Tag Archives: al-Qaida

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

Drone War Moves to West Africa

Niamey airport.  Image wikipedia

The newest outpost in the US government’s empire of drone bases sits behind a razor-wire-topped wall outside Niger’s capital Niamey.  The US air force began flying a handful of unarmed Predator drones from here last month (Feb. 2013). The drones emerge sporadically from a borrowed hangar and soar north in search of al-Qaida fighters and guerrillas from other groups hiding in the region’s deserts and hills.  The harsh terrain of north and west Africa is rapidly emerging as yet another front in the long-running US war against terrorist networks, a conflict that has fuelled a revolution in drone warfare.

Since taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama has relied heavily on drones for operations, both declared and covert, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. US drones also fly from allied bases in Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines.  Now they are becoming a fixture in Africa. The US military has built a major drone hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and flies unarmed Reaper drones from Ethiopia. Until recently, it conducted reconnaissance flights over east Africa from the island nation of Seychelles.  The Predator drones in Niger, a landlocked and dirt-poor country, give the Pentagon a strategic foothold in west Africa. Niger shares a long border with Mali, where an al-Qaida affiliate and other Islamist groups have taken root. Niger also borders Libya and Nigeria, which are also struggling to contain armed extremist movements.

Like other US drone bases, the Predator operations in Niger are shrouded in secrecy. The White House announced in February that Obama had deployed about 100 military personnel to Niger on an “intelligence collection” mission, but it did not make any explicit reference to drones. Since then, the defense department has publicly acknowledged the presence of drones here but has revealed little else. The Africa Command, which oversees US military missions on the continent, denied requests from a Washington Post reporter to interview American troops in Niger or to tour the military airfield where the drones are based, near Niamey’s international airport.

Government officials in Niger, a former French colony, were slightly more forthcoming. President Issoufou Mahamadou said his government invited Washington to send surveillance drones because he was worried that the country might not be able to defend its borders from Islamist fighters based in Mali, Libya or Nigeria.  “We welcome the drones,” Mahamadou said in an interview at the presidential palace in Niamey. Citing the “feeble capability” of many west African militaries, he said Niger and its neighbors desperately needed foreign help to track the movements of guerrillas across the Sahara and Sahel, an arid territorial belt that covers much of the region.  “Our countries are like the blind leading the blind,” he said. “We rely on countries like France and the United States. We need co-operation to ensure our security.”  The Predator drones in Niger are unarmed, US officials said, though they have not ruled out equipping the aircraft with Hellfire missiles in the future. For now, the drones are conducting surveillance over Mali and Niger….

But the rules of engagement are blurry. Intelligence gathered by the Predators could indirectly help the French fix targets for airstrikes or prompt Nigerien security forces to take action on their territory.  Moreover, US officials have acknowledged that they could use lethal force under certain circumstances. Last month, army general Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the US military had designated “a handful of high-value individuals” in north Africa for their suspected connections to al-Qaida, making them potential targets for capture or killing.  The Pentagon declined to say exactly how many Predator aircraft it has sent to Niger or how long it intends to keep them there. But there are signs that the US military wants to establish a long-term presence in west Africa.  After years of negotiations, the Obama administration signed an agreement with Niger in January that provides judicial protection and other safeguards for US troops in the country.  Two US defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said the Pentagon ultimately wants to move the Predators to the Saharan city of Agadez, in northern Niger.  Agadez is closer to parts of southern Algeria and southern Libya where fighters and arms traffickers allied with al-Qaida have taken refuge. The airfield in Agadez, however, is rudimentary and needs improvements before it can host drones, officials said.

Excerpts,Craig Whitlock, Drone warfare: Niger becomes latest frontline in US war on terror, Guardian, Mar. 26, 2013

The CIA Drone Program in Yemen: the cover up

Hellfire missiles loaded on United States Marine Corps Super Cobra.  Image from wikipedia

A rickety Toyota truck packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda, which al-Qaeda militants once controlled. Suddenly a missile hurtled from the sky and flipped the vehicle over.  Chaos. Flames. Corpses. Then, a second missile struck.  Within seconds, 11 of the passengers were dead, including a woman and her 7-year-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy also perished that day, and another man later died from his wounds.

The Yemeni government initially said that those killed were al-Qaeda militants and that its Soviet-era jets had carried out the Sept. 2 attack. But tribal leaders and Yemeni officials would later say that it was an American assault and that all the victims were civilians who lived in a village near Radda, in central Yemen. U.S. officials last week acknowledged for the first time that it was an American strike.  “Their bodies were burning,” recalled Sultan Ahmed Mohammed, 27, who was riding on the hood of the truck and flew headfirst into a sandy expanse. “How could this happen? None of us were al-Qaeda.”

More than three months later, the incident offers a window into the Yemeni government’s efforts to conceal Washington’s mistakes and the unintended consequences of civilian deaths in American air assaults. In this case, the deaths have bolstered the popularity of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s Yemen affiliate, which has tried to stage attacks on U.S. soil several times.

Furious tribesmen tried to take the bodies to the gates of the presidential residence, forcing the government into the rare position of withdrawing its assertion that militants had been killed. The apparent target, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said, was a senior regional al-Qaeda leader, Abdelrauf al-Dahab, who was thought to be in a car traveling on the same road.

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.  In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.  “Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”…

After Osama bin Laden’s death last year, Yemen emerged as a key battlefield in the Obama administration’s war on Islamist militancy. AQAP members are among those on a clandestine “kill list” created by the administration to hunt down terrorism suspects. It is a lethal campaign, mostly fueled by unmanned drones, but it also includes fixed-wing aircraft and cruise missiles fired from the sea.  This year, there have been at least 38 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, according to the Long War Journal, a nonprofit Web site that tracks American drone attacks. That is significantly more than in any year since 2009, when President Obama is thought to have ordered the first drone strike.

The Radda attack was one of the deadliest since a U.S. cruise missile strike in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians, including women and children, in the mountainous region of al-  Majala in southern Yemen. After that attack, many tribesmen in that area became radicalized and joined AQAP.,,,

“The government is trying to kill the case,” said Abdul Rahman Berman, the executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, or HOOD, a local human rights group. “The government wants to protect its relations with the U.S.”  After the 2009 strike in al-Majala, the Yemeni government took responsibility for the assault. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command, according to a U.S. Embassy e-mail leaked by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks…

On extremist Web sites and Facebook pages, grisly pictures of the attack’s aftermath, with bodies tossed like rag dolls on the road, have been posted, coupled with condemnations of the government and the United States. In Sabool and Radda, youths have vowed to join al-Qaeda to fight the United States.

Excerpts, Sudarsan Raghavan,When U.S. drones kill civilians, Yemen’s government tries to conceal it, Washington Post, Dec. 24, 2012

See also the Drone War in Yemen

Money Laundering: the HSBC case

HSBC avoided a legal battle by agreeing Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2012) to pay $1.9 billion to settle a U.S. money-laundering probe.  Europe’s largest bank by market value will pay the biggest penalty ever imposed on a bank after facing accusations it transferred funds through the U.S. from Mexican drug cartels and on behalf of nations such as Iran that are under international sanctions…It’s the latest scandal to hit banks since the financial crisis started in 2008. Hours earlier, Standard Chartered PLC, another British bank, signed an agreement with New York regulators to settle a money laundering investigation involving Iran with a $340 million payment…

Money laundering by banks has become a priority target for U.S. law enforcement. Since 2009, Credit Suisse, Barclays, Lloyds, and ING have all paid big settlements related to allegations that they moved money for people or companies that were on the U.S. sanctions list.  HSBC conceded that its anti-money laundering measures were inadequate and that it has taken big steps in beefing up its controls. Among other measures, it has hired a former Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence as its chief legal officer….

Jimmy Gurule, a former assistant U.S. Attorney General and currently a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said the settlement made a “mockery” of the criminal justice system.  “The message sent by the U.S. Department of Justice is that if you are going to engage in large-scale money laundering for Mexican drug cartels, make sure and do it within the scope of your employment working for a bank because you won’t be prosecuted regardless of the egregious nature of your criminal conduct,” he said.

A U.S. law enforcement official said the sum HSBC was paying would include $1.25 billion in forfeiture — the largest ever in a case involving a bank — and $655 million in civil penalties….Under what is known as a deferred prosecution agreement, the financial institution will be accused of violating the Bank Secrecy Act and the Trading With the Enemy Act, the official said. The source spoke only on condition of anonymity because officials were not authorized to speak about the matter on the record.

Last summer, a Senate investigation concluded that HSBC’s lax controls exposed it to money laundering and terrorist financing.  In regard to HSBC and Mexico, the Senate investigative committee reported that in 2007 and 2008 HSBC Mexico sent about $7 billion in cash to the United States. It said such a large amount indicated illegal drug proceeds.  HSBC affiliates also skirted U.S. government bans on financial transactions with Iran and other countries, according to the report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. And HSBC’s U.S. division provided money and banking services to some banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh thought to have helped fund al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, the report said.

The report also blamed U.S. regulators, claiming they knew the bank had a poor system to detect problems but failed to take action.  Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, cited instances in which HSBC had promised to fix deficiencies after being sanctioned by regulators but failed to follow through.  Levin also said the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the U.S. agency that oversees the biggest banks, tolerated HSBC’s weak controls against money laundering for years and said agency examiners who had raised concerns were overruled by their superiors.

HSBC, which in 2011 had net income of $16.8 billion and operates in about 80 countries, has grown quickly in recent years by acquiring banks around the world that became its affiliates. Its far-flung subsidiaries operated with a degree of autonomy that left top bank officials with less than full authority and control, experts say. Each affiliate had its own officer to oversee compliance with laws to prevent money laundering.

HSBC to pay $1.9B to settle money-laundering case, Associated Press, Dec. 11, 2012

United States, the Taliban, and the spin doctors

Days after deciding to blacklist an insurgent group linked to the Taliban and responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to say whether she also would brand the Taliban a foreign terrorist organization.  Asked in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg Radio if the Taliban — whose government gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terror network before the 2001 U.S. military actions — should be blacklisted, Clinton didn’t directly answer.

“You know, we do a very intensive analysis before we designate someone as a foreign terrorist organization,” she said. “We have reached that conclusion about the Haqqani Network, and we think it’s the right decision.”  Clinton’s decision on Sept. 7 to designate as a terrorist organization the Haqqani Network — a militant group with operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is closely affiliated with the Afghan branch of the Taliban [or simply another name for Taliban]– came after months of inter-agency debate.  One issue was the potential impact on already difficult relations with Pakistan. The Haqqanis operate from havens in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region with what U.S. officials have said are ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency.  Clinton said in the interview that blacklisting the Haqqanis wasn’t a message aimed at Pakistan.  “No, it is about squeezing” the Haqqanis, she said.  “It’s part of the continuing effort to try to send a message to them — not to anyone else, but to them — because of the really incredibly damaging attacks they have waged against us, against other targets inside Afghanistan, and it’s important that we use every tool at our disposal to go after them,” she said in the interview in Vladivostok, Russia, at the end of an 11-day trip through the Asia-Pacific.  The U.S. had already slapped the Haqqani group’s leaders with individual sanctions, and has long targeted them in military operations and clandestine drone strikes.Adding the Haqqanis to the group blacklist “gives us much greater reach into any financial assets or fundraising that they may engage in, it gives us better traction against assets that they might own,” Clinton said. “It’s important that we use every tool at our disposal to go after them.”

Though the Haqqanis were behind some of the highest-profile attacks on American and NATO interests in Afghanistan, including a day-long assault last year on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and an attack on NATO headquarters there, the debate on whether to blacklist them involved arguments that doing so might hinder U.S. policy goals.

The decision followed months of discussion within the White House, State Department, Pentagon, Treasury Department, Justice Department and the intelligence community over the merits and the timing of blacklisting the Haqqanis, according to officials from different agencies who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Opponents of blacklisting the Haqqanis had argued that slapping them with a label might hinder prospects for engaging them in reconciliation talks to take them off the battlefield. The same may be said of the Taliban…Another concern about blacklisting the Haqqanis — which can also be said of the Taliban — is that affixing a terror label to the group may affect U.S. relations with Pakistan. Some U.S. officials, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, have said Pakistani intelligence and security forces have aided the Haqqanis in order to wield influence in Afghanistan. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said Pakistan needs to do more to crack down on the group.  Pakistan also has ties with the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to U.S. intelligence officials.  The U.S. wants Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to engage them in serious peace talks with the Afghan government to help bring an end to the 11-year conflict.

Excerpts, Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Clinton Doesn’t Say If Taliban Should Be on Terror List, BusinessWeek, Sept. 9, 2012

See also statement of Taliban in their website Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

The Covert War in Somalia 2012

According to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea,-

How Easy it is to Kill: the Anonymous Drone Politics

White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets.  The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists.  In describing Brennan’s arrangement to The Associated Press, the officials provided the first detailed description of the military’s previous review process that set a schedule for killing or capturing terror leaders around the Arab world and beyond. They spoke on condition of anonymity because U.S. officials are not allowed to publicly describe the classified targeting program.

One senior administration official argues that Brennan’s move adds another layer of review that augments rather than detracts from the Pentagon’s role. The official says that in fact there will be more people at the table making the decisions, including representatives from every agency involved in counterterrorism, before they are reviewed by senior officials and ultimately the president.  The CIA’s process remains unchanged, but never included the large number of interagency players the Pentagon brought to the table for its debates.  And the move gives Brennan greater input earlier in the process, before senior officials make the final recommendation to President Barack Obama. Officials outside the White House expressed concern that drawing more of the decision-making process to Brennan’s office could turn it into a pseudo military headquarters, entrusting the fate of al-Qaida targets to a small number of senior officials.

Previously, targets were first discussed in meetings run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen at the time, with Brennan being just one of the voices in the debate.  The new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has been more focused on shrinking the U.S. military as the Afghan war winds down and less on the covert wars overseas.  With Dempsey less involved, Brennan believed there was an even greater need to draw together different agencies’ viewpoints, showing the American public that al-Qaida targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate, the senior administration official said.

But some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of “how easy it has become to kill someone,” one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said. Stateside, that conversation could trigger an investigation by the Secret Service or FBI.  Defense Department spokesman George Little said the department was “entirely comfortable with the process by which American counterterrorism operations are managed.  The CIA did not respond to a request for comment….

An example of a recent Pentagon-led drone strike was the fatal attack in January on al-Qaida commander Bilal al-Berjawi in Somalia. U.S. intelligence and military forces had been watching him for days. When his car reached the outskirts of Mogadishu, the drones fired a volley of missiles, obliterating his vehicle and killing him instantly. The drones belonged to the elite U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. The British-Lebanese citizen al-Berjawi ended up on the JSOC list after a studied debate run by the Pentagon.

The Defense Department’s list of potential drone or raid targets is about two dozen names long, the officials said. The previous process for vetting them, now mostly defunct, was established by Mullen early in the Obama administration, with a major revamp in the spring of 2011, two officials said.  Drone attacks were split between JSOC and the CIA, which keeps a separate list of targets, though it overlaps with the Pentagon list. By law, the CIA can target only al-Qaida operatives or affiliates who directly threaten the U.S. JSOC has a little more leeway, allowed by statue to target members of the larger al-Qaida network.

Under the old Pentagon-run review, the first step was to gather evidence on a potential target. That person’s case would be discussed over an interagency secure video teleconference, involving the National Counterterrorism Center and the State Department, among other agencies. Among the data taken into consideration: Is the target a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates; is he engaged in activities aimed at the U.S. overseas or at home?  If a target isn’t captured or killed within 30 days after he is chosen, his case must be reviewed to see if he’s still a threat.

The CIA’s process is more insular. Only a select number of high-ranking staff can preside over the debates run by the agency’s Covert Action Review Group, which then passes the list to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to carry out the drone strikes. The Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, is briefed on those actions, one official said.

Al-Berjawi’s name was technically on both lists — the Pentagon’s and the CIA’s. In areas where both JSOC and the CIA operate, the military task force commander and CIA chief of station confer, together with representatives of U.S. law enforcement, on how best to hit the target. If it’s deemed possible to grab the target, for interrogation or simply to gather DNA to prove the identity of a deceased person, a special operations team is sent, as in the case of the 2009 Navy SEAL raid against al-Qaida commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Nabhan’s convoy was attacked by helicopter gunships, after which the raiders landed and took his body for identification, before burying him at sea.

But if the al-Qaida operative is in transit from Somalia to Yemen by boat, for instance, U.S. security officials might opt to use the Navy to intercept and the FBI to arrest him, officials said.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, Who will drones target? Who in the US will decide?, Associated Press, May 22, 2012