As US relocates embassy to Jerusalem, al Qaeda leader condemns international system

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 14, 2018:

On the eve of the opening of the US government’s embassy in Jerusalem today, al Qaeda released a new message from its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The al Qaeda emir noted at the outset of his speech that there has been a “big uproar” over the Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President Trump has been “clear and frank,” revealing “the true face of the modern Crusade, which does not deal with retreat and reconciliation,” according to Zawahiri.

However, Zawahiri quickly pivoted away from the controversy over the embassy relocation, reiterating al Qaeda’s longstanding conspiracy theory: The entire international system is hostile to Muslims. Just being part of the United Nations makes one complicit in this alleged scheme, according to bin Laden’s successor.

Indeed, the title of Zawahiri’s speech, “Tel Aviv Is Also the Land of Muslims,” underscores his point. The embassy relocation is a small issue relative to the vast “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy al Qaeda claims to oppose.

Zawahiri reminds his “Muslim and mujahidin brothers and the sincere scholars” that “all of the countries of the Islamic world which are members in the United Nations have recognized Israel by signing the United Nations Charter, which confirms the unity and territorial integrity of each of its states, including Israel.” From al Qaeda’s perspective, this is the original sin of the United Nations.

The al Qaeda leader claims that, by signing the UN charter, nations have agreed to leave “ruling by Sharia.” That is, they have agreed that they will not abide by the draconian laws Zawahiri and his ilk prefer. Instead, these nations are “satisfied” with governing and “ruling” according to the “decisions of the [UN] Security Council and the General Assembly,” including the decision in 1947 to partition the land.

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are both “Islamic land,” in Zawahiri’s telling. True believers need “to liberate Palestine” and “all the other abodes of Muslims” after declaring the entire “criminal international tyrannical system” to be illegitimate. Zawahiri again calls for Muslim unity, a frequent al Qaeda motif, such that the ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) engages in “battle…on multiple fronts, not as separate groups that retreat before the imperatives of the greatest criminals.”

Zawahiri reminds listeners that Osama bin Laden identified America as the leader of this supposedly corrupt international system and, therefore, as the “first enemy of the Muslims.” Bin Laden first declared that Americans “would not dream of security until we actually live it in Palestine, and until all the disbelieving armies depart from the land of Muhammad.”

The goal is establish “the caliphate,” Zawahiri says, after uniting “around the word of tawhid.” This will require both dawa (proselytization) and jihad. And Muslims must not confuse their enemies for their friends, fighting “the battle of consciousness before the battle of weapons,” remaining “free of illusions.”

In the past, al Qaeda leaders have called on Muslims to use Syrian soil to “liberate” Jerusalem. The group uses this theme as a rallying cry for jihadists in Syria.

Zawahiri’s message is the 9th episode in his “Brief Messages To A Victorious Ummah” series, during which he has covered a variety of topics. Although Zawahiri can be long-winded, the lectures in this program are mercifully short.

Although the lecture series has been running since Aug. 2016, Zawahiri and his propagandists in As Sahab clearly timed the release of this episode to coincide with the US embassy relocation to Jerusalem. It demonstrates that, at times, al Qaeda is still able to time its media to current events. Zawahiri also remains a somewhat prolific commentator, regularly releasing messages from his hideout.

An English translation of the message was distributed via Telegram by Al-Tamkin Media, a propaganda outfit that regularly translates messages from al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The quotes in this article were adapted from Al-Tamkin’s rough translation.

Islamic State continues to battle Assad regime, allies

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 7, 2018:

On Apr. 30, the Islamic State’s propagandists released one of their typically gruesome set of photos. The victim in this stylized killing was a soldier for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in southern Damascus, where the two sides have clashed for years. The Sunni jihadists attached an explosive-laden helmet to the soldier’s head, hung him upside down and then dropped him to his death. They expended a lot of resources to kill just one man, but it was intended to send a message: The Islamic State was not going to leave the neighborhoods in southern Damascus without a fight. In the days since then, the self-declared caliphate has advertised similar slayings — beheading and shooting Assad’s fighters captured in the area just outside the heart of Syria’s capital. The killings are just part of the Islamic State’s overall propaganda effort tied to the war in southern Damascus.

In mid-April, the Assad regime began a new offensive intended to push Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists out of southern Damascus. The regime has cut deals with other insurgents, but an Islamic State contingent is determined to fight to the death.

The Syrian government’s propaganda arm and pro-Assad sites have promoted their own media coverage from the battle. On May 3, for example, Al Masdar reported that the “Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and their Palestinian allies split the terrorist group’s large pocket.” Al Masdar, which backs Assad, claimed that the SAA was “advancing at the southeastern and western axes of Hajar Al-Aswad, along with the western axis of the Yarmouk Camp.” Similarly, social media sites associated with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group, posted maps trumpeting the SAA’s purported gains.

However, if the Islamic State’s reports are generally accurate, then the SAA has suffered significant casualties while advancing through the neighborhoods. The 130th issue of the group’s An Naba newsletter, which was published online in early May, claimed that the SAA had suffered “huge losses” during the second week of the battle for southern Damascus. An Naba’s cover and an article on the fighting were accompanied by pictures of the corpses of several decapitated Syrian soldiers.

Since the Assad regime offensive in southern Damascus began on Apr. 19, the Islamic State has issued dozens of statements. FDD’s Long War Journal has tallied its claims. In total, Baghdadi’s jihadists allege that they have killed more than 400 SAA soldiers. Of course, it is impossible to independently verify this figure. It is possible that the Islamic State is exaggerating the efficacy of its operations to boost fighter morale. Only some of the Assad regime’s casualties were documented with photos of the dead, or pictures of their identity cards.

The Islamic State’s total casualties are similarly unknown. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claims that just over 100 ISIS fighters have been killed during the battle, but also notes that this “high death [toll] is difficult to verify.”

Still, multiple reports indicate that the fighting has been heavy in the Yarmouk refugee camp, and the neighborhoods of Hajar al-Aswad (“Black Stone”), Qadam, Tadamun, as well as some nearby locales.

The Islamic State claimed on Apr. 20 that the Syrian government and Russia had launched more than 100 airstrikes in the area. It revised that figure days later to more than 300 airstrikes. Again, it is impossible to verify the precise tally. Videos released by Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the self-declared caliphate, purportedly document the damage done by the airstrikes on various apartment buildings. A screen shot from one such video can be seen below:

The Yarmouk neighborhood has been contested for years, with the Islamic State battling both its rival insurgents and the Assad regime for control of the turf. A pro-regime media outlet claimed that the jihadists’ leaders had agreed to surrender the ground after a heavy assault, and that only “rogue terrorists” continued to fight on. However, the Islamic State’s die-hards didn’t go that quietly. The jihadists claim to have destroyed or damaged multiple tanks and other armed vehicles during the clashes, while also accumulating various “spoils.”

Southern Damascus isn’t the only battleground where the Islamic State is facing off against the Assad regime and its allies.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), discussed the ongoing battles between the two sides during an Apr. 17 press conference. Dillon was asked a few times about the current number of Islamic State fighters inside Syria, but he punted on the question, telling reporters that he wouldn’t give them “numbers.” He did explain that the anti-ISIS coalition thinks most of the jihadists are “isolated” in or around two areas of eastern Syria: Hajin and Dashisha.

ISIS fighters are not only battling American-backed forces in eastern Syria, but also those loyal to Bashar al Assad’s government and its international allies. “We have seen also not just reports, but also corroborated through our own intelligence gathering, that ISIS is starting to conduct more attacks on the west side of the Euphrates River outside of Abu Kamal against pro-regime forces,” Dillon explained. “So that — in the pro-regime area west of the Euphrates River, we have seen a resurgence — or rather some ISIS elements coming back and attacking with success pro-regime forces.”

Indeed, Abu Kamal, which is also on the Iraqi border, has long been a flashpoint in the conflict between the Assad regime and the Islamic State. They battled each other in the area repeatedly last year, as Assad and his boosters tried to expel the jihadists from parts of Deir Ezzor province. The situation in Deir Ezzor has been tense with two competing coalitions — one led by the US and the other by Russia and Iran — attempting to secure ground from Baghdadi’s men. Russian-backed forces are stationed west of the Euphrates, while Western and US-backed fighters are east of the river.

In Sept. 2016, the US mistakenly bombed the Syrian military in an area of Deir Ezzor that was thought to be controlled by ISIS. Russia struck and killed members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last year. Then, on Feb. 7, “pro-regime forces” launched an “unprovoked attack” against a SDF headquarters “eight kilometers east of the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-confliction line.” US personnel were embedded with the SDF at the time, and responded by launching airstrikes. Dozens of Russians were reportedly killed in the bombing. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said during his recent confirmation hearing that a few hundred Russians perished.

Nevertheless, according to Dillon, the US-led coalition continues to give the Russians intelligence on ISIS locations in eastern Syria. “If we do see things that are — or ISIS rather on the west side of the Euphrates River, we will tell the Russians,” Dillon said during the Apr. 17 press briefing. “And we, you know, certainly hope they will act on the information that we have provided.” Dillon added that as a result of the ISIS attacks “west of Abu Kamal in pro-regime areas, we have seen some air support that has come in to be provided to those troops on the ground there” — meaning Assad’s air force and the Russians have provided air support against ISIS in eastern Syrian near Abu Kamal.

FDD’s Long War Journal has collected dozens of Islamic State pictures, videos, and statements on the fighting in or near Abu Kamal since the beginning of the year. The images document sniper operations targeting Syrian soldiers and irregulars, the use of SPG-9s (tripod-mounted weapons) and rocket-propelled grenades against regime-controlled positions, as well as attacks on government-owned bulldozers and other vehicles. One of these images can be seen below:

Although the US-led coalition claims that ISIS is “contained” in eastern Syria, Dillon noted that the group continues to operate elsewhere. He explained that two members of the coalition “were killed in Manbij” earlier this year as they were “going after an ISIS — an ISIS high-value target.” Manbij is in northeastern Syria. Although Dillon didn’t definitively identify the perpetrators ISIS members, he did say “there’s enough evidence to lead us to believe that it very much was a ISIS-implanted IED based off of the mission that they were doing.”

Coalition forces “continue to interdict and find ISIS fighters that are trying to transit the area” around At Tanf in southern Syria as well, according to Dillon.

Then, on Apr. 19, ISIS claimed that its men had raided a Syrian regime army barracks east of Tadmur (Palmyra), killing “multiple” soldiers, destroying a “field artillery cannon” and recovering “spoils,” including a “vehicle carrying a heavy machine gun and miscellaneous weapons and ammunition.” The claim is potentially significant as it indicates that the Islamic State is still operating near Palmyra more than a year after Assad’s forces and allies recaptured it.

On May 1, CJTF-OIR lauded the SDF, the main US-backed force opposed to ISIS in Syria, as it “commence[d] operations to clear the final ISIS territories in northeast Syria.” Many SDF fighters had relocated from the front lines in eastern Syria to fight Turkish-backed forces in early 2018. That delayed the anti-ISIS campaign and the US-led coalition was eager to jumpstart the effort once again.

But even as the SDF rolls into the Islamic State-controlled pockets of eastern Syria, it will be difficult to eradicate the jihadist group entirely. Col. Dillon recognized this fact during his mid-April press briefing. “So even though ISIS is not you know flying their black flag in certain areas, that doesn’t mean that it is not a threat in these areas,” Dillon warned. ISIS is “not going to just give up,” Dillon added. Some of its fighters will regroup in the desert and “vast rural areas” of both Syria and Iraq, while others “blend back in with population centers.”

And as the fighting in recent weeks shows, the Islamic State has enough fighters left to battle the Assad regime and its supporters, whose turf is outside of the US-led coalition’s control.

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

The terrorist diaspora: After the fall of the caliphate

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, July 13, 2017:

[Editor’s Note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry into the United States. The hearing is titled, “The Terrorist Diaspora: After the Fall of the Caliphate.” A version with footnotes will also be posted.]

Chairman Gallagher, Ranking Member Watson Coleman, and other distinguished Committee Members, thank you for inviting me to testify today concerning foreign fighters and the threat some of them pose to the U.S. and Europe.

The fall of Mosul and the likely fall of Raqqa won’t be the end of the Islamic State. The group has already reverted to its insurgent roots in some of the areas that have been lost. It also still controls some territory. The Islamic State will continue to function as a guerrilla army, despite suffering significant losses. In May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) assessed that even though it was losing significant ground, the Islamic State “will likely have enough resources and fighters to sustain insurgency operations and plan terrorists [sic] attacks in the region and internationally” going forward. Unfortunately, I think ODNI’s assessment is accurate for a number of reasons, some of which I outline below. I also discuss some hypothetical scenarios, especially with respect to returning foreign fighters or other supporters already living in Europe or the U.S.

Recent history. The Islamic State’s predecessor quickly recovered from its losses during the American-led “surge,” capitalizing on the war in Syria and a politically poisonous environment in Iraq to rebound. Indeed, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization grew into an international phenomenon by the end of 2014, just three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was completed. Baghdadi’s men did this while defying al Qaeda’s leaders and competing with rival jihadist groups. This recent history should give us pause any time we hear rhetoric that sounds too optimistic about the end of the Islamic State’s caliphate. The enterprise has had enough resources at its disposal to challenge multiple actors for more than three years. There is no question that the Islamic State’s finances, senior personnel, and other assets have been hit hard. But it is premature to say its losses amount to a deathblow.

Uncertainty regarding size of total membership. While it is no longer at the peak of its power, the Islamic State likely still has thousands of dedicated members. We don’t even really know how many members it has Iraq and Syria, let alone around the globe. Previous U.S. estimates almost certainly undercounted the group’s ranks. In September 2014, at the beginning of the US-led air campaign, the CIA reportedly estimated that the Islamic State could “muster” between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. This figure was “more than three times the previous estimates,” CNN noted. By December 2016, the U.S. military was estimating that 50,000 Islamic State fighters had been killed. By February 2017, U.S. Special Operations command concluded that more than 60,000 jihadists had perished. Two months later, in April 2017, the Pentagon reportedly estimated that 70,000 Islamic State fighters had been killed.

Taken at face value, these figures (beginning with the September 2014 approximation) would suggest that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise was able to replace its entire force structure more than two times over, while fighting multiple enemies on numerous fronts. This is, of course, highly unlikely. Even with its prolific recruiting campaign, it would be impossible for any cohesive fighting organization, let alone one under the sustained pressure faced by the Islamic State, to train, equip and deploy fighters this quickly. It is far more likely that the U.S. never had a good handle on how many jihadists are in its ranks and the casualty figures are guesstimates. The purpose of citing these figures is not to re-litigate the past, but instead to sound a cautionary alarm regarding the near-future: We likely do not even know how many members the Islamic State has in Iraq and Syria today.

The Islamic State is an international organization. Since November 2014, when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi first announced the establishment of “provinces” around the globe, the Islamic State’s membership grew outside of Iraq and Syria. This further complicates any effort to estimate its overall size. Some of these “provinces” were nothing more than small terror networks, while others evolved into capable insurgency organizations in their own right. The Libyan branch of the caliphate temporarily controlled the city of Sirte. Although the jihadists were ejected from their Mediterranean abode by the end of 2016, they still have some forces inside the country. Similarly, Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan province), which represents the “caliphate” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, seized upwards of ten districts in Afghanistan as of early 2016, but has since lost ground. More recently, jihadists in the Philippines seized much of Marawi, hoisting the Islamic State’s black banner over the city. Wilayah Sinai controls at least some turf, and is able launch spectacular attacks on security forces. It was responsible for downing a Russian airliner in October 2015. Other “provinces” exist in East Africa, West Africa, Yemen and elsewhere.

In May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported that the so-called caliphate “is seeking to foster interconnectedness among its global branches and networks, align their efforts to ISIS’s strategy, and withstand counter-ISIS efforts.” Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, has said that Wilayah Khorasan went through an “application process” and the Islamic State mothership provided it with “advice,” “publicity,” and “some financial support.” Although it is impossible to judge the extent of the Islamic State’s cohesion, as much of the data is not available, there is at least some connectivity between the group’s leadership and its “provinces” elsewhere. This is best seen on the media side, as the organization is particularly adept at disseminating messages from around the globe in multiple languages, despite some recent hiccups in this regard.

While their fortunes may rise or fall at any given time, this global network of Islamic State “provinces” will remain a formidable problem for the foreseeable future. Not only are they capable of killing large numbers of people in the countries they operate in, this structure also makes tracking international terrorist travel more difficult. For instance, counterterrorism officials have tied plots in Europe to operatives in Libya. This indicates that some of the Islamic State’s “external plotters,” who are responsible for targeting the West, are not stationed in Iraq and Syria. The U.S.-led air campaign has disrupted the Islamic State’s “external operations” capacity by killing a number of jihadists in this wing of the organization. But others live.

The cult of martyrdom has grown. A disturbingly large number of people are willing to kill themselves for the Islamic State’s cause. The number of suicide bombings claimed by the so-called caliphate dwarfs all other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda. In 2016, for instance, the Islamic State claimed 1,112 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria alone. Through the first six months of 2017, the organization claimed another 527 such bombings (nearly three-fourths of them using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs) in those two countries. These figures do not include suicide attacks in other nations where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists are known to operate.

To put the Islamic State’s current “martyrdom operations” in perspective, consider data published by the Washington Post in 2008. According to the Post, there were just 54 suicide attacks in all of 2001, when al Qaeda’s “martyrs” launched the most devastating terrorist airline hijackings in history. The Islamic State currently eclipses that figure every month in Iraq and Syria, averaging 93 suicide bombings per month in 2016 and 88 per month so far in 2017. Many of these operations are carried out by foreign fighters.

These suicide bombers have been mainly used to defend Islamic State positions, including the city of Mosul, which was one of the self-declared caliphate’s two capitals. For instance, half of the “martyrdom operations” carried out in Iraq and Syria this year (265 of the 527 claimed) took place in the Nineveh province, which is home to Mosul. The “martyrs” were dispatched with increasing frequency after the campaign to retake the city began in October 2016, with 501 claimed suicide bombings in and around Mosul between then and the end of June 2017.

Some caveats are in order. It is impossible to verify the Islamic State’s figures with any precision. The fog of war makes all reporting spotty and not every suicide bombing attempt is recorded in published accounts. Some of the claimed “martyrdom operations” likely failed to hit their targets, but were counted by the Islamic State as attacks anyway. The U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces have routinely taken out VBIEDs before drivers could reach their mark. Not all “martyrs” are truly willing recruits. For instance, the Islamic State’s figures include numerous children who were pressed into service by Baghdadi’s goons.

Still, even taking into account these caveats, it is reasonable to conclude that the number of people willing to die for the sake of the so-called caliphate is disturbingly high – much higher than the number of willing martyrs in 2001 or even much more recently. Even though most of these people have been deployed in war zones, it is possible that more will be used outside of Iraq and Syria if they survive the fight and are able to travel to other countries. The Islamic State has already had some success in instigating would-be recruits to die for its cause in the West after they failed to emigrate to the lands of the caliphate. It is certainly possible that more will be sent into Europe or the U.S. in the future.

Children used in suicide attacks, executions and other operations. The Islamic State has a robust program, named “Cubs of the Caliphate,” for indoctrinating children. It is one of the most disturbing aspects of the organization’s operations. Not only does the Islamic State’s propaganda frequently feature children attending classes, its videos have proudly displayed the jihadists’ use of children as executioners.

Earlier this month, for instance, the group’s Wilayah Jazirah disseminated a video entitled, “They Left Their Beds Empty.” Four children are shown beheading Islamic State captives. The same production is laced with footage of the terrorists responsible for the November 2015 Paris attacks, as well as other plots in Europe. Indeed, the children are made to reenact some of the same execution scenes that the Paris attackers carried out before being deployed. The Islamic State’s message is clear: A new generation of jihadists is being raised to replace those who have fallen, including those who have already struck inside Europe.

The “Cubs of the Caliphate” program is not confined to Iraq and Syria, but also operates in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This means that numerous children who have been indoctrinated in the Islamic State’s ways will pose a disturbing challenge for authorities going forward. As I noted above, some have already been used in “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria. It is possible that others could be used in a similar fashion outside of the group’s battlefields, in Europe or the U.S. One purpose behind making children or adults commit heinous acts is to shock their conscience into thinking there is no way back, that they have crossed a threshold and there is no return. There are no easy answers for how to best deal with this problem.

Diversity of terrorist plots. There are legitimate concerns about the possibility of well-trained fighters leaving Iraq and Syria for the West now that the Islamic State is losing its grip on some of its most important locales. We saw the damage that a team of Islamic State operatives can do in November 2015, when multiple locations in Paris were assaulted. Trained operatives have had a hand in other plots as well. This concern was succinctly expressed by EUROPOL in a recent report. “The number of returnees is expected to rise, if IS [Islamic State], as seems likely, is defeated militarily or collapses. An increasing number of returnees will likely strengthen domestic jihadist movements and consequently magnify the threat they pose to the EU.” While a true military defeat will be elusive, the central point stated here has merit, even though the number of arrests of returnees across Europe has recently declined. According to EUROPOL, “[a]rrests for travelling to conflict zones for terrorist purposes…decreased: from 141 in 2015 to 77 in 2016.” And there was a similar “decrease in numbers of arrests of people returning from the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq: from 41 in 2015 to 22 in 2016.”

However, the overall number of arrests “related to jihadist terrorism” rose from 687 in 2015 to 718 in 2015, meaning that most of these terror-related arrests do not involve returnees.

Still, returnees and the logistical support networks that facilitate travel to Iraq and Syria were prominently represented in court cases tried by EUROPOL member states. “As evidenced in the past couple of years, the majority of the verdicts for jihadist terrorism concerned offences related to the conflict in Syria and Iraq,” EUROPOL reported in its statistical review for 2016. “They involved persons who had prepared to leave for or have returned from the conflict zone, as well as persons who have recruited, indoctrinated, financed or facilitated others to travel to Syria and/or Iraq to join the terrorist groups fighting there.” In addition, “[i]ndividuals and cells preparing attacks in Europe and beyond were also brought before courts.”

These data show that while the threat posed by returnees is real, it is just one part of the overall threat picture. The Islamic State has encouraged supporters in the West to lash out in their home countries instead of traveling abroad, directed plots via “remote-control” guides, and otherwise inspired individuals to act on their own. These tactics often don’t require professional terrorists to be dispatched from abroad. The Islamic State has also lowered the bar for what is considered a successful attack, amplifying concepts first espoused by others, especially al Qaeda. A crude knife or machete attack that kills few people is trumpeted as the work of an Islamic State “soldier” or “fighter.” On Bastille Day in Nice, France last year, an Islamic State supporter killed more than 80 people simply by running them over with a lorry. Other Islamic State supporters have utilized this simple technique, repeatedly advocated by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s propagandists, as well.

However, I would urge caution. While the amateurs or individual actors have become more lethal over time, the risk of professionally-trained jihadists carrying out a mass casualty attack remains distinct. On average, the professionals can still do more damage than their amateur counterparts – if they are not stopped beforehand. The threat to aviation demonstrates the point. In October 2015, the Islamic State’s Wilayah Sinai downed a Russian airliner, killing all 224 people on board. Although the jihadists claim to have used a crude improvised explosive device, the plot required that well-placed personnel implant it at an optimal location within the aircraft. U.S. officials are attempting to stop even more sophisticated devices, built by either the Islamic State or al Qaeda, from being placed on board flights bound for Europe or America. Other professionally-planned attacks could involve bombing commuter trains, Mumbai-style sieges, or multi-pronged assaults. Therefore, if the professionals are able to evade security measures, they could easily kill more people than the average amateur.

Counterterrorism services in Europe and the U.S. have stopped a number of professional plots through the years. Some of those foiled in the past year may have been more serious than realized at the time. However, there is a risk that as counterterrorism authorities deal with a large number of individual or amateur plots, the professional terrorists will be able to find another window of opportunity. The various threats posed by the Islamic State have placed great strains on our defenses.

The Islamic State could seek to exploit refugee flows once again. “The influx of refugees and migrants to Europe from existing and new conflict zones is expected to continue,” EUROPOL reported in its review of 2016. The Islamic State “has already exploited the flow of refugees and migrants to send individuals to Europe to commit acts of terrorism, which became evident in the 2015 Paris attacks.” The so-called caliphate and “possibly other jihadist terrorist organizations may continue to do so.” While the overwhelming majority of migrants are seeking to better their lives, some will continue to pose a terrorist threat. European nations are dealing with this, in part, by deploying more “investigators” to “migration hotspots in Greece and soon also to Italy.” These “guest officers” will rotate “at key points on the external borders of the EU to strengthen security checks on the inward flows of migrants, in order to identify suspected terrorists and criminals, establishing a second line of defense.”

This makes it imperative that U.S. authorities share intelligence with their European counterparts and receive information in return to better track potential threats. The U.S. has led efforts to disrupt the Islamic State’s “external attack” arm and probably has the best intelligence available on its activities. But European nations have vital intelligence as well, and only by combining data can officials get a better sense of the overall picture. Recent setbacks with respect to this intelligence sharing, after details of British investigations were leaked in the American press, are troubling. But we can hope that these relationships have been repaired, or will be soon.

It should be noted that would-be jihadists who are already citizens of European countries could have an easier route into the U.S. than migrants fleeing the battlefields. It is much easier for a British citizen to get on a plane headed for the U.S. than for an Islamic State operative posing as a Syrian refugee to enter the U.S. clandestinely through Europe. Given recent events in the UK, and the overall scale of the jihadist threat inside Britain, this makes intelligence sharing on potential terrorists all the more crucial. British officials have said that they are investigating 500 possible plots involving 3,000 people on the “top list” of suspects at any given time. In addition, 20,000 people have been on the counterterrorism radar for one reason or another and are still considered potentially problematic.

Exporting terror know-how. It is possible that more of the Islamic State’s terrorist inventions will be exported from abroad into Europe or the U.S. As the self-declared caliphate sought to defend its lands, it devised all sorts of new means for waging war. It modified drones with small explosives and built its own small arms, rockets, bombs and the like. Al Qaeda first started to publish ideas for backpack bombs and other IEDs in its online manuals. The Islamic State has done this as well, but we shouldn’t be surprised if some of its other inventions migrate out of the war zones. The group could do this by publishing technical details in its propaganda, or in-person, with experienced operatives carrying this knowledge with them.

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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(Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony begins at 1:35:22 in the video)

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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