State Department: Iran continues to host al Qaeda’s ‘core facilitation pipeline’

The US government has repeatedly identified al Qaeda’s leadership in Iran. From left to right: Yasin al Suri, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, Sanafi al Nasr, Muhsin al Fadhli and Adel Radi al Harbi. Only Yasin al Suri is believed to be alive, but still others continue to operate in Iran.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, July 23, 207:

Since July 2011, the US Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly stated that the Iranian regime allows al Qaeda to maintain a key facilitation network on its soil. This formerly clandestine network is the result of a specific “agreement” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda’s leadership.

On July 19, the State Department once again pointed to the relationship. “Since at least 2009,” State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 reads, “Iran has allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through the country, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.”

Iran also “remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida (AQ) members it continued to detain and has refused to publicly identify the members in its custody,” Foggy Bottom said, echoing language found in previous reports.

In its terrorism reports for 2015 and 2014, the State Department implied that al Qaeda’s Iran-based network was a thing of the past, saying the Iranian government “previously allowed AQ facilitators to operate.” But Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, released last week, subtly revised that language.

It is often assumed that the two sides can’t cooperate because of theological differences. However, the relationship has been repeatedly documented by official sources, such as the 9/11 Commission, US courts, intelligence agencies and various others. At times, al Qaeda itself has conceded that there is a level of collusion, despite the group’s blistering anti-Iranian rhetoric. A key al Qaeda defector offered his own explanation of the arrangement in a newsletter published by the Islamic State. After the Islamic State and al Qaeda became bitter rivals, the so-called caliphate even accused al Qaeda of prohibiting terrorist attacks inside Iran.

A document presumably authored by Osama bin Laden in 2007 refers to Iran as al Qaeda’s “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.” That same letter referred to the “hostages” held by Iran, meaning those al Qaeda figures who were held in some form of detention and not allowed to freely operate. Bin Laden was not against attacking Iran in principle; he simply did not think the costs of such action were worth it.

Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda has survived for years, despite numerous disagreements and conflicts between the two. For instance, one file recovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad lair shows that he was troubled by Iran’s attempt to expand across the Middle East and he conceived of a plan to combat the Shiite jihadists’ growing footprint. Al Qaeda has also kidnapped Iranian diplomats in order force hostage exchanges. Several high-level al Qaeda leaders were reportedly released as part of one such exchange in 2015, although their status beforehand inside Iran was murky.

Most importantly, the two sides are clearly at odds in Syria and Yemen, where they have fought each other and affiliated proxies for several years.

Yet, throughout all of this, Iran has allowed al Qaeda to maintain a key facilitation hub.

In July 2016, for instance, the US Treasury Department sanctioned three senior al Qaeda leaders “located in Iran.” One of them, Faisal Jassim Mohammed Al Amri Al Khalidi (a.k.a. Abu Hamza al Khalidi), has served as al Qaeda’s “Military Commission Chief” — meaning he was one of the most important figures in the group’s international network. Al Khalidi was identified in Osama bin Laden’s files as part of a “new generation” of leadership al Qaeda groomed to replace their fallen comrades. As Treasury’s July 2016 designations made clear, some of al Qaeda’s most important men continued to operate inside Iran. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Treasury designates 3 senior al Qaeda members in Iran.]

Previous designations and other statements by Treasury and State Departments

The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 is the latest instance in which a branch of the US government has officially recognized al Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline” inside Iran, or other dealings between the two. In 2009, Treasury acknowledged that several al Qaeda operatives were living inside Iran. Then, beginning in July 2011, both the Treasury and State Departments repeatedly targeted the Iran-based network, saying it operated as part of a formerly “secret deal” between Iran and al Qaeda’s leadership.

Below is a brief timeline of designations and other official statements by the US government.

Jan. 2009: Treasury designated four al Qaeda members in Iran, including Osama bin Laden’s son Saad, who was later killed after relocating to Pakistan. “It is important that Iran give a public accounting of how it is meeting its international obligations to constrain al Qaeda,” Stuart Levey, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said at the time.

July 2011: Treasury targeted Iran’s formerly “secret deal” with al Qaeda, designating six jihadists who were involved in al Qaeda’s operations inside the country. One of them is known as Yasin al Suri, “a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator” who operates “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” The agreement was negotiated with Atiyah Abd al Rahman’s permission. Rahman was a top al Qaeda lieutenant who was killed in a US drone strike in mid-2011. “Rahman was previously appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials,” Treasury noted.

“Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today,” David S. Cohen, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a press release. “By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism,” Cohen emphasized.

Dec. 2011: The State Department announced a $10 million reward for Yasin al Suri, making him one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet. “Under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran, Yasin al Suri has helped move money and recruits through Iran to al Qaeda leaders in neighboring countries in the region,” Robert Hartung, the State Department Assistant Director for Threat Investigations and Analysis, explained during a briefing.

Feb. 2012: The Treasury Department designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for a number of reasons, including the assistance it provided to al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq. According to Treasury, the “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.” In addition, the MOIS has “provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)…and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.”

July 2012: In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, the State Department reported that “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior AQ members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.” Iran “also allowed AQ members to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iranian territory, enabling AQ to carry funds and move facilitators and operatives to South Asia and elsewhere.”

October 2012: Treasury explained that Yasin al Suri had been temporarily sidelined as the chief of al Qaeda’s network in Iran. His replacement was Muhsin al Fadhli, a veteran Kuwaiti operative, who later relocated to Syria as part of al Qaeda’s “Khorasan Group” and was killed in an American airstrike. Treasury named Adel Radi Saqr al Wahabi al Harbi as one of Fadhli’s men inside Iran. Harbi also eventually relocated to Syria, where he served as the military commander of Jund al Aqsa, an al Qaeda front group, until meeting his own demise.

Treasury explained how the deal between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda works. “Under the terms of the agreement between al Qaeda and Iran,” Treasury reported, “al Qaeda must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities.” As long as al Qaeda didn’t violate these terms, “the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al Qaeda network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.”

Treasury’s Cohen explained in a press release that the designation of Harbi “builds on our action from July 2011” and “further exposes al Qaeda’s critically important Iran-based funding and facilitation network.” Cohen added: “We will continue targeting this crucial source of al Qaeda’s funding and support, as well as highlight Iran’s ongoing complicity in this network’s operation.”

May 2013: In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, the State Department said that Iran “allowed AQ facilitators Muhsin al-Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and to Syria.” Fadhli “began working with the Iran-based AQ facilitation network in 2009,” was “later arrested by Iranian authorities,” but then released in 2011 so he could assume “leadership of the Iran-based AQ facilitation network.”

Jan. 2014: Treasury and State Department officials told Al Jazeera that Yasin al Suri was once again in charge of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network.

Feb. 2014: Treasury identified another Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator, Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, who is an Uzbek and part of the Islamic Jihad Union. Sadikov “provides logistical support and funding to al Qaeda’s Iran-based network,” according to Treasury.

Apr. 2014: In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, the State Department once again noted that the Iranian regime hosted al Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline” and “remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda (AQ) members it continued to detain,” while also refusing “to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.”

Aug. 2014: Treasury designated a senior al Qaeda leader known as Sanafi al Nasr, who “served in early 2013 as chief of al Qaeda’s Iran-based extremist and financial facilitation network.” Nasr relocated to Syria in 2013 as part of al Qaeda’s “Khorasan Group” and was killed in an American airstrike in 2015.

June 2016: The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2015 is released. “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida (AQ) members it continued to detain and refused to publicly identify the members in its custody,” the report read. State added: “Iran previously allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.” The implication of the language (“previously allowed”), which was included in the 2014 report as well, was that al Qaeda no longer operated its facilitation network inside Iran. However, al Qaeda did in fact continue to operate its pipeline inside Iran. Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 removed the phrase “previously allowed” from its summary.

July 2016: The US Treasury Department designated three senior al Qaeda figures “located in Iran”: Faisal Jassim Mohammed Al Amri Al Khalidi (a.k.a. Abu Hamza al Khalid), Yisra Muhammad Ibrahim Bayumi, and Abu Bakr Muhammad Muhammad Ghumayn. Treasury explained that it took the action to “disrupt the operations, fundraising, and support networks that help al Qaeda move money and operatives from South Asia and across the Middle East.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Also see:

Trump Shuts Down CIA Support for Syrian ‘Rebels’ After Years of Chronic Failure

PJ Media, by Patrick Poole, July 24, 2017:

The announcement last week that the Trump administration was shutting down the “covert” CIA program of arming Syrian “rebel” groups couldn’t have come too soon.

As I’ve reported here in more than three dozen articles over the past three years, the CIA support program had suffered chronic failures, including defections of groups “vetted” by the CIA defecting to al-Qaeda and ISIS, and leakage of weapons provided by the CIA into the hands of those same terror groups.

The pinnacle of this failure came in Obama’s last few hours in the White House in January, when he ordered the bombing of a terror training camp that also hosted fighters from a CIA-“vetted” group embedded with Al-Qaeda. That same CIA-“vetted” group officially partnered with Al-Qaeda a few days later.

Perhaps the defining moment of the U.S. support for Syrian “rebels” debacle came last year when CIA-backed groups were fighting against groups backed by the Pentagon:

The Washington Post announced the cancellation of the CIA support program last week, claiming without evidence that the move was made to placate Russia:

The termination of the program was confirmed by SOCOM Gen. Tony Thomas at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday:

Gen. Thomas specifically refuted the Washington Post‘s Russia tie-in to the announcement:

But as I reported here at PJ Media back in February, the CIA had already begun shutting down the weapons pipeline to the “rebel” groups.

Predictably, the “rebel” groups began flocking to Al-Qaeda as soon as the CIA pipeline began to slow.

In response to the program cancellation announcement, cheerleaders of the “vetted moderate rebels” complained that the U.S. hadn’t supported the groups enough.

But that talking point was rebutted by Obama nearly three years ago.

In an August 2014 interview with Tom Friedman in the New York Times, Obama dismissed the notion that more weapons would have given the “rebels” any kind of edge and expressed frustration at the inability to find enough “moderates”:

With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”

And yet, just a month later the GOP congressional leadership passed $500 million in additional funds for an eventual U.S.-backed, Pentagon-trained army of 15,000 “vetted moderates” to combat ISIS. In less than a year, that half-billion dollar boondoggle approved by Congress turned into a disaster. By July 2015, fewer than 60 fighters had been successfully vetted and trained — costing taxpayers nearly $4 million for each fighter.

[…]

By any objective measure, the CIA’s assistance to the Syrian “rebel” groups has been a complete catastrophe.

The CIA’s botched handling in both Libya and Syria should serve as a cautionary tale to the Trump administration about the follies of ill-informed intervention. While those policies may have been driven by the best of intentions, the results have been horrifically bad.

And contrary to the program’s defenders, these efforts are very likely responsible for drawing Russia and Iran deeper into the region.

As the Assad regime, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, continues to make gains against the opposition’s positions, and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the north of the country pressure ISIS, we can only expect that the opposition will grow even more dominated by the terrorist groups because they have largely been the only game in town. And it’s likely that continued CIA support would have accelerated that radicalization process, not delayed it.

A few of us lonely voices have said this is where the Syrian war was heading all along. And the cancellation of the CIA’s support program is at least a tacit recognition that we were right.

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House Witnesses: Al-Qaeda ‘Strongest in Syria’ Where It Could ‘Incorporate’ Failing Islamic State

AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR

Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, uly 13, 2017:

WASHINGTON, DC — Al-Qaeda, the primary target of the U.S. war on terror that followed the 9/11 attacks, has evolved and grown stronger mainly in Syria where it has set the conditions to establish an Islamic emirate while America primarily focuses on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), some analysts tell House lawmakers.

“ISIS has strengthened al Qaeda,” argued Katherine Zimmerman from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in written testimony, adding, “Should ISIS’s global network collapse, al Qaeda will be able to capture the remnants and incorporate ISIS’s capabilities into its own organization.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Seth Jones, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, argued in his prepared remarks that al-Qaeda “has been in decline,” failing to “conduct or inspire many attacks in the U.S. homeland.”

The al-Qaeda experts testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence during a hearing Thursday titled, “The Persistent Threat: Al Qaeda’s Evolution and Resilience.”

Zimmerman and Jennifer Cafarella from the Institute for the Study of War agreed that Syria serves as al-Qaeda’s primary base.

They pointed out that the group has capitalized on the international community’s single-minded focus against ISIS to grow stronger and remain a prominent threat to the United States.

ISIS has suffered significant losses in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the coalition and its local partners.

Zimmerman testified:

US strategy is setting the stage for al Qaeda to lead the Salafi-jihadi movement again when that movement is the strongest it has ever been globally. Al Qaeda has adapted and evolved as America focused myopically on retaking two cities [Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria] from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Al Qaeda has become more resilient and ready to exploit our own strategic weaknesses.

Amid the ongoing U.S.-led efforts to defeat ISIS, some analysts and news reports predicted that al-Qaeda would eventually be positioned to establish its own Islamic state in Syria.

Cafarella explained in her written testimony:

Al Qaeda’s main effort is in Syria, which has become the world’s largest jihadist incubator. Al Qaeda’s intent in Syria is to embed within the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and to transform that uprising into a global religious insurgency… Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, announced its formation in a video on January 2012 but did not state its goal to establish an al Qaeda emirate in Syria that could become a future component of a global al Qaeda caliphate.

Although Jabhat al-Nusra claimed in July 2016 it was no longer al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Voice of America (VOA) reported that most Western experts had dismissed the offshoot’s break with the jihadist organization as deceptive.

“Al Qaeda is strongest in Syria, where it has used the conditions created by the Syrian civil war and [the U.S.-led coalition’s] Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS to establish deep sanctuary in the northwest and position itself to expand farther into the Syrian theater,” Zimmerman told lawmakers.

“Al Qaeda has set conditions for the future establishment of an Islamic emirate—not necessarily under al Qaeda’s name—that will secure al Qaeda’s objective to build an Islamic polity in Syria,” she reiterated, adding, “The Syrian al Qaeda network is one of the best-resourced nodes in al Qaeda because of Syria’s primacy in the global theaters for jihad. Syria remains a top destination for al Qaeda’s foreign-fighter flow, creating a large foreign recruitment base.”

Zimmerman accused both Qatar and Turkey of lending support to al-Qaeda, noting that the jihadist group also generates funds from kidnappings for ransom, taxation, and commercial enterprise.

Contradicting the assessments from Zimmerman and Cafarella, Jones from the Rand Corporation testified:

Al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Algeria, and Mali also consistently failed to hold territory because of poor leadership, incompetent governance, limited local support, excessive violence, internal tensions, and other factors. Another problem has been a lack of overall Muslim support.

Nevertheless, he conceded that “the Islamic extremism that al-Qaida represents will not go away soon.”

Zimmerman notes that al-Qaeda has intentionally avoided attacks against Western targets to fuel the “false narrative that it was weak.”

“Al Qaeda is not in decline; it is preparing to emerge from the shadows to carry forward the Salafi-jihadi movement,” she told the Houe panel.

Also see:

Zawahiri lectures on global jihad, warns of national boundaries

LONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN | June 10, 2017

Sometime in the last few years, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri got an editor. Known for his long-winded lectures, Zawahiri has increasingly recorded shorter messages with more focused arguments. The latest of these came yesterday, when As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, released the seventh episode in Zawahiri’s “Brief Messages to a Victorious Nation” series. The message is titled, “One Ummah, One War on Multiple Fronts.”

Zawahiri emphasizes a core part of his organization’s ideology: jihad is an obligation for Muslims around the globe, especially when non-believers infringe of Muslim lands. Of course, many Muslim authorities are deemed illegitimate in this view of the world, as they do not adhere to the same version of Islam espoused by the jihadists.

The message opens with images of: Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; Izz Ad-Deen Al-Qassam, a Syrian Islamic thinker who preached jihad; Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of the predecessor to al Qaeda and godfather of modern jihadism; al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Suri, an ideologue whose teachings are influential; Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani, a co-founder of the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic party; and Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Zawahiri and As Sahab portray these men as part of the same jihadist tradition, stretching back into the early 20th Century.

“Our Ummah today is up against a global war in which Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Crusaders, Chinese, Hindus, Safavi Rawafidh [meaning the Iranians and allied Shiites] and secular nationalists are partners in crime,” Zawahiri says. “From the coasts of al-Maghreb (Western North Africa) to Eastern Turkistan, you will find a Muslim world confronted by aggression, occupation, repression, bombardment, and international alliances working hand[s] in gloves with client regimes, which are outside the pale of Islam and work for the interests of the leading international criminals.”

Al Qaeda has repeatedly argued that Muslims are confronted by this supposedly grand alliance. It is an enlargement of the alleged “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy that Osama bin Laden first made the cornerstone of his thinking in the 1990s.

Zawahiri is forced to explain how so many parties, which are often at odds with one another, are really part of the same unified effort.

“In terms of peculiarities, one region may differ slightly from another, but there are obvious common denominators, namely fighting Islam in the name of the ‘Fight against Terrorism’ and subservience to an ‘International System,’ cleverly crafted by the victors of World War II for the mutual division and theft of the natural resources of the world – specifically the Muslim world,” Zawahiri says.

The al Qaeda leader argues that the US is still the main enemy. “You will find that the major role in this criminal alliance belongs to the Americans, and then the roles gradually differ as per the power wielded by each partner and its stakes in the system,” he claims.

Zawahiri preaches unity in the face of these overwhelming odds. He quotes an Islamic verse — “And hold on strongly to the rope of Allah and be not divided amongst yourselves” — that al Qaeda routinely peppers throughout its productions.

And he says the “jurists” long ago “ruled that the lands of the Muslims have the status of a single domain.”

Zawahiri continues: “There is a consensus amongst the jurists that if the disbelieving enemy occupies a Muslim land, it becomes obligatory on its residents to defend that land, and if they find themselves unable to do so, this obligation expands in a circular fashion to those nearest to them, and so on until it encompasses Muslims all over the globe.”

Muslims “have always risen up to defend their lands regardless of nationality or race,” he continues. And this was the “prevailing norm until the demise of the Ottoman state, which had defended the lands of Islam for five centuries.”

“After the fall of the Ottomans,” Zawahiri says, “the concept of nation-states with boundaries demarcated by the infidel occupiers started holding sway, and among Muslims arose some proponents of this notion. This is why the callers of the Islamic revival actively fought against this concept.” (Supporters of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State were quick to point out online that Zawahiri wanted to keep the jihad in Iraq separate from the war in Syria, which they say contradicts his stance.)

The al Qaeda emir then lists the men he counts as key revivalists, pointing out that they waged jihad far outside of their native lands.

Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian, organized “battalions for the liberation of Palestine.” Izz ad-Deen al-Qassam, a Syrian, waged “jihad in Palestine.” Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian, awakened “the ummah to defend Afghanistan” and declared “most unequivocally that jihad has been a Fardh Ayn (a compulsory individual obligation) since the fall of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain).”

“Then emerged the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [the Taliban’s state], and we saw Afghans and emigrants alike pledging allegiance to it,” Zawahiri says. “Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Suri – both Arabs – and Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani” pledged “allegiance to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Afghani (may Allah have mercy on each one of them).”

“So may Allah reward these pioneers, who revived the spirit of one united ummah confronting a disbelieving enemy,” Zawahiri says toward the end of his talk.

He then warns that some seek to divide the jihad according to national boundaries, which is unacceptable. It is an argument he has made in other recent productions. While it is a general point that al Qaeda has made often in the past, it is likely something that Zawahiri wants to emphasize, once again, as jihadi ideologues are currently debating the appropriate course in Syria.

“But today, there are some who want to push us back behind the lines of division drawn by disbelieving occupiers…Pakistan for Pakistanis, Syria for Syrians, Palestine for Palestinians…in the interest of whom, may we ask?” Zawahiri concludes: “May Allah help us gather our strength, bring our hearts closer, unite our ranks, and not deprive us of victory because of our sins.”

Zawahiri’s message was released with an English transcript. As Sahab and al Qaeda’s regional branches have increasingly released English-language content over the previous year. It is an indication that their media efforts have been substantially improved after facing multiple disruptions in 2014 and in the years thereafter.

[For context on the debate regarding the jihadist project in Syria, see FDD’s Long War Journal reports: Pro-Al Qaeda ideologue criticizes joint bombings by Russia and Turkey in Syria; Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency; and Ayman al Zawahiri warns against ‘nationalist’ agenda in

Screen shots from “One Ummah, One War on Multiple Fronts”:

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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Al Qaeda preaches world conquest of all religions and peoples. @billroggio @thomasjoscelyn @followfdd John Batchelor Show

Unfinished Business: What it will take to make America safe again

Medics rehydrate a member of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division who was overcome by heat and exhaustion while conducting a
mission intended to deny sanctuary to al Qaeda and Taliban fighters along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, July 23, 2002. Photo credit: Scott Nelson / Getty

Weekly Standard Magazine June 5th issue, by Thomas Joscelyn:

Donald Trump is fond of claiming that his predecessor mismanaged America’s role in the world. “And I have to just say that the world is a mess. I inherited a mess,” the president noted during a joint press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan in the Rose Garden on April 5. “Whether it’s the Middle East,” he continued, “whether it’s North Korea, whether it’s so many other things, whether it’s in our country—horrible trade deals—I inherited a mess.”

The world is an inherently messy place, and each president is left with problems unresolved by the man who preceded him. But when it comes to America’s fight against terrorism, Trump has a point. Barack Obama claimed that he brought the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” and promised do the same in Afghanistan. In reality, he ended neither of the 9/11 wars. While Obama was arguing that the “tide of war is receding,” new conflicts emerged and old ones intensified.

Obama always had a tin ear for the psychological impact of terrorism. He liked to tell his staff that the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks each year was smaller than the number who perished in car accidents or by slipping in the bathtub. But this argument is myopic. Jihadist groups, not automobile manufacturers, are fighting for the control of entire countries. The terrorist threat over here only grew as they gained ground over there. There have been large-scale plots, such as the Islamic State’s assault on Paris in November 2015 and the March 2016 Brussels bombings. Small attacks have become widespread. The December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino and the June 2016 nightclub massacre in Orlando both shocked this nation. Such attacks are often described as the work of “lone wolves,” but this is misleading. Al Qaeda has long sought to inspire individuals to strike out on their own. The Islamic State took this tactic further, using online applications to both attract and guide recruits in the West. The emergence of the so-called caliphate in 2014 created a new justification and urgency for believers to lash out in their home countries.

On May 22, the West was reminded, once again, of the persistent threat when a jihadist detonated a shrapnel-laden bomb at the conclusion of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. The bombing, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, targeted children who just wanted to see a favorite pop star. At least 22 people were killed and 64 wounded. Britain, like Paris and Brussels before it, was put on high alert as officials worried that a follow-up attack was in the works. Western officials have worked around the clock for years to prevent just such attacks. The casualty count would be much higher if not for their efforts. Thousands of potential terrorists now tie up counterterrorism and law enforcement resources throughout Europe and the United States. The U.S. and allied governments are rightly focused on the jihadist threat—not on the work of bathtub manufacturers or automakers.

Barack Obama does not bear all the blame; he inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from his predecessor, George W. Bush. The Arab uprisings occurred on Obama’s watch, and they opened new opportunities for the jihadists in countries where they had only a minimal presence beforehand. The revolutions were beyond America’s control, but Obama did little to counter the growing jihadist menace and even exacerbated problems. He sought to downplay or dismiss every jihadist threat during his presidency. With few exceptions, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, there is little Obama can point to as a counterterrorism success in his eight years in office.

The Trump administration is currently crafting its own counterterrorism strategy. An 11-page draft memo was leaked to Reuters on May 5, and in keeping with the president’s views on foreign policy, the administration seems to be planning to call on America’s allies to do more. “We need to intensify operations against global jihadist groups while also reducing the costs of American ‘blood and treasure’ in pursuit of our counterterrorism goals,” the document reads. “We will seek to avoid costly, large-scale U.S. military interventions to achieve counterterrorism objectives and will increasingly look to partners to share the responsibility for countering terrorist groups.”

There’s nothing wrong, in principle or in practice, with asking our allies to do more. President Trump was never likely to order nation-building projects or massive troop deployments. But it is worth noting that Obama described his approach to counterterrorism in terms remarkably similar to those used in the Trump memo. In his last major counterterrorism speech, on December 6, 2016, Obama noted that the current war effort against the Islamic State cost “$10 billion over two years, which is the same amount that we used to spend in one month at the height of the Iraq War.” “Instead of pushing all of the burden onto American ground troops,” he said, “instead of trying to mount invasions wherever terrorists appear, we’ve built a network of partners.”

Obama’s plan, too, was built around reducing “the costs of American ‘blood and treasure.’ ” It’s a fine goal and, in some ways, a sensible one. Limiting the number of American casualties has to be any president’s top concern. Nor can America be the primary force in every country that faces a jihadist fight. Substituting others’ boots reduces the cost to U.S. taxpayers. But an “Allies First” strategy has its limits. There is no better example than the ongoing war in Afghanistan, where America’s partners are struggling to keep the jihadists at bay.

AMERICA’S LONGEST WAR

Late in 2009, Obama ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. But he promised that the Americans deployed under his leadership would come home before the conclusion of his reelection campaign, and he delivered on that pledge.

“We’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and begun the transition to an Afghan lead,” Obama announced in September 2012. “Next month,” he continued, “the last of the troops I ordered as part of the surge against the Taliban will come home, and by 2014, the transition to Afghan lead will be complete.” The soldiers came home, but the Taliban’s “momentum” was never truly broken. It was just slowed. Even Obama eventually realized he had to keep more American troops in Afghanistan than he originally planned. Today, more than 15 years after we invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, large parts of the country are falling back into the hands of the Taliban.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, who reports directly to Congress, at least 164 (40 percent) of Afghanistan’s 407 districts were either contested or under the insurgents’ control or influence in February. The jihadists are able to execute spectacular assaults like the April 21 raid on an Afghan military base near Mazar-e-Sharif that left more than 100 dead. The number of civilian casualties has increased as well. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported in February that 11,418 civilians were killed or wounded in 2016. By contrast, 5,969 civilian casualties were recorded in 2009—Obama’s first year in office.

Testifying before the Senate in early February, Gen. John W. Nicholson, who leads all NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said that a “few thousand” more troops were needed to stabilize the war effort. He called the conflict a stalemate, but there is no denying the Taliban gained significant ground over the previous year.

President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who held commands in both Iraq and Afghanistan, reportedly wants to send several thousand more U.S. soldiers to the country. Their primary mission would be to train additional Afghan forces in the hopes of stemming the Taliban’s advance. There are currently 8,300 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, so the total proposed force would still be a far cry from the 100,000 or so troops stationed there in 2010-11.

Some in the Trump administration object to even this modest strategy. The Washington Post reported that Afghanistan is now “derisively” called “McMaster’s War” by his West Wing rivals. White House counselor Steve Bannon has been particularly vocal in opposing any troop escalation in Afghanistan—as he opposed the president’s decision last month to strike the Syrian airfield from which the Assad regime had launched a chemical attack. It’s easy to see why Bannon is willing to give up on Afghanistan. The landlocked nation bedeviled foreign powers long before the Taliban ever rose to power. The Afghan government is rife with corruption and often unreliable. Over the last 16 years, 2,387 Americans have perished in the war for Afghanistan and 20,261 others have been wounded. The thought of sending more off to fight in a seemingly intractable war would be disheartening for any president.

But the restoration of the Taliban, or anything close to it, would have dire consequences for the United States, particularly because it would be seen as the result of our capitulation. The myth that faith in Allah was sufficient for the mujahedeen to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s (ignoring the billions of dollars in arms supplied by the United States) fueled the generation of jihadists from which al Qaeda arose. It is not difficult to imagine what a second vanquished superpower would do for their cause.

“Allah has promised us victory and America has promised us defeat, so we shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled,” Mullah Omar, the Taliban founder, once said. He passed away in 2013, but his words are beginning to look prophetic. Indeed, an American retreat would be widely regarded as a vindication not just of Mullah Omar and his Taliban heirs, but of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

THE TALIBAN-AL-QAEDA ALLIANCE

Part of the Obama administration’s strategy for ending the Afghan conflict was an attempt to separate the Taliban from al Qaeda. It was a fool’s errand, as anyone aware of the overlapping structures and interests of the two understood. But for eight years, Obama’s advisers built a policy in Afghanistan on this deeply flawed assumption.

Since well before the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda’s chieftains have been loyal to the Taliban’s overall leader. In June 2016, Ayman al Zawahiri, who followed bin Laden as the head of al Qaeda, swore a blood oath to the Taliban’s emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. In December, as something of a commemoration of the Obama policy failure, the Taliban released a lengthy video celebrating the historical alliance. There was footage of al Qaeda and Taliban figures—living and dead, including bin Laden and Mullah Omar—and no hint at all that the Taliban regretted the collapse of its rule in Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion in October 2001.

Al Qaeda commanders are integrated with their Taliban counterparts throughout the Afghan insurgency to this day. The man who runs the Taliban’s military operations, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is particularly close to al Qaeda. He and his father, Jalaluddin, were among bin Laden’s earliest allies.

Throughout his tenure as president, Obama repeatedly insisted that al Qaeda was “decimated” and “on the run.” He was willfully blind to the situation in Afghanistan until the end. “Today, by any measure, core al Qaeda—the organization that hit us on 9/11—is a shadow of its former self,” Obama claimed in his December valedictory speech. It is true that al Qaeda suffered significant losses at American hands in Obama’s eight years in office. But the organization has survived the war on terror; it has evolved and it has grown.

In October 2015, the U.S. military made a startling announcement. Over the course of five days, a joint team of American and Afghan forces had raided an al Qaeda training camp far bigger than the one that produced the 9/11 hijackers and their comrades. The facility was nearly 30 square miles—about half the size of Washington, D.C. It was located in the Shorabak district of the southern Kandahar Province and had gone unnoticed for months, even as it churned out scores of new trainees. The whole of Shorabak district was overrun by the Taliban early this year.

The massive camp is indicative of a bigger problem. The Obama administration routinely downplayed the extent of al Qaeda’s footprint in Afghanistan. The CIA estimated in late June 2010 that there were just “50 to 100” al Qaeda operatives inside Afghanistan. U.S. officials stuck with this assessment for years, even as contradictory evidence mounted. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011, for instance, demonstrated that his men were operating in at least eight different Afghan provinces as of June 19, 2010. Just one al Qaeda “battalion” operating in the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, the files showed, had 70 members.

The U.S. military continued to launch raids against al Qaeda positions, but the “50 to 100” range remained fixed. U.S. officials finally conceded in April 2016 that the extent of al Qaeda’s operations inside Afghanistan had been underestimated. In December, just weeks before the end of the Obama administration, Gen. Nicholson noted that 250 al Qaeda operatives had been killed or captured in Afghanistan since the beginning of 2016.

One of those killed was an especially important target. Faruq al Qahtani had been tasked by Osama bin Laden with organizing al Qaeda’s relocation to Afghanistan from northern Pakistan in 2010 at the peak of the Obama administration’s drone campaign. A significant number of al Qaeda leaders and fighters made the move, which allowed them to survive the drone onslaught. Qahtani and his men fought alongside their Taliban comrades. But that was not his sole mission. After Qahtani was struck down in October 2016, the Pentagon announced that he had been “one of the terrorist group’s senior plotters of attacks against the United States.” Al Qaeda is still plotting against America from Afghan soil in 2017, and a complete U.S. withdrawal would only make it easier for them to do so.

Al Qaeda has been expanding throughout South Asia. In September 2014, Zawahiri announced the creation of a new entity: Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). He explained that after two years of negotiations and planning, several preexisting al Qaeda-allied groups in Pakistan and its neighboring countries had merged. Almost immediately after this announcement AQIS members attempted to hijack a Pakistani frigate and fire its missiles at Indian and American warships. The goal was to get India or the United States to retaliate for a perceived attack by Pakistan and start a regional war. The plot, which was carried out by terrorists who had infiltrated Pakistan’s navy, was narrowly averted while it was in motion.

Thus far, the Trump administration has said little about how it plans to fight the Taliban-al Qaeda axis. The U.S. military has been mainly focused on fighting the Islamic State’s upstart presence in eastern Afghanistan—known as ISIS-K, for Khorasan, an old name for the wider central Asian region. Three American soldiers were killed during raids on ISIS-K positions in Nangarhar Province in April, and there is no question that the group poses a challenge. But it is not the gravest threat to Afghan security. At the height of their power, the Islamic State’s representatives controlled approximately ten Afghan districts and contested several others. Today, they control at most three. That is a far cry from the Taliban-led insurgency, which either dominates or is challenging Afghan and NATO forces in more than 160 districts across the country.

The Taliban has its allies, too. Iran long ago cut a deal with it to counter America’s presence in the region. The Russians have provided rhetorical support at the very minimum. Pakistan remains as duplicitous as ever, fighting some jihadists and allowing others to roam free. What little leverage we have in Pakistan today would surely be lost in the event of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban was, after all, originally a Pakistani proxy.

NATO countries may be willing to contribute more forces to the Afghan war. And despite the Afghans’ many problems, they will always be the ones doing the majority of the fighting and dying in this war. NATO and the Afghans can do more, of course, but are most likely to do so with the spur of a significant American commitment.

IRAQ AND SYRIA

President Obama was always dismissive of any jihadist threat emanating from Iraq. He described the Islamic State and its predecessor organization as a “kind of mafia” and the “jayvee team,” even as its fighters were laying the groundwork for their caliphate. Underpinning Obama’s casual dismissal was, as he told the New Yorker in January 2014, the idea that “jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes” aren’t a serious threat to the West. Today, the Islamic State’s tentacles reach around the globe, from Southeast Asia, through the Middle East and Africa, all the way into the heart of the United States.

Obama was never going to keep nearly 150,000 troops stationed in the country when he took office. But even a small contingent would have interrupted the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. Obama and his surrogates liked to blame the Iraqi government’s refusal to enter a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for America’s complete withdrawal at the end of 2011. The claim is false. Obama celebrated his “ending” of the Iraq war throughout his 2012 reelection campaign. It was a point of pride for him, not a lament.

Leon Panetta, Obama’s secretary of defense from 2011-13, wrote in Time in 2014 that the president was never interested in negotiating a new agreement. The Obama administration was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests,” Panetta explained. Obama’s rationale is also belied by the fact that when he eventually sent American troops back into Iraq in 2014, he did so without a new SOFA. Difficult negotiations with the Iraqi government aren’t the reason Obama closed the door on Iraq. He believed that the jihadists weren’t a serious threat to American security.

Nonetheless, as his two terms came to an end, Obama argued that his course correction in 2014 left President Trump with a successful strategy for defeating the Islamic State. During his December 6 speech, Obama said, “the results are clear: ISIL [Islamic State] has lost more than half its territory. ISIL has lost control of major population centers. Its morale is plummeting. Its recruitment is drying up. Its commanders and external plotters are being taken out, and local populations are turning against it.” Pointing to the campaigns in Mosul and north of Raqqa, the group’s “self-declared capital,” Obama added: “The bottom line is we are breaking the back of ISIL. We’re taking away its safe havens.”

It may be the case that the zenith of the Islamic State’s power is past. But Obama’s use of ad hoc allies and proxy fighting was an outgrowth of his hasty withdrawal and eventual reversal; it was never a cogent strategy. Iraqi government forces melted away quickly as the Islamic State’s killers marauded their way through the country in 2014. The United States worked to rebuild their capabilities in the years since, but there is no good reason to think the Iraqi army can stand on its own. What’s more, many of the anti-Islamic State actors fighting in Iraq are allies of Iran, which is fomenting an anti-American revolution throughout the region.

Iranian expansion was the poison pill in Obama’s plan for the Islamic State. Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which are involved in the battle for Mosul and operations throughout Iraq, have strong ties to Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). During the height of the Iraq war, the IRGC’s elite Quds Force hunted American-led coalition forces. The deputy commander of the PMF is Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, who has long worked with both the IRGC and Hezbollah, the notorious Iranian terror proxy in Lebanon. In 2009, the Treasury Department designated Muhandis a terrorist for his role in orchestrating attacks against Americans and allied forces in Iraq. Today, he and his men fight as part of the coalition against the Islamic State. The Shiite jihadists battling Baghdadi’s goons in Iraq do not serve America’s long-term interests, they serve Iran’s.

President Trump is aware that Iranian aggression throughout the region is one of Obama’s most troubling legacies. During his speech in Saudi Arabia on May 21, he said that “no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment.” Trump meant Iran and continued, “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” It was important for the president to make it clear that the United States views Iran as a major source of terrorism, but it is not at all easy to see how the new administration will untangle the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq from Iranian interests.

If Obama could claim some progress against the Islamic State in his December speech, he could not claim victory. The campaign has been a slog. The fighting to liberate Mosul began seven months ago. The Islamic State is close to losing the city but is also still operating throughout Iraq, having quickly reverted to a potent insurgency in many of the areas it lost. The fight for Raqqa has yet to begin. It is under threat from multiple directions, but the jihadists have had ample time to build a defensive house of horrors for their approaching enemies. The group has also redeployed its forces, securing ground along the Euphrates River and in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, one of the organization’s longtime strongholds. The end of the caliphate may be in sight, but the end of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is not.

Complicating matters is the fact that America’s chosen partners in Syria include members of the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. The Trump administration has decided to deepen this alliance, which was first struck under Obama. Earlier this month, the president approved a plan to directly arm the YPG, which is the leading partner in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). There may be no other choice at this point. The SDF has played a crucial role in taking territory from ISIS in northern Syria, including the city of Tabqah and the surrounding area, which are key to the western approach to Raqqa.

The movement for Kurdish independence is gaining momentum, but hopes for a new state are mired in internal rivalries. America has Kurdish allies in both Iraq and Syria, but they are far from a unified force. The presence of YPG/PKK fighters in Iraq has caused persistent problems for the Kurdish regional government, which is coordinating the anti-Islamic State fight in the north of the country. America’s Kurdish partners in the battle for Mosul (the Peshmerga) are sometimes allied with our Kurdish surrogate ground forces in the fight to take Raqqa (YPG/PKK), but they also clash with each other.

Turkey’s government, moreover, is vehemently opposed to the YPG/PKK and, more generally, to any expansion of the Kurdish regional footprint. The Turks present problems in their own right, beginning with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing autocracy. The country is a safe haven for numerous bad actors, from senior Hamas operatives to al Qaeda figures, and has been the main jihadist pipeline into Syria.

Throughout all of this, Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal regime remains a power in Syria. Without the support of Iran and Russia, Assad would long since have been sent to the gallows. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have been deployed to Syria on behalf of the butcher of Damascus, and today Assad is safer than he has been in years. If Obama had acted more urgently in 2011 when Assad first started his campaign of mass murder, the region and Europe—which has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees—might look much different today. There is no serious effort, U.S.-led or otherwise, to hold Assad accountable for his crimes. While it is tempting to suggest that wholesale regime change should be America’s policy in Syria, only naïve ideologues could overlook the fact that Sunni jihadists are the strongest force opposed to Assad.

The U.S. focus on fighting the Islamic State has obscured another problematic development: the rise of al Qaeda in Syria. In the first three weeks of 2017, the Defense Department launched airstrikes it says “killed more than 150 al Qaeda terrorists” in Syria. One target was the Shaykh Sulayman training camp, which has been operational since at least 2013. More than 100 al Qaeda fighters were killed in that attack alone. Al Qaeda has also built up al-Nusra Front, which Brett McGurk, whom Obama appointed as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS in 2015, has described before the Senate as al Qaeda’s “largest formal affiliate in history.” U.S. officials estimate that al-Nusra has amassed at least 10,000 fighters.

Between September 2014 and December 2016, the Obama administration launched repeated drone strikes against individual al Qaeda terrorists residing in Syria. But they were not as significant as the bombings in January. The bulk of al-Nusra’s forces, which now fight under the name of the Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant, long went untouched, and, though they are battling both Assad and Iran’s Shiite militiamen, no American ally is currently fighting this group on the ground.

YEMEN AND SOMALIA

When President Obama announced his strategy for fighting the Islamic State in September 2014, he said it would mirror his administration’s efforts in Yemen and Somalia. Within months, the Yemen plan was a shambles.

The U.S. government had been relying on Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government, supported by targeted drone strikes and Special Forces operations, to suppress Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But in January 2015, Hadi was forced into exile when Houthi rebels stormed the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The Houthis adhere to their own peculiar brand of Shia Islam and opposed the Sunni-dominated Yemeni government. They have been cultivated by Tehran, which views them as an ally against Saudi Arabia. While the Houthis are not a purebred Iranian terrorist organization like Hezbollah, they are increasingly anti-American, even firing missiles at U.S. ships off the coast of Yemen. They draw crucial support from former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was pushed aside in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Saleh wants to reclaim power, and he has cut a deal with the Houthis, previously his foes, in an attempt to get it.

AQAP is a major force in Yemen. The group took advantage of the Houthi offensive against Hadi to claim parts of southern Yemen. After the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis intervened in 2016, AQAP’s forces melted away, declaring it was better to leave Yemen’s more urban areas intact rather than raze them in a bloody intra-Arab fight. The jihadists lived to fight another day.

The Trump administration has already stepped up the air campaign in Yemen. The United States launched more than 80 airstrikes against AQAP between January and May. The previous high was 41 bombings in all of 2009. President Trump has also approved riskier operations. One Special Forces raid in January gained notoriety for the death of a Navy SEAL in an intense firefight at an AQAP compound, which also led to numerous civilian casualties.

America’s chief partners in the Yemen fight, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are focused on hitting the Houthis and reinstalling Hadi in power. But AQAP also fights the Houthis, which makes for uncomfortable bedfellows. Hadi’s men are also sometimes AQAP’s battlefield allies. Meanwhile, no ground force is significantly opposing AQAP. The UAE does have troops who skirmish with them, but such clashes are so far minor. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Saudi Arabia is widely accused of carrying out indiscriminate bombing raids.

The troubles in Somalia are similar to those in Yemen. The African Union Mission in Somalia and government forces are struggling to contain al Shabaab, the local al Qaeda branch. Earlier this month, a Navy SEAL died in a battle with the group—the first American killed in combat in Somalia since the “Black Hawk Down” episode of 1993. Under Obama, American service members were to “advise, assist, and occasionally accompany regional forces.” In late March, Trump approved a plan that allows them to “provide additional precision fires in support of” our local allies. American service members are going to be called upon to do more in Somalia.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

In late April, Asim Umar, the head of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, released a provocative message. In it, he asked, “What is becoming of that very America?” and took direct aim at Trump’s foreign policy. “America is not only fleeing from Afghanistan, but with the jihadist strikes conducted against it by the sons of the Muslim ummah, inshaAllah, inshaAllah, it will also flee from, and give up the leadership of the world. The ‘America first’ slogan is the first step.”

Umar detected the problem in Trump’s “America first” rhetoric: It is not clear that there is any difference between putting American interests first and retreating from our preeminent position around the globe. It is striking that Umar sees the Trump doctrine as the “first step” to the demise of American “leadership of the world.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The new president is right when he says he “inherited a mess.” He can begin to fix it by setting the record straight with the American people. We are still fighting a global war against jihadism. Al Qaeda is very much alive and, contrary to the Obama administration’s assertions, remains an international organization active on multiple continents. While the Islamic State has taken its lumps, it is not close to a total defeat. Today’s enemies may not possess the industrial might and war machines of yesterday’s foes, but they are persistent and committed to an anti-American ideology we cannot afford to ignore.

Trump and his advisers can explain why Afghanistan—the original 9/11 war—remains an essential fight. The 9/11 hijackings were launched from Afghan soil, and an American retreat in Afghanistan would be a clear victory for the Taliban-al Qaeda axis. Obama’s total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 proved disastrous, and a replay of that scenario in South Asia—where Pakistan, the only nuclear-armed state infested with jihadists, is located—could be worse. Trump should quickly approve the McMaster plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. They will not win the war, but they can stem the tide of the jihadists’ advance. The Trump administration wants our NATO allies to step up their commitments. NATO follows America’s lead, not the other way around.

The multi-sided proxy wars in Iraq and Syria are a terrifying mess. During a press briefing on May 19, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that the American strategy, on its present course, would “annihilate” the Islamic State. Mattis praised President Trump for delegating more authority to his military commanders and for blessing a plan to surround “the enemy in their strongholds” and prevent “the return home of escaped foreign fighters.” The previous week, during testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats sounded less optimistic. He warned that the Islamic State would maintain “enough resources and fighters to sustain insurgency operations and plan [terrorist] attacks in the region and internationally” for the foreseeable future.

In other words, the U.S. intelligence community is not expecting the defeat of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s enterprise anytime soon. America’s allies are moving slowly in Syria. In Iraq, we have already witnessed how quickly jihadists can rebound from a defeat. To make matters worse, no American-backed force is ready to move on al Qaeda’s strongholds in northwestern Syria. Iran has used the war against the Islamic State to pursue its long-term objective of becoming the regional hegemon, expanding its footprint in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. The president should have the U.S. military developing aggressive options for fighting the jihadists in Iraq and Syria and for maintaining our position as the chief regional broker.

Speaking before the National Governors Association on February 27, President Trump reminisced about the good old days as he remembers them. “We have to start winning wars again,” he said. “I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say ‘we haven’t lost a war’—we never lost a war—you remember.” Trump pointed out that “now we never win a war.” “We never win,” he reiterated. “And we don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win. So we either got to win, or don’t fight it at all.” He then complained about the vast sums spent fighting in the Middle East since 2001.

The jihadists believe, as al Qaeda’s Asim Umar said earlier this month, that eventually America won’t fight at all. The president of the United States can prove them wrong.

Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

 

US soldier killed battling al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia

Long War Journal, by Bill Roggio, May 5, 2017:

A US soldier was killed yesterday outside the capital of Mogadishu while fighting Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia. The casualty took place just five weeks after the Trump administration approved the expansion of military counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa.

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced the death of an American soldier “during an operation against al-Shabaab near Barii, Somalia, approximately 40 miles west of Mogadishu.” According to AFRICOM, American forces “were conducting an advise and assist mission alongside members of the Somali National Army.”

The nature of the operation against Shabaab has not be disclosed, and it is unknown how many casualties Shabaab incurred during the fighting. Previously, US forces have partnered with Somali forces to target training camps, bases, and other infrastructure used by Shabaab to launch attacks in the region.

AFRICOM described Shabaab as “a threat to Americans and American interests” and said the group “has murdered Americans; radicalizes and recruits terrorists and fighters in the United States; and attempts to conduct and inspire attacks against Americans, our allies and our interests around the world, including here at home.”

Scores of Americans are thought to have traveled to Somalia to wage jihad. Americans have served in top leadership positions in Shabaab, and three Americans are confirmed to have carried out suicide attacks in Somalia, more than in any other theater of war.

US forces are partnering with Somali and African Union forces to “to systematically dismantle this al Qaeda affiliate,” according to AFRICOM.

Shabaab has had success in disrupting one other special operations force raid in the past. In January 2013, Shabaab repelled a raid by French General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) commandos and killed one solider and captured another. The DGSE forces were attempting to free two of its members who were captured by Shabaab in Mogadishu. They were executed after the raid.

Expanding operations against Shabaab

The Trump administration has loosened the restrictions on the US military to use force against Shabaab. On March 30, the Pentagon announced that “The president has approved a Department of Defense proposal to provide additional precision fires in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces operations to defeat Shabaab in Somalia.”

“This authority is consistent with our approach of developing capable Somali security forces and supporting regional partners in their efforts to combat Shabaab,” the Pentagon statement continued.

The Pentagon’s desire to actively target Shabaab reflects the growing concern that al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa is gaining strength despite the presence of both AMISOM and US forces. Over the past year, Shabaab has regained control of some towns and rural areas in the south that it lost during an AMISOM offensive that began in 2011. In addition, Shabaab has stepped up suicide attacks and guerrilla operations both in and around the capital of Mogadishu. Furthermore, Shabaab used a sophisticated laptop bomb in an attempt to down a Somali airline in 2016. This attack was cited by the US government as one of the reasons that electronics have been banned in the cabins of airplanes departing from ten airports in the Middle East. [See What’s really behind Trump’s laptop ban.]

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

Also see:

AQAP leader calls for ‘simple’ attacks in the West

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 8, 2017:

Qasim al Raymi, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), wants jihadists in the West to carry out “easy and simple” attacks. His message was delivered in a short video (just over 5 minutes long) that was released online yesterday by AQAP’s propaganda arm, Al Malahem Media.

Raymi addresses the “patient” jihadists “living in the Western countries” and he argues they should be viewed as part of a cohesive, global cause.

“My Mujahid brother, we do not view you as an individual – even though it is referred to as Individual Jihad,” Raymi says. “We rather view you as a group, a brigade, or even an army in itself.”

Raymi says he and others “wish” they “had an army” in the West to carry out operations, but jihadists who act on their own “are that army.”

“And it is important to view yourself from this angle, that you are part of this Ummah [community of worldwide Muslims], a part of this body,” Raymi says. “If any part of the body is not well, then the whole body shares the sleeplessness and fever with it.”

The AQAP chief continues: “We are a single united body, and today this body is in pain in many places. And you are situated in a place where you can harm our enemy. And so it is upon you to carry out that role.”

Raymi emphasizes that the actions of individual jihadists are connected to the wars being fought by their ideological brethren overseas. He notes that their enemies “continuously carry out thousands of operations on a daily basis” and invites Muslims in the West to see themselves as members of the same families struck abroad. “We are a single united body,” Raymi says. “An American Muslims is the same as a Yemeni Muslim, and a Yemeni Muslim is the same as an Australian Muslim. We do not believe in nationalism; we believe in Islam.”

In this context, Raymi mentions a series of wars and clashes that he considers to be a part of the same broader struggle, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the wars in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Syria. Raymi then asks: “If every operation against the Muslims were to be retaliated by a single Muslim living in the West and result[ed] in the killing of many Americans, then what do you think will happen (as a result)?” The goal is to make “the enemy think twice about his actions,” Raymi says.

AQAP forced to praise operations conducted by Islamic State supporters

AQAP was an early innovator when it comes to inspiring individual jihadists to strike on their own without formal training abroad. Other ideologues had espoused the concept previously, but Anwar al Awlaki, an AQAP leader, was the chief advocate of such operations at the time of his death in a US drone strike in Sept. 2011. Awlaki and his comrades founded the English-language Inspire magazine, which is largely devoted to encouraging “lone mujahid” to lash out in the West.

As the Islamic State rose to prominence beginning in 2014, however, AQAP was eclipsed as the main instigator of “lone mujahid” attacks. Many of the small-scale terror plots carried out in recent years have involved supporters of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s caliphate, or were claimed by the Islamic State as the work of its “soldiers.” In some cases, ties to the Islamic State organization are nebulous, or non-existent, but counterterrorism officials have found connections (even if only online) or evidence of inspiration in many cases.

Therefore, Raymi’s speech could be viewed as part of AQAP’s attempt to reclaim the narrative when it comes to inspiring “lone mujahid” attacks. His talk is branded as an “Inspire” production. Still, the Islamic State’s success in amplifying AQAP’s original concept looms large.

Indeed, the only example of an individual jihadist cited by Raymi is Omar Mateen, who repeatedly swore allegiance to Baghdadi during his night of terror in June 2016. Mateen was reportedly exposed to Anwar al Awlaki’s teachings online. But like a number of other individual plotters who were first drawn to AQAP’s messaging, Mateen became infatuated with the idea of striking in the name of the so-called caliphate.

Raymi ignores Mateen’s oath of fealty to Baghdadi, as AQAP has rejected the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration.

“If you sacrifice and expect reward from Allah, then you can do great things,” Raymi says. The AQAP emir continues: “Our brother, Omar Mateen — May Allah accept him and elevate his status high — when he executed his blessed operation…how many smiles do you think he drew on the faces of the widows, orphans and Mujahideen all over? Today, the Muslim Ummah only hears of tragedy after tragedy facing it. Yet it is you who (can) draw a smile in their face. And if making a Muslim smile is a charity, then what about drawing a smile upon thousands and millions of Muslims?” Raymi points to his own smile while making this point. (See the screen shot above.)

Raymi uses the example set by Mateen to draw lessons for his listeners: “Don’t complicate matters, take it easy and simple, the same as our brother Omar Mateen did, he took an AK-47 [sic] and headed towards their gatherings and attacked them.”

“If such operations were to continue whenever there is a tragedy upon Muslims, we will be transferring the tragedy back to them, and it will be an eye for an eye,” Raymi argues.

AQAP has previously praised Omar Mateen’s shooting rampage. The group released an “Inspire Guide” explaining the supposed benefits of the massacre from the jihadists’ perspective. But AQAP also argued that Mateen’s choice of target – a LGBT nightclub in Orlando – confused matters by drawing attention away from the jihadists’ cause.

“The executor [Mateen] specifically chose a homosexual nightclub, and even though the killing of such people is the most binding duty and closer to human nature, [it is better] to avoid targeting areas where minorities are found,” AQAP’s propagandists wrote last year in their “Inspire Guide” for the Orlando attack. AQAP worried that the target took away from the “essence of the operation.” AQAP’s guide continued: “The Western media focused on the testimony by Mateen’s father who said that his son hates homosexuals and the terrorist ideas had no place in his motives. The media reiterated this, saying that Omar saw some homosexuals kissing each other and that such a scene offended him. The media tried to portray the operation motives to be against a particular group of people in order to turn the American public away from the real motives of the operation.”

AQAP also argued that Mateen erred by targeting a nightclub where “most of the individuals present…were Latino.” It “is better to avoid targeting places and crowds where minorities are generally found in America” and jihadists should instead target “areas where the Anglo-Saxon community is generally concentrated,” because this “class of the American community is the majority and it is the one that is in the American leadership.”

This critique of Mateen’s mass murder – that he should have chosen a target that didn’t muddy the jihadist motivation – is entirely missing from Raymi’s speech.

AQAP has, at times, encouraged followers to carry out more targeted slayings. For instance, the 15th issue of Inspire, released in the Spring of 2016, was dedicated to “Professional Assassinations.” The cover story advocated “precision in choosing the target from the beginning to the time of execution,” and the group also published a list of “economic personalities” whose murder would garner much attention. AQAP was behind the targeted strike on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris in Jan. 2015. Inspire had previously listed Charlie Hebdo’s employees as legitimate targets, because they had supposedly offended Islam.

To be sure, AQAP has promoted less precise attacks throughout its history, including first advocating the use of trucks and other vehicles in indiscriminate killings. And the “Professional Assassinations” edition of Inspire also contained an article encouraging the use of knives in attacks inside the US (“O Knife Revolution, Head Towards America”), just as they have been employed against Jews in Israel.

But AQAP has also been encouraging followers to pursue more complex operations, such as using magnetic car bombs against high-profile individuals. AQAP may very well continue to provide innovative terrorist ideas along these lines, but it is telling that Raymi avoids all of this, telling would-be followers not to “complicate matters, take it easy and simple.”

In addition to the June 2016 Orlando massacre, AQAP has praised other attacks that were inspired, or claimed by the Islamic State.

For example, in Inspire and the Inspire Guides, AQAP has lauded: the truck attack on Bastille Day in Nice, France last year; the Sept. 2016 stabbings at a mall in Minnesota; and the vehicular assault near the British parliament in March.

In another Inspire Guide, Raymi’s men decried the arrests of women who were allegedly preparing to carry out a jihadist operation in France on behalf Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate. AQAP advised “brothers in the west not to allow our Muslim sisters to participate in any lone jihad operation” – a recommendation some in the Islamic State’s network are likely to ignore. AQAP has also endorsed the bombings in New Jersey and New York last September. The bombings were carried out by a jihadist who cited Osama bin Laden, Awlaki and the Islamic State’s spokesman in his notebook. It was that same spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, who helped the Islamic State amplify AQAP’s “lone mujahid” concept by stressing the necessity of striking in the name of the so-called caliphate.

Therefore, AQAP has been forced to praise terrorist anti-Western attacks carried out in the name of their rivals in the Islamic State. This cannot sit well with Raymi and the al Qaeda loyalists around him.

Raymi’s video is a rare, direct appeal by the AQAP leader to jihadists in the West. He clearly seeks to move AQAP back into the fore of the “lone mujahid” effort.

“If you are true to Allah and seek his assistance, then he will never neglect you,” Raymi tells his audience. “You will be greatly rewarded for [alleviating] the distrust of your Mujahideen brothers everywhere and be an example of brotherhood and the spirit of unity.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.