Tag Archives: al Qaeda

A Sinkhole Sucking in Failed States: jihad in Africa

Collapse formed by rainwater leaking through pavement and carrying soil into a ruptured sewer pipe. Image from wikipedia

The number of violent incidents involving jihadist groups in Africa has increased by more than 300% between 2010 and 2017… Many Western officers are despondent. Without more troops “there is no question we will lose”, says a senior French officer.

In the potpourri of jihadist groups, many pledge their loyalties to al-Qaeda or IS. They include al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram and its factions in Nigeria, and Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mali. In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East

The most important of the battles is Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram. ..A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: “If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.” Nigeria’s difficulties, moreover, offer sobering lessons to many other African countries, and their Western allies.

Maiduguri (Nigeria) was the birthplace of Boko Haram, whose factions make up the world’s deadliest terrorist group. It is so extreme that it sickens even IS and al-Qaeda. The group was founded by the followers of a charismatic Islamic preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, who had started a religious school and mosque in Maiduguri in 2002… Among his demands was a ban on secular schooling (the group’s name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa).

The Nigerian police arrested and then killed Yusuf in front of a crowd outside the police headquarters in Maiduguri (the government insisted he was shot while trying to escape). Yusuf’s followers went into hiding before emerging under the command of Abubakar Shekau. In 2011 they blew up the headquarters of the Nigerian police and a UN building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. By the end of 2014 they had overrun large parts of three states in north-eastern Nigeria, gained international notoriety after kidnapping almost 300 schoolgirls from Chibok and were fighting their way into Maiduguri. Nigeria’s army, hollowed out by corruption, was in disarray. Units were filled by ghost soldiers whose pay was being pocketed by their commanders. One Western officer recalls how a company that should have had 100-150 soldiers consisted of just 20 men.

Boko Haram did not at first try to govern…. It preferred chaos. It bombed mosques and markets, massacred villagers and abducted women and children. Some girls were enslaved and sold. Others were pressed into being human bombs. A study by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, a military academy, found that more than half of 434 such human bombs the group used between April 2011 and June 2017 were female.UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, says that last year Boko Haram strapped bombs to at least 135 children.

Mr Shekau’s brutality proved too much even for IS, to which he had sworn allegiance in 2015, changing Boko Haram’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In 2016 IS named Abu Musab al-Barnawi the leader of ISWAP, splintering the group into two factions.  Meanwhile, thousands of villagers and residents of Maiduguri took up machetes or handmade muskets and joined a self-defence militia, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), that held the gates of the city. The new president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner and former military dictator, ordered his generals to move their headquarters to Maiduguri. Neighbouring states such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon contributed troops to a multinational force. Within months the army had recaptured most big towns, pushing the insurgents into forests or Lake Chad, a mass of swamps where the borders of four countries meet.

Since then, though, stalemate has set in…The ISWAP has learned how to make roadside bombs and has become more skilled in conducting attacks.  …It levies “taxes” on locals and erects roadblocks to extort money from passing traffic… It is building a proto-caliphate. 

Nigeria’s generals talk about “winning hearts and minds” but they are doing the opposite. The army has systematically cleared people from the countryside, burning their villages and packing them into squalid camps in Maiduguri and other “garrison towns”. In all, some 2.4m people have been displaced by the fighting in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. T  Most observers think that indiscriminate killings by the army and the forcing of people into garrison towns are fuelling the insurgency. There are almost no jobs in the camps. Access is through checkpoints manned by the army and CJTF, who demand bribes. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, says many women and girls have been raped in the camps and that hundreds if not thousands of people confined in them have died of starvation or a lack of medical care. … “It is like a factory for jihadis.”

The Nigerian state’s failure extends far beyond the camps. In  In effect, Nigeria’s north-east is a failed state within a dysfunctional one.

Excerpts from Jihad’s Next Battleground,  Economist, July 14, 2018, at 41

Lernaean Hydra-cultivating the many Gaddafis

When Doundou Chefou first took up arms as a youth a decade ago, it was for the same reason as other ethnic Fulani herders along the Niger-Mali border: to protect his livestock.  He had nothing against the Republic of Niger, let alone the United States of America. His quarrel was with rival Tuareg cattle raiders.

Yet in October 2017 he led dozens of militants allied to Islamic State in a deadly assault against allied US-Niger forces, killing four soldiers from each nation and demonstrating how dangerous the West’s mission in the Sahel has become.

The transition of Chefou and men like him from vigilantes protecting their cows to jihadists capable of carrying out complex attacks is a story Western powers would do well to heed, as the pursuit of violent extremism in West Africa becomes ever more enmeshed in long-standing ethnic and clan conflicts.

For centuries Tuareg and Fulani lived as nomads herding animals and trading – Tuareg mostly across the dunes and oases of the Sahara and Fulani mostly in the Sahel, a vast band of semi-arid scrubland that stretches from Senegal to Sudan….Though they largely lived peacefully side-by-side, arguments occasionally flared, usually over scarce watering points. A steady increase in the availability of automatic weapons made the rivalry more deadly.

A turning point was the Western-backed ousting of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. With his demise, many Tuareg who fought as mercenaries for Gaddafi returned home, bringing with them the contents of Libya’s looted armouries.  Some returnees launched a rebellion in Mali to create a breakaway Tuareg state in the desert north, a movement hijacked by al Qaeda-linked jihadists who had been operating in Mali for years. In 2012, they swept across northern Mali, seizing key towns and prompting a French intervention that pushed them back in 2013.

Amid the violence and chaos, some Tuareg turned their guns on rivals from other ethnic groups like the Fulani, who then went to the Islamists for arms and training.

“The Tuareg were armed and were pillaging the Fulani’s cattle,” Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Reuters. “The Fulani felt obliged to arm themselves.”..

Tuareg in Mali and Niger dreamed of and sometimes fought for an independent state, Fulani generally been more pre-occupied by concerns over the security of their community and the herds they depend on. “For the Fulani, it was a sense of injustice, of exclusion, of discrimination and a need for self-defence,”  A militant who proved particularly good at tapping into this dissatisfaction was Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, an Arabic-speaking north African, several law enforcement sources said.  Al-Sahrawi recruited dozens of Fulani into the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), loosely allied to al Qaeda in the region and controlled Gao and the area to the Niger border in 2012.

Why pastoralists in Mali and Niger turned to jihad, Reuters, Nov. 13,  2017

West versus the Islamic State: the Apostles

ODA 525 team picture taken shortly before infiltration in Iraq, February 1991.  Image from wikipedia

Undercover warriors [led by the US spy agency CIA] will aim to “cut the head off the snake” by hitting the command structure of the Islamist terror group responsible for a trail of atrocities across Iraq and Syria, reports the Sunday People.  PM David Cameron has told the SAS and UK spy agencies to direct all their ­resources at defeating IS [Islamic State] after a video of US journalist James Foley being beheaded shocked the world.

British special forces will work with America’s Delta Force and Seal Team 6. The move sees a rebirth of top secret Task Force Black, which helped defeat al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq .This time the counter-terrorist ­experts will be targeting Abu Bakr ­al-Baghdadi, leader of IS and now the world’s most wanted terrorist.

A source said: “We need to go into Syria and Iraq and kill as many IS members as we can. You can’t ­negotiate with these people.  “This is not a war of choice. They are cash rich and have a plentiful ­supply of arms. If we don’t go after them, they will soon come after us…You have to get on the ground and take out the commanders – cut off the snake’s head.

The new task force will comprise a squadron of the SAS, special forces aircrews from the RAF and agents from MI5 and MI6. The operation will be led by America’s CIA spy agency.

One of the first jobs will be to identify the British Muslim shown on an IS video released last week apparently cutting Foley’s head off with a knife. UK intelligence sources confirmed that the killer, believed to be a British-born Pakistani from London, is already at the top of a CIA “kill list”…

Troops will also train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters…There are also moves to revive a defunct Iraqi special forces unit called the Apostles, which was ­created by the first Task Force Black a­fter the Iraq War.

Excerpts from Aaron Sharp, SAS and US special forces forming hunter killer unit to ‘smash Islamic State’, Mirror, Aug.23, 2014

The Jihadist View of the World

us troops in afghanistan.  image from wikipedia

Al-Qaeda.., including militia groups under the umbrella name of Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law)in Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Mali and Egypt that both compete and co-operate with the organisation, have recovered momentum and self-confidence as the hopes invested in the Arab spring have withered. Indeed, the reverses of the Arab spring have been a boon to it.Take Egypt. After the coup that toppled President Muhammad Morsi in July, Mr Zawahiri posted a 15-minute message on jihadist websites arguing that “the crusaders” in the West and their allies in the Arab world will never allow the establishment of an Islamist state…Look to the biggest gift the Arab spring has given al-Qaeda: the increasingly sectarian civil war in Syria.  The prospect of overthrowing Bashar Assad is catnip to jihadists; his Alawite regime is an heretical abomination to the hyper-orthodox Salafis from which al-Qaeda draws its support. Western intelligence thinks most of Syria’s effective rebel militias may now be jihadist, with thousands of fighters from other Muslim countries and hundreds from Europe, especially Britain, France and the Netherlands.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), has recently pushed into eastern Syria from Iraq, following a resurgence there that is part of the more general pattern of ineradicability…Al-Qaeda wants to bring Iraq, Syria and Lebanon together into a single “caliphate”, and ISIS uses foreign fighters drawn to Syria on both sides of the porous border with Iraq. It has also tried to merge with Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), one of the most militarily formidable rebel militias (and the one with which Mr Qunaibi is associated). …For the time being, ISIS and JAN are focused entirely on the would-be caliphate of the Levant. Most of the network’s affiliates are similarly engaged in regional struggles, the most extensive being that of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the north African branch. AQIM is seeking to make use of Libya’s post-revolutionary chaos, and weapons from Muammar Qaddafi’s former arsenal, to create an “arc of instability” across the Sahara and the Sahel. It provides help and advice to jihadist organisations from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Shabab in Somalia.In 2012 AQIM commanders allied to an indigenous insurgent group, Ansar Eddine, took control of the northern half of Mali. They ruthlessly implemented sharia law and picked an unnecessary fight with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a grouping of rebel Tuaregs…

An intense drone campaign has killed several of AQAP’s (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) senior leaders; its second-in-command, Said al-Shihri, died on July 16th. Yemeni government operations have driven it out of some of the southern tribal areas it overran in 2011. But it has lost none of its ambition….Bruce Riedel, who has advised four presidents and is now at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, recently warned that al-Qaeda in Pakistan remains embedded in a network of local support groups from the Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba. After the departure of NATO combat forces in 2014 it may be able to regenerate itself, rather as ISIS did in Iraq….Thomas Sanderson of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, also in Washington, says al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan are weaving a narrative that equates America’s post-2014 withdrawal with the mujahideen defeat of the Soviet Union, another superpower with feet of clay, 25 years earlier…

One counter-terrorism intelligence source recently observed: “Tactically, we may have defeated the central leadership, but strategically, they are winning.”  While attacks on the far enemy are important both as a deterrent and as a source of jihadist inspiration, they are not al-Qaeda’s main purpose. Its overriding aim remains, as it has been since bin Laden saw the retreat of the Soviet Union, the creation of a new caliphate across the Islamic world based on unswerving adherence to sharia law. That requires the corrupting influence of the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” in the region to be extirpated and all apostate Muslim governments removed.

Seen from that point of view, things are not going badly. Al-Qaeda believes America is in retreat not just in Afghanistan but also across the Middle East. The poisoning of the Arab spring has given it new purpose and ideological momentum. Al-Qaeda itself may be divided and in some places depleted. It may be shunned by some with similar ideologies, and its affiliates may increasingly ignore its ageing leadership. But the Salafi jihadist view of the world that al-Qaeda promotes and fights for has never had greater traction.

Excerpts, The state of al-Qaeda: The unquenchable fire, Economist. Sept. 28, 2013. at 21

Naming the Dead of the CIA Drone War

Naming the Dead is a project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit research organisation based in London. The project aims to identify those killed in CIA drone strikes on Pakistan.  Over the past nine years, the tribal region of Pakistan’s north west has been hit by hundreds of drone attacks as the CIA has sought to stamp out al Qaeda fighters and the militant groups that have given them shelter.  Missiles launched from these high-tech, unmanned aircraft have hit homes, cars, schools, shops and gatherings. At least 2,500 people have been killed, according to data already collected by the Bureau as part of our wider Covert Drone War research.

Senior US officials have described drones as highly precise weapons that target and kill enemies of the US. John Brennan, who oversaw the development of the drone campaign and is now director of the CIA, has called drone technology an ‘essential tool’ for its ‘surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.’

Those killed by drones include high-ranking militant leaders – figures such as Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s feared second-in-command, or Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  But according to credible media reports analysed by the Bureau, the dead also include at least 400 civilians. Some were unlucky enough to be nearby when militants were attacked. Others were killed alongside their husbands or fathers, who were believed to be militants. Still others were mistaken for terrorists by drone operators sitting thousands of miles away.

In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.  For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.

Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.  In the future, the Bureau aims to identify more of the dead on a regular basis, and to uncover more details of those who have been killed. Where possible we will provide further identification – where they were killed, and their occupations, full names and ages. In the remote areas of Pakistan where drone strikes take place, official identification is rare. Few people possess identification cards, birth certificates, or even documents recording their relatives’ deaths. But wherever possible this project will provide documentation recording a person’s death.

Photographs of the destruction of a particular site are included in the database. Affidavits, photos, hospital records, student identification and transcripts of interviews with researchers are all provided when available. Over time, the Bureau aims to build on such currently scarce records in an attempt to properly scrutinise the little that is reported, and the claims being made – on all sides.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Lethal Operations Directed Against US Citizens are Lawful: secret memo

Underground facility detection and characterization. Image from wikipedia.  See http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DARPA_Strategic_Plan_(2009).pdf

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes….The undated memo is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” It was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June by administration officials on the condition that it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.

Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly — or even publicly confirm their existence. A source with access to the white paper, which is not classified, provided a copy to NBC News.

“This is a chilling document,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which is suing to obtain administration memos about the targeted killing of Americans. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”…..

The completeness of the administration’s public accounts of its legal arguments was also sharply criticized last month by U.S. Judge Colleen McMahon in response to a lawsuit brought by the New York Times and the ACLU seeking access to the Justice Department memos on drone strikes targeting Americans under the Freedom of Information Act. McMahon, describing herself as being caught in a “veritable Catch-22,” said she was unable to order the release of the documents given “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for the conclusion a secret.”  In her ruling, McMahon noted that administration officials “had engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens.” But, she wrote, they have done so “in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing … any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.”……..

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” the white paper reads. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

Excerpts from Michael Isikoff. EXCLUSIVE: Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans, NBC News, Feb. 6, 2012

Djibouti, the US Permanent Drone War Base

Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti…began as a temporary staging ground for U.S. Marines looking for a foothold in the region a decade ago (2001). Over the past two years, the U.S. military has clandestinely transformed it into the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, a model for fighting a new generation of terrorist groups.  The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the legal and operational details of its targeted-killing program. Behind closed doors, painstaking debates precede each decision to place an individual in the cross hairs of the United States’ perpetual war against al-Qaeda and its allies.  Increasingly, the orders to find, track or kill those people are delivered to Camp Lemonnier. Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases.

Secrecy blankets most of the camp’s activities. The U.S. military rejected requests from The Washington Post to tour Lemonnier last month. Officials cited “operational security concerns,” although they have permitted journalists to visit in the past.  After a Post reporter showed up in Djibouti uninvited, the camp’s highest-ranking commander consented to an interview — on the condition that it take place away from the base, at Djibouti’s lone luxury hotel. The commander, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, answered some general queries but declined to comment on drone operations or missions related to Somalia or Yemen.

Despite the secrecy, thousands of pages of military records obtained by The Post — including construction blueprints, drone accident reports and internal planning memos — open a revealing window into Camp Lemonnier. None of the documents is classified and many were acquired via public-records requests.  Taken together, the previously undisclosed documents show how the Djibouti-based drone wars sharply escalated early last year after eight Predators arrived at Lemonnier. The records also chronicle the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to further intensify drone operations here in the coming months.

The documents point to the central role played by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which President Obama has repeatedly relied on to execute the nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions.  About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base…

In Washington, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps to sustain the drone campaign for another decade, developing an elaborate new targeting database, called the “disposition matrix,” and a classified “playbook” to spell out how decisions on targeted killing are made.

Djibouti is the clearest example of how the United States is laying the groundwork to carry out these operations overseas. For the past decade, the Pentagon has labeled Lemonnier an “expeditionary,” or temporary, camp. But it is now hardening into the U.S. military’s first permanent drone war base.

In August, the Defense Department delivered a master plan to Congress detailing how the camp will be used over the next quarter-century. About $1.4 billion in construction projects are on the drawing board, including a huge new compound that could house up to 1,100 Special Operations forces, more than triple the current number.  Drones will continue to be in the forefront. In response to written questions from The Post, the U.S. military confirmed publicly for the first time the presence of remotely piloted aircraft — military parlance for drones — at Camp Lemonnier and said they support “a wide variety of regional security missions.”….For nearly a decade, the United States flew drones from Lemonnier only rarely, starting with a 2002 strike in Yemen that killed a suspected ringleader of the attack on the USS Cole.  That swiftly changed in 2010, however, after al-Qaeda’s network in Yemen attempted to bomb two U.S.-bound airliners and jihadists in Somalia separately consolidated their hold on that country. Late that year, records show, the Pentagon dispatched eight unmanned MQ-1B Predator aircraft to Djibouti and turned Lemonnier into a full-time drone base.

The impact was apparent months later: JSOC drones from Djibouti and CIA Predators from a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula converged over Yemen and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric and prominent al-Qaeda member.  Today, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an expanding constellation of half a dozen U.S. drone and surveillance bases in Africa, created to combat a new generation of terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic. The U.S. military also flies drones from small civilian airports in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, but those operations pale in comparison to what is unfolding in Djibouti.

Lemonnier also has become a hub for conventional aircraft. In October 2011, the military boosted the airpower at the base by deploying a squadron of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, which can fly faster and carry more munitions than Predators…

In March 2011, a Predator parked at the camp started its engine without any human direction, even though the ignition had been turned off and the fuel lines closed. Technicians concluded that a software bug had infected the “brains” of the drone, but never pinpointed the problem.  “After that whole starting-itself incident, we were fairly wary of the aircraft and watched it pretty closely,” an unnamed Air Force squadron commander testified to an investigative board, according to a transcript. “Right now, I still think the software is not good.” …

“This [Djibouti] is not an outpost in the middle of nowhere that is of marginal interest,” said Amanda J. Dory, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Africa. “This is a very important location in terms of U.S. interests, in terms of freedom of navigation, when it comes to power projection.”

The U.S. military pays $38 million a year to lease Camp Lemonnier from the Djiboutian government…

Excerpts, Craig Whitlock, Remote US base at core of secret operations, Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2012