Report: Taliban Prepares for Peace Talks with United States

AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Breitbart, by John Hayward, September 11, 2018:

Taliban leaders are reportedly putting together a team to negotiate with the United States and signaling which concessions they will require to make such talks possible, prominently including a release of Taliban prisoners taken during the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Reuters on Tuesday quoted “two officials involved with the process” who said Taliban leaders are meeting to select a three- or four-man delegation to meet with American officials. They would then schedule a follow-up meeting to conduct more serious negotiations provided the first meeting goes well and the U.S. demonstrates good faith by releasing Taliban prisoners.

“This meeting will determine the future talks and we would see if the U.S. is serious and sincere in negotiation. We would hand over a list of prisoners languishing in jails across Afghanistan. If they set free our prisoners then we would meet again for another great cause,” one of the “officials,” clearly a Taliban member from the tone of his comments, told Reuters.

The first serious diplomatic contact between the U.S. and Taliban officials occurred in Doha, Qatar, a little over a month ago. Reuters’ sources indicated the head of the Taliban’s office in Qatar would once again take point on negotiations with the United States, although the current chief official is only an interim appointee and will be replaced by a permanent representative.

The American side of negotiations would most likely be headed up by Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, who was named President Donald Trump’s special adviser for Afghanistan last week. Khalilzad is an Afghan-American noted for his skill at dealing with tribal factions.

The White House began seeking direct talks with the Taliban in July as part of a strategic shift intended to conclude the war in Afghanistan. Before that, the U.S. position was that Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government in Kabul needed to take the lead on negotiations. The Taliban adamantly refuses to bargain with Kabul because it deems the government a wholly illegitimate puppet of the United States.

The Taliban has been described as “willing, but not desperate” for negotiations. In this analysis, military pressure from the U.S. combined with diplomatic pressure from Afghanistan’s neighbors and Islamic religious leaders has convinced the Taliban to “evolve” and consider compromises to achieve its two core objectives, returning to power in Afghanistan and evicting foreign troops.

A significant number of Taliban movers and shakers has decided these objectives cannot be secured by brute force but can be largely won through negotiations with a war-weary Washington and nervous Kabul.

Instead of demanding the immediate exodus of all American troops, the Taliban will ask for a firm exit “timetable” and possibly accept the presence of small foreign units to secure Kabul and fight the Islamic State, which is also a Taliban objective.

Instead of overthrowing and executing the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban might seek the orderly dissolution of his government and the installation of “caretaker” officials until a new constitution is drafted and Taliban seats are secured at the table of power in Kabul.

The Taliban might have decided the time is right for peace talks because Afghanistan will hold a presidential election in April 2019 and it would become much more difficult to rewrite the constitution and install a “caretaker” government after the election. Much of the Taliban’s recent military action could be seen as an effort to shake the Afghan people’s faith in the Ghani government so profoundly that they will not resist Taliban demands to replace it.

These negotiations face four major obstacles: it would take years to reach a settlement, and bloodshed in Afghanistan would continue all the while; the U.S. will resist Taliban leaders inserting themselves into civilian government, and especially into Afghanistan’s military apparatus; the Taliban will insist on writing their harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law into the constitution, outraging human rights advocates and Afghans who do not wish to live under Islamist domination; and there is little guarantee the Taliban will not use violence to seize the rest of the loaf after half a loaf is given, especially if its fighters wind up sprinkled through the Afghan military.

Also see:

Al Qaeda is very much alive, and widely misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)

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

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

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

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

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

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

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

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

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

Shabaab in Somalia

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

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

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

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Qaeda in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Qaeda lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images

Breitbart, by John Hayward, September 11, 2018:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis: Pentagon continues to underestimate al Qaeda, downplay ties to Taliban

Screenshot from video produced by the Taliban in Dec. 2016 that emphasized the ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Taliban founder Mulla Omar (center, top) are shown side by side in an image that promotes the martyrs of jihad.

Long War Journal, by Bill Roggio, July 5, 2018:

The US Department of Defense continues to ignore fundamental facts in spinning its latest narrative. Yet again, the Pentagon underestimates al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan while downplaying the group’s ties to the Taliban. The Pentagon claimed that al Qaeda’s “core members are focused on their own survival” and “there is no evidence of strategic ties” between al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Except, the Pentagon and the US intelligence community has consistently been wrong about al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan, and evidence of strategic ties between the two groups does indeed exist.

The Pentagon made these latest claims in the “Threats from Insurgent and Terrorist Groups” section (pages 25 & 26) of its most recent biannual report, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan. The report was released earlier this week. The paragraph discussing al Qaeda and the Taliban is excerpted in full below [emphasis added]:

The al-Qa’ida threat to the United States and its allies and partners has decreased, and the few remaining al-Qa’ida core members are focused on their own survival. The remnants of the organization likely reside along the southeast Afghanistan border with Pakistan with a smaller element in isolated areas of northeast Afghanistan. Some lower- and mid-level Taliban leaders provide limited support to al-Qa’ida; however, there is no evidence of strategic ties between the two organizations and the Taliban likely seeks to maintain distance from al-Qa’ida. In addition, al-Qa’ida’s regional affiliate, AQIS, has a presence in south and southeast Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, and is composed primarily of militants from within the broader South Asia region.

Underestimating al Qaeda, yet again

The Pentagon report employed language that was used consistently during the Obama administration that downplayed al Qaeda’s strength. Phrases such as “few remaining” (General Joseph Dunford, 2013), “remnants” (President Barack Obama, 2014), and “focused on their own survival” (General John Campbell, 2015), were uttered by the President and his top commanders for Afghanistan numerous times.

Beginning in 2010, CIA Director Leon Panetta claimed that al Qaeda had only “50 to 100, maybe less”leaders and operatives based in Afghanistan. FDD’s Long War Journal repeatedly refuted this estimate and even used the US military’s own press releases on raids against al Qaeda in Afghanistan to rebut the claims. Panetta’s estimate was repeated numerous times by intelligence and military officials, unchanged, for nearly six years. Additionally, the US military claimed that al Qaeda was confined to the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

This incorrect assessment of al Qaeda’s was proven wildly inaccurate when in Oct. 2015 US forces killed more than 150 al Qaeda operatives in an attack on two al Qaeda training camps in the Shorabak district in the southern province of Kandahar. After the raid on the al Qaeda camps, US military spokesman Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner described the raid as “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” It took US and Afghan forces more than four days to clear the two camps, with the aid of 63 airstrikes. Shoffner’s description of the al-Qaeda facilities indicated that they had been built long ago.

“The first site, a well-established training camp, spanned approximately one square mile. The second site covered nearly 30 square miles,” Shoffner said. “We struck a major al-Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland,” he added.

After the Shorabak raid, the US military was ultimately forced to concede its estimate of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan was wrong. In April 2016, Major General Jeff Buchanan, Resolute Support’s deputy chief of staff, told CNN that the 50 to 100 estimate was incorrect based on the results of the Shorabak raid.

“If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intel estimates that said within Afghanistan al-Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but in this one camp we found more than 150,” he said.

The estimate of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan was revised upwards to about 300.

Yet, in mid-December 2016, General John Nicholson admitted that the US military killed or captured 50 al-Qaeda leaders and an additional 200 operatives during calendar year 2016 in Afghanistan. And in Sept. of 2016, Nicholson said that US forces were hunting al Qaeda in seven of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

The US continues to hunt al Qaeda leaders to this day. Most recently, in late April the US announced that it killed a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Taliban leader in an airstrike in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. The jihadist was described as “a senior AQIS [al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent] and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander” who “controlled fighting forces in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Additionally, al Qaeda’s leaders do not appear to be “focused on their own survival.” Al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As Sahab, has increased its production of videos and other materials since mid-2015. Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and his heir apparent, Hamza bin Laden, have released numerous statements during this timeframe, while al Qaeda central has dispatched leaders to direct the fight in other theaters, such as Syria. These are not the actions of a group that is focused on survival.

Clearly, the US intelligence community and the military has consistently underestimated al Qaeda and its strength in Afghanistan, and continues to do so to this day.

“Strategic” al Qaeda and Taliban ties

The Pentagon report also stated that “there is no evidence of strategic ties between the two organizations and the Taliban likely seeks to maintain distance from al-Qa’ida].” The groups have long been tied and there is indeed evidence to prove it.

In December of 2016, the Taliban issued a video that emphasized its continuing alliance with al Qaeda. The video, entitled “Bond of Nation with the Mujahideen,” is replete with imagery and speeches that promote the enduring Taliban-al Qaeda relationship. In one section which promoted the martyrs of the Afghan jihad, al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Taliban founder Mulla Omar (see image above) were shown side by side. Also shown is Nasir al Wuhayshi, Osama bin Laden’s aide de camp who was promoted to lead al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Wuhayshi was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen, not in Afghanistan.

“Bond of Nation with the Mujahideen” also included clips of a speech by Sheikh Khalid Batarfi, a senior official in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. LWJ believes he is likely part of al Qaeda’s global management team. Batarfi praised the Afghan jihad and stressed that the ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban remain strong.

The video is clear evidence that the Taliban, as recently as Dec. 2016, did not seek to “maintain distance from al-Qa’ida,” as the Pentagon claims.

Al Qaeda leaders’ oaths to the Amir-ul-Mumineen [“Emir of the Faithful”], or the head of the Afghan Taliban, is solid evidence of continuing ties between the two groups. Osama bin Laden’s pledge to Mullah Omar was maintained up until the US killed Osama in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. Both the Taliban and al Qaeda have noted multiple times that the oath endured the Taliban’s loss of control of Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001.

Zawahiri swore allegiance to Omar after Osama was killed, and again swore an oath to Mullah Mansourafter the Taliban announced Omar’s death in 2015. Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s pledge in an official statement released on Voice of Jihad. After the US killed Mansour in May 2016, Zawahiri again issued a public pledge to his successor, Mullah Haibatullah, who is the Taliban’s current emir. While Haibatullah did not publicly accept Zawahiri’s oath, he also did not reject it. Haibatullah is considered to be far more radical than his predecessor, and he served as the Taliban’s chief judge for Mansour, so he would have given approval for Mansour’s acceptance of Zawahiri’s oath.

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, al Qaeda’s branch in south and central Asia, also has publicly declared its allegiance to the Taliban.

Another key indicator that the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda remains strong to this day is the ascendance of Sirajuddin Haqqani to serve as one of the top two deputies to the Taliban’s emir as well as its commander of military operations. Sirajuddin is closely allied to al Qaeda. The Pentagon, in a previous section of the Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report, noted that “Sirajuddin Haqqani’s role as a Taliban deputy probably increased Haqqani influence within the Taliban leadership.”

The Haqqani Network, which is a powerful and influential faction of the Taliban, is known to have very close ties to al Qaeda, and maintains these ties to this day. Numerous designations of Haqqani Network commanders detail the close ties to al Qaeda. (Designations of other Taliban leaders not part of the Haqqani Network also detail close ties to al Qaeda.) The US, in its covert drone campaign in Pakistan, has killed multiple al Qaeda leaders who were sheltering in areas controlled by the Haqqanis.

The Pentagon cannot explain how the Taliban seeks to distance itself from al Qaeda while promoting Sirajuddin to the top echelon of its leadership cadre.

The US military has demonstrated time and time again that is unable to properly assess al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan as well as its close and enduring ties to the Taliban.

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

Ramadan Rage: Jihadists Kill 41, Injure 102 in First 4 Days

AFP

Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, May 21, 2018:

Islamic terrorists have massacred at least 41 people and injured 102 in the first four days of the holiest month for Muslims, Ramadan, a time when some adherents of Islam believe jihad and martyrdom to be especially heroic and rewarded in paradise.

This year, Muslim leaders declared Thursday to be the start of the holy month, when most Muslims abide by Ramadan’s fasting tradition: abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking, having sex, and other physical needs each day, starting from before the break of dawn until sunset.

The various calls for jihadist groups to halt their campaign of terror has fallen on deaf ears, particularly in Afghanistan, home to the majority of attacks.

So far this Ramadan, the deadliest attack took place on Friday in Afghanistan, when the Taliban carried out an attack in Ghani province, killing nine and wounding seven.

The Afghan Taliban is also behind the attack with the most casualties (8 killed and 55 wounded).

The narco-jihadists targeted a cricket tournament dubbed the “Ramadan Cup,” drawing the ire of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who urged the terrorists to stop their attacks during the holy month, echoing the leaders from the U.S. and the United Nations.

In his Ramadan message, American Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, urged the Taliban to accept Ghani’s offer of a ceasefire and recognition as a legitimate political group.

Tadamachi Yamamoto, the United Nations secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, called on the Taliban to “halt the fighting” during Ramadan.

On the first day of Ramadan alone, jihadists carried out at least six attacks, killing 12 people and injuring 30.

Friday has been the deadliest day so far with six attacks — mainly attributed to the Taliban — that killed 26 and wounded 69 others.

Despite the devastating blow the U.S.-led coalition and local forces have dealt the Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL) now former caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group remains a menace.

ISIS has killed two people and injured one other in Iraq since Ramadan began.

homemade bomb leftover by the jihadist group in Syria has also killed two people in the last four days.

Outside the group’s former caliphate, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing three and injuring three others at a church in Russia’s Muslim-majority Chechnya region.

Last year’s Ramadan marked the bloodiest holy month for Muslims in recent history, with 3,343 casualties (1,639 deaths, 1,704 injuries), according to a Breitbart News tally.

Breitbart News has primarily gleaned its Ramadan casualty count from the Religion of Peace website in coordination with other news reports. The tally mainly covers the death of civilians at the hands of jihadists.

All the terrorist attacks during Ramadan 2018, as documented by Breitbart News, include:

May 17—Farah, Afghanistan—Taliban kills three foreign engineers.
May 17—Kashmir, India—Terrorists kidnap, slit throat of 23-year-old man after Indian government declares first Ramadan ceasefire in 18 years.
May 17—Borno, Nigeria—Suspected Boko Haram jihadists detonated a bomb at camp for people displaced by insurgency, killing four and wounding 14.
May 17—Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan — Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) terrorist group claims responsibility for a suicide bombing that kills one and injures 14.
May 17—North Sinai, Egypt — Sunni hardliners bombed an area, killing one and injuring another.
May 17—Uruzgan, Afghanistan — Taliban kill two civilians.
May 18—Raqqa, Syria — Leftover Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) improvised explosive device (IED) kills two civilians.
May 18—Diyala, Iraq — Suspected ISIS terrorist are behind a bomb blast that kills one and wounds another.
May 18 —Kirkuk, Iraq — Suspected ISIS terrorists kill a member of Kurdish Kakayi minority group with IED.
May 18—Kandahar, Afghanistan — Taliban attacked police security posts, killing five police officers and wounding six others.
May 18—Ghani, Afghanistan — Taliban attacked remote Ajristan district, killing nine security forces and wounding seven others.
May 18—Nangarhar, Afghanistan — Suspected Islamic State terrorists attacked “Ramadan Cup” cricket tournament in Jalalabad, the capital of the group’s stronghold, killing eight and wounding 55.
May 19—Chechnya, Russia — Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack at church that kills two police officers and a worshipper and also wounds another police officer.

Exploiting the fault lines of Islamic terrorism

Family Security Matters, by Lawrence Sellin, Sept.8, 2017:

The U.S. has largely viewed Islamic terrorism as a monolithic threat with varying degrees of extremism distributed among various geographic locations.

We have often not adequately appreciated the historical, ideological and geopolitical subtleties underlying Islamic terrorism and, consequently, missed opportunities to enhance our national security by effectively pitting one faction against another, if not by defeat, then by disruption.

For example, an extraordinary and mostly unnoticed diplomatic démarche occurred in Kabul on August 7, 2017, when the senior Saudi diplomat in Afghanistan, Charge d’affairs Mishari al-Harbi, accused Qatar of supporting Taliban “armed terrorists” even though Saudi Arabia itself had long been a financial backer of the Taliban and, together with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), officially recognized the group when it assumed control of Afghanistan in 1996.

At a high level, that event can be traced back to the centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam upon which modern geopolitical interests are layered.

The basis of the Saudi action, however, was a continuation of the June 2017 diplomatic breakdown among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and isolation of Qatar, initially by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Eqypt, that included severing of diplomatic ties, border closing, an embargo and the expelling of Qatari diplomats and residents expelled from GCC countries. Qatar was accused of sponsoring terrorism and meddling in the affairs of other GCC countries, specifically through its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

Although Qatar is indeed a major supporter of radical Islam, the root cause of the conflict is Qatar’s amicable relationship with Saudi Arabia’s Shia nemesis, Iran, with whom Qatar shares a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. Because Qatar’s major export is gas not oil, it is less under the political domination of Saudi Arabia, often pursuing an independent foreign policy, which is not appreciated in Riyadh.

The Saudis’ hostile rhetoric in Kabul was meant to discourage independent Saudi donors from supporting the Taliban and, by de-legitimization of the Taliban, undercut Qatar’s effectiveness as a mediator between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

One factor contributing to the Saudi break with the Taliban is the increasing support the Taliban have accepted from Iran. In addition, the ambassador to Afghanistan of Saudi ally, the UAE, was wounded and five of its diplomats were killed in the January 2017 Kandahar bombing, which was allegedly planned at the Afghan Taliban-linked Mawlawi Ahmad Madrassa in Chaman, Pakistan.

Over the last decade, there has also been a shift in Saudi funding to Pakistan away from Deobandi groups like the Taliban to the more extreme Ahl-i-Hadith sect, the Pakistani equivalent of Wahhabism. Local sources in Pakistan have reported that Saudi Arabia is providing funding for Jihadi training camps in order to launch attacks on Iran from Balochistan.

All of the above accentuates the importance for U.S. policy makers to understand and exploit elements of the Sunni-Shia struggle, the divisions among Sunni extremist groups and the geopolitical vulnerabilities of the nations who sponsor terrorism.

The ideology that sustains radical Islamic terrorism is really an amalgamation of ideologies, whose inherent incompatibilities can be exploited to create conditions whereby the ideologues attack each other or, at a minimum, are kept continuously off balance.

That is what a winning strategy looks like, not troop levels and nation building.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of “Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution “. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.

This ‘offensive’ leaflet made the Pentagon apologize to Muslims

Keith Binns | Getty Images

Conservative Review, by Jordan Schachtel, Sept. 6, 2017:

Here’s the leaflet that the Pentagon deemed so offensive to Muslims that it warranted an official apology from a U.S. commander, according to journalists who posted the leaflet on social media.

Above the photo of the lion chasing the dog, the leaflet said in Pashto, according to Reuters:

“Take back your freedom from the terrorist dogs and cooperate with coalition forces so they can target your enemy and eliminate them.”

The leaflet was air-dropped over Parwan Province, Afghanistan, Monday night. The airdrop was commenced as part of a psychological warfare campaign encouraging locals to join with coalition forces in their fight against the Taliban. Bagram Air Base, reportedly the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, is located in Parwan Province.

The controversy over the leaflet is centered around the dog in the image, which is sporting the Taliban flag. The same slogan used by the Taliban is also on the jihadi flags of extremist groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Hamas.

But Afghan locals have apparently become enraged by the leaflet, because the verse inscribed on the dog (although widely understood in modern times as a jihadi slogan) is also a popular Quranic verse expressing commitment to Islam. The Shahada expresses a belief in God and Islam’s Muhammad as God’s prophet, or messenger.

Moreover, a dog is considered unclean by some sects of Islam, so having Islamic texts on a dog may cause offense to some Muslims, even if that dog is sporting a slogan that is used by the Taliban to commit jihad against innocents.

“The design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam,” Major General James Linder said in a statement late Tuesday. “I sincerely apologise. We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide,” he added, pledging “to determine the cause of this incident and to hold the responsible party accountable.”

Upset Afghans plan on protesting the “unforgivable” offense the leaflet apparently caused to Muslims.

“Those who have committed this unforgivable mistake in the publicity, propaganda or media section of the coalition forces will be tried and punished,” said Parwan Province Governor Mohammad Hasem.

Ghulam Bahauddin Jilani, a provincial council head, also called for “whoever is responsible” to be “arrested and put on trial.”

The situation has “sparked riots” across the country, CBS News reports. Calls for legal repercussions for seemingly harmless activity is commonplace in much of the Islamic world, where the punishment for offending Islam is sometimes death or a severe beating.

The controversy is erupting two weeks after President Trump committed to continuing the war effort in Afghanistan for an indefinite amount of time.