Al Qaeda Or Not

Beirut

There is a thoughtful piece by the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard exploring the franchising of Al Qaeda and what it means and surely some analysts he quotes are right about how many of the Al Qaeda-aligned, or even officially affiliated country and regional groups, are more local and are focused more on their own immediate struggles than being transnational or a threat to the West.

But Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor, makes a killing point, I think, that even these locally focused groups can morph rapidly unto being transnational. He is quoted as saying: “No Qaeda threat has ever remained exclusively local. They have always eventually crossed borders and become regional in operations and attacks and certainly in fund-raising and recruiting.”

Also, I think Ben downplays – in fact doesn’t really acknowledge — how the groups coordinate, share men and equipment and tactical expertise. You can see that in Syria: many of the jihadist fighters are veterans or were members of their local groups before joining up with either ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.

To question whether there is really an Al Qaeada anymore, as one analyst does, is to say that News International, or Time Warner or Johnson & Johnson don’t really exist because they are split up into subsidiary companies. Of course, you could argue with those companies eventually decision-making will come back to an overall board. And I still think that happens with Al Qaeda, albeit in a less formal way. The raging debate that we catch glimpses of between the top jihadi scholars for example, over the division between ISIS and al-Nusra is part of that “accountability.”

No Cover-Up, Just Confusion: Thoughts on Benghazi and Stevens

According to U.S. lawmaker Frank Wolf the Obama administration has handed the FBI an impossible task in investigating the assault last September on the American consulate in Benghazi that led to the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. “Can you imagine the FBI going up to a door [in Benghazi], knocking and saying, we’re going to take you away? … The only way to [get answers] is to get a select committee that can subpoena [witnesses],” told Fox News.

Well, I would be curious to see Capitol Hill policemen plodding out to Benghazi and knocking on doors handing out congressional subpoenas.

Wolf, though, has a point in criticizing the administration for not making available American survivors of the attack for them to relate from their perspectives what occurred that night; although presumably there are other House committees that could issue subpoenas for survivors to appear without having to set up a special committee.

For those of us who covered the Benghazi assault on the ground, it is frustrating to see the incident reshaped into a pretzel in Washington DC to fit into various Democratic and Republican agendas. Stevens and those who fought to defend the consulate and the nearby CIA annex – Americans and Libyans – deserve better.

Wolf and other Republicans argue there has been a cover-up by the administration – it is a story line Fox News has been flogging for months. But what happened in Benghazi can more be put down to the fog of battle and to the lack of governance in Libya. Hillary Clinton had a point, surely, that on that day and night the State Department was being buffeted by several crises across the Middle East and was finding it had to keep up with hard information in a region where facts can be very fungible.

When it comes to Libya there was total confusion in the government in Tripoli and with the authorities in Benghazi about what was happening – on the night of the attack and in the days following. That was the case from the president of the National Transitional Council, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister all the way down. They were at sea: I know I talked directly with them or their top aides and the story kept on changing. No doubt Washington DC was getting to hear the same confusion.

Clearly there were lapses. As I made clear in reports for Newsweek, Daily Beast and Maclean’s magazine, sadly Stevens has to bear some of the responsibility. He felt immune having played a crucial role in the success of the rebellion that toppled the Gaddafi regime and often threw off most of his security in Tripoli in the afternoons to meet contacts and friends in the souk. Also, as I — and others — reported in the summer before the assault, Benghazi was becoming ever more dangerous with attacks on foreign envoys and NGOs. Stevens was planning to stay in Benghazi all week – a very different approach from European ambassadors who in the months before his death avoided staying in the city for longer than a day.

The consulate was not a fortified compound and was easy to penetrate; there were too few defenders. Stevens bears some responsibility for this – as does the State Department.

Was it an Al Qaeda attack? Despite some media reports from outlets that like to tag reflexively anything involving militant Islamists as AQ, I don’t believe it was. There has been no hard evidence to the contrary. Too much is made of one phone call to an AQ commander. To put this down to core AQ misses a significant trend that has been taking place in the region: the growth of AQ-inspired Jihadist/Salafist groups that don’t take their marching orders from AQ and operate independently. The bacillus has adapted and rather like a virulent flu has many strains.

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.