How four federal lawyers paved the way for Obama to order the execution of Osama bin Laden

The New York Times reports: While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.

If the SEALs got Bin Laden, the Obama administration would lift the secrecy and trumpet the accomplishment. But if it turned out that the founder and head of Al Qaeda was not there, some officials thought the SEALs might be able to slip back out, allowing the United States to pretend the raid never happened.

Mr. Preston wrote a memo addressing when the administration had to alert congressional leaders under a statute governing covert actions. Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid. But then they learned that the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had already briefed several top lawmakers about Abbottabad without White House permission.

The lawyers also grappled with whether it was lawful for the SEAL team to go in intending to kill Bin Laden as its default option. They agreed that it would be legal, in a memo written by Ms. DeRosa, and Mr. Obama later explicitly ordered a kill mission, officials said. [Continue reading…]


Reports of the demise of the Free Syrian Army have been greatly exaggerated

Alex Rowell writes: The loose coalition of non-jihadist Syrian rebels often dubbed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has not had an easy time of the past two years.

Between annihilating defeats at the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked rivals across key provinces in 2014 and longstanding fears of expanding Islamist influence and ideology even within comparatively moderate brigades, a perception has taken root among many observers — particularly in the West — that the FSA is neither a viable nor an especially desirable alternative to the Bashar al-Assad regime. In an August 2014 interview, US President Barack Obama dismissed the fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” whose chances of victory had “always been a fantasy.” An October 2014 poll found only 35% of Americans favored arming Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, with strong fears cited that the weapons would later be used against the US.

Yet, as the killing last week of a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian subsidiary, by a non-jihadist brigade in Daraa underscored, the notion that the remaining FSA factions today are all happily subservient comrades of the Bin Ladenists is clearly simplistic. Indeed, the FSA’s Southern Front coalition, which controls important territory along Syria’s southern border, including crossings with Jordan (whence it receives military and financial aid from both Gulf and Western nations), officially repudiated Nusra in April 2015, saying “neither [Nusra] [n]or anything else with this ideology represents us […] We can’t go from the rule of Assad to [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-]Zawahiri and Nusra.”

Equally, a string of recent FSA accomplishments on the battlefield — most notably the well-publicized destruction of dozens of regime tanks by rebels wielding CIA-supplied anti-tank missiles, leading to territorial gains in Hama and Aleppo — suggests the doctors, farmers, and pharmacists are not as martially feckless as President Obama would have New York Times readers think.

In short, reports of the FSA’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Or, as Brookings Doha Center Visiting Fellow Charles Lister, who has recently completed a book on the Syrian insurgency, put it in a column last week, “Although it is often overlooked, Syria does have a powerful and socially entrenched moderate opposition on the ground.” [Continue reading…]


Glenn Greenwald: Support for Syrian rebels is legitimate in spite of Al Qaeda’s presence

Glenn Greenwald writes: I personally don’t view the presence of Al Qaeda “affiliated” fighters as a convincing argument against supporting Syrian rebels. It’s understandable that people fighting against an oppressive regime – one backed by powerful foreign factions – will align with anyone willing and capable of fighting with them. Moreover, the long-standing US/UK template of branding anyone they fight and kill as “terrorists” or “Al Qaeda” is no more persuasive or noble when used in Syria by Assad and the Russians, particularly when used to obscure civilian casualties. And regarding the anti-Assad forces as monolithically composed of religious extremists ignores the anti-tyranny sentiment among ordinary Syrians motivating much of the anti-regime protests, with its genesis in the Arab Spring. [Continue reading…]

This statement might confuse some of Greenwald’s readers — at least I’m sure it would have if he had made it the lead of his latest column. Instead, this recognition that alliances of convenience are inevitably formed during any attempt to overthrow a tyrannical regime, was more of an afterthought buried deeply within a diatribe aimed at the BBC.

Greenwald goes on to assert: “It’s not a stretch to say that the faction that provides the greatest material support to Al Qaeda at this point is the U.S. and its closest allies.”

He might not think it’s a stretch — many others would beg to differ.

The idea that Al Qaeda inside or outside Syria is backed by the U.S. government should be treated with the same amount of scorn as claims that 9/11 was an “inside job.”


American concerns about weapons falling into the wrong hands has and continues to be obsessive, as a Wall Street Journal report in January made clear.

It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads.

After the program was launched in mid-2013, CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.

Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.

Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones — and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks.

On those occasions where U.S. supplied weapons are known to have ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda, this has been a major embarrassment to the Obama administration.

Even now, after a month in which Russia has conducted more than 800 airstrikes in Syria, rebels have yet to be supplied with the most basic form of effective air defense — MANPADs, though this may soon change — and the flow and use of TOW anti-tank missiles remains tightly regulated.

What continues to get obscured by those who insist on pushing the narrative of rebels heavily armed by the U.S. and its allies, is the enduring imbalance of military power in this war: the fact that the Assad regime and its allies continue to maintain air dominance largely unchallenged.


What jihadis do when they are not fighting

In a lecture he delivered earlier this year, Thomas Hegghammer said: My starting point is the truism that military life is about much more than fighting. Look inside any militant group – or conventional army for that matter – and you will see lots of artistic products and social practices that serve no obvious military purpose. Think of the cadence calls of the U.S. Marines, the songs of leftist revolutionaries, or the tattoos of neo-nazis. Look inside jihadi groups and you’ll see bearded men with kalashnikovs reciting poetry, discussing dreams, and weeping on a regular basis.

It took me a long time to even notice these things. I’ve studied jihadi groups for almost fifteen years, and for the first ten, I was addressing standard questions, like, how did group A evolve, what has ideologue B written, who joins movement C, etc. The thing is, when you study one type of group for a while, you take certain things for granted. I knew that these groups were weeping and reading poetry, but it didn’t really register – it was background noise to me, stuff I needed to shove aside to get to the hard information about people and events.

Then it occurred to me one day that these practices are not obvious at all; in fact, they are really quite strange. For one, there is the incongruence of hard men doing soft things. It is curious, for example, that Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi should be known simultaneously as “al-dhabbah” (the slaughterer) and “al-baki” (he who weeps a lot). Second and more important, these “soft” activities pose a big social science puzzle, in that they defy expectations of utility-maximising behaviour. Terrorists are hunted men with limited resources; they should be spending all their time on “useful” things like training, raising funds, or studying the enemy. Yet they “waste” time – quite a lot of time actually – on activities like the ones I’ve mentioned. So I started paying attention to these things, and the more I looked, the more I saw.

But when I turned to the academic literature for help to make sense of it, I didn’t find much to read. Studies of terrorist groups tend to focus on the hard stuff of rebellion or “the great men and events” of terrorist history. We’ve devoted much more attention to attack histories, organizational structures, and financing sources than to the softer side of rebel life. [Continue reading…]


There’s just one problem with those Bin Laden conspiracy theories

Mark Bowden writes: Without a shred of evidence, without contradicting a word that I wrote, Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times Magazine this week suggests that the “irresistible story” that I told about the killing of Osama bin Laden in my 2012 book, The Finish (excerpted in Vanity Fair), might well have been a fabrication—“another example of American mythmaking.” He presents an alternative version of the story written by Seymour Hersh as, effectively, a rival account, one that raises serious doubts about mine, which is all but dubbed “the official version.” It’s not meant kindly.

Mahler’s think piece about the iffiness of reporting and the hazards of trying to shape history into a narrative is a great gift to conspiratorial thinkers everywhere. It’s not often that the most distinguished journalistic institution in America wades so fully into the crackpot world of Internet theorizing, where all information, no matter its source, is weightless and equal. Mahler is careful not to side with either Hersh or me, but allows that “Hersh’s version doesn’t require us to believe in the possibility of a government-wide conspiracy.”

In fact, that’s exactly what it does. [Continue reading…]


What do we really know about Osama bin Laden’s death?

Jonathan Mahler writes: It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics. From a purely practical standpoint, it enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, as opposed to an overly cautious one, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign. This had an undeniable impact on the outcome of that election. (‘‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,’’ Joe Biden was fond of boasting on the campaign trail.) Strategically, the death of bin Laden allowed Obama to declare victory over Al Qaeda, giving him the cover he needed to begin phasing U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. And it almost single-handedly redeemed the C.I.A., turning a decade-long failure of intelligence into one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the agency.

But bin Laden’s death had an even greater effect on the American psyche. Symbolically, it brought a badly wanted moment of moral clarity, of unambiguous American valor, to a murky war defined by ethical compromise and even at times by collective shame. It completed the historical arc of the 9/11 attacks. The ghastly image of collapsing towers that had been fixed in our collective minds for years was dislodged by one of Obama and his senior advisers huddled tensely around a table in the White House Situation Room, watching closely as justice was finally brought to the perpetrator.

The first dramatic reconstruction of the raid itself — “Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad” — was written by a freelancer named Nicholas Schmidle and published in The New Yorker just three months after the operation. The son of a Marine general, Schmidle spent a couple of years in Pakistan and has written on counterterrorism for many publications, including this magazine. His New Yorker story was a cinematic account of military daring, sweeping but also granular in its detail, from the ‘‘metallic cough of rounds being chambered’’ inside the two Black Hawks as the SEALs approached the compound, to the mud that ‘‘sucked at their boots’’ when they hit the ground. One of the SEALs who shot bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, added a more personal dimension to the story a year later in a best-selling book, ‘‘No Easy Day.’’ [Mark] Bowden [in his book, “The Finish”] focused on Washington, taking readers inside the White House as the president navigated what would become a defining moment of his presidency. And then there was ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which chronicled the often barbaric C.I.A. interrogations that the agency said helped lead the United States to bin Laden’s compound.

The official narrative of the hunt for and killing of bin Laden at first seemed like a clear portrait, but in effect it was more like a composite sketch from multiple perspectives: the Pentagon, the White House and the C.I.A. And when you studied that sketch a little more closely, not everything looked quite right. Almost immediately, the administration had to correct some of the most significant details of the raid. Bin Laden had not been ‘‘engaged in a firefight,’’ as the deputy national-security adviser, John Brennan, initially told reporters; he’d been unarmed. Nor had he used one of his wives as a human shield. The president and his senior advisers hadn’t been watching a ‘‘live feed’’ of the raid in the Situation Room; the operation had not been captured on helmet-cams. But there were also some more unsettling questions about how the whole story had been constructed. Schmidle acknowledged after his article was published that he had never actually spoken with any of the 23 SEALs. Some details of Bissonnette’s account of the raid contradicted those of another ex-SEAL, Robert O’Neill, who claimed in Esquire and on Fox News to have fired the fatal bullet. Public officials with security clearances told reporters that the torture scenes that were so realistically depicted in ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty’’ had not in fact played any role in helping us find bin Laden.

Then there was the sheer improbability of the story, which asked us to believe that Obama sent 23 SEALs on a seemingly suicidal mission, invading Pakistani air space without air or ground cover, fast-roping into a compound that, if it even contained bin Laden, by all rights should have been heavily guarded. And according to the official line, all of this was done without any sort of cooperation or even assurances from the Pakistani military or intelligence service. How likely was that? Abbottabad is basically a garrison town; the conspicuously large bin Laden compound — three stories, encircled by an 18-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire — was less than two miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. And what about the local police? Were they really unaware that an enormous American helicopter had crash-landed in their neighborhood? And why were we learning so much about a covert raid by a secret special-operations unit in the first place?

American history is filled with war stories that subsequently unraveled. Consider the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Or the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. When the operation failed, the government quickly deflated the number, claiming that it hadn’t been an invasion at all but rather a modest attempt to deliver supplies to local guerrillas. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N.F.L. safety Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, rather than acknowledging that he was accidentally shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit.

These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. [Continue reading…]


West ‘walking into abyss’ on Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Iran released top members of Al Qaeda in a trade

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Al Qaeda plays a long game in Syria

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The catastrophic war on terror

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

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

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