U.S. missile strikes, rebel training in Syria re-energize a refined army against Assad

The author of a study calls the Free Syrian Army “the cornerstone of Syria’s moderate opposition component.

The Washington Times, by Jacob Wirtschafter and Gilgamesh Nabeel, April 24, 2017:

CAIRO — In the ramshackle town of Atareb, a Free Syrian Army bastion 15 miles north of Aleppo, Maj. Anas Abu Zaid said he has looted Russian rockets, American-supplied anti-tank missiles and other firepower to hold off the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He says it’s time to move on.

“We were facing airstrikes on a daily basis, but now some civilians are coming back to Atareb,” said Maj. Abu Zaid. “We are working to put in place civil governance for the town and even rebuilding some houses.”

His optimism reflects an energy that has infused the once-faltering rebel force in the wake of missile attacks that President Trump ordered on a Syrian air force base this month following Mr. Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons on civilians.

Analysts say it doesn’t take a lot to tip the balance from one side or another in Syria’s grinding conflict, which is why the U.S. missile strike, limited as it was, had such an impact, said Alberto Fernandez, a retired State Department counterterrorism officer who is the go-to authority on capabilities and limitations of the multiple rebel groups in Syria.

Add to that the fact that the much-derided U.S. effort to train the Free Syrian Army fighters is starting to pay dividends on the battlefield, boosted by substantial financial aid from wealthy Persian Gulf emirates, Mr. Fernandez said, “A war that has been going on so long is basically a war of attrition and exhaustion, and all parties are being worn down.”

Mr. Fernandez, now president of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, said, “Those that remain from each part, unit or entity are the fittest, the most clever, the most savage and the most capable. So the question is: Who is going to be the last man standing?”

“Too often, [the FSA has] been written off, and they shouldn’t be,” he said. “On the other hand, they have been limited — like everyone else — in what they have been able to do, so far.”

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote in a lengthy study that the Brookings Institution released in November that the FSA was far better than its reputation suggests and has evolved into an effective fighting force while retaining a base of popular support that few of its rivals can match.

“By late 2016, the FSA had come to represent an expansive, socially and symbolically powerful but complex umbrella movement, composed of dozens of semi-autonomous armed opposition groups that are united by the original moderate ideals of Syria’s revolution,” Mr. Lister concluded.

He called the FSA “the cornerstone of Syria’s moderate opposition component.”

“For the U.S. and allied countries seeking an eventual solution to the crisis in Syria, the FSA’s military preeminence does not necessarily have to be the sole objective, but sustaining its ability to represent opposition communities is of crucial importance given its mainstream positions,” Mr. Lister said.

Maj. Abu Zaid was one of the Free Syrian Army officers selected by the Pentagon in 2015 for a U.S. program to boost moderate forces after previous training programs faltered.

In February, that effort reaped results when, with help from the Turks, Free Syrian Army forces took over almost 1,250 miles of territory from the Islamic State group on Syria’s northern border.

“The Americans made it clear that the regime was not the world’s priority, and the issue was defined as terrorism,” said the major, who added that Mr. Assad’s behavior since then has proved that the U.S. training was worth the cost. “With the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, Assad reminded them he was the biggest terrorist.”

Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of the 207,000 civilian casualties in Syria from March 2001 through February 2017, according to the Violations Documentation Center, a monitoring group working with human rights activists inside and outside Syria.

Assad’s weaknesses

Free Syrian Army fighters insisted that the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun revealed Mr. Assad’s fundamental weaknesses while highlighting their own stamina as a fighting force.

“His only way to defeat the people is by punishing civilians with these weapons to put pressure on them to make local truces, forcing them to leave,” said Maj. Issam Al Reis, a 41-year-old spokesman of the Free Syrian Army’s southern front near the Jordanian border. Pro-Assad forces “don’t have enough manpower to defend their front lines.”

Despite reports in the second half of last year that Mr. Assad’s forces, backed by Russian and Iranian support, had scored some major victories, facts on the ground support the rebels’ confidence.

Analysts at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in the United Arab Emirates, said that despite Russian and Iranian backing, the Free Syrian Army controls almost 17,700 square miles inside the country, compared with less than 14,000 square miles in 2015.

Northeast of Damascus, Free Syrian Army forces briefly occupied the towns of Qaboun and Barzeh. The wins were ultimately reversed by the regime and Russian airstrikes, but they were a surprise to those who had written off the rebel group as irrelevant to Syria’s future after their defeat in Aleppo late last year.

“Thanks to the Russian brutality, we tended to think a month or two ago that Assad had prevailed and that he can do whatever he likes,” said Mordechai Kedar, a Syria specialist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “I would not repeat that assessment today.”

As the civil war continues, the insurgents’ success should help them garner more aid from the West, said Fahad Almarsy, a former Free Army spokesman who now leads a loosely affiliated political organization in Paris called the National Salvation Front.

“The United States and Israel can target [Lebanese] Hezbollah and Iranian forces propping up Assad in and around Damascus and help the Free Army advance and clear Syrian territory of foreign fighters,” he said.

While most of the Islamic State’s losses in its Syrian base stem from Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who now control 20 percent of Syria, the group’s links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey bar them from becoming close U.S. allies, said Ayman Abdul Nour, an early opponent of Mr. Assad and a leader of Syria’s exiled Christian community.

“The Free Syrian Army is now positioned as America’s best bet if Washington wants to see a unified or at least a federal Syria,” Mr. Abdul Nour said in a telephone interview from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The rebels said they intend to keep up the pressure on Mr. Assad. Their “Victory Army” in west-central Syria recently turned their guns on the regime’s Hama Military Airport, using Russian missiles to destroy a Russian-made fighter jet. Like the American missile strike, which destroyed six Mig-23s at the Al-Shayrat Air Force base, the attack was designed to downgrade the size and shorten the reach of Mr. Assad’s air force.

Refugees from regime-controlled areas, meanwhile, are joining rebel enclaves committed to Mr. Assad’s downfall.

“The people suffer exhaustion from the war, but they are still loyal to the Free Army,” said Kamal Bahbough, a 36-year-old physician in the besieged town of Al Rastan, about 14 miles north of Homs. “The Free Syrian Army soldiers are the sons of this region.”

Gilgamesh Nabeel reported from Istanbul.

New ISIS Military Commander Was Trained by State Department as Recently as 2014

new-isis-commander-gulmorad-halimov-trained-by-state-department-sized-770x415xtPJ MEDIA, BY PATRICK POOLE, SEPTEMBER 6, 2016:

Gulmurod Khalimov, the new ISIS military commander whom the U.S. just days ago announced a $3 million bounty for, was trained by the State Department in an anti-terror program as recently as 2014 while serving in the security service of Tajikistan.

He replaces former ISIS commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, aka Umar al-Shishani, who was also trained by the United States as part of the Georgian army and who ISIS claimed was killed fighting in Iraq this past July.

The State Department confirmed Khalimov’s U.S.-provided training to CNN in May 2015:

“From 2003-2014 Colonel Khalimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the United States and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program,” said spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala.The program is intended to train candidates from participating countries in the latest counterterrorism tactics, so they can fight the very kind of militants that Khalimov has now joined.

A State Department official said Khalimov was trained in crisis response, tactical management of special events, tactical leadership training and related issues.

Unironically, the State Department spokeswoman said that Khalimov had been appropriately vetted:

“All appropriate Leahy vetting was undertaken in advance of this training,” said spokeswoman Jhunjhunwala.

At that time, Khalimov appeared in a video threatening the United States:

“Listen, you American pigs: I’ve been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims,” he says.Then, he threatens, “we will find your towns, we will come to your homes, and we will kill you.”

Khalimov and Batirashvili are hardly the first terrorist leaders operating in Syria to have been trained by the United States.

In August 2014, the Washington Post reported that fighters who had been trained by Western forces, including the U.S., in Libya had found their way to terror groups at the beginning of the Syrian conflict:

Some European and Arab intelligence officials also voiced their worries and frustration about what they call the mistakes the United States has made in handling the uprisings in Arab states. “We had, in the early stages, information that radical groups had used the vacuum of the Arab Spring, and that some of the people the U.S. and their allies had trained to fight for ‘democracy’ in Libya and Syria had a jihadist agenda — already or later, [when they] joined al Nusra or the Islamic State,” a senior Arab intelligence official said in a recent interview. He said that often his U.S. counterparts would say things like, “We know you are right, but our president in Washington and his advisers don’t believe that.” Those groups, say Western security officials, are threats not only in the Middle East, but also in the United States and Europe, where they have members and sympathizers.The official’s account has been corroborated by members of the Islamic State in and outside the Middle East, including Abu Yusaf, the military commander. In several interviews conducted in the last two months, they described how the collapse of security during Arab Spring uprisings helped them recruit, regroup and use the Western strategy — to support and train groups that fight dictators — for their own benefits. “There had [also] been … some British and Americans who had trained us during the Arab Spring times in Libya,” said a man who calls himself Abu Saleh and who only agreed to be interviewed if his real identity remained secret.

Abu Saleh, who is originally from a town close to Benghazi, said he and a group of other Libyans received training and support in their country from French, British, and American military and intelligence personnel — before they joined the Al Nusra Front or the Islamic State. Western and Arab military sources interviewed for this article, confirmed Abu Saleh’s account that “training” and “equipment” were given to rebels in Libya during the fight against the Gadhafi regime.

Abu Saleh left Libya in 2012 for Turkey and then crossed into Syria. “First I fought under what people call the ‘Free Syrian Army’ but then switched to Al Nusra. And I have already decided I will join the Islamic State when my wounds are healed,” the 28-year-old said from a hospital in Turkey, where he is receiving medical treatment. He had been injured during a battle with the Syrian Army, he said, and was brought to Turkey with false documents.  “Some of the Syrian people who they trained have joined the Islamic State and others jabhat al Nusra,” he said, smiling. He added, “Sometimes I joke around and say that I am a fighter made by America.”

This problem of a terror “boomerang” also goes back to the Bush administration, as seen when Islamist rebels took over a large portion of Mali in 2013.

As the Financial Times reported:

To the dismay of the US, junior Malian officers trained as part of $620m pan-Sahelian counter-terrorism initiative launched in 2002 to help four semi-desert states resist Islamic militancy took part in a coup in March last year. Others among them defected to the Tuareg revolt that eventually led to a coalition of Islamist militias, allied with Algerian militants from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, capturing the northern two-thirds of Mali.Potentially, these US-trained officers are now using US counter-insurgency know-how against France’s intervention force.

“It is a great failure,” says Dr Berny Sèbe, an expert in Franco-African relations at the University of Birmingham. “Some of them defected. Others organised a coup.”

In two of the three other Sahelian states involved in the Pentagon’s pan-Sahelian initiative, Mauritania and Niger, armies trained by the US, have also taken power in the past eight years. In the third, Chad, they came close in a 2006 attempt.

And back in Syria, as I’m chronicled repeatedly here at PJ Media, “vetted moderate” forces armed and trained by the U.S. have defected to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

July 7, 2014: U.S. ‘Vetted Moderate’ Free Syrian Army Brigades Surrender Weapons, Pledge Allegiance to Islamic StateNov. 2, 2014: U.S.-Armed ‘Vetted Moderate’ Syrian Rebel Groups Surrender, Defect to Al-Qaeda

Nov. 24, 2014: More Defections of ‘Vetted Moderate’ Free Syrian Army Rebels to ISIS

Dec. 2, 2014: US-Backed Syrian Rebels Ally with al-Qaeda in South, Surrender CIA-Supplied Weapons in the North

Sept. 22, 2015: Report: U.S.-Trained, ‘Vetted Moderate’ Syrian Rebel Leader Defects to Al-Qaeda, Turns Weapons Over to Terror Group

Given these repeated instances, one might begin to question the quality of the U.S. government’s vetting capabilities.

Aleppo siege marks dramatic upheaval on Syrian battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Aleppo, read Grozny

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

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

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

But Chechnya is not the only precedent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe’s next nightmare

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

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

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

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

A ‘painful year’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also see:

San Bernardino Terrorist Followed Brotherhood-Linked Groups on Twitter

Center for Security Policy, by David Reaboi, Dec. 3, 2015:

On Twitter, San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook followed several accounts associated with Muslim Brotherhood, including the official accounts of Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Revolution Network.

PJMedia’s Patrick Poole found that, while Farook never seemed to tweet from this account, several of the 11 accounts he followed were institutional Twitter accounts with ties to large Islamic organizations in America which have controversial histories and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other Islamist movements.

It is significant that Farook followed what many in American media would call “mainstream” Islamic organizations, rather than some of the more notorious ISIS-affiliated social media feeds. While these groups have the patina of respectability and often condemn terrorist events in the United States, many rationalize terrorism abroad as legitimate resistance or have, as their goal, the implementation of Islamic law in America.

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WhyIslam @whyislam is an account run by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), “Dedicated to Clearing Misconceptions, Answering Questions, and Providing Free Material About Islam.” ICNA is an Islamist organization with close ties to the Pakistani extremist Pakistani group Jamaat-e-Islami, which advocates the Islamization of all governments, and can be considered a Subcontinent Muslim Brotherhood. A 2000 press release by the group claimed that, “Jamaat e-Islami’s supporters have an organization in America known as ICNA” and that, “Islam must be translated into political dominance.” ICNA’s charter is just as explicit about its goal, the “establishment of the Islamic system of life” in the world, “whether it pertains to beliefs, rituals and morals or to economic, social or political spheres.” It’s not surprising that, rather than follow the comparatively larger Islamic Society of North America, Pakistani-American Farook followed the Islamic Circle of North America, which traces its organizational and intellectual lineage to the subcontinent.

Muslim American Society @mas_national is a Kansas-based Islamist group very much in the constellation of Muslim Brotherhood entities. Former MAS Secretary General Shaker Elsayed told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 that the organization was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood. MAS has been described as “a major component” of the “Wahhabi Lobby,” Gulf-funded which has influenced American Islam for decades.

CAIR National @CAIRNational is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, founded in 1994 by Omar Ahmad and Nihad Awad, two former employees of the now-shuttered Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood front group, the Islamic Association for Palestine. CAIR has ties to violent jihad as well. Daniel Pipes writes that, “At least seven board members or staff at CAIR have been arrested, denied entry to the U.S., or were indicted on or pled guilty to (or were convicted of) terrorist charges: Siraj Wahhaj, Bassem Khafagi, Randall (“Ismail”) Royer, Ghassan Elashi, Rabih Haddad, Muthanna Al-Hanooti, and Nabil Sadoun.”

CAIR San Francisco Bay Area @CAIRSFBA The Muslim Brotherhood has long had an active presence in the Bay Area, going back to a pre-9/11 fund-raising visit by al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri in several Silicon Valley mosques. CAIR’s Bay Area branch also has a long record of radicalism. The group—which has honored convicted terror leaders like Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami al-Arian—released a poster in 2011 that discouraged Muslims from reporting on jihadists in their communities, telling them, “Build a Wall of Resistance; Don’t Talk to the FBI.”

Free Syrian Army @FreeSyrianArmy The Muslim Brotherhood played an early role in the formation of the Free Syrian Army, utilizing in particular the MB’s close relationship with Turkey.  The Brotherhood dominated the political opposition Syrian National Council, and was able to force the election of Texas-based IT professional, and former CAIR member Ghassan Hitto to the position of prime minster, reportedly after U.S. pressure encouraged anti-Brotherhood members to abstain in the vote.  Hitto himself would be ousted in favor of a Saudi-backed candidate. The FSA coordinated with the Syrian National Council from September 2011 until a September 2013 when a pull out by Islamist militias, some with links to Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood collapsed cooperation with the SNC.

Syrian Revolution Network @RevolutionSyria is a Brotherhood-affiliated social media presence that, as Hassan Hassan described in a 2013 article in Foreign Policy, “decides the names for Friday’s protests” tied to the Syrian revolution. The SRN has been called one of several Muslim Brotherhood fronts, and has an active Facebook page.

Iraqi Immigrant Arrested in Texas After Pledging Allegiance to ISIS

Breitbart, by John Hayward, May 15, 2015:

A naturalized American citizen from Iraq named Bilal Abood was arrested by FBI agents in Texas on Thursday, on charges of lying to law enforcement about his formal pledge of allegiance to ISIS and its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Abood worked as a translator for the U.S. military before moving to the United States.  He was living in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite at the time of his arrest, and was a licensed security guard, according to NBC 5 News in Dallas.

Abood has been on the counter-terrorist radar screen since 2013, when he was prevented from boarding a flight to the Middle East at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and interviewed by the FBI.  He initially claimed he wanted to visit his family in Iraq, but later admitted his intention was to make his way to Syria and take up arms against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  At the time, he said his sympathies lay with the Free Syrian Army, a prominent “moderate” rebel group supported by the U.S. government.

The New York Times says that about a month later, an FBI informant said Abood was “watching videos about the Islamic State and had said that he wanted to support it.”  He made another attempt to reach Syria, this time traveling from Mexico to Turkey first, and was successful.

Upon his return to Texas in September 2013, he told the FBI he spent his time in Syria training with the FSA, but “became frustrated with a lack of action,” so he gave up and returned to the U.S.

At this point, the Abood saga assumes a rather… leisurely pace, considering he had all the telltale signs of a “lone wolf” jihadi.  Ten months after Abood came home from Syria, the FBI obtained a warrant, searched his computer, and found his oath of fealty to the Islamic State “caliphate,” delivered via Twitter.

NBC 5 says his browser history also indicated a taste for ISIS beheading videos, and he used Twitter to spread information about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Evidently the Bureau kept this discovery quiet, because nine months later, agents asked him about his pledge of allegiance to ISIS, which he falsely denied making.  Another month would elapse before Abood’s arrest on Thursday.

“It was not clear why agents waited nearly a year to arrest him,” writes NBC 5 News  “Abood does not face a terrorism charge, and there is no allegation he was planning any attacks in the United States.”

FBI officials told the New York Times the timing of the arrest “reflected increasing wariness about the possible threat posed by known devotees of the Islamic State inside the United States.”

The Dallas Morning News says that “if found guilty, Abood is looking at eight years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.”

The obvious reason for leaving Abood to his own devices for a year would be keeping him under surveillance and hoping he led agents to other suspicious individuals.  CNNsuggests the jihad attack on Pamela Geller’s Mohammed Art Exhibit in Garland, Texas prompted more aggressive action against “lone wolf” suspects already under observation, saying FBI Director James Corner “ordered counterterrorism investigators last week to reassess cases of people who the FBI was already tracking to determine whether more action was necessary against suspects.”

The emphasis now, according to what officials told CNN, is on “moving more quickly to take possible threats off the streets, instead of waiting longer to monitor and build an investigation against suspects.”

Also see:

Washington’s Al Qaeda Ally Now Leading ISIS in Libya

Global Research, March 10, 2015, By Eric Draitser: (h/t @ClareMLopez)

The revelations that US ally Abdelhakim Belhadj is now leading ISIS in Libya should come as no surprise to those who have followed US policy in that country, and throughout the region. It illustrates for the umpteenth time that Washington has provided aid and comfort to precisely those forces it claims to be fighting around the world.

According to recent reports, Abdelhakim Belhadj has now firmly ensconced himself as the organizational commander of the ISIS presence inside Libya. The information comes from an unnamed US intelligence official who has confirmed that Belhadj is supporting and coordinating the efforts of the ISIS training centers in eastern Libya around the city of Derna, an area long known as a hotbed of jihadi militancy.
While it may not seem to be a major story – Al Qaeda terrorist turns ISIS commander – the reality is that since 2011 the US and its NATO allies have held up Belhadj as a “freedom fighter.” They portrayed him as a man who courageously led his fellow freedom-lovers against the “tyrannical despot” Gaddafi whose security forces at one time captured and imprisoned many members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), including Belhadj.

Belhadj served the US cause in Libya so well that he can be seen receiving accolades from Sen. John McCain who referred to Belhadj and his followers as heroes. He was initially rewarded after the fall of Gaddafi with the post of military commander of Tripoli, though he was forced to give way to a more politically palatable “transitional government” which has since evaporated in that chaotic, war-ravaged country.

Belhadj’s history of terrorist activity includes such “achievements” as collaboration with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of course his convenient servitude to the US-NATO sponsored rampage across Libya that, among other things, caused mass killings of black Libyans and anyone suspected of being part of the Green Resistance (those loyal to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya led by Gaddafi). Although the corporate media tried to make a martyr of Belhadj for his alleged torture via the CIA rendition program, the inescapable fact is that wherever he goes he leaves a violent and bloody wake.

While much of this information is known, what is of paramount importance is placing this news in a proper political context, one that illustrates clearly the fact that the US has been, and continues to be, the major patron of extremist militants from Libya to Syria and beyond, and that all talk of “moderate rebels” is merely rhetoric designed to fool an unthinking public.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend…Until He Isn’t

There is ample documented evidence of Belhadj’s association with Al Qaeda and his terrorist exploits the world over. Various reports have highlighted his experiences fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and he himself has boasted of killing US troops in Iraq. However, it was in Libya in 2011 where Belhadj became the face of the “rebels” seeking to topple Gaddafi and the legal government of Libya.

As the New York Times reported:

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was formed in 1995 with the goal of ousting Colonel Qaddafi. Driven into the mountains or exile by Libyan security forces, the group’s members were among the first to join the fight against Qaddafi security forces… Officially the fighting group does not exist any longer, but the former members are fighting largely under the leadership of Abu Abdullah Sadik [aka Abdelhakim Belhadj].

So, not only was Belhadj a participant in the US-NATO war on Libya, he was one of its most powerful leaders, heading a battle-hardened jihadist faction that constituted the leading edge of the war against Gaddafi. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than when the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) took the lead in the attack on Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Aziziya. In this regard, LIFG was provided intelligence, and likely also tactical support, from US intelligence and the US military.

This new information about Belhadj’s association with the suddenly globally relevant ISIS certainly bolsters the argument that this writer, among many others, has made since 2011 – that the US-NATO war on Libya was waged by terrorist groups overtly and tacitly supported by US intelligence and the US military. Moreover, it dovetails with other information that has surfaced in recent years, information that shines a light on how the US exploited for its own geopolitical purposes one of the most active terrorist hotbeds anywhere in the world.

According to the recent reports, Belhadj is directly involved with supporting the ISIS training centers in Derna. Of course Derna should be well known to anyone who has followed Libya since 2011, because that city, along with Tobruk and Benghazi, were the centers of anti-Gaddafi terrorist recruitment in the early days of the “uprising” all through the fateful year of 2011. But Derna was known long before that as a locus of militant extremism.

In a major 2007 study entitled “Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records” conducted by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point, the authors noted that:

Almost 19 percent of the fighters in the Sinjar Records came from Libya alone. Furthermore, Libya contributed far more fighters per capita than any other nationality in the Sinjar Records, including Saudi Arabia… The apparent surge in Libyan recruits traveling to Iraq may be linked the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s (LIFG) increasingly cooperative relationship with al-Qa’ida which culminated in the LIFG officially joining al-Qa’ida on November 3, 2007…The most common cities that the fighters called home were Darnah [Derna], Libya and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with 52 and 51 fighters respectively. Darnah [Derna] with a population just over 80,000 compared to Riyadh’s 4.3 million, has far and away the largest per capita number of fighters in the Sinjar records.

And so, the US military and intelligence community has known for nearly a decade (perhaps longer) that Derna has long been directly or indirectly controlled by jihadis of the LIFG variety, and that that city had acted as a primary recruiting ground for terrorism throughout the region. Naturally, such information is vital if we are to understand the geopolitical and strategic significance of the notion of ISIS training camps associated with the infamous Belhadj on the ground in Derna.

This leads us to three interrelated, and equally important, conclusions. First, Derna is once again going to provide foot soldiers for a terror war to be waged both in Libya, and in the region more broadly, with the obvious target being Syria. Second is the fact that the training sites at Derna will be supported and coordinated by a known US asset. And third, that the US policy of supporting “moderate rebels” is merely a public relations campaign designed to convince average Americans (and those in the West generally) that it is not supporting terrorism, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The Myth of ‘Moderate Rebels’

The news about Belhadj and ISIS must not be seen in a vacuum. Rather, it should be still further proof that the notion of “moderates” being supported by the US is an insult to the intelligence of political observers and the public at large.

For more than three years now, Washington has trumpeted its stated policy of support to so-called moderate rebels in Syria – a policy which has at various times folded such diverse terror groups as the Al Farooq Brigades (of cannibalism fame) and Hazm (“Determination”) into one large “moderate” tent. Unfortunately for US propagandists and assorted warmongers however, these groups along with many others have since voluntarily or forcibly been incorporated into Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS/ISIL.

Recently, there have been many reports of mass defections of formerly Free Syrian Army factions to ISIS, bringing along with them their advanced US-supplied weaponry. Couple that with the “poster boys” for Washington policy, the aforementioned Hazm group, now having become part of Jabhat al Nusra, the Al Qaeda linked group in Syria. Of course these are only a few of the many examples of groups that have become affiliated with either the ISIS or Al Qaeda brand in Syria, including Liwaa Al-Farouq, Liwaa Al-Qusayr, and Liwaa Al-Turkomen to name just a few.

What has become clear is that the US and its allies, in their unending quest for regime change in Syria, have been overtly supporting extremist elements that have now coalesced to form a global terror threat in ISIS, Nusra, and Al Qaeda.

But of course, this is nothing new, as the Belhadj episode in Libya demonstrates unequivocally. The man who was once Al Qaeda, then became a “moderate” and “our man in Tripoli,” has now become the leader of the ISIS threat in Libya. So too have “our friends” become our enemies in Syria. None of this should surprise anyone.

But perhaps John McCain would like to answer some questions about his long-standing connections with Belhadj and the “moderates” in Syria. Would Obama like to explain why his “humanitarian intervention” in Libya has become a humanitarian nightmare for that country, and indeed the whole region? Would the CIA, which has been extensively involved in all of these operations, like to come clean about just who they’ve been supporting and what role they’ve played in fomenting this chaos?

I doubt any such questions will ever be asked by anyone in the corporate media. Just as I doubt any answers will ever be furnished by those in Washington whose decisions have created this catastrophe. So, it is for us outside the corporate propaganda matrix to demand answers, and to never let the establishment suppress our voices…or the truth.

Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City, he is the founder of StopImperialism.org and OP-ed columnist for RT, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Also see:

Inside the CIA’s Syrian Rebels Vetting Machine

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo. Hosam Katan/Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo. Hosam Katan/Reuters

By Jeff Stein:

Nothing has come in for more mockery during the Obama administration’s halting steps into the Syrian civil war than its employment of “moderate” to describe the kind of rebels it is willing to back. In one of the more widely cited japes, The New Yorker’s resident humorist, Andy Borowitz, presented a “Moderate Syrian Application Form,” in which applicants were asked to describe themselves as either “A) Moderate, B) Very moderate, C) Crazy moderate or D) Other.”

After Senator John McCain unwittingly posed with Syrians “on our side” who turned out to be kidnappers, Jon Stewart cracked, “Not everyone is going to be wearing their ‘HELLO I’M A TERRORIST’ name badge.”

Behind the jokes, however, is the deadly serious responsibility of the CIA and Defense Department to vet Syrians before they receive covert American training, aid and arms. But according to U.S. counterterrorism veterans, a system that worked pretty well during four decades of the Cold War has been no match for the linguistic, cultural, tribal and political complexities of the Middle East, especially now in Syria. “We’re completely out of our league,” one former CIA vetting expert declared on condition of anonymity, reflecting the consensus of intelligence professionals with firsthand knowledge of the Syrian situation. “To be really honest, very few people know how to vet well. It’s a very specialized skill. It’s extremely difficult to do well” in the best of circumstances, the former operative said. And in Syria it has proved impossible.

Daunted by the task of fielding a 5,000-strong force virtually overnight, the Defense Department and CIA field operatives, known as case officers, have largely fallen back on the system used in Afghanistan, first during the covert campaign to rout the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s and then again after the 2001 U.S. invasion to expel Al-Qaeda: Pick a tribal leader who in turn recruits a fighting force. But these warlords have had their own agendas, including drug-running, and shifting alliances, sometimes collaborating with terrorist enemies of the United States, sometimes not.

“Vetting is a word we throw a lot around a lot, but actually very few people know what it really means,” said the former CIA operative, who had several postings in the Middle East for a decade after the 9/11 attacks. “It’s not like you’ve got a booth set up at a camp somewhere. What normally happens is that a case officer will identify a source who is a leader in one of the Free Syrian Army groups. And he’ll say, ‘Hey…can you come up with 200 [guys] you can trust?’ And of course they say yes—they always say yes. So Ahmed brings you a list and the details you need to do the traces,” the CIA’s word for background checks. “So you’re taking that guy’s word on the people he’s recruited. So we rely on a source whom we’ve done traces on to do the recruiting. Does that make sense?”

No, says former CIA operative Patrick Skinner, who still travels the region for the Soufan Group, a private intelligence organization headed by FBI, CIA and MI6 veterans. “Syria is a vetting nightmare,” he told Newsweek, “with no way to discern the loyalties of not only those being vetted but also of those bringing the people to our attention.”

A particularly vivid example was provided recently by Peter Theo Curtis, an American held hostage in Syria for two years. A U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) unit that briefly held him hostage casually revealed how it collaborated with Al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, even after being “vetted” and trained by the CIA in Jordan, he wrote in The New York Times Magazine.

“About this business of fighting Jabhat al-Nusra?” Curtis said he asked his FSA captors.

“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”

Read more at Newsweek