What Makes Some Join Al Qaeda?

Tripoli

From my Daily Beast exclusive today: “What makes someone join Al Qaeda? In the case of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Al Qaeda luminary killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan last June, his older brother has no doubt. Americans are culpable for his sibling’s embrace of terrorism. He draws a direct line between al-Libi’s recruitment by al Qaeda and the suffering he endured at the hands of American interrogators using techniques similar to those portrayed in the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

Lamenting American missteps in the war on terror, Abd Al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid says his brother had been in Afghanistan for 15 years, as a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, but that he, ‘like all of us shunned Al Qaeda.’ That is, until his mistreatment at Bagram Air Base. ‘He was tortured very aggressively and humiliated. Naturally, for each action there’s a reaction,’ he sighs.”

Torture: And Who Are We?

From my Newsweek/Daily Beast coverage today of a major report detailing what happened to 15 Libyan opponents of Col. Gaddafi when they fell into the hands of the CIA:

“One former detainee alleged he was water-boarded while held at a CIA-controlled prison in Afghanistan and another described to HRW undergoing water torture but without a board being used. The testimony contradicts claims by Bush administration officials, who told Congress only three men had ever been water-boarded while in U.S. custody. The two Libyans were not among those named by Michael Hayden to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 5, 2008, raising questions about whether the then CIA director misled Congress or was lied to by his subordinates.”

Al-Qaeda Chief Bin Laden Urged Another Aviation Mission On US Soil

Although isolated and finding it harder to lead his diminished terrorist network, Osama bin Laden towards the end of his life still dreamed of organizing terrorism on U.S. soil and urged underlings to recruit an operative with a Mexican passport able to cross into the United States.

Correspondence seized by United States Navy SEALs during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad and posted online by U.S. authorities reveal an isolated and vain al-Qaeda leader struggling to gain control of a weakened and fractious terrorist organization.

But he remained convinced, though, that al-Qaeda and its affiliates still had the potential with proper planning and direction to pull off dramatic attacks once again against the U.S.

The correspondence reveals irritation at the lack of success. He criticizes the failed car bomb attack on May 1 2010 in New York’s Times Square mounted by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani American.

The al-Qaeda leader questioned the wisdom of using an operative who had been naturalized and therefore had taken an oath of allegiance to the U.S. – he believed this reflected poorly on the cause of jihad, or holy war, because lying about an oath breaks Islamic law.

“This is not the kind of lying to the enemy that is permitted. It is treachery,” he wrote in an October 2010 letter.

According to a former U.S. official who spoke with the Los Angeles Times, bin Laden advised deputies to find a follower with a valid Mexican passport, who could cross into the U.S. and plan terrorism.

In several of the letters written by bin Laden, the terrorist boss criticizes subordinates and regional al-Qaeda affiliates for what he sees as strategic mistakes and he expresses weariness at the dysfunction of his terrorist network.

He worries about a “lack of coordination” and even ponders a corporate-style rebranding of his network complete with a new name in order to revive the organization and its fortunes.

He remains convinced, though, that al-Qaeda and its affiliates still have the potential with proper planning and direction to pull off dramatic attacks once again against the U.S.

The cache of letters authored by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda luminaries, including “Atiyya” Abd al- Rahman, Abu Yahya al-Libi and the American Adam Gadahn, were posted online by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.

There are 17 letters in all amounting to 175 pages of text. More documents seized during the raid at Abbottabad on May 11 2011 will be declassified and made public in the coming months, say U.S. officials.

Altogether more than 6,000 documents were seized — most were written between September 2006 and April 2011. They were recovered from half-a-dozen computers, dozens of hard drives and over 100 USB storage devices.

What comes through in the letters released so far is a frustrated bin Laden, one annoyed that he can’t seem to wield command over regional jihad groups in terms both of their actions and their propaganda.

Notably, even Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, feels able to ignore 11 of a dozen edits made presumably by bin Laden to a draft statement he planned to release during the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

But it is on less mundane matters that bin Laden vents his greatest frustrations as he clearly realizes that his sway over affiliates has weakened dramatically. One of his biggest concerns rests with affiliates in Pakistan and Somalia massacring significant numbers of Muslims during their terrorist attacks. He worries they are damaging al-Qaeda’s standing among Arabs and other Muslims.

“We ask every emir in the regions to be extremely keen and focused on controlling the military work … we could have reached the target without injuring the Muslims,” bin Laden writes in May 2010. “Making these mistakes is a great issue; needless to say, the greatness of the Muslim blood violation in addition to the damage impacting the jihad.”

As his calls for a cessation of the shedding of Muslim blood falls on deaf ears, he becomes more desperate, arguing in the summer of 2010 that all al-Qaeda affiliates should publicly apologize. He writes that this is a “great issue” and that attacks are resulting in “the alienation of most of the nation from the Mujahidin.” Likewise, he complains about civilian deaths in Iraq, saying they are the wrong targets.

Clearly, bin Laden sees the need to cease killing Muslims as a strategic imperative. There’s no emotional remorse shown in the letters written by al-Qaeda’s leader about the slayings, and bin Laden never indicated, for example, sadness over the estimated 31 Muslims who perished during 9/11.

What he’s seeking to do with his strictures is to get regional jihad groups and other al-Qaeda leaders to understand that resources and manpower are limited and are being degraded by the U.S. especially through drone strikes in Pakistan that are taking a high toll. He wants a relentless focus on U.S. targets.

In one letter believed by U.S. analysts to have been written by bin Laden, the al-Qaeda boss likens the U.S. to the trunk of a tree with allies and Muslim regimes cooperating with Washington DC the branches. “Our abilities and resources, however, are limited, thus we cannot do the job quickly enough. The only option we are left with is to slowly cut that tree down by using a saw. Our intention is to saw the trunk of that tree, and never to stop until that tree falls down,” he writes.

With the trunk in mind, bin Laden, writing to one of his top lieutenants in 2010, says he wants “qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation in the US.” He urges his top followers to nominate al-Qaeda members distinguished by “good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the U.S.”

And he envisions repeating 9/11, arguing that air attacks worked well. Ten “brothers” — preferably from the Gulf States — should be sent to the U.S. to “study aviation”, enabling them to conduct suicide attacks.

He is emphatic also about trying to assassinate President Barack Obama or Gen. David Petraeus, when the latter was in command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He believes their violent deaths would alter the course of events and precipitate a U.S. crisis. He ordered that watch units be established at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to target planes carrying Petraeus or Obama.

“I asked Shaykh Sa’id, Allah have mercy on his soul, to task brother Ilyas to prepare two groups – one in Pakistan and the other in the Bagram area of Afghanistan – with the mission of anticipating and spotting the visits of Obama or Petraeus to Afghanistan or Pakistan to target the aircraft of either one of them,” bin Laden wrote.

A lot of bin Laden’s focus in the letters is on the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC and how best to craft and disseminate the al-Qaeda line to international audiences.

“We need to benefit from this event and get our message to the Muslims and celebrate the victory that was achieved,” bin Laden writes in an October 2010 letter. “This is a chance to explain our motives for continuing the war.”

Almost like a corporate PR adviser he discusses the best dissemination methods and which TV channels and companies to approach and in what manner.

Despite the micro-management he attempts, there is a sense of drift in the network and confusion about what direction to take, especially as the Arab Spring dawns. His isolation in Abbottabad leaves him testy and at times inward looking.

His urging his subordinates to think again about aviation-based attacks in the U.S. comes across as an attempt to re-live a 9/11 that seems beyond the tactical grasp of the network.

The Irresponsibility of WikiLeaks

Until yesterday I was a strong supporter of the work of WikiLeaks: democratic governments are not transparent enough on the whole, and certainly in the “war on terror” there has been far too much empowering of the security services and far too many civil liberty abuses.  And both the Bush administration and Blair government lied to their publics – and the World – about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. The disclosure recently by WikiLeaks of a video showing the killing of likely non-combatant Afghans was a public service.

But Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been offensively cavalier with his uploading of 75,000 leaked battlefield reports and other secret and classified U.S. military material from the war in Afghanistan. As the New York Times among others has reported, the names of dozens of Afghans who have provided information to the U.S. military and NATO troops can be identified from many of the reports. A cursory search of some of the documents that I did today reveals informant family and village names: pinpointing them will not be that demanding for the Taliban.

Assange maintains that WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 reports to minimize the danger to informants. Asked on NBC’s Today show about whether he would view the killing of an informant by the Taliban as “collateral damage” in his bid the make public more of the details about the war, he responded: “If we had, in fact, made that mistake, then, of course, that would be something that we would take vey seriously.”

That isn’t good enough. Assange doesn’t describe himself as a journalist – he’s more of a transparency activist. But while he may not consider himself a journalist, he is engaging in journalism and, for the better sort of journalist, there are ethics and professional standards that are to be observed – that is if reputation is to be maintained. Journalists at the Guardian, New York Times and Der Speigel observed those standards at the beginning of the week when given by Assange exclusive access to documents ahead of their full online release. The three publications posted online documents but ensured informant information was redacted.

That is the approach I took when revealing for past stories and investigations the details of hundreds of leaked classified intelligence and law enforcement documents. And, yes, I engaged in self-censorship and erred on the side of caution. It wasn’t my job to assist narco-traffickers or terrorists or other spies to identify informants and to pull the trigger.

Assange has been highly irresponsible in what he has done. Both transparency and bringing home to Americans and Britons the futility and savagery of the war in Afghanistan could have been accomplished by more restraint – the kind of restraint shown by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel.

Backfiring Predator

It apparently took 16 drone-missile attempts by the CIA before they got Pakistani insurgent leader Baitullah Meshud. His death on August 27 – he died along with his second wife in the attack in South Waziristan near the insurgent chief’s home village of Narkosa – was greeted with jubilation by U.S. and Pakistani officials. Although none of them detailed the earlier failed assassination efforts that killed hundreds of civilians, they were keen to point to Baitullah Mehsud’s death as a turning point in the war on terror in Pakistan.

The insurgency was now a snake without a head, or so the claim went. The CIA drone attack had left the Islamic militants in disarray, the officials maintained.

Events in Pakistan since late August have shown what a hollow accomplishment it was in taking out Baitullah Mehsud. The terror response from his Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, including Al Qaeda, illustrates clearly what the limits are in policy results in killing top terror leaders.

Back in 2002 then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised the tactic of using drone-missile attacks to vaporize the enemy leadership. Speaking on CNN after a CIA Reaper firing a Hellfire missile killed Al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, Wolfowitz claimed such attacks not only got rid of dangerous people but disrupted the terror organizations, forcing them to change tactics and operations, making them less effective.

The same kind of talk was heard in August from Obama officials But since the assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, TTP and its allies have hardly drawn breath. Take October. One week saw three spectacular attacks – one on the World Food Programme office’s in Islamabad, another on a crowded market in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar that killed more than 50, and then a stunning finale with an assault on the headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi leaving 20 dead.

Another October week and more blood-letting. Islamic militants attacked key police facilities in two Pakistani cities, killing at least 28 people as insurgents firing automatic rifles and carrying grenades stormed the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency and two police training centers in Lahore.

And on and on, Pakistan’s Islamic militants have shown that they can assault an array of different targets. In the wake of the August 27 drone attack, the TTP promoted senior lieutenant Hakeemullah Mehsud to take on its leadership and he has been successful in encouraging the various Islamic militant groups in Pakistan to coalesce more and to coordinate.

In short, the Hellfire missile that killed Baitullah Mehsud backfired.

Moral and legal disputes aside about the use of the drones and the targeted assassinations – and there are plenty of compelling arguments against this tactic none more convincing than that hundreds of innocent civilians are being killed in the process – the tactic is simply not working.

President Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for undertaking yet another review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – his second review this year. Critics have been up in arms about his resistance to sending more troops to Afghanistan. But if the review involves identifying a political strategy and subduing the military approach to the conflict, then the time will have been well-spent.

Afghans To Re-Run Election – Deja Vu

Following up from my Perfect Storm post. With Karzai’s agreement for a re-run of the election, we have now  an imperfect storm. Questions: How will vote-rigging be avoided this time round? With the Taliban rampant, is it likely that we will see an increase in turnout?

The way Karzai acceded to a run-off doesn’t augur well. He was begrudging in the extreme and as the New York Times pointed out “you could almost hear his arm being twisted” by Secretary of State Clinton and other allied leaders, including Britain’s Gordon Brown and France’s Bernard Kouchner.  Is Karzai likely to become the kind of credible partner President Obama says is necessary before agreeing to the dispatch of reinforcements to Afghanistan?

Even now Karzai seems reluctant to accept that nearly one-third of his first-round votes were stolen. Does anyone really think that vote-rigging of that magnitude is somehow not connected with Karzai himself?

And to stress the point I made above. How is this election going to be more credible and fair than the last? Election day is only three weeks away. Much of the fraud was also connected to a faulty registry of voters that international observers knew had problems with it months before the summer election. Is the register going to corrected? Of course, not as there is not enough time.

And how to ensure that the runoff is fair and credible when many of the poll-workers who were responsible for the fraud last time will be involved this time? They can’t all be sacked as there is not enough time to train replacements.

And when Karzai wins, which he is likely to by all accounts, will he see the errors of his way and transform himself into the leader people had high hopes he was many years ago? Again it is his begrudging acceptance now of the runoff that suggests that a re-elected Karzai will be no different from before. A priority for the next Afghan government must be to root out corruption, including the corruption within the Karzai family, notably his brother. After that basic services must be improved – that change could well be more important than the sending of additional troops. It has been the neglect of the economy and the country’s infrastructure by the allies and by the Afghan government that has so far doomed the democratic experiment in Afghanistan. Why should people believe democracy is a good thing when they have no reliable running water or electricity even in the capital of Kabul?

The failure of the Afghan government to deliver services along with widespread corruption has fueled the insurgency as much as the presence of foreign troops.