State Department: Iran allows al Qaeda to operate its ‘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. OnlyYasin al Suri is believed to be still alive. Others continue to operate in Iran.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, September 19, 2018:

The State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism today. The report covers events during the previous calendar year. As in past assessments, State says that Iran “has allowed” al Qaeda to operate its key facilitation network on Iranian soil.

“Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda (AQ) members residing in Iran and has refused to publicly identify the members in its custody,” Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 reads.*

Moreover, “Iran has 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 language closely mirrors that included in past State Department reports and statements, as well as in a series of terrorist designations issued by the Treasury Department. The paragraphs below borrow from previous reports on these official statements, including an article summarizing last year’s Country Reports on TerrorismFDD’s Long War Journal has repeatedly summarized these official US government reports in the past. See, for example, State Department: Iran continues to host al Qaeda’s ‘core facilitation pipeline’.

Since July 2011, the US Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly stated that the Iranian regime allows al Qaeda to maintain a “core pipeline” on its soil. This arrangement is the result of a specific “agreement” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda’s leadership. A timeline of these statements is included below.

In addition, the UN reported in late July that “Al Qaeda leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent, working with” al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and “projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously.” According to the UN, the Iran-based al Qaeda leadership has worked to undermine the authority of Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the head of Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS). Separately, the State Department increased the reward for information on these two same al Qaeda managers, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Saif al-Adel. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, UN: Iran-based leaders ‘have grown more prominent’ in al Qaeda’s global network and Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran.]

The agreement between al Qaeda’s leadership and Iran is, in some ways, curious to say the least. The two sides have openly fought one another in Syria and Yemen. Iran also detained a number of al Qaeda leaders and family members for years after the 9/11 attacks. This led al Qaeda to agitate for their release. Al Qaeda considers the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East to be pernicious. And al Qaeda’s leaders regularly frame their Sunni jihad as a counterweight to Iran’s Shiite designs.

Still, unlike the Islamic State, al Qaeda has not conducted a direct terrorist attack inside Iran, as this would cause problems for its facilitators. According to the US government, these same operatives have managed al Qaeda’s “core pipeline” inside Iran for years.

Previous designations and other statements by Treasury and State Departments

The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 is the latest instance in which a branch of the US government has officially recognized al Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline” inside Iran, or exposed related aspects of al Qaeda’s operations inside the country.

In 2008 and 2009, Treasury reported that several al Qaeda operatives were either living inside Iran, or working with others jihadists in the country.

Then, beginning in July 2011, both the Treasury and State Departments repeatedly targeted the Iran-based network with sanctions and terror designations, saying that the hub is operated as part of a formerly “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda’s leadership.

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

June 2008: Treasury designated `Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Jaffar `Ali, an al Qaeda “financier and facilitator” based in Bahrain “who has provided significant funding to” al Qaeda. Among his other tasks, `Ali “facilitated the movement of money to a senior al Qaeda facilitator in Iran.”

Treasury also designated Adil Muhammad Mahmud Abd Al-Khaliq, who served al Qaeda’s senior leaders and senior leaders and “provided financial, material, and logistical support to al Qaeda and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).” Treasury explained that “[b]etween 2004 and 2007, Abd al-Khaliq traveled to Iran five times on behalf of al Qaeda and the LIFG for his facilitation duties.” Abd al-Khaliq “met with senior al Qaeda facilitators” during “each of these trips.” And during “this same timeframe,” Abd al-Khaliq “provided material support to al Qaeda and the LIFG by equipping them with electrical parts used in explosives, laptop computers, jackets, GPS devices, and other equipment.” He also “arranged the transportation of fighters, money, and material to LIFG camps in Pakistan.”

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 with al Qaeda’s network 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, 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.”

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 leaders al Qaeda groomed to replace their fallen comrades.

July 2017: The State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. “Iran 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,” the report reads. “Since at least 2009, 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.”

Thus, the language in the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 closely follows previous assessments and statements by the US government.

*Note: The spelling of al Qaeda was changed in some quotes to make it consistent throughout.

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

Understanding ISIS and al Qaeda

Critical Threats, by Mary Habeck, September 10, 2018: (H?T Bill Warner)

Explanations for why the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda have strengthened since 2011 include the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the failure of local governments and of coalitions and outside forces, the failure of the United States or its withdrawal from the Middle East, or societal fissures. Yet all of these explanations fail to consider the plans and actions of Salafi-jihadi groups and actors themselves.

This briefer seeks to provide the fundamentals on Salafi-jihadi groups both organizationally and as fighting groups.

Table of Contents

◊ What Has Gone Wrong Since 2011?
◊ The Usual Explanations
◊ What Are al Qaeda and ISIS Organizationally?
◊ Al Qaeda and ISIS Geographical Organization
◊ Al Qaeda and ISIS as Fighting Organizations
◊ The Strategy of al Qaeda and ISIS
◊ Military Objectives
◊ Religio-Political Objectives

Al Qaeda is very much alive, and widely misunderstood

Al Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, from a video released in Aug. 2018.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, September 11, 2018:

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at The Weekly Standard.

On Sept. 11, 2001, nineteen of Osama bin Laden’s operatives changed the course of world history. We are fortunate that al Qaeda hasn’t carried out another 9/11-style attack inside the U.S. in the seventeen years since. But that fact shouldn’t obscure the reality about al Qaeda and its global jihad. Al Qaeda remains a threat. Its operatives are fighting in more countries around the world today than was the case on 9/11. And its leaders still want to target the United States and its interest and allies. The war they started is far from over.

There are many reasons for al Qaeda’s failure to successfully execute a mass-casualty attack in the US: America’s defenses hardened, as its tactical offensive capabilities improved; U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials, sometimes aided by allies, hunted down numerous al Qaeda planners overseas; al Qaeda’s men have also bungled undetected opportunities, proving that even when they get a clear shot, it is difficult to execute mass terror operations on the scale we witnessed in 2001. This is one reason that al Qaeda’s men began calling for small-scale attacks carried out by individuals.

Al Qaeda has faced other obstacles as well. In its war with the U.S., the group has lost key management personnel – most importantly, of course, was the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Scores of other senior figures have been killed or captured. This has raised logistical hurdles, sometimes disrupting communications and al Qaeda’s chain of command. In addition, the rise of the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014 created the biggest challenge to al Qaeda’s authority within the global jihadist movement since its inception in 1988.

Despite all of this, however, al Qaeda is very much alive – albeit widely misunderstood. Consider this shocking fact: the counterterrorism community still has not formulated a common definition or understanding of the organization. Basic facts remain in dispute or are actively denied.

With that in mind, let us briefly review the state of al Qaeda. When we look at the organization as a whole, it quickly becomes apparent that al Qaeda has many thousands of men around the globe. Indeed, al Qaeda is waging jihad in far more countries today than it was on 9/11, with loyalists fighting everywhere from West Africa, through North and East Africa, into the heart of the Middle East and into South Asia. Some labor to disconnect the dots on al Qaeda’s global network, so let us reconnect them.

Al Qaeda honors Osama bin Laden as the “reviving imam” – an honorific that is intended to emphasize his revolutionary role in spreading the jihadist ideology. Look around the world today, and you see they unfortunately have a point.

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership

In 2011, Ayman al Zawahiri succeeded Osama bin Laden as al Qaeda’s global leader. It was a natural move, as Zawahiri had worked closely with bin Laden since the 1980s. And Zawahiri’s own original organization, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), provided bin Laden’s nascent endeavor with key personnel and logistical assistance in the early 1990s. EIJ operatives played crucial roles in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, al Qaeda’s most devastating attack prior to 9/11.

EIJ veterans continue to hold some of the most important roles inside al Qaeda to this day. For example, the UN recently reported that Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, both of whom are still wanted for their roles in the embassy bombings, are assisting Zawahiri from inside Iran. The two were held by the Iranians for years after the 9/11 attacks, but they resumed their activities in 2015, after al Qaeda and Iran reportedly agreed to a hostage swap. These “[a]l Qaeda leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent, working with” Zawahiri and “projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously,” according to the UN.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The Obama administration’s Treasury and State Departments revealed in 2011 that al Qaeda’s Iran-based network serves as the organization’s “core pipeline through which” it “moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia.” This pipeline operates under an “agreement” between al Qaeda and the Iranian government. In the years since the Obama administration first exposed this “secret deal,” the U.S. government has revealed additional details about other al Qaeda leaders operating inside Iran, including “new generation” figures who were groomed to replace their fallen comrades.

Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s ideological and biological heir, has become a prominent voice for al Qaeda globally. The group undoubtedly likes to market the bin Laden name, but this isn’t a mere branding exercise. There is evidence that the junior bin Laden plays a leadership role within the organization. He, too, has operated out of Iran.

Al Qaeda continues to have a significant presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some senior managers are operating in those two countries.

One of the principal reasons the group has been able to weather the America-led counterterrorism storm in South Asia is its relationship with the Taliban. This is perhaps the most underestimated aspect of al Qaeda’s operations. Following in bin Laden’s footsteps, Zawahiri has sworn his allegiance to the Taliban’s overall leader, an ideologue known as Hibatullah Akhundzada. And al Qaeda’s chief goal in South Asia is to resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which Zawahiri argues is the “nucleus” of a new jihadist caliphate.

Although it is a somewhat awkward arrangement, al Qaeda’s regional branches ultimately owe their loyalty to Akhundzada as well. Each regional arm is led by an emir who has sworn his allegiance to Zawahiri. Their fealty technically passes through Zawahiri to Akhundzada himself. Although there is little evidence that the Taliban’s hierarchy plays any role in managing al Qaeda’s presence outside of South Asia, al Qaeda’s scheme connects Afghanistan to various conflicts around the globe, as Zawahiri’s men are attempting to build Islamic emirates in several countries.

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)

In September 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which brought together parts of several pre-existing al Qaeda-linked groups. AQIS is led by Asim Umar, who is openly loyal to Zawahiri. One of AQIS’s first plots was an audacious attempt to hijack Pakistani frigates and fire their weapons into American and Indian ships.

AQIS’s chief goal is to help the Taliban reconquer Afghanistan. Its men are deeply embedded in the Taliban-led insurgency and its role in the Afghan War has been underestimated. For example, in October 2015, the U.S. and its Afghan allies raided two training camps in the southern Shorabak district. According to the U.S. military, one of the two was approximately 30 square-miles in size – making it one of the largest al Qaeda training camps in post-2001 Afghanistan, if not the largest.

AQIS is attempting to strengthen al Qaeda’s organization throughout South Asia, working with groups from Bangladesh, India, Kashmir, Pakistan and likely other countries, too. The Pakistani Taliban is closely allied with al Qaeda as well.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

Outside of South Asia, al Qaeda’s strongest branch is AQAP. Bin Laden’s former aide-de-camp established the current iteration of AQAP in 2009. Today it is led by Qasim al-Raymi, an al Qaeda veteran who has sworn his fealty to Zawahiri. Raymi is surrounded by other al Qaeda veterans.

AQAP gained global attention in 2009 and 2010 with its failed attempts to strike inside the U.S. AQAP simultaneously began promoting the idea of “lone jihad,” an effort that has had some limited success. Several attacks in the U.S. can be traced to this campaign. The January 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris was AQAP’s doing as well.

AQAP is not just a regional branch of al Qaeda’s organization, it has also housed senior management figures responsible for making decisions that affect the jihadists’ global efforts. Its propaganda organs, which have been disrupted, also serve al Qaeda’s global operations.

AQAP has taken over much of Yemen twice, as it is attempting to build an Islamic state in the country. However, Raymi and his men are currently embroiled in Yemen’s multi-sided war, which pits an Arab-led coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis. While AQAP has clashed at times with the Arab coalition, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not taken the fight directly to the group on the ground. Instead, AQAP has cut deals to allow its men to live and fight another day. While AQAP has often been on the same side as the Arab coalition, it has also accused the Saudis of assisting the Americans in a targeted air campaign against its leadership.

According to a recent UN report, AQAP may have as many as 6,000 to 7,000 fighters, though it is difficult to estimate the group’s strength for a variety of reasons.

Shabaab in Somalia

Based in Somalia, Shabaab is al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. It is not only responsible for waging a prolific insurgency inside Somalia, but has also launched operations throughout the region. The U.S. is supporting the Somali government in its attempt to stymie the jihadi insurgents.

Files recovered in Abbottabad, Pakistan show that Osama bin Laden considered Shabaab to be a part of his organization by 2010, at the latest. The reality is that Shabaab was already strongly tied to the al Qaeda network before then. In mid-2010, Bin Laden ordered Shabaab’s leader at the time to keep his allegiance private, as the al Qaeda founder thought a public announcement would further complicate Shabaab’s mission in various ways. Some still have not recognized this point, wrongly arguing that bin Laden did not admit Shabaab into al Qaeda’s fold. But this isn’t what the al Qaeda founder said. Bin Laden simply didn’t want to announce their formal merger to the public.

In early 2012, months after bin Laden’s death, Shabaab and al Qaeda’s leadership did announce their union. Today the group is led by Abu Ubaydah Ahmad Umar – a man who doesn’t hide his loyalty to Zawahiri and al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

AQIM publicly announced its union with al Qaeda in 2006. And files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that AQIM regularly communicated with al Qaeda’s senior leadership in South Asia in the years thereafter. AQIM grew out of an existing jihadist group that was opposed to the Algerian government. It is led by Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel), who has sworn his own blood oath to Zawahiri.

AQIM operates in North and West Africa. It is often difficult to measure the scope of its operations, as AQIM’s leaders have decided to hide their roles in various front groups. This has caused confusion in the West. For instance, AQIM clearly backed Ansar al Sharia, one of several al Qaeda or al Qaeda-linked groups responsible for the September 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi. But the U.S. government was initially reluctant to recognize Ansar al Sharia’s ties to AQIM. Other organizations in Benghazi, Derna and elsewhere in Libya have been tied to AQIM. And AQIM has a small arm in Tunisia that is responsible for carrying out attacks.

In 2012, AQIM and its local jihadist allies took over much of Mali. Their intent was to build an Islamic emirate, or state, which could one day be part of al Qaeda’s imagined caliphate. They lost their grip on the country after the French invaded in early 2013. But AQIM has continued to operate in North and West Africa since then.

The “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM) 

JNIM was established in March 2017, bringing together several al Qaeda groups that were already waging jihad in Mali and West Africa. JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Tuareg jihadist who has sworn his fealty to Wadoud and Zawahiri, as well as Taliban emir Akhundzada.

Ghaly formerly led an organization known as Ansar Dine, which was a crucial part of AQIM’s plan for building an Islamic state in Mali. Ansar Dine was folded into JNIM upon its founding.

Today, Ghaly’s men are prolific, targeting local security forces and the French in Mali. JNIM has also built a regional network stretching into the surrounding countries.

Al Qaeda in Syria

Until 2016, a group known as Jabhat al-Nusrah was al Qaeda’s official branch in the Levant. Its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, was publicly loyal to Zawahiri from 2013 to 2016. U.S. officials referred to it as al Qaeda’s largest arm, with approximately 10,000 fighters, perhaps more.

But in July 2016, Julani announced that his group was rebranding. In January 2017, Julani’s men merged with several other groups to form Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an ostensibly independent organization. In the months that followed, a controversy over the formation of HTS and Julani’s leadership became heated, leading to fierce infighting. Some al Qaeda veterans objected to Julani’s moves, claiming that he had broken his oath of fealty to Zawahiri. This has introduced significant new uncertainties into any assessment of al Qaeda’s strength in Syria.*

Some factions broke off from HTS. A new suspected al Qaeda group known as the “Guardians of Religion” was established earlier this year. According to a recent UN report, al Qaeda’s Iran-based leaders were responsible for its founding, as they “influenced events in the Syrian Arab Republic, countering the authority of [HTS’s Julani]…and causing formations, breakaways and mergers of various Al Qaeda-aligned groups in Idlib.”

Yet, the UN (citing information from its “Member States”) reported that “HTS and its components still maintain contact with Al Qaeda leadership.” The UN added that HTS was recently “reinforced by the arrival of military and explosives experts from al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

The UN and the U.S. government still consider HTS an “affiliate” of al Qaeda. And Turkey, which has offered protection for HTS in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, has designated HTS as a terrorist organization as well, amending its previous designation of Nusrah to include HTS as an alias for the al Qaeda group.

While there has been a disruption in al Qaeda’s chain of command in Syria, it is likely that al Qaeda still maintains a strong cadre of loyalists in the Levant. Even though the situation with HTS is somewhat murky (HTS claims it is no longer part of al Qaeda), there are multiple actors inside Syria who are part of al Qaeda’s network and loyal to Zawahiri. Another prominent jihadist organization in Syria, the Turkistan Islamic Party, is also part of al Qaeda’s web.

The future of al Qaeda’s presence in Syria will be determined in the weeks and months to come. The Assad regime, Iran and Russia are eyeing Idlib province for a possible large-scale invasion. HTS is the strongest actor in Idlib, and should the jihadists lose their safe haven, or struggle to defend it, Julani’s authority could be further undermined. In any event, al Qaeda isn’t dead in Syria – whatever the exact truth regarding HTS really is.

Al Qaeda lives

The U.S. and its allies have failed to defeat al Qaeda. The organization has survived multiple challenges. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State is not the only Sunni jihadist organization that has fought for territory. From Afghanistan to West Africa, al Qaeda loyalists are attempting to build their own caliphate. They consider it long-term project, with multiple obstacles ahead of them.

As al Qaeda has expanded its geographic footprint, it has placed most of its resources in various insurgencies and wars. Al Qaeda’s leadership has also deprioritized professional attacks on the West. The group hasn’t attempted to carry out a mass casualty attack in the U.S. or Europe in years.

But that could change at any time. It would then be up to America’s and Europe’s formidable defenses to stop them.

*This sentence was added a few hours after initial publication.

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

17 Years After 9/11, Al-Qaeda Boasts ‘Strongest Fighting Force in Its Existence

RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images

Breitbart, by John Hayward, September 11, 2018:

Seventeen years after it perpetrated the September 11 terrorist attack, al-Qaeda is arguably stronger and better-positioned than ever.

The consensus on al-Qaeda’s strength among terrorism experts is a sobering rebuke to the notion that al-Qaeda was dealt a mortal wound when its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011.

Al-Qaeda’s health is measured by three vital statistics: its military strength, its ideological strength, and the size of its sphere of influence. All three of those metrics were unfortunately boosted as an inevitable side effect of the Western war against al-Qaeda’s chief rival, the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda picked up recruits, forged new alliances, and won its ideological argument with its rabid ISIS offshoot as the Islamic State “caliphate” was destroyed.

Al-Qaeda made sure it was perfectly positioned to pick up the pieces after the ISIS caliphate exploded. It exploited the dramatic discrediting of the Islamic State, which advocated seizing and holding vast amounts of territory to forge an apocalyptic Islamist nation-state that could be targeted and destroyed by mighty Western military forces – not to mention various othermuch more well-established Islamist nation-states threatened by the Islamic State’s existence, such as Iran.

An assessment at the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday found al-Qaeda boasting the “largest fighting force in its existence.”

“Estimates say it may have more than 20,000 militants in Syria and Yemen alone. It boasts affiliates across North Africa, the Levant (including Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon) and parts of Asia, and it remains strong around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” the SMH reported.

Al-Qaeda has done fairly well for itself in Syria, amassing weapons and trained fighters through its network of allies, exploiting both the war against the Islamic State and the bloody chaos of the horrendous Syrian civil war.

At the peak of its power in 2015, al-Qaeda was able to instantly dismantle and disarm the absurdly small “moderate” rebel force President Barack Obama sent into Syria with American training and weapons. Times are harder for al-Qaeda franchisees in Syria these days, but the international organization got what it wanted from the conflict and continues ruthlessly exploiting the ugly truth that it was always one of the few enemies of dictator Bashar Assad’s regime with significant battlefield power. Assad and his allies routinely accuse the West of aiding and abetting terrorists by prolonging the insurrection and dismiss all enemies of the regime as “terrorists.”

Al-Qaeda is very strong in Yemen and Libya – strong enough in Yemen to convince the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency to pay off al-Qaeda fighters instead of engaging them in combat. Here again, al-Qaeda has cunningly positioned itself as the lesser of two evils, and perhaps even an ally of the United States and its coalition against a more pressing military threat.

“Elements of the U.S. military are clearly aware that much of what the U.S. is doing in Yemen is aiding AQAP and there is much angst about that. However, supporting the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against what the U.S. views as Iranian expansionism takes priority over battling AQAP and even stabilizing Yemen,” Jamestown Foundation fellow Michael Horton told the Associated Press in August.

The AP noted that al-Qaeda forces that struck deals with the advancing Saudi coalition have been allowed to fall back with “weapons, equipment, and wads of looted cash.” Some al-Qaeda fighters have been actively recruited by the anti-Houthi operation, according to the AP’s sources. Such arrangements risk providing al-Qaeda with even more valuable military training, and possibly hardware, not to mention mixing subversive elements into Arab military units.

In Libya, al-Qaeda swiftly exploited the chaos unleashed by President Barack Obama’s invasion and the fall of dictator Moammar Qaddafi – who was, despite his many, many flaws, a critic of Osama bin Laden and paranoid about the threat jihadi groups like al-Qaeda posed to his power.

The U.S. military has been working with the internationally-recognized government of Libya – which controls only a portion of the country – to conduct airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets.

The Islamist contagion from Libya has been spreading across Africa, prompting an American response described as a “shadow war” largely invisible to the public until U.S. troops were killed in a terrorist ambush in Niger.

Al-Qaeda’s splinter group Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (literally, “The Group to Support Islam and Muslims”) is one of the major regional threats. It was officially designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government last week. The huge new American drone base under construction in Niger will be capable of launching strikes into Libya against al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups.

Al-Qaeda retains a dangerous presence in Iraq, thanks in part to a political strategy similar to the one it followed in Yemen and Libya, presenting itself to locals and government officials as an alternative to ISIS and Iran-backed Shiite militia. Constant ISIS threats to reorganize in Syria and Iraq help to drag the spotlight away from al-Qaeda’s stealthier activities. It is not easy to tell where ISIS ends and al-Qaeda begins in Iraq, which was the scene of the al-Qaeda schism that created the Islamic State.

The al-Qaeda network even has tentacles in Iran, where some of the group’s leaders fled after the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan. Questions about how much help the Iranian government gave al-Qaeda or whether Tehran actively cooperates with the terrorist network are hotly debated.

Al-Qaeda’s strategic alliances have proven more useful and durable than the Islamic State’s frenzied efforts to pressure jihadi groups into pledging allegiance. The most infamous of these allies, the Taliban of Afghanistan, have endured 17 years of U.S. and allied military operations and currently control at least a quarter of the country.

The Taliban is very close to achieving one of its major objectives: direct talks with the U.S. government. It is difficult to imagine a negotiated peace with the Taliban that would not infuse the Afghan constitution with their ideology and put Taliban members in top government and military positions, which are both highly desirable outcomes for al-Qaeda. A United Nations panel confirmed in June that al-Qaeda remains closely allied with the Taliban. The Afghan group’s stubborn refusal to abandon al-Qaeda under decades of immense Western military pressure greatly enhances the prestige of the international terrorist organization.

Al-Qaeda’s allies in Somalia, al-Shabaab, are such an active threat that American forces have been obliged to bomb them as well. Over twenty U.S. airstrikes have been conducted against al-Shabaab in Somalia this year, a significant increase in operational tempo since the end of the Obama administration. Somalia is one of the few African theaters where the Trump administration openly plans to maintain a U.S. military presence.

Al-Qaeda’s ideological threat is the most difficult aspect of the group’s persistence for Western analysts and policymakers to discuss. Simply put, the past 17 years have conclusively disproved the old bromide that al-Qaeda and its allies were a “tiny minority of extremists” that “hijacked” the religion of Islam. We may hope they remain a minority and they certainly are extreme, but they definitely are not “tiny.”

The Taliban’s persistence is an instructive example of the strength of al-Qaeda’s religious ideology. The Taliban have been fighting a brutal war of attrition against Afghan security forces and American troops for almost two decades. They usually suffer at least as many casualties as they inflict, but they have no difficulty recruiting fresh troops. It is likewise difficult to point to an area where al-Qaeda is having trouble replenishing its manpower.

In other theaters, al-Qaeda appears to be enjoying considerable success at recruiting former members of the Islamic State and its allied organizations, themselves persistent despite defeats in Syria and Iraq that would seem to demolish their claim to preside over a caliphate.

There is little evidence that jihadi groups activated by bin Laden’s network are growing discouraged and giving up the fight; instead, they look for better leadership when their old gang is beaten. Al-Qaeda’s growing influence in Asia is grim evidence that their appeal extends beyond Arabs. Conventional wisdom in the West now holds that “nation-building” is sheer folly in any theater where al-Qaeda or its offshoots have a strong presence – which is another way of conceding that its jihad ideology is too popular to extinguish by defeating its armed forces or killing its leaders, and it is too strong for moderate Muslim political leaders to overwhelm.

If there is any good news in this grim picture of al-Qaeda’s strength in 2018, it is that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network has endured and prospered largely by abandoning flashy big-ticket terrorist attacks like 9/11. Analysts routinely credit al-Qaeda’s relative subtlety, its interest in developing political strength, and long-term alliances instead of drawing attention to itself as ISIS does for its survival.

The question is how long al-Qaeda will be content to fight its adversaries in the Middle East and Asia instead of slaughtering American and European civilians. The United Nations warned in August that al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden’s vengeful son Hamza, could become a more active global threat as ISIS fades and its fighters migrate back to their parent organization. Al-Qaeda does hold territory in places like Libya and Yemen, giving it the kind of money, recruiting appeal, and striking power that made ISIS so dangerous.

An Arab News assessment on Monday of the strategic threat posed by al-Qaeda pointed out that al-Qaeda could be waiting for some of the Islamic State’s key allies in Africa, Egypt, and Pakistan to switch allegiance back to them before making big global moves:

It is obvious that Al-Qaeda has been largely left alone in recent years, as global and regional powers vented their anger against Daesh, which was undoubtedly a bigger and more immediate threat. But the situation could change if Al-Qaeda is able to undertake new attacks, particularly against the US and its Western allies. That it has failed to do so until now was primarily due to its declining power and failure to attract more recruits

Al-Qaeda’s strength and sophistication are undeniable. They are playing a much longer game than the Islamic State, and they have learned to play it carefully – but eventually, they will make more aggressive moves, because they still believe making war against the West is necessary.

Seventeen years after 9/11, America endures. So does the enemy.

Police Captains son sentenced for planned Jihadi attack at a University

Understanding the Threat, by Johhn Guandolo, September 6, 2018:

The son of a Boston police captain Alexander Ciccolo, who also went by the name Ali Al Amriki was sentenced yesterday to 20 years in prison.  Alexander Ciccolo father turned him to the FBI.  According to the Federal governments Affidavit and Memorandum, Alexander Ciccolo  was charged with possessing a firearm after previously being convicted of a crime punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one year in violation of 18 U.S.C. ‘ 922(g)(1), which offense constitutes a felony that involves the possession of a firearm. See 18 U.S.C. ‘ 3142(f)(1)(E). Alexander Ciccolo possessed four firearms which he ordered, including two rifles with large ammunition magazines, to use during his plan to kill in the name of Allah.

Before his arrest  told a friend that he believed the “faith is under attack” and that he is “not afraid to die for the cause.” Alexander Ciccolo Facebook profile, under the name “Ali Al Amriki,” contained information indicating he wanted to commit “martyrdom for the sake of Islam”.

On October 27, 2014, Ali Al Amriki’s  (Alexander Ciccolo) Facebook page posted an image that appeared to be a dead American soldier that included the following statement by Ali Al Amriki, “Thank you Islamic State! Now we won’t have to deal with these kafir back in America.” “Kafir” means “non-believers” of Islam. The information posted on the Facebook page also showed that Alexander Ciccolo wanted to fight for the Islamic State.

On June 24, 2015,  Alexander Ciccolo  met with a FBI informant and discussed plans to travel to another state to conduct terrorist attacks on civilians, members of the U.S. military and law enforcement personnel.  Ciccolo planned on attacking two different bars and a police station, and gave the locations. Ciccolo explained he planned to use improvised explosive devices during the attack to include pressure cooker bombs. During another conversation with the informant Ciccolo celebrated the June 26, 2015 Jihadi attack at a beachside resort in Tunisia in which one person used firearms and grenades to kill 38 people.  Alexander Ciccolo expressed  he needed four AK-47s, two sniper rifles, four handguns, and gelignite (a type of dynamite). Alexander Ciccolo also stated that he wanted to conduct an attack at a State University using assault rifles and explosives with the attack concentrated in the college dorms and cafeteria while broadcasting live on the internet.

Alexander Ciccolo told the informant he planned  to rob a gun store to obtain the weapons and travel out of state to purchase fireworks in order to obtain the black powder needed for the attacks and planned to purchase pressure cookers to use as improvised explosive devices.

On June 30, 2015 Alexander Ciccolo met with the FBI informant and explained that he had changed his plans from targeting a police station to targeting a university because there were many more people at the university and a “Very sinful and has a crowd.” Alexander Ciccolo said he wanted to protect Muslim students, saying they would  be permitted to help, sit tight or leave. Ciccolo said that he wanted to do it before Ramadan was over, and no later than July 31, 2015. Ciccolo told the FBI informant “We win or we die.”  A few days later after Alexander Ciccolo bought a pressure cooker he intended to use to build an explosive devise he sent a message, “Allahu Akbar!!!… I got the pressure cookers today. Alhamdulillah.”

On July 4, 2015 Alexander Ciccolo was arrested, waived his Miranda rights and spoke to FBI Special Agents.  He refused to talk about the guns with which he was arrested but he reaffirmed his support for the Islamic state. When arrested the first person he was able to attack was a nurse who he stabbed multiple times in the head with a pen.

On September 5, 2018 Alexander Ciccolo,  (Ali Al Amriki), was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Mark G. Mastroianni to 20 years in prison and a lifetime of supervised release after pleading guilty to one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, one count of attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, one count of being a convicted person in possession of firearms, and one count of assaulting a nurse during a jail intake process by use of a deadly weapon causing bodily injury.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Alexander Ciccolo converted to Islam and is doing what the enemy doctrine mandates.  100% of Islamic sharia mandates warfare against non-muslims until the world is under Islamic rule (sharia). This is why he had a plan for the muslim students to be given a chance to fight or run to safety.  The fact of Alexander Ciccolo a police captains son  committing war against non-muslims  shouldn’t surprise anyone. In sharia (which all Muslims must follow) it comes from the Koran and the example of what Mohammad said and did (sunnah).

“Fight and slay the unbeliever wherever you find them, capture and besiege them,  and lie in wait for them in each and every ambush (strategem of war).” (Koran 9:5)

Mohammad said:  “I have been commanded to fight people until they testify there is no god but Allah and Mohammad is the Messenger of Allah.”  (Hadith reported by Bukhari and Muslim)

There is no such thing as a “different kind” of Sharia which does not mandate jihad until the world is under the rule of the sharia, and there is no other legal definition of “Jihad” in Sharia other than “warfare against non-Muslims.” Jihad is warfare against non-muslims.  A police Captain (who was one of the first to respond during the 2013 Boston bombing) has a son who tried to commit Jihad during Ramadan at a very public place to create mass casualties.  Let that sink in.

This is Islam. This is Sharia. Sharia kills. The war is here.

The FBI still hasn’t found these 9/11-era terrorists

Still at large are al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri and fellow terrorist Saif al-Adel.

New York Post, by Paul Sperry, September 8, 2018:

After 9/11, the FBI warned the public about a number of potential terrorists they believed were being groomed for an encore attack. The feds described them as “the next Mohamed Atta” and put them on their Most Wanted Terrorists list. Today, these dangerous suspects remain on that same list and are still at large. Yet oddly, the FBI no longer talks about them.

The only thing that’s changed, besides the descriptions of their appearances, is that the FBI is now offering bigger rewards for them, along with several key al Qaeda leaders also still on the loose.

Families of 9/11 victims want to know why, after two wars costing trillions of dollars, do we appear no closer to capturing these top terrorists? Did the FBI stop hunting for them? Has it given up hope of finding them?

Terrorism experts are equally troubled by the delay in bringing them to justice.

“I’m concerned about these individuals still being at large,” said Philip Haney, former Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism analyst. “It should be the government’s top priority to locate and apprehend them.”

One would-be terrorist who was said to be planning to lead another attack on the US, following in the footsteps of 9/11 ringleader Atta, is the English-speaking Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, who spent time in Florida before fleeing the country in the wake of the attacks.

The Saudi-born suspect, also known as “Jaffar the Pilot,” is still featured prominently on the FBI’s website as a Most Wanted Terrorist. (The bureau has added a “digitally enhanced” photograph of Shukrijumah sporting a full Islamic beard.) In 2010, the feds indicted the 43-year-old for his alleged role in a 2009 plot to attack New York’s subway system.

The FBI believes Shukrijumah is helping run al Qaeda’s operations from Pakistan, while Islamabad claims its military killed him years ago. Considering that Pakistan has lied before about killing al Qaeda members — and about harboring Osama bin Laden — US officials are dubious of its claim.

FBI headquarters confirmed the Shukrijumah case remains open and that counterterrorism agents are still hunting for the indicted fugitive.

“The cases you mention remain open, active FBI investigations with large rewards continuing to be available to those who provide information about the cases mentioned,” said Michelle Goldschen of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs in Washington.

Shukrijumah also has New York connections. His late father served as a translator for the “Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, at his mosque in Brooklyn before he was imprisoned for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other terrorist plots.

After 9/11, the US government fingered the street-smart Shukrijumah as the ultimate al Qaeda “sleeper agent,” and potentially more dangerous than even Atta. In fact, he was said to have been handpicked by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, aka KSM, to carry out an encore plot to detonate nuclear devices in several US cities simultaneously.

Today, his mentor KSM is locked up at Gitmo, where he awaits punishment for his crimes — which frustrates 9/11 survivors to no end.

“When you consider the US government’s absolute ineptitude and abject failure to prosecute those they currently already have in custody in Gitmo — where they’re still in the pretrial phase 17 years after the attacks — you have to wonder whether, perhaps, the US government has just done a cost-benefit analysis and determined that it’s not quite worth their time to bring any al Qaeda terrorists to justice or provide a modicum of accountability and closure to the innocent victims of terrorism,” said Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband, Ronald, in the World Trade Center’s south tower.

Another potentially dangerous suspect still eluding authorities is Abderraouf Jdey. Also known as Faruq al-Tunisi, he is a trained pilot who has a Canadian passport and was said to be slated for a “second wave” of suicide attacks after 9/11. He was identified in martyrdom videos recovered in Afghanistan.

An FBI poster places a $5 million bounty on Jdey’s head and includes a photo “retouched” to show how the 53-year-old might look today. The New York field office is handling tips on Jdey, along with Shukrijumah. (Unlike Shukrijumah, Jdey has not been indicted in absentia.)

Then there are the still-at-large al Qaeda leaders Saif al-Adel, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The trio was listed among the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists after 9/11 and the three remain there today — in spite of $10 million rewards for information leading to the capture of both al-Adel and Abdullah and an additional $25 million bounty for Zawahiri. Just last month, the US doubled the reward offers for al-Adel and Abdullah.

Zawahiri took command of al Qaeda in 2011 after US forces killed kingpin Osama bin Laden, who for years was sheltered in Pakistan. While we don’t hear much about al Qaeda anymore, it’s alive and well. In fact, terrorism experts warn it’s been growing in strength, not waning, since bin Laden’s death.

Zawahiri has declared plans to replace ISIS at the forefront of global jihad. He’s also given a central role in the organization to bin Laden’s son, Hamza. And he recently called on Muslims during a 17-minute videotaped address to attack American interests “everywhere” — echoing a fatwa issued by bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks.

DHS’s Haney said that Zawahiri is “consolidating power” under a new terror umbrella — AQIS, or al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent — adding that the center of gravity of the global jihadist movement is shifting to that region.

“An argument could be made that Zawahari is not only the world’s most experienced jihadist now, but also the most dangerous one,” Haney warned.

And yet the FBI still cannot seem to get much traction hunting down him or other 9/11-era terrorists.

The FBI declined to comment on why it’s taken so long to capture these bad guys.

“We would decline any further comment due to the ongoing nature of the current investigations,” Goldschen said.

Paul Sperry is a bestselling author and former Hoover Institution media fellow.

Exclusive: Obama Administration Knowingly Funded a Designated Al-Qaeda Affiliate

President Barack Obama participates in a news conference at the White House, November 14, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst

The group had been on a list of terrorist funders for a decade when a government agency specifically approved funding for it.

National Review, by Sam Westrop, July 25, 2018:

The Middle East Forum has discovered that the Obama administration approved a grant of $200,000 of taxpayer money to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Sudan — a decade after the U.S. Treasury designated it as a terrorist-financing organization. More stunningly, government officials specifically authorized the release of at least $115,000 of this grant even after learning that it was a designated terror organization.

The story began in October 2004, when the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the Khartoum-based Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA), also known as the Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA), as a terror-financing organization. It did so because of ISRA’s links to Osama bin Laden and his organization Maktab al-Khidamat (MK), the precursor of al-Qaeda.

According to the U.S. Treasury, in 1997 ISRA established formal cooperation with MK. By 2000, ISRA had raised $5 million for bin Laden’s group. The Treasury Department notes that ISRA officials even sought to help “relocate [bin Laden] to secure safe harbor for him.” It further reports that ISRA raised funds in 2003 in Western Europe specifically earmarked for Hamas suicide bombings.

The 2004 designation included all of ISRA’s branches, including a U.S. office called the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA-USA). Eventually it became known that this American branch had illegally transferred over $1.2 million to Iraqi insurgents and other terror groups, including, reportedly, the Afghan terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In 2010, the executive director of IARA-USA and a board member pled guilty to money-laundering, theft of public funds, conspiracy, and several other charges.

ISRA’s influence also spread to Washington. Former U.S. congressman Mark Siljander (R., Mich.) pled guilty in 2010 to obstruction of justice and acting as an unregistered foreign agent after prosecutors found that IARA-USA had paid him $75,000 — using misappropriated USAID grant money — to lobby the government, in an attempt to remove the charity from the government’s terror list.

Despite this well-documented history, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in July 2014 awarded $723,405 to World Vision Inc., an international evangelical charity, to “improve water, sanitation and hygiene and to increase food security in Sudan’s Blue Nile state.” Of these funds, $200,000 was to be directed to a sub-grantee: ISRA.

Responding to a Middle East Forum (MEF) inquiry, a USAID official explains that World Vision had alerted it in November 2014 to the likelihood of ISRA being on the terror list. USAID instructed World Vision to “suspend all activities with ISRA” and informed the State Department, OFAC, and USAID’s Office of the Inspector General. USAID and World Vision then waited for OFAC to confirm whether ISRA was designated or not.

USAID emails obtained by the Middle East Forum reveal that in January 2015, World Vision was growing unhappy while waiting for OFAC’s assessment. Mark Smith, World Vision’s senior director of humanitarian and emergency affairs, wrote to USAID, stating that the Islamic Relief Agency “had performed excellent work” for World Vision in the past, and that “putting contractual relationships in limbo for such a long period is putting a significant strain” on World Vision’s relationship with the Sudanese regime. Smith also revealed that World Vision had submitted a notice to OFAC indicating its “intention to restart work with [ISRA] and to transact with [ISRA]” if OFAC did not respond within a week.

World Vision’s statement stunned USAID officials, who complained that World Vision’s behavior “doesn’t make sense.” USAID official Daniel Holmberg emailed a colleague: “If they actually said that they wanted to resume work with ISRA, while knowing that it was 99% likely that ISRA was on the list then I am concerned about our partnership with them, and whether it should continue.”

On January 23, OFAC confirmed that ISRA was a sanctioned entity and denied World Vision “a license to engage in transactions with [ISRA].” Mark Smith and World Vision’s country program director in Sudan expressed their disappointment, stating that they were in discussions with ISRA as well as the Sudanese regime’s Humanitarian Aid Commission, which regulates the activities of international charities in Sudan.

Despite OFAC’s ruling, in February, World Vision wrote to OFAC and Obama-administration official Jeremy Konyndyk (who then served as director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance) to apply to OFAC for a new license from USAID to pay ISRA “monies owed for work performed.” According to Larry Meserve, USAID’s mission director for Sudan, World Vision argued that if they did not pay ISRA, “their whole program will be jeopardized.”

While World Vision waited for a decision, on February 22, a pro-regime Sudanese newspaper, Intibaha, reported that the Sudanese political leaders had requested that World Vision be expelled from Sudan’s Blue Nile state. USAID disaster operations specialist Joseph Wilkes and World Vision’s Mark Smith speculated that this was “punishment” for the cancellation of the grant with ISRA, which a USAID official noted is “well connected with the [Sudanese] government.”

Then, incredibly, on May 7, 2015 — after “close collaboration and consultations with the Department of State” — OFAC issued a license to a World Vision affiliate, World Vision International, authorizing “a one-time transfer of approximately $125,000 to ISRA,” of which “$115,000 was for services performed under the sub-award with USAID” and $10,000 was “for an unrelated funding arrangement between Irish Aid and World Vision.”

An unnamed World Vision official described the decision as a “great relief as ISRA had become restive and had threatened legal action, which would have damaged our reputation and standing in Sudan.” Senior USAID official Charles Wanjue wrote to colleagues: “Good news and a great relief, really!” In August 2015, USAID official Daniel Holmberg even told a State Department official that he had been approached by the executive director of ISRA, and requested guidance on helping ISRA remove itself from the U.S. government’s terror list.

Obama-administration officials knowingly approved the transfer of taxpayer dollars to an al-Qaeda affiliate, and not an obscure one but an enormous international network that was often in the headlines.

How was this prominent terror funder initially approved to receive American taxpayer funds ten years after it had been placed on the “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons” terror list?

Existing measures to prevent the payment of government monies to designated terrorist organizations include: first, a requirement that all grantees and sub-grantees of U.S.-government grants register for a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number; and second, a requirement that all government vendors register with the government’s System for Award Management (SAM) database. A designated organization should not be able to acquire a DUNS number, and any designation is explicitly recorded in the SAM database with a note that the designated organization is excluded from government grants.

However, ISRA was in fact assigned a DUNS number — as recorded at the government’s USAspending.gov website — which matched no organization in the government’s SAM database. The only listings for “Islamic Relief Agency” or “ISRA” in the SAM database are the designated Sudanese al-Qaeda affiliate and its branches.

Whoever approved this grant to ISRA either failed to check the government’s database of designated groups or did so and then chose to disregard it. Both explanations are alarming. And neither answer explains how ISRA acquired a DUNS number.

Most important: Now we know that the government deliberately chose to transfer at least $115,000 to ISRA after confirming that it was on the terror-designation list. In other words, an al-Qaeda front received taxpayers’ money with the apparent complicity of public officials.

It is no secret that the Obama administration sought to downplay the threat of Islamism, and even to coopt some Islamist movements to promote its agenda. In its foreign policy, the administration expressed support for Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, while domestically, the White House invited Islamists to design the government’s Countering Violent Extremism program. It is difficult to argue that these efforts were the product of anything but great naïveté and political dogma. Is it possible that this combination extended to deliberately funding an al-Qaeda affiliate?

Congress must investigate this question and, more broadly, where USAID is sending taxpayers’ money, for ISRA might not be the only example. The House’s Foreign Affairs, Oversight, and Financial Services Committees, along with the Senate Finance Committee, must examine how a designated group came to qualify for government monies, why OFAC and the State Department authorized the transfer of funds after learning of ISRA’s terror ties, and which bureaucrat or political appointee was responsible for this mess.

Asked to comment, current State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told National Review: “As this occurred under the prior Administration, the current Secretary of the State, Secretary of Treasury, and USAID Administrator had no involvement in decisions surrounding this award or subsequent license.”

The American people need to know how their dollars funded an al-Qaeda affiliate. They need to know how deep this problem runs.

SAM WESTROP — Sam Westrop is the director of ISLAMIST WATCH, a project of the MIDDLE EAST FORUM.