Analysis: Former US Marine killed by Islamic State's Tripoli 'province'
Note: A version of this article was first published at The Weekly Standard.
Two gunmen entered the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli Tuesday morning. When their shooting rampage was over, at least ten people had been killed. For jihadists in Libya, the hotel was an inviting target. Foreign diplomats, Western tourists and officials from Libya's rival governments are known to frequent it. Indeed, the victims were five foreigners, including an American, and five Libyans.
The American killed in the attack has been identified as David Berry. According to The New York Daily News, Berry is a former US Marine who worked as a security contractor for Crucible, LLC. The company's web site says that Crucible "provides high-risk environment training and global security solutions to employees of the U.S. Government, NGOs, and multinational corporations who live and work in dangerous and austere locations worldwide." The company has not identified the client Berry was working for at the time of his death.
In the past, it could take weeks or months for a terrorist organization to take credit for an attack. Sometimes there is no claim of responsibility at all. Before the siege of the Corinthia Hotel had even been ended, however, a group calling itself the Islamic State's province in Tripoli claimed on Twitter (see image above) that the attack was the work of its members. In short order, the group posted photos of the two gunmen (seen on the right), identifying one as a Tunisian and the other as being from the Sudan.
The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls much of Iraq and Syria as a self-declared "caliphate," announced the establishment of several "provinces" in North Africa and the Middle East in November of last year. The group's provinces are more aspirational than real, as none of them controls much territory.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State, argues that all other jihadist groups, and indeed all Muslims, in his provinces' territories owe him their loyalty now that the caliphate has expanded. From Baghdadi's perspective, this means that more established jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, are now null and void. AQAP, which rejects Baghdadi's assumed role as "Caliph Ibrahim," naturally takes offense to the Islamic State's proclamations. An already heated rivalry became even testier after the Islamic State's announcement in November.
Baghdadi's international sway is often exaggerated. The Islamic State has failed to usurp the power of organizations such as AQAP and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which remain loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. AQIM and its allies maintain a strong presence in Libya. And we cannot be sure how much of an operational relationship there is between the Islamic State's headquarters in Iraq or Syria and the groups that fight in Baghdadi's name in Libya and elsewhere.
Regardless, the Islamic State's international network, and the threat it poses to American interests, is real. The establishment of "provinces," which was intended to cut into al Qaeda's dominant share of the global jihadist market, has had some success.
In fact, Berry is not the first American victim of the Islamic State's provinces.
Late last year, the Islamic State's province in the Sinai claimed responsibility for the death of a petroleum worker named William Henderson. The Sinai province was formed by a faction of another group, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), which split over the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Henderson was actually killed in August 2014, before ABM's Sinai presence officially swore allegiance to the Islamic State's Baghdadi. But there are credible reports of cooperation between ABM and the Islamic State before their formal alliance.
The Sinai province has launched a string of attacks already this year, focusing on Egyptian security forces and others.
Earlier this week, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani, announced the formation of a province in the "Khorasan," a geographical region that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries. A former Pakistani Taliban leader was named as the Khorasan province's "governor." His deputy governor is a former Guantanamo detainee known as Abdul Rauf Khadim.
The Islamic State's Khorasan province is not the strongest jihadist organization in its home turf. The Taliban, al Qaeda and their allies have a much firmer foothold in South Asia. And the Khorasan province's leaders include jihadists who lost internal power struggles in their previous organizations, paving the way for the Islamic State to garner their allegiance. Khadim, for example, was once a senior Taliban commander. After Khadim was forced out of the Taliban, Khadim and his supporters threw their lot in with Baghdadi. It wasn't the pull of the Islamic State that led Khadim to switch allegiances, so much as the Taliban's push, which was caused by Khadim's disagreements with his fellow jihadists.
Still, Khadim has been an effective commander and the Khorasan province is already active in southern Afghanistan. There have been skirmishes between Baghdadi's followers and their rivals in the Taliban, which is clearly gunning for Khadim. One report says that the Taliban has captured Khadim and dozens of his followers, but that has not been confirmed.
In the months to come, the Islamic State's provinces will claim more victims, including perhaps more Americans.
Video shows Hezbollah Brigades convoy transporting American M1 tank
American-made M1 Abrams shown flying the Hezbollah Brigades' flag while being transported by the group.
A video uploaded to YouTube appears to show a large Hezbollah Brigades convoy transporting weapons, troops, and armored vehicles to the front to fight the Islamic State.
Several American-made military vehicles, including an M1 Abrams tank, M113 armored personnel carriers, Humvees, and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP), as well as Iranian-made Safir 4x4s and technicals (armed pickup trucks) are in the convoy.
The Hezbollah Brigades is US-designated foreign terrorist organization that has been involved in killing American soldiers in Iraq.
At one point in the video, a transport truck is shown carrying an M1 Abrams tank. The Hezbollah Brigades' flag is flying over the tank and other US-made vehicles. The M1, which is the main battle tank of the US Army, has been sold to and utilized by the Iraqi Army.
The screen shot above marks the first evidence of Iranian-backed militias having M1 tanks at their disposal. It is unclear if the Hezbollah Brigades seized the M1 from an Iraqi Army unit that dissolved in the face of the Islamic State's onslaught, or if the Iraqi military gave the militia the tank. Several Iraqi M1s have been photographed after being destroyed by the Islamic State.
The Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata'ib Hezbollah, receives funding, training, logistics, guidance, and material support from the Qods Force, the external operations wing of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The radical militia has joined the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. In addition, other Iranian-supported Shia militias, such as Asaib al Haq, Badr Organization, and Muqtada al Sadr's Promised Day Brigades have played a prominent role on the battlefield. these militias have played key rolls in securing Amerli, Baiji, and Jurf al Sakhar, and are on the forefront of the fighting in Diyala province.
The United States designated the Hezbollah Brigades as a terrorist organization in July 2009. On the same day, the US added a Qods Force commander who supported the "Special Groups," such as the Hezbollah Brigades, to the list of specially designated global terrorists. The so-called Special Groups are responsible for the deaths of hundrends of US and allied soldiers between 2004 and 2011. [For more information, see LWJ report, US sanctions Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades and Qods Force adviser.]
The organization has also been responsible for several American deaths during the war in Iraq. The US State Department described the Hezbollah Brigades as "a radical Shia Islamist group with an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, US, and Coalition targets in Iraq."
The group has been directly linked to the murder of two UN employees in November 2008. Additionally, the Iranian-backed extremists conducted attacks against US and Iraqi forces, using explosively-formed penetrators and improvised rocket-assisted mortars, which have been described as flying improvised explosive devices.
Despite this, the group was assisted by US airstrikes when Iraqi and Kurdish forces broke the siege of Amerli in Salahaddin province. The US military said it launched airstrikes against the Islamic State outside of the town "[a]t the request of the Government of Iraq" and "in support of an operation to deliver humanitarian assistance to address the humanitarian crisis and protect the civilians trapped in Amerli." [See LWJ report US aided Hezbollah Brigades in breaking Islamic State siege of Iraqi town]
Video of Hezbollah Brigades convoy:
'Foreigners' among 7 jihadists killed in US drone strike in Pakistan
Several foreign fighters were among seven suspected jihadists who were killed in the latest US drone strike in Pakistan's Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan.
The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or Reapers fired two missiles at a compound and a vehicle in the Shawal Valley, killing "seven suspected militants," Dawn reported.
"The compound was razed to ground whereas a vehicle inside the compound was blown into pieces," the Express Tribune reported.
Three of those killed are said to be "foreigners," a term used to describe foreign fighters from Arab countries or from regional groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Turkistan Islamic Party. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have not announced the deaths of any senior leaders, commanders, or operatives.
The Shawal Valley, which is administered by Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadar and spans both North and South Waziristan, is a known haven for al Qaeda and other terror groups operating in the region. A number of Taliban, Pakistani, and foreign terrorist groups gather in the Shawal Valley and then enter Afghanistan to fight US, NATO, and Afghan government forces.
The US has launched 24 drone strikes in the Shawal Valley since September 2010. Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, the former emir of the Turkistan Islamic Party, was killed in a strike in August 2012; while three al Qaeda military trainers were killed in an attack there in August 2013.
US strikes in Pakistan
Today's drone strike in North Waziristan is the third reported in Pakistan this year. The last attack, on Jan. 15, targeted a compound belonging to Sajna Mehsud, a Taliban commander in South Waziristan. Two Uzbek fighters were reported killed in the strike.
Last year the US launched 24 airstrikes inside Pakistan; 19 of those strikes took place in n North Waziristan and four more in South Waziristan. The number of operations has decreased since the program's peak in 2010, when 117 attacks were recorded by The Long War Journal. [See LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 - 2015.]
The US continues to target and kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas despite previous claims by Obama administration officials that al Qaeda has been decimated and only two "core" al Qaeda leaders remain active. Al Qaeda also remains active outside of Pakistan's tribal areas in the provinces of Baluchistan, Punjab, and Sindh, where US drones do not operate.
Islamic State is forced from Kobane
Flags of the People's Protection Units and the Free Syrian Army's Dawn of Freedom Brigade can be seen flying above Kobane.
The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and elements from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) have driven the Islamic State out of the battleground city of Kobane in northern Syria.
After beginning an assault on the city in September of last year, Islamic State fighters were forced to retreat after a continued campaign of resistance by the YPG, backed by elements of the Free Syrian Army and US airstrikes. Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization to which the YPG is affiliated, and fighters from the Iraqi Peshmerga also assisted YPG forces in Kobane.
In a statement released by the YPG, the organization said "For 134 days, our fighters of the People's Defense Units (YPG)/Women's Defense Units (YPJ), men and women of Kurdistan, lovers of freedom from four parts of Kurdistan and other countries, came to a heavy battle, and conducted a great resistance against Daesh's [a term for the Islamic State] terrorism."
The YPG continued by thanking those who fought with them, saying, "At first we are grateful to our people in Kurdistan who relentlessly supported the resistance, especially our people in Bakur (North Kurdistan). We would like to thank the members of the Anti-Daesh International Coalition who contributed an active support with airstrikes. We thank the Burkan al Furat joint operations room and those brigades of the Free Syrian Army who fought shoulder to shoulder with our forces. We repeat our thanks to our Peshmerga brothers who were of a great support to us in this battle."
The Burkan al Furat is an alliance of YPG forces, elements of the Free Syrian Army, and elements from the Islamic Front which formed to fight the Islamic State in northern Aleppo province. The Islamic Front is a coalition of Islamist and jihadist groups that is closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
US Central Command (CENTCOM), which backed the forces fighting the Islamic State in Kobane with airstrikes, made clear that the fight in the area is still not decided.
"While the fight against ISIL [Islamic State] is far from over," CENTCOM said, "ISIL's failure in Kobani has denied them one of their strategic objectives." CENTCOM also makes clear that around 90 percent of the city is cleared of Islamic State fighters. While anti-Islamic State forces are largely in control of the city, the Islamic State still controls a good portion of the countryside outside the city.
A now deleted YouTube video uploaded by 'Amaq News,' an unofficial Islamic State propaganda outlet, proclaimed to show the Islamic State still controlling the Aleppo road into Kobane as of Jan. 25. So far, no other propaganda has been released by the Islamic State about the situation in Kobane.
Kobane central to Islamic State and Coalition's information campaigns
The Islamic State made its push to take control of Kobane in September. An Islamic State military force, which included tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and infantry, began moving on villages (more than 350) surrounding Kobane. By the beginning of October, the villages were under Islamic State control and Kobane was surrounded from three sides; the fourth side borders Turkey, and it was sealed.
The US and allied forces began launching airstrikes in Kobane on Sept. 27, 2014. The targets of the air campaign included armored vehicles, troop concentrations, fighting positions, ammunition dumps, command, control, and communications centers, and training facilities. Despite the air campaign, the Islamic State advanced into Kobane in the beginning of October.
By mid-October, more than one third of Kobane was under Islamic State control and fighters had advanced to the city center.
FSA and Peshmerga reinforcements began arriving via Turkey by the end of October. By mid-November, the YPG and its allies launched their counteroffensive, and retook the city center. On Jan. 23, after more than two months of heavy fighting, the YPG controlled 70 percent of Kobane and forced the Islamic State to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the city.
Both the Islamic State and the US-led Coalition have invested significant resources during the battle for the Kurdish enclave. The town, while of little strategic significance, came to symbolize the Coalition's fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
The US-led Coalition has launched 606 airstrikes on the Islamic State in Kobane between Sept. 27, 2014 and Jan. 20, 2015, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal and Military Edge. That represents more than 71 percent of the total number of coalition airstrikes in Syria during that timeframe.
The Islamic State has also emphasized the fight in Kobane. In the past the jihadist group has been keen to promote its successes in the area. The Islamic State has even used John Cantlie, a captured British reporter, to counter claims that it was losing ground in October 2014. [See LWJ report, Islamic State uses British hostage in propaganda video to rebut Western, Kurdish claims.]
The Islamic State has also poured significant resources into Kobane. While no official estimate of the number of its fighters killed has been provided, it is likely in the hundreds based on press reporting. And the Islamic State has also lost some key local commanders during the fighting, including two Saudis known as Sultan al Safri al Harbi and Sheikh Othman al Nazeh.
US Central Command press releases also indicate that scores of Islamic State tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces were destroyed during the fighting.
It is unclear what the impact of the loss of Kobane will have on the Islamic State. The jihadist group has made advances in other areas of Syria and in Anbar province, Iraq during the battle near the Turkish border, indicating that despite taking casualties and the destruction of a number of its armored vehicles, the group has not spent its entire force and can remain on the offensive elsewhere.
Videos from Kobane
Video showing Kurdish forces celebrating in Kobane:
Another video showing Kurdish forces celebrating in Kobane:
Video showing the FSA group Dawn of Freedom Brigade celebrating with Kurdish forces:
Video showing the YPG flag flying over Kobane:
Islamic State appoints leaders of 'Khorasan province,' issues veiled threat to Afghan Taliban
An organizational overview of the Khorasan Shura. The Islamic State has appointed Hafez Saeed Khan as the Governor of Khorasan province.
Abu Muhammad al Adnani, a spokesman for the Islamic State, announced the group's "expansion" into the lands of "Khorasan" -- modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of the surrounding countries -- and declared former Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan or TTP) commander Hafez Saeed Khan as the "governor" of Khorasan province. Khan had previously served as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan's emir for the tribal agency of Arakzai.
Adnani made his announcement in a nearly seven minute audio taped speech titled, "Say, Die in Your Rage!" which was published on Jan. 26 2015 by the Islamic State's Al Furqan media outlet. [For a translation of the speech, by Pieter Van Ostaeyen, see 'Audio Statement by IS Spokesman Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani as-Shami.']
The declaration comes only a few weeks after a conglomeration of former TTP officials formed the Khorasan Shura and pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Islamic State. [See Long War Journal report, Pakistani Taliban splinter group again pledges allegiance to Islamic State.]
The Islamic State spokesman acknowledged Khan's pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as Commander of the Faithful and the Caliph of Muslims, and claimed that Baghdadi had accepted the pledge and appointed Khan as the province's governor and Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as the deputy governor. Khadim, a former Guantanamo detainee and former senior Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, has reportedly been operating in Helmand province on behalf of the Islamic State. [See Long War Journal report, Ex-Gitmo detainee leads contingent of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.]
Adnani further urged the "mujahideen in Khorasan" to come forth and obey the commands of Khan and Khadim. Notably, Adnani also urged caution in his call to arms, noting that "the factions will assemble against you and the rifles and bayonets fixed against you will multiply." He encouraged the mujahideen to stand firm against "factionalism and disunity" and to meet these challenges by "unsheathing your swords and spears." Although not clearly stated, Adnani was issuing a veiled threat to the Taliban factions, both Afghan and Pakistani, that opposed the creation of the Khorasan Shura and who were opposed to the Islamic State.
The Afghan Taliban movement has been consistent in avoiding recognizing the Islamic State and its Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi since the reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has previously held the title of Commander of the Faithful position since 1996.
Adnani's declaration and Baghdadi's reported approval for the Islamic State to expand into Afghanistan and Pakistan could incite divisions within the various Taliban factions operating in both countries. The cohesion of many Taliban factions has been compromised over the past few years, mostly due to attrition and leadership decapitations, as well as ideological differences and personal feuds.
Analysis: Islamic State sleeper cells a threat to Turkey
A leaked Turkish National Police intelligence report reveals alarm in Ankara about potential attacks by Islamic State sleeper cells across the country.
The police report, which was disclosed by Jane's Intelligence Weekly, warns of 3,000 operatives living in Turkey who are directly linked to the jihadist organization. The report also lists a number of vulnerable cities, including the country's political and cultural capitals of Ankara and Istanbul.
This threat was all too predictable. In an effort to bring down the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria, Turkey opened its southeastern border to a wide range of Syrian rebels beginning in 2011. As the war has dragged on, the fighters came to include jihadist groups like the Islamic State, which has since conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, as well as the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda official branch in Syria. Today, Turkey's 565-mile border with Syria is the transit point of choice for the illegal sale of Islamic State oil, the transfer of weapons to various fighting factions, and the flow of foreign fighters to jihadist groups of all stripes.
This problem is now more than four years old. Extremists have by now had ample time to establish infrastructure in Turkey to facilitate this illicit activity. In the process, they have also established cells and other logistical bases throughout the country. The Turkish National Police now seem to acknowledge this threat.
Turkish and America media have been reporting for months about Islamic State recruitment activity in Turkey. For example, a report by the Turkish daily Hurriyet from September 2014 identified Islamic State activities in cities such as Istanbul and Kocaeli in the western portion of the country, and Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Diyarbakir to the east. A New York Times report also detailed how the Islamic State was recruiting militants in Ankara, located in central Turkey.
The anti-AKP and Kemalist newspaper, Aydinlik, noted that Islamic State militants were operating in other towns, such as Konya, which is known for its conservative Islamic culture. As Newsweek explained, other conservative pockets in Turkey, such as Dilovasi neighborhood in Ankara, are particularly susceptible for recruitment.
One jarring metric is the raw number of Turks who have joined the Islamic State. Just last week, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that there are about 700 Turkish citizens fighting for the radical group. Without question, the Islamic State's ideology and recent expansion are luring many conservative Turks to fight. But financial inducements may also play a role; according to one New York Times report, the Islamic State offers $150 a day to Turkish recruits who agree to fight.
In addition, Turkey is home to many IS sympathizers. Ali Ediboglu, a Turkish opposition deputy, claims that "at least 1,000 Turkish nationals are helping ... foreign fighters sneak into Syria and Iraq to join ISIS." YouTube videos depict Islamic State gatherings in Istanbul and demonstrations of support by Turkish citizens for the jihadist fighters in Syria, including those with the Islamic State. Last fall, it was reported that some 20 people with black masks on their faces and bats in their hands attacked an Istanbul University demonstration against IS. The group, identified in the article as "Musluman Gencler" (Muslim Youth), reportedly returned to campus for more attacks.
There is also reason to fear the radicalization of Syrians living in Turkey. As a result of the civil war, Turkey is now home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and that number may be a low-ball estimate. Reports suggest that the Islamic State may be targeting young men and boys in refugee camps for recruitment.
Turkey recently had a glimpse of what the future could hold if the Islamic State launches concerted assaults on its territory. On January 6, a suicide bomber who attacked a police station in Istanbul's historic district of Sultanahmet is believed to have had ties to the Islamic State. As commentators noted, a spate of such attacks could do irreparable damage to Turkey's vital tourism sector, and sow fear into the hearts of Turks country-wide.
As the Janes report notes, the Islamic State also has much to lose by attacking Turkey. Indeed, the terror group benefits greatly from illicit oil sales to Turkey, the flow of foreign fighters, cash and weapons over the border into Syria, and a rather permissive environment in southeastern Turkey, where authorities don't seem terribly alarmed over the presence of extremists. The leaders of the Islamic State are also fully aware of the fact that Ankara has refused to play an active role in the US-led coalition that is now bombing Islamic State fighters. In fact, Turkey has refused to even allow its bases to be used for that purpose. The Islamic State would like to keep it that way.
This modus vivendi notwithstanding, the existence of Islamic State sympathizers and operatives inside the country puts Turkey at risk. The longer the conflict plays out in Syria, the higher the likelihood that Turkey gets dragged into it. If the Islamic State strikes back by activating its local assets, Ankara will only have its own policies to blame.
Islamic State's 'province' claims responsibility for attack on hotel in Tripoli
Gunmen stormed the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli early this morning, killing at least five foreigners and three guards, according to initial reports. Foreign government officials, including those serving as diplomats, and tourists have frequented the hotel in the past, making it an attractive target for jihadists.
The terrorists responsible for the raid reportedly met resistance from security forces. As of this writing, however, the siege was not over.
The Associated Press reported that a car bomb was part of the attack. Images posted online show what appears to be an explosion outside of the hotel. Some of the photos have been published on Good Morning Libya, a Twitter feed that is run by supporters of General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been battling jihadists throughout Libya. One of the photos can be seen at the beginning of this article. Online jihadists are claiming that suicide bombers were used in the car bombing.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the Islamic State's so-called "Tripoli Province" claimed responsibility for the attack in a short message that was posted on Twitter. The message stated that "heroes of the Caliphate" are responsible for the operation, which has been named the "Battle of Abu Anas al Libi."
An image published online by the organization's media operatives can be seen to the right.
Al Libi was a core al Qaeda operative who was captured in Tripoli in early October 2013 and subsequently held in the US for his role in al Qaeda's bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Al Libi passed away while awaiting trial earlier this year, and jihadists blame the US government for his death, even though he died of natural causes.
Al Libi's capture in Tripoli by US forces was denounced by many in Libya. By naming the attack after al Libi, the Islamic State's "Tripoli Province" is attempting to capitalize on the manufactured controversy surrounding his capture and death.
In some ways, the choice of name for the attack is ironic. The Islamic State's "provinces" in Libya and elsewhere are part of emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's attempt to build international support for his caliphate, and the Islamic State's supporters are openly confrontational toward al Qaeda. Indeed, the Islamic State's "provinces" are intended to draw support away from al Qaeda's international network of official and unofficial branches.
However, al Libi was a loyal al Qaeda operative. Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden's compound show that Al Libi was appointed to al Qaeda's security committee after he was released from Iranian custody in 2010. He sought permission from al Qaeda's most senior leaders before relocating to his native Libya. They granted al Libi's request and he moved back to Libya in 2011.
An unclassified report published by the Library of Congress in August 2012 identified al Libi as a key player in al Qaeda's strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya.
Al Nusrah Front, Western-backed rebels overrun key regime base south of Damascus
In the past two days, Syrian rebels overran a base belonging to Brigade 82 of the Syrian Army in the southern province of Deraa. The Brigade 82 facilities, which sit close to the town of Sheikh Maskeen and a highway connecting Damascus with Jordan, were considered a key part of the Assad regime's defenses. The Assad government has responded to the rebel takeover by pounding the insurgents' positions inside the base and Sheikh Maskeen with its military jets and helicopters.
The base reportedly housed surface-to-air missiles and other heavy weaponry, at least some of which appears to have fallen into the rebels' hands. Unverified photos posted on Twitter show rebels in possession of various missiles and launchers. For example, Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a popular al Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric in Syria, has praised the rebels' takeover and posted photos of missiles that have purportedly fallen into their possession. The photos, which have been tweeted and retweeted by a number of people, can be seen to the right.
A number of insurgency groups have posted videos and photos online showing their fighters taking part in the assault on the base.
The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, and the Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist groups, are among them. Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked organization, leads the Islamic Front.
Screen shots and photos from the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front are included at the bottom of this article.
Western-backed rebels, including fighters from the First Army, also participated in the raid on the Brigade 82 base. The First Army issued a statement before the operation was launched saying its men were going to take part in the rebels' new southern offensive. The First Army also released a statement afterwards saying that the base had fallen.
A leader of the First Army identified as Colonel Saber Safar spoke with Reuters about the significance of the base falling into rebel hands. "This advance will help us cut supply routes of the regime forces in the south from their supplies in the north to be able to eventually take over Deraa city," Safar told Reuters, which described the First Army as "a major faction of Western-backed rebels in the 'Southern Front' grouping."
In early January, Asharq Al Awsat reported that the First Army was formed by three rebel groups, each of which had operated as part of the Free Syrian Army. Asharq Al Awsat described the three groups that make up the First Army as "moderate rebel factions," which said they wanted to "unify all FSA factions under a joint military command." The publication cited a commander in the group as saying that they would not only fight Bashar al Assad's regime and its proxies, but also work to contain the growing influence of extremists, meaning the Al Nusrah Front.
The battle for Brigade 82's base, however, shows that the First Army and other "moderate" rebels continue to cooperate with al Qaeda and its extremists allies in southern Syria.
Several pictures and screen shots of other rebels taking part in the raid are published below.
Al Nusrah Front photos and videos from the capture of Brigade 82 base
In a tweet on one of its official feeds, Al Nusrah announced that the base had fallen under the rebels' complete control on Sunday. The photo below accompanied the tweet:
This screen shot from one of the Al Nusrah Front's videos shows a fighter participating in the battle:
In one of its videos, the Al Nusrah Front shows fighters pulling down a statue that appears to be a bust of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad:
Al Nusrah showcases some of the weapons and ammunition it took possession of inside Brigade 82's base:
More "booty" recovered at the base by Al Nusrah:
The Islamic Front's and Ahrar al Sham's propaganda videos
One video posted on the Islamic Front's official Twitter feed shows fighters launching mortar rounds at Brigade 82:
Smoke in the distance indicates where the mortar round struck:
In a separate video, an Islamic Front fighter celebrates after launching a shoulder-fired missile:
An Islamic Front fighter rallies his fighters from inside Brigade 82's base:
Videos showing the First Army and other rebel groups participating in the attack
Shaam News Network has posted several videos of fighters walking through the captured base. One video shows fighters walking by the same arms cache that the Al Nusrah Front featured in its own production:
A short video posted online purportedly shows fighters from the First Army firing on the base:
A video that is just over one minute long shows fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army at the Brigade 82 base:
Boko Haram takes key town in northern Nigeria, advances on Maiduguri
Major attacks by Boko Haram, from 2014 through present. Map created by Laura Grossman for The Long War Journal.
Over the weekend, Boko Haram launched a series of attacks in the latest part of its vicious campaign to take control of Nigeria and build its caliphate. Concentrated in the northeast, a number of villages came under fire within hours of an official visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Lagos.
Around 8 pm on Saturday evening, Boko Haram executed several attacks on villages in the Michika Local Government Area in eastern Adamawa State. Targeting Mbororo, Shahu, Liddle, Garta, Kamale and Ghumci, the insurgents arrived on motorcycles and in vans and then went house to house slaughtering villagers. The Islamists also set fire to many homes after looting them. It is not clear how many people were killed or how many were able to escape into the mountains.
Shortly after midnight on Sunday, Boko Haram launched a three-pronged attack on Borno State's largest city and capital, Maiduguri. Nigerian security forces engaged in fierce fighting with the terrorists, keeping them from taking the city. The attackers reportedly tried to take control of Maiduguri's airport, which in addition to hosting civilian flights services Nigeria's air force.
The exchanges of gunfire reportedly stopped at around 3:30 a.m. as the jihadists retreated. Boko Haram fighters subsequently returned around 5:40 a.m., re-engaging with Nigerian forces. The air force then deployed jets around 11 a.m. to push back the renewed jihadist offensive. The day before the battle, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had visited Maiduguri on campaign stop ahead of presidential elections on February 14. With the retreat of Boko Haram, a city-wide curfew was lifted today. However, analysts have noted that hardships are likely not over yet for residents of Maiduguri as the city has strategic value for the terrorists.
A short while later on Sunday morning, insurgents from Boko Haram also attacked and took control of the town of Monguno, 80 miles northeast of the state capital. Monguno has served as a buffer between Bokon Haram strongholds in the north, and Maiduguri.
The 243 Battalion of the Nigerian army, comprised of about 1,400 solders stationed in Monguno, was overwhelmed by the insurgents. Military sources reported to Sahara Reporters after the battle that "We still don't know what has happened to them [Nigerian soldiers], but we know that Boko Haram now controls the barracks and Monguno town." Today, Nigerian forces are reportedly fighting to take back control of Monguno through air strikes.
About 24 miles southeast of Maiduguri, Boko Haram also hit Konduga on Sunday. However, the Nigerian military claimed that it repelled the attack.
As northeastern towns were being targeted on Sunday, American Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Lagos to meet with President Jonathan and his rival candidate Muhammadu Buhar to express support for the upcoming elections. Kerry noted "The fact is that one of the best ways to fight back against Boko Haram and similar groups is by protecting the peaceful, credible, and transparent elections that are essential to any thriving democracy, and certainly, essential to the largest democracy in Africa. It's imperative that these elections happen on time as scheduled, and that they are an improvement over past elections, and they need to set a new standard for this democracy."
In a press briefing after the meetings, Secretary Kerry spoke of the United States' "deeply engaged" relationship with Nigeria. He noted that the US is "helping Nigeria to increase the capability of its military; to improve its counter-incident explosive detection and civil-military operations capacity; and to carry out responsible counterterrorism operations." He also pointed to additional law enforcement assistance and ongoing crisis management training.
Interestingly, Secretary Kerry highlighted that the United States' most recent assistance in the fight against Boko Haram was not in fact given to Nigeria. According to the Secretary of State, "Most recently, we've worked with Nigeria's neighbors Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to develop institutional and tactical capabilities that will increase the joint efforts between our countries in order to be more effective."
The New York Times reported ahead of Kerry's visit that relations were "so strained" between American military trainers and the Nigerian military that "the Pentagon often bypasses the Nigerians altogether, choosing to work instead with security officials in the neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger." The report also noted that the US does not include raw data in intelligence shared with Nigeria due to concerns about Boko Haram's infiltration of the government. In 2014, the US also prevented Israel from reselling American-made helicopters to Nigeria. The US was acting on concerns regarding the Nigerian military's maintenance capabilities and potentially inhumane treatment of civilians.
As Nigeria's battle with Boko Haram pushes forward, its success may well be dependent upon the support it receives from its regional allies and other international partners, including the United States. Given both the Nigerian military's poor track record against the terrorist outfit, local security forces are in need international support.
US drone strike kills 3 suspected AQAP members
The US reportedly killed 3 suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in a drone strike today that took place in a border region between the provinces of Shabwa and Marib. The strike is the first reported in Yemen in more than two and a half months.
Arabic-language reports indicated that the strike targeted a Suzuki Vitara carrying AQAP operatives, allegedly resulting in the complete destruction of the vehicle and the deaths of at least three individuals.
The remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers fired four missiles at the vehicle, according to media reports. Tribal and security sources in Yemen's Marib province confirmed that a vehicle had been targeted by a US drone.
Today's strike is the first since the Nov. 12, 2014 strike in Shabwa province that reportedly killed 7 suspected AQAP members as they gathered "under a group of trees" in Azzan. Today's strike is also the first in Yemen in 2015, as well as the first since the resignation of the Yemeni government, including President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, last week.
The resignations came amid reports that the Houthi rebels, who have been challenging the central government since late September, had kidnapped Yemen's chief-of-staff and were placing many Yemeni ministers under house arrest, including President Hadi.
Today's strike in Yemen also comes just one day following President Barack Obama's remarks in India regarding Yemen, in which he claimed that the current instability in Yemen due to the Houthi rebel offensive will not affect US counter-terrorism efforts in the country.
Last week, counterterrorism officials and Yemen analysts suggested that the collapse of the Yemeni government, a staunch ally of the United States' war on terror, might render efforts to counter AQAP in Yemen "paralyzed." Some US officials even claimed that the current unrest in Yemen had forced the US to suspend some operations in the country in light of the fact that it relied heavily on intelligence provided by the Yemeni government and military.
The following pictures of the vehicle targeted in today's strike were released by the Arabic media (Source: Al Masdar Online):
AQAP releases infographics detailing attacks
A Twitter account affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has released two infographics detailing the terror group's activity for the first quarter of 1436, the current year according to the Islamic or Hijri calendar. Being that the current Islamic year began on October 25, 2014, these infographics purportedly represent terrorist attacks carried out by AQAP in the three months since.
The two infographics (shown below), and the accompanying report produced by AQAP, indicate that the group has claimed credit for a total of 205 attacks in the three months since the beginning of the current Islamic year.
AQAP includes the terrorist shooting at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris on January 7 as one of its 205 attacks. AQAP refers to the massacre as "the Paris raid." A senior AQAP official previously claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo assault on behalf of the organization.
The two infographics categorize the types of terrorist operations into ten different types, including ambushes, sniper shootings, and attacks involving suicide belts. Based on the data presented by AQAP, the terrorist group has relied most heavily on the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the past three months.
Additionally, AQAP's report points out that the Houthi rebels have been the group's primary target, followed by the Yemeni military, and then American and French interests in Yemen.
AQAP's resolve and capabilities have recently been questioned in some jihadist circles due to the advances of the Shi'ite Houthi rebels inside Yemen. Since their seizure of the capital in late September 2014, tHe Houthis have continued their military advance throughout Yemen and taken control of various key cities in the country. Last week, the Houthis tightened their noose around Sana'a as they circled the presidential complex, ultimately forcing the government and president to resign.
On the back of the Houthi's stunning advances, AQAP may have felt the need to release the infographics in order to showcase its own successes despite the progress of the Houthi rebels. The organization's rivals in the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria, have criticized AQAP for failing to prevent the Houthis' gains.
However, it is not uncommon for jihadist groups to release status reports similar to AQAP's. The Islamic State has done so in the past. And so has the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria. In September 2014, Al Nusrah released an English-language summary of its operations for the previous month.
The infographics attribute the attacks to "Ansar Al-Sharia (AQAP)." Ansar al Sharia is a brand that AQAP adopted inside Yemen to promote its governance and proselytization efforts, among other activities.
AQAP issues guidelines for suicide operations
A senior sharia official in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Harith al Nadhari, sets forth guidelines for "martyrdom," or suicide, operations in a newly-released video. Al Nadhari's video, which is more than ten minutes long, was released by Al Malahem Media, AQAP's propaganda arm, via one of its official Twitter feeds.
Tweets promoting the video include a hashtag in Arabic that reads, "#The Inviolability_of_Sacrosanct_Blood," meaning Muslim blood. Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations have attempted to rein in the violence unleashed by their members. Indiscriminate killings of civilians in the Muslim-majority world have, at times, damaged the jihadists' cause by undermining their perceived legitimacy. Indeed, today's jihadists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims throughout the history of their operations.
AQAP has also had its operations against Houthis, who are Shiite Muslims, questioned. While AQAP is opposed to the Houthi rebels who have rocked Sanaa's government, the group's operations have generated additional controversy by hitting civilian gatherings.
Nadhari clearly has these issues in mind as he addresses what AQAP, an official branch of al Qaeda, believes are proper restrictions on suicide attacks. Nadhari begins by saying that one of the "worst predicaments" a jihadist can find himself in is the "unjust shedding of inviolable blood." Nadhari cites early Islamic literature and scholars throughout his video to buttress his point.
Nadhari argues that "killing a believer" is more important in the eyes of Allah than the "end of the world." He warns that hellfire awaits those who do not heed his warning.
Because all will stand before Allah on the imagined day of judgment, Nadhari argues, jihadists cannot hide behind the orders of their leaders. Orders issued by one's emir, or leader, should not be "considered a license to shed inviolable blood." Both the emir and the one who follows his instructions will be thrown into hell, Nadhari says.
Nadhari's argument is the same one al Qaeda uses against the Islamic State, which al Qaeda accuses of spilling Muslim blood.
AQAP's ideologue goes on to set forth six recommendations, or guidelines, for conducting "martyrdom" attacks.
First, jihadists should avoid using explosives or other methods "of mass killing" in mosques, markets, stadiums or other areas where Muslims congregate in large numbers.
Second, Nadhari says that jihadists should avoid killing Muslims even if they are being used to shield their enemies. Only in "extreme" circumstances, with guidance from "highly knowledgeable" scholars, should jihadists carry out such operations, Nadhari says.
AQAP's third, fourth and fifth recommendations address the role of jihadist leaders and who is allowed to "issue fatwas concerning martyrdom-seeking operations." Only those individuals who have the proper understanding of sharia law and "Islamic doctrines" should issue such fatwas, Nadhari says. Jihadist leaders must "train and instruct" their fighters on the "correct jurisprudence," such that the "martyrdom-seeker" only moves forward when he is completely certain of the "legitimacy of his target." And leaders must not send suicide operatives to attack "suspicious or controversial targets."
Sixth, and finally, Nadhari says that suicide operatives are at fault if they attack without "wisdom," even if their intentions were good.
AQAP is clearly concerned about how the jihadists' operations are perceived throughout the Muslim-majority world. And Nadhari's guidelines demonstrate, once again, that al Qaeda continues to believe that the jihadists' indiscriminate violence remains a strategic liability for their cause.
A prominent al Qaeda ideologue
Al Qaeda has consistently elevated Harith al Nadhari's media profile, meaning al Qaeda considers him to be a key ideologue for the organization. In addition to having his work promoted by AQAP, Nadhari's writings have been featured in Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad ("Voice of the Afghan Jihad"), a magazine that publishes the works of top al Qaeda leaders and their closest allies. For example, an edition of the magazine published last year included a piece from Nadhari on "ideology and teachings."
Nadhari praised the attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices earlier this month. Another AQAP ideologue subsequently claimed responsibility for the massacre on behalf of the organization.
In addition to the Charlie Hebdo attack, Nadhari regularly comments on events far from Yemen. In August 2013, he discussed the turmoil in Egypt.
In July 2014, Nadhari joined other senior AQAP leaders in defending Ayman al Zawahiri and veteran jihadist ideologues against their critics. Nadhari's message was clearly aimed at supporters of the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that claims to rule as a "caliphate" over large parts of Iraq and Syria. And in October 2014 he was among the al Qaeda ideologues who attempted to portray the US-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria as part of a "Crusade" against the Islamic world.
It is possible that Nadhari also serves as one of Nasir al Wuhayshi's deputy general managers in al Qaeda's global network. Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden's compound show that al Qaeda's general manager has deputies who are appointed to help him carry out his work.
Nasir al Wuhayshi serves as both AQAP's emir and as al Qaeda's general manager, but his deputies have not been publicly identified.
Iranian political and military leaders laud Qods Force general killed in Syria
The death of Brigadier General Mohammad-Ali Allah-Dadi, the latest Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officer killed abroad, has generated an outpouring of condolences and support from Iran's political and military elite.
Allah-Dadi, who had a distinguished career and solid Iran-Iraq War background, was killed by an Israeli helicopter assault in the Syrian city of Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. The strike also killed six members of Hezbollah [see LWJ reports, Senior Qods Force general killed in suspected Israeli airstrike, and Hezbollah commanders killed in suspected Israeli airstrike.]
Senior Iranian officials have and are continuing to weigh in on the event, brandishing Iranian deterrence and even threatening retaliation against Israel in their statements. The broad amount of commentary and deep retaliatory sentiment in honor of Allah-Dadi stands in contrast to the somewhat more muted coverage of the recent (Jan. 10, 2015) funeral service of Hossein Ahmadi, another Qods Force officer "martyred" in Syria. Clearly, the killing of Allah-Dadi struck a chord.
The Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Admiral Ali Shamkhani, claimed that "the current of resistance would answer the terrorist action of the Zionist regime with revolutionary intensity and determination in a time and place of our choosing." Such open-ended threats were not limited to Shamkhani. In a prepared statement, Major General Mohammad-Ali Aziz-Jafari, the Commander of Iran's IRGC proclaimed that "These martyrdoms have proved that we must not distance ourselves from Jihad; the Zionists must await our destructive thunderbolts, in the past they have seen the emergence of our anger."
Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, the Deputy Qods Force Commander echoed Shamkhani's sentiments, adding a twist of his own against Israel: "We will certainly provide the answer to your brashness and thuggery in our own time and place, and know that we will be [the] file against your spirit and life."
Even former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, used similar language, as he proclaimed, "To quote the Secretary-General of Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Zionists [should] go prepare their refuge."
Framing the strike as part of an attempt to blunt Iran's regional preeminence was Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the IRGC Deputy Commander who stated, "The Zionists engaged in such a crime due to the defeats they have suffered from Hezbollah in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria." Salami too issued a warning: "The Zionists should know that they will see the ruinous thunderbolts of the IRGC in action, as in the past."
Praising Allah-Dadi more specifically, and linking his legacy to Iran's Islamic Revolution was Major General Mostafa Izadi, a Deputy in Iran's General Staff Armed Forces, who eulogized that "The martyr [Shahid] Allah-Dadi was the type of person who really knew himself, and found this luck to be present in different stages of the Revolution."
An inspection of Allah-Dadi's recent arrival in the Syrian theater points to his having been tapped for the role by Qods Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani. Such affinity between Soleimani and Allah-Dadi helps to indicate why Soleimani took time out of his day as Qods Force Commander to personally perform the Ziarat-e Ashura prayer during Allah-Dadi's funeral service.
Additionally weighing-in was Hojjat al-Eslam Mohammad-Hassan Abutorabi Fard, the Deputy-Speaker of Iran's Parliament. Implying that Hezbollah would be in charge of the response, he noted: "Until present, the Zionists have received several slaps from the Islamic Resistance and Hezbollah, and the response of Hezbollah to this Zionist crime will be exceptional and special."
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani on the other hand, chose to praise Allah-Dadi's "martyrdom" without linking it to a threat against Israel. The same went for Yazd Governor Seyyed Mohammad Mir Mohammadi, in charge of the city housing the Al-Ghadir IRGC unit which Allah-Dadi formerly commanded. Mir Mohammadi stated: "Martyrdom is the art of men of God."
Iranian cabinet ministers too, have offered their condolences. Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif called the attack an "insane act," while Intelligence Minister Hojjat al-Eslam Alavi stated that Allah-Dadi was killed while engaged in "an advisory function to help the innocent government and nation of Syria against Takfiri-Salafi terrorists."
And of course, the set of condolences included those of Hossein Dehqan, Iran's Minister of Defense. Dehqan's history of support to Hezbollah is well-known, as evidenced by his recent reference to Israeli activity in Quneitra circa 1982. Dehqan stated that "This terrorist action of the Zionist regime in the Golan [Heights] is the continuation of the crimes of the regime in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, [and] Lebanon."
Recently, pictures have emerged from the ceremonies and funeral service of Mohammad-Ali Allah-Dadi. One notable photo is of current and former IRGC Commanders (skipping over Yahya-Rahim Safavi) Rezaie and Jafari. At the service, Major General Jafari took his praise of Allahdadi in a different direction than his earlier prepared commentary. While it is expected for the Islamic Republic's elite to praise their deceased colleague and continue their vitriol against Israel, Jafari morphed Allah-Dadi's death abroad into part of the foreign policy legacy of the Islamic Republic: "The Islamic Revolution outside the country's borders is advancing with speed and is after the conquest of fortifications, and is the realization of the ideals of the deceased Imam (Ayatollah Khomeini) and the martyrs."
Recent developments in the Middle East only underscore this point for Iranian elites, and perhaps more so for the scores abroad, like Allah-Dadi, who serve[d] under them.
Family members claim leader of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi has died
Wissam Ben Hamid (left) chats with Mohammed al Zahawi (right) in a photo that was posted online by Ansar al Sharia on July 22, 2014.
Family members of Mohamed al Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, say that he has died of wounds suffered during a battle last year, according to Reuters. Separately, a Libyan military leader has also claimed that Zahawi has passed away as a result of injuries "sustained in an ambush" that occurred sometime in September 2014.
Rumors of Zahawi's demise have circulated for months, but there has been no hard evidence to back up the claim. Thus far, Ansar al Sharia has not released an official martyrdom statement or video confirming Zahawi's death.
Zahawi has frequently starred in Ansar al Sharia's videos. The group has featured scenes of Zahawi leading the charge against General Khalifa Haftar's forces. Haftar and his fighters have sought to take control of Benghazi from the jihadists since the middle of last year.
Ansar al Sharia in Libya first gained international infamy after the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the US Mission and Annex in Benghazi, which left four Americans, including the US ambassador, dead. Ansar al Sharia fighters from both Benghazi and Derna, along with members of other al Qaeda groups, took part in the attacks.
Some of Ansar al Sharia's propaganda videos and photos have shown Zahawi fighting alongside Wissam Ben Hamid, a key figure in the security failures surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks. [See LWJ reports, Ansar al Sharia ally a key figure in Benghazi security failures and Ansar al Sharia video features jihadist once thought to be US ally in Benghazi.]
Zahawi and Ben Hamid have both been leaders in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), an Ansar al Sharia-led alliance of jihadists and Islamists that has battled Haftar's forces. Similar consortiums allied with Ansar al Sharia and the BRSC have been established in other Libyan cities, including Derna and Bayda.
Ansar al Sharia designated a terrorist organization, linked to al Qaeda
In January 2014, the State Department added Ansar al Sharia in Libya and two of the group's leaders to the US government's terrorist designation lists. However, Zahawi was not among the leaders designated. [See LWJ report, State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders.]
The UN added the Benghazi and Derna chapters of Ansar al Sharia Libya to its al Qaeda sanctions list in November 2014. [See LWJ report, UN recognizes ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya, al Qaeda.]
According to the UN, both Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi and Derna are "associated" with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official branch of al Qaeda that remains loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri. They are both also tied to Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia, which orchestrated the assault on the US Embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012.
The UN added Ansar al Sharia Tunisia to its al Qaeda sanctions list in September 2014. The UN found that, like its sister organizations in Libya, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has "links to" AQIM.
There are well-established ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya and Tunisia. The UN notes in its designation that Ansar al Sharia in Libya has a "support network in Tunisia."
In addition, the Benghazi chapter of Ansar al Sharia is tied to Al Mourabitoun, which is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM commander who established his own jihadist group. Belmokhtar is openly loyal to Zawahiri and, according to a previous designation by the UN, still works with AQIM despite his differences with the group's leadership.
Belmokhtar commanded the terrorists responsible for the January 2013 siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the raid on behalf of al Qaeda. According to information compiled by Western governments and given to the UN, 12 of the 24 jihadists who participated in the In Amenas raid were trained in Ansar al Sharia camps in Benghazi.
Analysis: Qatar embraces admitted al Qaeda operative
Members of Qatar's al Murra tribe are throwing a party, and the people of Qatar are cordially invited. The "public invitation" for the party, which will be held down the street from a stadium for the 2022 World Cup, celebrates the return home of Ali Saleh Kahlah al Marri, an admitted al Qaeda sleeper agent released early from federal prison last week. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Former al Qaeda operative freed, sent home to Qatar.]
The prime minister of Qatar has even reportedly spoken to al Marri on the phone, congratulating al Marri on his release. Several alleged photos of the conversation have been posted on social media sites. One of the photos can be seen above.
Al Marri pled guilty in 2009 to obeying instructions from the mastermind of 9/11 to "enter the United States no later than September 10, 2001" and await further directions. According to President George W. Bush, al Marri pledged his loyalty in person to Osama bin Laden and cased such US targets as "water reservoirs, the New York Stock Exchange, and United States military academies."
However, shortly after his release from a US prison, several prominent Qatari personalities welcomed al Marri home with open arms. In the days that followed, others have continued to heap praise on al Marri, with a longtime board member of Al Jazeera declaring on her personal Twitter page that "we congratulate the family of Ali bin Kahlah al-Marri on his return."
Members of Ali al Marri's immediate family evidently revealed they were "delighted" when Qatar's prime minister phoned the former al Qaeda sleeper agent to ask how he was doing. This was after al Marri's nephew revealed his uncle was "greeted by representatives from the Qatari interior and foreign ministries." The adulation has left al Marri in "high spirits," his nephew said.
The nature of al Marri's release raises serious questions about whether or not he should have been repatriated to Qatar, a country notorious for turning a blind eye to terrorists and terror financiers in its midst.
According to Fox News, the US Justice Department confirmed Ali al Marri was released from prison prior to completing his full sentence because of "time served." He may also have received credit for good behavior.
According to publicly available materials from al Marri's 2009 civilian court case, the original terms of his plea bargain were that he could have been deported to either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, since he held citizenship in those two places. Indeed, he traveled to the United States on a Saudi - not Qatari - passport.
Another detail from the 2009 court documents: al Marri spent nearly a decade working in Qatari finance, including as a "key person" in the audit department of Qatar Islamic Bank and then as a senior auditor for the government of Qatar. By deporting al Marri to Qatar - a more permissive jurisdiction for terror finance where he is treated like a celebrity, has many friends in the financial sector, and where his brother is apparently once again active in radical networks - the US missed an opportunity to send him to Saudi Arabia instead. Of course, this would have been an imperfect solution, as Saudi Arabia has had difficulty keeping tabs on known al Qaeda operatives repatriated from the US.
This would be less of a concern if al Marri was truly rehabilitated. But at his sentencing in 2009, the federal judge with access to classified files on al Marri concluded otherwise: "I believe that the risk of your reassociating with those who brought you here to begin with, I believe that's high. I believe that based on everything I've read and hear that you do not truly regret what you did and I believe you would do it again after you go home."
However, the US may still have some constructive policy options moving forward. A widely overlooked feature of al Marri's sentence was that he was ordered to undergo three years of probation after his release from prison. Although US officials cannot enforce this clause themselves, they would be justified to publicly call on Doha to do the same.
US officials could publish the terms of the bilateral agreement under which al Marri was reportedly released. When the US kept the terms of Jarallah al Marri's release private in 2008, Qatar violated its word. This time, perhaps public scrutiny can persuade Doha to keep its promises on Jarallah's big brother.
Washington could also call out the Qataris for welcoming an admitted al Qaeda terrorist with open arms. Failing to speak out would reward Doha for encouraging extremism in its midst.