ISIS and Al Qaeda turf wars in Africa may push fragile states to breaking point

Jason Burke reports: It is a war within a war, fought across thousands of miles of desert, scrub and forest, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Indian Ocean coastline.

It pits the Islamic State (Isis), the Iraq and Syria-based group that has expanded deep into Africa since surging to international attention in 2014, against al-Qaida, the veteran extremist group, which has maintained a significant presence in much of the continent in recent years.

Both groups and their affiliates are also fighting an array of armies and counter-terrorist agencies: French soldiers, US special forces, British military trainers, as well as the local armies of a dozen states. Last week, it was revealed the US was building a $50m base for drones in Niger, which is at the very centre of the conflict zone.

But at the same time, the extremist groups are fighting each other. Such internecine struggles between militant groups may seem esoteric to casual observers. But the eventual result will have an enormous impact on the security of dozens of often fragile states in Africa and, more broadly, on the future of Islamic militancy.

Though they share many aims, al-Qaida and Isis have divergent strategic visions and favour dramatically different tactics. Al-Qaida has largely avoided attacks on other Muslims, including Shias, and has sought to build support from local communities. Though still committed to strikes in the west, it does not appear to see a terrorist campaign in Europe or the US as a priority. Isis, also known as Isil, has made other Muslims who do not share its beliefs a key target, often used violence to keep local communities in line, and launched bloody attacks in the west. [Continue reading…]


UN Syria envoy offers to escort Nusra fighters out of eastern Aleppo

The New York Times reports: The top United Nations diplomat for the Syria conflict proposed a new truce on Thursday, in hopes of averting what he called the destruction of rebel-held eastern Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces. He offered to personally escort the jihadist fighters in the area to safety if the bombing is halted.

The proposal by the diplomat, Staffan de Mistura, reflected his despair over the relentless bombardment by the Syrian military and its Russian allies in the past few weeks, following the collapse of a cease-fire negotiated by Russia and the United States.

But Mr. de Mistura’s proposal also was seen as part of a possible new diplomatic effort to press the Russians over their role in the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Aleppo, the divided Syrian city that was once the country’s commercial capital and is now a sprawling urban kill zone.

Roughly 275,000 people in the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo have been subjected to indiscriminate aerial bombing that has killed hundreds, including many children. Outside access to that part of the city has been cut off.

Russia, which has been supporting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad for the past year with airstrikes and other military assistance, has said it is not responsible for the killing of civilians.

In Aleppo, the Russians have said, their targets are the radical jihadist fighters of the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda that is also known as the Levant Victory Front. Those fighters are regarded as enemies by the United States and its allies as well as by the Syrian government and Russia.

Speaking to reporters at the United Nations offices in Geneva, Mr. de Mistura said opposition groups had a total of no more than 8,000 fighters in eastern Aleppo, including roughly 900 to 1,000 Nusra members. Their departure from the city, Mr. de Mistura said, would remove any justification by Russia and Syria for the ferocious bombardments. [Continue reading…]


Tunisian men detail CIA black site torture involving electric chair and more

The Guardian reports: Two Tunisian men held in secret CIA prisons for more than a year have told a leading human rights organization they were tortured with gruesome and previously unknown techniques.

The men, who were released to Tunisian custody in 2015, described being threatened with placement in an electric chair at a black site prison in Afghanistan in 2002; being beaten with metal batons while their arms were suspended by a bar above their heads; and having their heads pushed into barrels of water.

One of the men, Ridha al-Najjar, was a pivotal detainee for the CIA, which believed him to be a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Najjar was the first man taken by the CIA to the black site, which was code-named Cobalt and was where at least one detainee is known to have died. His interrogation became a template for others at the site, according to the CIA inspector general. Najjar said the interrogators forcibly inserted something into his anus.

According to a footnote in the 2014 Senate intelligence committee’s investigation into torture, John Brennan, now CIA director, was among the senior CIA officials briefed in the summer of 2002 on the interrogation plan for Najjar. According to the Senate report, the plan included isolation, “‘sound disorientation techniques’, ‘sense of time deprivation’, limited light, cold temperatures, and sleep deprivation”.

“There was a barrel full of water, and they kept submerging [my head] in the water,” the other Tunisian man, Lotfi al-Arabi El Gherissi, told Human Rights Watch, which shared the two men’s accounts with the Guardian. [Continue reading…]


Russia’s brutal bombing of Aleppo may be calculated, and it may be working

Max Fisher writes: The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

The strategy, more about politics than advancing the battle lines, appears to be designed to pressure rebels to ally themselves with extremists, eroding the rebels’ legitimacy; give Russia veto power over any high-level diplomacy; and exhaust Syrian civilians who might otherwise support the opposition.

This approach could succeed even if pro-government forces never retake Aleppo. A yearlong siege of the city has not brought President Bashar al-Assad’s forces closer to victory. Too weak to win outright, they appear instead to be hedging, trying to weaken the rebels so that they cannot win either, and to ensure any final settlement would be more favorable for Moscow and its allies.

Though killing civilians often backfires in war, in this case it may be all too effective. [Continue reading…]


The new terror: Even when it fails, it works

Christopher Dickey writes: Police have released the photo of a 28-year-old man originally from Afghanistan, Ahmad Khan Rahami, being sought for questioning in connection with the bombing in New York City on Saturday night. [The suspect has now been arrested.]

According to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, talking to CNN, Rahami should be regarded as “armed and dangerous.”

“Things are moving very quickly,” De Blasio said, but he would not confirm that Rahami was part of an operating cell or that it had connection with jihadists overseas, including al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
What to make of all this?

“Terrorists are now doing what we had long expected them to do and wondered why they didn’t do,” former acting CIA director John McLaughlin told an audience in New York last week. “They are going for soft targets.”

He was talking about attacks in Europe.

This week, he could say the same thing — exactly the same thing — about the United States.

It appears all but certain to counterterrorist officials in Europe and the United States that the long-anticipated jihadist strategy of random terror carried out with such devastating social and political consequences in France and Germany over the last year has now begun in America.

The implications in this deeply troubled election year, right as the United Nations General Assembly is convening in New York City, are enormous. [Continue reading…]


How our leaders, and would-be leaders, became accomplices in terrorism

Christopher Dickey writes: When President Barack Obama says there will be no more 9/11s, he almost certainly is right, although what’s left of the core al Qaeda leadership still longs for an atrocity worthy of disaster-film director Roland Emmerich.

The bad news: in the Age of Anxiety, as my colleague Michael Weiss calls it, the jihadists have learned they get almost as much social, political and economic impact out of minor events, and even failure, as they do out of “successful” atrocities.

And that’s not so much because of the bad guys as it is because of us.

The terror perpetrated by the few has become a tool used by demagogues — our demagogues — to frighten and sometimes to stampede the masses. (Am I thinking of Donald Trump? Marine Le Pen? Geert Wilders? Boris Johnson in Brexit mode? Yes.)

What we have lost in the 15 years since the horrors of September 11, 2001, is a sense of perspective about the scale of the threat we face. [Continue reading…]

The threat from terrorism is asymmetrical in obvious ways, but fearmongers — with the help of the media — obscure the most significant asymmetry that is evident in the immediate aftermath of every atrocity: the inhumanity of the perpetrators is dwarfed by the humanity evident in the responses of the survivors. In the face of terror, the people who reach out to help each other, vastly outnumber the terrorists. Those whose fears are most susceptible to being purposefully amplified are those who get terrorized at a distance.


U.S.-Russian Syria ceasefire deal explained

Al Jazeera reports: A nationwide ceasefire by Assad’s forces and the US-backed opposition is set to begin across Syria at sundown on Monday.

That sets off a seven-day period that will allow for humanitarian aid and civilian traffic into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has faced a recent onslaught.

Fighting forces are to also pull back from the Castello Road, a key thoroughfare and access route into Aleppo, and create a “demilitarised zone” around it.

Also on Monday, the US and Russia will begin preparations for the creation of a Joint Implementation Centre that will involve information sharing needed to define areas controlled by the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) and opposition groups in areas “of active hostilities”.

The centre is expected to be established a week later, and is to launch a broader effort towards delineating other territories in control of various groups.

As part of the arrangement, Russia is expected to keep Syrian air force planes from bombing areas controlled by the opposition. The US has committed to help weaken Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has intermingled with the US-backed opposition in several places.

A resumption of political dialogue between the government and opposition under UN mediation, which was halted amid an upsurge in fighting in April, will be sought over the longer term. [Continue reading…]


What defined Ahmad Shah Massoud

ahmed-shah-massoud2Frud Bezhan writes: Resistance fighter and anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Masud was killed by Al-Qaeda assassins on September 9, 2001, ushering in a chain of events that would place Afghanistan at the center of the global war on terrorism.

Two days after his death, Al-Qaeda operatives would carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Within a month, the United States military was leading a bombing campaign and invasion of Afghanistan with the intention of overthrowing the Taliban and capturing Al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 orchestrator Osama Bin Laden.

In life and as in death, the military strategist who had made his name as a commander of anti-Taliban forces would have a significant impact on life in Afghanistan. Here are some stories behind the man whose battlefield exploits earned him the moniker “The Lion of Panjshir.” [Continue reading…]


Americans are more worried about terrorism than they were after 9/11

The Atlantic reports: In 2002, with the footage of collapsing World Trade Centers still fresh in American minds, the pollsters at Pew Research posed a question. “Do you think the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the U.S.,” they asked, “is greater, the same, or less than it was at the time of the September 11th terrorist attacks?”

A slim plurality of respondents, 39 percent, said nothing had changed in the past year. A third allowed that things had gotten better. The rest — 22 percent — said America was actually less safe, despite the billions spent on a military incursion into Afghanistan and the creation of an entire new cabinet-level department devoted to homeland security.

It turns out 2002 was a relatively optimistic year. According to Pew’s latest figures, 40 percent of Americans now believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was in 2001, the highest ever. Republicans lead that charge: More than half think terrorists have grown stronger, while only a third of Democrats agree. And if the GOP is scared, Donald Trump is there to help — or rile things up. “If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have our country anymore,” he said in June, following the mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. “There will be nothing — absolutely nothing –left.” [Continue reading…]


The use of violence in pursuit of a hopeless cause

In a review of Does Terrorism Work? A History by Richard English, Thomas Nagel writes: Three of the four (not al-Qaida) are nationalist organisations – Irish, Palestinian, Basque – aiming to overthrow the rule of another nation: Britain, Israel, Spain. The IRA wants British withdrawal from Ulster and a united Ireland, Hamas wants the elimination of the state of Israel and the establishment of a strict Islamic regime over the entire territory of Mandate Palestine, and ETA wants a Basque state independent of Spain. All three were founded in competition with more moderate nationalist movements pursuing related but less radical aims by non-violent means: the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the Partido Nacionalista Vasco. Rivalry with these moderate nationalists has been a very important part of the drama. The terrorism of the IRA and ETA never had more than minority support among the populations they purported to represent, and they officially renounced violence in 2005 and 2011, respectively. Hamas, on the other hand, won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, but was prevented from taking power except in Gaza, and continues to employ violent means. Al-Qaida is not a nationalist but what English calls a ‘religio-political’ movement, with global ambitions, dedicated to the expulsion of the US military from the Middle East, the overthrow of what it regards as apostate Muslim regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and the eventual restoration of the Caliphate, a Salafist theocracy governing the Muslim world under sharia law. But again, these aims are not shared by most Muslims.

English makes it clear that one of the things these four groups share is hatred and the desire for revenge, which comes out in personal testimony if not always in their official statements of aims. He quotes Osama bin Laden: ‘Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.’ Revenge for perceived injuries and humiliations is a powerful motive for violence, and if it is counted as a secondary aim of these movements, it defines a sense in which terrorism automatically ‘works’ whenever it kills or maims members of the target group. In that sense the destruction of the World Trade Center and Mountbatten’s assassination were sterling examples of terrorism working. But even though English includes revenge in his accounting, this is not what would ordinarily be meant by the question, ‘Does terrorism work?’ What we really want to know about are the political effects.

And here the record is dismal. What struck me on reading this book is how delusional these movements are, how little understanding they have of the balance of forces, the motives of their opponents and the political context in which they are operating. In this respect, it is excessively charitable to describe them as rational agents. True, they are employing violent means which they believe will induce their opponents to give up, but that belief is plainly irrational, and in any event false, as shown by the results. [Continue reading…]


Why the U.S. Army is worried about insurgents turning to remote-controlled weapons

The Washington Post reports: As conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya continue, battlefields in the region have turned into technological incubators for groups looking to find new and improved ways to kill one another.

While homemade munitions and Mad Max-style modifications to civilian equipment have been a staple of 21st-century warfare, a new Army report released last week by the branch’s Foreign Military Studies Office points to the growing trend of insurgent and terrorist groups using remote-controlled or “tele-operated” weaponry.

The report looks at 21 case studies — gathered mainly through social media and news reports — of remote-controlled rifles and machine guns used by groups such as the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army and the now rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Twenty of the weapons are from groups in Iraq and Syria, while one is from Libya in 2011. The modified weapons are mostly older Soviet variants, though at least one Syrian rebel group appeared to be using a U.S.-style rifle in one of its systems. The designs are rudimentary but include the necessary components — a small screen and operating cables — for firing the weapon from a distance. Some of the designs are stationary, while others are mounted on wheels or tracks. One such weapon, photographed with rebels in Misurata, Libya, appears to be a medium machine gun affixed to a toy truck. [Continue reading…]


Why Europe can’t find the jihadis in its midst

Mitch Prothero reports: The assignment given to the Belgian police in the summer of 2014 was straightforward but high stakes: Follow two men suspected of involvement with ISIS through the streets of Brussels. Find out who they meet, record what they say. A court had approved wiretaps for the men’s phones and for the use of tracking devices, and a specialized team of covert operators from the secret service had broken into the men’s homes and vehicles and planted bugs and GPS devices without leaving a trace.

Rather unusually, there had been little problem getting senior police officials and the courts that oversee Belgium’s personal privacy laws to approve the mission. Partly, it was the two men’s history: They had long criminal records — drug dealing, petty theft, and the occasional violent robbery — and now, unbeknownst to them, had been placed on a terrorism watch list.

With hundreds of people suspected of having ties to ISIS and al-Qaeda, it would be impossible for the Belgian authorities to monitor all of them. But these two were believed to be linked to Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French-Algerian man charged with killing four people at the Jewish Museum of Brussels on May 24, 2014.

Belgian authorities knew there had been an alarming increase in violent rhetoric — as evidenced by the proliferation of online videos and public demonstrations, and by the criminal trials of members of Sharia4Belgium, a group advocating extremist ideology — much of it linked to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But even for trained investigators, let alone police officers typically assigned to financial fraud or money-laundering cases, getting an overall sense of what was happening remained elusive.

In part this was because of the transformation in the threat posed by ISIS militants; as nebulous as al-Qaeda had been, it was at least an organization with a defined leadership and network of followers. These new cases were much more challenging, seemingly organic in nature, with a more diffuse structure that was nearly impossible to pin down. [Continue reading…]