Houthi Rebels sweep Yemeni capital
On Monday, the Shi'ite Houthi rebels that had been protesting in the thousands for days in Yemen's capital Sana'a made sweeping military gains in the city, capturing government offices and military installations and prompting some reports to speak of their "almost complete control of the capital." The Houthis' stunning advance came only one day after they signed a peace agreement with the Yemeni government calling for the formation of a new inclusive government.
Local press reports on Monday described the complete absence of any Yemeni security services on the streets of Sana'a and the consolidation of the strong Houthi presence in the city. Houthi militias were reportedly fortifying their positions and setting up checkpoints on strategically significant roads in the capital, including Hadda, Sitteen, and Zubayri.
In a sign of their new-found power, the rebels raided the downtown residences of Ali Muhsin, security adviser to the Yemeni president and key military commander, and Hameed al-Ahmar, leader of the Yemeni Alliance for Reform party. Both men hail from the powerful Ahmar clan, part of the Hashid tribal confederation, and have been vocal supporters of the main Sunni party, Islah. On Sunday, Muhsin also reportedly clashed with the Houthis at the former headquarters of the First Armored Division and subsequently fled.
Over the weekend, the Houthi rebels took control of many other homes, offices, and military bases in the Yemeni capital. They reportedly seized tanks and armored vehicles from Yemeni military headquarters, which they drove out of the city to their northern strongholds on Monday.
The rebels also attacked Yemen's state television headquarters, burning its two main buildings in an attempt to seize control of the facilities. Additionally, the Houthis seized the vehicle of Sana'a's mayor, Abdulwader Hilal, at one of their checkpoints in the city.
A week of clashes in Sana'a have left a 340 people dead and have wounded at least 900 over the past week, according to a senior official in Yemen's Defense Ministry. Thousands of Sana'a residents have reportedly fled the fighting. Despite these figures, Yemen's Interior Ministry ordered all troops to not clash with the Houthi rebels in order to avoid more bloodshed and ensure that the Houthis will live up to the peace deal.
The changing security situation in Sana'a and the resulting power vacuum, both in the capital and throughout much of the country, grant al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the opportunity to capitalize on the current chaos. As early as March 2014, AQAP announced their formation of a new armed group called Ansar al Shariah in the Central Regions, charged with targeting the Shi'ite Houthi rebels. On Monday, AQAP took credit for a suicide attack in Sa'adah province that targeted a "large gathering" of Houthis and allegedly resulted in the deaths of "tens of Houthis including leaders."
Al Qaeda and its affiliates are known to exploit political and security vulnerabilities to consolidate power, including in Yemen. In 2011, when Yemeni troops were recalled to Sana'a in an attempt to quell the Arab Spring protests calling for the ouster of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP took advantage of the security vacuum to seize vast areas of southern Yemen. In March 2011, AQAP even announced the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Abyan.
US airstrikes target Al Nusrah Front, Islamic State in Syria
The US-led bombing campaign in Syria is targeting the Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda, as well as the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that is one of Al Nusrah's fiercest rivals.
Before they were launched, the air strikes were framed as being necessary to damage the Islamic State, a jihadist group that has seized large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq. But in recent days US officials signaled that they were also concerned about al Qaeda's presence in Syria, including the possibility that al Qaeda operatives would seek to use the country as a launching pad for attacks in the West.
Several well-connected online jihadists have posted pictures of the Al Nusrah Front positions struck in the bombings. They also claim that al Qaeda veterans dispatched from Afghanistan to Syria, all of whom were part of Al Nusrah, have been killed.
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal confirmed that the Al Nusrah Front has been targeted in the operations, but could not verify any of the specific details reported on the jihadist sites.
Among the Al Nusrah Front positions targeted in the bombings are locations where members of the so-called "Khorasan group" are thought to be located. Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda, sent the group to Syria specifically to plan attacks against the US and its interests. The group, which takes its name from al Qaeda's Khorasan shura (or advisory) council, includes experienced al Qaeda operatives who have been involved in planning international terrorist attacks for years.
Al Fadhli's presence in Syria was first reported by the Arab Times in March. Shortly thereafter, The Long War Journal confirmed and expanded on this reporting. [See LWJ report, Former head of al Qaeda's network in Iran now operates in Syria.] The Long War Journal reported at the time that al Fadhli's plans "were a significant cause for concern among counterterrorism authorities."
The New York Times reported earlier this month that al Fadhli is a leader in the Khorasan group in Syria.
Unconfirmed reports on jihadist social media sites say that al Fadhli was killed in the bombings. Neither US officials, nor al Qaeda has verified this reporting. The fog of war often makes it difficult to quickly confirm whether an individual jihadist has been killed, wounded, or survived unscathed. Initial reports should be treated with skepticism and there is no firm evidence yet that al Fadhli has been killed.
Jihadists claim that the man shown in the photo to the right is known as Abu Yusuf al Turki, an Al Nusrah "commander" who trained fighters how to become snipers. Al Turki fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and was supposedly killed in the US airstrikes.
One of the twitter feeds reporting al Turki's death is associated with Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a popular Saudi cleric who is closely tied to Al Nusrah. The feed, which has more than 250,000 followers, provides news on events inside Syria and is also used by the jihadists to raise funds for their efforts.
The feed has posted a series of updates since the bombing campaign began.
In addition to the photo of al Turki, the Twitter page tied to Muhaysini also posted a picture of a building that was reportedly controlled by Al Nusrah in Aleppo before being struck in the bombings. According to the feed, and others, dozens of Al Nusrah Front fighters and leaders have been killed.
US air war against jihadists in Syria begins
The USS Arleigh Burke launches Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles against the Islamic State inside Syria. Forty-seven cruise missiles were launched from the USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea in the opening round of strikes in Syria.
The United States and "partner nation forces" have expanded airstrikes against the Islamic State into Syria, broadening the war with the jihadist group beyond Iraq. Additionally, the US targeted the Khorasan Group, a coordinating council made up of al Qaeda leaders in Syria.
US military officials involved in the operation told The Long War Journal that the strike package includes US B-1 bombers, carrier-based F/A-18 fighters and ground-based F-15s and F-16s, remotely piloted drones, and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from warships.
Airstrikes targeted Islamic State command and control centers in Raqqah, the jihadist group's de facto capital in Raqqah province in eastern Syria, as well as arms caches, supply depots, and ground units near the Iraqi border.
Rear Admiral James Kirby, the Pentagon's spokesman, confirmed that airstrikes have begun.
"I can confirm that US military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL [Islamic State] terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles," Kirby said in a statement obtained by The Long War Journal.
In the early morning of Sept. 23, US Central Command, or CENTCOM, which is directing the operations in Iraq and Syria, provided further details of the attack.
Fourteen strikes against the Islamic State were executed using by "a mix of fighters, bombers, remotely piloted aircraft and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles," according to a statement by CENTCOM. Forty-seven cruise missiles were "launched from the USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea, which were operating from international waters in the Red Sea and North Arabian Gulf."
"The strikes destroyed or damaged multiple ISIL targets in the vicinity of the towns of Raqqah in north central Syria, Dier al Zour, and Abu Kamal in eastern Syria and Hasakah in northeastern Syria," the statement says. "The targets included ISIL fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles." According to the Syrian Observator for Human Rights, more than 70 Islamic State fighters were killed in the strikes and and over 300 were wounded.
Other countries that participated in the operation include Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Additionally, the US launched eight airstrikes against "a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans - sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group - who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations." The strikes targeted "training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities" as part of an effort "to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests."
CENTCOM did not provide details on the names or numbers of Islamic State and al Qaeda fighters killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that "no less than 50 fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra (most of them were Syrian fighters), were killed by air strikes by the warplanes of the international coalition." In addition, eight civilians, including three children and a women, are reported to have been killed.
CENTCOM was clear that only the US targeted al Qaeda's network in Syria. The Khorasan Group is closely tied to the Al Nusrah Front and other jihadist groups in Syria, which are at odds with the Islamic State. These groups are poised to gain from any setbacks to the rival Islamic State.
President Barrack Obama stated 13 days ago that the US air campaign against the Islamic State, which began in northern Iraq on Aug. 7, would be expanded into Syria. US and French warplanes are now operating over Irbil, Sinjar, Kirkuk, the Mosul and Haditha dams, southwest of Baghdad (likely in Jurf al Sakhar in northern Babil), and somewhere on the Euphrates River. According to CENTCOM, the US has launched 194 airstrikes in Iraq since Aug. 7.
The Islamic State has threatened to retaliate against the US and other Western countries that participate in military action against the jihadist group. Just yesterday, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, the spokesman for the Islamic State, called for Muslims in Western countries to wage jihad. [See Threat Matrix report, Islamic State spokesman again threatens West in new speech.]
Al Nusrah Front threatens to execute 2nd Lebanese hostage
The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, is threatening to kill a second Lebanese hostage held in its custody. The man has been identified as Ali al Bazzal.
The threat was posted in tweets on one of the group's official Twitter feeds. A banner containing the threat can be seen above.
In addition, a video posted online appears to show the group executing another Lebanese hostage, Mohammad Hamiyeh. In a tweet on Sept. 19, Al Nusrah said that Hamiyeh "is the first casualty of the stubbornness of the Lebanese military that has become a puppet in the hands of the Iranian party."
The "Iranian party" is Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Bashar al Assad's forces against Al Nusrah and other rebel forces.
Lebanese officials subsequently confirmed that Hamiyeh has been killed. The al Qaeda group had repeatedly promised to kill Hamiyeh if its demands were not met.
The video shows a man shooting Hamiyeh in the head, with Bazzal sitting to his right. Bazzal then pleads for his life, saying that Hezbollah, the "party of the devil," must alter its operations.
"If you don't stop attacking and inciting against our Sunni brethren then I will follow my fellow soldier who was killed right there," Bazzal says, according to The Daily Star, a publication based in Lebanon.
The video does not appear to have been posted on Al Nusrah's official Twitter feeds, but instead surfaced online separately. For instance, the banner shown above was posted on Al Nusrah's Twitter feed for the Qalamoun region of Syria. The video was not posted on the same feed.
The version of the video viewed by The Long War Journal also does not contain Al Nusrah's official media logo.
Still, the image of the man identified as Bazzal in the video matches the picture in banner republished above, which was released by Al Nusrah.
The banner contains the question, "Who will pay the price?" Al Nusrah used that same question in the first video it released showing its Lebanese hostages, who were captured in August, as well as in subsequent statements and online banners.
The al Qaeda group says that Hamiyeh was the first to pay the price, because the Lebanese army and Hezbollah have not met their demands. Al Nusrah has said previously that it wants Hezbollah to remove its fighters from Syria, and a number of other conditions met. As in Al Nusrah's past hostage operations, the government of Qatar is attempting to broker the negotiations.
Al Nusrah has shied away from killing its captives in recent weeks, releasing hostages on several occasions. The organization has not produced graphic beheading videos like its counterparts in the Islamic State, a jihadist group that has captured large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria since earlier this year. The Islamic State and Al Nusrah are fierce rivals.
While it has not produced gory execution videos like its rivals in the Islamic State, Al Nusrah has now executed a Lebanese soldier and threatened to kill another hostage.
Pakistani Taliban commander killed during fighting in North Waziristan
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 Muhammad.
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:
Al Nusrah Front threatens life of Lebanese soldier held hostage amid fighting
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
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
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.
Islamic State assaults city in Syrian Kurdistan
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.
AQIS claims plot to strike US warships was executed by Pakistani Navy officers
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.
Al Qaeda branches urge jihadist unity against US
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
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.
Caucasus Emirate eulogizes slain Ahrar al Sham leaders
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.
2 al Qaeda commanders reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan
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.
Islamic State beheads British citizen, threatens another
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.