“Moderate” Muslim Brotherhood Mourns Terrorist’s Death

blind-sby John Rossomando
IPT News
February 21, 2017

Calls for revenge and glowing eulogies for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman by the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers dealt a blow to efforts to paint it as a moderate group.

Abdel Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheikh,” died Saturday in a U.S. prison where he was serving a life sentence for a seditious conspiracy to launch what prosecutors called a “war of urban terrorism” against targets around New York City. He also helped plot the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 that killed six people and injured 1,042.

“May Allah’s blessings be upon him, the deceased of the Islamic call, who was imprisoned by different repressive regimes, who was falsely and unfairly accused of terrorism by the Unites States of America, while being old and blind Sheikh, it also prevented him from receiving medical care until he met his Lord, Oh Allah please accept him and have mercy upon him,” the Muslim Brotherhood General Office said.

Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted Abdel Rahman, noted in a National Review Online column that the “Blind Sheikh” was proud of being a terrorist. This fact ought to raise red flags about the character of the Muslim Brotherhood.

McCarthy cited this Abdel Rahman statement as an example: “Why do we fear the word terrorist? If the terrorist is the person who defends his right, so we are terrorists. And if the terrorist is the one who struggles for the sake of God, then we are terrorists. We . . . have been ordered with terrorism because we must prepare what power we can to terrorize the enemy of Allah and your enemy. The Koran says ‘to strike terror.’ Therefore, we don’t fear to be described with ‘terrorism.’ . . . They may say, ‘He is a terrorist, he uses violence, he uses force.’ Let them say that. We are ordered to prepare whatever we can of power to terrorize the enemies of Islam.”

1988The Muslim Brotherhood’s official Facebook page posted another statement Saturday that was quickly taken down. The message, asking “God Almighty to bestow His Mercy, and ensconce him in the highest paradise of Heaven with the prophets, the saints, the martyrs, the righteous and the best of them as companions” was cross-posted on Ikhwanonline, the Brotherhood’s Arabic website.

Although Abdel Rahman left the Muslim Brotherhood to form the radical jihadist group Gamaa Islamiya in 1970 after the Brotherhood’s leadership renounced violence against the Egyptian government, Brotherhood leaders still mourned him in terms echoed by ISIS and al-Qaida. Mohamed Al-Sagheer, a former deputy minister of endowment in Egypt during the Muslim Brotherhood rule, called Abdel Rahman a “Mujahid” or holy warrior, in a video posted on Facebook. Muslims, he said, lost one of their most prominent scholars.

“May Allah avenge from those who did him (the sheikh) injustice, the Arab despots, and the crusaders, who loath and hate the faith and its followers,” Al-Sagheer said.

Al-Sagheer has ties to violent elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that have worked against the Egyptian government since the military forced the Brotherhood out of power in 2013, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports.

Mohamed el-Feky, chairman of the economic committee of Morsi-era Egyptian parliament who now resides in Istanbul, similarly lamented Abdel Rahman’s death.

“May God have mercy on Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and gather him into the troop of prophets, friends (of God) martyrs and the righteous, with the best of them as companions. Oh, God, compensate him for his imprisonment, and the wrong done him, and bless him with good and increase. Oh God, curse those who wronged him, Oh Lord of the worlds,” el-Feky wrote on Facebook.

Ordinary Muslim Brotherhood supporters like Abdel Rahman Muhammad Lotfy Abdel Rahman called for American blood.

“If they killed you O Omar, Allah has chosen you among the martyrs! Allah will fight you O America … Today, America has killed one of the Muslim scholars after unjustly detaining him for close to a quarter of a century, that is Dr. Omar Adel Rahman, the pious scholar, who always uttered the word of truth, which resonated out of his mouth, he did not fear anyone but Allah, and we present him to Allah. We ask Allah to accept him as a martyr, they killed him for America and its allies, who participated in killing him,” Rahman wrote.

Inspiration For al-Qaida

Abdel Rahman’s ideas inspired Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaida and ISIS. He acted as al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “mentor.” Al-Zawahiri frequently attended Abdel Rahman’s lectures as a young man in Egypt.

Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden handed out copies of Abdel Rahman’s will at a 1998 press conference.

The will demands vengeance after his death. “But, take revenge for me against them with the most extreme and violent revenge.”

Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri also passed out a fatwa from Abdel Rahman smuggled from prison authorizing attacks against the U.S. at the 1998 press conference.

“Cut all relations with [the Americans, Christians, and Jews], tear them to pieces, destroy their economies, burn their corporations, destroy their peace, sink their ships, shoot down their planes and kill them on air, sea, and land. And kill them wherever you may find them, ambush them, take them hostage, and destroy their observatories. Kill these infidels,” the fatwa said.

Al-Qaida responded to Abdel Rahman’s death by including the incendiary will in its latest newsletter Al-Nafir. Numerous jihadi social media sites followed suit, and the will accompanied a joint statement by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which are openly loyal to al-Zawahiri.

The joint AQAP/AQIM statement calls on their followers to “viciously avenge the sheikh against his oppressors and wardens.”

Supporters Remember Abdel Rahman

1986Said Abbasy, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter living in New York, wrote on Facebook, “The passing of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman in the prisons of America after 24 years of incarceration. Oh God take vengeance on those who wronged him.”

Muhammad Shoubir, a self-described Muslim Brotherhood supporter who lives in New York, called Abdel Rahman “our martyr sheikh” in a since deleted Facebook post.

1987“A martyr to the interests between Egypt and America,, (sic) A martyr to the injustice done to him during his trial and the concocting of an accusation against him,, No Egyptian defended him,, but they thrust upon him a guard and a translators (Egyptian) who spied on him, and misled him,, so that he was sentenced in 93 to imprisonment for life,, the man died after 24 years in prison … May God have mercy on our noble Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman,, He was wronged in your country, and elsewhere,,” Shoubir wrote.

Jihadis aligned with various undefined factions used similar rhetoric in their social media eulogies.

“Not with tears but with red blood. We will lament Imam Omar Abdel Rahman,” said handle @ Yubayatajrasi09, who lives in the Tampa area.

In an inflammatory Twitter post on Saturday, an individual identifying himself as Obamajahid pushed a baseless conspiracy theory to blame the Trump administration for Abdel Rahman’s death.

“Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman is among the first victims of the rule of the tyrant Trump where pressure was exerted upon him in his prison, and he was deprived of his medicine and his radio as was mentioned someone who contacted them last week,” Obamajahid wrote.

Another follower of Abdel Rahman’s, Yubayatajastri09, called for vengeance.

“Oh God, forgive us for our shortcomings with regard to him. And raise his degree and accept him among the number of martyrs. And take vengeance on the head of the viper America,” he wrote.

It’s hard to claim the Muslim Brotherhood opposes terrorism when it laments the death of the man who inspired an attack on New York City, plotted even greater bloodshed and inspired bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.

***

 

 

Al Qaeda often agitated for Omar Abdel Rahman’s release from US prison

blind-sheikhLONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN, | February 19, 2017:

News broke yesterday that Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian jihadi ideologue, died in a US prison. Within hours of the reports, al Qaeda re-released a copy of Rahman’s last “will,” in which Rahman asked his “brothers” to exact “revenge” for his death.

The US District Court for the Southern District of New York convicted Rahman (seen on the right) on terror-related charges in 1995 and he was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Rahman was convicted for his role in a conspiracy to launch terror attacks against several New York City landmarks, including the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the FBI’s main office in Manhattan, and the United Nations building. Investigators also found that he was involved with the jihadists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The ninth issue of al Qaeda’s Al-Nafir newsletter, which was released online after news of Rahman’s death spread, carried a version of Rahman’s “Will to the Islamic Ummah.” In the text, Rahman complained of the treatment he was allegedly subjected to in an American prison, writing that the US is purposefully “eliminating the scholars who speak the truth.” (This is a common al Qaeda talking point, as the jihadis frequently accuse the Americans of targeting their “scholars.”)

Rahman claimed that the Americans will “eventually kill me,” either through poisoning, or by giving him spoiled medicine, or with an overdose of drugs. Rahman warned that the Americans will lie about the causes of his death, so the jihadis shouldn’t believe them.

Rahman, who was 78, died of natural causes, according to American officials.

His “will” has been a piece of jihadi propaganda since the 1990s.

“My brothers, if they [the Americans] kill me, and they eventually will do so, then perform my funeral and give my corpse to my family,” Rahman wrote, according to a translation of Al-Nafir obtained by FDD’s Long War Journal. “Do not forget my blood and do not squander it, but exact a severe and fierce revenge on them for me.” Rahman called on others to remember that he was their “brother” and that he “spoke the truth” in the cause of Allah.

Al-Nafir’s version is similar to the text that was distributed in 1998. In The Osama bin Laden I Know, Peter Bergen wrote that copies of Rahman’s “will” were distributed at a press conference hosted by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri on May 26, 1998.

Rahman’s sons handed out a laminated card with their father’s will, as well as a fatwa authorizing attacks against the US, written on it. The text of Rahman’s last will described by Bergen appears to be the same as Al-Nafir’s, meaning Rahman first warned that the Americans were slowly killing him almost twenty years ago. He eventually died — and now al Qaeda is using his death to call for retribution.

According to the translation obtained by Bergen, Rahman’s fatwa read: “Cut all relations with [the Americans, Christians, and Jews], tear them to pieces, destroy their economies, burn their corporations, destroy their peace, sink their ships, shoot down their planes and kill them on air, sea, and land. And kill them wherever you may find them, ambush them, take them hostage, and destroy their observatories. Kill these infidels.”

Rahman’s fatwa has been credited with providing theological justifications for al Qaeda’s attacks, as not many sheikhs endorsed bin Laden’s early vision of global terror. At the May 1998 conference where Rahman’s fatwa and will were handed out by his sons, bin Laden announced that he had formed the “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.” It was this front, which Rahman’s sons supported, that brought the war to American targets in Aug. 1998, when the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed.

Al Qaeda frequently took up Rahman’s cause through the years. Bin Laden often cited Rahman’s case as an example of America’s supposed injustice towards Muslims.

In his 1996 declaration of war against America, Bin Laden portrayed Rahman’s imprisonment as part of an alleged campaign against Islamic scholars. In 1997, according to the Washington Post, bin Laden accused the US of fabricating “a baseless case against [Rahman] even though he is a blind old man.”

A Presidential Daily Brief delivered to President Bill Clinton on Dec. 4, 1998 warned that bin Laden and his men were working with Rahman’s group, Gama’at al-Islamiyya (IG), to orchestrate an “aircraft hijacking.” The intent behind the putative plot was to force the US to free Rahman and others. The plot didn’t progress, but it was later seen as an early harbinger of the 9/11 hijackings.

In Sept. 2000, Al Jazeera’s satellite channel aired footage of a meeting of several jihadi leaders in Afghanistan. All of them, including bin Laden and Zawahiri, pledged to free Rahman from jail. “We promise to work with all our power to free our brother [Rahman],” bin Laden said, with one of Rahman’s sons by his side.

Zawahiri also spoke, asking: “Which one of us today would not sacrifice himself for this man who has supported every righteous stand and has been an unshakable leader?” Zawahiri continued: “We have a duty towards Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman, who has never abandoned a righteous stand. Do we now abandon giving him support and rewarding him?”

Al Qaeda and other actors continued to seek Rahman’s release in the years since.

After the revolution in Egypt swept Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011, Rahman’s cause became even more popular. Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who briefly served as Egypt’s president, promised his supporters that he would try to free the blind ideologue.

Members of Gama’at al-Islamiyya who were closely allied with al Qaeda also helped stage a protest outside the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. The protest was pro-al Qaeda, with the group’s black flag flying high and chants of “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama [bin Laden]!” ringing out. Some of the protesters cited Rahman in their rallying cries.

In Jan. 2013, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a notorious Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander, orchestrated a major raid on a natural gas field in Algeria. His men took dozens of foreign nationals hostage and demanded the release of Rahman in exchange for some of them. Authorities did not comply with the demand.

Al Qaeda still uses images and clips of Rahman in its propaganda.

On Feb. 18, the same day that Rahman’s death was announced, al Qaeda released Ayman al Zawahiri’s lengthy eulogy for one of Rahman’s longtime comrades, Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, who was killed in an American airstrike in Apr. 2016. Taha and Rahman were both Gama’at al-Islamiyya leaders. Zawahiri praised Taha for taking part in the aforementioned Sept. 2000 conference in Kandahar, during which the jihadis called for Rahman’s release.

“Sheikh Rifai Taha, may God have mercy on him, took interest in the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman in deed, and not by merely begging America” to free him, Zawahiri said. Taha agreed with bin Laden that Rahman should be freed and said so during the conference, Zawahiri remarked.

Zawahiri’s video eulogy for Taha includes footage from the Sept. 2000 gathering, during which they praised Rahman. As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, used images of Rahman alongside Zawahiri and Taha to promote the video. (One such image can be seen above.) It may be the case that al Qaeda waited to release Zawahiri’s commemoration of Taha until Rahman died, as the timing of the video’s online distribution is especially conspicuous.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which are openly loyal to Zawahiri, released a joint eulogy for Rahman earlier today. The statement was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. The al Qaeda branches specifically mentioned Rahman’s will.

“We call upon the sons of Islam and its honorable knights, who were not successful in liberating the sheikh from his imprisonment, to earnestly and honestly work hard to execute his will, and to build from his blood a lighthouse that inspires the generations…to viciously avenge the sheikh against his oppressors and his wardens,” the statement from AQAP and AQIM reads, according to SITE’s translation. “This would be the least of what his brothers in Islam and pride should do,” the statement continues, as Muslims should “rescue…our scholars and our leaders who were faithful to Allah and never deviated from his path.”

Rahman’s teachings had a significant influence on the development of al Qaeda and modern jihadism. For more than 20 years, al Qaeda’s leaders made him a central part of their cause. The jihadis will almost certainly continue to use him in their productions in the years to come.

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

U.S. Ill Prepared for Convicted Jihadis Ending Their Prison Sentences

prisoner-releasesby Patrick Dunleavy
IPT News
February 8, 2017

“O Allah, Free the Muslim Prisoners.”

Inspire Magazine 2010

The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to dealing effectively with the threat of Islamism especially in the case of terrorists who have been captured or incarcerated.

Radical Islamic organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS never forget their members. To them, going to prison is part of the pathway to paradise. Both groups’ leaders, Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent considerable periods of time locked up. It did nothing to diminish their zeal, but rather, fueled their fervor. Often, as in their cases, what comes out of prison is worse than what went in.

This is further illustrated by the increased number of terrorists released from Guantanamo who rejoin the fight against U.S. military personnel. Almost one in three released prisoners return to the jihadists’ fold. This recidivism can be attributed in part to the admonitions terrorists receive to assist those who are captured or imprisoned. That support may include financial help for their families and for legal fees.

These instructions were found in a training manual discovered in 2000 by law enforcement officers in Manchester, England.

“I take this opportunity to address our prisoners. We have not forgotten you,” al-Zawahiri said in an interview with Al Shabab commemorating the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “We are still committed to the debt of your salvation . . . until we shatter your shackles.”

AQAP’s Inspire magazine went so far as to list the names of incarcerated members for all to remember.

They do this because jihadis firmly believe that sooner or later they’ll be reunited with those members.

If that isn’t ominous enough, consider the fact that as many as 100 people convicted of terror-related offenses in U.S. prisons will be set free in less than four years.

And yet, while Islamic terrorist organizations have rapidly changed in their recruitment and tactical methodologies overall, the U.S. has not adapted to countering the evolving threat.

In the United States, the number of terror-related incidents increased exponentially since 9-11. As they did, authorities adapted new ways to investigate. State of the art technologies help collect and analyze data. Fusion centers were created to get the information into the hands of investigators in real time. Counter terrorism, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies joined together to share.

Legislation has changed how the judicial system prosecutes terrorists. “Our criminal law was unprepared for international terrorism. We simply did not have statutes and penalties that fit what terrorists do,” said former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, who led the prosecution against the first World Trade Center bombers and blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.

A vigorous debate continues whether to treat terrorists as criminals or as enemy combatants. A reasonable consensus among the military and the judicial branches is building for the use of both designations.

Two significant changes, in policy and practice, toward radical Islamic terrorists remain to be addressed.

Terrorists go into prison much the same way as the burglar, the drug dealer, or the pedophile. They are housed and fed in existing correctional facilities with common criminals. No mandatory rehabilitation or de-radicalization programs exist for convicted Islamic terrorists. And when they are released, there is no specialized supervisory program applied to monitor their employment or whereabouts.

This situation has to change if we are to deal effectively with terrorism. We should establish a registration list for convicted terrorists. This would provide local authorities with the identity of those recently released to their communities. It has been successfully used with sex offenders. It can work if properly applied.

With as many as 500 terrorists now in custody and more to come, the custodial system must also evolve in how it handles jihadists. Security classification must not be downgraded simply because the terrorist has become “jail wise” (exhibited good behavior) like “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, who will be released from prison in two years.

Special administrative measures – conditions of confinement – which restrict visits, correspondence and other prison privileges assigned to terrorists must continue.

Uniform security standards for imprisoned terrorists should be established in the federal, state, and local correctional facilities. Jose Padilla, the alleged “dirty bomber” who first learned of a radical form of Islam while in a Florida county jail and was originally sentenced to life in prison, is scheduled to be released in eight years. Who will be the parole officers assigned to supervise him and will those officers be afforded any specialized training before that happens?

In some cases, specialized facilities like Guantanamo are necessary in dealing with enemy combatants and other committed jihadists. They are effective. No anecdotal evidence has been presented showing them to be a recruitment tool for ISIS or al Qaida. That is like saying that Alcatraz was responsible for the increase in violent crime.

The number of people arrested in the U.S. for terrorism-related crimes nearly tripled in 2015. That year, FBI Director James Comey testified that more than 200 people traveled overseas from the United States in an attempt to fight alongside ISIS or al-Qaida related groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2016, Comey said his agents still had 1,000 open cases related to ISIS. Within the next few years, he said, there may be a “terrorist diaspora” of ISIS fighters leaving the battlefield of Syria and returning to their home countries, committed to carrying out more terrorist attacks.

We can only hope that the vast majority will be apprehended before they can carry out attacks here in the United States. And when they are, we had better be prepared to effectively deal with them throughout their entire time in the system. Anything less is unacceptable to the citizens of this great country.

IPT Senior Fellow Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.

‘Join the Revolution’: Al-Qaeda Makes Populist Pitch to Millennials

Osama bin Laden and Hamza bin Laden

Osama bin Laden and Hamza bin Laden

PJ Media, by Bridget Johnson, October 12, 2016:

Al-Qaeda is appealing to millennials with a cocktail of populism and Islam and directives to not admire grown “kids” in professional sports but “men… with their AK aimed at the enemy” — and to follow the latter into jihad.

The outreach was detailed in Al-Balagh, a recent magazine issued by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, a successful chapter announced by core leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2014 that has conducted a spree of machete assassinations against individuals deemed to have insulted Islam. One of the group’s earlier victims was an Atlanta couple who were secular writers visiting Bangladesh; Avijit Roy was hacked to death, while his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed was seriously injured.

The 53-page inaugural issue of the magazine was printed in English and Bengali. The editor’s note at the beginning first details and slams the “criminal demon-crazy nexus which is known as democracy.”

“Thus, while the anti-Islamic bigots and hate-breeders are hailed as heroes by the rulers and the media, the Tawheed [monotheism]-loving Muslims who came out in the streets to protest the defamation of their beloved prophet are humiliated and massacred,” the column states in apparent reference to the bloggers, professors and journalists who have been hacked to death by AQIS.

The appeal to youth first uses the politics of Bangladesh as a backdrop, arguing that “the criminals siphon billions of dollars from the share market with ease and immersed in mirth, with no accountability whatsoever, while the devastated, burdened youth faced with unrelenting poverty and debt are forced to commit suicide.”

“Domestic maids succumb to death after enduring barbaric torture at the hands of distinguished citizens, while the killers are showered with flowers and garlands. Our mothers and sisters are abused in broad daylight, yet the criminals roam free,” the piece continues. “Every moment a new tragedy is born. It is impossible to keep track of the disasters plaguing this nation. So which one of these can one speak about? Such is the state of the country.”

“And what about the Muslim Ummah [community]? It seems no one even cares to inquire about the Muslims in Palestine anymore, although the criminal Zionist Israel is still surrounded by Muslim countries. I think it was Ali Tantawi who once said, ‘If Muslims can’t learn to resist Israel with weapons then they should learn how to die. You will see Israel be wiped off of the map with a flood of Muslim blood.'”

The article laments that in “Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, China, Myanmar, India, Pakistan — nowhere have the Muslims been able to be liberated.”

“I am not merely talking about the Western concept of ‘independence’ or ‘self-determination,’ but I am talking about true liberation, which can only come through the victory of the deen [religion]. I am talking about making Islam victorious,” the write continues.

“But the good news is a new wave, a reversal of the world order has started all over the world. A wave of Muslim youth is returning to Tawheed. A wave of the youth is returning to Islam. It is a return to the roots in order to bring back the glory and reclaim the honor, and to destroy the satanic civilization and establish the reign of the divine Shariah.”

“The Muslim youth,” argues the AQIS piece, “have started to realize that they have to rise up and join the caravan.”

“They have to join the resistance and the revolution. They have to conquer fear and walk on the same road on which the Salaf stepped upon. Only then true liberation and true victory will come. The Muslims have recognized the reality of the system of kufr [disbelief] imposed by the global kuffar. The magic of the magician has finally come undone,” continues the recruiting pitch.

Would-be jihadists are told that “with our backs to the wall, now is the time to fight back.”

“It is now or never. The Muslims all over the world are witnessing the help of Allah granted to the Mujahideen.” A few operations are mentioned, including “the beginning of the Third Intifada” in the Middle East.

“Oh youth! Tie your shroud around your head and join the golden caravan! The grown men who spend their times playing like kids in the fields of cricket are not your role models. Rather, your role models are men, firm in speech and in action. Men who lived with their head high and with their AK aimed at the enemy. Your role models are the lions of the Ummah, such as Umar and Usama – may Allah have mercy upon them,” states the piece.

“Yes, your role models are the likes of the reviving Imam, the hero of the afflicted Ummah, Shaykh Usama bin Ladin, who boldly stated, ‘I swear by Allah who has raised the heavens without any pillars, America and those living in America will not even dream of peace until we live it in Filisteen, and until all the kufr armies are expelled from the land of Muhammad.'”

There are also articles in the magazine geared toward a millennial audience, including age-oriented marriage guidelines. Al-Qaeda publications have often tried to include women writers to reach out to that demographic as well, and Al-Balagh includes a “Sisters’ Column: How I Came to Love the Niqab.”

The State Department designated AQIS as a foreign terrorist organization in June, 16 months after Roy’s murder.

The Treasury Department noted that younger leaders — “part of a new generation of al-Qaeda operatives” — have been quietly building up al-Qaeda in its July sanctions against three members of the terror group sheltering in Iran.

Osama bin Laden’s 11th son, Hamza, now in his mid-20s, has also been rallying millennials to jihad in audio messages over the past 14 months.

“The followers of the thought of Sheikh Osama, may Allah have mercy on him, which is represented by targeting the head of global disbelief that supports the Jews, have increased in number within a decade and a half, and became double in number,” Hamza bin Laden said in a July message.

“If you think that your sinful crime that you committed in Abbottabad has passed without punishment, then you thought wrong,” he added, referring to the U.S. raid in which his father was killed. “What is correct is coming to you, and its punishment is severe.”

***

What makes someone become an Islamic extremist? Is it poverty? Lack of education? A search for meaning? Haroon Ullah, a senior State Department advisor and a foreign policy professor at Georgetown University, shares what he discovered while living in Pakistan.

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.

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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.

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Listen to John Batchelor interview Thomas Joscelyn:

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Fifteen Years Later, Al Qaeda Grows

On 15th Anniversary Of 9/11, Al-Qaeda Leader Al-Zawahiri Urges Mujahideen To Focus On Targeting U.S., Incites Black Christians Against U.S. And Calls Them To Islam

MEMRI, Sept. 9, 2016:

On September 9, 2016, Al-Qaeda’s media wing Al-Sahab released a video message by the group’s leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, marking the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Al-Zawahiri reiterates the reasons behind the attacks and their impact on the U.S., and urges the mujahideen to focus on targeting the U.S. and its allies, and to bring the battle onto their own soil as well. Appealing to non-Muslim African-Americans, he blames their woes on the U.S. and calls to them to convert to Islam.

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Most of the 20-minute video consists of Al-Zawahiri’s message, and the final several minutes feature an archival address by Osama bin Laden. Additionally, archival footage of a Malcolm X address is played as Al-Zawahiri appeals to African-Americans.

Below are the main points of the message:

Al-Zawahiri praises the “blessed raids” of 9/11, noting that they managed to strike deep within the U.S. and to attack its economic symbols, i.e. the Twin Towers. He also notes that the final and fourth hijacked airplane, United Flight 93, was heading towards “the biggest criminals in the White House or the Congress.” Al-Zawahiri boasts that 9/11 was a wakeup call to the U.S., reminding it that its crimes against Muslims won’t go unnoticed. The attacks’ impact, according to Al-Zawahiri, continues to be felt today, and its memory will forever be remembered by the Americans.

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Addressing the U.S., Al-Zawahiri reminds it: “The events of 9/11 were a direct result of your crimes against us, your crimes in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Islamic Maghreb, and Egypt [and] the result of your occupation of Muslim lands, theft of their resources, and support for the murderous corrupt criminals, who rule over them.” He further threatens the U.S.: “As long as your crimes continue, the events of 9/11 will be repeated thousands of times, by the will of Allah. And we will follow you – if you don’t cease your aggression [against us] – until the Day of Judgment…”

Moving on to the subject of the mujahideen, Al-Zawahiri informs the U.S. that their strength is increasing by the day: “There it is, the jihadi awakening [movement] increasing – thanks to Allah – many times over what it used to be before the blessed raids,” he says.

Addressing the mujahideen, Al-Zawahiri urges them to focus on attacking the U.S. and its allies, and on trying as much as possible to shift the battle onto these countries’ own soil. In that regard, he notes that the defeat of the U.S. will lead to the defeat of its lackeys. He also urges the mujahideen to unite, pledge allegiance to the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan (the Taliban), support the revolutions across the Muslim world, and urge prominent Islamic leaders to form the nucleus of a future council that will be tasked with appointing an imam (leader) for all Muslims.

Speaking to the Muslims in general, Al-Zawahiri implores them to rise up against their rulers: “It has become clear to you that your rulers are tools in the hands of the secular Safavid Crusader alliance, the alliance of the devils, headed by American and the West,” he says. He also urges them to disavow these rulers, and to adopt the path of da’wa and jihad: “Your true soldiers are your mujahideen sons… who wish for you to live free and honored in the shade of the righteous caliphate, in which the ummah chooses, holds accountable, and ousts its imam.”

Al-Zawahiri also lashes out at the various Islamic movements that have emerged in the awake of the Arab Spring, calling them “sheep” and agents of the U.S. who have hijacked the sacrifices of the Muslims. He also calls on the Muslims to be the real lions – like the mujahideen – who refuse to live under these corrupt and apostate regimes.

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Finally, Al-Zawahiri appeals to non-Muslims, particularly African Americans, blaming their woes on the U.S. and calling them to Islam. His message is augmented with an address by Malcolm X. Al-Zawahiri says: “We inform every weakened [person] in the world: America is the source of calamity and the head of evil in this world, and it is the thief of nations’ aliment, and it is the one who humiliate the Africans [i.e. African Americans] until this day, and no matter how much they try to reform and obtain their rights according to the law and the [U.S.] constitution, they will not attain it, for the law is in the hands of the white majority, [who] control it as they wish. And they [i.e. African Americans] will not be saved but by Islam.”

Rebranding Terror

 (Photo: Representational Image/AFP)

(Photo: Representational Image/AFP)

Foreign Affairs, By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Jocelyn, Aug. 29, 2016:

July 28, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, heretofore the emir of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, delivered what seemed to be a major announcement. Although Julani lavished praise on both al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden, he noted two apparent organizational changes. The first was that Jabhat al-Nusra was no more: Julani’s organization would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, or, in English, Conquest of the Levant Front). Second, Julani said that the renamed organization would have “no affiliation to any external entity.”

Arab and Western media buzzed with news that Julani had announced his organization’s “split” or “break” from al Qaeda. Yet Julani never actually said that such a break was occurring, and a careful reading of his statement reveals numerous problems with this interpretation (though some JFS figures have more definitively affirmed a split in interviews). More significantly, this reading ignores what we know of al Qaeda’s long-standing strategy. In fact, al Qaeda produced its own analysis of Julani’s message to the world—in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Arabic-language newsletter Al-Masra.

Taken together, the evidence is clear: Nusra’s rebranding as JFS does not represent a genuine split from al Qaeda. Instead, it signals a return to al Qaeda’s original game plan for Syria.

RETURNING TO SQUARE ONE

To understand Nusra’s recent moves, it is important to recognize that al Qaeda never wanted to tell the world about its role in Syria’s civil war. The group’s leadership judged that accomplishing their long-term goal—replacing Bashar al-Assad’s regime with an Islamist emirate—would require strategic patience. During the first two years of the war, therefore, al Qaeda sought to minimize international scrutiny by embedding senior operatives in the ranks of Nusra and other jihadist organizations. Zawahiri and his lieutenants wanted to clandestinely guide these groups and foster their alliances with other rebels, without officially announcing al Qaeda’s involvement. Growing such alliances, Zawahiri and his cohorts believed, would be more difficult if al Qaeda had an official presence in Syria.

It was only the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State (ISIS) that led Nusra’s leader, Julani, to announce his fealty to Zawahiri. Previously—and despite Nusra’s 2012 designation by the State Department as an “alias” for Baghdadi’s organization—Julani’s group had succeeded in making itself appear to Syrians to be an organic part of their struggle. Following the State Department’s designation, for instance, TheNew York Times reported that demonstrators in various Syrian cities hefted banners with slogans such as “No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra.” Put simply, Nusra had gained the respect of Syrians due to its ability to take the fight to Assad.

But on April 8, 2013, Baghdadi released an audio message demanding that the name Jabhat al-Nusra be abolished, because Nusra was “but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq” (as his group was then known). Baghdadi said that Julani was merely “one of our soldiers,” and that Nusra owed its very existence to Baghdadi’s men and financial support. From that day forward, Baghdadi decreed, the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra would be a single entity known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Two days later, on April 10, Julani refused Baghdadi’s order. In an audio message of his own, Julani said that Nusra would continue to fight under its own banner. More important, Julani explained that he and his men owed their fealty directly to Zawahiri, thereby bypassing Baghdadi in the chain of command. “This is a pledge of allegiance from the sons of Jabhat al-Nusra and their supervisor general that we renew to the Sheikh of Jihad, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him,” Julani said, indicating by his use of the word “renew” that he had already privately pledged his bayat (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. This was Nusra’s first public acknowledgement that it was a part of al Qaeda. In the months that followed, it became clear that al Qaeda had sent some of its most seasoned operatives, including veteran jihadists such as Abu Firas al-Suri, to Syria to lead Nusra.

A few weeks later, Zawahiri ruled on the dispute between Baghdadi and Julani in a letter dated May 23, 2013, and subsequently posted online by Al Jazeera. Zawahiri held that ISIS should be “dissolved” and that Baghdadi’s men should return to Iraq, where they would again operate as the Islamic State of Iraq. Jabhat al-Nusra was to be “an independent entity,” meaning its own regional branch of al Qaeda in Syria, and would answer to al Qaeda’s general command. Though Zawahiri’s decision was mainly a rebuke of Baghdadi, he also chastised Julani for “showing his links to al Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.” That is, Julani was not supposed to reveal his relationship to al Qaeda.

Baghdadi, of course, disobeyed Zawahiri’s order, and ISIS seized control of Raqqa from Nusra and other rebel groups in the summer of 2013. This led to the greatest jihadi rivalry in history, as ISIS went on to conquer territory in Iraq and Syria and win adherents elsewhere around the globe. For al Qaeda, ISIS’ success caused problems everywhere from West Africa to South Asia, as the self-proclaimed caliphate wooed fighters, and occasionally whole affiliates, away from its erstwhile parent organization. But the worst damage to al Qaeda’s strategic interests was arguably in Syria. Instead of covert influence, al Qaeda now had an official branch—Nusra—as well as a rogue jihadist rival in ISIS that was committed to al Qaeda’s destruction. This was the opposite of what Zawahiri and his fellow strategists had wanted.

Nusra fighters release prisoners in Lebanon, December 2015.  Stringer/Reuters

Nusra fighters release prisoners in Lebanon, December 2015. Stringer/Reuters

PART OF THE PLAN

Al Qaeda’s strategy, then, has long been to maintain public distance from Nusra when possible. That this strategy is behind Nusra’s rebrand is further suggested by a recent article in Al-Masra, a weekly newsletter published by AQAP that is a key source for understanding the group’s thinking. The August 9 edition of Al-Masra includes a lengthy article entitled “A Letter Regarding Jabhat al-Nusra Disassociating From al Qaeda.” The piece’s author is identified as Osama bin Saleh (likely a pseudonym), who uses statements made by al Qaeda’s senior leaders, as well as al Qaeda documents, to explain the group’s designs on Syria.

In a section of his letter aptly titled “Not Standing Out,” Saleh reiterates that al Qaeda never wanted a formal entity in Syria. He includes a passage from a May 2014 video in which Zawahiri said that the “general leadership’s direction is that we should not declare any open presence” in Syria, and that this “matter was agreed upon even with the brothers in Iraq,” meaning Baghdadi’s group. “We were surprised,” Zawahiri continued, “by the declaration that gave the Syrian regime and the United States an opportunity they were hoping for.” The declaration he is referring to is Baghdadi’s formation of ISIS, which Zawahiri claimed made Syrians wonder: “Why is al Qaeda bringing disasters upon us? Isn’t Bashar enough? They also want to bring in America against us?”

Bin Saleh also points to an August 2010 letter (previously released by the U.S. government) from bin Laden to Ahmed Godane, the emir of the Somali jihadist group al Shabab. Bin Laden told Godane that Shabab’s “unity” with al Qaeda “should be carried out … through unannounced secret messaging.” Godane and his men could spread the news of Shabab’s unification with al Qaeda “among the people of Somalia,” but they should not make “any official declaration” of their allegiance. If asked about their “relationship with al Qaeda,” Shabab’s leaders were to say it was “simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more, which would neither deny nor prove” the connection.

As the letter to Godane made clear, Shabab was already part of al Qaeda at the time. But bin Laden believed ambiguity was a strategic advantage. Saleh quotes at length from bin Laden’s letter to Godane to illustrate why. “If the matter becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you,” bin Laden wrote. Although bin Laden conceded that “enemies will find out inevitably” because “this matter cannot be hidden,” he argued that “an official declaration remains to be the master of all proof,” and it would be easier for “Muslims in the region” to support Shabab without it.

Shabab and al Qaeda did not announce their formal union until 18 months later, in February 2012—after bin Laden had been killed. But al Qaeda’s secretive handling of its arm in East Africa set a clear precedent for how it would groom its newer branch in the Levant. Bin Saleh underlines the point: “Notice that the leadership of the organization [al Qaeda] was not passionate about declaring their relationship with other factions, in order to avoid confrontation with the enemies and … denying them excuses.”

Nusra’s relaunch as JFS should be viewed in this light. Al Qaeda does not expect the U.S. government to remove JFS from its terrorism list or to stop bombing its members. Rather, the rebranding is intended to eliminate America’s “excuse” for bombing the group by removing its formal link to al Qaeda. This message is aimed primarily at Syrians, and secondarily at the broader Middle East. According to bin Saleh, Nusra’s “disassociation” will further unification and cooperation between militants in Syria, as other groups will no longer have the excuse that they do not want be seen as supportive of all of al Qaeda’s actions.

Bin Saleh’s letter provides other insights into al Qaeda’s thinking as well. He suggests Julani’s move was stage-managed by al Qaeda’s senior leaders, writing that the group’s “leadership paved the way before Nusra declared disassociation.” He also points to the message Nusra released from Zawahiri’s deputy, a veteran jihadist known as Abu Khayr al-Masri, just hours before announcing the relaunch. Masri gave his blessing to Nusra “to proceed with that which safeguards the interests of Islam and Muslims, and protects the jihad of the people of the Levant.” JFS’ goals are no different from Jabhat al-Nusra’s, which were no different from al Qaeda’s.

Perhaps most important, Saleh stresses that JFS’ goals are no different from Jabhat al-Nusra’s, which were no different from al Qaeda’s. As Julani himself said at a press conference last year, “we, whether we are with al Qaeda or not, will not abandon our principles and stances. We will continue to say that we want to establish the sharia and … continue in jihad.”

EYES WIDE SHUT

It is vital for Western governments, especially the United States, to expose al Qaeda’s strategy. This, however, is unlikely to happen—the United States has, for years, been exceedingly slow to recognize al Qaeda’s intentions, let alone respond to them. In the past, the U.S. government overlooked al Qaeda’s maneuvering because it believed the organization was on the verge of “strategic defeat”; today, the perception that al Qaeda does not threaten the West has led to a more generalized disinterest.

Yet the danger is growing. In addition to the additional leverage al Qaeda could gain over other militant groups in Syria, JFS may be positioned to receive even more outside support. Before renaming itself, Nusra had received support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, despite its open affiliation with al Qaeda. (Among other concerns, these Sunni countries are all eager to unseat Bashar al-Assad, a staunch ally of their Shiite rival Iran.) Now that JFS has shed the al Qaeda label, these states may begin to scale up support for the group with little objection from Western governments.

Most important, Nusra’s rebranding should be understood in light of al Qaeda’s history of trying to obscure its role in Syria. The group’s senior leaders are now attempting to return to their original Syria strategy. If the West and its allies do not actively oppose them, they may get away with it.

Also see: