Terrorism in the Caucasus and the threat to the US homeland

 

Salahuddin al Shishani (left), a Chechen commander who leads the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Abdul Karim al Ukrani (center), a Ukrainian, sitting behind an Imarat Kavkaz flag while in Syria.

Salahuddin al Shishani (left), a Chechen commander who leads the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Abdul Karim al Ukrani (center), a Ukrainian, sitting behind an Imarat Kavkaz flag while in Syria.

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Editor’s note: Below is Bill Roggio’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on the threat posed by the Islamic Caucasus Emirate and the implications for US homeland security. If you wish to view the testimony with footnotes included, download the PDF by clicking here.

Chairman King, Ranking Member Higgins, members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here to discuss the terrorist threat emanating from the Caucasus. Unfortunately, as we saw nearly one year ago today at the Boston Marathon, the jihad in the Caucasus has already impacted lives here in the US.

There is still much we do not know for certain about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travels in Dagestan and Chechnya, but we do know that, at a minimum, he was sympathetic to the jihadists operating there. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother were, of course, responsible for the attacks on the Boston Marathon. As a report by the House Homeland Security Committee noted just last month, it “is reasonable to assume that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was at least inspired by” the “activity and ideology” of jihadists fighting in the Caucasus and he was “driven to take part in the vision of global jihad which they share with al Qaeda.” Indeed, the Imarat Kavkaz or “IK” (otherwise known as the Islamic Caucasus Emirate) does have links to al Qaeda. And Tsarnaev is known to have sympathized with the IK and its fighters.

The IK has openly proclaimed itself a threat to the US and the West, and we should take these threats seriously. The US State Department certainly does. In May 2011, the State Department officially designated the IK as a terrorist organization. “The designation of Caucasus Emirate is in response to the threats posed to the United States and Russia,” Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, said at the time. “The attacks perpetrated by Caucasus Emirate illustrate the global nature of the terrorist problem we face today,” Benjamin added. In June 2010, the State Department added Doku Umarov, who was then the emir of the IK, to the US government’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. And in May 2011, Foggy Bottom offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to Umarov’s location. In both its June 2010 and May 2011 announcements, the State Department noted that Umarov and the IK pose a threat to the US and other countries. Indeed, Umarov described the IK as “a part of the global Jihad” in a July 2013 statement in which he called for further attacks aimed at disrupting Russia’s plans for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Despite the fact that Umarov was recently killed, there are good reasons to suspect that the IK will continue to pose a threat to American and Western interests both in and outside of Russia. As with other al Qaeda-affiliated groups, the IK will continue to spend most of its resources waging insurgencies, both inside Russia and elsewhere. Still, in my testimony today, I will highlight several key reasons why the IK poses a terrorist threat to the West. Those reasons are:

Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda helped transform the insurgency in Chechnya from a nationalist one into part of the global jihad.

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership established its influence within the Caucasus long ago. While al Qaeda was headquartered in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, Osama bin Laden maintained a network of training camps and other facilities that shuttled fighters to several jihadist fronts, including Chechnya. During the 1990s al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) funneled cash and other support to Muslim rebels in Chechnya through a charity in Baku, Azerbaijan. Ayman al Zawahiri himself, then the head of the EIJ, as well as second in command of al Qaeda, set out for Chechnya in late 1996. He was accompanied by other dual-hatted al Qaeda-EIJ operatives. Zawahiri was arrested in Dagestan before he reached Chechnya and spent several months in prison. Zawahiri’s trip to the region underscores, from al Qaeda’s perspective, the importance of supporting the jihad in Chechnya.

Read more at Long War Journal

Zawahiri’s longtime deputy reportedly arrested in Egypt

Thirwat Shihata

Thirwat Shihata

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Thirwat Salah Shehata, an Egyptian who long served as one Ayman al Zawahiri’s top deputies, has reportedly been arrested in a suburb of Cairo.

Unnamed Egyptian officials who spoke with Agence France Presse and the Associated Press say that Shehata had traveled to Libya and Turkey before returning to his home country, where he was arrested.

Shehata was among the senior al Qaeda leaders who were sheltered inside Iran for much of the post-9/11 period.

In early 2011, Shehata released a statement supporting the Egyptian uprisings. He called on the people to “remain steadfast” and reject any economic concessions from then president Hosni Mubarak. “Indeed, the Pharaoh and his rotten party must depart,” Shehata said in the statement, which he reportedly released from inside Iran. [See LWJ report, Ayman al Zawahiri's deputy releases statement in support of Egyptian opposition.]

Egyptian officials say Shehata was training militants in Libya

Sometime after his 2011 statement, Shehata left Iran. It is not clear when he left, but The Washington Post reported in February that US officials believed he had traveled to Libya. Egyptian officials have now confirmed Shehata’s previous presence in Libya.

A former US official told the Post that Shehata is suspected of meeting with other senior al Qaeda leaders inside Libya in 2013. Among them are Abu Anas al Libi, who was detained by US forces in Tripoli in early October, and Zubayr al Maghrebi. Al Libi was wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and had also fled to Iran following 9/11.

According to the AP, Egyptian officials say Shehata “has been training militants in eastern Libya.” These same officials say that he is currently being interrogated.

Al Qaeda has established an extensive presence in Libya.

Read more at Long War Journal

Al Qaeda spokesman convicted on terrorism charges

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al Zawahiri, from an al Qaeda propaganda tape. Image from BBC/AP

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al Zawahiri, from an al Qaeda propaganda tape. Image from BBC/AP

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Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and spokesman after the 9/11 attacks, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has been convicted on terrorism charges by a New York jury.

Years before his conviction for supporting al Qaeda and conspiring to kill Americans, Abu Ghaith garnered international infamy after his appearance with bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders in a video that was filmed on Sept. 12, 2001. In the weeks that followed, his threats of additional attacks were seen as an ominous indication of things to come.

Additional attacks were averted, but Abu Ghaith continued to threaten Americans.

Threats against America

In a June 2002 statement, Abu Ghaith argued that “Al Qaeda has the right to kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure, and injure and cripple hundreds and thousands.”

In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former CIA director George Tenet says that an alarmed US government “had to consider the possibility that Abu Ghaith was attempting to justify the future use of weapons of mass destruction that might greatly exceed the death toll of 9/11.”

In an audio recording that was also released in June 2002, Abu Ghaith claimed credit on behalf of al Qaeda for the April 11, 2002, truck bombing of a Tunisian synagogue. NBC News and the Associated Press reported that the cell responsible for the bombing had been in touch with al Qaeda leaders inside Iran.

After he was captured in 2013, Abu Ghaith told the FBI that he had been smuggled into Iran that same month.

copy of Abu Ghaith’s statement to the FBI can be found at Downrange, a publication launched by Kronos Advisory.

Between June 2002 and April 2003, when Abu Ghaith says he was placed under house arrest by the Iranians, the al Qaeda spokesman continued to make provocative statements.

In July 2002, Abu Ghaith threatened more bloodshed. “Al Qaeda will organize more attacks inside American territory and outside, at the moment we choose, at the place we choose and with the objectives that we want,” he said, according to an account published at the time by the Associated Press.

On Oct. 8, 2002, an al Qaeda cell that was reportedly recruited and indoctrinated by Abu Ghaith opened fire on US Marines stationed on Kuwait’s Faylaka Island. One Marine was killed and another was seriously wounded.

Then, in November 2002, al Qaeda terrorists attacked an Israeli hotel, killing 13 people, and tried to down an Israeli jetliner in Mombasa, Kenya. Abu Ghaith claimed credit for that operation on behalf of al Qaeda the following month.

Also in December 2002, Abu Ghaith threatened additional attacks against the United States and Israel. Bin Laden’s spokesman warned the Muslim world of the “danger of what America and its allies are preparing against Iraq and its people,” which “is not limited to overthrowing the infidel regime and its dictator but is aimed at … Balkanizing this great country.”

In his statement to the FBI, Abu Ghaith claimed that his statements in the latter half of 2002 were unconnected to al Qaeda’s operations. But his claim does not ring true.

Al Qaeda has strict protocols for claiming responsibility for its attacks. That Abu Ghaith trumpeted the organization’s culpability in Tunisia and Kenya strongly suggests he was coordinating with al Qaeda’s most senior leaders at the time.

Read more at Long War Journal

National Guardsman Arrested in Terror Plot Attended Radical Mosque

The Lodi Mosque in Lodi, Calif. / AP

The Lodi Mosque in Lodi, Calif. / AP

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The National Guard reservist arrested this week for planning to blow up the Los Angeles subway attended a radical California-based mosque that has been home to known terrorists and other extremist Muslims deported from the United States for their ties to terror.

The FBI on Monday charged Nicholas Teausant, a 20-year-old National Guard reservist, with attempting to help al Qaeda carry out an attack on the Los Angeles subway system.

Teausant—who was found to be in possession of “lone wolf” terror manuals that teach readers how to build and detonate bombs—was known to have attended a terror-tied mosque in Lodi, a small town east of San Francisco.

The Lodi mosque has frequently found itself at the center of FBI terrorism investigations and its former imam was arrested and deported for urging his congregation to kill Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

An Instagram account believed to be Teausant’s features several images of the mosque and comments such as, “Let’s hit dis prayer!! #muslim #prayer #alhamduilliah #mashallah #makedua #inshallah #AllahuAkbar.”

Terror mastermind Ayman Al-Zawahiri, a close friend of Osama bin Laden and current leader of al Qaeda, attended the mosque prior to 9/11, according to reports.

“Every time I would go to the mosque, [Al-Zawahiri] would be coming or going,” an FBI informant testified, according to the Sacramento Bee. “He would quietly come to the mosque and leave.”

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Terrorism analyst Patrick Poole said Teausant’s radical online interactions were likely just as important as his personal ones.

“When you look at Teausant’s social media and the Justice Department complaint, you get a picture of someone who was participating in an online community that was contributing to his radicalization,” Poole said. “But you also see that he was heavily involved in a local community already known as a hotbed of radicalization known for anti-American sentiment, extremist speakers, terrorist fundraising, and regular themes of global Islamic grievances that contributed to that process.”

“From his own Lodi mosque you already have Hamid Hayat sitting in federal prison for spending two years at an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan,” Poole said.

“It’s pretty certain that he wasn’t planning on joining the jihadist cause by getting to Syria all on his own—he was going to need financial and logistical help and contacts once he got there,” Poole added. “Historically we know those support networks already exist in the places he was hanging out regularly in Lodi and Stockton. That’s an angle that hopefully law enforcement are already looking at in this case.”

Read more at Free Beacon

Zawahiri’s Representative in Syria Assassinated

New photos of Nasr City cell members published

Long War Journal, By THOMAS JOSCELYN:

New photos of members of the Nasr City cell have been published in the Egyptian press. [See below.] Many of the cell’s members, who are currently awaiting trial, were detained in late 2012.

The cell has multiple, direct ties to al Qaeda. In particular, Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, who has long served as a subordinate to Ayman al Zawahiri, is one of the cell’s leaders. Jamal founded his own al Qaeda network (conveniently referred to as the “Muhammad Jamal Network,” or MJN, in the West) after being released from prison in 2011. According to terrorist designations issued by both the US State Department and the United Nations, Jamal worked with al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The designations by the State Department and the UN confirmed previous reporting by The Long War Journal. We were the first to report, at least in the English-speaking press, that Jamal was in direct contact with Zawahiri in 2011 and 2012. Jamal’s letters to Zawahiri revealed his ties to AQAP and AQIM.

Some of Jamal’s fighters participated in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Jamal established training camps in both the Sinai and eastern Libya prior to the attack.

Here is one of the newly published photos of Jamal. It is almost as if he is trying to tell us something. According to my colleague Oren Adaki, the note Jamal is holding reads, “Al Qaeda is perched on the hearts of the believers.”

Jamal holding photo of bin Laden

Jamal brandishes the photo of bin Laden in other pictures as well. We previously published another photo of Jamal at The Long War Journal.

The Nasr City cell loves the picture of bin Laden. Below is a picture of Sheikh Adel Shehato, a founding member of the cell, holding up the image. Like Jamal, Shehato was a senior member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which was led by Ayman al Zawahiri and merged with bin Laden’s venture before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Shehato was also one of the key al Qaeda ideologues who helped instigate the protest in front of the US Embassy in Cairo on the morning of Sept. 11, 2012 – just hours before the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi were overrun.

Adel Shehato holding pic of OBL

The story of the Nasr City cell and the Muhammad Jamal Network is a fascinating one. It challenges so many of the widely-held assumptions about al Qaeda’s current operations. The MJN is a good example of how various al Qaeda organizations and parties are linked in a global network, with Jamal receiving cash and assistance from AQAP while he is also working with AQIM. The story also shows that Zawahiri is still very much in the game. Jamal’s letters to the al Qaeda master in 2011 and 2012 were fawning, and clearly showed that he was seeking Zawahiri’s permission for his operations.

But sometimes a picture, or pictures, are worth a thousand words. Jamal, Shehato, and the other Nasr City cell defendants are quite proud of their al Qaeda roles.

Also see:

CIA Files From Benghazi: Now in the Hands of Al Qaeda?

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15 individuals with information helpful to the U.S. Benghazi investigation have been killed? Did Al Qaeda find out who they were?

BY CLARE LOPEZ:

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released its Review of the Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012 on January 15, 2014.

One of the most disturbing sections in the entire report comes on page 42, where the report cites then-FBI Director Robert Mueller in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies telling Congress that “as many as 15 individuals supporting the investigation or otherwise helpful to the United States have been killed in Benghazi since the attacks [of September 11, 2012].”

While Director Mueller rightly noted the “lawless and chaotic circumstances in eastern Libya,” the SSCI report also added that “It is unclear whether their killings were related to the Benghazi investigation.”

While calling post-Qaddafi Libya “lawless and chaotic” is something of an understatement, the SSCI’s suspicions about these particular killings and the possibility that they could be connected to the Benghazi investigation should be noted and noted carefully.

The identity of these individuals has not been revealed publicly, but it is certain that the SSCI and the Intelligence Community for which it holds oversight responsibility know who they were. And while it is certainly possible that each and every one of these 15 killings can be explained by the continuing battles among the Al Qaeda militias that led the uprising against former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the possibility that these are targeted killings – assassinations – must also be considered, even as the SSCI seems to hint that it has thought of this, too.

In an insightful early report about the Benghazi attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported on November 1, 2012 that “…the day after the attack…the CIA appears to have dispatched local Libyan agents to the annex to destroy any sensitive documents and equipment there.”

The WSJ use of the term “agents” would seem to indicate that these local Libyans were CIA recruited assets, who either were trusted enough for this assignment or perhaps were all they had to turn to at that point. They may have been Libyan officials, whether uniformed police or others such as intelligence and security officials.

We do not know and the SSCI report does not tell us. In any case, what that short section of the SSCI report does tell us, at a minimum, is that sensitive documents and equipment were believed by the CIA to have remained in the CIA Annex the day after the attack, that they had not been destroyed or removed by the fleeing Americans and were of sufficient concern to the CIA that it was willing to take a chance on tasking local Libyans to retrieve whatever was there.

What became of any such materials and whether they were successfully recovered or not is not noted in the SSCI report. Tom Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), writing in the Weekly Standard on January 7, 2014 about the Obama administration’s belated admission about the role that Abu Sufian Ben Qumu (a former GITMO detainee) and his group — the Derna, Libya branch of Ansar al-Shariah — played in the Benghazi attack provides a possible follow-up, however.

In the very last line of his piece, “Obama Administration’s Benghazi Bombshell,” Joscelyn writes that two U.S. intelligence officials say that Faraj al Chalabi, an identified Libyan jihadi, “is suspected of bringing materials from the compound in Benghazi to senior al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.”

This report begs the question: How is it possible for U.S. intelligence officials to so specifically name al-Chalabi as someone who may have taken materials from Benghazi to al-Qa’eda leadership in Pakistan?

What materials have they identified as having been removed from the CIA Annex and how do they know (or why would they suspect) such materials have been taken to Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan in the first place? In fact, it doesn’t seem possible – unless U.S. intelligence officials themselves perhaps were the ones who dispatched al-Chalabi or an associate to the compound to recover those “documents and equipment.”

Read more at Clarion Project

More ties between Ansar Jerusalem and the Syrian jihad reported

Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) Interior Minister Video-thumb-546x508-2551By THOMAS JOSCELYN:

The Sept. 5, 2013 assassination attempt on Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim is an operation that becomes more interesting the more we learn about it. Ansar Jerusalem celebrated the operation in an Oct. 26, 2013 video featuring the suicide bomber who executed the attack, a former major in the Egyptian army named Walid Badr.

The Cairo Post and Youm7 report that the list of suspects, in addition to Badr, “includes Egyptians and two Palestinians who joined the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra Front,” which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. A “judicial source” explains that Egyptian authorities arrested the suspects in recent weeks while “targeting Syrian suspects.” In addition, an unnamed source said the “suspects returned from Syria because the jihad in Egypt became a duty particularly after the toppling of ousted President Mohamed Mursi.”

The ties between the jihad in Syria and the attack have been obvious since Ansar Jerusalem released its video. Badr himself had fought in Syria, after already fighting in Afghanistan and attempting to fight American forces in Iraq. Conspicuously, Ansar Jerusalem did not say which groups Badr fought for in these theaters of war, but obviously al Qaeda’s global network has a significant presence in each of them.

Now Egyptian judicial sources are connecting additional suspects to the Al Nusrah Front, which answers to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

The Cairo Post and Youm7 reports also repeat a claim that has been previously made in the Egyptian press: “According to the National Security investigation, defendant [Muhammad Jamal al Kashef] acknowledged that the bomber was trained for a year and a half in the Sinai.” (At least one previous report said the training took place in Jamal’s camps in Libya.)

Muhammad Jamal, who founded his own al Qaeda network after being released from prison in 2011, was in direct contact with Ayman al Zawahiri in 2011 and 2012. In one of his letters to Zawahiri, Jamal revealed that he had sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. This makes sense because Jamal was a commander in Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). According to the State Department and the United Nations, Jamal’s network coordinated its operations with, and received assistance from, al Qaeda’s senior leadership, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Read more at Long War Journal

The Islamic Grinch Who Stole the Olympics

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Coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has so far been over-shadowed by the threat of terror from Islamic jihadists. Cursing videos posted on the Internet by jihadists promise that the “demon Olympics” will have an “atmosphere of fear and terror” and tell the athletes that “Satan is with you.” Even Egyptian-born al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri gave his blessings by calling for a “global jihad” against the Sochi games.

While the world waits for the Olympic games once every four years to celebrate humanity’s best qualities of excellence, cooperation and respectful competition, Muslim jihadists watch the games with bitterness, envy and criticism. Competitive sports are not an important Islamic value, especially if compared to the mental and physical training of Islamic youth for jihad. It is important to note that Islamic culture often discourages competitive sports, singing, dancing and self-expression, and this is the fundamental reason why there are few prominent Muslim athletes.

Few medals are won by Muslim nations who often participate symbolically in the games. With the exception of soccer, Muslim youth have few athletic outlets, and most of their soccer training is done in narrow streets with constant car and pedestrian interruption.

As for Muslim female athletes, just take a look at the female Saudi team trying to compete while wearing their Islamic garb. While Islamic nations claim to be close brothers, female Muslim teams hardly ever compete amongst themselves within Islamic countries. Why then do Muslim countries even bother to participate with a female team in the Olympics if female sports are discouraged and are contrary to Islamic cultural norms? Like many Islamic activities at the international arena, Islamic female Olympic teams are intended not for sports and winning as much as they are intended to prove to the world that Muslim women are free and liberated. The whole thing — participation of Islamic female athletes in the Olympics — is a sham rejected as un-Islamic inside Muslim culture.

The Olympics evoke Islamic shortcomings and envy of the outside world and feed into their victim mentality — thus, Islamic silence over terror threats to the Olympics. Jihadists could not care less about what the Olympics represent to the rest of the world: an opportunity to compete and acknowledge the hard work of nations and individuals who sacrificed time, money and strenuous training to excel and to hopefully win fair and square.

While the world is hungry for hope, unity, harmony and a peaceful future, Muslim jihadists plot to ruin it for everyone else. That is not a coincidence, because Olympic values of cooperation, brotherhood and respect between nations regardless of religion, color, national origin and gender strikes at the heart of the Islamic supremacist ideology.

Fake grievances, causes and claims of oppression by the Chechnya rebels and their black widows are excuses to camouflage their jihadist aspirations and their inability to express themselves except through what they were trained to do as a sport: terror. Fair competition is not what the Islamic supremacists understand or are trained to do. What they want is world domination and special treatment because they are told it is their right as Muslims.

Read more at Front Page

Pro-al Qaeda Saudi cleric calls on ISIS members to defect

Sheikh Muhaysini praised Ayman al Zawahiri as the Sheikh of the Mujahideen on his popular Twitter feed shortly after al Qaeda's general command disowned ISIS. Muhaysini also praised Osama bin Laden with the same language. Muhaysini called on ISIS members to defect.

Sheikh Muhaysini praised Ayman al Zawahiri as the Sheikh of the Mujahideen on his popular Twitter feed shortly after al Qaeda’s general command disowned ISIS. Muhaysini also praised Osama bin Laden with the same language. Muhaysini called on ISIS members to defect.

By THOMAS JOSCELYN, February 3, 2014:

Not long after al Qaeda’s general command yesterday disowned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), a popular Saudi cleric who has relocated to Syria took to his social media sites to call on ISIS members to defect.

Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini played a leading role in the mediation efforts between ISIS and other rebel groups, which have been increasingly fighting among themselves. But now that those efforts have failed, Muhaysini says on his popular Twitter feed, ISIS members should defect to the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front.

The Al Nusrah Front is now al Qaeda’s only official branch inside Syria. The al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham is one of the most powerful groups within the Islamic Front, which is a coalition of rebel groups. Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri’s main representative in Syria, is a senior leader in Ahrar al Sham.

Muhaysini’s call for ISIS defectors has quickly become popular on Twitter, with many online jihadists and their supporters retweeting his message. This is not surprising, as the Saudi has a substantial online presence. His Twitter feed currently has almost 280,000 followers.

Now that al Qaeda’s senior leadership has publicly disavowed ISIS, the calls from Muhaysini and other respected jihadists will challenge ISIS to maintain its base of support. ISIS has committed followers, but senior jihadists are now attempting to roll back its influence.

Other influential ideologues have endorsed Zawahiri while rejecting ISIS

Muhaysini cites ideological bigwigs such as Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, both of whom are imprisoned in Jordan, to support his anti-ISIS effort. All three have said that ISIS should have obeyed Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders. In May of last year, Zawahiri ordered ISIS to disband its Islamic state and focus its efforts inside Iraq, while leaving the fight for Syria to the Al Nusrah Front and other groups. ISIS openly defied this order.

Abu Qatada is the well-known al Qaeda cleric who was detained on and off again in the UK for years before finally being deported to his native country in July 2013. He is currently on trial in Jordan on terrorism charges.

Abu Qatada is best known for his ties to a constellation of al Qaeda actors inside Europe, including the terrorists responsible for the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings. Since his return to Jordan, Abu Qatada has become an active voice in the jihadists’ online world from his prison cell. He has, for example, written to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which is led by one of his former pupils, Seifallah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi).

Late last month, Abu Qatada issued a harsh rebuke of ISIS during a break in his trial. The cleric said ISIS was “ignoring instructions” from Ayman al Zawahiri and would “disintegrate eventually,” according to the Associated Press.

Abu Qatada also explained that ISIS fighters had been “misled to fight a war that is not holy,” which is likely a reference to the infighting ISIS has sparked.

Baghdadi is the emir of ISIS and has delusions of grandeur, considering himself to be the rightful ruler over a large Islamic state covering Iraq and the Levant. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders never approved of Baghdadi’s decision to declare an Islamic state, and instead focused their efforts on the fight against Bashar al Assad’s forces.

Read more at Long War Journal

Also see:

The Dawn of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Current Trends in Islamist Ideology
January 27, 2014

In the course of the Syrian Civil War, two major rebel factions have emerged who share al-Qaeda’s ideology: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which was founded at the beginning of 2012 by Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani, and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS). In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI—the umbrella front for al-Qaeda in Iraq), proposed that JN and ISI merge together. He thus announced the formation of a new Islamist polity, ISIS, which included territories in Iraq and Syria (ash-Sham). Baghdadi argued that Jabhat al-Nusra had been initially set-up with financial support and manpower from the ISI and therefore that the Syria-focused JN was a mere “extension” of the Iraq-based organization. Jowlani, however, rejected Baghdadi’s proposal to combine their efforts on the grounds that he was not consulted. Subsequently, he renewed JN’s bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda Central.

 

ISIS militiamen pose with the organization’s flag. (Image source: hanein.info)

In June of 2013, al-Jazeera revealed a leaked letter in which Zawahiri ruled in favor of maintaining a separation between ISI and JN in Iraq and Syria respectively. The network released video footage of Zawahiri reading the letter aloud in November 2013. Many observers interpreted this televised pronouncement from al-Qaeda Central’s leader as a renewal of the call to disband ISIS, although sources within ISIS circles inform me that the video in question had, in fact, been in private circulation among their members for months. In any event, Baghdadi has personally rejected the call to disband ISIS. Similarly, ISIS’s new official spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a Syrian veteran of the Iraq War, has also rejected the proposal in even more forceful terms, going so far as to accuse Jowlani of “defection” and affirming that ISIS would not accept geographical limitations based on “Sykes-Picot.”

There are variations in the membership composition of both JN and ISIS that are worth noting. Indeed, the differences between the two groups have national as well as ideological dimensions. JN has a greater proportion of native Syrian members in its ranks, while most foreign jihadis fighting in Syria have declared their allegiance to ISIS. The national differences between the two factions are significant; however they must not be exaggerated. Most foreign fighters in Syria are disproportionately represented among ISIS’s leadership and elite paramilitary corps. The vast majority of ISIS fighters in the rank and file, however, are Syrian nationals. Therefore, while there is a distinct national difference between the two groups, it is not the most important factor that distinguishes them from each other.

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Conclusion

ISIS in Syria embodies three important new trends in the overall development of the global jihad movement. First, the group’s existence in Syria marks an open challenge to the leadership of al-Qaeda Central, and to Zawahiri’s directives in particular. An unprecedented split in the jihadist movement in the Fertile Crescent has resulted. Though ISIS is striving to realize the same transnational political vision as al-Qaeda’s central leadership, the ISIS leader Baghdadi has been purposefully ambiguous about whether he or his group has any sort of allegiance to Zawahiri. Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seeking to establish himself as a Caliph by launching his own Islamic state-building project in Syria independent of Zawahiri’s directives? If so, then infighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, whose ultimate amir is Zawahiri, will become a logical inevitability. Will ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi eventually displace al-Qaeda Central and Zawahiri as the main figures of reverence for jihadist fighters and their supporters worldwide? This, of course, will ultimately depend on ISIS and the success of its efforts in Syria.

Second, ISIS in Syria has enjoyed a level of success in the founding of an Islamic state that is unmatched by any al-Qaeda affiliate or group sharing al-Qaeda’s ideology. Because of its efforts to design and implement a political strategy through social services, the media and educational outreach, it is likely that ISIS in Syria will become the model for current and future jihadist movements seeking to consolidate their control over territory in a lawless environment. Third, despite the disagreement among ISIS members as to whether ISIS is actually an al-Qaeda affiliate, it is ISIS in Syria that perhaps most openly expresses the global jihad movement’s true long-term goals: namely, the establishment of a Caliphate that should encompass the entire world.

Nevertheless, the future viability of ISIS’s “state-building” and its political outreach is in serious doubt. The situation in Syria is simply far too fragmented to allow ISIS to unite the country as a whole under its rule. Indeed, for ISIS to achieve such a goal requires opening up too many fighting fronts, an approach that has already cost ISIS some significant territorial control within Syria. Such is evident in ISIS’s open conflict with the Kurdish YPG militias following its expulsion from the northern border town of Ras al-Ayn in July 2013. While ISIS quickly countered by expelling pockets of YPG militias from multiple locations in the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates (such as the Jarabulus area in July 2013, and Tel Abyaḍ in August), the group has suffered serious setbacks in the far northeast at the hands of the YPG. As a result, ISIS commanders have had to rely on reinforcements from the Ninawa province in Iraq. This diversion of manpower to the northeast has resulted in weaknesses along the Aleppo front against regime forces. Consequently, the Assad regime has managed to exploit rebel infighting in the Aleppo area and to retake some territory.

Moreover, despite ISIS’s political outreach, the group faces a fundamental problem in dealing with other rebel factions and thus in consolidating political control. This is partly because ISIS already sees itself not merely as a “group” or “faction” like the other rebels but as a “state” that has the prerogative to rule over all others. Therefore, ISIS is inherently unwilling to share power, and often adopts a particularly brutal approach to dealing with other rebel factions. In fact, insurgent groups in Iraq, like Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, and also in Syria, like Ahrar ash-Sham, have all complained about ISIS’ intractability. Tensions between ISIS and other rebel groups are likely to grow, as the serious infighting between ISIS and other rebel groups in Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa and Deir az-Zor governorates suggests. In January 2014, ISIS killed a leading figure in Ahrar ash-Sham, Abu Rayyan, who had attempted to mediate a dispute between Ahrar ash-Sham and ISIS over the latter’s seizure of an Aleppo town called Maskanah.

In all likelihood, the murder will exacerbate existing tensions among the Islamist rebel factions. At present, two rebel coalitions—the Jaysh al-Mujahideen of Aleppo and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama—are committed to evicting ISIS out of Syria. A third coalition that formed in November 2013, the Islamic Front, has been more ambiguous with respect to ISIS. While some of its fighters have battled with ISIS, the Islamic Front’s leaders do not indicate a desire to destroy ISIS per se, but rather lack the ability to restrain their fighters in various localities.

ISIS has weakened itself by fighting along too many battlefronts; it has spread itself too thinly in various towns where it has sought to consolidate political control. On January 10, 2014, rival factions evicted ISIS from almost all Idlib localities except the town of Saraqeb. In Aleppo, Azaz remains the only substantial ISIS stronghold in the Raqqa province. Even there, however, ISIS must continually fight with FSA-banner militants who pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in the city of Raqqa. In Deir az-Zor province, fighting broke out in the town of Mayadeen between Ahrar ash-Sham and ISIS, culminating in a suicide car bombing by the latter against the former’s local headquarters in the town.

It is worth noting that the rebel groups that have emerged in opposition to ISIS differ from the ones which ultimately became the Iraq “Sahwa” movement in three important ways. First, Islamic Front fighters generally decline to have any kind of Western support in the fight with ISIS. Second, this fighting has been spontaneous and opportunistic, rather than a pre-planned initiative against ISIS. For example, the murder of Abu Rayyan provoked widespread demonstrations in northern Syrian towns against ISIS, thereby allowing members of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Jaysh al-Mujahideen to exploit the opportunity to attack ISIS. The squabbling that ensued dragged Islamic Front fighters into the conflict. Third, there is a degree of localization to these clashes: Ahrar ash-Sham fighters still collaborate with ISIS on the Qamishli front against the YPG, and some Ahrar ash-Sham affiliates (e.g. in Tel Abyad) refuse to fight ISIS. Likewise, Jabhat al-Nusra tries to play a mediating role in Damascus and Idlib provinces and to protect ISIS fighters in Qalamoun.

So far, ISIS’s loss of territory has been substantial, but the infighting among these rebel Islamist groups should not be construed as the beginning of the end of ISIS in Syria. The group can still retreat into the shadows in its all out-war against the “Sahwa” among the rebels (to quote ISIS’s spokesman in a recent speech on the clashes), and it can pursue clandestine sabotage attacks in an attempt to undermine its rivals within the rebel ranks. Thus, the ISIS bombings and assassinations targeting Sahwa militiamen that we observe in Iraq with regularity today may well become the new norm in Syria.

Since January 2014, however, ISIS’s brutal conduct toward rival rebel groups has drawn strong condemnation from central figures in al-Qaeda. In one instance in Jarabulus, an ISIS suicide car bomb targeting other rebels killed 33 people. Abu Khalid al-Suri, the man appointed by Zawahiri to mediate between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, has since released a statement distancing bin Laden, Zawahiri, and even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from ISIS’s recent “crimes.” He called on ISIS members to repent. It now appears the gap between al-Qaeda Central and ISIS will continue to grow.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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Zawahiri’s Servant in Gaza Orchestrated Plots for Mega Terror Attacks

State Department spokesperson mischaracterizes al Qaeda

download (59)By THOMAS JOSCELYN & BILL ROGGIO:

Yesterday, State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf made two ridiculous claims about al Qaeda during a briefing with reporters. First, she claimed that there are no “operational” links between al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and jihadist groups in Syria. And second, she said that Zawahiri is the only remaining member of “core” al Qaeda. From the briefing[emphasis ours]:

QUESTION: Okay. And then, secondly, there were some reports that Ayman Zawahiri has recorded another message – it’s on militant websites – telling militants to unite in Syria. Are you aware of these and do you have any response?MS. HARF: I haven’t seen it. I think – a few points: Obviously, we are concerned about the terrorist threat in Syria. We’re concerned about al-Qaida affiliated elements from taking advantage of the situation there to conduct terrorist attacks. I haven’t, quite frankly, seen the Zawahiri message. Did you say it was an audio message?

QUESTION: Yes.

MS. HARF: Okay. I’ll take a look or a listen to that when I get back.

And look, this is not new rhetoric we’ve heard from Zawahiri. He’s – core al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides Zawahiri, has essentially the entire leadership been decimated by the U.S. counterterrorism efforts. He’s the only one left. I think he spends, at this point, probably more time worrying about his own personal security than propaganda, but still is interested in putting out this kind of propaganda to remain relevant.

So we’ve seen al-Qaida in the past try to take advantage for propaganda purposes of local – of conflicts in places like Iraq, places like Yemen, and places like Syria, to use that for propaganda purposes. But beyond that, I don’t know of more of an operational link between Zawahiri and folks in Syria.

QUESTION: So you’re not seeing any kind of operational command and control between core al-Qaida and what the militants in Syria –

MS. HARF: I’ll check with our folks. Not to my knowledge. But again, I want to check with our team just to make sure what the exact – on operational. We certainly know that elements in Syria take – al-Qaida elements in Syria take inspiration from folks like Zawahiri and from some of the language that we hear from him, and that, I’m sure, it’s the same kind of language that’s on this audio that I will take a look at when I get off the podium.

But beyond that, again, we’ve been very clear that because of the Assad regime’s climate it’s created in Syria, we are increasingly concerned about the terrorist threat. Certainly.

First, Harf claims that there is no “operational link between Zawahiri and folks in Syria.” There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that this isn’t true.

Zawahiri stepped into the leadership dispute between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) last year. He demanded that the leaders of both organizations file a report with him. They each complied. He then issued a ruling in late May that ISIS and its emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, disagreed with and openly defied. The dispute with ISIS is more nuanced than most analysts let on, but it is obviously a very serious disagreement. (We have covered this in-depth, and will have more on this in the near future.)

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Al Qaeda head addresses infighting in Syria

download (57)By THOMAS JOSCELYN:

The emir of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, has released a new audio message addressing the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria. Zawahiri does not mention any specific groups or individuals by name, but much of his message is clearly aimed at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), a branch of al Qaeda that has been the main source of the internecine conflict.

Zawahiri addresses all of the jihadist factions fighting against Bashar al Assad’s regime, saying they are the best “hope” for establishing an Islamic state in the heart of the Levant, as well as “liberating Jerusalem,” according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

Al Qaeda respects and admires “all of you,” Zawahiri says, addressing all of the factions as “brothers.” According to Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leaders believe that the jihadists’ “brotherhood in Islam” is stronger than any temporary “organizational bonds.”

Zawahiri implores the jihadists to “let go” of their “partisan fanaticism” if it cuts against the “unity of your ranks.” The infighting distracts them from fighting their true enemies, including Shiite forces, Russia, and China, all of whom are supposedly colluding with the “Crusader campaign.”

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other ISIS leaders have claimed to represent the only true Islamic state inside Syria and have tried to make other jihadist groups abide by its rules. However, other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda’s other official branch inside Syria, the Al Nusrah Front, as well as al Qaeda-linked groups such as Ahrar al Sham, have rejected ISIS’ claims of superiority.

Although Zawahiri does not address ISIS directly, at least three parts of the audio message seem to be targeted at the unruly group.

First, Zawahiri says that al Qaeda does not accept “any violation” or “any assault” against the “sanctity of any Muslim or jihadist.” Al Qaeda also does “not accept” the accusations of “infidelity or apostasy” that have been levied against some jihadist groups, because they are all “sacrificing their lives and properties” for the sake of jihad.

ISIS has repeatedly accused other jihadist organizations of being apostates or infidels, especially when they do not accept the group’s unilateral decisions.

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The al Qaeda threat in Turkey

download (54)By KAREN HODGSON, July 8, 2013

1. INTRODUCTION

The threat of al Qaeda in Turkey is significantly understudied, considering the nature and number of targets against which the terror group has plotted attacks, including many targets affiliated with the United States. Perhaps this is because the Turkish police are successful in thwarting such attacks; foiled plots are not as sensational as those that are carried out and cause tragedy. Or it could be because terror in Turkey has historically been synonymous with the terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which distracts from the al Qaeda threat. It is also easy to dismiss Turkey as an unlikely target for al Qaeda, given its 99 percent Muslim population and currently Islamic-rooted government.

A look at al Qaeda’s targets, which appear to be concentrated on US, Turkish, British, Jewish, and Christian facilities, demonstrates the point. Plots involving American targets include a plan to attack the İncirlik Base in Adana in 2003; a foiled attack on the NATO summit in Istanbul in May 2004 that was to be attended by then-President George W. Bush; and an attack on the US Consulate in Istanbul in July 2008, which killed three policemen. In July 2011, an attack on the US Embassy in Ankara was thwarted just before Secretary of State Clinton’s visit. In April 2013, Turkish police found evidence of a new plot linked to al Qaeda to bomb the US Embassy in Ankara. As recently as May 2013, Turkish police uncovered a plot by the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front to conduct sarin gas attacks against Turkish and American targets, a relatively new phenomenon which appears to be a result of the spillover effects of the Syrian war into Turkey.

Other targets include suicide attacks on the British Consulate, the headquarters of British HSBC international bank, and two big synagogues in Istanbul in November 2003, which killed some 60 people and injured at least 700; a possible attack on the Pope during his visit to Turkey in November 2006; and a plot to attack the Bilderberg Summit in Istanbul in June 2007. Turkish authorities have also intercepted al Qaeda plans to conduct attacks on churches and clergy in Ankara, Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan after their takeover of the Kabul Regional Command in November 2009, the Turkish parliament building, and an Israeli cruise ship to Turkey.

These incidents suggest that the al Qaeda threat in Turkey persists. In fact, an al Qaeda-linked document found during a recent raid in Turkey said that it was more beneficial for the group to target Turkey than the West. Routine operations and mass arrests of suspected al Qaeda members and sympathizers indicate the presence of a support network for its cause within Turkey. These indications, combined with the recent emergence of jihadists in Syria, and the presence of Al Nusra Front elements along certain parts of Turkey’s 570-mile border with Syria, make this a threat worth examining.

There are challenges in trying to decipher the al Qaeda threat in Turkey, however. Reports based on open sources such as this one have to make analyses based only on the information that is available. The media does not give much attention to thwarted attacks. And the Turkish press does not publish names of people arrested, to protect the privacy of the individuals and investigations; instead, only the suspects’ initials are published. Moreover, many al Qaeda operatives have one or more code names. In addition, many of the details of operations or what they reveal is not reported. Nevertheless, some conclusions can still be made about the characteristics of al Qaeda in Turkey today.
2. WHY IS TURKEY A TARGET? HOW DOES AL QAEDA VIEW TURKEY?

Al Qaeda’s narrative on Turkey suggests that it views Turkey as a Muslim traitor that abolished the Caliphate at the end of the Ottoman Empire, which for al Qaeda marks the start of the “Muslim world’s humiliation and contempt over the last 80 years.” Al Qaeda views Turkey — a country with free elections and a liberal economy, a member of NATO, and a strategic ally of the United States — as a US or Western puppet. Turkey was also one of the first countries to recognize Israel, and takes part in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which leads al Qaeda to accuse Turkey of “cooperating with Israel” and “killing Muslims in Afghanistan.”

Read more at Long War Journal