What Makes Some Join Al Qaeda?


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.”

Unintended Consequences Of The Arab Spring

As ever with fast-moving events that I cover for the Daily Beast, I’ve been tardy in updating my blog. Nevertheless below are links to some pieces on the Algerian hostage siege. The two most interesting, I think, are pieces I wrote with Mike Giglio and Eli Lake. The first (with Mike) examines the growth of the Jihadist movement and how the collapse of the security systems of the previous regimes has been exploited. The second (with Eli) was an exclusive and throws up some history on the veteran Jihadist who masterminded the raid on the natural gas facility in Algeria. It suggests at one time he was an asset of Algerian intelligence.

Veteran Jihadist Once An Algerian Asset — Newsweek/Daily Beast

Unintended Consequences Of The Arab Spring — Newsweek/Daily Beast

Inside The Algerian Hostage Siege — Newsweek/Daily Beast

Hostages Reportedly Dead in Algerian Siege — Newsweek/Daily Beast

No Way To Treat An Ambassador


“At the consulate, smoke in the burning villa was thinning out; crowds of curiosity seekers and looters were moving in. As they rummaged through the building, they came across a blond man in a white shirt and gray pants, his nose and mouth blackened by soot and body fluids. They dragged him out through the window at the back of the villa. ‘The man is alive,’ shouted someone in the crowd. ‘Move out of the way.'” With my colleagues at Newsweek, a take on what happened the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

A Series On Christopher Stevens And Ansar al-Sharia


Under the pressure of events and filing a couple of stories a day on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and its aftermath I have neglected sadly my personal bog. Below are the links to the series of articles I filed for the Daily Beast and Voice of America between September 12 and September 18.

September 12

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three State Department officials were killed last night in a targeted rocket attack, after riots over a U.S. film depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud.

September 12

Despite President Obama’s pledge that the violent assault on the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens would not “break the bonds” between the U.S. and Libya, it would appear to have weakened them. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that U.S. diplomats are to be evacuated in the coming days. It was not clear whether a skeleton staff would remain, and the embassy could not be reached for comment.

September 13
Heavily-armed assailants waged a five-hour firefight against Libyan and American guards—at two locations. Fury over a film or a planned mission?

September 13

For many Libyans the deaths are shocking enough—and apologies are spontaneously offered to Americans—but underlying the condolences is a fear that the U.S. will reduce its commitment to the Arab Spring.

September 14

Shifting explanations from Libyan officials and contradictory recollections by survivors and witnesses are hampering U.S. officials’ efforts to reconstruct the night of the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 15

America and Libya should share responsibility for the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, according to the spokesman of Libya’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur. He says that so far no evidence has turned up that suggests al Qaeda had a hand in the attack.

September 17

An amateur video appearing to show a motionless but apparently still alive Ambassador Christopher Stevens was posted Sunday on YouTube. The video focuses on a window of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where some members of a crowd—it is not clear if they are protesters, looters, or nearby residents drawn to the scene after the attack—discover the mortally injured Stevens and celebrate that he’s still alive.

September 17

Another day and more clashing explanations from different Libyan officials about who was behind the assault on the consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens dead along with three other Americans. Not only are the accounts of what happened and who was involved contradictory, so too now are the number of arrests made and whether they are real arrests or just questionings of people known to have been at the protest before the shooting started.

September 18

Senior U.S. security and intelligence officials met secretly on Monday with Libyan counterparts to share information that the Americans have gathered, through electronic surveillance, on the assault on the U.S. consulate that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 18

Sharp disagreements between senior Libyan officials over who was behind the U.S. Consulate assault in Benghazi are a sign of a “leadership deficit” in Libya that’s undermining the credibility of the newly elected authorities, diplomats and analysts warn.

And Voice of America

September 13

The call to prayer sounded over a subdued Tripoli Thursday as residents of Libya’s capital tried to understand the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three diplomats during the storming of the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.












Turning More Islamic?

“While the international media focuses on whether al Qaeda has latched onto the escalating Syrian conflict, opposition activists and human-rights observers are less alarmed than the Pentagon about the trickle of foreign fighters arriving in the war-torn country than about the home-grown hardening of sectarian attitudes among Syrians and the adoption by rebels of more muscular Islamist views.” See my Daily Beast dispatch.

Libyan Reflections

Gaddafi's Compound

Col. Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Azizia or the “The Splendid Gate” located in the southern suburbs of Tripoli served as the main base for the Libyan leader until his ouster. The 6-square-kilometre base was somewhere most Libyans didn’t want to go when Gaddafi was in power but since his fall and mainly at weekends families and out-of-towners like to walk around the site and stare. They still seem amazed that the uprising was successful – at least in the sense that it got rid of Gaddafi.

One of the biggest attractions is the byzantine network of underground tunnels that connect all of the buildings. Some tunnels stretch to adjoining districts. Gaddafi liked to sleep in a Bedouin-style tent pitched on the grounds. Of course, it was air-conditioned.

Increasingly a visit to the base is perilous because it has been turned into one of the biggest fly tips in North Africa. With garbage collection at best unsure in the capital the base has become the preferred dump. And then there is the added bonus of feeling that you are insulting the former leader by fouling his home.

International workers – and this correspondent – like to criticize the transitional government for lack of coordination between its various ministries and parts. Certainly it is utterly dysfunctional. Spokesmen contradict each other and even themselves several times in the space of a day and the same with ministers and the leading members of the National Transitional Council.

From the bottom up and the top down there is confusion. But it is worth noting, too, that the various international missions and foreign NGO groups also lack coordination. Various UN agencies hardly talk to each other, for instance. And the domestic NGOs are no better: there are three umbrella organizations for domestic civil society groups that I know of alone.

My exclusive in the Daily Beast on the new NGO legislation caused a stir both in Libya and overseas, especially on Capitol Hill apparently, according to a friend of mine at the National Democratic Institute. Not that it made much difference or caused the Libyan authorities to rethink or pullback. Five days after publication, on June 1, they issued the new law anyway. In it there were some details I didn’t have, which, I think, make the regulatory framework they want to impose on civil society even more sinister.

The long and short of it is that funding by foreign NGOs of domestic NGOs is going to be difficult and the Ministry of Culture can always hold funding up by delaying or declining the registration of a foreign NGO. Another worrying area is the inexact wording of what constitutes a “grant”. The legislation bans open-ended cash “contributions” but allows “grants”. The ministry says that grants means project-specific funding. But they don’t define it. How will that play out? Can a project be extended and so too the funding?

Foreign NGOs will have to register in Libya if they want to fund a project and they are required to provide a tremendous amount of detail about themselves – the source of their money, the names and background of senior officers and board members, etc. Many foreign NGOs – and that includes charities, by the way — are just not going to go though all of that. This is how the crackdown on civil society began in neighboring Egypt in the winter.

Apologists for the NTC say that they can’t have just anyone funding domestic civil society and whisper of dark and dangerous forces: the ultimate purpose of the law is to hinder the Qataris just flooding the place with cash or the Russians or Al Qaeda. I can understand the worry about Qatar: the Emirate has been playing hard and fast and expects to get some reward for supplying the rebels with arms and training fighters during the uprising. The NTC has pushed back on the Qataris and refused some of its cash to fund various projects.

But I see the NGO regulations as having a wider purpose than shutting the door on just Qatar. They are part of a Gaddafi-era control reflex that remains deeply embedded in Libya’s body politic.

That control reflex is behind some other disturbing laws – the so-called Glorification law that until the Supreme Court nullified it made it an offence punishable with up to life imprisonment to say anything in praise of the Gaddafi regime or to be detrimental about the uprising; a law that grants immunity to rebels for any crimes committed during the insurrection; and another law, described by Amnesty as “encouraging carte blanche abuse”, instructing the country’s courts to accept as evidence confessions extracted through torture.

Libya’s transitional Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kib said during a recent trip to London that some of the laws international NGOs have criticized will “disappear from the scene” following the national election. It is a line several members of the NTC have been pushing on visiting American and European officials. They have told them the laws were a mistake.

But if the laws are such a mistake why aren’t they being withdrawn now? And why did the Justice Ministry bothered to defend the Glorification Law before the Supreme Court?

Further, how can the Prime Minister or any NTC member guarantee anything that the next national assembly or government decides to do?

Of course, it is not just on the big public things that you see the control reflex playing out. Journalists have found securing visas very difficult. CNN’s Nic Robertson told me the other day that he applied for a visa back in January and it only came through in March after he asked the interior minister on camera about it.

Foreign NGO workers are also having difficulty. And that was before their visas and journalist visas started to come under the authority recently of the Ministry of Culture, the authorizing authority under Gaddafi. Of course, that ministry is still run by Gaddafi-era bureaucrats.

It isn’t the only one. Go to any ministry and you find the old boys are still in charge. Of course, that in some ways has been helpful in the transition: at least they know how things work (or don’t). But there are no signs, alas, of change in the ministries in terms of fresh approaches and ideas or new ways of doing things.

The control reflex also plays out on the streets with various militias insisting on seeing your permission to film or to take photographs. A Libyan camera crew working for a foreign broadcaster tried to resist this the other week when militiamen told them they couldn’t film in Martyrs Square near the main souk and across the street from Libya’s national museum. A Libyan female member of the crew screamed at them that she had fought in the revolution for a new Libya not the return of the old. Apparently unidentified militiamen tell people that foreigners taking pictures are almost certainly western spies.

Depressingly, not even the NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Hareizi is a fan of the free press. The other week at his regular midweek news conference he lambasted the irresponsibility of the media and talked about how he hoped a future government would crackdown on the press and punish those who didn’t put national unity first, etc. Disturbingly, some local journalists agreed with him – including a reporter from the English-language Tripoli Post, who had urged the spokesman on by denouncing another newspaper for publishing a false report.

And This Is Justice?

One of the worst knock-on consequences of the Northern Ireland troubles was the erosion of some key civil liberties by successive UK governments, both in the province and later on the mainland.

The right for the accused to remain silent, for example, when questioned by police and during a trial without adverse inference being drawn – a right embedded in English common law since the 17th century – was shredded. First in Northern Ireland with the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and then on the mainland with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Then we had the broadcasting restrictions introduced in 1988 by the normally sound Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd that banned from the airwaves 11 Irish Republican and Loyalist organizations. The absurdity of that ban was highlighted day after day when radio and television companies circumvented the ban by having actors read transcripts of comments made by members of any of the 11 organizations.

Far from undermining Sinn Fein, for example, the ban was a PR disaster for the British government, especially when it came to overseas opinion. It had the reverse effect of its intention — instead of being a useful weapon against the IRA, it was turned by the likes of Danny Morrison and Gerry Adams into a propaganda tool for Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and allowed the government to be painted as illiberal.

The same mistakes are being made now in the UK and in the U.S. and there seems no easing up the further we get away from 9/11 or the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005.

The Sunday Telegraph reports today that a handful of British police officers have lost their jobs in recent years when their security clearances were revoked by senior officers after checks were carried out because of fears of jihad “sleepers” in the ranks. The paper discloses the identity of one of the officers, who was suspected of being at a terror training camp in Pakistan in 2001.

According to the paper, Abdul Rahman had been a constable for about three years when MI5 warned that he might have visited a training camp in Pakistan. He resigned from the police force after losing an appeal against the revocation of his security clearance.

Obviously, it is disturbing to learn that al-Qaeda or any jihad group may be trying to place sleepers in the ranks of the British police, and vigilance is clearly needed to prevent this happening.

But far more concerning and corrosive is how this is being handled by the authorities, which, judging by the approach towards Rahman, have entailed severe breaches of natural justice and due process.

Rahman, a father of four, is suing for employment and racial discrimination and is seeking compensation from Scotland Yard. He admits he visited Pakistan – he was born in Bangladesh and raised in the UK – but claims he is entirely innocent and never attended a terror training camp, which would be a criminal offence under UK law.

He has never been charged with any criminal offences – nor even questioned or arrested under anti-terrorism legislation. After a five-year legal battle, according to the Telegraph, an Employment

Appeal Tribunal ruled that his case can’t be heard in public and should be held in secret and that Rahman and his lawyers can be banned from parts of the hearing.

Scotland Yard says that secrecy is needed to shroud the identity of sources and highly sensitive information. There is the hint that CIA sourcing may be involved – and as we know that agency never gets anything wrong!

A security-cleared “special advocate” will be appointed on Rahman’s behalf to listen to the closed-door evidence. What good that will do in terms of serving the former policeman’s interests is anyone’s guess. The special advocate will not be allowed to discuss what he or she hears with Rahman or his lawyers.

So, we have here national security once again overriding natural justice — another case of the authorities deciding when it comes to striking a balance between civil liberties and security to favor the latter.

Three weeks after 9/11, I wrote about the dangers of throwing out civil liberties in a column for the Washington Times.

The relevant passages are below:

“Some old rules about fighting terrorism, learned at bloody cost in Northern Ireland and during the Soviet-supported ‘wars of national liberation,’ need to be recalled and restated.

Veteran British antiterrorist experts say the first rule is to remember that terrorists feed on overreaction. Democratic societies that alter themselves by introducing draconian security measures that restrict civil liberties undermine the morale of their own people. Unleashing overly harsh retaliation garners sympathy for the terrorists, is counterproductive and risks making new enemies and inspiring more gunmen and bombers.

How do you defeat an elusive and fanatical enemy who fights in unconventional ways and doesn’t observe the Geneva Convention or worry about greater geostrategic constraints? And how do you do all of that without becoming like the foe you fight and closing your open society?

Some British politicians have reckoned they ignored those rules for too long in Northern Ireland. British prime ministers would march their troops to the top of the hill, only to have to march them down again. Pledges were made. Forecasts offered of victory. Threats thundered. And overreaction increased as successive governments implemented law-and-order measures that may have made life a little more difficult for the Irish Republican Army and occasionally foiled a plot, but which corroded the democracy and orderly society that the British saw themselves as defending.

Out went the right to jury trials in Northern Ireland; out also went the right of a defendant to remain silent, both fundamental principles in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.”


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.

“A Good Day For America” — Obama

Some Muslim scholars are already questioning the burying of Osama bin Laden’s body at sea, claiming the action breached Muslim burial rules and was meant as an insult. The Guardian has a good piece here on religious reaction. And here is some more background on Muslim burial rules.

What is noticeable is the absence of anti-U.S. protests in Muslim countries. Maybe that is not surprising. In recent months the narrative seems to have been tugged away from the jihadists and grabbed by those in the Middle East arguing for democratic reform in this Arab Spring. Pew has been monitoring how Muslim attitudes towards the Al Qaeda leader have shifted dramatically.

Pew says: “Over time, support for bin Laden has dropped sharply among Muslim publics. Since 2003, the percentage of Muslims voicing confidence in him has declined by 38 points in the Palestinian territories and 33 points in Indonesia. The greatest decline has occurred in Jordan, where 56% of Muslims had confidence in bin Laden in 2003, compared with just 13% in the current poll. Jordanian support for bin Laden fell dramatically (to 24% from 61% the year before) in 2006, following suicide attacks in Amman by al Qaeda. In Pakistan, where 2011 data is still not available, confidence in bin Laden fell from 52% in 2005 to just 18% in last year’s survey.”

A 9/11 Memory

I was late talking my son to Takoma Park elementary school and was phoned by my foreign editor who said that in light of what had happened all editorial plans for the day were scrapped. Being the veteran I was I muttered, “Of course,” while wondering what the blazes he was on about. He asked me what I had heard and I said,”Bear with me, things are very fluid here and I need to make some more calls.”

The car radio in my old Fiat Spyder wasn’t working and I drove like the wind back to my home and switched on CNN in time to see the second plane strike the twin towers. I thought to myself, “Al Qaeda.” And then thought, “Life is going to be very different from now on.”

I then worked like fury. Business AM got a European press award for coverage that day. Much later in the day I toured the outside of the still-smoking Pentagon, had a drink on the way home in one of the few bars open in an eerily deserted DC and drafted in my mind my column for the Washington Times Corp. It was a plea not to throw out civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. Next day I tried to explain to my son about the bad people….