Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pakistani Taliban commander killed during fighting in North Waziristan (10:30AM)


The Pakistani military killed a senior commander for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan during recent fighting in North Waziristan. The commander had been released from a prison in Afghanistan, according to a statement from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which announced his death.

The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan said that Mohammad Hassan was killed "during a fierce battle with the Pakistan Army" in the Boya area of North Waziristan. The statement was emailed yesterday to The Long War Journal by Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban group.

The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan "in collaboration with the Mujahideen," likely a reference to al Qaeda and allied groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, fought "a fierce battle with the Pakistan Army," Shahidullah stated.

Hassan, who is from Kabul, Afghanistan, was freed from an Afghan prison and "reunited" with the Taliban in Pakistan, Shahidullah claimed. It is unclear where Hassan was held and when he was released. Afghan Taliban commanders and even a top leader in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have recently been freed from Afghan prisons and have returned to the fight. [See LWJ reports, Senior IMU leader captured by ISAF in 2011 now leads fight in northern Afghanistan, and Taliban commander behind Ghor executions was freed from prison 3 months ago.]

Hassan is the first senior leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, or any of the non-aligned Taliban groups, who has been confirmed killed during Pakistan's military operation in North Waziristan, known as Operation Zarb-e-Azb or Sword of Allah.

The Pakistani military claimed earlier this month that 910 "terrorists" and 82 soldiers have been killed since it launched the operation against the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and allied jihadist groups on June 15.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group that broke off from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, dismissed the military's claims as "complete lies." Jamaat-ul-Ahrar denied that hundreds of jihadists had been killed and said training camps and bomb factories were moved before the operation was launched.

Neither the Pakistani military's claims nor Jamaat-ul-Ahrar's refutation can be confirmed. The Pakistani military does not allow independent reporting from North Waziristan. And jihadists often intimidate reporters in the region.

The Pakistani military has not admitted to causing a single civilian casualty in the operation. And despite claiming that it is targeting the Haqqani Network and other so-called "good Taliban," or those jihadists who do not openly fight the Pakistani state, the military has not named a single Haqqani Network or Hafiz Gul Bahadar leader, commander, or fighter killed or captured during the operation.

The military has identified only one other "terrorist" killed during the offensive -- a local Taliban leader in Miramshah known as Commander Umer. The military also claimed it captured an al Qaeda explosives expert but has not named him.

For more information on Pakistan's recent military operation in North Waziristan and "good Taliban" vs. "bad Taliban", see LWJ and Threat Matrix reports:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Al Nusrah Front threatens life of Lebanese soldier held hostage amid fighting (12:08PM)

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In a series of tweets today, the Al Nusrah Front again threatened to kill a Lebanese soldier it is holding hostage. Al Nusrah threatened to kill him in response to operations by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization that is supporting Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria.

"Mohammad Hamiyeh is the first casualty of the stubbornness of the Lebanese military that has become a puppet in the hands of the Iranian party," one of Al Nusrah's tweets reads.

The "Iranian party" in question is Hezbollah, while Hamiyeh is one of the Lebanese soldiers in Al Nusrah's custody. The implication of the tweet is that Hamiyeh has already been killed, but that has not been confirmed.

Al Nusrah uses the hashtags "#The_Lebanese_army_kills_its_soldiers" and "#Who_will_pay_the_price" in its Arabic tweets.

On Sept. 16, Al Nusrah posted a banner with the same question,"Who will pay the price?," written in English. Then in Arabic, the group answers its own question: "Mohammad Maruf Hamiyah might be the first to pay the price." The banner can be seen above.

Throughout the week, Al Nusrah has accused the Lebanese government and Hezbollah of blocking the negotiations to free Hamiyeh and his colleagues.

In the banner, Al Nusrah refers to "negotiations" that "were not blocked by us." The al Qaeda branch adds that it does not "have impossible demands" as some are claiming.

Al Nusrah writes that it became convinced that the negotiations surrounding Hamiyah had been "blocked" when it saw the "Hezbollah-controlled army" continuing its "operations by harassing the Syrian refugees in the country and on the borders of Arsal."

The banner warns: "Do not blame us if we have had enough!!"

It is certainly possible that Al Nusrah will follow through on the execution. The negotiations, which are reportedly being brokered by the government of Qatar, stalled this week. But the al Qaeda group is also likely using the threat as a way to extract a greater ransom, or other concessions in exchange for freeing the Lebanese hostages, if and when the negotiations resume.

The question, "Who will pay the price?," was also used in an Al Nusrah video showing nine captured members of the Lebanese security forces that was released August. The hostages say in the video that Hezbollah must remove all of its forces from Syria or they will be killed. Al Nusrah also has the soldiers and security officials held hostage implore their home towns to rise up in protest against Hezbollah.

The hostages were all reportedly captured in early August, during intense fighting in Arsal, which is in northern Lebanon on the Syrian border. Fighters from both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that is at odds with Al Nusrah, participated in the operations against Lebanese security forces.

Both groups are holding Lebanese soldiers and security officials hostage. To date, the Islamic State has reportedly killed two of the hostages held in its custody. But the Al Nusrah Front has not yet killed any of its hostages.

In addition to the threats on Hamiyeh's life this week, Al Nusrah has also posted videos purportedly showing its military operations against Hezbollah.

Al Nusrah has been freeing other hostages

In recent weeks, Al Nusrah has portrayed itself as being somewhat lenient with respect to hostages, especially when compared to its jihadist rivals in the Islamic State.

In late August, the group released an American named Peter Theo Curtis. The government of Qatar, which is reportedly helping to broker a deal for the Lebanese soldiers and security officials, also acted as an intermediary in Curtis's case.

Curtis was released just days after James Foley, another American, was brutally executed by the Islamic State.

Earlier this month, Al Nusrah released more than 40 UN peacekeepers from its custody. Al Nusrah's top sharia official, Dr. Sami al Uraydi, portrayed their release as a move consistent with the group's interpretation of Islamic law. Al Uraydi argued that the peacekeepers had been promised safe passage by one of Al Nusrah's "brothers" and it would have been illegal under sharia law to continue holding them, let alone kill them.

According to published reports, Al Nusrah actually received a ransom totaling millions of dollars in return for the peacekeepers' freedom. Al Uraydi did not mention the ransom in his video. As in Al Nusrah's other hostage operations, Qatar helped broker the deal.

In a series of tweets yesterday, another senior Al Nusrah sharia official, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, made the same argument as al Uraydi. But Abu Sulayman did so in the context of the Islamic State's kidnapping of Alan Henning, a British aid worker.

Abu Sulayman argued that Henning "entered Syria with a covenant of safety" provided by Muslims and, therefore, it is not legal under sharia law for the Islamic State to kill him.

"There is no justification in invalidating the covenant given to Alan Henning by Muslims," Abu Sulayman wrote. It "is binding upon us all." Abu Sulayman added that several prominent al Qaeda-affiliated clerics all "oppose the killing/kidnapping of" aid workers such as Henning. The clerics are Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, Eyad Qunaibi, and Hani Sibai. All four are staunch critics of the Islamic State.

Thus, Al Nusrah's handling of its Lebanese hostages has struck a markedly different tone than its other recent hostage operations.

*Oren Adaki, an Arabic language specialist and research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.

Islamist foreign fighters returning home and the threat to Europe (11:25AM)

Editor's note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn's testimony to the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats.

Chairman Rohrabacher, Ranking Member Keating and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the threat posed by Islamist foreign fighters returning home to Europe. We have been asked to answer the question, "How are European countries addressing the threat, and how can the US assist in those efforts to thwart future terrorist attacks?" I offer my thoughts in more detail below.

But I begin by recalling the 9/11 Commission's warning with respect to failed states. "In the twentieth century," the Commission's final report reads, "strategists focused on the world's great industrial heartlands." In the twenty-first century, however, "the focus is in the opposite direction, toward remote regions and failing states." A few sentences later, the Commission continues:

If, for example, Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home. Similarly, if we are paying insufficient attention to Afghanistan, the rule of the Taliban or warlords or narcotraffickers may reemerge and its countryside could once again offer refuge to al Qaeda, or its successor.

Those words were written more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, they still ring true today, not just for the US, but also for Europe. Except, we no longer have to worry about just Iraq becoming a failed state. We now have to contend with a failed state in Syria as well. And Syria is not "remote." It is much easier for foreign fighters to travel to Syria today than it was for new jihadists to get to Afghanistan in the 1980s. This is one reason that there are likely more foreign fighters in Syria than there were in Afghanistan at the height of the jihad against the Soviets. Estimates vary, but the total number of foreign recruits in Syria easily tops 10,000. A CIA source recently told CNN "that more than 15,000 foreign fighters, including 2,000 Westerners, have gone to Syria." They "come from more than 80 countries."

This, of course, is an unprecedented security challenge and one that counterterrorism and intelligence officials will be dealing with for some time to come. It requires exceptional international cooperation to track the threats to Europe and elsewhere emerging out of Iraq and Syria. My thoughts below are focused on what I consider to be some of the key aspects of dealing with this threat.

At the moment, most people are understandably focused on the Islamic State (often called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, or ISIS). There is certainly a strong possibility that some foreign fighters will return from fighting in the Islamic State's ranks to commit an act of terror at home, either on their own accord or under the direction of senior terrorists.

However, I also want to focus our attention today one of the other significant threat streams coming out of Syria. Al-Qaeda's official branch in the country, Jabhat al-Nusrah, has experienced al-Qaeda veterans in its ranks. I think they pose more of a near-term threat when it comes to launching catastrophic attacks in the West than do their Islamic State counterparts. And even though al-Nusrah and the Islamic State have been at odds, we should not rule out the possibility that parts of each organization could come together against their common enemies in the West. Indeed, two of al-Qaeda's leading branches are currently encouraging the jihadists in Syria to broker a truce, such that they focus their efforts against the US and its allies. There is also a large incentive for terrorists in both organizations to separately lash out at the West, portraying any such attacks as an act of retaliation for the American-led bombings.

In my opinion, the key issues that officials in Europe and the US will continue to address include the following:

  • Throughout much of the war in Syria, Turkey has had an open door policy for jihadist and non-jihadist fighters alike.

Turkey is not only a crucial transit point for jihadists entering Syria, it is also a common facilitation point for those returning to their home countries. European and American officials must continue to explore ways to put pressure on Turkey to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters and also convince the government to share as much intelligence as possible. Counterterrorism officials are most interested in intelligence identifying the fighters, recruiters, travel facilitators, financiers, arms distributors, and others.

  • Turkey's policy of distinguishing between the Islamic State and other extremists, including Jabhat al-Nusrah, an official branch of al-Qaeda, has been a failure.

While Turkey has been willing to work against the Islamic State, it has been far more accommodating when it comes to al-Nusrah and other extremist organizations. There have been occasional reports that the Turkish government has moved against al-Nusrah or other jihadists affiliated with the group. But this is not a consistent policy. Recently, the former American ambassador to Ankara, Francis Riccardione, told reporters that Turkey has been working with al-Nusrah. "We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree," Riccardione said. "The Turks frankly worked with groups for a period, including al Nusra[h], who we finally designated as we're not willing to work with." Turkey opposed the US government's decision to designate al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization in late 2012. And The Wall Street Journal, citing "officials involved in the internal discussions" surrounding the designation, even reported that the move was intended "to send a message to Ankara about the need to more tightly control the arms flow." Furthermore, the US Treasury Department has recognized Turkey as a key link between al-Qaeda's Iran-based network, Gulf donors, and operatives in Syria. In October 2012, Treasury reported that al-Qaeda's Iran-based network is "working to move fighters and money through Turkey to support al-Qa'ida-affiliated elements in Syria" and the head of that network at the time was also "leveraging his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey."

Turkey, therefore, is a key chokepoint for disrupting al-Qaeda's international terrorist network, including any terrorist plots aimed at the West.

  • Inside Syria today, al-Qaeda operatives in Jabhat al-Nusrah are already attempting to identify new recruits capable of striking the West.

US officials have warned of these efforts. "In Syria, veteran al Qaeda fighters have traveled from Pakistan to take advantage of the permissive operating environment and access to foreign fighters," the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Matthew Olsen, said during a speech earlier this month. Olsen added, "They are focused on plotting against the West." The Associated Press recently reported that a cell of al-Qaeda operatives known as the "Khorasan group" has been sent to Syria "by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a US-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials." Al-Qaeda operatives inside Syria are working with bomb makers from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a branch of al-Qaeda that has proven to be particularly adept at placing explosives on board airliners. Al-Qaeda has English-speaking recruiters inside Syria who are capable of indoctrinating new recruits. And some senior al-Qaeda operatives dispatched from Pakistan to Syria openly pine for attacks against the US homeland and American interests elsewhere on their widely-read Twitter accounts.

Thus, there is a clear and present danger that al-Qaeda will be able to successfully recruit new cells dedicated to attacking the West. Even if they assemble such cells, al-Qaeda will still have to get around the West's significant counterterrorism defenses. Still, the potential threat looms.

Most of the foreign fighters who travel from Europe to Syria will not become threats to their native or adopted home countries in the West. However, as the total number of foreign fighters increases, so does the probability that some of them will be repurposed for mass casualty attacks. Identifying the most "talented" and dedicated jihadist recruits should be a top priority.

  • Most of the foreign fighters who travel abroad will stay invested in the fight in Iraq and Syria. Others will become disillusioned and return home, realizing that the jihad is not as glamorous as it was made out to be. But as the number of foreign fighters increases, so does the talent pool available to professional terrorists interested in planning devastating terrorist attacks in the West.

Consider pre-9/11 Afghanistan. The overwhelming majority of al-Qaeda's recruits did not travel to Afghanistan to learn how to attack inside Europe or the US. Most of them fought inside Afghanistan, or were trained to fight in insurgencies elsewhere around the world. The 9/11 Commission found that between 10,000 and 20,000 recruits were trained in al-Qaeda-sponsored training camps between 1996 and September 11, 2001. Only "a small percentage" of those recruits "went on to receive advanced terrorist training." Of course, that "small percentage" of new jihadists included the suicide hijack pilots responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda's leaders recognized that, among all their recruits, the terrorists in the Hamburg cell possessed the right combination of aptitude, Westernized habits, and travel documents to carry out a 9/11-style attack.

Disillusioned foreign fighters can be a good source of intelligence concerning which jihadists are the most capable and committed. European officials likely use something akin to an informant network within the jihadists' ranks already. Such efforts help determine, albeit imperfectly, the difference between jihadi tourists and the true believers. American and European officials must share any such intelligence.

Past experience has shown that jihadists recruited in Europe can be used in attacks on the US, and American jihadists can be used in plots against European countries. A noteworthy example of the latter is the story of David Headley's career. Headley, an American, performed surveillance for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Al-Qaeda also considered using him in a plot against the Danish newspaper that published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

  • The Islamic State may or may not currently have the operational capability to launch mass casualty attacks in the West. But counterterrorism officials should constantly reassess their assumptions regarding the organization's reach.

Counterterrorism officials say they have no intelligence indicating that the Islamic State is currently planning attacks inside the US. Indeed, the group may not currently have the capability to carry out a large-scale attack in the West. However, the past offers us some reasons for concern.

We've learned that jihadist groups can quickly evolve from a national or regional insurgency into a threat against the US homeland. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was re-established in early 2009. On Christmas Day that year, a would-be suicide bomber nearly destroyed a Detroit-bound plane. Prior to that attack, AQAP wasn't considered a threat to the US homeland, as counterterrorism officials believed the group only posed a threat to US interests inside Yemen. The same can be said for the Pakistani Taliban, which trained a man to plant a car bomb in the middle of Times Square. Both attempts luckily failed.

While not all jihadist organizations will target the US, some of them will. And they can quickly become a direct threat to the US homeland. We should keep in mind that the presence of highly-skilled bomb makers within AQAP was not known until after their bombs were deployed. It also wasn't known that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, was an al-Qaeda operative until several months after his minions carried out their deeds in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

None of this is to suggest that we know the Islamic State is capable 9/11-style attacks today. The group is embroiled in a multi-sided fight in both Iraq and Syria, and this uses up much of its resources. But the lessons of the past are clear: The threat posed by the Islamic State can evolve quickly, and there is likely much we currently do not know. As NCTC director Matthew Olsen recent remarked, while counterterrorism officials have "no credible information that [the Islamic State] is planning to attack the" US, the group "has the potential to use its safe haven to plan and coordinate attacks in Europe and the US."

  • The Islamic State's leaders have directly threatened the US, and we should take their threats seriously, even if we are not sure about their capabilities.

In his very first recorded speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, threatened the US. Addressing American officials directly in an audio recording released on July 21, 2012, Baghdadi said: "As for your security, your citizens cannot travel to any country without being afraid. The mujahideen have launched after your armies, and have swore to make you taste something harder than what Usama had made you taste. You will see them in your home, Allah permitting. Our war with you has only begun, so wait." In January of this year, Baghdadi promised the US that it would soon be in a "direct confrontation." Baghdadi again addressed America directly, saying, "So as to let you know, you the protector of the cross, that the war of agency will not enrich you in Syria as it did not enrich you in Iraq, and very soon you will be in the direct confrontation - you will be forced to do so, Allah permitting. The sons of the Islam have settled their selves for this day."

The beheadings of two American reporters and one British citizen in recent weeks have highlighted just how aggressively anti-Western the Islamic State is. In each of the three gruesome videos, the Islamic State's executioner makes it clear that group is opposed to the US-led bombing campaign. The Islamic State almost certainly had the desire to strike in US and Europe even prior to the bombings, but with the West becoming involved in the fight, the group may now make attacks abroad more of a priority.

  • There are clear warning signs that the Islamic State and its sympathizers already threaten Europe. The Islamic State has a worldwide network of supporters, with known operatives throughout Europe.

The jihadist thought to be responsible for the May 24, 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium spent months in Syria. Four people were killed in his attack. One of the hostages held by the Islamic State has identified Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged shooter, as being responsible for torturing the group's prisoners in Syria. Even if the Islamic State's leadership did not order Nemmouche to carry out an attack at the Jewish Museum, or on any other target, the shooting demonstrates the ability of a known jihadist to carry out a small-scale assault after returning from Syria. French counterterrorism officials had already deemed Nemmouche to be a risk, reportedly placing him under surveillance after he returned from Syria in 2013. This should be considered a disturbing precedent, as Nemmouche was not an unknown at the time of his attack.

My colleague at The Long War Journal, Lisa Lundquist, has provided an excellent overview of the efforts made by counterterrorism officials in Europe and elsewhere to track and disrupt the Islamic State's international network. The Islamic State currently has the capacity to carry out smaller-scale attacks in Europe, if its operatives can evade counterterrorism defenses.

  • The Islamic State's predecessor organizations first posed a threat to Europe more than a decade ago. While the organization has evolved significantly since then, current counterterrorism efforts should be seen as a continuation of the past, recognizing that some of the same recruiting and facilitation networks have likely been involved the whole time.

Even before the Iraq War began in March 2003, the CIA was hunting suspected terrorists in Europe who were tied to al-Qaeda's operations in northern Iraq. The suspected terrorists worked in conjunction with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually evolved into the Islamic State. Former CIA director George Tenet writes in his autobiography that US officials' "efforts to track activities emanating from Kurmal [in northern Iraq] resulted in the arrest of nearly one hundred Zarqawi operatives in Western Europe planning to use poisons in operations." Tenet notes that in the summer of 2000 al-Qaeda worked with Kurdish Islamists, including Ansar al-Islam, "to create a safe haven for al-Qaeda in an area of northeastern Iraq not under Iraqi government control, in the event Afghanistan was lost as a sanctuary." The area became a "hub for al Qaeda operations" and "up to two hundred al Qaeda fighters began to relocate there in camps after the Afghan campaign began in the fall of 2001." Tenet also writes that two longtime subordinates to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri, were among the "dozen al Qaeda-affiliated extremists" who "converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government" in 2002. The CIA had "[c]redible information" that Shihata "was willing to strike US, Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future." Dardiri, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, went on to become one of the first leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq, which became the current Islamic State. Dardiri was killed in April 2010. Shihata was arrested in Egypt earlier this year.

The threats continued in the years that followed. The Department of Homeland of Security announced in 2004 that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was ordered by Osama bin Laden to assemble a cell capable of attacking the US. In 2007, failed attacks in London and Glasgow were tied back to AQI.

In sum, while for many the threat posed by the Islamic State appears to be a new phenomenon, it is actually the continuation of a story that dates back to late 2001.

Al Qaeda leader released from Iranian custody reported killed (12:56AM)

An al Qaeda leader who had been released from Iranian custody was killed in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region sometime in the last several months. The commander, an Egyptian who was recently identified as Abu Amru al Masri by a prominent jihadist, was mentioned in one of the 17 documents that were seized from Osama bin Laden's compound and released to the public. Thousands of bin Laden's documents remain classified.

A jihadist known as Al Wathiq Billah, who is active on Twitter and is connected to senior al Qaeda leaders, has noted that Abu Amru al Masri was killed. Billah mentioned Abu Amru while praising the martyrdom of another al Qaeda leader and discussing unsubstantiated rumors that surfaced on Sept. 17 that al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri was killed.

"May Allah have mercy on the commander Sufyan al Maghrebi and the commander Abu Amru al Masri," Billah said in a tweet. "And may He accept them in the ranks of the martyrs."

On Sept. 7, Billah and other al Qaeda leaders had noted the deaths of Sufyan al Maghrebi and Umar al Talib on Twitter. Sufyan was a paramilitary commander in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, or the Khorasan, while Umar was a propagandist with As Sahab, al Qaeda's media production company. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda operations chief, propagandist reported killed in airstrikes.]

Billah did not note the circumstances or date of Abu Amru's death, or provide details of his status in al Qaeda. Given that Abu Amru was mentioned and praised by Billah, he likely served as a mid- to senior level al Qaeda leader or military commander at the time of his death.

Abu Amru al Masri and the bin Laden documents

Abu Amru is mentioned in one of the 17 documents from bin Laden's compound that were seized from Abbottabad and released to the public. In a letter dated June 11, 2009 that is thought to have been written by Atiyah Abd al Rahman to another senior al Qaeda leader, Abu Amru is mentioned by name. Atiyah served as al Qaeda's general manager until he was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011.

The letter discusses the release of al Qaeda "brothers" from Iranian custody. It appears that Abu Amru was one of a group of al Qaeda commanders who were slated to be released from Iranian custody.

"And it is possible to include the following in the next group: Aba Hafs al Arab, Aba Ziyad al Iraqi, Abu Amru al Masri, and others .... And we ask God for the release of the others (old ones and young ones) ... Amen," the letter said.

In the previous paragraph, the author of the letter notes that Iran is releasing "mid-level brothers."

"And what I mean is that they speeded up releasing the brothers during this period. And those brothers are mid-level brothers," the author wrote.

It is unclear when Abu Amru was freed from detention. But some time after the letter was written, the commander left Iran, joined up with al Qaeda's leadership along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and reintegrated with al Qaeda's command.

Al Qaeda in Iran

Iran is known to have placed scores of al Qaeda leaders and operatives, and their families, into protective custody after many fled Afghanistan during the US invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001-2002. But top al Qaeda leaders and operatives, including Saif al Adel and Saad bin Laden, are known to have planned and executed attacks in the region while in Iranian custody. Yasin al Suri and Sanafi al Nasr ran al Qaeda's network in Iran for years. [See LWJ reports, Treasury targets Iran's 'secret deal' with al Qaeda and Senior al Qaeda facilitator 'back on the street' in Iran.]

In recent years, Adel, Saad, Hamza bin Laden, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Mafouz Ould Walid (Abu Hafs al Mauritani), and dozens of other al Qaeda leaders, operatives, and family members have been released from Iranian custody. [For more information on Iran's detention of al Qaeda leaders, see LWJ reports, Osama bin Laden's spokesman freed by Iran, and Analysis: Al Qaeda's interim emir and Iran.]

Oren Adaki contributed to this report.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Islamic State assaults city in Syrian Kurdistan (11:18AM)

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) engage Islamic State Humvees in the battle for Kobane in northern Syria.

The northern Syrian city of Kobane, or Ayn al Arab, is under heavy siege by Islamic State militants for the third consecutive day. The Islamic State is reported to have taken control of 21 villages outside of Kobane.

Since 2012, Kobane has been controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish force affiliated with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. The YPG have since considered Kobane to be part of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan.

The Islamic State first tried to seize Kobane in July, but was fended off by the YPG, with the likely help of the PKK. Since then, there has been sporadic fighting between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State in the surrounding villages.

Three days ago, the Islamic State initiated another attempt to seize the city. Videos of the battle for Kobane indicate that the Islamic State has launched a full assault to take over the city. The videos show Islamic State fighters deploying tanks as well as several Humvees captured during recent advances in Iraq.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) engage and Islamic State tank in Kobane.

According to some Kurdish activists on Twitter, the Islamic State's assault is three-pronged: it appears that the IS is attacking Kobane from the east, south, and west of the city. Additionally, the IS assault force is shelling the city, likely with mortars and rockets.

Aftermath of the Islamic State's shelling of Kobane.

Islamic State continues to advance in Aleppo province

While the Islamic State's advance in northern and central Iraq has been halted since the US intervened with airstrikes on Aug. 7, the group's momentum in Syria has not been checked.

The battle for control of Kobane is the latest in the Islamic State's campaign to extend its control of Aleppo province and seize several of the major border crossings to Turkey.

Since mid-August, the Islamic State has been pressing the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, as well as Ahrar al Sham, the Islamic Front, and other rival jihadist groups in northern Aleppo. [See LWJ report, Islamic State advances against jihadist foes in Aleppo.] Islamic State fighters have reached the outskirts of Marea, about 15 miles north of the city of Aleppo.

The Islamic State currently controls the Jarabulus crossing to the west and the Tal Abayd crossing to the east. Control of the crossings allows the IS to control the flow of weapons, recruits cash, and material coming in from Turkey, and also restricts the Kurdish rebels' access to northern Aleppo and Raqqah provinces.

Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities seized by the Islamic State and its allies. Map created by Patrick Megahan and Bill Roggio for The Long War Journal. Click to view larger map.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

AQIS claims plot to strike US warships was executed by Pakistani Navy officers (08:03PM)

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed that Pakistani Navy officers were involved in the failed attempt to hijack a Pakistani warship and launch missiles at US Navy vessels in the Indian Ocean.

AQIS' spokesman, Usama Mahmoud, made the claim today in a statement released on his Twitter account. Mahmoud's statement was obtained by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Mahmoud had previously claimed on Sept. 13 that AQIS executed the attack on the Pakistani warship, and published a diagram purporting to show the layout of the PNS Zulfiqar. He said that the attackers had planned to take control of the PNS Zulfiqar and launch missiles at US warships in the Indian Ocean. The PNS Zulfiqar carries at least eight C-802 surface to surface anti-ship missiles. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claims 2 attacks in Pakistan.]

In today's statement, Mahmoud accuses the Pakistani military and media outlets of attempting "to deliberately cover up the truth of this operation and the nature of its objectives," according to SITE. "In an obvious attempt to deceive the world, the official spokesmen for the army and navy portrayed the attack as targeting the Pakistani Navy alone, and its arsenal in the city of Karachi in particular."

But Mahmoud says the "true objective of the operation ... is the American naval fleet that is stationed in the Indian Ocean."

The AQIS spokesman denied that the Sept. 6 assault on the PNS Zulfiqar at the naval base in Karachi was carried out by "intruders," and instead said that Pakistani naval "officers" executed the attack.

"The official Pakistani story alleged that the attackers were merely a group of intruders that breached a military institution of the Pakistani Navy, and broke in from outside," Mahmoud says. "However, all the participants in this fearless operation were officers serving in the ranks of the Pakistani Navy."

The naval officers, Mahmoud claims, "responded to the appeal of the scholars and jihad and joined the ranks of the mujahideen."

Mahmoud described the officers' involvement in the attack as a "rebellion" and not just an attempt to strike at the US.

"Therefore, this operation does not represent an attack on the Americans alone, but it is a rebellion against the Pakistani Navy by its own elements, striking the policy of humiliation and subjugation to America, which the Satanic alliance - represented in the Americanized generals, selfish politicians, and corrupt government employees - imposes," Mahmoud says.

Mahmoud goes on to explain AQIS' "reasons for targeting America." The reasons are standard for al Qaeda, and include the US' perceived war on Islam, and America's support for Israel, Muslim countries, and "secular movements."

The US Navy was chosen as a target because "through its naval military superiority, America is able to control ours straits, our channels, and our waters, and loot the fortunes of our Ummah [Muslim community]," Mahmoud says.

Reports of collusion within Pakistani Navy

While Mahmoud's claim that Pakistani naval officers executed the attack on the PNS Zulfiqar cannot be proven, Pakistani officials and press reports indicate that at least some of the attackers are members of the Pakistani military.

Khawaja Asif, Pakistan's Defense Minister, said that "some of the navy staff of commissioned ranks and some outsiders" were involved in the attack, according to Dawn.

The Nation reported that a former naval officer known as Awais Jakhrani was killed during the attack. Jakhrani, the son of a Karachi Police Assistant Inspector General, had "links with [a] banned organization."

Additionally, three "Navy officials" were arrested in Quetta in Baluchistan while trying to flee to Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Navy has long been thought to be infiltrated by al Qaeda. In late May 2011, Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote an article in the Asia Times on the jihadist attack on Pakistan Naval Base Mehran in Karachi. That attack was carried out by Brigade 313, a unit led by al Qaeda and Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami leader Ilyas Kashmiri. In his article, Shahzad noted that Pakistani officials had begun investigating jihadist "groupings" within the Navy in the spring of 2011 and discovered a "sizeable al Qaeda infiltration within the navy's ranks."

After military officials detained and interrogated suspected jihadist infiltrators, al Qaeda threatened to launch attacks against military bases. The Pakistani military opened negotiations with al Qaeda, which ultimately failed. Then Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Abbottabad on May 1, 2011. Al Qaeda and allied Pakistani jihadists decided to take revenge, obtaining detailed information on Mehran from their Navy infiltrators.

"Within a week, insiders at PNS Mehran provided maps, pictures of different exit and entry routes taken in daylight and at night, the location of hangers and details of likely reaction from external security forces," Shahzad wrote.

Shahzad's article, which was published on May 27, 2011, is widely believed to have resulted in his murder at the hands of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. He was kidnapped and murdered just two days after it was published.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Al Qaeda branches urge jihadist unity against US (10:37AM)

Two branches of al Qaeda's international organization, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have released a joint statement urging jihadists in Iraq and Syria to unite against their common enemy, America, "the head of infidelity."

AQIM and AQAP also offer their condolences for the Ahrar al Sham leaders who were killed in an explosion last week.

The statement was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

The two al Qaeda branches lament the "negative effects" of the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria, which has pitted the Islamic State against the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, and others.

The Islamic State was once part of al Qaeda's international network, but was disowned by al Qaeda's general command earlier this year. Al Nusrah is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria and Ahrar al Sham is an al Qaeda-linked organization that is closely allied with Al Nusrah. Ahrar al Sham is also the most powerful group in the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel organizations that is opposed to both Bashar al Assad's regime and the Islamic State.

"The sadness of jihadi factions for the loss of the best of their leaders and sons in infighting is not absent from our minds," AQAP and AQIM write, according to SITE's translation. "Indeed, the infighting only benefits the sons of Zion, the worshippers of the Cross, the Rawafidh [Shiites], the Nusayris [a derogatory term for Alawites]."

"Then here is America, the head of infidelity and the symbol of aggression and tyranny, poking its head anew, bringing behind it an alliance of the Crusaders and their apostate agents," the two al Qaeda branches write. "It is leading a Crusader campaign to fight Islam and the Muslims, so as to bring another tragedy upon the Ummah, under the excuse of striking the Islamic State, and destroying it, as they claim!!"

AQAP and AQIM urge the warring jihadist factions to "[s]top the infighting between you and stand as one rank against America's campaign and that of its satanic alliance that lies in wait or all of us to break us stick by stick."

Thus, the al Qaeda branches portray the American bombing campaign in Iraq and other actions not as a fight against the Islamic State, but as part of an imagined Zionist-Crusader conspiracy against Muslims.

They encourage the rival jihadist factions to stand together against the American-led alliance. And they recall the words of Osama bin Laden, who said: "Do not consult anyone regarding the fighting against Americans."

Not siding with the Islamic State against al Qaeda

Both AQAP and AQIM have commented on the infighting between the Islamic State and its rivals previously. Their statements have been widely misinterpreted as evidence that they are siding with the Islamic State against al Qaeda. This is not true. While there have been individual supporters of the Islamic State within both organizations, neither group has broken from al Qaeda's ranks.

AQAP and AQIM have consistently encouraged the opposing jihadists in Syria to set aside their differences. Al Qaeda's senior leadership has made a similar plea. Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda, attempted reconciliation as recently as May, months after al Qaeda's general command disowned the Islamic State.

In a message posted on jihadist forums on July 1, AQIM praised the jihadists' advances in Iraq and called upon the Islamic State "to take advantage of these conquests and winds of victory to gather and meet, and forget the past of dispute and conflict, and open a new page with their brothers." AQIM also recommended that the "mujahideen brothers in Sham ... strongly support the conquests of their brothers in Iraq." This was in line with Zawahiri's advice, AQIM noted. The group also referred to Zawahiri as "our Sheikh and Emir," indicating that Zawahiri was still its boss.

AQIM's message in early July was very similar to a statement released by Abu Iyad al Tunisi, the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, in mid-June. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is tied to AQIM. Tunisi also called on the jihadists to unite behind the Islamic State's successes in Iraq. Tunisi, however, was still respectful of Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah.

In a statement released in mid-July, AQIM made it crystal clear that it was not siding with the Islamic State in its rivalry with al Qaeda. AQIM explicitly rejected the Islamic State's caliphate declaration. In the same statement, AQIM reaffirmed its bayat (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri. We "confirm that we still adhere to our pledge of allegiance to our sheikh and emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, since it is a Sharia-accorded pledge of allegiance that remains hanging on our necks, and we do not see what requires use to break it," AQIM's statement reads. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia republished the message on its official Facebook page.

AQAP has followed a similar course. In early March, AQAP released an audio message warning against "sedition" and decrying the "murder of any of the mujahideen in any group."

On Aug. 12, AQAP's chief theologian, Ibrahim Rubaish, praised the jihadists' "victories" in Iraq, but did not even name the Islamic State in his video address. Rubaish's statement is not evidence that his sympathies lie with the Islamic State, as opposed to al Qaeda.

Indeed, in early July, Rubaish and another AQAP ideologue released a message denouncing the "slander" of jihadist leaders. Even though Rubaish did not name the Islamic State's supporters, the message was clearly aimed at them. Rubaish's critique coincided with the release of a poem by Nasir al Wuhayshi, who serves as both AQAP's emir and al Qaeda's general manager. Wuhayshi heaped praise on Zawahiri in the poem, calling him the "sheikh father" of the mujahideen.

Earlier this month, AQAP heralded the creation of a new al Qaeda branch in the Indian subcontinent. AQAP offered "special congratulations" to "our Sheikh and good Emir," Ayman al Zawahiri.

Honoring the fallen Ahrar al Sham leaders

At the conclusion of their statement, AQAP and AQIM honor the Ahrar al Sham leaders who were killed in an explosion in Syria earlier this month. "[W]e give our sincere condolences to the mujahideen of Ahrar al Sham, and we press on their hands and ask Allah to have mercy on their martyrs and reward us and them in their tragedy, and compensate us and them with those who are better," the statement reads, according to SITE's translation.

This is an additional indication that the two al Qaeda branches do not intend their statement to be read as a break from al Qaeda in favor of the Islamic State. Ahrar al Sham, which was cofounded by a senior al Qaeda operative, is one of the Islamic State's fiercest rivals.

AQAP and AQIM have now joined the Al Nusrah Front and other al Qaeda members in mourning the death of Ahrar al Sham's leaders.

Thus, the statement by the two al Qaeda branches should not be read as evidence that the groups are no longer loyal to al Qaeda's senior leadership. Even some Al Nusrah Front officials are rhetorically siding with the Islamic State as the American bombs fall. Fighters from the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State have spilled each others' blood since last year.

Al Qaeda operations chief, propagandist reported killed in airstrikes (12:12AM)

Jihadists on Twitter who are thought to be connected to al Qaeda's senior leadership have reported that the group's paramilitary commander in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as well as a propagandist were killed in airstrikes earlier this year.

The two slain al Qaeda operatives were identified as Sufyan al Maghribi, a Moroccan who served as al Qaeda's military chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Umar al Talib, a propagandist who narrated videos for As Sahab.

Their deaths were reported on Twitter by influential online jihadists, including "Maktabah Askariyah Shamilah" and "Al Wathiq Billah," who are said to be connected to senior al Qaeda leaders. The two jihadists have provided accurate information about al Qaeda's senior leadership in the past. For instance, in April 2013, Al Wathiq Billah noted that Abu Ubaydah Abdullah al Adam, a senior al Qaeda leader who served as the group's intelligence chief, was killed in a drone strike. Al Qaeda later acknowledged al Adam's death. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda intelligence chief reported killed in drone strike.]

The exact dates of the deaths of the two al Qaeda operatives have not been disclosed. Al Qaeda has not released official statements announcing their deaths.

Sufyan al Maghribi

Suyfan is said to have been killed in a drone strike in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in March.

"Al Qaeda's military official in Khorasan [the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater] was also killed in a drone strike," Shamilah tweeted on Sept. 7.

Billah confirmed Sufyan's death, and noted that outside of al Qaeda's inner circles he was relatively unknown, as are most of the group's important commanders who work in the shadows.

"I ask Allah to accept you among the ranks of the martyrs," Billah said on Sept. 7. "People such as these you do not hear a sound from them, they work in silence and leave in silence."

If the reports of Sufyan's death are true, he was likely killed in Afghanistan, as the US did not launch any strikes in Pakistan between the end of December 2013 and mid-June of this year.

A jihadist known as Sarkhat al Ani tweeted that he personally knew Sufyan, and described him as "the last of those who remain from the veteran Moroccans of Khorasan."

Al Ani described Suyfan as a "hijra [migration, presumably to Afghanistan] companion" of Abu Ahmad al Maghribi, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who is also known as Ibrahim Bin Shakaran and Brahim Benchekroune. Bin Shakaran was a Moroccan who spent more than three years at the Guantanamo detention facility before being released to Moroccan custody. He was killed this spring while leading a jihadist group that fights Syrian government forces.

"Praised is Allah it is as if he [Suyfan] could take no more following his hijra companion's dismounting to Khorasan Abu Ahmad al Maghribi," Al Ani tweeted on Sept. 7.

"His origins are from the Amazigh [Berbers] of distant Morocco and he hails from Dar al Baydha [Casablanca] from the Sha'abi district which has provided and still does provide many martyrs," Al Ani continued.

Al Maghribi replaced Farman Shinwari, the previous commander of al Qaeda's paramilitary forces in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Shinwari, a commander in the al Qaeda-linked Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, is thought to have been killed sometime in 2013. In a video released by al Qaeda in May 2013, the group referred to Shinwari as if he were dead.

Shinwari replaced Badr Mansoor, who was killed in a drone strike in 2012. Mansoor, who commanded an al Qaeda "company," was also a leader in the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen. Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen is currently running training camps in Afghanistan. The US is reported to have killed two Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen commanders in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province over the weekend. [See LWJ reports, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen 'operates terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan' and 2 al Qaeda commanders reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.]

Some of al Qaeda's most revered leaders have served as military commander in the Afghan-Pakistan theater. Previous leaders are Ilyas Kashmiri, Abdallah Sa'id al Libi, and Abu Laith al Libi. All three commanders were killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Umar al Talib

Umar al Talib is a Saudi citizen whose real name is Adil Salih Ahmad al Qumayshi. He is on Saudi Arabia's list of 47 most wanted terrorists, which was issued in 2011.

Shamilah tweeted that al Talib was "killed about two months ago" and identified him as al Qumayshi.

"I ask Allah to accept him [as a martyr] and make his residence the highest paradise," he continued.

Billah confirmed his death "in an American airstrike on the soil of Khorasan."

Sufyan "spent half of his life in the battlefields of jihad," Billah continued, and

The US launched one drone strike in Pakistan in July. Several "foreigners," a term used to describe Arabs and other foreign fighters, were reported to have been killed in the strike, which took place in Datta Khel, a known hub for al Qaeda's leadership cadre in North Waziristan.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Caucasus Emirate eulogizes slain Ahrar al Sham leaders (12:14AM)


The Dagestani branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate recently issued a statement that praised the assassinated leaders of Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda ally in Syria. Not long after the Al Nusrah Front released a statement on their deaths, the Caucasus Emirate has followed suit, saying that it had "heard of the pain of the martyrdom of the leaders and scholars of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiyya" (the full Arabic name for Ahrar al Sham).

The Caucasus Emirate's statement compares the killing of the top leaders of Ahrar to the deaths of Shamil Basayev and Abu Walid, two former leaders in the North Caucasian jihad, and notes that "the killings [of Basayev and Abu Walid] did not end the jihad in the Caucasus." In other words, the Caucasus Emirate is saying that the death of the leaders of Ahrar will not stop the jihad in Syria and that Ahrar will keep fighting. According to the Islamic Front's official English Twitter page, most groups that make up Ahrar al Sham have already sworn bayat (loyalty) to Abu Jaber, the new Ahrar leader. Abu Jaber previously led a unit in the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

Towards the end of the statement, the Caucasus Emirate says it hopes that the slain Ahrar al Sham leaders "will end up like the martyred Shaykh Abu Khalid al Suri," a founding member of Ahrar al Sham who served as al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri's personal representative in Syria. The CE's Dagestani brranch then notes that al Suri "helped the Caucasian Mujahideen." It is not clear if al Suri's assistance was provided to Caucasus Emirate fighters in Syria or in the North Caucasus in Russia.

The Caucasus Emirate does have a branch inside Syria. Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers, or Mujahireen Army), a Chechen-led group fighting in Syria, considers itself to be the official branch of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria, according to From Chechnya to Syria. The group is led by Salahuddin Shishani, who took over after the death of another Chechen, Sayfullah Shishani, who died fighting near the Aleppo Central Prison in February. The Muhajireen Army often fights alongside Al Nusrah, and is also allied to Ahrar al Sham.

Background on al Suri

Khalid al Suri, who was al Qaeda's main representative in Syria before his death, was instrumental in the creation of Ahrar al Sham. Al Suri's real name was Mohamad Bahaiah, and he had served a "trusted courier for Osama bin Laden." Spanish authorities also think he may have delivered surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center and other American landmarks to al Qaeda's senior leadership in Afghanistan in early 1998.

In a December 2013 article, the Beirut-based publication As-Safir reported that Bahaiah "has played a prominent role" in Ahrar al Sham since its founding and "has sought to to cooperate and consult with prominent al Qaeda figures regarding the best methods of jihadist work in Syria." The publication cited a "source in the Ahrar al Sham movement."

Moreover, The Daily Beast has reported that Bahaiah was "overseeing the relationship between the al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic Front."

Bahaiah kept his role within Ahrar al Sham out of the spotlight. US officials have said that he was part of a secretive al Qaeda cadre that has sought to influence or co-opt parts of the Syrian insurgency that are not official al Qaeda branches. Al Suri was killed in February of this year, likely by the Islamic State.

Other eulogy statements for the Ahrar al Sham leaders

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch inside Syria, has also eulogized the slain leaders. In its statement, Al Nusrah said that "the people of Syria and the entire Islamic ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] have lost a group from the best of its men and leaders, leaving behind a wound that will not heal, and a gap that is not easy to fill and fortify. The trust remains around all of our necks to complete the march, and to achieve the desired goal, which is establishing a rightly-guided Islamic government on the blessed land of Sham [Syria]." [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front releases eulogy commemorating Ahrar al Sham leaders.]

Ahrar al Sham and Al Nusrah are close allies on the battlefields in Syria. Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham, either by itself or with the larger Islamic Front coalition to which it belongs, have fought together in several key battles in Syria.

Another jihadist group that has eulogized the slain Ahrar leaders is Jaysh al Mujahideen, the Iraqi insurgent group (not to be confused with the Syrian rebel group of the same name). Jaysh al Mujahideen fought against US and Coalition forces during the Iraq War and was responsible for several kidnappings. Jaysh al Mujahideen said it hopes that "God will accept the noblest people of Sham [Syria] as martyrs."

The Caucasus Emirate (at least through its Dagestani branch) has now joined al Qaeda's official branch in Syria and other jihadist groups in offering condolences to Ahrar al Sham. The eulogies from Al Nusrah and the Caucasus Emirate serve to demonstrate just how close Ahrar is to al Qaeda, even after al Suri's death.

Caleb is a political science student focusing on the Middle East.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

2 al Qaeda commanders reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan (11:10AM)

Two al Qaeda commanders are reported to have been killed in a US airstrike in the eastern Afghan province of Paktika. The deaths of the jihadist leaders, who are members of an al Qaeda company known as the Badr Mansoor Group, have not been confirmed.

The two were identified by Dawn as Aqalzadin and Ikramullah, who were among seven jihadists reported to have been killed in "a US drone strike" that targeted "a compound near Komal village of Paktika province." The area is near Pakistan's tribal agency of South Waziristan, which is a hub for al Qaeda and other Pakistani jihadist groups.

Al Qaeda and other Pakistani jihadist groups have not released a statement announcing the martyrdom of the two Badr Mansoor Group commanders.

It is unclear if the airstrike was carried out by the International Security Assistance Force or the CIA. Both ISAF and the CIA operate the remotely piloted Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan, while the CIA exclusively directs drone strikes in Pakistan. ISAF has not responded to an inquiry by The Long War Journal on the operation, whereas the CIA does not release information on its air operations in Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda is known to maintain a presence in Paktika province, which is a hub for the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network, a powerful Taliban subgroup. On June 2, jihadist forums published a video titled "We are on a journey to the hereafter," and was released by As Sahab in the Subcontinent. As Sahab is the name of al Qaeda's official media arm.

The video showed al Qaeda operatives conducting training exercises and executing attacks in Paktika's Urgun district. The video included a speech by Hajji Abdullah Afghani and another unnamed Afghan al Qaeda commander who called for Muslims across the world to wage jihad.

"Waging jihad is obligatory upon all Muslims and upon the entire Muslim Ummah," the unnamed al Qaeda commander said in a speech. He continued: "And why should we wage jihad? So that the Koran can become the ultimate authority in the entire world!" according to a translation of the speech that was obtained by The Long War Journal.

Badr Mansoor Group one of al Qaeda's military companies in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Badr Mansoor Group is named after Badr Mansoor, a Harakat-ul-Mujahideen leader in Pakistan who rose in al Qaeda's ranks to lead the group's forces in the tribal areas before he was killed in a US drone strike in Miramshah, North Waziristan in February 2012.

In one of the 17 documents that were released by the US from Osama bin Laden's collection of thousands seized during the Abbottabad raid, Mansoor was identified as a commander of a "company" of al Qaeda's forces operating in Pakistan. [See LWJ reports, Bin Laden docs hint at large al Qaeda presence in Pakistan and Al Qaeda asserts authority in letter to Pakistani Taliban leader.]

At the time of his death, Mansoor was described as al Qaeda's military leader in Pakistan who was closely linked to other Pakistani terror groups. Mansoor was able to funnel in recruits from Pakistani terror groups such as the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, and he was known to have a large cadre of fighters at his disposal. According to Central Asia Online, Mansoor's company had "more than 2,200 members with 350 hardcore fighters and more than 150 suicide bombers." His group is believed to have participated in terror attacks in Pakistan's major cities, including Lahore, Karachi, and Quetta, indicating that its network is not confined to Pakistan's tribal areas.

The Badr Mansoor Group continued to operate after its leader's death.

In August, the US State Department confirmed that Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen is currently running training camps in Afghanistan. While not stated in the designation, these Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen training camps are run by the Badr Mansoor Group. The locations of the camps were not disclosed.

"HUM also operates terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan and has conducted a number of operations against Indian troops and civilian targets in the Kashmir region," The State Department said in an update of its Foreign Terrorist Designation of Harakat-ul-Mujahideen that listed Ansar ul-Ummah as "a front organization." [See LWJ report, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen 'operates terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan'.]

Al Qaeda still present in Afghanistan

While Obama administration officials have stated that al Qaeda has been "decimated" in Afghanistan in Pakistan, and military officials have said al Qaeda is confined to the northeastern eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, the group and its allies such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have continued to operate throughout Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda and its allies have been heavily targeted by ISAF in special operations raids over the past decade. ISAF publicized 338 raids from 2007 until the summer of 2013, when it ended reporting. Many senior jihadist leaders and operatives were killed or captured during those operations. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan's leader in Afghanistan was captured in one of the raids in 2011. He has since been released and has returned to lead jihadists in Kunduz province. [See LWJ report, Senior IMU leader captured by ISAF in 2011 now leads fight in northern Afghanistan.]

Although reporting on the raids ended, the operations have not stopped. One such raid, in December 2013, targeted a boat that was transporting al Qaeda and Taliban operatives on the Kabul River. That raid killed two al Qaeda commanders, three members of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and two members of the Afghan Taliban.

The two al Qaeda leaders were described as "close companions of Ilyas Kashmiri," the renowned Pakistani jihadist who was killed in a US drone strike in South Waziristan in June 2011. Kashmiri rose through the ranks of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, or HUJI, led Brigade 313, and ultimately served as the leader of al Qaeda's Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army, and as a member of al Qaeda's military shura at the time of his death.

The al Qaeda operatives were commanders in the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda's paramilitary unit that fields forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and also embeds military trainers within Taliban units in both countries. These trainers provide instruction for battling security forces in local insurgencies, as well as knowledge, expertise, funding, and resources to conduct local and international attacks. [For more information on this unit, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda's paramilitary 'Shadow Army,' from February 2009.]

A new regional al Qaeda branch

In the past week, al Qaeda formalized its relationship with the various jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan by announcing the creation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.

The formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was announced by the group's emir Ayman al Zawahiri in a video released on Sept. 5. In that statement, Zawahiri noted that AQIS "is the fruit of a blessed effort for more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid," according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

The new regional al Qaeda affiliate likely includes elements from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Harakat-ul-Muhajideen, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Brigade 313, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Indian Mujahideen (a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Junood al Fida, and other groups based in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. AQIS has since claimed credit for two attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of a military officer and an attempt to hijack a Pakistani frigate in order to attack US warships in the region.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Islamic State beheads British citizen, threatens another (07:30PM)

The Islamic State released a video today of the beheading of David Cawthorne Haines, a British citizen who was kidnapped while providing security for an aid group in Syria's Idlib province in March 2013. In the video, the Islamic State also threatens to kill Alan Henning, another captive British citizen, if Britain continues to support operations against the jihadist group.

The short video begins with a clip of Prime Minister David Cameron explaining Britain's role in fighting the Islamic State. After the brief clip of Cameron, the words "A message to the allies of America" is displayed.

Haines, whose hands are cuffed behind his back and is wearing an orange shirt and pants, is shown kneeling in the desert. A masked Islamic State fighter dressed in black and wielding a knife stands to Haine's side.

"I would like to declare that I hold you, David Cameron, entirely responsible for my execution," Haines says. "You entered voluntarily into a coalition with the United States against the Islamic State, just as your predecessor Tony Blair did, following a trend amongst our British prime ministers who can't find the courage to say no to the Americans. Unfortunately, it is we the British public that in the end will pay for the price for our parliament's selfish decisions."

The knife-wielding jihadist says that Haines "has to pay the price for your promise to Cameron to arm the Peshmerga against the Islamic State." He also claims that Haines "has spent a decade of his life serving under the brutal air force that is responsible for delivering those arms."

The Islamic State executioner then says that Britain's "evil alliance with America, which continues to strike the Muslims of Iraq and most recently bombed the Haditha Dam, will only accelerate your destruction" and "will only drag you and your people into another bloody and un-winnable war."

The jihadist then proceeds to behead the British man. Haines' bloody body is displayed, with his head placed on his back.

The video then shows the executioner standing next to Alan Henning, another British citizen who was captured by the Islamic State.

"If you Cameron insist on fighting the Islamic State then you, like your master, Obama, will have the blood of your people on your hands," the jihadist says.

The murder of Haines appears to be shot in the same location as the Islamic State's previous beheading videos of Steven Joel Sotloff and James Wright Foley, two American journalists who were captured in Syria. The Islamic State fighter looks and sounds to be the same man who beheaded the two American journalists.

If the past is any indication, the Islamic State will execute Henning within the next two weeks. The Islamic State released its first execution video, of Foley, on Aug. 19, and in it threatened Sotloff. The video of Sotloff's beheading was released on Sept. 2, and Haines was threatened.

"An act of pure evil"

Prime Minister Cameron responded to the beheading of Haines by describing it as "an act of pure evil."

"We will do everything in our power to hunt down these murderers and ensure they face justice, however long it takes," Cameron said, according the BBC.

The US government has refused to halt its air campaign and has even expanded operations after the beheadings of Sotloff and Foley. US warplanes moved from defending Irbil and aiding refugees on Mount Sinjar to supporting not only an operation by Kurdish and Iraqi forces to retake the Mosul Dam, but also an offensive by Iraqi forces and an Iranian-backed Shia militia to break the Islamic State's siege of Amerli, and the defense of the Haditha Dam in Anbar by military and tribal forces.

In the airstrikes, which began on Aug. 7, the US military has destroyed numerous Islamic State armored personnel carriers, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and technicals and pickup trucks, in addition to fixed fighting positions. The number of Islamic State fighters and commanders killed in the airstrikes has not been disclosed. On Sept. 13 CENTCOM said it had conducted a total of 158 airstrikes across Iraq against the Islamic State.

The US is attempting to put together a coalition of nations to support its counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State. President Barack Obama said the operation would mirror the "successfully pursued" counterterrorism efforts in Yemen and Somalia.

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claims 2 attacks in Pakistan (03:58PM)

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the newest branch of the international terrorist organization, claimed two terrorist attacks in Pakistan during its first week of operations. The official spokesman for AQIS, Usama Mahmoud, released statements and photos on his Twitter feed offering details for both attacks.

The first attack occurred on Sept. 2, when AQIS operatives killed Brigadier Fazal Zahoor, a senior officer in the Pakistani Army. AQIS accuses Zahoor of killing innocent women and children in Waziristan, which is a hub for several jihadist organizations in northern Pakistan. Zahoor was apparently off duty when he was killed.

According to local press reports, Zahoor's assassins were riding motorcycles and escaped unharmed.

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 3.34.40 PM.png

On his Twitter feed, AQIS spokesman Usama Mahmoud posted this image purportedly showing a diagram of the PNS Zulfiqar beneath a photo of American warships.

On Sept. 6, AQIS operatives attempted, and failed, to execute an even more audacious attack. The terrorists boarded a Pakistani ship, the PNS Zulfiqar, which has been docked. They apparently planned, according to AQIS, to launch missiles from the Zulfiqar at US warships.

There are widely conflicting accounts in the press of the attack on Sept. 6. The version reported here is based on tweets by the AQIS spokesman and is not an independent account of the raid.

Mahmoud posted a purported diagram of the Zulfiqar, which the group says was obtained by insiders who served in the Pakistani Navy. AQIS included a picture of US warships above the diagram posted by Mahmoud.

The statement from AQIS says that the jihadists had taken over the PNS Zulfiqar and were set to attack the American warships when Pakistani forces interceded. Some of the attackers were "martyred."

Other terrorists, not mentioned by Mahmoud, were reportedly captured and are being interrogated.

Mahmoud says on his Twitter feed that a video of the martyrs will be released soon.

Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders announced the formation of AQIS earlier this month.

Mahmoud explained at the time that AQIS "was formed by the gathering of several jihadi groups that have a long history in jihad and fighting ... so they united and came together and applied the directives of their beloved emir, Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him, on the ground." He did not identify the groups that had joined the new al Qaeda branch, which is headed by Asim Umar, a longtime Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda ideologue.

Much of the press reporting on AQIS' formation has focused on its potential impact inside India and other neighboring countries. But Mahmoud bristles at this reporting in his tweets, saying the group seeks to liberate the Muslims inside India, but is also focused on fighting the Pakistani military.

Both of AQIS' claimed attacks serve to illustrate Mahmoud's point. According to the group, Brigadier Zahoor and the Pakistani Army are "puppet[s]" of the US. And the group's second attack was thwarted by Pakistani security forces, who prevented AQIS from attacking American warships.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Analysis: Al Nusrah Front explains decision to release UN peacekeepers (12:34PM)

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, released more than 40 UN peacekeepers from its custody yesterday. And the group explained its reasoning in a video that was distributed on its social media pages beforehand. The video was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

According to published reports, Al Nusrah issued a list of demands in return for freeing the hostages. Al Nusrah reportedly wanted to be removed from the UN's list of terrorist organizations, as well as humanitarian relief for the areas surrounding Damascus and elsewhere.

However, Dr. Sami al Uraydi, one of the top religious officials in Al Nusrah, disputes this version of events. He is the first featured speaker in the video.

Al Uraydi says Al Nusrah's capture of the UN peacekeepers "coincided with the implications" of Nusrah "being listed under" Chapter VII of the UN's charter. He claims that Al Nusrah "would have liked to deal with the fate of those captives until it would be stated to us the end of these implications." The jihadist ideologue also mentions the possibility of securing relief aid in exchange for the hostages, which would have only bolstered Al Nusrah's image inside Syria. And Al Uraydi says the group would have liked to exchange the peacekeepers for "captives in the prisons of the tyrants."

However, according to al Uraydi, the group never made any of these demands.

Al Uraydi claims the reports "alleging that the command of the Al Nusrah Front demanded that its name be removed from the terrorism list" are "baseless news." He goes on to say that Al Nusrah does not care about such matters, as Al Nusrah is a "part" of the "eternal conflict between the truth and falsehood," and "a part of the jihadi history of this Ummah [community of Muslims] that extends over the past centuries."

In the end, Al Nusrah did not extract any concessions. Why?

Al Uraydi claims, according to SITE's translation, that a "brother from us ... had given a pact of safety to those captives," meaning that he had promised the peacekeepers they would be unharmed.

When Al Nusrah learned of this, Al Uraydi says, they referred the matter to "some of the people of knowledge and its students" and then Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Jordanian jihadist who is closely allied with Al Nusrah and al Qaeda.

Al Nusrah has promoted Maqdisi's writings, especially those critical of the Islamic State, the former al Qaeda branch that has become a rival of Al Nusrah. And Maqdisi has explained that he corresponded with Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's emir, as he unsuccessfully attempted to mediate the dispute between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah.

Maqdisi "gave us permission to mention his name in this publication," Al Uraydi says. "He gave us a fatwa, may Allah reward him, that what happened falls under the pact of safety, which requires compliance."

Therefore, Al Nusrah released the hostages.

The video certainly sends a far different message than Al Nusrah's recent anti-UN statements.

Al Nusrah loudly denounced the UN in late August. The organization's spokesman, an al Qaeda veteran known as Abu Firas al Suri, claimed that the UN was part of a "Zio-Protestant" conspiracy against Muslims and was only interested in protecting the "Jewish state" of Israel. According to Abu Firas' reasoning, therefore, Al Nusrah had every right to hold the UN peacekeepers hostage.

Al Nusrah was well-positioned to extract at least some concessions. However, according to press reports, Al Nusrah got nothing in return. A UN spokesman has said that Al Nusrah did not request any ransom and that none was paid.

It is possible that money did exchange hands, of course. The UN has little incentive to admit that the international organization, or another party acting on its behalf, paid a designated terrorist organization for the peacekeepers' release.

Indeed, the government of Qatar helped negotiate the hostages' freedom. And, according to some sources, a large ransom was paid to Al Nusrah.

Uradyi, of course, does not discuss any of this in the video.

Propaganda value of releasing the hostages

In addition to receiving other unannounced concessions, Al Nusrah has garnered some propaganda benefit from releasing the hostages.

Al Nusrah says it is fighting to implement sharia law in Syria, and that its adherence to sharia transcends any narrower interests. Al Uraydi invokes a story about Abu Musab al Zarqawi, whose organization became al Qaeda in Iraq. According to al Uraydi, Zarqawi's forces captured three Americans and an Iraqi interpreter, but released them after he learned that the Americans had entered Fallujah under a "security pact" with a local Muslim. Zarqawi supposedly referred the matter to a sharia committee, which ruled that the Americans must go free.

This story is intended to be analogous to Al Nusrah's decision to release the peacekeepers. Al Uraydi even draws an implicit comparison between Zarqawi and Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah's emir.

The matter was referred to al Julani, who, upon hearing the ruling from Maqdisi and others, allegedly remarked: "If the Shariah of Allah will release them, then I am honored to release them as a worship to Allah"

"Such are the leaders of jihad," al Uraydi says, referring to Zarqawi and Julani, that they go out of their way to comply with sharia law.

Another Al Nusrah figure, a doctor known as Abu Musab, recounts a similar story in the video. He says that both Zarqawi and Al Nusrah did not kill their captives, who were first offered a security pact, because it wasn't consistent with sharia law.

Of course, Zarqawi is more well-known for the brutal beheadings he committed. The Islamic State's recent slayings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have been widely compared to Zarqawi's barbaric acts.

Al Nusrah's recent treatment of its hostages stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State's tactics. The group released another American, Peter Theo Curtis, from custody in late August. And the group has now freed more than 40 UN men as well.

Towards the end of the video, Al Nusrah shows one of the Fijian peacekeepers. "We have been informed that we will be released soon and we are all very happy to be going home," he says. "By the way, we are all safe and alive, and we thank [Al Nusrah] for keeping us safe and keeping us alive. I'd like to assure you that we have not been harmed in any way."

Thus, Al Nusrah, al Qaeda's arm in Syria, markets itself in this video as a gracious host.

Note: This article was updated on 9/13 to include Qatar's involvement in negotiating the hostage's freedom, as well as reports that a ransom was in fact paid.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

US drone strike targets AQAP fighters in Shabwa (04:44PM)

Local officials in Yemen's southern Shabwa province reported that an American drone strike killed five al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters today. Today's strike is the first reported in Yemen since Aug. 17.

The strike, which was launched by remotely piloted Predators or Reapers, targeted a vehicle traveling between the towns of Bihan and Asilan in northern Shabwa province, according to reports. Locals claimed that all passengers in the vehicle were killed and that their bodies had been severely dismembered.

As commonly occurs following reports of a US drone strike in Yemen, the Yemeni Ministry of Defense claimed that the strike was carried out by the Yemeni air force. A military source said that the strike targeted the AQAP leadership as they were planning to carry out an attack against military facilities and personnel. Despite these claims, Yemeni officials, including President Hadi, have stated in the past that the Yemeni air force does not possess the ability to strike moving vehicles.

The military source claimed that the five AQAP members killed in the strike included one Saudi national. Those targeted were identified as Abdallah Ahmad Salem Mubarak, also known as Abu Habbah, Abu Khaled al-Awlaki, Abu Ka'ab, Sa'ud al-Daghari, and the Saudi Seif al-Shihri.

Abu Habbah is a known nom de guerre of an important AQAP leader in southern Yemen. During the course of the government's southern offensive against AQAP earlier this year, the Yemeni military confiscated a cache of documents including several letters between Abu Habbah and AQAP commander Jalal al Marqishi, also known as Hamza al Zinjibari. In those letters, al Marqishi described Abu Habbah as "the military emir of Mahfad and its environs."

Mahfad has long served as a stronghold for AQAP fighters, and they are thought to be still active in the area despite a US drone strike on an AQAP training camp in Mahfad in April and a Yemeni offensive to root out AQAP from Yemen's southern provinces. AQAP had remained entrenched in the Mahfad area following several previous Yemeni military operations that attempted to dislodge the terror group.

Background on US strikes in Yemen

The US has launched 17 strikes in Yemen so far this year. Today's strike is the first since Aug. 17, when the US struck a vehicle as it traveled along the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia in the eastern province of Hadramout. Three AQAP fighters were killed in that strike.

The US launched 14 drone strikes in Yemen between March 5 and June 14; the other three strikes have taken place since Aug. 7. The springtime strikes coincided with a Yemeni military offensive to dislodge AQAP from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces. AQAP remains active in the two provinces, as well as in other areas in central and eastern Yemen.

The pace of the drone strikes in Yemen decreased last year from the previous year (26 in 2013, versus 41 in 2012). The reduction in the number of strikes coincided with a speech by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in May 2013. The strikes are being reduced as the US government is facing increasing international criticism for conducting the attacks in both Yemen and Pakistan.

The number of strikes might have been much lower in 2013 were it not for an al Qaeda plot emanating from Yemen that was uncovered by US officials in late July. The scheme, which led the US to close down more than 20 embassies and diplomatic facilities across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, involved AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, who now also serves as al Qaeda's general manager.

Between July 27, 2013, after the plot was disclosed, and Aug. 10, 2013, the US launched nine strikes in Yemen; no drone strikes were reported for seven weeks prior to July 27. The burst in attacks was intended to disrupt AQAP's plan and take out its top leadership cadre and senior operatives. The US killed Kaid al Dhahab, AQAP's emir for Baydah province, during that time period.

AQAP and al Qaeda still seek to conduct attacks against the US. In a video released earlier this year that featured Nasir al Wuhayshi, the terrorist leader said America remains a target.

"O brothers, the Crusader enemy is still shuffling his papers, so we must remember that we are always fighting the biggest enemy, the leaders of disbelief, and we have to overthrow those leaders, we have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America," Wuhayshi said.

Wuhayshi made the statement in the open to a gathering of more than 100 people.

For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Yemen, 2002 - 2014.

US strategy against Islamic State to mirror counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, Somalia (12:30AM)

President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State (or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) with "a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy."

The strategy, presented in a speech to the nation on Sept. 10, will rely on local forces to do the bulk of the fighting while the US provides air strikes, intelligence and other support. This is America's current plan of attack for al Qaeda's regional branches in Yemen and Somalia.

"But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil," Obama said. The president made it clear that the strategy he envisions for confronting the Islamic State will center around US air power supporting "partner forces on the ground."

But US troops, including special operations forces, as well as operatives from the CIA, have been spotted on the ground in Yemen and Somalia.

Obama describes the counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and Somalia as "one that we have successfully pursued ... for years." However, several years of cooperation with willing partner governments have yielded questionable results.

Strategy for Yemen far from successful, AQAP challenges state

While Obama describes US counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia as a success, the reality is much different. Consider, first, the war in Yemen.

The US launched its first airstrike in Yemen in 2002, but al Qaeda's efforts were focused mainly elsewhere in the years that followed. Al Qaeda attempted to launch an insurgency in Saudi Arabia in 2003. But the kingdom fought back, crushing al Qaeda's efforts over the next three years. This forced al Qaeda to reorganize its efforts inside Yemen, which has a much weaker central government than Saudi Arabia.

A confluence of factors led to the successful rebirth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by early 2009. AQAP quickly became a force that could both challenge the Yemeni state for power and threaten the US homeland as well as American interests throughout the region.

The emir of AQAP today, Nasir al Wuhayshi, also serves as al Qaeda's global general manager, giving him power across al Qaeda's international terrorist network.

AQAP's resurrection forced the US to become actively involved in Yemen, with a series of drone and other missile strikes that targeted AQAP and its leadership cadre. In addition, the US has provided intelligence, logistics, weapons, ammunition, and other support to the Yemeni military and security services.

By 2011, AQAP seized control of much of southern Yemen, and held it for more than a year despite an intensive US-led drone campaign. Yemeni troops prevented AQAP from openly controlling the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa by mid-2012, but the jihadist group shifted its fighters to other provinces and still controls large areas of central, southern, and eastern Yemen.

AQAP is now orchestrating a prolific insurgency that presents the Yemeni government with constant challenges.

In April, President Obama's State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013. The story the State Department tells for Yemen is far from a resounding success.

While the government of Yemen continues in "its fight against ... AQAP," State said, it is "struggling somewhat in this effort due to an ongoing political and security restructuring within the government itself." Yemen "struggled to maintain momentum against a resilient" AQAP in 2013, the State Department's report continued, noting that a "military and security restructuring process" remains "incomplete," leaving "front-line units often poorly trained or poorly equipped to counter the threat posed by AQAP."

As a result, the "Yemeni military did not undertake major counterterrorism operations through most of 2013." Instead, State reported, the military "primarily assumed a defensive posture, while relying on small-scale operations, including air strikes and raids, in response to AQAP attacks."

AQAP, meanwhile, was on the offensive in 2013. The group's attacks have "increased in complexity and brazenness," targeting "military and security installations across several governorates and ambushing checkpoints, in addition to assassinating and kidnapping military, security, and intelligence officials."

In 2013, according to the State Department, "AQAP and AQAP-affiliated groups carried out hundreds of attacks throughout Yemen, including suicide bombings, car bombings, ambushes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations by gunmen riding motorcycles."

The situation has hardly improved throughout 2014. AQAP has openly challenged the state for control of the eastern province of Hadramout even as the US has continued counterterrorism operations.

Shabaab still an effective insurgency organization, with a regional reach

In Somalia, the US has been supporting African forces in their fight against Shabaab and its predecessor since 2006. Shabaab took control of much of southern and central Somalia by 2009, but was forced out of most major cities in an offensive that began in 2011. Shabaab still controls much of the countryside in southern Somalia to this day. And it has successfully expanded the scope of its terrorist operations throughout the region, executing attacks in Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda.

In July 2013, the UN's Monitoring Group for Eritrea and Somalia issued its assessment of the situation. The UN found that Shabaab has "suffered conventional military setbacks, particularly in urban centres, including the loss of Kismaayo, as the forces of AMISOM and the Somali National Army expanded their areas of territorial control."

The UN observed, however, that, Shabaab "continues to control most of southern and central Somalia and has shifted its strategic posture to asymmetrical warfare in both urban centres and the countryside." Unfortunately, Shabaab's "military strength ... remains arguably intact in terms of operational readiness, chain of command, discipline and communication capabilities." By shifting its tactics and "avoiding direct military confrontation, it has preserved the core of its fighting force and resources."

The UN went on to note the importance of the Amniyat, Shabaab's "secret service" organization, in maintaining the group's cohesion. The UN's report was written more than one year before Shabaab's emir, Ahmed Godane, was killed in a US airstrike. But while it is too early to tell the full impact of Godane's death, the group quickly named a successor and reaffirmed its loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.

In its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013, the State Department found that Shabaab remains an effective fighting force.

"While progress was made in some areas," State reported, Shabaab "continued to exploit divisions within Somalia and commit asymmetric attacks to destabilize the country."

The State Department's report continued: "Compared with previous years, the terrorist group al-Shabaab executed a wider spectrum of attacks in Mogadishu and throughout Somalia, including more sophisticated, asymmetrical attacks and assassinations; and destruction of property." Security forces have taken control of major urban areas, but Shabaab "continued to control large sections of rural areas."

"The ability of federal, local, and regional authorities to prevent and pre-empt Shabaab terrorist attacks remained limited," State cautioned. "The overstretched AMISOM forces could not take the offensive against Shabaab nor liberate new areas controlled by al-Shabaab in 2013." In November 2013, this forced the UN Security Council to approve "an increase of 4,000 troops for AMISOM to enable increased offensive operations."

The bottom line is that America's partners in East Africa are not close to defeating Shabaab.

Viable partners are the key

Iraq and Syria likely present far more daunting challenges than Somalia and Yemen.

In Somalia, the government may be weak, but it cooperates with the US campaign. AMISOM and the Somali National Army are invested in the fight, even if they are not able to eradicate Shabaab. And strong regional partners, such as Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, are actively involved in containing the threat.

In Yemen, the military and government have encountered local resistance to the US drone campaign, mainly due to civilian deaths caused by the airstrikes. But the Yemeni government, while far from being either a strong or always reliable partner, still provides valuable assistance.

The State Department noted in its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2013 that Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has "supported US counterterrorism operations in Yemen and encouraged cooperation among the US military and Yemen's Special Operations Command and the Ministry of Interior's Counterterrorism Unit." The US military has also "trained Yemeni counterterrorism units and advised efforts to restructure the Ministry of Defense." These forces are joined by government-backed tribal militias known as Popular Committees, which played a key role in driving AQAP back in 2012.

Iran meddles in Yemen by supporting Shia Houthi rebels opposed to the government, but the Yemeni government is opposed to Iran's designs. And Saudi Arabia remains a key part of the equation, providing intelligence and security assistance in the fight against both AQAP and the Houthis.

Iraq is far more complex. The Shia-led Iraqi government is close to Iran. And the Iranian-supported Shia militias that targeted and killed US troops between 2004-2011 are prominent on the Iraqi battlefield. American airstrikes have already been used by Iranian-backed forces, including known terrorist organizations, as cover for their on-the-ground advances. But Iranian extremists are not a viable partner, as their actions only inflame tensions among the Sunni population, creating more allies for the Islamic State, which can then portray itself as the only defense against Iran's aggression.

Fortunately, the Kurds and the Sunni Awakening forces are willing allies, but cooperating with these groups will cause other groups to extract a price from the US. The US will need to keep pressure on the Iraqi government to include them going forward. And a major effort is needed to boost America's meager assistance to these natural allies inside Iraq.

In Syria, the situation is worse, as there are even fewer credible actors to call partners. The US is opposed to the Assad government, which is backed by Russia, Iran, and the terrorist organization Hezbollah. As in Iraq, Shia extremism only serves to add fuel to the fire.

Islamist and jihadist rebel groups form the backbone of the insurgency. The Obama administration is primarily focused on the Islamic State. But the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's branch in Syria, the Islamic Front, and the Muhajireen Army constitute some of the most effective rebel groups in Syria. While these three groups oppose both Assad and the Islamic State, they are also enemies of the US. Additionally, top leaders in the Free Syrian Army, which is held up as an effective ally, have stated they support the Al Nusrah Front, would not oppose it in the future, and have provided it with weapons and support. American-backed rebel groups regularly fight alongside Al Nusrah on the battlefield.

America's friends in Yemen and Somalia are far from finishing the fight against AQAP and Shabaab.

Amazingly, however, they are better near-term allies than some of America's partners in Iraq and Syria.

Counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency

In both Somalia and Yemen, US airstrikes have killed top terrorist leaders, including Shabaab's emir and AQAP's deputy leaders, as well as some of both organizations' top operatives. But AQAP and Shabaab have quickly replaced the slain leaders and continued to effectively pursue their respective insurgencies.

Although the US has conducted counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen, both countries remain major terrorist hubs, host training camps, and are breeding grounds for recruits.

As a result, al Qaeda's branches in both countries continue to pose significant security challenges to the US. On Dec. 25, 2009, an AQAP-trained suicide bomber boarded a Detroit-bound plane and nearly blew it up. Luck saved the day. Prior to the attack, the US counterterrorism bureaucracy assumed that AQAP was a threat only to American interests inside Yemen.

Since that time, the US government has scrambled to stop additional AQAP plots, relying in part on intelligence from counterterrorism partners in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But even with that full-court press, AQAP continues to threaten American interests. In August 2013, the US shuttered more than 20 diplomatic facilities after it was learned that AQAP was planning to carry out one or more attacks. AQAP continues to probe for America's weaknesses.

Somalia and Yemen are engrossed in perpetual conflicts. There are good reasons to believe that the situations in Iraq and Syria will continue to be more dire. AQAP, Shabaab, and the Islamic State are all primarily insurgency organizations that are fighting for territory. Counterterrorism strikes will continue to have only a limited effect.

In no theater is success in sight.