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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The winds of change are blowing once again — this time in the Middle East. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his historic 1960 “Winds of Change” speech in Cape Town about the continent of Africa, he elected to place Britain on the side of history and to hasten decolonization.
Ever the realist, Macmillan recognized that change was coming, and even though its arrival would be disruptive, the best thing for the West would be to be on the right side of it. To imperialist opponents in his own country, and to white South Africans, he warned, “Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”
Likewise, we face a choice now: to be timid or to be bold. How far should we go to encourage and nurture change in the Middle East even when that change won’t necessarily be helpful to our short-term interests, and even when it may result in the overthrow or weakening not only of foes but also of some Gulf regimes that we count as allies?
On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was a senior editor at the Washington Times Corp. and broke with the editorial line by opposing the U.S.-led invasion on the grounds that democracy would likely not take root if imposed by foreign armed intervention. Invading Iraq would strengthen Iran, distract us from the War on Terror and lead us to neglect the already-invaded Afghanistan, I wrote at the time.
I still believe that position was the right one. But the situation in Libya is different, and this time my concern isn’t that we have entered the fray but that we are not going far enough.
What is in the offing in the region is easily as historic as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Communism. Not everything that comes out of it will be good: the defeat of Communism gave us the blessings of democracy in central Europe and the reuniting of Europe, but it also gave rise to Slobodan Milošević, a series of vicious Yugoslav civil wars and Vladimir Putin.
And the same will be the case in a changing Middle East. Turmoil will be unsettling for our oil-dependent economies. We can’t be sure where this all will end and certainly won’t be able to guarantee the nature of the governments and leaderships that may replace outgoing regimes. Some are likely to be more pro-Western than others; some will be serious about multiparty democracy, while others may pay lip service to it in the same sly and ridiculing way of Putin, with his “managed democracy.”
Election results won’t always be to our liking — as we found in 2006 when Hamas won a decisive majority in the Palestinian parliament.
In Libya, we don’t at this stage fully understand the balance of power within an opposition consisting of secular liberals, Islamists, Muslim Brothers and defectors from Gaddafi’s camp. We do know Al Qaeda attracted many recruits for its terror campaign in Iraq from eastern Libya, the heartland of resistance to Gaddafi. But not all Islamists are the same and it is naïve of us to lump them altogether — the Islamist government of Turkey is no ally of Al Qaeda and the current leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been respective of secular liberals.
We know also that many of those who have taken to the streets across the Middle East to protest against oil-rich despots and repressive rulers have been the young and educated. They are eager for a dignified future of individual liberty. They have not been chanting Al Qaeda slogans or pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Instead they have been calling for freedom and dignity and demanding a greater say in what happens to them.
Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now even Syria, where 60 percent of the population is under 24 years old. On Friday, in the most serious protests to have been mounted against the al-Assad family in four decades, demonstrators in dozens of cities and towns across the country called for freedom and not jihad.
Back in 1960, Macmillan saw that the tide of national consciousness rising in Africa had its origins in the West: “For its causes are to be found in the achievements of Western civilization, in the pushing forwards of the frontiers of knowledge, the applying of science to the service of human needs, in the expanding of food production, in the speeding and multiplying of the means of communication, and perhaps above all and more than anything else in the spread of education.”
The origins of what is happening now in the Middle East are to be found in the West, too.
That is something President Barack Obama should outline to the American people tonight when he addresses the nation. It is something he should have been saying to U.S. lawmakers even before American planes were launched to enforce the no-fly zone as part of an administration effort to ensure Congress was adequately consulted and supportive.
So what further practical steps should be taken?
First, we shouldn’t be timid. The protesters across the region, as well as the rebels in Libya, are urging us to help — this isn’t change we are imposing but change we are being asked to assist.
That doesn’t mean putting boots on the ground — the Arabs have to win their own freedom for it to take root. It does mean continuing with the expanded no-fly zone and going even further, striking and degrading Libyan government forces. If Gaddafi succeeds in staying, it will chill the Arab Spring and embolden other rulers, such as the al-Assads. It could well encourage the young and frustrated to turn to Al Qaeda and other extreme groups to execute change.
Second, we should be arming the Libyan rebels and making it clear that our mission in Libya is to see the end of Gaddafi and his handing over by the Libyans to the International Criminal Court.
Third, President Obama should be leading and cheerleading more. While it may make sense to hand over command and control of military operations to the Europeans, he should be coaxing and goading them to be bold. The last time the Europeans took the lead was in the Balkans, where they couldn’t agree on what to do and things went from bad to worse.
Lastly, we and the Europeans should be channeling funds rapidly to our democracy and governance and civil society NGOs and hurrying them into the region to train and counsel in Tunisia and Egypt.
This is an historic moment and we need to seize it. A positive outcome is not assured. But if we fail to back protesters and rebels alike, then we risk not only prolonging repression in the Middle East but providing succor to Al Qaeda and the Islamists, who won’t be slow to find ways to benefit.