Iran is the First Threat

Security Studies Group (SSG) – July 26, 2017:

Executive Summary

The United States faces many dangers, but Iran should be first on the list for action. We need a comprehensive strategy to stop their ongoing efforts to become a nuclear power, oppose their play for regional hegemony and address their support for terrorism. It is time to accept there is no accommodation with the current authoritarian theocratic government and return to a policy of supporting the Iranian people in seeking a new form of government.

The Iranian regime exerts influence using the following threat vectors:

  • Nuclear Weapons & Missile Programs
  • Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps & Quds Force
  • Terror financing and ideological indoctrination
  • Weapons and Narco-trafficking\

The main geographic areas where their influence is a concern:

  • Iraq
  • Syria
  • Afghanistan
  • Qatar
  • Yemen

Issues where US and Iranian goals are in direct conflict:

  • Iran Nuclear Deal
  • Iraq/Syria End Game
  • Qatar Blockade
  • Yemen proxy war
  • Afghanistan

These issues are all interconnected, and US decisions and actions on each will cause Iranian reactions that could be aimed at affecting any of the others. US policy should be aimed at containing Iranian expansion, rolling back Iranian influence, stopping improper economic partnerships and most importantly ensuring it does not achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. The ideal end state is a new form of government in Iran that ends these policies.

The first step should be a refusal to recertify the Iran Nuclear Deal for non-compliance packaged with the toughest sanctions possible. The other immediate need is to limit Iranian influence on the post-ISIS plans for Iraq and Syria. These will create tremendous challenges, but failure to act could be catastrophically worse.

Iranian Threat Vectors

Nuclear Weapons & Missile Programs

The premier threat posed by Iran is their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development program. There is a wide array of opinion on how serious Iran is about obtaining a nuclear device and the progress of the program. There is less argument about the ballistic missile program, as the Iranians seem to go out of their way to show it off.

Security Studies Group (SSG) believes the regime is set on acquiring nuclear weapons and cannot be trusted to refrain from using them if they are successful. As evidence, the ballistic missiles they are so intent on developing are characterized by relatively small payloads and limited accuracy. Only with nuclear warheads would such missiles be worth the investment Iran is making in them. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did much less than promised to slow this down, and in some ways acted as an accelerant by providing economic relief and a renewed capacity for the smuggling of foreign technology.

Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) & Quds Force

These paramilitary forces are tools of the Iranian theocracy, and their primary mission is to protect the Islamic revolution in Iran. Though this mission is characterized as defensive, they have frequently carried it out offensively through expansionist efforts.  These include the development of Shi’a militias loyal to Iran throughout the region, and the defense of dependent proxy states such as Syria and Yemen. The IRGC has extensive business operations to finance and provide cover for their illicit activities and also runs a large criminal network. The IRGC is involved in almost all aggressive activities Iran conducts.

Terror financing and ideological indoctrination

The Iranian regime funds many of the worst terror groups in the world. Some of these, like Hezbollah and Hamas, also have social outreach and assistance programs. The Iranians use these as a way to conduct Islamist indoctrination. The infusions of cash and return of the regime to the international banking system from the Iran Deal have facilitated and increased their funding activities. Also important to recruitment and ideological development is Iran’s commitment to defending Shi’a Islamic holy sites, and Shi’ite Islam in general, against alleged threats. Many of these come from Sunni forces like ISIS, or Sunni states like Saudi Arabia. They also claim the United States is a threat to these as well.

Weapons and Narco-trafficking

The IRGC produces much of the conventional weaponry manufactured in Iran and uses this as a source of cash generation as well as a method to gain allies. The weapons find their way to terror groups and others who help them destabilize adversaries. It is a major player in international opium smuggling and uses this illicit cash to fund its other operations. They also provide transshipment of opium from Afghanistan to Lebanese Hezbollah, which uses it to create heroin for the international drug market. This gives Iranian terror networks direct access to drug cartels operating in the Americas.

Geographic areas of influence

The Core

Iraq

Iran has always had strong ties with the Shi’ite population in Iraq. Their status as members of that sect and their direct proximity to Iraq allowed them to host Shi’ite refugees during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Many of those who sheltered in Iran are now leading figures in Iraq. The precipitous US withdrawal during the Obama administration’s first term both allowed Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership to act on its worst impulses toward minority groups, and also provided Iran unrestricted opportunities to dominate Iraq.

That has only increased during the counter-ISIS operations. The Iranians have nurtured Shi’a militias who have been a major part of this clearing mission. They have had advisors and even direct command and control from the IRGC’s Quds Force. They have conducted sectarian reprisals against the Sunni populace. The militias have shown little regard for civilian casualties. They also openly declare support for Iran’s theocracy instead of Iraq’s secular government, ensuring that Iran has a capacity to control Iraq even when Iraq’s government would prefer to act independently.

The support Iran has given to Shi’a militias across much of Iraq will greatly complicate de-militarization as the counter-ISIS campaign winds down.

Syria

Russian and Iranian support has kept their proxy, Bashar al-Assad, in power. Iran has backed Hezbollah’s combat operations in support of the Assad regime, providing IRGC troops and advisers and raising auxiliary units of volunteers from Afghanistan and other areas.

Iran has long sought to dominate a road to the Mediterranean Sea. The demise of ISIS will create a vacuum they will try to use to fulfill this goal.

Geographic areas of influence

The Edge

Afghanistan

Iran has been supplying and assisting the Taliban for years and continues to do so in order to keep the United States bogged down there. They also have a substantial commitment to Shi’a populations in Afghanistan. The IRGC’s criminal aspect is a key smuggler of opium from Afghanistan into the Middle East.

Iran’s assistance to America’s enemies in Afghanistan not only advances their own interests, but those of other authoritarian regimes. America’s ground lines of communication, through which our forces in Afghanistan are supplied and kept fed, are under the physical control of Russia and Pakistan. The larger the American deployment in Afghanistan, the more of our forces must be fed and supplied, and thus the greater the pressure Russia and Pakistan can put on America by closing our supply lines. Iran’s efforts in Afghanistan thus make America subject to increased pressure from authoritarian regimes.

Qatar

President Trump gave a jump start to the Saudi and United Arab Emirate (UAE) move against Qatar when he forged a counterterrorism alliance at the summit in Riyadh. Iran’s relationship with Qatar is a key motivator of the Gulf Arab blockade and Iran has been supporting Qatar in attempts to end it.

This conflict puts two US allies —both Qatar and Turkey, which has fallen into authoritarianism under President Erdogan —on the side of Iran, and against the Gulf Arab states that President Trump has pledged to support. US treaty obligations to both Qatar and Turkey will be troublesome if the conflict escalates between the Saudi-led Gulf Arabs and the Turkey, Iran, Qatar coalition. There is a danger of significant stress on American treaty networks, as well as the danger that Iran will succeed in peeling both Qatar and Turkey away from the United States.

Yemen

Iranian support for Houthi rebels against Saudi and UAE backed forces in Yemen has been a potential flashpoint for a while. Currently, it is mostly proxies fighting. However, the Gulf States have put troops on the ground; and, the Houthi have access to Iranian missiles and rockets which they have fired against Gulf States and US Navy ships. The Qatar crisis adds another potential collision with Iranian-backed forces or potentially IRGC forces. This is part of a larger battle for regional dominance between the Iranians and the Gulf Arabs.

Direct conflicts between US and Iranian goal

The danger zones for US interactions with Iran are numerous with great potential for trouble.  Since 1979, Iran’s government has been marked by a preference for escalation so US policy should be built around an expectation they will act forcefully in response to our moves.

Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA)

US policy should be to disengage from this deal in the most expeditious manner possible. The justification must be well publicized. There will be a withering public information counterattack by the Iran lobby, the institutional left in the US and abroad, and Obama loyalists. Exposing the misinformation, lies, and malfeasance that allowed this deal to ever be made will be a strong antidote to this.

There are a number of tactics the President can use to end our participation:

  • Submit JCPOA to the Senate as a treaty
  • Refuse to recertify based on serial non-compliance
  • Move via executive order to withdraw based ion Iranian violations
  • Renegotiate with Iran

The last option is the least likely to succeed as the Iranians have no reason to negotiate in good faith because the existing deal front-loaded the benefits to Iran, leaving them with nothing to lose by being difficult.  Submitting the deal to the Senate as a treaty has a certain elegance, and would actually remedy a major attack by President Obama on Constitutional Separation of Powers. The other two options are versions of the same valid complaint that the Iranians have not meaningfully complied with the deal.

Any move to take away this deal, which Iran rightly considers a victory, will certainly be met with a flurry of public protestations but also activation of proxies and other Iranian assets to cause problems for the US. They can present these anywhere the US has interests and create considerable havoc. Contingency plans to protect US assets must be prepared and plans to preempt the Iranian plans or retaliate must be ready for immediate action.

Iraq/Syria End Game

The end of kinetic operations against ISIS is a milestone that comes with significant challenges to meet or a year or two down the road Sunni Insurgency Mark III will be in effect (I. al Qaeda in Iraq, II. ISIS). These include reintegrating the Sunni regions ISIS destroyed into the states of Iraq and Syria.  SSG believes success is unlikely and recommends a protectorate for these areas until rebuilding and some self-determination for the people can occur.

Iran has been in the forefront of the counter-ISIS operations both directly with the Iraqi government and military and as supplier, adviser and often in command of Shi’a militias. They have done much the same in Syria, and the IRGC has lost more than 1000 personnel in these conflicts. Iran will not want to give up what was gained in blood by disbanding local militias trained to be more loyal to Tehran than to Baghdad or Damascus.

The goal of a Shi’ite Crescent from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea is not merely a fantasy to the Mullahs of Iran and their IRGC and Quds Force. They have seeded the path to the Mediterranean with these Shi’a militias, and demilitarizing them will be difficult if even possible at all. Any successful reconstruction and reintegration of Iraq’s Sunni areas will have to deal with the massive sectarian slaughter and looting conducted by these militias. The Sunni populace will hold the Baghdad government and its Iranian allies responsible for this. They may also hold the United States to blame, given the precipitous withdrawal of US forces that exposed them to the Iranians and their militias; and, US participation in the clearing operations.

Changing the balance of influence with the Iraqi government from Iran’s favor to the United States will be a major challenge. The belief in Baghdad that US policy is turning against Iran after 8 years of promoting it will be helpful in this regard. But Iran has been building its alliances for 40 years. They do not have the reputation for abandoning allies for political purposes, which the United States did by removing combat forces at the beginning of the Obama administration.

Iran’s ability to disrupt any effort to create stability or peace is strong in both Syria and Iraq and this may be their area of choice if pressured by US rejection of the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Conclusion

The US needs a new approach to Iran which recognizes them as an active antagonist not a potential partner for peace.

The Iran Deal recertification process offers an opportunity to cite Iranian provocations in the 90-day window before the next certification. Iran’s response to an American declaration that they have not been compliant has the potential to be violent. American military forces must start preparing immediately for the consequences Iran is already threatening.

Iran must be stopped at all costs from establishing the land bridge to the Levant. The counter-ISIS end game, and the end of the civil war in Syria, must be built around a clear strategy of denying Iran either direct control, or control through proxy states, of any straight line from its borders to and across Syria.

Iranian militias within Syria and Iraq will need to be isolated in order to provide Iraq’s government any capacity for independence from Iran. This will require the presence of counterpoised forces, either Coalition or peacekeepers from governments that are not friendly to Iran.

The United States should also begin working to facilitate replacement of the Iranian regime in the longer term. This should not be conceived as a military operation, but as a whole of government approach built first and foremost around diplomacy and intelligence work. The Security Studies Group has a strategy to offer under separate cover for professionals working in classified environments.

SSG focuses on defending the value of American power against the true threats we face. Both the legislative and executive branches need rapid access to concise and factual data to inform strategic re-orientation in counterterrorism and national security policy. That’s what Security Studies Group is all about.  @SecStudiesGrp 

BREAKING: Major Confrontation Between Saudi, Egypt, UAE Against Qatar Over Terror Support

PJ Media, by Patrick Poole, June 4, 2017:

Several countries took major moves against Qatar today over its support for terror. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties, setting off a major crisis in the Middle East.

The move also cuts Qatar’s transit rights with these countries:

The BBC reports:

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of destabilising the region.

The countries say Qatar is supporting terrorist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudi state news agency SPA said Riyadh had closed its borders, severing land, sea and air contact.

It cited officials as saying it was to “protect its national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism”.

Egypt has also closed its airspace and ports for all Qatari transportation, the foreign ministry said.

The United Arab Emirates has given Qatari diplomats 48 hours to leave the country. Abu Dhabi accuses Doha of “supporting, funding and embracing terrorism, extremism and sectarian organisations,” state news agency WAM said.

Bahrain’s state news agency said the country was cutting ties with Qatar over “shaking the security and stability of Bahrain and meddling in its affairs”.

Kuwait and Oman are sitting this one out for the moment:

Which leaves Iran as Qatar’s main lifeline:

And with transit rights cut off, they’re going to need one:

Of course, Qatar’s support for terrorism is no secret in the Middle East:

And the behind-the-scenes activity may have been behind reports over the weekend regarding Qatar’s sponsorship of Hamas:

It remains to be seen if Qatar will invoke its joint defense agreement with Iran in response to these measures.

Apparently it was Qatar’s close ties with Iran and siding with the Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen that contributed to this crisis.

Read more

Also see:

Al-Qaeda in Yemen Confirms Muslim Brotherhood Ties

A terror attack in Huta, Yemen,, a bastion of Al-Qaeda jihadists (Photo: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images)

Clarion Project, by Ryan Mauro, May 4, 2017:

The leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen said in a statement aired on the branch’s propaganda outlet that his group has formed alliances with other Sunni jihadists in the country, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

From the Associated Press report:

“‘We fight along all Muslims in Yemen, together with different Islamic groups,’ he said, adding that his followers have teamed up with an array of factions — including the ultraconservative Salafis, ‘the Muslim Brotherhood and also our brothers among the sons of (Sunni) tribes’ — against Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis.”

Al-Qaeda’s links to the Yemeni branch in the Muslim Brotherhood go far back, particularly through a jihadist cleric named Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani. He is a co-founder of the Brotherhood’s party in the country which is called Islah.

Zindani is also very close to Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Zindani was deeply involved in the top tier of the international jihadist network that included Osama Bin Laden. Before his death, Bin Laden picked Yemen as the best “launching point” for establishing a theocratic Islamic State. He was undoubtedly aware of the Brotherhood cleric’s role in creating that environment and thankful for it.

A 1993 State Department report said he was part of a circle of leaders with a “close working relationship” that included the “Blind Sheikh” who inspired the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Hasan al-Turabi, a Muslim Brotherhood cleric in Sudan who has been called the ““Pope of Terrorism;” Afghanistan-based jihadist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sheikh Gilani, leader of Jamaat ul-Fuqra, now known as Muslims of America.

In 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department named Zindani as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” because of his involvement with Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. The department said he was linked to Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish terrorist group in Iraq loyal to Al-Qaeda, and leads a radical university in Yemen known for producing terrorists.

A U.S. federal court said Zindani coordinated the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and a lawsuit accuses him of having personally chosen the two suicide bombers for the attack.

Senior Al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki found shelter with the Brotherhood in Yemen. He hid in three homes owned by Islah members before he was killed by an American drone. One home belonged to Amin al-Okaimi, the chairman of Islah. The second safehouse was owned by al-Awlaki’s driver, whose brother is a high-level Islah official. The third house belonged to Zindani.

Trump Administration is examining whether or not to designate the Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. If it doesn’t designate the Brotherhood as a whole, surely it can designate individual branches. After all, the Palestinian wing—Hamas—has been designated since 1997.

At the very least, the State Department should designate the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood for its close ties to Hamas and Al-Qaeda, as now publicly confirmed by the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula affiliate in Yemen.

Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. To invite Ryan to speak, please contact us.

What’s really behind Trump’s laptop ban

Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, detonated a laptop bomb on this Daallo Airlines aircraft in February 2016.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, March 23, 2017:

More than 15 years after the September 11 hijackings, the U.S. government has issued yet another warning about airline security. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced new restrictions on electronics brought on board certain U.S.-bound flights. Passengers on planes leaving from 10 airports throughout the Middle East and North Africa will no longer be able to carry laptops or similar electronics with them into the cabin of the plane. Cell phones and smaller electronics are unaffected by the new measures, but computers will have to be checked in luggage.

The move instantly generated controversy and questions. Namely, why now? Some dismissed the DHS announcement as a protectionist move aimed at boosting the futures of U.S. carriers, who have complained of unfair competition from Gulf airlines for years. Twitter wags called it a “Muslim laptop ban,” whose secret aim was to discourage travel from the Arab world. But by now it should be clear that the new restrictions are deadly serious, even if there are legitimate questions about how it is being implemented.

Initial press reports, including by the New York Times, cited anonymous officials as saying that the restrictions were not a response to new intelligence. But the DHS announcement implies otherwise. One question on the DHS web site reads, “Did new intelligence drive a decision to modify security procedures?” The answer: “Yes, intelligence is one aspect of every security-related decision.” The British government’s quick decision to follow suit also suggests that something new is afoot here.

Subsequent reports from CNN and The Daily Beast indicate that intelligence collected during a U.S. Special Forces raid in Yemen in January led to the restrictions. That is possible. The raid was highly controversial, but the Trump administration argues the costs were worth it because the U.S. learned key details about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) plotting. A Navy SEAL perished during the operation, as did a number of women and children. Within hours, jihadists began circulating a photo of an adorable little girl who died in the crossfire. The girl was the daughter of Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni-American al Qaeda ideologue killed in a September 2011 drone strike. Al Qaeda immediately called for revenge in her name.

Whether new intelligence led to the decision or not, we already know for certain that al Qaeda has continued to think up ways to terrorize the skies. For years, Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere have been experimenting with sophisticated explosives that can be smuggled onto planes.

DHS points to the “attempted airliner downing in Somalia” in February 2016 as one reason for ongoing concerns. That bombing was carried out by al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia. Al Shabaab attempted to justify the failed attack by claiming “Western intelligence officials” were on board the flight, but that excuse may be a cover for something more sinister.

Some U.S. officials suspect that al Qaeda’s elite bomb makers wanted to test one of their newest inventions, a lightweight explosive disguised as a laptop that is difficult to detect with normal security procedures. At the very least, Shabaab’s attack demonstrated that al Qaeda has gotten closer to deploying a laptop-sized explosive that can blow a hole in jetliners. While no one other than the terrorist who detonated the bomb was killed, the plane was left with a gaping hole in its side.

Al Qaeda-linked terrorists have tested their contraptions before. In December 1994, a bomb was detonated on board a Philippine Airlines flight, killing one of the passengers and severely damaging the plane. The device was implanted by Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Yousef planned to blow up several airliners at once as part of “Project Bojinka” and he wanted to try out his invention beforehand. Authorities ultimately scuttled his plot, but al Qaeda didn’t forget Yousef’s idea. Instead, the terrorist organization returned to it again in 2006, when a similar plan targeting jets leaving London’s Heathrow Airport was foiled.

Al Qaeda’s failure in 2006 didn’t dissuade the group from pressing forward with a version of Yousef’s original concept, either.

In September 2014, the U.S. began launching airstrikes against an al Qaeda cadre in Syria described by the Obama administration as the “Khorasan Group.” There was some initial confusion over what the Khorasan Group really is, with some opining that it was simply invented by American officials to justify bombings, or a separate terror entity altogether. In reality, it was simply a collection of al Qaeda veterans and specialists who were ordered by the group’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, to begin laying the groundwork in Syria for operations against the West.

As far as we know, the Khorasan Group never did attempt to strike the U.S. or Europe. Perhaps this is because a number of its leaders and members were killed in the drone campaign. But there is an additional wrinkle in the story: Zawahiri didn’t give his men the final green light for an operation. Instead, Zawahiri wanted the Khorasan cohort to be ready when called upon. In the meantime, al Qaeda didn’t want an attack inside the West to jeopardize its primary goal in Syria, which is toppling Bashar al Assad’s regime.

The Islamic State gets all the headlines, but Al Qaeda has quietly built its largest guerrilla army ever in Syria, with upwards of 10,000 or more men under its direct command. The group formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra merged with four other organizations to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria”) in January. Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee months earlier, in June 2016, that Nusra was already al Qaeda’s “largest formal affiliate in history” with “direct ties” to Zawahiri. The merger gives al Qaeda control over an even larger force.

Al Qaeda could easily repurpose some of these jihadists for an assault in Europe, or possibly the U.S., but has chosen not to thus far. That is telling. Zawahiri and his lieutenants calculated that if Syria was turned into a launching pad for anti-Western terrorism, then their efforts would draw even more scrutiny. At a time when the U.S. and its allies were mainly focused on ISIS, al Qaeda’s potent rival, Zawahiri determined the West could wait.

But Zawahiri’s calculation with respect to Syria could change at any time. And the organization maintains cadres elsewhere that are still plotting against the U.S. and its interests.

The Khorasan Group included jihadists from around the globe, including men trained by AQAP’s most senior bomb maker, a Saudi known as Ibrahim al Asiri. U.S. officials have fingered al Asiri as the chief designer of especially devious explosive devices. Al Asiri has survived multiple attempts to kill him. But even if the U.S. did catch up with al Asiri tomorrow, his expertise would live on. Some of his deputies have trained still others in Syria.

Al Qaeda now has units deployed in several countries that are involved in anti-Western plotting. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.”

The Pentagon regularly announces airstrikes targeting al Qaeda operatives, some of whom, identified as “external” plotters, have an eye on the West. Incredibly, more than a decade and a half after the 9/11 hijackings, al Qaeda members in Afghanistan are still involved in efforts to hit the U.S. In October 2016, for instance, the U.S. struck down Farouq al Qahtani in eastern Afghanistan. The Defense Department explained that Qahtani was “one of the terrorist group’s senior plotters of attacks against the United States.”

Meanwhile, ISIS has also proven it is capable of downing an airliner. Thus far, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men have used low-tech means. In October 2015, the so-called caliphate’s Sinai province claimed the bombing of a Russian airliner. If the group’s propaganda is accurate, then a Schweppes Gold soft drink can filled with explosives and equipped with a detonator led to the deaths of all 224 people on board. This beverage bomb was a far cry from the sleek explosives al Qaeda’s bomb makers have been experimenting with, but it was effective nonetheless. All it required was proper placement next to a fuel line or some other sensitive point in the airliner’s infrastructure. ISIS could have more sophisticated bomb designs in the pipeline as well.

The truth is that the threat to airliners isn’t going away any time soon. However, this doesn’t mean that every counterterrorism measure intended to protect passengers is the right one. Some quickly questioned the Trump administration’s policy. Why does it impact only flight carriers in some countries? Were security measures found to be lax in some airports, but not others? Why is the threat of a laptop bomb mitigated if it is in checked luggage, as opposed to on board the plane? And what about the possibility of al Qaeda or ISIS slipping a bomb onto connecting flights, before the planes head for the U.S. homeland?

These are all good questions that should be asked. And the Trump administration should answer them.

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

Also see:

Report: Intel for Carry-on Electronics Ban Came from Yemen Raid

Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, March 10, 2017

Editor’s note: On March 9, Thomas Joscelyn testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The hearing, “Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy,” was called to explore the political dynamics of the ongoing war in Yemen, as well as the roles played by foreign actors and al Qaeda. His written testimony can be read below. A version of Mr. Joscelyn’s testimony with footnotes can be found here.

Senator Corker and other members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen. Unfortunately, I do not see a way that this conflict can be resolved any time soon. Yemen is rife with internal divisions, which are exacerbated by the proxy war being waged by several actors. Arab states, Iran, and others see Yemen as a key battleground in their contest for regional power. In addition, al Qaeda has taken advantage of the crisis to pursue its chief objective, which is seizing territory and building an emirate inside the country.

I discuss these various actors in my written testimony below and look forward to answering your questions.

The Iranian-backed Houthi offensive has significantly undermined U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Governance in Yemen has been a longstanding problem. But the Houthi offensive in late 2014 knocked President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from power at a time when the U.S. was counting on his government to act as a vital counterterrorism partner.

There is a debate over how close the Houthis and Iran really are. Some have argued that the Houthis should not be thought of as an Iranian terror proxy, such as Hezbollah. While this accurate – the Houthis have their own culture and traditions – there is no question that Iran and the Houthis are allies. And it is in Iran’s interest to work with the Houthis against Saudi-backed forces in Yemen, while also encouraging Houthi incursions into the Saudi kingdom.

The U.S. government has long recognized Iran as one of the Houthis’ two key backers. (The other being former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his network, which is discussed below.) In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, the State Department noted:

Iran actively supported members of the Houthi tribe in northern Yemen, including activities intended to build military capabilities, which could pose a greater threat to security and stability in Yemen and the surrounding region. In July 2012, the Yemeni Interior Ministry arrested members of an alleged Iranian spy ring, headed by a former member of the IRGC.

That warning proved to be accurate, as the Houthis made significant gains just over two years later. The U.S. and its allies have intercepted multiple Iranian arms shipments reportedly intended for the Houthis. And senior U.S. officials have repeatedly referenced Iran’s ongoing assistance. Late last year, Reuters reported that “Iran has stepped up weapons transfers to the Houthis,” including “missiles and small arms.”

In September 2015, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter listed America’s “core interests in the region.” Among them, according to Carter, was “supporting Saudi Arabia in protecting its territory and people from Houthi attacks, and supporting international efforts to prevent Iranian shipments of lethal equipment from reaching Houthi and Saleh-affiliated forces in Yemen.” The Houthis have responded by launching missiles at American ships, as well as ships operated by other countries.

Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his supporters have worked to undermine President Hadi’s’s government.

Former President Saleh and his son have allied with the Houthis to thwart any chance of having a stable political process inside Yemen. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Saleh and two Houthi military commanders in 2014, describing them as “political spoilers.” Saleh became “one of the primary supporters of violence perpetrated by” the Houthis as of the fall of 2012, and has provided them with “funds and political support.” Then, in April 2015, Treasury sanctioned Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh. The junior Saleh was commander of Yemen’s Republican Guard, but was removed from that post by Hadi. Still, Ahmed Ali Saleh “retained significant influence within the Yemeni military, even after he was removed from command.” And he has “played a key role in facilitating the Houthi military expansion.”

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is attempting to build an Islamic state in Yemen.

Al Qaeda is working to build Islamic emirates in several countries and regions, including Afghanistan, North and West Africa, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Unlike its rivals in the Islamic State (or ISIS), al Qaeda has adopted a long-term approach for state-building. While AQAP has begun to implement its version of sharia law in Yemen, it has not advertised the most gruesome aspects of its draconian code for fear of alienating the population. Still, AQAP controlled much of southern Yemen from April 2015 to April 2016, including the port city of Mukallah, where it reportedly earned substantial revenues via taxes. AQAP’s forces simply melted away when the Arab-led coalition entered Mukallah and other areas. By doing so, AQAP presented itself as a protector of the local population and lived to fight another day. The group is capable of seizing more territory at any time.

AQAP isn’t just an “affiliate” of al Qaeda; it is al Qaeda.

In addition to being a regional branch of al Qaeda’s international organization, AQAP has housed senior al Qaeda managers who are tasked with responsibilities far outside of Yemen. For example, Nasir al Wuhayshi (who was killed in 2015) served as both AQAP’s emir and as al Qaeda’s general manager. At the time of his death, Wuhayshi was the deputy emir of al Qaeda’s global operations.

Beginning in 2014, the Islamic State (or ISIS), mushroomed in size after declaring the establishment of its so-called caliphate across a large part of Iraq and Syria. Some predicted, erroneously, that AQAP would defect to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s cause in the event that Wuhayshi was killed. That prediction was based on a stunning ignorance of AQAP’s organization and implicitly assumed that AQAP’s loyalty to al Qaeda was embodied in a single man. Wuhayshi’s successor, Qasim al Raymi, quickly reaffirmed his and AQAP’s allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri. Al Qaeda veterans and loyalists from a new generation of jihadists are peppered throughout AQAP’s ranks.

The U.S. has killed a number of top AQAP leaders, but the group has effectively replaced them and likely retains a bench of capable fill-ins.

Wuhayshi was one of several senior AQAP leaders killed in the drone campaign in 2015. Others have perished since. But AQAP has quickly filled their positions with other al Qaeda veterans, including Raymi, Ibrahim al Qosi (a former Guantanamo detainee), Ibrahim al Banna (discussed below), and others. Most of AQAP’s insurgency organization, including its middle management, has not been systematically targeted. Therefore, the organization as a whole has not been systematically degraded. AQAP still threatens the West, but most of its resources are devoted to waging the insurgency and building a state inside Yemen. Recently, the U.S. has stepped up its air campaign, launching 40 or more airstrikes against AQAP this month. Those airstrikes are intended, in part, to weaken AQAP’s guerrilla army. But it will require more than bombings to do that. Without an effective government representing most of the Sunni tribes and people, AQAP will continue to position itself as the legitimate ruler in many areas of Yemen.

Al Qaeda has deep roots inside Yemen.

Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al Zawahiri’s men first began to lay the groundwork for al Qaeda’s organization inside Yemen in the early 1990s, if not earlier. Zawahiri himself spent time in Yemen alongside his comrades in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which effectively merged with bin Laden’s operation in the 1990s. Zawahiri, his brother, and their fellow EIJ jihadists established a base of operations in Yemen. One of these EIJ veterans, Ibrahim al Banna, was designated as a senior AQAP leader by the U.S. government late last year. In 1992 or 1993, Zawahiri ordered al Banna to oversee “the administration” of al Qaeda’s “affairs” in Yemen, “opening public relationships with all the students of knowledge and the notables and the tribal sheikhs.” That was more than a quarter of a century ago. Yet al Banna, a co-founder of AQAP, continues to command jihadists inside the country to this day.

Al Qaeda has suffered multiple setbacks inside Yemen since al Banna was first dispatched to the country in the early 1990s. But the jihadists’ patient approach has clearly borne fruit. An unnamed U.S. military official recently explained that AQAP has “skillfully exploited the disorder in Yemen to build its strength and reinvigorate its membership and training.” This same official estimated that AQAP’s total group strength is in the “low thousands,” but warned that because many of its members are Yemeni “they can blend in with the tribes there.”

This assessment of AQAP’s overall strength may or may not be accurate with respect to the total number of deployed fighters. But the U.S. has underestimated the size of jihadist organizations in the past, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. AQAP maintains a deep support network within Yemeni society that allows it to regenerate its forces and continue waging jihad despite fighting on multiple fronts for many years.

The U.S. Treasury Department has outlined parts of AQAP’s fundraising apparatus in a series of terrorist designations. Treasury’s work has highlighted the mix of tribal politics, Gulf fundraising, and local banking that has helped fuel AQAP’s war in Yemen.

Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal that al Qaeda has sought to maintain friendly tribal relations and avoid the mistakes made in Iraq, where the predecessor to the current Islamic State alienated tribal leaders. It is difficult to gauge the extent of ideological support for AQAP’s cause within Yemen’s tribes, but the jihadists do not need key tribes to be completely committed to their cause. While there have been tensions at times, AQAP benefits from the tribes’ frequent unwillingness to back government forces against the jihadists.

Some tribal leaders are closely allied with AQAP, so much so that they have been integrated into the organization’s infrastructure. This has led to an awkward situation in which some of AQAP’s leaders are also partnered with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Hadi’s government in the war against the Houthis. For instance, during a raid against AQAP in January, U.S. forces killed a prominent tribal leader named Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab. The Associated Press (AP), citing “military officials, tribal figures and relatives,” reported that Dhahab met “with the military chief of staff in Hadi’s government” shortly “before the raid.” Fahd al-Qasi, Dhahab’s “top aide,” accompanied Dhahab to the meeting and subsequently confirmed that it took place. “During five days of talks with the military, al-Dhahab — who commands a force of some 800 tribal fighters — was given around 15 million Yemeni riyals ($60,000) to pay his men in the fight against the rebels, al-Qasi and the two officials said,” according to the AP. Al-Qasi “distributed the money to the fighters” just hours before the raid.

AQAP has also benefitted from its longstanding relationship with Shaykh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani and his network. The U.S. Treasury Department first designated Zindani as a terrorist in 2004, describing him as a “loyalist to Usama bin Laden and supporter of al-Qaeda.” In 2013, Treasury said that Zindani was providing “religious guidance” for AQAP’s operations. Zindani has been a prominent leader in Islah, which is a Yemeni political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and Islah have a lengthy history of relations, which had cooled in the not-so-distant past. However, as a result of the Houthis’ successful push across Yemen, Saudi Arabia has embraced Islah once again. Zindani himself has maintained friendly relations with the Saudis.

Zindani is the founder of Al-Iman University, which has served as a jihadist recruiting hub. Some al Qaeda leaders have not always been happy with the elderly ideologue. But one letter recovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound demonstrates why al Qaeda would not publicly criticize him. “To be fair, a significant number of al-Mujahidin who reach the jihadi arena here were instructed or prepared by him, especially the new Russian converts to Islam who moved from Russia to Yemen and stayed for a while at al-Iman University and then moved with their families to the field of Jihad,” a senior al Qaeda leader wrote in March 2008. Whatever disagreements al Qaeda may have had with Zindani at times, he and his broad network have provided valuable support for AQAP’s operations.

The preceding paragraphs above give a brief overview of AQAP’s deep network inside Yemen, demonstrating why it remains a potent force. The Islamic State has also established a much smaller presence inside Yemen. The Islamic State’s men are capable of carrying out large attacks, particularly against soft targets such as funerals and markets. AQAP avoids such operations, seeing them as detrimental to its cause, which is based on building more popular support for the jihadist group.

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

***

Watch the Senate hearing, “Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy”

Also see:

The Truth Behind Media’s New Favorite Euphemism: ‘Muslim-Majority Countries’

Breitbart, by John Hayward, March 9, 2017:

Both versions of President Trump’s executive order have been caricatured as a “Muslim ban,” even though they applied to only six or seven specific countries, leaving 90 percent of the world’s population out of the mix.

The fallback euphemism is to say that Trump is “banning” immigration (they never say it is conditional and temporary) from several “Muslim-majority” countries. This is also misleading because those countries are not merely inhabited by a majority of Muslims. They are Muslim countries, period. They all have some form of Islamic law written into their legal codes.

With Iraq removed from the equation, the remaining nations affected by the order are Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia. The original executive order did not list the affected nations; it merely referred to Obama-era legislation that named them as nations of particular concern. The revised version of the order does name the affected nations because it explains why each of them is on the list.

The first version of the order did not mention Islam at all. The revised version does, but only to explain why the first order did not because this is not a “Muslim ban”:

Executive Order 13769 did not provide a basis for discriminating for or against members of any particular religion. While that order allowed for prioritization of refugee claims from members of persecuted religious minority groups, that priority applied to refugees from every nation, including those in which Islam is a minority religion, and it applied to minority sects within a religion. That order was not motivated by animus toward any religion, but was instead intended to protect the ability of religious minorities — whoever they are and wherever they reside — to avail themselves of the USRAP in light of their particular challenges and circumstances.

Islam is not a “minority religion” in any of the six countries named by the order. In fact, all six of them officially incorporate Islamic sharia law into their legal codes.

Of the six, Iran is an outright Islamic theocracy. Its Supreme Leader is the Ayatollah, a top-ranking Muslim cleric. Iran’s legal code is explicitly based on sharia, with a smattering of civil ordinances thrown in. Iranian courts have been known to invoke sharia for such judgments as requiring a woman to be blinded in retribution for throwing acid in a victim’s face.

Iranian law nominally has some protections for religious minorities, but the absolute supremacy of Islam is not questioned. Observers have reported that religious freedom is growing steadily worse in the theocracy.

Libya is the most complex of the six nations to classify, because it does not have a functioning central government at all, following Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s disastrous intervention – a fact the mainstream media prefers not to dwell on. “Libya’s post-revolution legal system is in flux and driven by state and non-state entities,” as the CIA World Factbook tactfully puts it.

The capital city of Tripoli was seized by an Islamist coalition, with the Muslim Brotherhood a major player. Another is Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafist Islamic militia. The presence of “sharia” in its name is not a coincidence; they declared Libya an Islamic “caliphate” in 2014.

There has been success in the battle against Libyan ISIS, but al-Qaeda is still a major player. U.N.-backed unity governments tend to include a lot of people from the more extreme wings of Libyan politics. They have to because Islamists are a powerful political force in the country.

Another major force in chaotic Libya is widely described as a “secularist,” General Khalifa Haftar. Some observers wonder just how “secularist” he really is, especially if he gains control of the country and has to make deals with the powerful Islamist elements he is currently fighting.

Haftar is an old Qaddafi hand, and while the late dictator is remembered as a brutal and mercurial secularist loathed by hardline Islamists in Libya, he was sometimes given to Islamist sentiments of his own. For instance, Qaddafi once declared Islam was the only universal human religion and said, “all those believers who do not follow Islam are losers.” He named his son and once-presumed successor Saif al-Islam.

Libya’s future is a question mark, but it is highly disingenuous to describe even its present state as merely “Muslim-majority.” The interim Libyan constitution of 2011 begins with the invocation of “Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” states that Islam is the official religion of the country, and declares “sharia shall be the main source of legislation.” Until and unless a different constitution is put into effect by an internationally-recognized national government, Libya is a Muslim nation.

Somalia officially imposed sharia law through its Cabinet in 2009. “Islamic Sharia is the only option to get solutions for the problems in this country,” one minister declared. Less than 0.1% of the population follows a religion other than Islam.

The Somali government banned Christmas celebrations in December 2015, because “having Muslims celebrate Christmas is not the right thing,” as a top official put it. He likened Christmas celebrations to apostasy and said they are “not in any way related to Islam.” Foreigners were graciously allowed to celebrate Christmas in their homes, but even hotels were instructed to prevent guests from holding celebrations.

The al-Shabaab terrorist organization thinks the central government is not Islamist enough and imposes an even harsher sharia code on the sizable portions of the country it effectively controls. Many of the people living under al-Shabaab control have told interviewers they support its legal code.

Sudan is officially an Islamic state with a sharia legal code. Even the leaders of breakaway South Sudan, which want to return to a common-law system on the British model, have been struggling to purge sharia from the legal system.

Sudan, like Somalia, is not “majority Muslim” – it is about 96% Muslim, and the 3% Christian minority is brutally persecuted, despite some nominal legal protection for other religions. World Atlas notes that “some interpretations of the Muslim Law in the country fail to recognize or accept apostasy and marriages to non-Muslims,” and concludes that “Sudan leads the world as the most difficult country for Christians since freedom of religion or belief is systematically ignored.”

Syria is an uncomfortable case, as some religious minorities say they fared much better under the Assad dictatorship. Some Syrian Christians bluntly refer to Bashar Assad as their “protector” and have similar hopes for the intervening Russians. Of course, critics of the brutal Syrian regime argue that Assad’s alliance with Christians is purely cynical, and even accuse him of inflaming the Christian fear of Muslims for political gain.

Assad’s government is nominally secular, while even most of the “good guy” rebels supported by Western powers practice Islamic law through sharia courts. Syrians in contested areas complain that different sharia courts loyal to various factions, from “moderates” to hardcore al-Qaeda Islamists, issue conflicting verdicts.

At the height of the rebellion, many Syrians expressed a desire to replace the Syrian Arab Republic with an Islamic state. Then they found themselves saddled with the Islamic State, which may have led some of them to reconsider. However, there are still calls to impose sharia across Syria, portraying it as an instrument of peace and justice.

Having said that, the constitution of the “secular” Syrian Arab Republic explicitly requires the president to be a Muslim, and requires that “Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.” This was true of both the older constitution and the revised document prepared in 2012.

The same article declares “the State shall respect all religions, and ensure the freedom to perform all the rituals that do not prejudice public order,” but there is no question: Syria is a Muslim nation, not a “Muslim-majority nation.” Islam enjoys a privileged position in its legal code that Western liberals would not tolerate without comment from any other religion.

Yemen practices a mixture of sharia law and common law in what passes for its central government – which, of course, was overthrown by the Houthis, a Shiite Muslim insurgency supported by the Iranian theocracy. The internationally recognized Yemeni government has said the Houthis want to transform Yemen into a caliphate ruled by lineal descendants of Mohammed.

Even Houthi spokesmen who strongly disagree with that characterization have said they think “sharia should be one of the main sources of the law in Yemen, not the only source.”

The large portions of Yemen controlled by al-Qaeda are noted for the strict rule of Islamic law, including the oppression of women. Al-Qaeda regards the failure to strictly obey sharia as “debauchery.”

The Constitution of the Republic of Yemen explicitly declares it to be an Islamic state, and stipulates “sharia is the source of all legislation.” Islam is unambiguously named as the official state religion. Denouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death. Over 99% of the population is Muslim.

Iraq: Even though it is no longer listed in Trump’s executive order, it should be noted that Iraq is an explicitly Islamic nation, according to its 2005 constitution. “Islam is the official religion of the State and is a fundamental source of legislation,” Article 2 declares. “No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.”

Religious freedom is nominally protected, as long as the supremacy of Islam is acknowledged by all: “This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice such as Christians, Yazedis, and Mandi Sabeans.”

Some Iraqi clerics agitate for stricter adherence to sharia law, which introduces the dangerous question of whether Sunni or Shiite law should reign supreme.

The incorporation of Sharia law into the legal codes of these countries occurs to a degree that would revolt the American Left, if any religion except Islam was involved. Rest assured that no one in today’s mainstream media would describe, say, 15th-century Spain as a “majority Catholic” nation.

For that matter, they do not seem inclined to describe Israel as “majority Jewish”; they simply refer to it as a “Jewish state.” Israel is, in fact, only about 75% Jewish. A recent effort supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party to formally define Israel as a Jewish state failed, in part due to concerns that it could lead to discriminatory policies against the Arab population.

Its legal code includes extensive protection for religious minorities, and there are Muslim and Druze members of its parliament. Last November, one of them staged the Muslim call to prayer during a parliamentary session to protest a bill that would prevent all places of worship from using loudspeakers to summon their worshipers, because it was seen as unfairly targeting mosques.

Equivalent stunts are unwise for members of religious minorities in “Muslim-majority nations,” including the six listed in President Trump’s executive order.

In conclusion: all of the nations mentioned in both versions of President Trump’s executive order are Muslim countries, period. Every single one of them has Islam as the state religion and bases its legal code on sharia. Not a single one of these countries is a “Muslim-majority” nation that practices full and complete religious pluralism under a secular government.

Trump: Yemen Commando Raid Produced Valuable Intelligence

AP

AP

New data will produce counterterrorism ‘victories’

Washington Free Beacon, by Bill Gertz, March 1, 2017:

President Trump on Tuesday told a joint session of Congress that a recent covert military operation in Yemen produced intelligence information that will be used in further efforts to counter terrorism.

Outlining his first weeks in office, Trump defended the Jan. 29 special operations raid in Yemen that led to the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens and the wounding of six others.

Owens’ widow, Carryn Owens was a guest of the president for the speech.

“Ryan died as he lived: A warrior, and a hero—battling against terrorism and securing our nation,” Trump said.

Trump then said the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “reconfirmed that, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”

The Pentagon, Trump said, is developing plans to “demolish and destroy ISIS—a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women, and children of all faiths and beliefs.”

“We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” he said.

On Iran, Trump noted that he has imposed sanctions on organizations and people involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, following the recent test of an Iranian missile.

On the NATO alliance, Trump said he strongly supports NATO but urged America’s partners to “meet their financial obligations.”

“And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that,” he said. “We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific—to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.”

Much of the speech was focused on how the Trump administration would seek to solve American problems and lessen involvement in foreign affairs and overseas conflicts.

“We’ve financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit—and so many other places throughout our land,” he said. “We’ve defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross—and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.”

Trump said he has ordered government agencies to engage in an aggressive campaign to shut drug networks operating in the United States.

Trillions of dollars have been spent overseas while American infrastructure has not been modernized, he said.

Trump promised to bring dying U.S. industries back to life and provide more resources to the U.S. military. New roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways will be built and the drug epidemic will be curbed and “ultimately stop,” he said.

American urban areas will be provided with a “rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity,” the president added.

Trump also stated that he is moving ahead with building a wall along the United States’ southern border to prevent terrorists from entering the country and to block the flow of illegal drugs into the country.

“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America—we cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists,” the president said.

Trump administration national security officials said the new information, which was not revealed prior to the speech, was discussed during a Tuesday meeting between Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the White House.

The White House and Pentagon are pushing back against what officials said are inaccurate news reports claiming the Yemen raid did not produce very valuable intelligence.

The Jan. 29 commando raid in Yakla village in central Yemen targeted a group of terrorists belonging to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaeda branch that has been linked to several terrorist attacks in the United States, including the 2015 San Bernardino and 2016 Orlando attacks. Fourteen people were killed in the San Bernardino shootings, and 49 people were shot at a night club in Orlando.

In both attacks, the terrorists who carried out the shootings had been inspired by Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born al Qaeda terrorist who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011 in Yemen but whose English-language lectures on jihad are available on the Internet.

U.S. Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed and six others wounded in the Yemen raid. Unconfirmed reports from Yemen said 25 civilians also were killed in the commando raid, including the daughter of Awlaki.

Officials said the covert military operation produced a large volume of valuable intelligence information on the group and its activities.

“The raid did achieve its objectives even if it did so at a significant cost,” said one official familiar with details of the raid. “And it did produce a lot of intelligence—terabytes of information and multiple devices along with information on hundreds of people.”

The official said the raid was likely the “most significant AQAP haul in recent years.” AQAP is the acronym for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The massive amount of information from the raid is still under review by intelligence officials.

The official said an NBC News report from Monday asserting the Yemen raid produced no significant intelligence was wrong.

NBC quoted “multiple senior officials” as saying they were unaware of valuable intelligence taken from the raid.

A second official said Trump will speak forcefully in his speech on the need to defeat what he calls “radical Islamic terrorism.” There is no plan for the president to back off on use of the term, this official said.

News reports published this week stated that the new White House national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has sought to play down use of the term radical Islamic terrorism.

The second official said Trump remains firmly committed to using the term, an issue Trump raised extensively during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump is proposing a $54 billion increase in defense spending offset by similar cuts in foreign aid and other federal spending.