Trump Got This One Right

An anti-Assad militia member loads an American-made TOW anti-tank missile southeast of the city of Tal Afar. Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / Getty

Weekly Standard, by Thomas Joscelyn, THE MAGAZINE: From the August 7 Issue

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump was shown a disturbing video of Syrian rebels beheading a child near the city of Aleppo. It had caused a minor stir in the press as the fighters belonged to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a group that had been supported by the CIA as part of its rebel aid program.

The footage is haunting. Five bearded men smirk as they surround a boy in the back of a pickup truck. One of them holds the boy’s head with a tight grip on his hair while another mockingly slaps his face. Then, one of them uses a knife to saw the child’s head off and holds it up in the air like a trophy. It is a scene reminiscent of the Islamic State’s snuff videos, except this wasn’t the work of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. The murderers were supposed to be the good guys: our allies.

Trump wanted to know why the United States had backed Zenki if its members are extremists. The issue was discussed at length with senior intelligence officials, and no good answers were forthcoming, according to people familiar with the conversations. After learning more worrisome details about the CIA’s ghost war in Syria—including that U.S.-backed rebels had often fought alongside extremists, among them al Qaeda’s arm in the country—the president decided to end the program altogether.

On July 19, the Washington Post broke the news of Trump’s decision: “a move long sought by Russia,” the paper’s headline blared. Politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly howled in protest, claiming that Trump’s decision was a surrender to Vladimir Putin.

There is no doubt that Putin, who has the blood of many Syrian civilians on his hands, was pleased by the move. But that doesn’t mean the rebel aid program was effective or served American interests.

The defenders of the CIA program argue that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) remains our best hope for a moderate opposition to Assad. But the FSA is not the single, unified organization its name implies. It is, rather, a loose collection of groups that have adopted the FSA brand, often in addition to their own names and branding. Although “Free Syrian Army” sounds secular and moderate, its constituents are ideologically diverse and include numerous extremists. Zenki, for example, was referred to as an FSA group well after its hardline beliefs were evident, and few FSA groups could be considered truly secular. Several prominent FSA organizations advocate Islamist ideas, meaning they believe that some version of sharia law should rule Syrian society.

To make matters worse: FSA-affiliated rebels have often been allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Some of the most prominent FSA groups, indeed, objected to the U.S. government’s decision to designate Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012. Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm was even then strong enough to command loyalty in the face of American sanctions. There have been episodic clashes between Nusra and America’s FSA allies, but more often than not FSA-branded rebels have been in the trenches alongside Nusra’s jihadists.

Jabhat al-Nusra, publicly an arm of al Qaeda until July 2016, has been the single strongest organization within the insurgency for some time. Well before President Trump was inaugurated, Nusra had grown into a menace. And America’s provision of arms to FSA-branded rebels worked to Nusra’s advantage—an inconvenient fact for those criticizing the president’s decision.

Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, and the timing was not accidental. Just months earlier, in March, the “Army of Conquest” took over the northwestern province of Idlib. This rebel coalition was no band of moderates. It was led by Nusra and included its closest Islamist and jihadist partners. The Army of Conquest was on the march, threatening the Assad family’s stronghold of Latakia on the coast. Had the insurgents progressed much further south, Bashar al-Assad’s regime would have been in serious jeopardy, perhaps would even have fallen. With the backing of Russia and Iran, Assad’s forces rallied and stopped the Nusra-led coalition from taking even more ground. Russia saved Assad, but its efforts also stymied the jihadists’ offensive—a important fact that is often left out of Syria policy debates.

Since July 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra has changed its name twice and merged with other organizations to form a group known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria,” or HTS). The group is riven by internal rivalries, with some members even arguing that its leadership is no longer beholden to al Qaeda. But the jihadists are consolidating their control over Idlib as part of a totalitarian drive to dominate governance in the province.

HTS’s top-dog status within Idlib is no accident. Al Qaeda’s leadership and Jabhat al-Nusra have been laying the groundwork for an Islamic emirate, based on radical sharia law, in Syria since 2012. And their plan has called for exploiting Free Syrian Army groups and their CIA support.

Nusra has been happy to take advantage of the support FSA groups received from the United States and other nations supporting the multi-sided proxy war against Assad. There are dozens of videos online showing Syrian rebels firing the American-made, anti-tank BGM-71 TOW missile. The TOW is distinctive in appearance and relatively easy to identify, making it a rather public announcement of the groups involved in the CIA’s “clandestine” program. If one wants to know which FSA-branded groups have been approved by Langley, just look for TOW missiles.

Defenders of the program argue that only a small number of TOWs have been fired by al Qaeda’s men or other non-vetted rebels. Maybe. But at least some of the “vetted” groups shouldn’t have been deemed acceptable partners in the first place. Zenki received TOWs even though its extremism is obvious. Other Islamist groups within the loose-knit FSA coalition received TOWs as well.

And Nusra used such organizations to further its own designs. Abu Kumayt, who served as a fighter in the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), explained to the New York Times in December 2014 that Nusra “lets groups vetted by the United States keep the appearance of independence, so that they will continue to receive American supplies.” Another “commander” in a group that received TOWs told the Times that FSA “fighters were forced to operate them . . . on behalf of” Nusra during a battle with Assad’s forces. American-made weapons were fueling the jihadists’ gains and when Nusra finally grew tired of the SRF and Harakat Hazm, another American-supported group based in Idlib province, it quickly dispatched them, taking their weapons in the process.

American-made arms helped fuel the insurgents’ gains in Idlib province in 2015. Today, that same province is home to a nascent Taliban-style state.

Advocates for the Syrian opposition point to areas of the country outside of Idlib province where FSA-branded groups seem to hold more sway. But the story is almost always complicated by a jihadist presence. Take Aleppo, for instance, where in August 2016, insurgents temporarily broke the regime’s brutal siege. The Army of Conquest coalition—the same Nusra-led alliance that took over Idlib—played a key role in the fighting, as they would in a second attempt to break the siege later in 2016.

In October 2016, the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters that Nusra accounted for only 900 to 1,000 of the 8,000 opposition fighters in Aleppo. After objections that this modest figure was too high, the U.N. revised its estimate downward, claiming Nusra had just 150 to 200 members within the Aleppo opposition. Advocates then seized on this low figure to argue that the insurgents inside the city deserved the full backing of the West. They ignored the fact that the other, non-Nusra rebels included many extremists—such as Zenki.

It is doubtful that the U.N.’s lowball estimate for Nusra’s presence in Aleppo was accurate; Nusra produced videos showing large convoys making their way to the city, which suggested a much bigger force. But even the U.N. conceded that Nusra’s “influence” was greater than its numbers implied, because of the jihadists’ “operational capacity coupled with the fear that they engendered from other groups.” Part of the reason Nusra is so operationally effective is its use of suicide bombers, and a series of these “martyrs” were deployed by Nusra and its allies during key points in the battle for Aleppo. Without Nusra’s Army of Conquest, the insurgents would have had little hope of breaking Assad’s grip on the city, and TOW-armed FSA groups, some of them Islamist, fought right alongside Nusra’s men.

The bottom line: Sunni jihadists and extremists are laced throughout the Syrian rebellion and have been for years. While pockets of acceptable allies remain, there is no evidence that any truly moderate force is effectively fighting Assad, and President Trump was right to end the program of CIA support for the Syrian opposition.

It is a dire situation, and one might easily conclude that a full alliance with Russia in Syria makes some sense. That is clearly the president’s thinking. His administration has already explored ways to cooperate with Putin against the Islamic State, including brokering a ceasefire in southern Syria. But a partnership with Russia has its own downsides.

Russian and Syrian jets have indiscriminately and repeatedly bombed civilian targets. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons, which Trump himself objected to, bombing a Syrian airfield in response. The United States cannot endorse these war crimes by allying itself with the perpetrators of mass murder in Syria. The president has loudly denounced Iran and its sponsorship of terrorism throughout the world. But Russia and the Syrian government have sponsored Iran’s growing footprint in the country. A recent State Department report said that as many 7,000 fighters from Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terror group that is opposed to both the United States and Israel, are now located in Syria. These same Hezbollah fighters, along with Shiite militiamen sponsored by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are Russia’s and Assad’s key on-the-ground allies.

All of which is to say that there are no easy answers in Syria. But that doesn’t mean the United States should keep playing a losing hand. And that’s exactly what the program to support Syria’s rebels was—a bad deal.

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

Half of Prominent Jihadis Tied to “Non-Violent” Islamism, New Study Shows

by IPT News  •  Apr 30, 2017

Half of the prominent jihadists profiled in a new study by The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics had ties to supposedly non-violent Islamists prior to joining terrorist organizations.

The study’s authors – Mubaraz Ahmed, Milo Comerford, and Emman El-Badawy – explore pathways to militancy among 100 prominent figures within the wider Salafi-Jihadi movement. The individuals examined derive from the Middle East and Africa, across multiple generations. Some of the findings suggest that membership or ties to non-violent Islamist organizations can be associated with an individual’s trajectory towards violence and terrorism.

51 percent of the terrorists under study were previously connected to Islamist groups that claim to be non-violent, including “bodies that are not necessarily political activist organizations but form a functioning arm of existing Islamist groups, such as youth wings, student associations, and other societies.” Since membership in Islamist groups is often secretive and sometimes prohibited in various Middle Eastern countries, the authors acknowledge that the proportion of jihadists with Islamist affiliations are likely higher.

Some of the case studies explored in the report include Djamel Zitouni, the leader of the Armed Islamic Group who was previously a member of an Islamist organization that supposedly eschewed violence – the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Senior Al-Qaeda leaders, including Abdullah Azzam and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, were involved with or direct members of the Muslim Brotherhood before turning to violent jihad.

One in four of the jihadists examined had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliated groups.

Another interesting finding shows that 65 percent of the sample had been imprisoned at some point throughout their lives, some of whom served time before engaging in violent jihad. There has been growing concern for years about Islamist radicalization of potential terrorist recruits in prisons worldwide.

The study shows that personal networks are critical in the formation and development of the global Salafi-jihadi movement.

“Our data links the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS today to the forefathers of the movement through people they met in prison, at university, and on the battlefield,” write the authors.

Purportedly non-violent Islamist groups not only serve as potential incubators for radicalization and violence – they also continue to engage in violent incitement, encouraging others to carry out terrorist attacks.

For example, on Wednesday, a senior Muslim Brotherhood member, ‘Izz Al-Din Dwedar, called for an “intifada” targeting Egyptian embassies around the world, in a Facebook post translated by The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

In protest of death sentences handed to members of the Brotherhood in Egypt, Dwedar suggested for violent action on May 3.

Egyptians abroad should “protest [outside] Egyptian embassies and lay siege to them, and steadily escalate [their actions], up to and including raiding the embassies in some countries, disrupting their work and occupying them if possible, in order to raises awareness to our cause,” wrote Dwedar.

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:

Syria’s Nusra Front Breaks from Al-Qaeda

AFP

AFP

Breitbart, by John Hayward, July 29, 2016:

The Nusra Front, formally known as Jabhat al-Nusra, has been al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria since late 2011. The Syrian group’s leader has announced it will now cut its ties with al-Qaeda and become independent, with al-Qaeda’s blessing.

The announcement came from Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani in his first video statement. As the BBC reports, Julani announced that his group would be renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which translates to “Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant,” and will have “no affiliation to any external entity.”

The reason for the split, and the reason al-Qaeda endorsed it, was to “remove the pretext used by powers, including the U.S. and Russia, to bomb Syrians.” In other words, Julani thinks his group has been unfairly targeted because it was linked to al-Qaeda, and now that it has been formally rebranded as an independent entity, foreign powers will no longer have an excuse to bomb them.

Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr said Nusra’s leadership had been instructed to “go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad.”

“The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organisational links that change and go away,” declared al-Qaeda’s number one, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Russians do not need much of a pretext to bomb enemies of the Assad regime, and the U.S. clearly is not buying this “rebranding” strategy.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, not even troubling himself to use the Nusra Front’s new name, said:

The United States continues to assess that Nusra Front leaders maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West and there continues to be increasing concern about Nusra Front’s growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe.

In fact, a report earlier this year from the Institute for the Study of War, and American Enterprise Institute, portrayed the Nusra Front as “much more dangerous to the U.S. than the ISIS model in the long run.”

“We judge any organization, including this one, much more by its actions, its ideology, its goals,” added State Department spokesman John Kirby. “Thus far, there’s no change to our views about this particular group. We certainly see no reasons to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different. And they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization.”

Perhaps it would have been more crafty for the al-Qaeda bosses to avoid admitting they ordered the “breakaway” as a propaganda ploy to “protect jihad.” Also, they are making the charade much less convincing by actively seeking closer ties with other Islamist groups in Syria.

CNN notes that just two weeks ago, the United States announced closer cooperation with Russia against the Nusra Front to “restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce the violence and help create the space for a genuine and credible political transition” in Syria. Nusra is one of the groups excluded from the cessation of hostilities agreement, along with ISIS.

Of course, it is unlikely that anyone in the Nusra Front or al-Qaeda expected the Western world to accept this “rebranding” effort and let them go on their merry way. The goal is to create propaganda opportunities with other Islamist groups, who can be nudged into the al-Qaeda umbrella by Nusra leaders who are supposedly no longer al-Qaeda operatives, but share their “core ideology.” There will be much caterwauling about how the Americans and Russians are still unfairly bombing “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.”

CNN quoted analysts who also made an interesting case that the Nusra “rebranding” and the involvement of al-Qaeda second-in-command Masri are an indication Masri – supposedly “under arrest” in Iran, with the details rather murky, until recently – is actually in Syria, and may be preparing to take charge of al-Qaeda from Zawahiri.

This would enable Masri to continue Zawahiri’s strategy of spreading jihadi ideology without explicit connections to al-Qaeda at present, with an eye toward reasserting al-Qaeda as the Wal-Mart of jihad once ISIS has been defeated.

The report by the Institute for the Study of War/AEI, mentioned above, made the case that Nusra was “quietly entwining itself with the Syrian population and Syrian opposition,” and was “waiting in the wings to pick up the mantle of global jihad once ISIS falls,” as ISW president Kim Kagan put it.

This would make Nusra much more difficult to target than ISIS, which is not exactly easy to target, once it sinks roots into urban conquests, lines up human shields, and positions them to keep Syria in a state of war for years to come, no matter what political deals might be struck with other insurgent factions. From that constant turmoil, they could supply al-Qaeda with weapons and trained fighters to strike targets across the world.

Speaking in January, Kagan observed that the Nusra Front chose not to overtly attack the West “because the al-Qaeda leadership’s priority is preserving success in Syria and avoiding being targeted by the U.S.” This “rebranding” maneuver fits neatly into the strategy she described.

Also see:

Dutch Intelligence: Competition Could Fuel Jihadi Plots

by Abigail R. Esman
Special to IPT News
April 27, 2016

tweetA “large scale, spectacular attack in Europe or the US”: this is the prediction of the Netherlands’ Intelligence Service (AIVD).  And, they say, it could happen very soon.

The AIVD’s report on 2015, released last week, analyzes the threat of terrorism, cyber-terrorism, and other national security issues based on the past year’s events and global intelligence-gathering.  The agency found that ongoing competition between jihadist groups is proving even more dangerous than the threat of continued “lone wolf” attacks and localized bombings by jihadists who have either returned from the Islamic State or were inspired by them.  That competition, particularly between al-Qaida and ISIS, is likely to lead to major attacks on the West in order to “demonstrate to one another that each is the real leader of jihadism,” the AIVD report says. This is particularly crucial for al-Qaida, which may stage an attack soon in order to re-assert its prestige and power at a time when ISIS seems to be getting the most attention.

These predictions align with similar warnings from former CIA operative Brian Fairchild,  who last fall also warned of  “another 9/11,” driven by rivalry among the terrorist groups.

That rivalry is intensifying as various factions continue to battle for power in the Levant.  Al-Qaida, for instance, recently published a statement accusing ISIS of “lies and deceit,” and describing them as “one of the biggest dangers today in the jihadi fields.”  And in a video, al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri called ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,  “illegitimate.” ISIS, according to al-Qaida, “invoked the curse of Allah” on its opponents, specifically on Jabhat al Nusra.  Al Nusra, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, is considered another powerful rival of ISIS.

Like the AIVD’s 2005 report, “From Dawa To Jihad,” now something of a classic in the literature about the radicalization of Western Muslims, many insights presented in this year’s overview are likely to be taken seriously by intelligence agencies and counter-terrorism strategists globally.  Alongside concerns about a major attack in the near-term, for instance, the AIVD report offers an analysis of the complexities of Islamic terrorism at this moment – and the vastness of its reach.

Those complexities again put the lie to notions that Islamic extremism breeds in impoverished neighborhoods, among the unemployed and disenfranchised. They defy, too, ideas that immigration is to blame, or that simply “closing the borders” will solve the threat. As the report notes:

“The attacks in Europe present a disturbing illustration of the threat Europe currently faces: people from our own homelands, who grew up here and mostly were radicalized here, stand ready and willing to take up weapons against the West [….]  So, too are jihadists who return from the battlefields of jihad prepared to perpetrate similar atrocities [at home] – and jihadists who had planned to join the foreign battle, but never succeeded [in making the trip]. Young, inexperienced jihadists can perpetrate attacks, but those jihad-veterans known to intelligence officials and who have long been quiet may also suddenly come roaring back.”

Similarly, “attacks could be planned and attackers sent from outside Europe, or they can be planned and activated from within; they could be major attacks, arranged by professionals far in advance, or relatively simple and small-scale,” the AIVD report says. “The threat can come from organized groups and networks sent in to commit attacks but also by individuals or small groups who sympathize with a certain jihadist group.”

Moreover, the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), which often is misleadingly characterized as “moderate,” poses an additional threat. “JaN is a jihadist organization connected with al-Qaida and whose purpose, in part, is to commit attacks against the West,” the report says.

And while the death of many al-Qaida leaders may have caused some disruption, this does not mean that the organization is weakened, or that the threat of another al-Qaida attack against the West has vanished. Rather, battling for the mantle of dominant jihadi group could strengthen its determination to wage spectacular attacks.

And it isn’t just violent attacks. While the AIVD has found a rising interest among Dutch Muslims in obtaining weapons, the agency notes that in at least one case, the purpose was to perform a series of armed robberies in order to finance terrorist groups in Syria.

What is certain is that Salafism, the radical Islamic ideology that supports violent jihad, is very much on the rise in the Netherlands. Added to this development is the ISIS propaganda machine, which the report’s authors say, sends the message that terrorism is a form of heroism. Combined, the two forces stand to raise radicalization and the probable involvement in terrorism in the homeland.

For the Dutch, as for other Europeans,  the danger does not just come from jihadists at home and those in Syria. Belgium, with its many extremist and terrorist groups, is just across the Dutch border. Paris is a short, high-speed train ride away.  And as officials increasingly crack down in those two countries, the chances are great that terrorists there will travel elsewhere, looking for the nearest place to hide – and kill.  The result is a multi-pronged threat that hovers over the country, and increasingly, over Europe.

The CIA’s Syria Program and the Perils of Proxies

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

After these early hiccups, the program evolved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Also see:

US-Trained Syrian Rebels Allegedly Hand Weapons to Al Qaeda Affiliate

Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to al-Qaeda, took the technicals, guns and ammunition from the US-trained Division 30 in northern Aleppo Photo: Reuters

Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to al-Qaeda, took the technicals, guns and ammunition from the US-trained Division 30 in northern Aleppo Photo: Reuters

Washington Free Beacon, by Morgan Chalfant, Sep/ 22, 2015:

U.S.-trained rebels that reentered Syria over the weekend after completing the Pentagon program allegedly gave their weapons to the al Qaeda affiliate in the region, al Nusra.

The Telegraph reported that rebels fighting with Division 30, the rebel group with whom the U.S.-trained Syrian fighters are partnering to combat the Islamic State, surrendered and handed over weapons and ammunition to members of al Nusra, according to members of the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Abu Fahd al-Tunisi, who identifies himself as a member of al Nusra, wrote on Twitter, “A strong slap [in the face] for America … the new group from Division 30 that entered yesterday hands over all of its weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra after being granted safe passage.”

“They also handed over a very large amount of ammunition and medium weaponry and a number of pick-ups,” al-Tunisi added.

Another alleged al Nusra member, Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi, claimed on Twitter that the commander of Division 30 Anas Ibrahim Obaid said he tricked the U.S.-led coalition in order to obtain weapons.

“He promised to issue a statement … repudiating Division 30, the coalition, and those who trained him,” al-Maqdisi wrote.

U.S. Central Command said Monday that approximately 70 U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had reentered Syria after undergoing training in Turkey.

If confirmed, the U.S.-trained rebels relinquishing their weapons would represent another setback for the $500 million Pentagon program. In July, al Nusra kidnapped a number of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels when they entered Syria after becoming the first class to complete the training program. The al Qaeda affiliate was allegedly tipped off by Turkey. Currently, only four or five rebels from the first class of the training program are still fighting the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS) in the Middle East

The Pentagon plans to overhaul its effort to train rebels to fight the Islamic State.

***

Also see: