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:

Ayman al Zawahiri warns against ‘nationalist’ agenda in Syria

LONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN,  April 23, 2017:

Al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As Sahab, released an audio message from emir Ayman al Zawahiri earlier today. The audio file, which was spliced together with images from the Sunni jihad in Syria, is just over six minutes long. It was released via social media, including on As Sahab’s Telegram channel.

Zawahiri warns that the Syrian war shouldn’t be considered an exclusively “nationalist” effort, because this is what the Sunni jihadists’ enemies want. Instead, he says the Syrian conflict should be viewed as the “cause of the entire Ummah,” or worldwide community of Muslims.

Zawahiri’s comments are potentially interesting in light of Al Nusrah Front’s rebranding last year, and then the group’s merger with several others to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant”) in January. Various al Qaeda actors and other jihadists inside Syria have debated how to best portray themselves to the world. Al Nusrah’s relaunch in July 2016 was blessed beforehand by Zawahiri’s deputy, but some al Qaeda figures rejected it.

Zawahiri does not specifically mention Hay’at Tahrir al Sham or any other group in Syria, so we can only speculate if he is commenting on some specific debate within jihadist circles. But that appears likely.

Zawahiri does explicitly endorse the insurgency in Syria, saying that it is a “guerrilla” war and the jihadists should not focus on holding territory at this time. Instead, Zawahiri says, they must focus on weakening their enemies.

“To begin with, I would like to tell our beloved people in Sham [the Levant] that your wounds are the wounds of the entire Ummah, and your pain is the pain of the entire Ummah. You are in our prayers at every moment, and we wish to sacrifice our souls for you,” Zawahiri begins his message, which was released with an English transcript.

“If anything stands in our way,” Zawahiri continues, “it is the fact that we are engaged in fighting the same Crusader enemy which you are up against, though on a different front.”

The al Qaeda chieftain claims that the “only reason” Sunni Muslims in Syria “are being targeted” is that they “want Islam to rule over the land of Sham.” The “International Satanic Alliance will never accept this, and it will spare no effort to stop this Islamic tide,” Zawahiri says.

Consistent with al Qaeda’s messaging in the past, Zawahiri portrays the US and the West as being in league with Iran and Bashar al Assad’s regime. Indeed, he advises the people of Syria to “prepare” themselves “for a protracted war against the Crusaders and their Rafidhi [derogatory term for Shiites and Iran] and Nusayri [meaning the Assad regime] allies.”

Zawahiri praises the people for having “taken up the path of jihad in the way of Allah to raise the flag of Islam and jihad on the land of Sham, and to liberate it from oppression, tyranny and corruption.”

“So do not backtrack,” he says. “Know no wavering or compromise. Die honorably, but never accept a life of humiliation.”

The al Qaeda head reiterates his organization’s call for unity within the insurgency. Since the beginning of the war, with a few exceptions, al Qaeda’s men have attempted to remain as closely allied with other rebel groups as possible. This strategy was upset by the rise of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State in 2013 and 2014, but al Qaeda’s arm continued to cooperate with other Islamist, jihadist and Free Syrian Army-branded outfits.

“Unite and close your ranks with your Muslim brothers and mujahideen not just in Sham, but the entire world, for it is a single Crusader campaign being waged against Muslims the world over,” Zawahiri says.

He then pivots to a critique of anyone who thinks the Syrian war can be separated from the jihad elsewhere around the globe.

Speaking to the jihadists in Syria, Zawahiri says that some “wish to deceive you into buying the myth that only if you were to change your jihad to an exclusively nationalist Syrian struggle, [then] the leading international criminals would be pleased with you.”

“My people and my brothers in Sham,” Zawahiri says, “I would like to offer here a few words of advice as a reminder to you and myself.” Then, somewhat cryptically, he adds: “We must constantly review our actions, and retract ourselves from everything which is capable of hindering victory. For we can never be better than the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who were denied victory when they disobeyed. Critical reassessment and correction of mistakes is the first step in the patch to victory.”

Zawahiri does not say which “mistakes” he has mind.

“In my humble opinion,” the al Qaeda head continues, “the strategy for jihad in Sham must focus on a guerrilla war aimed at wearing down the enemy and bleeding it to death.” This “has been the weapon of choice of the oppressed against arrogant transgressors in every age,” Zawahiri says. “Do not occupy yourselves with holding on to territory, instead focus on destroying the morale of your enemy. Take the enemy to the point of abysmal despair by inflicting unrelenting blows and unbearable losses on its forces.”

For the second time in his short message, Zawahiri again warns against treating the Syrian conflict as a “nationalist” struggle. The “cause of Sham is the cause of the entire Ummah,” he says. “We must not present it as merely a cause of the people of Sham, and then further narrow it down to a cause of Syrians alone, for this is precisely the enemy’s plan and his much sought after objective.”

“The enemy seeks to transform the jihad in Sham from a cause of the Muslim Ummah to an exclusively nationalist Syrian cause, then turn the nationalist cause to an issue of specific regions and localities, and finally reduce this to an issue of a few cities, villages and neighborhoods,” Zawahiri argues. Therefore, it “is incumbent upon us to confront this evil strategy by declaring that the jihad in Sham is the jihad of the Muslim Ummah aimed at establishing the rule of Allah in the land of Allah. This must coincide with encouraging the entire Ummah to participate in the jihad of Sham with its sons, wealth, efforts, and energies.”

Zawahiri provides a short list of Muslims who have “defended Sham earlier in history,” including Salahuddin and the Ottoman Turks. He points out that “none” of the people on his list “were Syrians, but were Muslims and mujahids before anything else.” This is likely a reminder to jihadists to treat the many foreign fighters in Syria who have joined the anti-Assad insurgency as equals.

The al Qaeda leader closes by saying that the jihadists should not seek to placate the West, or any others. “We must not submit therefore to the dictations of the leading criminals, who seek to intimidate us with accusations of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism,’” Zawahiri says. He warns that this will lead to the same fate as that suffered by Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who briefly served as president of Egypt.

“These are the same forces that did not even spare Mohamed Morsi, inspite of the fact that he had given them all they had asked for,” Zawahiri says. He adds: “I ask Allah to give our people in Sham steadfastness. May Allah bless them with His victory and support, and guide them to take a common stance alongside their Mujahideen brethren the world over against a common united enemy.”

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:

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda fights on

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn Sept. 11, 2016:

All appeared lost for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in December 2001. In the years leading up to the 9/11 hijackings, bin Laden believed that the US was a “paper tiger” and would retreat from the Muslim majority world if al Qaeda struck hard enough. The al Qaeda founder had good reasons to think this. American forces withdrew from Lebanon after a series of attacks in the early 1980s and from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” episode in 1993. The US also did not respond forcefully to al Qaeda’s August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, or the USS Cole bombing in October 2000.

But bin Laden’s strategy looked like a gross miscalculation in late 2001. An American-led invasion quickly overthrew the Taliban’s regime just weeks after 19 of bin Laden’s men hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Some of al Qaeda’s most senior figures were killed in American airstrikes. With al Qaeda’s foes closing in, bin Laden ordered his men to retreat to the remote Tora Bora Mountains. Here, bin Laden must have thought, al Qaeda would make its last stand. The end was nigh.

Except it wasn’t.

Bin Laden slithered away, eventually making his way to Abbottabad, Pakistan. When Navy SEALs came calling more than nine years later, in early May 2011, the world looked very different.

Documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound reveal that he and his lieutenants were managing a cohesive global network, with subordinates everywhere from West Africa to South Asia. Some US intelligence officials assumed that bin Laden was no longer really active. But Bin Laden’s files demonstrated that this view was wrong.

Writing in The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qa’ida to ISIS, former CIA official Mike Morell explains how the Abbottabad cache upended the US intelligence community’s assumptions regarding al Qaeda. “The one thing that surprised me was that the analysts made clear that our pre-raid understanding of Bin Laden’s role in the organization had been wrong,” Morell writes. “Before the raid we’d thought that Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was running the organization on a day-to-day basis, essentially the CEO of al Qaeda, while Bin Laden was the group’s ideological leader, its chairman of the board. But the DOCEX showed something quite different. It showed that Bin Laden himself had not only been managing the organization from Abbottabad, he had been micromanaging it.”*

Consider some examples from the small set of documents released already.

During the last year and a half of his life, Osama bin Laden: oversaw al Qaeda’s “external work,” that is, its operations targeting the West; directed negotiations with the Pakistani state over a proposed ceasefire between the jihadists and parts of the government; ordered his men to evacuate northern Pakistan for safe havens in Afghanistan; instructed Shabaab to keep its role as an al Qaeda branch secret and offered advice concerning how its nascent emirate in East Africa should be run; received status reports on his fighters’ operations in at least eight different Afghan provinces; discussed al Qaeda’s war strategy in Yemen with the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other subordinates; received updates from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, including details on a proposed truce with the government of Mauritania; authorized the relocation of veteran jihadists to Libya, where they could take advantage of the uprising against Muammar al Qaddafi’s regime; corresponded with the Taliban’s leadership; and generally made decisions that impacted al Qaeda’s operations everywhere around the globe.

Again, these are just a handful of examples culled from the publicly-available files recovered in bin Laden’s compound. The overwhelming majority of these documents remain classified and, therefore, unavailable to the American public.

Al Qaeda has grown under Zawahiri’s tenure

The story of how bin Laden’s role was missed should raise a large red flag. Al Qaeda is still not well-understood and has been consistently misjudged. Not long after bin Laden was killed, a meme spread about his successor: Ayman al Zawahiri. Many ran with the idea that Zawahiri is an ineffectual and unpopular leader who lacked bin Laden’s charisma and was, therefore, incapable of guiding al Qaeda’s global network. This, too, was wrong.

There is no question that the Islamic State, which disobeyed Zawahiri’s orders and was disowned by al Qaeda’s “general command” in 2014, has cut into al Qaeda’s share of the jihadist market and undermined the group’s leadership position. But close observers will notice something interesting about al Qaeda’s response to the Islamic State’s challenge. Under Zawahiri’s stewardship, al Qaeda grew its largest paramilitary force ever.

Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, warned about the rise of Al Nusrah Front during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 28. “With direct ties to Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor, Nusra[h] is now al [Qaeda’s] largest formal affiliate in history,” McGurk said. US officials previously contacted by The Long War Journal said Nusrah could easily have 10,000 or more fighters in its ranks.

It is worth repeating that Nusrah grew in size and stature, while being openly loyal to Zawahiri, after the Islamic State became its own jihadist menace. Far from being irrelevant, Zawahiri ensured al Qaeda’s survival in the Levant and oversaw its growth.

image-posted-by-tilmidh-usamah-bin-ladin-1024x348

On July 28, Al Nusrah Front emir Abu Muhammad al Julani announced that his organization would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or the “Conquest of the Levant Front”) and would have no “no affiliation to any external [foreign] entity.” This was widely interpreted as Al Nusrah’s “break” from al Qaeda. But Julani never actually said that and al Qaeda itself isn’t an “external entity” with respect to Syria as the group moved much of its leadership to the country long ago. Al Nusrah’s rebranding was explicitly approved by Abu Khayr al Masri, one of Zawahiri’s top deputies, in an audio message released just hours prior to Julani’s announcement. Masri was likely inside Syria at the time.

Julani, who was dressed like Osama bin Laden during his appearance (as pictured above), heaped praise on bin Laden, Zawahiri and Masri. “Their blessed leadership has, and shall continue to be, an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group,” Julani said of Zawahiri and Masri.

Most importantly, Al Nusrah’s relaunch as JFS is entirely consistent with al Qaeda’s longstanding strategy in Syria and elsewhere. Al Qaeda never wanted to formally announce its role in the rebellion against Bashar al Assad’s regime, correctly calculating that clandestine influence is preferable to an overt presence for many reasons. This helps explain why Nusrah was never officially renamed as “Al Qaeda in the Levant” in the first place. However, fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, there is such widespread ignorance of al Qaeda’s goals and strategy that Nusrah’s name change is enough to fool many.

Al Qaeda has grown in South Asia as well. In Sept. 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which brought together elements of several existing jihadist organizations. AQIS quickly got to work, attempting to execute an audacious plan that would have used Pakistani arms against American and Indian ships. The plot failed, but revealed that al Qaeda had infiltrated Pakistan’s military.

Pakistani officials recently told the Washington Post that they suspect AQIS has a few thousand members in the city of Karachi alone. And al Qaeda remains closely allied with the Taliban while maintaining a significant presence inside Afghanistan. In October 2015, for instance, Afghan and American forces conducted a massive operation against two large al Qaeda training camps in the southern part of the country. One of the camps was approximately 30 square miles in size. Gen. John F. Campbell, who oversaw the war effort in Afghanistan, explained that the camp was run by AQIS and is “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

With Zawahiri as its emir, al Qaeda raised its “largest formal affiliate in history” in Syria and operated its “largest training” camp ever in Afghanistan. These two facts alone undermine the widely-held assumption that al Qaeda is on death’s door.

Elsewhere, al Qaeda’s other regional branches remain openly loyal to Zawahiri.

From April 2015 to April 2016, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controlled a large swath of territory along Yemen’s southern coast, including the key port city of Mukalla. An Arab-led coalition helped reclaim some of this turf earlier this year, but AQAP’s forces simply melted away, living to fight another day. AQAP continues to wage a prolific insurgency in the country, as does Shabaab across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. Shabaab’s leaders announced their fealty to Zawahiri in February 2012 and remain faithful to him. They have taken a number of steps to stymie the growth of the Islamic State in Somalia and neighboring countries. Shabaab also exports terrorism throughout East Africa, executing a number of high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to operate in West and North Africa, often working in conjunction with front groups. Like al Qaeda’s branches elsewhere, AQIM prefers to mask the extent of its influence, working through organizations such as Ansar al Sharia and Ansar Dine to achieve its goals. Late last year, Al Murabitoon rejoined AQIM’s ranks. Al Murabitoon is led by Mohktar Belmokhtar, who has been reportedly killed on several occasions. Al Qaeda claims that Belmokhtar is still alive and has praised him for rejoining AQIM after his contentious relations with AQIM’s hierarchy in the past. While Belmokhtar’s status cannot be confirmed, several statements have been released in his name in recent months. And Al Murabitoon’s merger with AQIM has led to an increase in high-profile attacks in West Africa.

In sum, AQAP, AQIM, AQIS and Shabaab are formal branches of al Qaeda and have made their allegiance to Zawahiri clear. Jabhat Fath al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusrah, is an obvious al Qaeda project in Syria. Other organizations continue to serve al Qaeda’s agenda as well.

Al Qaeda’s veterans and a “new generation” of jihadist leadership

As the brief summary above shows, Al Qaeda’s geographic footprint has expanded greatly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some US officials argue that al Qaeda has been “decimated” because of the drone campaign and counterterrorism raids. They narrowly focus on the leadership layer of al Qaeda, while ignoring the bigger picture. But even their analysis of al Qaeda’s managers is misleading.

Al Qaeda has lost dozens of key men, but there is no telling how many veterans remain active to this day. Experienced operatives continue to serve in key positions, often returning to the fight after being detained or only revealing their hidden hand when it becomes necessary. Moreover, al Qaeda knew it was going to lose personnel and took steps to groom a new generation of jihadists capable of filling in.

From left to right: Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Abu Khayr al Masri. These photos, first published by the FBI and US intelligence officials, show the al Qaeda leaders when they were younger.

From left to right: Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Abu Khayr al Masri. These photos, first published by the FBI and US intelligence officials, show the al Qaeda leaders when they were younger.

Last year, several veterans were reportedly released from Iran, where they were held under murky circumstances. One of them was Abu Khayr al Masri, who paved the way for Al Nusrah’s rebranding in July. Another is Saif al Adel, who has long been wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. At least two others freed by Iran, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Khalid al Aruri, returned to al Qaeda as well.

Masri, Al Adel, and Aruri may all be based inside Syria, or move back and forth to the country from Turkey, where other senior members are based. Mohammed Islambouli is an important leader within al Qaeda. After leaving Iran several years ago, Islambouli returned to Egypt and eventually made his way to Turkey, where he lives today.

Sitting to Julani’s right during his much ballyhooed announcement was one of Islambouli’s longtime compatriots, Ahmed Salama Mabrouk. The diminutive Mabrouk is another Zawahiri subordinate. He was freed from an Egyptian prison in the wake of the 2011 uprisings.

Al Qaeda moved some of its senior leadership to Syria and several others from this cadre are easy to identify. But al Qaeda has also relied on personnel in Yemen to guide its global network. One of Zawahiri’s lieutenants, Hossam Abdul Raouf, confirmed this in an audio message last October. Raouf explained that the “weight” of al Qaeda has been shifted to Syria and Yemen, because that is where its efforts are most needed.

The American drone campaign took out several key AQAP leaders in 2015, but they were quickly replaced. Qasim al Raymi, who was trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, succeeded Nasir al Wuhayshi as AQAP’s emir last summer. Raymi quickly renewed his allegiance to Zawahiri, whom Raymi described as the “the eminent sheikh” and “the beloved father.” Another al Qaeda lifer, Ibrahim Abu Salih, emerged from the shadows last year. Salih was not public figure beforehand, but he has been working towards al Qaeda’s goals in Yemen since the early 1990s. Ibrahim al Qosi (an ex-Guantanamo detainee) and Khalid al Batarfi have stepped forward to lead AQAP and are probably also part of al Qaeda’s management team.

This old school talent has helped buttress al Qaeda’s leadership cadre. They’ve been joined by men who signed up for al Qaeda’s cause after the 9/11 attacks as well. In July, the US Treasury Department designated three jihadists who are based in Iran. One of them, known as Abu Hamza al Khalidi, was listed in bin Laden’s files as part of a “new generation” of al Qaeda leaders. Today, he plays a crucial role as the head of al Qaeda’s military commission, meaning he is the equivalent of al Qaeda’s defense minister. Treasury has repeatedly identified other al Qaeda members based in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Some members of the “new generation” are more famous than others. Such is the case with Osama’s son,Hamzah bin Laden, who is now regularly featured in propaganda.

This brief survey of al Qaeda is not intended to be exhaustive, yet it is still sufficient to demonstrate that the organization’s bench is far from empty. Moreover, many of the men who lead al Qaeda today are probably unknown to the public.

The threat to the West

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.” His statement underscored how the threats have become more geographically dispersed over time. With great success, the US worked for years to limit al Qaeda’s ability to strike the West from northern Pakistan. But today, al Qaeda’s “external operations” work is carried out across several countries.

During the past fifteen years, Al Qaeda has failed to execute another mass casualty attack in the US on the scale of the 9/11 hijackings. Its most recent attack in Europe came in January 2015, when a pair of brothers backed by AQAP conducted a military-style assault on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. AQAP made it clear that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was carried out according to Zawahiri’s orders.

Thanks to vigilance and luck, al Qaeda hasn’t been able to replicate a 9/11-style assault inside the US. Part of the reason is that America’s defenses, as well as those of its partner nations, have improved. Operations such as the 9/11 hijackings are also difficult to carry out in the first place. Even the 9/11 plan experienced interruptions despite a relatively lax security environment. (Most famously, for example, the would-be 20th hijacker was denied entry into the US at an Orlando airport in the summer of 2001.)

But there is another aspect to evaluating the al Qaeda threat that is seldom appreciated. It is widely assumed that al Qaeda is only interested in attacking the West. This is flat false. Most of the organization’s resources are devoted to waging insurgencies in Muslim majority countries.

The story in Syria has been telling. Although al Qaeda may have more resources in Syria than anywhere else, Zawahiri did not order his men to carry out a strike in the West. Al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group” laid the groundwork for such operations, but Zawahiri did not give this cadre the green light to actually carry them out. Zawahiri’s stand down order is well known. In an interview that aired in May 2015, for instance, Julani explained that the “directives that come to us from Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri], may Allah protect him, are that Al Nusrah Front’s mission in Syria is to topple [Bashar al Assad’s] regime” and defeat its allies. “We have received guidance to not use Syria as a base for attacks against the West or Europe so that the real battle is not confused,” Julani said. However, he conceded that “maybe” the mother al Qaeda organization is plotting against the West, just “not from Syria.” Julani emphasized that this “directive” came from Zawahiri himself.

To date, al Qaeda has not lashed out at the West from inside Syria, even though it is certainly capable of doing so. Al Qaeda’s calculation has been that such an attack would be too costly for its strategic interests. It might get in the way of al Qaeda’s top priority in Syria, which is toppling the Assad regime. This calculation could easily change overnight and al Qaeda could use Syria as a launching pad against the West soon. But they haven’t thus far. It helps explain why there hasn’t been another 9/11-style plot by al Qaeda against the US in recent years. It also partially explains why al Qaeda hasn’t launched another large-scale operation in Europe for some time. Al Qaeda has more resources at its disposal today than ever, so the group doesn’t lack the capability. If Zawahiri and his advisors decided to make anti-Western attack planning more of a priority, then the probability of another 9/11-style event would go up. Even in that scenario, al Qaeda would have to successfully evade the West’s defenses. But the point is that al Qaeda hasn’t been attempting to hit the West nearly as much as some in the West assume.

In the meantime, it is easy to see how the al Qaeda threat has become more diverse, just as Clapper testified. AQAP has launched several thwarted plots aimed at the US, including the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing. In 2009, al Qaeda also plotted to strike trains in the New York City area. In 2010, a Mumbai-style assault in Europe was unraveled by security services. It is not hard to imagine al Qaeda trying something along those lines once again. Other organizations tied to al Qaeda, such as the Pakistani Taliban, have plotted against the US as well.

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda lives. Fortunately, Zawahiri’s men have not replicated the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. But the al Qaeda threat looms. It would be a mistake to assume that al Qaeda won’t try a large-scale operation again.

*The spellings of al Qaeda and bin Laden are changed in this quote from Morell to make them consistent with the rest of the text.

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

***

Listen to John Batchelor interview Thomas Joscelyn:

watching-bin-laden-raid

Fifteen Years Later, Al Qaeda Grows

Social Media Emerges as a Valuable Terrorist Fundraising Tool

by Abha Shankar
IPT News
April 20, 2016

1493Social media has emerged as a valuable and effective fundraising tool for terrorist groups. The Internet’s easy access and relative anonymity allows terrorist groups to solicit online donations from both supporters and unsuspecting donors who believe they are supporting a humanitarian or charitable activity.

On March 22, for example, the Nafir al Aqsa (Mobilizing for Al-Aqsa) Campaign “to equip the mujahidin of Beit al Maqdis [Jerusalem],” posted (and suspended in the past day) a solicitation for funding under the Twitter handle @Nafeer_aqsa100. It cites a hadith – a saying attributed to Islam’s prophet Muhammad – that giving money to those waging jihad is as good as doing it yourself.

1494Translation:

Nafir al Aqsa Campaign

To equip the Mujahdin of Beit al Maqdis

Equip a Mujahid

2,500 Dollars

Kalashnikov

Ammunition vest

Military clothing

Ammunition

Military boots

The Messenger of God (May God bless him and grant him peace) said: “Whoever equips a warrior in the way of God has himself fought, and he who supplies the needs of the family of a warrior has himself fought.”

The post lists a Telegram account “Nafeeraq” and email Nafeeraq@tutanota.de to contact the campaign.

Another post from March 23 (also suspended in the past day) solicits funds for jihad, listing the prices of a sniper weapon ($6,000), a grenade thrower RPG ($3,000), and PK machine gun ($5,500).

1495The solicitation campaign cites a statement from bin Laden: “I urge the youth and the sincere traders to seize this opportunity and undertake this sublime task of defending this religion and salvage this Ummah by supporting this Jihad and their properties and by exhorting and fighting against our enemies, especially in Palestine and Iraq.”

1496The Nafir al Aqsa campaign also solicits funds on YouTube.

1497In an April 2015 post, the Twitter handle @7sanaabil belonging to a Chechen jihadist group Jaish alMuhajireen wal-Ansar (“The Army of the Mujahidin and Ansar”) based in Aleppo, Syria, solicited donations for “Arming-Medical-Relief-Sponsorship” and “sponsorship of the families of martyrs.” The fundraising campaign uses Whatsapp and Telegram – mobile apps to receive and send text messages – to communicate instructions for transferring money. Jaish alMuhajireen wal-Ansar has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida’s Syria branch, the al Nusra Front.

An Aug. 21 post by @7sanaabil claims that “Jihad for money” trumps the interpretation of jihad in the Quran as a struggle for self improvement.

A recent report by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental money laundering and terrorism financing watchdog, underscores the widespread use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Whatsapp, Skype, and Telegram by terrorist groups and their financial facilitators to coordinate “large-scale and well-organized fundraising schemes” involving thousands of “sponsors” raising “significant amounts of cash.”

The challenge in slowing online fundraising “in an era when social media allows anyone with an Internet connection to set himself up as an international terrorist financier” was further highlighted by then-Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and now CIA Deputy Director David Cohen in a March 2014 address before the Center for New American Security: “We see this activity most prominently in Kuwait and Qatar, where fundraisers aggressively solicit donations online from supporters in other countries, notably Saudi Arabia, which have banned unauthorized fundraising campaigns for Syria.”

A fundraising campaign tied to the al Nusra Front and led by Saudi Sheikh Abdullah Mhesne used the Twitter handle “Jhad_bmalk” to call for contributions “to support the Islamic battalions” by invoking passage 47:38 from the Quran: “Behold, you are those invited to spend in the way of Allah; but among you are some that are niggardly. But any who are niggardly are so at the expense of their own souls.”

Read  more

Jihadists say airstrike killed veteran al Qaeda leader in Syria

Screen-Shot-2015-06-29-at-5.05.03-PM-300x163-1024x556Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, April 3, 2016:

Jihadists on social media reported earlier today that Abu Firas al Suri, who served al Qaeda since the 1980s, was killed in an airstrike in Syria.

Abu Firas relocated from Yemen to Syria in late 2012 or early 2013 as part of al Qaeda’s attempt to smooth over the then simmering tensions between Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). The mediation efforts failed and ISIS grew into the Islamic State, becoming al Qaeda’s chief jihadist rival around the globe.

Screen-Shot-2016-04-03-at-5.23.41-PM-768x731It is not clear which nation launched the airstrike that purportedly killed Abu Firas. His putative death has not been confirmed by any official sources. Several well-connected jihadists on Twitter announced his death, saying the US hunted him down in Kafr Jalis, which is in the northwestern province of Idlib. One of the tweets can be seen on the right.

Abu Firas made his first public appearance in March 2014, when he was featured in an Al Nusrah Front video. The al Qaeda leader testified against Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization, blaming it for the jihadists’ infighting in Syria. Abu Firas also said he had warned another al Qaeda veteran, Abu Khalid al Suri, about ISIS’ intent to kill him. Abu Firas’ warning didn’t save Abu Khalid, ashe was killed in a suicide attack the following day (Feb. 23, 2014).

[For an analysis of Abu Firas’ first appearance in March 2014, see LWJ report: Al Qaeda veteran appears in Al Nusrah Front video, criticizes rival.]

After the news broke of Abu Firas’ death, jihadists posted the picture on the right showing him sitting with Abu Khalid (far left) and Hassan Abboud (center). Abboud, the first emir of Ahrar al Sham, was killed in an explosion in September 2014. Abu Khalid acted as Abboud’s mentor and played a leading role in Ahrar al Sham.

The Long War Journal helped reveal Abu Khalid’s senior role in Ahrar al Sham in December 2013. Up until that time, his leadership position had not been formally acknowledged by Ahrar al Sham. Nor was it reported by Ahrar al Sham’s allies in the West.

Abu-Firas-al-Suri-with-Abu-Khalid-and-Hassan-Abboud-768x576If today’s report is in fact true, and Abu Firas perished in an airstrike, then all three of the men pictured above sitting together are now dead.

Abu Firas was a “core” al Qaeda member, under any reasonable definition of the term.

According to a biography provided by Al Nusrah, Abu Firas traveled in the early 1980s to Afghanistan, where he met with Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden. He trained both Afghans and Arabs, as well as jihadists from other countries around the world.

Abu Firas served as Osama bin Laden’s “envoy” for “mobilizing Pakistanis for jihad.” And the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was set up for this purpose, the Al Nusrah Front said. With Abu Firas acting as an intermediary, the LeT and another Pakistani group “were established, trained, and funded by Osama bin Laden.”

Further demonstrating Abu Firas’ seniority within al Qaeda, the Al Nusrah Front said that he worked with the group’s first two military commanders, Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri and Abu Hafs al Masri. Abu Firas also worked with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the deceased commander of al Qaeda in Iraq.

After the 9/11 attacks, Abu Firas “secured the mujahideen families in Pakistan,” meaning that he helped al Qaeda families and others find safe haven in the country.

In 2003, he relocated to Yemen and stayed there until late 2012 or 2013, when the conflict between ISIS and Al Nusrah Front erupted. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership then dispatched Abu Firas to Syria in an attempt to help put an end to the dispute.

Al Risalah, a pro-al Qaeda and pro-Al Nusrah magazine, published an infographic with Abu Firas’ biography on it in October 2015. The biography emphasized his longstanding opposition to the Assad family, noting that he used the expertise he gained in the Syrian military to help the “Combatant Vanguard” (or “Fighting Vanguard”) fight the Syrian regime in 1976.

In more recent years, Abu Firas served as Al Nusrah’s spokesman and as a member of the al Qaeda branch’s elite Shura council. He was known to stir controversy. For example, in more recent months, he became a critique of Ahrar al Sham’s strategy for waging jihad.

Abu Firas was a proponent of the idea that some Muslim-majority countries should be turned into “erupting jihadi center[s].” He explained in a video released in June 2015 that the “concept of jihad in the Levant was absent from people’s minds” for decades.

“Nobody even heard of the word jihad,” Abu Firas continued. “In reality, the Levant is regarded [as] one of the most important centers in the Islamic world due to its close proximity to Palestine, to the Hijaz [Saudi Arabia] and being in the center of the Islamic world.” He drew on Marxist thinking to explain that the jihadists needed to spark revolutions that could change the course of the Islamic world for generations to come.

For more on Abu Firas al Suri, see LWJ reports:

Al Qaeda veteran appears in Al Nusrah Front video, criticizes rival (Mar. 20, 2014)

Al Nusrah Front spokesman explains differences with Islamic State in video appearance (Aug. 13, 2014)

Al Qaeda veteran takes on a more prominent role as spokesman in Syria (Sept. 6, 2014)

New Al Nusrah Front video features interview with leader, military gains in Syria (Feb. 13, 2015)

Al Nusrah Front celebrates 9/11 attacks in new video (June 29, 2015)

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

Aleppo siege marks dramatic upheaval on Syrian battlefield

160205083520-aleppomap-exlarge-169

CNN, by Tim Lister, Feb. 7, 2016:

The images from Aleppo, Idlib and Syria’s border with Turkey can be described in one word: despair.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the relentless bombing and shelling that has paved the way for dramatic battlefield gains by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its allies. Hundreds of thousands more remain trapped, awaiting their fate with trepidation.

In the space of a few weeks, the Syrian battlefield has been transformed, the balance of forces pulverized and the prospects for peace talks — already dark — virtually extinguished. Another tide of displaced civilians converge on the Turkish border, trapped by the advance of regime forces.

Last week, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Iranian and Lebanese Shia militia, severed the main road from Aleppo to the Turkish border, a narrow corridor through which the rebels and NGOs alike moved supplies. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that several villages in the area were hit by airstrikes on Sunday.

A defining battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, seems imminent. Regime forces and their allies on the ground, supported by Russian bombers in the air, are tightening the noose around the eastern half of the city, still held by a coalition of rebel groups. It’s estimated some 320,000 people still live, or subsist, there — under continual bombardment.

Shortages of diesel and food are reported, but many people simply don’t dare or can’t afford to leave. One civil defense worker told the Guardian newspaper: “They think, ‘We can die in our own homes, we don’t need to go to other places to die.’ “

Russian revolution

Beyond the humanitarian catastrophe that looms, the plight of Aleppo symbolizes the rapid transformation of the Syrian battlefield since the regime, Iran and Russia came together. For much of 2015, Assad’s forces were on the defensive, as rebel groups consolidated and took major towns in Idlib, the Aleppo countryside and began to attack regime strongholds in Latakia.

It was the very real possibility of regime collapse that prompted Russian intervention in September. Russian airstrikes and Iranian militia have since bolstered regime troops and reversed the tide. Aleppo is their most prized target.

“Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011,” says Emile Hokayem in Foreign Policy.

The Institute for the Study of War says a successful regime offensive around Aleppo would “shatter opposition morale, fundamentally challenge Turkish strategic ambitions and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community.”

Rebel groups have made desperate appeals for help in defending the city.

The notoriously fractious resistance groups are declaring alliances to bolster their collective resistance. One of the most important groups, Ahrar al Sham, announced at the weekend: “We extend our hands to all factions of the Syrian revolution … and we announce our acceptance for unity with them without any prerequisites.”

But even briefly united, they can’t shoot down planes, and they don’t have T-90 tanks.

Since Russia began its air campaign, most of its strikes have been on cities and towns held by the rebels in western Syria. The aim: to link regime-held territory from the capital to the coast. These are not areas where ISIS has much of a presence; al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and elements of the Free Syrian Army are the main groups.

Resistance has been fierce, but the sheer scale of the assault has gradually pried one town after another — or rather their ruins — from rebel hands.

In the process, senior rebel commanders have been killed in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Some commentators believe that the Assad regime and Russia set out to hoodwink the West by agreeing to the Geneva peace process while stepping up their military campaign, to create “facts on the ground” that would vastly change the balance in the negotiations.

“Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and ISIS,” says Hokayem. For now, ISIS is waiting out the battle for Aleppo and watching its rivals get pummeled. It is crowing that it is the only real defender of Sunni Muslims against the Shia-dominated forces now on the offensive.

The Syrian Kurds, whose attitude toward the Assad regime might be described as ambivalent, also appear to be taking advantage of the situation, chipping away at rebel-held villages north of Aleppo. According to diplomats in the region, they are being encouraged by Russia — keen to antagonize Turkey at any opportunity.

For Aleppo, read Grozny

Some analysts compare Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Syria with the Russian campaign in Chechnya in 1999, which he directed as Prime Minister. All opposition figures were marked as terrorists, and Russian forces destroyed cities such as Grozny in which insurgents lived, as well as the insurgents themselves. By some estimates, 80% of Grozny was rendered uninhabitable. Human Rights Watch published a report on the Chechen campaign in 2000 entitled “Welcome to Hell” and accusing Russian forces of egregious human rights violations.

Putin pursued an exclusively military solution against the Chechen insurgency, and ultimately it worked. It took six years and an unknown number of Russian military casualties, but today acts of resistance in Chechnya are few and far between, and the republic is run by a Putin loyalist.

The same approach is apparent in Syria. After his meeting with Putin at the United Nations in September, U.S. President Barack Obama said of the Russians’ view of the rebels: “From their perspective, they’re all terrorists.”

But Chechnya is not the only precedent.

Jihadists, some of them from the Caucasus, have threatened to turn Syria into another Afghanistan for the Russians. While they may be driven from territory they hold, they are unlikely to be driven from Syria and could revert to insurgency tactics such as ambushes, assassinations and suicide bombings.

To some analysts, the regime advance will only radicalize what remains of rebel forces in Syria. Hokayem speaks of a “widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles.”

Last month, Osama Abu Zeid, a senior adviser to the moderate Free Syrian Army, complained that “the U.S. is gradually moving from a neutral position toward being a partner in crime as it allows Assad and his allies to kill Syrians.”

Several rebel groups, as well as Turkish officials, blame Washington for the failure to establish a “safe-haven” inside Syria last year. Some in Washington take the same view.

In an Op-Ed for The Washington Post, two former senior officials, Nicholas Burns and James Jeffries, urge the Obama administration to “dramatically expand funding for the moderate Sunni and Kurdish forces that pose an alternative to Assad’s government and the Islamic State” and “reconsider what it has rejected in the past: the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians, along with a no-fly zone to enforce it.”

But they acknowledge that “defending the zone, preventing it from being overwhelmed by refugees, grounding it in a convincing legal justification and keeping out jihadist groups would be daunting tasks.”

Europe’s next nightmare

The United Nations estimated Friday that 40,000 people have already been displaced by the fighting in Aleppo. But the current exodus is by no means the first since the Russian air campaign began. In just three weeks in October, the United Nations reported the displacement of 120,000 people from Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. Nor will it be the last.

Turkey — which already has 2.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil — says it is close to capacity. The European Union is pouring cash ($3.3 billion) into a vastly expanded program to house refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, trying to forestall another surge of refugees across the Mediterranean. But it may not be enough.

Some EU officials see Europe’s expensive and divisive refugee crisis as an intended consequence of Russian policy.

“Putin likes to cast himself as a man of order, but his policies have brought more chaos, and Europe is set to pay an increasing price,” says Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède.

A ‘painful year’

The main supporters of the rebels in northwest Syria — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — are now short of options. They could send weapons across the border into Idlib, but the province is largely controlled by al Nusra.

They seem unlikely to walk away from a struggle in which they have invested so heavily and watch their Shia enemies — Hezbollah, the Alawite-led regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard — claim victory.

Fabrice Balanche at the Washington Institute speculates they may try to “set up a new rebel umbrella group similar to Jaish al-Fatah, and/or send anti-aircraft missiles to certain brigades…(or) open a new front in northern Lebanon.”

“The question is, do Riyadh and Ankara have the means and willingness to conduct such a bold, dangerous action?” Balanche asks.

It is hard to find anyone who believes the situation in Syria will get better before it gets much worse.

“The conditions are in place,” says Hokayem, “for a disastrous collapse of the Geneva talks — now delayed until late February — and a painful, bloody year in Syria.”

Also see:

The CIA’s Syria Program and the Perils of Proxies

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Daily Beast, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, Jan. 19, 2016:

After fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.
Almost every aspect of the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been scrutinized, lambasted or praised in recent months, but one of the most significant facets, the CIA’s covert aid program to Syrian rebels, has largely slipped below the radar.

It is time that we start paying attention, since this initiative is benefiting the very jihadist groups the U.S. has been fighting for the past 15 years.

America’s abrupt about-face is a mistake, but even those who would defend this new course as the least bad option should favor a more robust public debate.

The CIA’s program, launched in 2013, initially was conceived as a way of strengthening moderate rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime without significantly increasing the U.S. footprint in the conflict.

The program got off to a slow start, with rebel commanders grumbling that the CIA was stingy due to its concern that weapons would fall into extremists’ hands. As a result, moderate rebels were forced at times to ration ammunition. At least one rebel group severed its ties with the CIA and joined an Islamist-led coalition, while other CIA-backed rebels stopped fighting.

After these early hiccups, the program evolved.

Anonymous U.S. officials now tell the media that CIA-backed rebels have begun to experience unprecedented successes, particularly in northwestern Syria. Yet these gains reveal a darker side to the CIA-backed groups’ victories, and even American officials’ framing of these advances provides reason for concern. As the Associated Press reported in October, officials have explained that the CIA-backed groups were capturing new territory by “fighting alongside more extremist factions.”

Who are these extremist co-belligerents? Analysis of the geography of “moderate” rebels’ gains during this period and reports from the battlefield demonstrate that CIA-backed groups collaborated with Jaysh al-Fateh, an Islamist coalition in which Jabhat al-Nusra—al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate—is a leading player.

Hassan Hassan, co-author (with The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss) of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, suggested that rebel gains in Idlib in April 2015 showcased the symmetries between CIA-backed forces and Nusra when he attributed the rebels’ successes to suicide bombers (frequently deployed by Nusra and other jihadists) and “American anti-tank TOW missiles.” In southern Syria, the CIA-backed Southern Front fought alongside Nusra in the campaign to take the city of Deraa in June 2015.

CIA-backed groups in northwestern Syria publicly acknowledge their relationship with the al Qaeda affiliate. A commander of Fursan ul-Haq, a rebel group that received TOW missiles through CIA channels, explained that “there is something misunderstood by world powers: We have to work with Nusra Front and other groups to fight” both Assad’s regime and the Islamic State.

Similarly, a spokesman for CIA-backed Suqour al-Ghab justified his group’s collaboration with Nusra by noting that “we work with all factions when there are attacks on the regime, either through direct cooperation or just coordinating the movements of troops so we don’t fire at each other.”

The fact that CIA-backed groups collaborate with Nusra does not necessarily prove that they harbor jihadist sympathies, nor that they hoodwinked the American officials who vetted them. In many or perhaps most cases, these groups’ decision to cooperate with Nusra is born out of pragmatism.

When fighting a regime as brutal as Assad’s, it is natural to look for allies wherever they may be found. Further, as one of the dominant players in northern Syria, Nusra can dictate terms to smaller rebel factions. The experiences of Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, two CIA-backed groups that Nusra literally obliterated in late 2014, are a stark warning.

Jamaal Maarouf, the commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, explainedafter his group was ousted from Syria that no militia in the rebel umbrella organization known as the Free Syrian Army can operate in northern Syria “without Nusra’s approval.”

Because of Nusra’s strength, CIA-backed factions have entered what has beencalled a “marriage of necessity” with the jihadist group, which is exploiting its position to gain access to American weapons.

After rebels seized a Syrian military base in Idlib province in December 2014, CIA-backed groups admitted that they had been forced to use U.S.-provided TOW missiles to support the Nusra-led offensive. One rebel explained that Nusra had allowed CIA-backed groups to retain physical control of the missiles so as to maintain the veneer of autonomy, thus allowing them to sustain their relationship with the CIA. In short, Nusra has at times gamed the system.

But such subterfuge notwithstanding, at this point it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited. And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September.

Rebels who previously complained about the CIA’s tight-fistedness suddenly found the floodgates open, particularly with respect to TOW missiles. One rebel explained: “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them. Just fill in the numbers.” Reports suggest that the Obama administration and Sunni states backing the opposition have also discussed, though not committed to, providing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons to vetted groups.

With the CIA doubling down on its support for Syrian rebels, it is now more important than ever to have a candid and vigorous public debate about the agency’s program. Put simply, such an about-face in U.S. policy—backing groups that help al Qaeda to make advances, after spending a decade and a half fighting the jihadist group—should not occur without a public debate that helps Americans understand why such drastic changes in U.S. policy have occurred.

Several prominent figures have defended this program. For instance, Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, argued that by maintaining the supply of lethal support to moderate rebels, the CIA may ultimately be able to build up these factions as a viable alternative to Nusra, the Islamic State and Assad.

But the program’s costs outweigh its possible benefits. Though aiding al Qaeda’s advances is not the program’s intention, it is the effect. Thus, after fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.

At the moment, al Qaeda is trying to rebrand itself by contrasting its approach to that of the far more brutal Islamic State—and, unfortunately, it has experienced some success due to its jihadist competitor’s excesses and the escalating conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda has portrayed itself to Sunni states and the Muslim public as a bulwark against both the Islamic State’s growth and Iranian encroachment. If U.S.-backed rebels are cooperating with al Qaeda, the United States will be hard-pressed to stop al Qaeda from gaining more room to operate in the region.

It is unlikely that the United States, with no meaningful presence in Syria, understands the situation on the ground better than al Qaeda, and can strategically outmaneuver the jihadist group. The danger is too great that continuation of this policy will empower Nusra further, eventually forcing policymakers to confront a greatly emboldened al Qaeda force in Syria.

This is why, at the very least, we should have a robust public discussion about whether to continue this course in Syria—a debate that the U.S. Congress is well positioned to kickstart through public hearings on the CIA’s program. Allowing this program to continue without carefully thinking through the benefits, costs, and possible unintended consequences is incredibly risky, and could erode public trust and support.

***

Also see: