The future of counterterrorism: Addressing the evolving threat to domestic security

joscelynLONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN | February 28, 2017 | tjoscelyn@gmail.com | @thomasjoscelyn

Editor’s note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee Counterterrorism and Intelligence, on the future of counterterrorism and addressing the evolving threat to domestic security.

Chairman King, Ranking Member Rice, and other members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. The terrorist threat has evolved greatly since the September 11, 2001 hijackings. The U.S. arguably faces a more diverse set of threats today than ever. In my written and oral testimony, I intend to highlight both the scope of these threats, as well as some of what I think are the underappreciated risks.

My key points are as follows:

– The U.S. military and intelligence services have waged a prolific counterterrorism campaign to suppress threats to America. It is often argued that because no large-scale plot has been successful in the U.S. since 9/11 that the risk of such an attack is overblown. This argument ignores the fact that numerous plots, in various stages of development, have been thwarted since 2001. Meanwhile, Europe has been hit with larger-scale operations. In addition, the U.S. and its allies frequently target jihadists who are suspected of plotting against the West. America’s counterterrorism strategy is mainly intended to disrupt potentially significant operations that are in the pipeline.

-Over the past several years, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies claim to have struck numerous Islamic State (or ISIS) and al Qaeda “external operatives” in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. These so-called “external operatives” are involved in anti-Western plotting. Had they not been targeted, it is likely that at least some of their plans would have come to fruition. Importantly, it is likely that many “external operatives” remain in the game, and are still laying the groundwork for attacks in the U.S. and the West.

-In addition, the Islamic State and al Qaeda continue to adapt new messages in an attempt to inspire attacks abroad. U.S. law enforcement has been forced to spend significant resources to stop “inspired” plots. As we all know, some of them have not been thwarted. The Islamic State’s caliphate declaration in 2014 heightened the threat of inspired attacks, as would-be jihadists were lured to the false promises of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s cause.

-The Islamic State also developed a system for “remote-controlling” attacks in the West and elsewhere. This system relies on digital operatives who connect with aspiring jihadis via social media applications. The Islamic State has had more success with these types of small-scale operations in Europe. But as I explain in my written testimony, the FBI has uncovered a string of plots inside the U.S. involving these same virtual planners.

-The refugee crisis is predominately a humanitarian concern. The Islamic State has used migrant and refugee flows to infiltrate terrorists into Europe. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda could seek to do the same with respect to the U.S., however, they have other means for sneaking jihadists into the country as well. While some terrorists have slipped into the West alongside refugees, the U.S. should remain focused on identifying specific threats.

-More than 15 years after 9/11, al Qaeda remains poorly understood. Most of al Qaeda’s resources are devoted to waging insurgencies in several countries. But as al Qaeda’s insurgency footprint has spread, so has the organization’s capacity for plotting against the West. On 9/11, al Qaeda’s anti-Western plotting was primarily confined to Afghanistan, with logistical support networks in Pakistan, Iran, and other countries. Testifying before the Senate in February 2016, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper warned that the al Qaeda threat to the West now emanates from multiple countries. Clapper testified that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.” To this list we can add Yemen. And jihadists from Africa have been involved in anti-Western plotting as well. Incredibly, al Qaeda is still plotting against the U.S. from Afghanistan.

Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda continue to seek ways to inspire terrorism inside the U.S. and they are using both new and old messages in pursuit of this goal.

The jihadists have long sought to inspire individuals or small groups of people to commit acts of terrorism for their cause. Individual terrorists are often described as “lone wolves,” but that term is misleading. If a person is acting in the name of a global, ideological cause, then he or she cannot be considered a “lone wolf,” even if the individual in question has zero contact with others. In fact, single attackers often express their support for the jihadists’ cause in ways that show the clear influence of propaganda.

Indeed, al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) first began to aggressively market the idea of “individual” or “lone” operations years ago. AQAP’s Inspire magazine is intended to provide would-be jihadists with everything they could need to commit an attack without professional training or contact. Anwar al Awlaki, an AQAP ideologue who was fluent in English, was an especially effective advocate for these types of plots. Despite the fact that Awlaki was killed in a U.S. airstrike in September 2011, his teachings remain widely available on the internet.

The Islamic State capitalized on the groundwork laid by Awlaki and AQAP. In fact, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s operation took these ideas and aggressively marketed them with an added incentive. Al Qaeda has told its followers that it wants to eventually resurrect an Islamic caliphate. Beginning in mid-2014, the Islamic State began to tell its followers that it had already done so in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate has also instructed followers that it would be better for them to strike inside their home countries in the West, rather than migrate abroad for jihad. The Islamic State has consistently marketed this message.

In May 2016, for instance, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani told followers that if foreign governments “have shut the door of hijrah [migration] in your faces,” then they should “open the door of jihad in theirs,” meaning in the West. “Make your deed a source of their regret,” Adnani continued. “Truly, the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here; it is more effective for us and more harmful to them.”

“If one of you wishes and strives to reach the lands of the Islamic State,” Adnani told his audience, “then each of us wishes to be in your place to make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbor fears his neighbor.” Adnani told jihadists that they should “not make light of throwing a stone at a crusader in his land,” nor should they “underestimate any deed, as its consequences are great for the mujahidin and its effect is noxious to the disbelievers.”

The Islamic State continued to push this message after Adnani’s death in August 2016.

In at least several cases, we have seen individual jihadists who were first influenced by Awlaki and AQAP gravitate to the Islamic State’s cause. Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife were responsible for the December 2, 2015 San Bernardino massacre. They pledged allegiance to Baghdadi on social media, but Farook had drawn inspiration from Awlaki and AQAP’s Inspire years earlier.

Omar Mateen swore allegiance to Baghdadi repeatedly on the night of his assault on a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. However, a Muslim who knew Mateen previously reported to the FBI that Mateen was going down the extremist path. He told the FBI in 2014 that Mateen was watching Awlaki’s videos. It was not until approximately two years later, in early June 2016, that Mateen killed 49 people and wounded dozens more in the name of the supposed caliphate.

Ahmad Khan Rahami, the man who allegedly planted bombs throughout New York and New Jersey in September 2016, left behind a notebook. In it, Rahami mentioned Osama bin Laden, “guidance” from Awlaki, an also referenced Islamic State spokesman Adnani. Federal prosecutors wrote in the complaint that Rahami specifically wrote about “the instructions of terrorist leaders that, if travel is infeasible, to attack nonbelievers where they live.” This was Adnani’s key message, and remains a theme in Islamic State propaganda.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has alleged that other individuals who sought to support the Islamic State were first exposed to Awlaki’s teachings as well.

These cases demonstrate that the jihadis have developed a well of ideas from which individual adherents can draw, but it may take years for them to act on these beliefs, if they ever act on them at all. There is no question that the Islamic State has had greater success of late in influencing people to act in its name. But al Qaeda continues to produce recruiting materials and to experiment with new concepts for individual attacks as well.

Al Qaeda and its branches have recently called for revenge for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who died in a U.S. prison earlier this month. Rahman was convicted by a U.S. court for his involvement in plots against New York City landmarks in the mid-1990s. Since then, al Qaeda has used Rahman’s “will” to prophesize his death and to proactively blame the U.S. for it. Approximately 20 years after al Qaeda first started pushing this theme, Rahman finally died. Al Qaeda’s continued use of Rahman’s prediction, which is really just jihadist propaganda, demonstrates how these groups can use the same concepts for years, whether or not the facts are consistent with their messaging. Al Qaeda also recently published a kidnapping guide based on old lectures by Saif al Adel, a senior figure in the group. Al Adel may or may not be currently in Syria. Al Qaeda is using his lectures on kidnappings and hostage operations as a way to potentially teach others how to carry them out. The guide was published in both Arabic and English, meaning that al Qaeda seeks an audience in the West for al Adel’s designs.

Both the Islamic State and AQAP also continue to produce English-language magazines for online audiences. The 15th issue of Inspire, which was released last year, provided instructions for carrying out “professional assassinations.” AQAP has been creating lists of high-profile targets in the U.S. and elsewhere that they hope supporters will use in selecting potential victims. AQAP’s idea is to maximize the impact of “lone” attacks by focusing on wealthy businessmen or other well-known individuals. AQAP has advocated for, and praised, indiscriminate attacks as well. But the group has critiqued some attacks (such as the Orlando massacre at a LGBT nightclub) for supposedly muddying the jihadists’ message. AQAP is trying to lay the groundwork for more targeted operations. For example, the January 2015 assault on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris was set in motion by al Qaeda and AQAP. Inspire even specifically identified the intended victims beforehand. Al Qaeda would like individual actors, with no foreign ties, to emulate such precise hits.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has lowered the bar for what is considered a successful attack, pushing people to use cars, knives, or whatever weapons they can get in their hands. The Islamic State claimed that both the September 2016 mall stabbings in Minnesota and the vehicular assault at Ohio State University in November 2016 were the work of its “soldiers.” It may be the case that there were no digital ties between these attackers and the Islamic State. However, there is often more to the story of how the Islamic State guides such small-scale operations.

The Islamic State has sought to carry out attacks inside the U.S. via “remote-controlled” terrorists.

A series of attacks in Europe and elsewhere around the globe have been carried out by jihadists who were in contact, via social media applications, with Islamic State handlers in Syria and Iraq. The so-called caliphate’s members have been able to remotely guide willing recruits through small-scale plots that did not require much sophistication. These plots targeted victims in France, Germany, Russia, and other countries. In some cases, terrorists have received virtual support right up until the moment of their attack. The Islamic State has had more success orchestrating “remote-controlled” plots in Europe, but the jihadist group has also tried to carry out similar plots inside the U.S.

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Homeland Security Committee:

Multiple terrorist networks actively plot attacks against the United States, and American interests, or encourage adherents to conduct inspired attacks inside the U.S Homeland without specific direction. Though significant progress has been made in improving American counterterrorism efforts since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, challenges persist. Over the last several years, the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence (CT&I) has continually worked to identify and address these weaknesses and improve U.S. domestic security. This hearing provides an opportunity to examine the continued evolution of the terrorist threat and review recommendations for improvement from national security experts.

OPENING STATEMENTS

Rep. Pete King (R-NY), Subcommittee Chairman
Opening Statement

WITNESSES

Mr. Edward F. Davis
Chief Executive Officer
Edward Davis, LLC
Witness Testimony

Mr. Thomas Joscelyn
Senior Fellow
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy
Witness Testimony

Mr. Robin Simcox
Margaret Thatcher Fellow
Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy
The Heritage Foundation
Witness Testimony

Mr. Peter Bergen
Vice President, Director
International Security and Fellows Programs
New American
Witness Testimony

The Final Obama Scandal

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Closing the book on a deceptive narrative about the al Qaeda threat

Weekly Standard, THE MAGAZINE: From the February 6 Issue – by Stephen Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn, January 27, 2017:

Less than 24 hours before the official end of the Obama presidency, while White House staffers were pulling pictures off the walls and cleaning out their desks, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) posted without fanfare another installment of the documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s compound during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The press statement that accompanied the release made an unexpected declaration: This batch of newly released documents would be the last one. “Closing the Book on Bin Laden: Intelligence Community Releases the Final Abbottabad Documents,” the statement was headlined. According to a tally on the ODNI website, this last batch of 49 documents brings the total number released to 571.

For analysts who have paid attention to the Abbottabad documents, the numbers immediately caused alarm. For years, the Obama administration told the American people that the haul from the bin Laden compound was massive and important. In an interview on Meet the Press just days after the raid, Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, said the material could fill “a small college library.” A senior military intelligence official who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on May 7, 2011, said: “As a result of the raid, we’ve acquired the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.” Sources who have described the cache to THE WEEKLY STANDARD over the years have claimed that the number of captured documents, including even extraneous materials and duplicates, totals more than 1 million.

Can it really be the case that this release “closes the book”? The short answer: No, it can’t.

“[Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper and the old administration may want this to be closed, but it’s far from closed,” says Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). “Now the truth will begin to come out. It’s just the beginning.”

The documents have been at the center of an intense, five-year political battle between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration, and an equally pitched bureaucratic battle between the Central Intelligence Agency and ODNI on one side, and U.S. military intelligence agencies on the other. The Obama administration and the intelligence community leaders who have been loyal to the president argue that the document collection provided valuable intelligence in the days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but that what remains is unimportant and, in any case, supports the Obama administration’s approach to al Qaeda and jihadist terror over the past eight years. Republicans and military intelligence officials have a different view: Used properly, the document collection can serve as an important tool in understanding al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals—their history, their ideology, their structure, their operations, and even, five years on, their plans—not only for U.S. intelligence officials, but for lawmakers, historians, and the American public.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have pushed to have the documents declassified and released as part of an effort to hold the Obama administration accountable for its relentless politicization of intelligence on al Qaeda and threats to the United States and its interests. Based on his conversations with analysts who have worked on the documents, Nunes believes that many of those not yet released will contradict Obama administration claims about al Qaeda, its relationships, and its operations.

In 2014, Nunes fought to include language in the Intelligence Authorization Act requiring the declassification and release of the bin Laden documents. The law mandated the release of all documents in the collection that could be disclosed without hurting U.S. national security. The intelligence community was required to specify any documents deemed too sensitive to release publicly and offer an explanation justifying that decision. Nunes says he has not yet received such an explanation for any of the tens of thousands of documents withheld from the public.

Why do the documents still matter? Over the course of eight years, President Obama and his advisers repeatedly downplayed the jihadist threat. The story of how bin Laden’s documents were mischaracterized and mishandled offers important insights into how the administration pushed a deceptive narrative about al Qaeda and its branches around the globe. The jihadist threat grew—not diminished—over the course of the Obama administration. To this day, America and its allies continue to fight al Qaeda everywhere from West Africa to South Asia.

Because of its barbarism, massive land grabs, and multiple attacks in the West, the Islamic State (ISIS) dominates headlines these days. The Islamic State makes itself easy to see. But al Qaeda, the organization that birthed ISIS, is still alive and thriving, often masking the extent of its operations and influence. Since 2011, al Qaeda has grown rapidly in jihadist hotspots such as Syria, where today the group has 10,000 or more fighters, its largest guerrilla army yet.

Al Qaeda’s resiliency was a terribly inconvenient fact for President Obama, who won his first campaign arguing that George W. Bush had exaggerated the threat from jihadist terror and had fought jihadists with means that were both unnecessary and un-American. Obama scaled back such operations across the board—ending the war in Iraq, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, rewriting U.S. interrogation and detention policies, and releasing high-risk terrorists from the facility at Guantánamo Bay. When he ran for reelection, he told the American people that al Qaeda was “on the run” and had been “decimated.” His advisers sought to downgrade the nature of the threat to one of “violent extremists” and “lone wolf” attacks. Obama sold his efforts against al Qaeda as something close to a total victory.

“Today, by any measure, core al Qaeda—the organization that hit us on 9/11—is a shadow of its former self,” President Obama claimed on December 6, 2016, during his final counterterrorism speech. “Plots directed from within Afghanistan and Pakistan have been consistently disrupted. Its leadership has been decimated. Dozens of terrorist leaders have been killed. Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Some of this is certainly true: Osama bin Laden is dead, dozens of other jihadist leaders have been killed, and plots have been disrupted. But by most measures, al Qaeda is bigger today than ever. The organization and its branches are fighting in insurgencies in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Obama briefly mentioned al Qaeda’s “branches” in some of these countries during his speech, but he left Americans with the impression that al Qaeda has been reduced to a nuisance—if that.

Obama said nothing about al Qaeda’s massive force in Syria. But the U.S. military has reported that U.S. attacks killed upwards of 150 “al Qaeda operatives” in Syria during the first weeks of 2017.

Obama’s public case on his success against al Qaeda centered on what he calls “core al Qaeda,” which neither he nor his advisers ever bothered to define precisely. The phrase seems to refer to the senior al Qaeda leaders based in South Asia, and specifically those who had a hand in the 9/11 hijackings. Most of the 9/11 plotters, as it happens, were killed or captured during the Bush administration. Obama was right that “dozens” of other “core” al Qaeda jihadists have been killed in drone strikes and raids during his tenure. But those leaders have been replaced, in some cases by men who have proven even more effective in building the terror group’s global network and guiding its transnational efforts.

How many senior al Qaeda leaders were there at the beginning of his administration, in January 2009? How many are there today? Obama never answered these rudimentary questions—he never provided basic metrics to measure his own claims. But the fact that U.S. military and CIA officials continued to fire missiles at al Qaeda operatives around the globe on a regular basis, at the direction of a president who claimed to have defeated al Qaeda, suggests that Obama understood his rhetoric didn’t match reality.

Which brings us back to the bin Laden files. There is no better resource for understanding al Qaeda, how it thinks and operates, at least through 2011, than the intelligence recovered in its founder’s compound. For this reason, and others, the Trump administration should ensure that the ODNI doesn’t get to close the book on bin Laden’s files.

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The New Bin Laden Documents

his undated file photo shows al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. (AP Photo, File)

his undated file photo shows al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. (AP Photo, File)

Why the public needs to see most of Osama bin Laden’s files.

Weekly Standard, by Thomas Joscelyn, January 19, 2017:

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released 98 additional items from Osama bin Laden’s compound today. If the ODNI has its way, then these files will be the last the American people see for some time. The accompanying announcement is titled, “Closing the Book on bin Laden: Intelligence Community Releases Final Abbottabad Documents.” The ODNI says today’s release “marks the end of a two-and-a-half-year effort to declassify several hundred documents recovered” during the Abbottabad raid.

But the total number of files released thus far, including today’s document dump, is just a drop in the bucket compared to what was found in the al Qaeda master’s compound. And if the public and the media care about transparency, then they should push to see more.

As THE WEEKLY STANDARD has reported in the past, more than 1 million documents and files were recovered in Abbottabad. Some of the documents (e.g. blanks, duplicates, scans of publicly available media, etc.) are basically worthless. But many thousands more illuminate how al Qaeda has operated.

On May 8, 2011, Tom Donilon, who was then President Obama’s National Security Adviser, explained that bin Laden’s documents and files would fill a “small college library.” Donilon elaborated further that the recovered intelligence demonstrated Osama bin Laden’s active role. At the time of his death, the al Qaeda founder oversaw a cohesive international network, receiving updates from around the globe on a regular basis.

In 2012, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials “described the complete collection of bin Laden material as the largest cache of terrorism files ever obtained, with about 100 flash drives and DVDs as well as five computer hard drives, piles of paper and a handwritten journal kept by the al-Qaeda chief.”

To date, the ODNI has released or listed just 620 “items” found in bin Laden’s home. Only 314 of these are “declassified material.”

That is an insignificant fraction of the total collection.

President Obama’s White House also released 17 files via West Point’s Combating Terrorism center in 2012. And a handful of additional documents made their way to the public during a terror-related trial in Brooklyn in 2015. But even including those files, the public has still only seen a small number of documents, as compared to the total cache.

Gen. Michael Flynn, who will serve as the National Security Adviser to President Trump, has read and been briefed on some of the bin Laden files. Gen. Flynn also fought to have the documents fully exploited. Last year, Flynn wrote that only a “tiny fraction” had been released to the public. That was before today’s release. But the 98 new items hardly mark an appreciable increase.

Transparency is important for a number of reasons. Consider the ODNI’s own statement on today’s release, and how it provides a remarkably incomplete picture regarding al Qaeda’s decades-long relationship with Iran.

Why would ODNI attempt to portray bin Laden’s views as fixed and negative—”hatred, suspicion”—when documents written by bin Laden himself tell a more nuanced, yet troubling story?

There’s no question that some of bin Laden’s files document the tensions and problems in al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran. Bin Laden worried that members of his family would be tracked by Iranian intelligence. At one point, al Qaeda even kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in order to force a prisoner exchange. Some senior al Qaeda leaders have been held in Iranian custody for years.

But there is much more to the story, including the documents detailing Iran’s longtime collusion with al Qaeda. The ODNI is essentially asking readers to focus on the bad days in al Qaeda’s marriage with Iran, while ignoring the good days.

One previously released document, apparently authored by bin Laden himself, summarized his views on Iran. In a letter dated Oct. 18, 2007, Bin Laden warned one of his subordinates in Iraq not to openly threaten attacks inside Iran. Bin Laden explained why (emphasis added):

You did not consult with us on that serious issue that affects the general welfare of all of us. We expected you would consult with us for these important matters, for as you are aware, Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages.

Bin Laden was pragmatic when it came to dealing with Iran for reasons that are not hard to understand: Iran was the “main artery” for his organization. Why would ODNI attempt to portray bin Laden’s views as fixed and negative—”hatred, suspicion”—when documents written by bin Laden himself so plainly contradict this?

Since July 2011, President Obama’s Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly made it clear that Iran hosts senior al Qaeda leaders. Echoing bin Laden’s letter, the State Department has even described al Qaeda’s network inside Iran as its “core pipeline.”

The Treasury and State Departments publicly accused the Iranian regime of allowing al Qaeda to operate inside Iran in: July 2011, December 2011, February 2012, July 2012, October 2012, May 2013, January 2014, February 2014, April 2014, August 2014, and July 2016.

In addition, during congressional testimony in February 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the relationship as a “marriage of convenience.”

Today’s statement by the ODNI says nothing about this “convenience.”

The bin Laden files are an invaluable resource for checking the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessments. The CIA’s erroneous assessment of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan is a case in point.

In June 2010, then CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC’s This Week that al Qaeda’s footprint in Afghanistan was “relatively small,” totaling “50 to 100” members, “maybe less.”

A memo written by Osama bin Laden’s chief manager that same month told a different story. In the memo, bin Laden’s henchman explained that al Qaeda was operating in at least eight of Afghanistan’s provinces as of June 2010. In addition, just one al Qaeda “battalion” based in Kunar and Nuristan had 70 members by itself. In other words, just one al Qaeda “battalion” exceeded the lower bound of the CIA’s figures for all of Afghanistan—all by itself. U.S. officials have been forced to concede in recent months that there are far more al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan than previously estimated. If they had accurately assessed bin Laden’s files, then they would have already known that.

Osama bin Laden’s files are a crucial resource to understanding the 9/11 wars, and al Qaeda’s strengths and weaknesses. The American public should be able to see as many of them as possible.

Islamic State claims responsibility for New Year’s Day attack at Istanbul nightclub

Medics and security officials work at the scene after an attack at a popular nightclub in Istanbul, early Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. Turkey's state-run news agency says an armed assailant has opened fire at a nightclub in Istanbul during New Year's celebrations, wounding several people.(IHA via AP)

Medics and security officials work at the scene after an attack at a popular nightclub in Istanbul, early Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. Turkey’s state-run news agency says an armed assailant has opened fire at a nightclub in Istanbul during New Year’s celebrations, wounding several people.(IHA via AP)

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, January 2, 2017:

The Islamic State released a statement earlier today claiming responsibility for the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey during the early hours of New Year’s Day. At least 39 people were killed and dozens more wounded in the massacre. Many of the victims were foreign tourists, according to local media reports.

The so-called caliphate says that its “hero soldier” assaulted one of Turkey’s “most famous nightclubs,” because it is a location where “Christians celebrate their pagan holiday.” The jihadist group also attempts to justify the attack by portraying Turkey as a “protector of the cross” and accusing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government of spilling the “blood of Muslims” with its planes and guns. This is likely a reference to Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria, where its forces and allied rebel groups fight Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men on a daily basis. Of course, most of the Islamic State’s victims are Muslims, meaning its accusation against Turkey is hollow. Many of the victims at Reina were likely Muslims as well.

The Islamic State had been reticent to claim responsibility for attacks inside Turkey. Although a number of operations are thought to be the work of its men, including the June 2016 attack on the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, the group didn’t own any of them via its prolific propaganda machine. That began to change in early Nov. 2016, when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi called on his followers to strike inside Turkey. The Islamic State’s thinking likely changed after Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield was launched. Turkish forces and their allies have successfully claimed territory from the caliphate in northern Syria.

During his speech in November, Baghdadi claimed that Turkey had revealed its true agenda by entering the war. He argued that the Turks have taken advantage of the fact that the Islamic State has been distracted by the “war against the infidel nations” and has been forced to defend its territory. For these reasons, Baghdadi told his followers to “attack” Turkey and bring the country into their “conflict.” Baghdadi also likened “infidel” Turkish soldiers to dogs and called on the caliphate’s “soldiers” to spill their blood. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s ‘grand jihad’ against the world.]

Within hours of Baghdadi’s speech, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a car bombing in southeastern Turkey. This was the group’s first high-profile claim of responsibility for a terrorist operation inside the country. Turkish authorities quickly blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization, for the explosion. It is possible that Kurdish terrorists did carry out the bombing. Still, the Islamic State’s claim was important because it signaled a new willingness to publicly lash out at Turkey.

The Islamic State’s new spokesman, Abu al Hassan al Muhajir, continued with Baghdadi’s anti-Turkey theme in his first message, which was released in early December. Muhajir accused Turkey of serving “Crusader Europe” and said that Erdoğan had miscalculated by directly entering the war in Syria. Muhajir called on the Islamic State’s jihadists to strike Turkish interests around the world.

“Accordingly, we make a call to every truthful muwahhid to target the supports of the apostate, secularist, Turkish state everywhere, including the security, military, economic, and media apparatuses…even every embassy and consulate representing them in all lands of the earth,” Muhajir said. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: New Islamic State spokesman seeks to rally Sunnis against Iran, West.]

Baghdadi’s propagandists also released a gruesome video purportedly showing two Turkish soldiers being burned alive in December.

Nightclubs and similar venues are an easy target for the Islamic State’s terrorists. In Nov. 2015, the jihadists slaughtered 89 people at the Bataclan theatre in Paris. The attack on Bataclan was part of a coordinated assault throughout France’s capital. In June 2016, a jihadist who repeatedly swore his allegiance to Baghdadi shot and killed 49 people at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

Initial reports indicate that at least one gunman assaulted Reina. Some local accounts claim that he was dressed like Santa Claus, or in similar holiday garb. However, that detail and many others remain to be confirmed. Turkish authorities have arrested several people suspected of being tied to the Islamic State’s network inside Turkey, but the terrorist responsible for the killings has not yet been identified or detained.

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

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Berlin truck terrorist pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in video

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Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, December 23, 2016:

The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency has released a video of Anis Amri, the Tunisian man suspected of driving a large lorry into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin on Dec. 19. Twelve people were killed and dozens more injured in the attack. Amri was reportedly killed in a shootout with police in Milan, Italy earlier today.

Prior to his demise, Amri recorded a video in which he swore bayah (oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, describing Baghdadi as the “Emir ul-Mu’minin” (“Emir of the Faithful”), a title usually reserved for an Islamic Caliph.

Amri went on to denounce the “crusader” bombings in the territories controlled by the Islamic State. And he called on Muslims to exact retribution by attacking inside the West.

Amri’s video was sent to Amaq, which posted the clip on its official website and social media after he was shot dead. Amaq also released a statement noting Amri’s death.

Amaq’s release of the video is consistent with the pattern followed after other Islamic State-claimed operations in 2016.

The terrorists responsible for small-scale attacks in Würzburg, Germany (July 18), Ansbach, Germany (July 24), Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France (July 26), and Balashikha (east of Moscow), Russia (Aug. 17) all recorded videos of themselves pledging allegiance to Baghdadi before their hour of terror.

Their videos were sent to Amaq, which made minor additions (such as a title screen) and then released them online shortly thereafter. Screen shots from each of these videos can be seen below.

In other cases, terrorists have professed their fealty to Baghdadi and his so-called caliphate online or in phone calls, but their stated allegiance was not first released by Amaq.

For example, Omar Mateen, who massacred 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in June, repeatedly swore his allegiance to Baghdadi during conversations with authorities on the night of his attack. The couple responsible for the Dec. 2015 San Bernardino killings also referenced their bayah to Baghdadi on social media.

The Islamic State has claimed that its “soldier(s)” have been responsible for other attacks inside the US as well. Unlike in Europe, however, Amaq has not released videos from any of the attackers inside America.

There are multiple ways a jihadist can be affiliated with the Islamic State, or another terrorist organization. In some cases, such as the attack on Paris in Nov. 2015, the terrorists are dispatched by a group. In other instances, they receive some direction, either online or in person. European officials have described a series of plots in their countries as being “remote-controlled” by Islamic State handlers online. The aforementioned attacks in Ansbach and Würzburg, as well as others, fall into this category.

In still other scenarios, it appears the attacker was merely inspired by the jihadists’ propaganda. It often takes time for authorities to determine where a terrorist falls in this spectrum of connections, ranging from dispatched, to “remote-controlled,” to inspired.

Amaq’s release of the terrorists’ videos demonstrates that they are anything but “lone” actors. The videos suggest that the jihadists responsible for each of these attacks had at least one tie to the Islamic State, even if it was only a digital one. Other biographical details for at least some of the jihadists who have struck inside Europe demonstrate additional connections as well. For instance, the man who detonated his backpack bomb in Ansbach, Germany earlier this year had fought for the Islamic State in Syria.

Amri had his own ties to the Islamic State’s network and was on the US government’s no-fly list.

Citing “American officials,” The New York Times first reported that Amri had already “appeared on the radar of United States agencies.” Amri “had done online research on how to make explosive devices and had communicated with the Islamic State at least once, via Telegram Messenger,” the Times reported.

CNN reported that Amri “was known to German security services as someone in contact with radical Islamist groups, and had been assessed as posing a risk.”

Authorities tied Amri to Abu Walaa, an extremist preacher who was arrested in November. Abu Walaa, a native Iraqi, is a well-known, yet somewhat mysterious, preacher who indoctrinated Muslims in the ways of jihad. Some of his recruits are thought to have traveled abroad to wage jihad, including on behalf of the Islamic State. CNN’s Paul Cruickshank found that “as many as 20 Germans who have joined” the Islamic State had ties to Abu Walaa’s network.

However, Amri did not migrate to the lands of the so-called caliphate. Instead, he decided to lash out inside the West. The Islamic State has repeatedly told its followers that such plots are better than fighting in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere, as they do more damage to the jihadists’ enemies.

Screen shots from Amaq’s videos of the Würzburg, Ansbach, Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray and Balashikha terrorists swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi:

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

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Ohio man allegedly communicated with an Islamic State ‘external attack planner’

161107233626-aaron-travis-daniels-mugshot-exlarge-169Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, November 8, 2016

Aaron Travis Daniels, also known as Harun Muhammad and Abu Yusef, was arrested at an airport in Columbus, Ohio yesterday before he could fly to Trinidad. Daniels’ final, intended destination was Libya, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). But instead of making his way to North Africa, Daniels was arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State.

Some of the DOJ’s allegations are noteworthy, especially those pointing to the Islamic State’s external attack network, which seeks to instigate and plot terrorism in both the US and Europe.

The DOJ does not allege that Daniels planned to commit an attack in Ohio or elsewhere inside the United States. Instead, the 20 year-old is charged with planning to join the Islamic State in Libya, after expressing “his interest in violent jihad and traveling overseas” via social media and “in various communications.” But he also communicated with at least one Islamic State external attack planner, according to the complaint.

The Islamic State has repeatedly told followers that they can migrate to any of the so-called caliphate’s lands to support jihad. In addition to Iraq and Syria, jihadi hotspots such as Libya are routinely advertised as acceptable destinations for serving the cause. This is consistent with the Islamic State’s establishment of “provinces” beginning in late 2014. The group tells believers that the caliphate is a truly global enterprise and that they need not make their way to the Levant or the Middle East to do their duty. In his latest audio message, for instance, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi heaped praise on his loyalists in Sirte, Libya, emphasizing that they were just like his “soldiers” elsewhere.

Daniels was allegedly in contact with an Islamic State operative known as Abu Isa Al Amriki, who acted as a “recruiter and external attack planner.” According to the DOJ, Daniels said at one point that it was al Amriki who “suggested” he go to Libya “to support jihad.”

Al Amriki and his wife, an Australian national known as Umm Isa Amriki, were killed in an airstrike near Al Bab, Syria on Apr. 22. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook announced their deaths in early May, saying that Abu Isa al Amriki was a Sudanese national also known as Abu Sa’ad al Sudani. Al Amriki (Al Sudani) “was involved in planning attacks against the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom,” Cook said at the time. “Both al Sudani and his wife were active in recruiting foreign fighters in efforts to inspire attacks against Western interests.”

The death of the couple removes “influential ISIL [Islamic State] recruiters and extremists who actively sought to harm Western interests and further disrupts and degrades ISIL’s ability to plot external attacks,” Cook said. Cook also described al Amriki as an “external attack planner.” Press reporting indicates that Umm Isa Amriki was both active on social media and worked to attract women to the jihadis’ cause.

Federal authorities claim that Daniels “wired money to an intermediary for Abu Isa Al Amriki.” The DOJ’s announcement specifically mentions a sum of $250 that Daniels sent to an Islamic State “operative” in January 2016.

Therefore, if the DOJ’s allegations are proven, then Daniels’ case provides an additional example of how the Islamic State’s external attack network has been able to engage would-be followers online throughout the US and Europe.

In March, another Ohio man, Munir Abdulkader, pleaded guilty to various terrorist charges. Abdulkader communicated with a key Islamic State recruiter, Junaid Hussein, who was killed in an American airstrike in Raqqa, Syria on Aug. 24, 2015. Hussein was also one of the Islamic State’s external attack planners. “Through these communications,” the DOJ announced in July, “Hussein directed and encouraged Abdulkader to plan and execute a violent attack within the United States.” Hussein may have been in contact with the two gunmen who opened fire at an event dedicated to drawing images of the Prophet Mohammed in Garland, Texas in May 2015. British officials also accused Hussein and his comrades of plotting attacks inside the UK. [See LWJ report, Ohio man conspired with Islamic State recruiter, Justice Department says.]

The Islamic State’s external operations arm has planned large-scale attacks such as the assault on Paris in Nov. 2015. But the group’s online planners have also directed small-scale attacks in Europe. Officials have described these plots as being “remote-controlled.” [See LWJ report, Terror plots in Germany, France were ‘remote-controlled’ by Islamic State operatives.]

The US-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has repeatedly targeted operatives involved in plotting against the West. US officials have stressed that the external operations arm is integrated with the rest of the organization. Baghdadi’s lieutenants are tasked with defending their turf over there, while also planning terror over here.

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

Town of Dabiq falls to Turkish-backed forces

16-10-15-operation-euphrates-shield-1-1024x759LONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN, October 17th, 2016:

Dabiq, a town in northern Syria that has been central to the Islamic State’s apocalyptic messaging, has fallen to rebel groups backed by Turkey. The so-called caliphate’s opposition had been closing in on Dabiq for weeks, capturing nearby towns and villages. Yesterday, Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield posted images from inside the town, thereby demonstrating that the Islamic State’s enemies are now in control.

“I welcome today’s news that Syrian opposition forces liberated the Syrian town of Dabiq from ISIL [Islamic State] control, aided by strong support from our ally Turkey and our international coalition,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in a statement on Oct. 16.

“This is more than just the latest military result against this barbaric group,” Carter continued, as Dabiq “held symbolic importance” for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men.

Indeed, the Islamic State’s propagandists have repeatedly told ‎their followers that Dabiq would be the site of an apocalyptic showdown between the true believers and the “Crusaders.” The group’s English-language magazine was named after Dabiq in a deliberate attempt to play up this imagery. Each issue of “Dabiq” contained a line from Al Qaeda in Iraq’s founder, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who drew on preexisting Islamic beliefs. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq,” Zarqawi was quoted as saying.

This passage was referenced throughout the Islamic State’s propaganda. For instance, in Nov. 2014, Mohammed Emwazi (also known as “Jihadi John” in the West) appeared in a video in which he and other jihadis beheaded a number of pilots and officers in Bashar al Assad’s military. Toward the end of the gruesome video, Emwazi stood over the severed head of American aid worker Peter Kassig and repeated Zarqawi’s line. Emwazi then added, “And here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies.” One year later, in Nov. 2015, Emwazi was killed in a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria.

Instead of burying the “Crusaders,” however, the Islamic State was forced to retreat from the town. By itself, Dabiq is not a very significant piece of real estate. It was sparsely populated and more important locations have been seized from the Islamic State’s grip over the course of the past year. But because the self-declared caliphate made such a big deal out of the Dabiq prophesy, the town is more significant than its size would normally indicate. However, like other organizations inspired in part by apocalyptic imagery, the true believers will likely cling to ad hoc explanations for why the loss of Dabiq is not really that damaging to the jihadists’ cause.

The Islamic State has likely known for months that Dabiq would fall. Earlier this year, for example, the group produced a new English-language magazine titled “Rumiyah.” By publishing the magazine under this name, the Islamic State shifted its emphasis from the Syrian town of Dabiq to Rome. Each issue of Rumiyah opens with a line attributed to Abu Hamza al Muhajir, who cofounded the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. The ISI is the direct predecessor to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. “O muwahhidin, rejoice, for by Allah, we will not rest from our jihad except beneath the olive trees of Rumiyah (Rome),” Abu Hamza is quoted as saying in the magazine.

In the Islamic State’s English-language mythology, therefore, the imagined fall of Rome replaced an end-times battle for Dabiq. Neither are remotely close to being a reality. It remains to be seen if Dabiq is reintroduced as the title for an English-language jihadi publication. And it is likely that Dabiq will still be referenced in the group’s propaganda, albeit with less emphasis in the near-term.

In addition to announcing the capture of Dabiq, Turkey’s Euphrates Shield produced a map demonstrating that more than 1,300 square kilometers of territory along the Syrian border has been seized from the Islamic State since August. The official Twitter feed for Euphrates Shield also published the images below of Turkish-backed forces fighting in Dabiq.

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