Abu Bakr al Baghdadi: From Terrorist Commander to Religious Icon

abu-bakr-al-baghdadiBlind Eagle, By Brian Fairchild:

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s power to motivate and attract tens of thousands of radicalized Muslims is largely based on the fact that he has transcended the role of a terrorist commander and has become an Islamic religious and political icon – the new “Caliph” of the re-established “Caliphate”. 

He doesn’t claim to be a prophet, but he claims nothing less than to be the rightful political and religious heir to the Prophet Muhammad, and he often draws parallels between himself and Muhammad and other prophets, to support these claims and to legitimize his strict religious ideology.

On July 5, 2014, al-Baghdadi made his video debut at the Great Mosque of al-Nouri in Mosul, Iraq wearing Islamic garb and sporting a long beard, and he made a speech that was carefully crafted to draw parallels between himself and Muhammad.  The speech occurred during the Muslim month of Ramadan, and so he began his comments by stating that “Ramadan is a month to wage jihad”, noting that the Prophet Muhammad fought many battles against the “polytheists” during this month.

The implications of this reference sent a particularly potent message to radical Muslims because they know that Muhammad led Islam’s two most important battles during Ramadan – the very first battle, called the Battle of Badr, and the Battle of Mecca.  According to Islamic history, Muhammad faced overwhelming odds in his battle with the powerful Quraysh tribe at the desert oasis of Badr, but was victorious because of Allah’s divine intervention.  At the subsequent Battle of Mecca, he defeated the Quraysh with an Army of 10,000.  The city fell with almost no resistance.  The victory at Mecca consolidated Muhammad’s power and caused the surrounding tribes to join him.  The few remaining opposing tribes were quickly subdued.

The parallels to al-Baghdadi are unmistakable.  As he spoke at the Great Mosque of al-Nouri his total force was estimated to be around 10,000, the same number Muhammad fielded in the Battle of Mecca.  Like Muhammad, he emerged out of the desert and, against all odds, defeated a much larger and better equipped enemy, causing many to flee without firing a shot.  He consolidated his power by creating the “caliphate”, and the surrounding tribes joined him.  Finally, he proclaimed that these victories were only possible because he and his troops “have been bestowed upon by Allah to achieve victory” – divine intervention. 

The comparisons continue.  In the Islamic State’s September 21, 2014 statement, al Baghdadi calls Muslims to emulate the Prophet Muhammad’s historic hijrah (emigration) from Mecca to Medina by emigrating from their homes to defend the new Islamic State.  He proclaims that the coming fight with America is a decisive moment in Islamic history (just as Muhammad’s fight was) – a moment in which the fate of all Muslims hang in the balance, and he exhorts Muslims to rise to their brothers’ defense because:

  • “They are facing a battle which is of the decisive, critical battles in the history of Islam. If the Muslims are defeated, they will be humiliated in such a manner that no humiliation compares to. And if the Muslims are victorious – and this will be the case by Allah’s permission – they will be honored with all honor by which the Muslims will return to being the masters of the world and kings of the earth…”[1]

These comparisons resonate deeply in Salafi-jihadis who believe that there is no higher religious calling than to emulate the Prophet Muhammad’s methodology to establish Allah’s religion on earth, and this is precisely what al Baghdadi calls them to do.  He emphasizes their piousness by stating that he sees “the Quran walking alive amongst” them, and then unambiguously tells them that they are directly following in Muhammad’s footsteps:

  • “O soldiers of the Islamic State and its sons everywhere, listen and comprehend. If the people belie you, reject your state and your call, and mock your caliphate, then know that your Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) was belied. His call was rejected. He was mocked. If your people fight you, accuse you with the worst of accusations, and describe you with the worst of all traits, then know that the people of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) fought him, expelled him, and accused him with matters worse than those you have been accused with.  If the parties have gathered against you, then know they gathered against your Prophet before (blessings and peace be upon him).”[2]

Muslim traditions tell how the pious Muhammad was able to overcome vastly superior military forces because of Allah’s divine intervention on his behalf, and thus, in the September 21, 2014 statement, al Baghdadi tells his followers that, because of their piousness and strict religious observance, Allah is on their side and that victory against America is assured because Allah wills it:

  • “Allah has given you might and honor after your humiliation. He has made you rich after your poverty. And He has aided you despite your weakness and small numbers. He showed you that victory is from Him, the Glorified.He grants it to whomever He wills and whenever He wills…Therefore Allah will give you victory. Indeed, Allah will give you victory. By Allah, Allah will give you victory…So know that – by Allah – we fear not the swarms of planes, nor ballistic missiles, nor drones, nor satellites, nor battleships, nor weapons of mass destruction. How could we fear them, while Allah the Exalted has said: ‘If Allah should aid you, no one can overcome you; but if He should forsake you, who is there that can aid you after Him? And upon Allah let the believers rely” – Qur’an Chapter 3: Verse 160.

In addition to drawing parallels between himself and the Prophet Muhammad, al Baghdadi also uses the Prophet Noah to legitimize his particularly severe religious rule.  In the second issue of his official publication Dabiq magazine titled The Flood , al Baghdadi uses the story of Noah and the Ark to legitimize his demand that Muslims live according to a strict literal interpretation of Sharia law.  In the article, the Prophet Noah is described as an uncompromising prophet who gave his people a single, but profound, choice:

  • “He didn’t say to them, for example: “I have come to you with the truth, and your leaders are calling you to falsehood, so you are free to choose whether to follow me or to follow your leaders.” In fact, he didn’t even say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me then you would be correct, and if you follow your leaders then you would be mistaken.” Nor did he say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me you will be saved, and if you oppose me and follow your leaders then your reckoning is with Allah, and I have done what is required of me and you are free to choose.” Rather, he told them with full clarity:  “It’s either me or the flood.”[3]  The parallel between Noah and al Baghdadi couldn’t be more obvious, especially given the fact that the Dabiq article was titled:  It’s Either the Islamic State or the Flood.

It is al Baghdadi’s uncompromising religious belief that is the very crux of the jihadi civil war between al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s Jahbat al Nusra (also called the Nusra Front), and al Baghdadi’s Islamic State.

Al Baghdadi is much more religiously zealous and demanding than Zawahiri.  Zawahiri is flexible and pragmatic in matters of ideology, preferring to slowly and carefully educate the Muslim community to accept Sharia law, and he is willing to form pragmatic alliances with non-jihadi organizations to further al Qaeda’s interests.

Al Baghdadi, on the other hand, has no such tolerance for coddling the Muslim masses or working with infidels, believing rather that it is his mission to confront Muslims, including Zawahiri and the Nusra Front, on matters of religion:

  • “it’s upon us…to eradicate the principle of “free choice,” and to not deceive the people in an attempt to seek their pleasure…Rather, we must confront them with the fact that they’ve turned away from the religion…and that we’re completely ready to stand in the face of anyone who attempts to divert us from our commitmentto making the religion of Allah triumphant over all other religions, and that we will continue to fight the people of deviation and misguidance until we die trying to make the religion triumphant.”[4]

That al Baghdadi and his followers have drawn this religious line in the sand against al Qaeda is documented by the following developments:

In late April 2014, a group of nine al Qaeda emirs from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran defected from al Qaeda to the Islamic State.  They justified their defection by indirectly accusing Zawahiri and the al-Nusra Front of infidelity and apostasy:

  • “the forces of infidelity and apostasy quickly sowed the seeds of hypocrisy, using new groups under Islamic sounding names to be a rival and an obstacle to the Islamic state…the group did not have any courage to enforce judgments over those who disobey sharia, under the pretext of avoiding a clash with the people or due to their inability and incapacity…”

A few days later, al Baghdadi’s spokesman, Sheikh Muhammad al-Adnani, echoed these sentiments stating:

  • “Al Qaeda, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan, deviated from the rightful course…It is not a dispute about who to kill or who to give your allegiance. It is a question of religious practices being distorted and an approach veering off the right path.”

In The Flood, al Baghdadi specifically criticized the Nusra Front and Zawahiri for regularly breaking Sharia law in matters of religion and by forging alliances with organizations the Islamic State considers to be infidel, such as the Syrian National Coalition and the Islamic Front, and for justifying this religious laxity as a pragmatic and temporary necessity for “the sake of Jihad”.[5]

Also in The Flood, al Baghdadi quotes Salafi scholar Ibnul Qayyim who said:  “The pillars of kufr (religious infidelity) are four:  arrogance, envy, anger, and desire”, and then al Baghdadi goes on to accuse al Qaeda of all four:

  • “Whoever wants to know how a mujāhid (jihad) group fī sabīlillah (for Allah) becomes a militant group fighting fī sabīlit-tāghūt (for corrupt regimes) then let him review history, and let him know that a man’s love for leadership,wealth, and personal opinion becomes pride. Pride becomes envy. Envy becomes arrogance. Arrogance becomes hatred. Hatred becomes enmity. Enmity becomes contradiction of the rival.[6]

So confident is he in his religious superiority that in March 2014, al Baghdadi challenged the Nusra Front, to Mubahala – an Islamic ritual that implores Allah to choose between two rival factions by showing his favor for one while cursing the other.  In Muslim tradition, the repeated military success of one of the parties can only occur if Allah wills it, and al Baghdadi believes that his series of successes proves that Allah has chosen the Islamic State over the Nusra Front as the winner.

Analysts frequently try to explain why so many radicalized Muslims flock to Iraq and Syria.  The reasons they stipulate often include that these misguided Muslims are simply alienated youth, thrill seekers, or are attracted by “jihad cool”.  In actual fact, Salafi-jihadi fighters are religious zealots, and they are attracted to al Baghdadi as their religious and political leader precisely because he is seen by them to be the active defender of what they consider to be “true” Islam.  Tens of thousands have already performed hijrah to embrace his religious and political leadership, and this number can be expected to grow exponentially as al Baghdadi continues to “defend” Islam.

Brian Fairchild bio.

Indications Al Qaeda is Planning an Attack Against the US

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

Blind Eagle, Brian Fairchild:

On September 4, 2014, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri announced the creation of a new al Qaeda organization called – Qaedat al Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS).  The mission of the new affiliate is to consolidate the jihad movement in Kashmir, Bangladesh, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and India, an area that has heretofore been an operational backwater for al Qaeda.  This new al Qaeda organization is headed by Asim Umar, a former Pakistani Taliban commander, which may be the key to understanding this new development, and an indicator that Zawahiri is planning to attack the United States, and has the capability to do so.

The announcement comes at a time when Zawahiri’s ideological and operational leadership over the international jihad movement is being fundamentally challenged in an actual jihadi civil war between his Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Clashes between the Nusra Front and ISIS began in early 2013, but increased when al Baghdadi publicly claimed that the Nusra Front was part of ISIS and would be merged with it.  Al Nusra’s commander Abu Muhammad al Jawlani, however, refused to merge, and the dispute became increasingly violent.  Jawlani subsequently appealed to Zawahiri to arbitrate the conflict.  Zawahiri sided with al Nusra, and ordered al Baghdadi to dissolve ISIS and return to Iraq.

Al Baghdadi, however, dismissed Zawahiri’s ruling, routed al Nusra from the Syrian city of ar-Raqqa and took control of 80 percent of its foreign fighters.  ISIS then swept through Syria and Iraq taking control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in the first few days of January 2014.  In February 2014, as a direct result of his insubordination and the brutality of his campaign, Zawahiri officially and publicly disowned ISIS.  In response, al Baghdadi disdainfully stated “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God”, and he continued his conquest.  He took Mosul in early June, and then, on June 29, 2014, he announced the creation of the Islamic “caliphate” naming himself as the new leader of all Muslims and calling for all jihad groups to obey him and gather under his banner, and he changed the name of his organization from ISIS to the Islamic State.

Al Baghdadi’s creation of the “caliphate” is central to understanding the degree to which he has undermined Zawahiri’s prestige and authority because it brings to fruition the goal that Zawahiri himself explicitly defined as vital for the success of the jihad movement, as illustrated in the following quote from his book Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, published in 2001:

  • “Armies achieve victory only when the infantry takes hold of land…the mujahid Islamic movement will not triumph against the world coalition unless it possesses an Islamist base in the heart of the Islamic world.  All the means and plans that we have reviewed for mobilizing the nation will remain up in the air without a tangible gain or benefit unless they lead to the establishment of the state of caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world.”[1]

That the prized “caliphate” was established by the very man he disowned is a tremendous loss of face to Zawahiri, and illustrates that this internecine war is not just a spat between jihad groups.  It is, fundamentally, a battle for the ideological leadership and operational direction of the entire international jihad movement.  In addition to the vital requirement to create a “caliphate”, Zawahiri believes that maintaining Muslim public support is paramount to the survival of the jihad movement, and thus, he rejects any actions that he believes would lose this support, such as rigidly forcing Sharia law on Muslims, conducting sectarian war against the Shia, and the public slaughter of prisoners.  Al Baghdadi, on the other hand, doesn’t care about Muslim public opinion, believes Muslims have no choice but to live under strict Sharia law, he actively foments sectarian war between the Sunni and Shia, and he frequently uses the slaughter of prisoners as a tactical and strategic weapon.

At present, al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, flush with money, manned by a flood of foreign fighters, bolstered by a string of military successes, and having realized the dream that Zawahiri has always called for – the establishment of the “caliphate”, is winning the civil war.

But Zawahiri’s problems do not stop there.  Not only is the Nusra Front losing, but there is also growing factionalism within the group that limits Zawahiri’s influence over it – one faction wants to rapidly increase the number of foreign fighters into the ranks without preconditions (i.e. accepting Zawahiri’s beliefs), while the other wants to limit such an expansion in order to ensure that all within the Nusra Front comply with Zawahiri’s policies; it also plans to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria to compete with al Baghdadi.

It gets worse for Zawahiri.  Nothing succeeds like success, and al Baghdadi’s string of successes has caused dissention and desertions in the ranks of Zawahiri’s heretofore loyal and key affiliates – al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  After the August 2014 American airstrikes against the Islamic State, AQAP pledged solidarity with it and vowed to conduct mass casualty attacks against the US in retaliation.  Since July 2014, the loyalty of AQIM’s leadership is reportedly split between Zawahiri and al Baghdadi.

Every success by the Islamic State, every pledge of allegiance by a jihad group to al Baghdadi, and every defection of a fighter from an al Qaeda affiliate to the IS, pushes Zawahiri further and further into irrelevancy within the jihad movement and on the world stage.  With all these challenges against him, it is surprising that the best response he could muster is the anemic announcement of a new affiliate that will work the backwaters of the jihad.  The timing of the announcement, too, is interesting.  Why now?  In the context of all his tribulations, neither the announcement nor its timing make much sense, unless there is another reason for the announcement, and another role for the new affiliate to play.

Certainly, as he contemplates ways to regain his leadership, it is not lost on Zawahiri that another successful attack on the American homeland, especially if that attack coincided with the anniversary of the historical 9/11 attacks perpetrated by him and Osama bin Laden, would restore his reputation and leadership.  For such a gambit to work, however, he would have to be able to claim credit for the attacks, and thus they would have to be conducted according to his direction and by an al Qaeda organization that he controls, which may be precisely why he announced the creation of QJIS at this particular moment.

The other al Qaeda organizations don’t meet this standard:

  • The leadership and operational capability of “core” al Qaeda has been significantly degraded over the years by incessant US drone attacks.
  • AQAP’s recent declaration of solidarity for Zawahiri’s Islamic State nemesis, and its independent threat to launch mass casualty attacks against the US, demonstrates his lack of control over this jihad group.
  • The major split in AQIM’s leadership over whether to support him or the Islamic State, removes AQIM as an operational platform for a Zawahiri attack scenario.
  • Al Nusra is factionalized and is out-gunned and out-manned by ISIS, and is fighting on three fronts: against the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and other opposition groups.

The only group Zawahiri has unquestioned control over at the present time is the one he just created – Qaedat al Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS).  But, does this new affiliate have the capability to conduct such an attack?  The intelligence indicates that it is likely that QJIS has the capability because it was created from numerous jihad groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but, most significantly, from elements of the Tehrik-e Taliban (also known as TTP or Pakistani Taliban), a professional and experienced jihad group that Zawahiri is close to and has worked with for years.  Significantly, the man he installed as the new leader of QJIS is a former Pakistani Taliban commander named Asim Umar, who Zawahiri has groomed for the position over the past couple of years.  In 2013, Umar went on the record supporting Zawahiri’s desire to attack the US by proclaiming to his Muslim audience:

“Rise! Awaken! Participate in this global jihad to give a final push to the collapsing edifice of America.”

The Pakistani Taliban is experienced and operationally competent, and has an especially close relationship with Zawahiri and “core” al Qaeda.  On September 1, 2010, the State Department described the close relationship when it declared the Pakistani Taliban and two of its senior leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists:

  • TTP and al-Qa’ida have a symbiotic relationship; TTP draws ideological guidance from al-Qa’ida, while al-Qa’ida relies on TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both al-Qa’ida’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their relationship, TTP is a force multiplier for al-Qa’ida.

Most significantly, the Pakistani Taliban, in cooperation with Zawahiri, has already conducted operations against the US.  It controlled and trained the double-agent that conducted the 2009 suicide bombing of the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, and it trained and directed Faisal Shahzad to conduct the Times Square bombing on May 1, 2010.

Zawahiri certainly has the intent to attack the United States as documented in the Summer 2014 issue of his official jihad magazine, Azan, which stated:

  • The reestablishment of the Khilafah (Caliphate) in the Muslim world is only achievable once America has been degraded to the point when it can no longer meddle in the affairs of Muslims.[2]…Due to the attacks by the Mujahideen…and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is now on a slippery slope to collapse…The strategy of attacking US interests has worked and needs to continue for the foreseeable future until its strength has been reduced to a state in which it will be unable to support the Tawagheet (corrupt Muslim regimes) that rule the Muslim lands.[3] 

Absent specific actionable intelligence, it is impossible to state with certainty when any terrorist attack will occur.  The above analysis, however, documents Zawahiri’s increasingly poor strategic situation and his humiliation by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and reveals that an attack on the United States, on or near the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, would likely counter al Baghdadi’s challenge to Zawahiri and reverse the degradation of his leadership and relevancy.  It also reveals that it is likely Zawahiri has the capability to conduct and take credit for such an attack via the creation of QJIS and its absorption of Pakistani Taliban elements.  Another factor not included in the above analysis that likely motivates Zawahiri to attack, is the likelihood that al Baghdadi is planning such attacks (see the detailed report on this topic).  If al Baghdadi successfully conducts attacks in the United States while Zawahiri sits on the sidelines, Zawahiri’s demise as the leader of the international jihad movement will be assured.

[1] Zawahiri, Ayman, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, London al Sharq al Awsat, 2001, p. 63

[2] Azan Magazine, The Rise and Fall of America, Summer 2014, p. 13

[3] Azan Magazine, p. 15

Brian Fairchild bio.

Al Qaeda Announces New Branch and Bid for Own Caliphate

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

BY RYAN MAURO:

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has announced the opening of a new branch targeting India, Bangladesh and Burma in a videotape release. He did not mention the Islamic State (formerly ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), but his announcement could be interpreted as an attempt to demonstrate Al Qaeda’s viability as it is being eclipsed by the Islamic State.

Zawahiri, who is thought to be hiding in Pakistan, said that it took Al Qaeda two years to merge its associated forces into this new branch. Tellingly, he said that the new branch, named Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS), would be loyal to Taliban chief Mullah Omar.

QJIS is led by a Pakistani commander of Al Qaeda named Asim Umar. His official position in Al Qaeda is chief of the group’s Sharia Committee in Pakistan. He is also a Pakistani Taliban commander.

Zawahiri named Ustad Usama Mahmoud as the spokesperson for QJIS.

He emphasized that the group’s goal is to “Establish sharia in the land and to free the occupied land of Muslims in the Indian sub-continent.”

The jihad is not fundamentally about territorial disputes. Indian control of Kashmir, the crackdown on Islamists by the Bangladeshi government and the dictatorship of Burma are road blocks standing in the way of this greater objective of sharia governance. Al Qaeda takes up these political causes as a means to this end.

Zawahiri called on Muslims to help QJIS create a caliphate. He describes its mission statement as “to call the ummah [Muslim world] to unite round the word of Tawhid [monotheism], to wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty, and to revive its Caliphate.”

This is an important detail. The Islamic State’s pitch is that it is an established caliphate and the one with the best chance of a success. Zawahiri is showing that Al Qaeda is also pro-caliphate and is suggesting the Indian subcontinent as an alternative starting point.

Read more at Clarion Project

Also see:

Al Qaeda opens branch in the ‘Indian Subcontinent’

 

In the video, Umar called on Indian Muslims to participate in the “global jihad to give a final push to the collapsing edifice of America.”

By Bill Roggio:

Al Qaeda has announced the establishment of a new branch, called “Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent.” The group reports to Mullah Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban, and is led by a former commander in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan who also served as a sharia official in al Qaeda’s branch in Pakistan. The ultimate goal of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent is the same as al Qaeda’s: to establish a global caliphate and impose sharia, or Islamic law.

As Sahab, al Qaeda’s official media outlet, released a lengthy video promoting the creation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent today. The video, which was published on various Internet video sites, including YouTube, features Ayman al Zawahiri as well as Asim Umar, the new emir of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and Usama Mahmoud, the group’s spokesman. The video was translated by the SITE Intelligence group.

“A new branch of al-Qaeda was established and is Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent, seeking to raise the flag of jihad, return the Islamic rule, and empowering the Shariah of Allah across the Indian subcontinent,” Zawahiri says in the opening of the video, according to the translation by SITE.

Zawahiri says the group was years in the making, contains “soldiers of the Islamic Emirate” (a reference to the Afghan Taliban), and ultimately reports to Mullah Omar.

“This entity was not established today, but it is the fruit of a blessed effort for more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid,” Zawahiri says. Zawahiri renewed his oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar in a statement that was released in July of this year. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda renews its oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar.]

“It is an entity that was formed to promulgate the call of the reviving imam Sheikh Usama bin Laden, may Allah have mercy on him, to call the Ummah to unite round the word of Tawhid [monotheism], to wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty, and to revive its Caliphate,” Zawahiri continues in the video.

Zawahiri says the group will defend the “vulnerable in the Indian subcontinent, in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujurat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir …” and “your brothers in Qaedat al-Jihad did not forget you and that they are doing what they can to rescue you from injustice, oppression, persecution, and suffering.”

Read more at Long War Journal

Also see:

ISIS Foreign Fighters: Implications for the US

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

By Brian Fairchild:

On August 17, 2014, The British Prime Minister announced that ISIS foreign fighters represent a “clear danger” to citizens “on the streets of Britain”.  In the United States, intelligence agencies report a significant rise in the number of foreign fighters pouring into Iraq and Syria, and warn that ISIS is now establishing cells outside the Middle East.  Any ISIS activity detected in the United States would represent a clear and present danger with national security implications, but to fully understand the nature of the threat, one must first understand the profound ideological and operational differences between core Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Al Qaeda is a Salafi-jihadi organization with a clear ideology, but it is also a practical organization willing to compromise on ideological matters for the sake of obtaining its goals.  Since its creation, it has focused its efforts on creating covert operational and support infrastructures in countries outside of the Middle East, while carving out niches for jihad groups in the ungoverned hinterlands of Yemen, Somalia, and the deserts of Algeria.

According to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, the entire jihad movement is dependent on Muslim popular support for its survival.  Therefore, he refuses to sanction any operation that would alienate the Muslim community.  While he regards the majority of the world’s Muslims as misguided and ignorant of their “true” religion, and sees his mission as creating an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law, he doesn’t demand that Muslims immediately accept and live according to strict Sharia practices.  On the contrary, he has often advised jihad groups not to implement Sharia too rapidly for fear that the population would rebel.

Embracing the old Arabic adage – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – he also makes alliances with ideologically tainted entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Iran, and he has steadfastly refuses to sanction sectarian war with Shia Muslims.  He adamantly rejects the public slaughter of hostages.

Not all of his associates, however, have held the same convictions.  One in particular, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, rebelled against him.  Zarqawi was the original leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), from which the new Islamic State emerged, and he is revered by the Islamic States leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.  Despite Zawahiri’s preoccupation with popular support, Zarqawi personally beheaded two Americans on video, and uncompromisingly attacked Iraq’s Shia population in an attempt to foment sectarian war, both of which caused negative blowback from the Muslim community.  This prompted Zawahiri to write a revealing letter of reprimand to Zarqawi on July 9, 2005.  The following excerpts from the letter reveal Zawahiri’s preoccupation with maintaining Muslim support and his fear that Zarqawi’s actions jeopardized that support:

On the absolute need for popular support, Zawahiri stated:

  • “…the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy…is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries. So, we must maintain this support as best we can, and we should strive to increase it…the mujahed (jihad) movement must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve…”

On his willingness to compromise on ideology for the benefit of the movement, Zawahiri stated:

  • “Also, the active mujahedeen ulema (Islamic clerics) – even if there may be some heresy or fault in them that is not blasphemous – we must find a means to include them and to benefit from their energy”.

Revealing his belief that bringing proper Salafi-jihadi ideology to the masses would take generations, he wrote:

  • “…correcting the mistakes of ideology is an issue that will require generations of the call to Islam and modifying the educational curricula…the mujahedeen are not able to undertake this burden, rather they are in need of those who will help them with the difficulties and problems they face…it is a duty of the mujahed (jihad) movement…to fill the role of leader, trailblazer, and exploiter of all the capabilities of the Umma (Muslim community) for the sake of achieving our aims…”.

Regarding his belief that attacking the Shia was a mistake, Zawahiri opined:

  • “…the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.

Revealing his total rejection of Zarqawi’s public beheadings of hostages, he said:

  • “Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace…will never find palatable…are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages.”

In response, Zarqawi ignored Zawahiri’s reprimand, and, approximately two months later, he launched an “all-out war” on the Shia.  His insubordination only ceased when he was killed by US forces in July 2006.

In 2013, Zarqawi’s successor and the current leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, received the same kind of reprimands from al Qaeda, and like Zarqawi, he rejected them.  His insubordination caused relations between him and al Qaeda to steadily deteriorate, and finally, in February 2014, the organization officially disowned him.  Al Baghdadi was not deterred, however.  Rather, he went to war with its Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front, and won, and in the process, walked-away with an estimated 80 percent of al Nusra’s foreign fighters.  By early July 2014, al Baghdadi’s ISIS forces swept through Syria and Iraq and established a new “Caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East, which claimed leadership of the worldwide Muslim community.  When al Baghdadi called for Muslims to emigrate to support the Caliphate the number of foreign fighters flooding into Syria and Iraq increased significantly.

In a disturbing new development, the main al Qaeda organizations, heretofore loyal to Zawahiri, appear to be switching sides.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered by the US government to be the leading threat to the homeland, expressed solidarity with the Islamic State after US airstrikes against it, and pledged to conduct attacks against the US in retaliation.  In addition, the leadership of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is reportedly fractured over support for the Islamic State, and analysts believe the leadership will either come out in support of al Baghdadi, or break in two with one faction supporting him while the other remains loyal to Zawahiri.  The notorious Boko Haram and other Salafi-jihad groups have also pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi.

Al Baghdadi is supremely confident in his leadership and the capabilities of the Islamic State.  So confident is he, that in March 2014, he challenged his nemesis, the al Nusra Front, to Mubahala – a ritual Islamic prayer asking Allah to show his favor for one of the parties while cursing the other.  In Muslim tradition repeated military success can only occur if Allah wills it, and al Baghdadi believes that his series of successes proves that Allah has chosen the Islamic State as the winner.  Moreover, in the latest issue of its official publication, Dabiq magazine, al Baghdadi goes one step further by using the story of Noah and the Ark to legitimize his strict adherence to Sharia law.  No doubt the article also reveals how he views his role as the new “Caliph”.  In the story, Noah is described as an uncompromising prophet who gave his people a single but profound choice:

  • “He didn’t say to them, for example: “I have come to you with the truth, and your leaders are calling you to falsehood, so you are free to choose whether to follow me or to follow your leaders.” In fact, he didn’t even say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me then you would be correct, and if you follow your leaders then you would be mistaken.” Nor did he say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me you will be saved, and if you oppose me and follow your leaders then your reckoning is with Allah, and I have done what is required of me and you are free to choose.” Rather, he told them with full clarity:  “It’s either me or the flood.”[1]

Armed with new success, swelling ranks and funds, and the belief that Allah is on their side, the Islamic State’s leadership and fighters offer a stark and severe contrast to old guard al Qaeda:

  • They don’t care about Muslim public opinion or opposition from core al Qaeda and other jihad groups.
  • They believe that Muslims have no degree of free choice regarding their beliefs.
  • They embrace an “it’s either me or the flood” mentality in which they see themselves as Allah’s chosen vanguard on earth that all other Muslims must follow.
  • They believe that all Shia Muslims are apostates and must be killed.
  • They embrace brutal public executions, beheadings, and crucifixions to send the simple message – Muslims rule, apostates die.
  • They believe their success is a result of divine intervention by Allah.

These attributes, then, define the threat from ISIS’ foreign fighters.  Zawahiri’s reticence to conduct any operations that would offend the worldwide Muslim community is no longer operative.  ISIS fighters have disdain for Muslim public opinion – to them, anything goes.  In 2003, al Qaeda had a terrorist plan to attack the New York subway system with cyanide gas.  The device they created worked and it would likely have killed hundreds, but Zawahiri called the attack off at the last minute, most likely because he assessed there would be a negative backlash from his Muslim support base.  Al Baghdadi’s fighters would have launched the attack.

Read more at Blind Eagle

Analysis: Al Qaeda attempts to undermine new Islamic State with old video of Osama bin Laden

By 

On July 13, Al Qaeda’s As Sahab posted this video of Osama bin Laden from the summer of 2001 on its Twitter feed.

 

On July 13, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As Sahab, tweeted a link to an old video of Osama bin Laden. Judging by markers in the video, including bin Laden’s reference to the USS Cole bombing taking place “nine months ago” (al Qaeda attacked the Cole on Oct. 12, 2000), it appears the video was recorded in the middle of 2001.

The first part of bin Laden’s lecture focuses on standard al Qaeda themes, including the war against America. In all likelihood, that is not why al Qaeda posted this particular video of bin Laden now. Instead, al Qaeda is attempting to use the video to counter the Islamic State, which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s senior leadership, and its newly announced caliphate.

“Today, with the grace of Allah, we are redrawing the map of the Islamic world to become one state under the banner of the caliphate,” bin Laden says.

The deceased al Qaeda leader goes on to explain that the Prophet Mohammed found that certain “pillars” were required to build a “strong Islamic State.”

As Sahab is advertising the video of bin Laden with this banner. A similar banner is being featured on a number of jihadist sites, including at the top of the Shumukh al Islam forum.

As Sahab is advertising the video of bin Laden with this banner. A similar banner is being featured on a number of jihadist sites, including at the top of the Shumukh al Islam forum.

“The Prophet spent 13 years in Mecca searching for these pillars: a strong group, obedience and respect, immigration, and jihad,” bin Laden says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. Mohammed “was on a quest to find these four things,” bin Laden continues. “He wanted to find a strong group that is willing to carry our jihad — those two demands are complementary — and be obedient and respectful. He found these four pillars after 13 years.”

A few sentences later, bin Laden adds: “Those who move from east to west, claiming that they want to establish God’s sharia but do not want to establish the prerequisites and pillars and do not want to tolerate the suffering of finding a group, obeying their leaders, migrating, and carrying out jihad are ignorant and unaware of the Prophet’s doctrine.”

The implied critique of the Islamic State and its announced caliphate, which covers parts of Syria and Iraq, is obvious. When viewed through bin Laden’s testimony, the Islamic State has not built the “pillars” necessary for a caliphate, especially when it comes to “obeying their leaders.”

Indeed, bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, has covered this issue in his messages addressing the Islamic State’s history. As Sahab released two messages from Zawahiri concerning the Islamic State in May. “Listen to and obey your emir once again,” Zawahiri says when addressing Baghdadi in the first message. “Come back to what your sheikhs, emirs, and those who preceded you on the path and immigration of jihad have worked hard for.” In both of his messages in May, Zawahiri builds a case against Baghdadi, showing that the Islamic State’s self-appointed “caliph” was once Zawahiri’s subordinate. Therefore, by accusing Baghdadi of being disobedient towards his leader, Zawahiri was also accusing him of ignoring one of the “pillars” necessary for building a true Islamic State.

Al Qaeda’s charge against Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s group could extend further, given that one of the pillars mentioned by bin Laden requires a jihadist group to be “obedient and respectful.” Other jihadist groups and ideologues whose beliefs are not all that different from the Islamic State’s have repeatedly accused Baghdadi’s group of being disrespectful towards anyone who disagrees with its attempted power grab. The disagreements have even led to vicious infighting between jihadists in Syria.

Bin Laden goes on to recount, in brief, the history of al Qaeda’s relations with the Taliban. The Taliban “allowed us to establish training camps on their land, regardless of all the international pressure against them,” bin Laden says. “They are also helping us in our preparations and training although they know that we are preparing to strike the United States of America.” This statement is interesting because there has long been a debate over how the Taliban viewed such attacks. And this is further evidence that bin Laden was loose-lipped prior to the 9/11 attacks, upsetting some of his co-conspirators who wanted to maintain the utmost secrecy.

An audience member asks bin Laden about his bayat (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s emir. And bin Laden’s response likely has bearing on Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s claim to be the rightful caliph.

“My pledge of allegiance to the Emir of the Believers [Mullah Omar] is the great pledge of allegiance, which is mentioned in the chapters of the Koran and the stories of the Sunnah,” bin Laden says. “Every Muslim should set his mind and heart and pledge allegiance to the Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar for this is the great pledge.”

The Islamic State’s announced caliphate attempts to usurp the power and authority of all other jihadist groups, including the Taliban, by demanding that they swear bayat to the new caliph. This has drawn criticism from highly influential jihadist ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, as well as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Bin Laden argues that Mullah Omar was deserving of such a pledge, and the implication of his testimony is that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is not.

Bin Laden cites Muhammad Bin Abd al Wahhab, the 18th century Islamic leader, as saying: ”When a man is in charge of a country and the scholars in this country accept his ruling, then his ruling as an emir of the believers is legitimate.” Bin Laden says that Mullah Omar has satisfied this requirement, claiming that “more than 1,500 scholars [have] pledged” their allegiance to Omar. Therefore, bin Laden argues, “it is the duty of everyone to pledge allegiance to him.”

Read more at Long War Journal

ISIS Takeovers in Iraq: Biggest Islamist Victory Since 9/11

ISIS-Terrorists-HP

The West needs to understand that ISIS’ motivation is explicitly ideological, Islamist and anti-democratic.

BY RYAN MAURO:

The takeover of about one-third of Iraq by the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) terrorist group is about more than establishing a miniature caliphate and base for jihad. It is a challenge to the prestige of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims to be a descendant of Islam’s holy prophet and ridicules Al-Qaeda for not enforcing sharia (Islamic) law strictly enough.

ISIS (also known as ISIL, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) controls significant parts of northern and eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, having taken Mosul and Tikrit. (It is now threatening Baghdad and Samarra.) This means that ISIS directlycontrols about one-third of Iraq, a proportion that increases substantially if you include Sunni areas of western Iraq that ISIS has bypassed on its dash towards the capital.

This is arguably the biggest victory for an Al-Qaeda-type group since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the overall Islamist cause since the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of Egypt in 2012.

Over 500,000 Iraqis—Sunnis aware of ISIS’s brutality—fled the Mosul area as the security forces melted away. Another half-million civilians were displaced earlier due to fighting in the Anbar Province. Over 150,000 Iraqi security personnel abandoned their positions as the offensive began, leaving behind uniforms and weapons. This number includes about 30,000 that fled when challenged by only 800 ISIS terrorists.

The question lingers of why U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi forces capitulated so quickly. Iraqi forces previously battled Al-Qaeda and even Iranian-backed militias successfully and U.S.-trained Afghan forces have also shown to be durable.

First, ISIS was able to creation of a safe haven for themselves in Syria from which they were able to build a formidable, organized base.

Next, ISIS allied themselves with terrorists that it would typically brand as “apostates.” This includes a network of fighters loyal to Iraq’s Baath Party, the political party of Saddam Hussein’s regime. One pivotal ally is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a Vice President under Saddam. His son was reportedly just killed in an Iraqi airstrike. In Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, posters of Al-Douri and Saddam were hoisted.

ISIS has announced that the territory it controls belongs to an Islamic state, even setting up banners to that effect. The groupdeclared the beginning of the “era of the Islamic state” in which Muslims would reject secular governance.

ISIS has offered to spare the lives of soldiers and police who end their “apostasy,” meaning their service to the government. This does not apply to Shiites, whose very faith makes them an “apostate” deserving of death in the eyes of ISIS. The group says it has executed 1,700 Shiite soldiers already.

Read more at Clarion Project for in depth analysis

Also see:

Understanding Benghazi: The Al Qaeda-Muslim Brotherhood Connection

benghazi_bloody_handprint_APBreitbart, by COUNCIL FOR GLOBAL SECURITY:

The Hague’s International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) recently released a report that shatters leftist talking points on the political situation in North Africa.

The report, titled “Security in the Sinai: Present and Future,” details not only the Sinai peninsula’s decent into chaos over the last two years, but synthesizes available research on the entire Islamist/Jihadi nexus that crosses North Africa, linking the Benghazi attack, Salafist activism undertaken by the Muslim Brotherhood, and links to what the administration’s intellectual vassals refer to as “al-Qaeda core.”

Sinai has long been a problem region for the Egyptian government, with bedouin tribes often taking advantage of a lack of governance in the peninsula during Egypt’s periods of political and economic upheaval. The most recent period of unrest is no different, with bedouin bandits engaging in criminal activity as soon as Mubarak’s political future was called into question by massive protests.

This banditry was rapidly replaced by Islamist militias connected to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, who targeted Coptic churches as well as Egyptian state assets, including police outposts along the trans-Sinai oil pipeline. These attacks were against the Egyptian state and economy; they were not mere acts of profit-seeking criminality. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), the most prominent jihadist group in Egypt, went so far as to use suicide bombings against Korean tourists, explicitly stating that they intended to ruin Egypt’s economy by targeting its heavy reliance on tourism.

This jihadist insurgency is supported by a larger political infrastructure, organized under the moniker of Salafiya Jihadiya (SJ). SJ was responsible for the extremely well organized “spontaneous” protests over an obscure video that targeted U.S. Embassies and installations across the Muslim world and is led by none other than Ayman al-Zawahiri’s younger brother, Muhammad al-Zawahiri.

Muhammad Jamal Abd al Rahim Ahmad al Kashif (frequently referred to as just Muhammad Jamal) is a veteran jihadist closely affiliated with Zawahiri. Jamal was mistakenly released in 2011, and in the two years before his arrest in 2013 he was responsible for establishing jihadist training camps in Sinai, Libya, and Western Egypt. Jamal is also known to have been closely involved in the September 11, 2012 attack on U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya. Upon his arrest, Jamal was discovered to have been in direct contact with Ayman al-Zawahiri, requesting assistance and reporting that groundwork had been laid for an al Qaeda enterprise in Sinai. Jamal is also believed to have trained and directed Walid Badr, a former Egyptian military officer who served as a suicide bomber in an attempt on the life of the Egyptian Minister of Interior.

With Muhammad Jamal and Muhammad Zawahiri both connected to the attack against the US consulate in Benghazi (and with Zawahiri personally present at the riot outside of the US embassy in Cairo, where the American flag was torn down and replaced by the black banner of al-Qaeda), it would defy logic to remain content with the administration’s story. But the thread doesn’t end there.

In February, the Egyptian government released intercepted recordings of phone calls between then-president Muhammad Morsi and Muhammad Zawahiri. Zawahiri was formally acquitted of terrorism charges by Morsi in 2012 and was reported by CNN to be “helping” negotiations with jihadists in Sinai during Morsi’s tenure. Additional reporting, cited by the Jerusalem Post, acknowledges not only that Morsi and the younger Zawahiri were in contact, but that the Muslim Brotherhood’s original contender for the Egyptian presidency, Khariat el-Shater, was in contact with “al Qaeda core” elements in Pakistan and Palestine.

Muhammad Zawahiri’s quasi-political role in Salafiya Jihadiya, his intimate affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood’s official leadership, his association with Muhammad Jamal’s jihadist infrastructure in Sinai, and his overt and direct participation in what the administration insists was a “spontaneous protest” in Cairo and Benghazi is a damning indictment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s direct connections to al-Qaeda.

Effectively, if Muhammad Zawahiri wanted to talk to his older brother he would have had to ask Morsi if he could use his phone. In the same instance, if the “core” of al Qaeda wanted to establish contact with Muhammad Jamal, its franchise in Northern Africa, including Benghazi, it would have likely relied on the same personalities. All of the above simply reinforce the stakes of the elections today and tomorrow in Cairo. General Sisi has openly stated his commitment to crush the Brotherhood beacause of its ties to al Qaeda. A victory for Sisi would be a victory against Salafi Jihadism.

The Hague is a European institution — it is not involved in American partisan politics and has no reason to bend the facts on Benghazi and the Brotherhood to fit a partisan agenda. These are the facts of the case, and those who continue to deny that Benghazi was a result of a “larger failure of foreign policy” are finally starting to feel the heat.

The Council for Global Security is a Washington-based non-profit organization that support democracy, prosperity and the protection of minorities around the world.

 

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan And Pakistan: An enduring threat

By 

Editor’s note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony to the House Committee of Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade on al Qaeda’s network in Africa and the threat it poses to the US.

Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Sherman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the enduring threat posed by al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is widely assumed that al Qaeda’s presence in South Asia does not, in fact, pose an enduring threat to American interests. The slaying of top al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and more than a decade of war and other counterterrorism operations have supposedly hobbled the organization. However, while I have no doubt that al Qaeda has sustained heavy losses, I do not think that bin Laden’s heirs are a spent force. On the contrary, al Qaeda lives.

In the hearing today I am going to build on my previous testimony before this subcommittee last July. During that hearing (“Global Al Qaeda: Affiliates, Objectives, and Future Challenges”), we discussed the structure of al Qaeda and the challenges we face in the future. Today, I wish to emphasize five main points:

1. Al Qaeda is an international network that is comprised of a “general command,” regional branches, as well as various other organizations and personalities.

It may seem odd, but more than a dozen years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there is no commonly accepted definition of al Qaeda. The term “core” al Qaeda is often used, but this concept is a Western invention and imprecisely defined. And the way it is employed does not accurately convey how al Qaeda is structured. When analysts and officials speak of the “core” of al Qaeda, they are generally referring to Ayman al Zawahiri and the lieutenants who surround him in South Asia. Some go even further, arguing that Zawahiri is the only “core” al Qaeda leader left. Such arguments are not based on evidence.

Al Qaeda operates what it calls a “general command,” which consists of the organization’s senior leadership and their lieutenants, several committees, a Shura (advisory) council of the group’s most trusted advisers, as well as a supporting staff that includes, for example, couriers. We regularly see statements issued by al Qaeda’s “general command,” but few stop to ask what al Qaeda means by this. The “general command” performs various administrative functions, in addition to overseeing the organization’s international operations. For instance, al Qaeda’s amniyat is part of the group’s internal security and counterintelligence apparatus. The amniyat in northern Pakistan is notorious for hunting down suspected spies.

 Nasir al Wuhayshi,

Nasir al Wuhayshi,

This cohesive organization is not confined to South Asia. Jihadists who are, by any reasonable definition, “core” al Qaeda members are dispersed throughout the world. For example, Nasir al Wuhayshi, who heads al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is as “core” as they come, having served as Osama bin Laden’s protégé and aide-de-camp. In addition to serving as the emir of AQAP, Wuhayshi is the general manager of al Qaeda, which is a “core” function in al Qaeda’s hierarchy, that is, within the “general command.” The general manager of al Qaeda is given broad powers to oversee the organization’s operations.

The “general command” of al Qaeda has designated several regions for waging jihad, and an emir is appointed to oversee the organization’s efforts in each of these regions. The emir of each region has much latitude in deciding how to organize his group’s day-to-day efforts, but he swears bayat, an oath of allegiance, to al Qaeda’s overall emir (currently Zawahiri). The emirs of each region report to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including the general manager. What many refer to as al Qaeda’s formal “affiliates” are really branches of al Qaeda that have been assigned to fight in these regions. The formal branches of al Qaeda, each designated its own region, are: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), AQAP, the Al Nusrah Front in Syria, and Al Shabaab. All of them have sworn loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri. In addition to these regions, al Qaeda also maintains facilitation networks in countries such as Iran.

Thus, the brief sketch of al Qaeda I have drawn here is one of a much more cohesive international organization than is often assumed. Like all other human organizations, however, al Qaeda has faced obstacles in trying to hold this network together. For instance, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) was al Qaeda’s branch inside Iraq, but the group’s emir had repeatedly disobeyed orders from the “general command.” This led to ISIS being disowned by the group. ISIS is currently fighting the Al Nusrah Front and its allies in Syria.

In addition to the formal branches of al Qaeda, there are other organizations that are part of al Qaeda’s international network even though they have not publicly sworn bayat to the leadership. Indeed, al Qaeda has often hidden its precise organizational relationship with groups that are being groomed for an alliance. Both the Al Nusrah Front and Al Shabaab, now formal branches of al Qaeda, did not make their operational connections to al Qaeda’s senior leadership known at first. Al Qaeda also employs multiple brands so as to obfuscate the extent of its influence. In Yemen, for instance, AQAP adopted the name “Ansar al Sharia.” This brand name was intended to convey the idea that the group is the true protector and enforcer of sharia law. Other groups calling themselves Ansar al Sharia have been established in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. There are still other groups that have adopted al Qaeda’s ideology, but are probably not operationally connected to the “general command” or al Qaeda’s branches.

I begin with this overview because the enduring threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far outside of the region.

2. Al Qaeda is, at its heart, a clandestine organization, but careful analysis reveals that it has a deep bench of talent from which it draws.

Since its founding in 1988, the organization has attempted to conceal its operations. This has made it difficult to assess some very basic aspects of al Qaeda. The group does not, for instance, publish an organizational chart or make its total roster known. If you watch al Qaeda carefully enough, however, you can see that the group has consistently replaced top leaders lost in the 9/11 wars. In some cases these replacements are not as competent, while in other cases they may even surpass their fallen comrades.

Nasir al Wuhayshi, the aforementioned general manager of al Qaeda, is a seasoned veteran who replaced others in that role after they were killed or captured. Wuhayshi is, by all appearances, an all too competent leader. Still, the American-led counterterrorism effort has certainly disrupted al Qaeda’s international network, delivering severe setbacks in some areas. Al Qaeda’s problems with ISIS stem, to a large degree, from the fact that the U.S. and its allies took out its predecessor organization’s top leadership in 2010. The leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) were loyal to al Qaeda’s “general command” but were replaced with leaders who had not been vetted by al Qaeda’s senior leaders.

Read more at Long War Journal

CSP Intel Brief: helping Egyptians shut down the Muslim Brotherhood

Secure Freedom, Published on May 14, 2014

Center for Security Policy Senior Fellow Stephen Coughlin joined a delegation to Egypt for a fact-finding tour where he met prominent anti-Muslim Brotherhood figures.

Stephen discussed his findings with Senior Fellow Fred Fleitz.

 

A Failure of Policy

 

BEN RHODES, NEWSCOM

BEN RHODES, NEWSCOM

BY THOMAS JOSCELYN:

Forty-one recently declassified State Department documents obtained by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, have reignited the controversy over the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Ben-ghazi, Libya. One document in particular, an email authored by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and speechwriter for the president, has garnered the most attention.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday, September 14, 2012, Rhodes emailed other administration officials as they prepared for U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s upcoming appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows. Rhodes’s email set forth four goals, the second of which was “To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” The video in question was an Internet trailer for Innocence of Muslims. The email from Rhodes also repeated an erroneous talking point: “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Ben-ghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex.”

As officials soon learned, however, there never were any “demonstrations” in Ben-ghazi—only a deadly attack launched by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. For this reason, some have viewed the protests elsewhere and the attack in Benghazi as being distinct. That is a mistake.

As the newly established House select committee investigating Ben-ghazi moves forward with its work, it should look carefully at the events that transpired in Cairo, Tunis, Yemen, and elsewhere. In each case, known al Qaeda actors or their allies helped spark the protests. And in each instance they used the anti-Islam video as a pretext for inciting anti-American, pro-al Qaeda rage.

Dissent in the Ranks

ISIL fighters / AP

ISIL fighters / AP

By Bill Gertz:

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri issued a public appeal recently urging an ultra-violent splinter faction of the terrorist group to return to Iraq and cease fighting rebels of the al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria.

In an audio statement posted to a jihadist online forum May 2, Zawahiri called for ending the “bloodshed among mujahedeen” in Syria, where rebels have been battling each other over who controls the opposition forces battling Syrian forces of the Bashar al Assad government.

The split between the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) and al Qaeda central is viewed by analysts as a result of the central leadership seeking to develop a broader appeal in seeking recruits.

The ISIL, on the other hand, has taken an ultra-fanatical approach to jihad. The group has filmed gruesome executions and beheadings of its opponents in Syria. In some cases, ISIL rebels were shown eating the organs of recently killed Syrian soldiers.

The infighting between the ISIL and the al Nusra Front for the past year appears to have achieved something that more than a decade of U.S. and allied military counterterrorism operations has been unable to do: splitting the al Qaeda terrorist group and weakening its ideological and militant appeal.

In Syria, fierce battles among the al Qaeda rebels have resulted in killings of scores of jihadists and the assassination of several of its leaders.

The Obama administration, by refusing to conduct military operations against al Qaeda in Syria, has made the embattled Middle Eastern state an al Qaeda safe haven, according to observers.

In the statement, Zawahiri called on ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to stop fighting in Syria and return to Iraq and described Baghdadi as “al Qaeda’s rebellious solider” who has caused bloodshed among the jihadist rebels in Syria.

Zawahiri, in the 24-minute message, also called on the official affiliate, al Nusra Front, to halt fighting against the ISIL rebels.

Referring to the ISIL rebels as engaging in “sedition,” Zawahiri explained that al Qaeda initially sanctioned the ISIL temporarily but sought to keep al Qaeda’s presence in Syria a secret. That was violated when the group went public with its formation in 2013.

Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, said the ISIL was set up in 2013 without permission of the central al Qaeda leadership.

Read more at Free Beacon

Al Qaeda’s general manager threatens America in video of large gathering

WuhayshiBy 

A video released by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in late March has garnered renewed attention in the media. The video, entitled “The First of the Heavy Rain,” features two AQAP leaders, as well as lower-level fighters who escaped from a Yemeni prison in February 2014.

Nasir al Wuhayshi, who is both the emir of AQAP and al Qaeda’s overall general manager, is shown speaking to a gathering of more than 100 people. “O brothers, the Crusader enemy is still shuffling his papers, so we must remember that we are always fighting the biggest enemy, the leaders of disbelief, and we have to overthrow those leaders, we have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America,” Wuhayshi says, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Ibrahim al Rubaish, a Saudi who was once held at Guantanamo and now serves as a top sharia official in AQAP, is also shown speaking in the video. Rubaish praises the newfound freedom of some jihadist fighters, including those shown in the video, but he laments the fact that others remain imprisoned in Guantanamo and elsewhere.

The video has sparked the media’s interest because it is a brazen display of AQAP strength inside Yemen. Wuhayshi is a hunted man and he is presumably on America’s list of potential targets for drone strikes. Yet, he felt comfortable enough in his home country to lead a large, public gathering of his followers.

“Core” al Qaeda in Yemen

Wuhayshi served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp and protégé in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. He fled to Iran, where he was detained, sometime after the Battle of Tora Bora. Wuhayshi was eventually transferred to Yemeni custody, but he escaped from prison in 2006.

Al Qaeda has long sought to wage insurgencies in Muslim countries it considers ripe for a jihadist takeover. Yemen and Saudi Arabia have been high on al Qaeda’s list of target countries. However, a fierce counterterrorism campaign in Saudi Arabia that began in 2003 quashed al Qaeda’s early efforts in the Arabian Peninsula. Al Qaeda also struggled, at first, to establish a full-scale insurgency in Yemen. But prison escapees such as Wuhayshi and Guantanamo returnees such as Rubaish have replenished al Qaeda’s leadership in the Arabian Peninsula and contributed to al Qaeda’s resurgence.

In early 2009, Wuhayshi and other jihadists announced the rebirth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, swearing allegiance to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the process. Ayman al Zawahiri had previously recognized Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s top man in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the summer of 2013, Zawahiri appointed Wuhayshi to the position of al Qaeda’s general manager. Wuhayshi’s appointment to the role of general manager was accompanied by a large-scale threat that forced the closing of American diplomatic facilities around the world. The US learned of this threat when intelligence officials captured video of Zawahiri communicating, via a complex Internet-based system, with more than 20 of his subordinates, including Wuhayshi.

Al Qaeda’s general manager serves a “core” function within the group. The role was previously held by senior terrorists in South Asia. According to declassified documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s compound, the duties performed by al Qaeda’s general manager include coordinating military and media activities, and communicating with al Qaeda’s “regions,” or branches, as well as with allies such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. [For a more complete discussion of the general manager's role, see LWJ report, AQAP's emir also serves as al Qaeda's general manager.]

In another recent video, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, explains that al Qaeda also has a leader who oversees the organization’s efforts in various geographic locations, or regions. The Al Nusrah Front is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.

Al Qaeda “draws up its plans and its strategy based on what we call al Qalim, or locations,” Sulayman says in the video. And a leader, who swears bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri, is chosen to oversee each of these locations. In addition, Sulayman explains, al Qaeda appoints another leader who “overlooks all of these different locations,” and this position is called Masul al Qalim. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front official explains al Qaeda's strategy, conflict with former branch.]

This leadership role described by Sulayman is filled by someone other than al Qaeda’s general manager, according to US intelligence officials. Both the general manager and the Masul al Qalim have deputies on their staff to support their work.

Such roles, and what they say about how al Qaeda is actually organized, are generally not reflected in the public discourse. It is commonly argued that there is a “core” of al Qaeda in South Asia and this entity is distinct from al Qaeda branches elsewhere. But Wuhayshi serves as one of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders from Yemen. And his role is part of the same leadership structure that includes Zawahiri, other deputies, and various supporting councils. These leaders are located not just in South Asia, but also elsewhere.

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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.

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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.

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