria, Nusra Front recently launched consultations within its own ranks and among some sympathetic opposition groups about proclaiming an emirate. Given the stakes involved, al Qaeda has recently transferred a number of highly influential jihadi figures from its central leadership circles into Syria. Their mission is to assuage the concerns expressed by other Syrian Islamist movements and those members of Nusra Front who, for now, oppose the idea of an independent emirate.

The presence of a militarily powerful and socially accepted al Qaeda emirate in northwestern Syria, led by several dozen veteran al Qaeda figures and heavily manned by local Syrian fighters, could have significant consequences for the Syrian crisis and for international security.

The formalization of Nusra Front’s power in northern Syria would harden the group’s stance toward Syria’s moderate opposition. Proclaiming an emirate would require the group to assert overwhelming control — including the imposition of a strict interpretation of sharia — in the territories over which it would be asserting sovereignty. In all likelihood, incidents of capital punishment would dramatically increase, civilian freedoms would be restricted, and Nusra Front’s tolerance of nonreligious, nationalist, and civil opposition bodies would decline.

The international implications of an emirate proclamation would be even more significant. The combination of an al Qaeda emirate and a revitalized al Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand. Al Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical, and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims. Eventually, the decision would be made to initiate the plotting of foreign attacks, using Syria’s proximity to Europe and al Qaeda’s regional network to pose a far more urgent threat than the group ever posed in Yemen and Afghanistan. Should the Islamic State continue to suffer losses to its territorial claims in Iraq and Syria, we might also see some defections to the emboldened al Qaeda affiliate next door.

How close is al Qaeda to proclaiming a Syrian emirate? Nusra Front seems to have slowed its emirate plans, at least temporarily, during Syria’s recent cessation of hostilities. That had allowed Syrian Islamist opposition groups to express their hostility to the group’s emirate plans. Some even raised the idea that Nusra Front should break its ties to al Qaeda in order to further integrate into the mainstream “revolutionary opposition.”

“For a short time, some consultation began outside of al-Nusra, but the response was very negative,” one well-connected Syrian Islamist said. “Syrians do not want an emirate.” [Continue reading…]

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How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.

“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”

May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”

The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.

“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]

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