Another Rescue Gone Wrong

Late Friday night, American photojournalist Luke Somers and a South African teacher Pierre Korkie, who were being held hostage in Yemen by al-Qaeda militants, were killed by their captors during a failed rescue attempt by US special forces:

It was the second U.S. attempt to free Somers in 10 days and Kerry said it had been approved because of information that Somers’ life was in imminent danger. “It was our assessment that that clock would run out on Saturday,” one U.S. official said. However, the Gift of the Givers relief group, which was trying to secure Korkie’s release, said it had negotiated for the teacher to be freed and had expected that to happen on Sunday and for him to be returned to his family.

Somers’s death, after two attempts to free him, has reignited the debate over whether the US’s policy of never paying ransoms for captives held by terrorist groups is appropriate. Joel Simon argues that it’s time to rethink that blanket prohibition:

The US government has said it will not review the prohibition on paying ransom, which I believe is a missed opportunity.

While I accept the US government’s logic that the payment of ransom increases the risk for kidnapping, there should be some flexibility built into the policy to address extenuating circumstances. The review should certainly explore ways to engage with hostage takers through other means. According to Diane Foley, her son’s kidnappers were angered by the fact that the US government refused to respond to their emails. Communication with kidnappers is not the same thing as negotiating with kidnappers. It is akin to the local police talking through a bullhorn to someone holding up a bank in order to buy time, gain intelligence, and seek a possible resolution. Talking should be a normal and natural response when lives are at stake.

But the Bloomberg View editors are still resolutely opposed to changing the policy:

Since 2008, the kidnapping-for-ransom industry has raised as much as $165 million for terrorist organizations, most of it paid by European governments. Those governments routinely deny making the payments, because they know it’s bad policy: It encourages further kidnappings, and it funds terrorist operations as well as the slaughter of civilians in the Middle East and Africa. It also contravenes multiple international commitments.

As for the U.S. and U.K. governments that ran the unsuccessful military raid, there are certainly questions as to how they failed to know that Korkie’s release was to happen on Saturday, or that he might be with Somers. But whatever the answers, they are irrelevant to the question of whether governments should ransom their citizens. That calculation remains the same: The only way to end the ransom business is to close the market.

Jonathan Tobin criticizes the South African charity that was working to ransom Korkie:

Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.

Jazz Shaw zooms out:

I’m sure there will be some backlash since we failed to get Somers out alive, but given the circumstances it doesn’t sound like the odds were very good in the first place. A better question is what we should be doing about Yemen in the long run. The government there, such as it is, appears to be on the brink of collapse. Their leadership has been pointing their fingers at Washington and accusing the Obama administration of fomenting unrest. They lost control of their own capital, Sana, earlier this year to a group of rebels called the Houthis. Outside of a couple of major population centers, nobody is in control, which is probably what made it such an attractive destination for al Qaeda.

With no reliable governmental partner to work with, our options appear limited except for high risk military incursions such as this one. And until the larger problem of terrorist networks is dealt with, I’m afraid we can expect repeat performances of this raid in the future.

ISIS And Al-Qaeda, Together At Last?

The AP reported yesterday that leaders of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, have agreed to set aside their intra-jihadi feuds and cooperate against their enemies:

According to [a source], two decisions were reached: First, to halt infighting between Nusra and IS and second, for the groups together to open up fronts against Kurdish fighters in a couple of new areas of northern Syria.

Keating reads the cards:

This merger, along with growing signs that Washington is resigning itself to Bashar al-Assad’s long-term presence, could be an indication that the overlapping and intersecting battle lines in Syria are starting to clarify themselves. At the moment, the U.S., the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, and—whether the Obama administration will admit it or not—the Syrian government are on one side, and ISIS and al-Qaida are on the other. The big loser in all of this is likely to be the U.S.-backed rebels.

In addition to ISIS and Nusra finding common cause, there are reports this week that the White House is considering revamping a Syria strategy many senior officials have come to see as unworkable. That strategy, which involved focusing primarily on rolling back ISIS in Iraq and didn’t involve strikes against Assad, never sat well with the rebels. A new one, which could involve a new diplomatic push for a cease-fire deal whose terms would likely be very disadvantageous to the Syrian opposition, would be even worse.

But Aymenn al-Tamimi recommends taking these reports with a grain of salt:

The rift between JN and IS is too great to heal at this point beyond the highly localized alliance between IS and JN in Qalamoun that reflects an exceptional situation where neither group can hold territory alone and both contingents are geographically isolated from members of their groups elsewhere in Syria, in addition to being preoccupied with constant fighting with regime forces and Hezbollah. At the broader level, IS still believes that JN is guilty of “defection” (‘inshiqāq) from IS in refusing to be subsumed under what was then the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI] to form the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] back in April 2013. The zero-sum demands of IS have only solidified with the claimed Caliphate status since 29 June demanding the allegiance of all the world’s Muslims. In turn, JN refuses even to recognize IS’ claim to be an actual state, let alone a Caliphate.

In response to this and other recent developments, Gopal Ratnam hints that the Obama administration is “edging closer to establishing a safe zone in northern Syria” for our “moderate” rebel allies:

Setting up such safe zones inside Syria will also address a key demand by Turkey, which sees the Assad regime as a greater threat than the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and has been pushing the United States to set up such areas as a condition for fuller participation in the coalition against the Sunni militant group that is also known as ISIS and ISIL. “If these safe havens are not established in northern Syria, the rebels will be effectively squeezed out by the Assad regime in a short time,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So this is a last call to maintain and preserve rebel presence in northern Syria.”

Meanwhile, rumors that “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been injured or even killed in an airstrike were thrown into doubt with the release of a new audio recording of Baghdadi that refers to recent events:

The timing of the recording was unclear, but it referred to Barack Obama’s recent decision to send a further 1,500 US military advisers to train the Iraqi army and to a pledge of allegiance by Egyptian jihadis to the Islamic State last weekend.

In a triumphant survey of what he described as the group’s growing influence, the speaker also mentioned support from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In Saudi Arabia, singled out in the message as the “head of the snake and stronghold of disease”, people were urged to “draw their swords” to fight and to kill Shia Muslims – referred to in pejorative sectarian terms as “rafidah”. Shia worshippers were indeed attacked in a terrorist shooting in the country’s Eastern Province 10 days ago.

The “I” In SEAL Team Six

Last week, former Navy SEAL Robert James O’Neill outed himself as the man responsible for killing Osama bin Laden:

O’Neill confirmed to The Washington Post that he was the unnamed SEAL who was first to tumble through the doorway of bin Laden’s bedroom that night, taking aim at the terrorist leader as he stood in darkness behind his youngest wife. In an account later confirmed by two other SEALs, the Montana native described firing the round that hit bin Laden squarely in the forehead, killing him instantly.

However, other sources dispute O’Neill’s account:

Shortly after the Post story went up, Reuters reported that “a source close to another SEAL team member” was contesting O’Neill’s story. The source said two other men entered the room before O’Neill, and one of them fired the fatal shot. According to the Post, O’Neill acknowledged that shots were fired at bin Laden by at least two other SEALs, but he says it was his bullet that killed the terrorist leader.

A former SEAL Team Six member told the New York Times that before tackling the women, the point man managed to wound bin Laden with a shot to his side. … Then there’s the version of events presented in No Easy Day, penned by former SEAL Matt Bissonnette. In the 2012 book, Bissonnette writes that the point man shot bin Laden in the head, and then he and another SEAL fired more shots. “In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing,” Bissonnette wrote. “Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds.”

Mark Thomson shakes his head at the very idea of crediting a single SEAL with the kill:

O’Neill’s and Bissonnette’s decisions to go public with their role violates the SEALs’ tenets and irritates many in the military. These SEALs, in the eyes of the public, become heroes once their stories are told. But the action that warrants such acclaim has been built on the backs, boots and blood of thousands of anonymous troops (not to mention Pentagon civilians). An untold number of them played critical roles in the hunt for bin Laden; remove any one from the chain of success and the mission could have failed, with the loss of O’Neill, Bissonnette and the other SEALs who participated in the raid.…

It is the selfless nature of American troops that makes their work honorable. Both the public and the press seemingly relish identifying such SEALs, and glorifying their exploits, without care for what may be lost in the transaction. If fame, and the fortune it can bring, become part of the allure of signing up with U.S. Special Operations Command, the men and women who actually make those missions possible are going to sour on their private sacrifice. The net result will be a less-capable force.

Did Snowden Tip Off Al-Qaeda’s Cryptographers? Ctd

Contradicting a report issued last month by the intelligence firm Recorded Future (and subsequently dismissed as state-sponsored agitprop by Greenwald), Murtaza Hussain highlights a new report from Flashpoint Global Partners that concludes that Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance were not to blame for improvements in jihadist groups’ cyber security:

The report itself goes on to make the point that, “Well prior to Edward Snowden, online jihadists were already aware that law enforcement and intelligence agencies were attempting to monitor them.” This point would seem obvious in light of the fact that terrorist groups have been employing tactics to evade digital surveillance for years. Indeed, such concerns about their use of sophisticated encryption technology predate even 9/11. Contrary to claims that such groups have fundamentally altered their practices due to information gleaned from these revelations, the report concludes. “The underlying public encryption methods employed by online jihadists do not appear to have significantly changed since the emergence of Edward Snowden.”

These findings are notable both for empirical rigor through which they ascertained, as well as their contradiction of apparently baseless statements made by high-ranking U.S. officials regarding the impact of the leaks on U.S. national security. This is particularly important as it pertains to the ongoing public debate over the alleged threat of ISIS.

In Joseph Cox’s reading, the report actually questions whether al Qaeda’s counter-surveillance methods have improved dramatically in the first place:

The history of Islamic terrorists using encryption far predates Snowden, and even Wikileaks. An early milestone was an article in Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English language magazine Inspire in October 2010, which exhorted readers to use encryption. The programme suggested then was Asrar al-Mujahideen, originally launched back in 2007. It runs in a similar vein to popular open source encryption Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), utilising public and private keys to securely send files and messages. A 2.0 version was available in 2008, and after this other programmes came out for popular chat programmes, then Android and Symbian mobile devices.

From Asrar al-Mijahideen in 2007 to developments today, Flashpoint’s findings suggest jihadists haven’t made any major changes to their use of encryption: they’re just taking established models and applying them to different areas, such as instant messaging services or mobile phones.

War Will Keep Them Together

Remember that schism between al Qaeda and ISIS? Well, there’s nothing like a new war with the Great Satan to help patch that up. Adam Taylor passes along some salient news and poses a troubling question:

In a two-page message posted to Twitter accounts that represent both groups, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) asked their “brothers” in Iraq and Syria to “stop killing each other and unite against the American campaign and its evil coalition that threatens us all.” It’s an unusual move. The two groups are perhaps the most notorious of the al-Qaeda-linked groups: AQAP operates in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and it has been described as the “most lethal Qaeda franchise” by the Council on Foreign Relations, while AQIM operates in Northern Africa, in particular Algeria, Mali and Libya. Analysts say a joint statement from the two is unprecedented. …

[T]he statement calls on all jihadist groups to unite against a common enemy: “crusader America” and the alliance of states backing the U.S. plan to strike the Islamic State. This language echoes the Islamic State’s own language and presents a bigger concern: Might U.S. strikes against the Islamic State cause it to reunite with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups it opposes?

Aymenn al-Tamimi translates and analyzes the statement. In his view, the answer to that question is “not necessarily”:

This statement does not mean AQAP and AQIM are getting closer to IS or warming to the idea of pledging allegiance to IS. Indeed, they have firmly rejected IS’ Caliphate declaration, and have maintained their loyalty to al-Qa’ida Central (AQC). For comparison, note that members and supporters of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam- an Iraqi jihadi group (with a Syrian branch) which like al-Qa’ida does not accept IS’ claim to be a state or caliphate- have also denounced the U.S. airstrikes etc. targeting IS as constituting war against Islam, and like al-Qa’ida would want an ideal situation where all jihadis having the end-goal of a Caliphate unite against a common enemy, while rejecting IS’ assumption of supreme authority.

Meanwhile, much though Obama takes pains to deny that there is anything religious or civilizational about this war, that’s not how ISIS sees it:

[N]o matter how delicately the White House wants to frame renewed military operations in the region, it’s serving up rich propaganda fodder for the militant group in Washington’s crosshairs. As Morning Mix’s Terrence McCoy notes, the Islamic State is all too happy to paint the coming battle as a civilizational conflict. In its own glossy publication, Dabiq, the terror organization hails its plans to fight the “crusaders in Washington” and sees its rise amid the chaos of the Middle East as an evocation of history. …

In any event, it’s all dubious propaganda for the Islamic State, which as Obama noted, spends most of its time killing fellow Muslims and faces a constellation of largely Muslim factions — Kurdish militias, Syria’s Assad regime, the Iraqi government, Iran, and the Sunni Gulf states — arrayed against it. And, given Obama’s caution, the Islamic State can’t count on the same slip of the tongue of the president’s predecessor. Just days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush warned that “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.”

Quote For The Day II

“[It is] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses. … This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat,” – Osama bin Laden, 2004.

Al-Qaeda’s Newest Franchise, Ctd

Tunku Varadarajan underlines the link between ISIS and al-Qaeda’s new South Asian branch:

What should we make of this call by Zawahiri, of this loveless jihad? Why has he made this declaration, and why now? After all, al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for years; and therefore in Pakistan; and therefore available, already, for anti-India jihad. Counterterrorism experts I spoke to were as one in pointing to the rise of ISIS in the Syria-Iraq theater as the main propulsion. ISIS has not merely stolen al Qaeda’s thunder; it is siphoning recruits away from the older organization, which has yet to recover from the catastrophic loss (in terms of charisma, and as a species of jihadi Lord Kitchener) of bin Laden. “Zawahiri wants you” doesn’t have quite the same impact on potential recruits as “Osama wants you.”

Gen. Ata Hasnain, a former Kashmir Corps commander in the Indian army, told me that before ISIS emerged as a jihadi force, al Qaeda “never felt the need to expand its ambit into South Asia. The anti-India terrorist groups in Pakistan were considered adequately motivated and organized, and al Qaeda preferred to remain only an inspiration for them, instead of overextending itself. Its prime battle was with Saudi Arabia and the U.S.” With the rise of ISIS, he said, al Qaeda has effectively been dwarfed. The avowal of jihad against India is its attempt to aggrandize itself anew.

The dwindling numbers of the Pakistani Taliban, partly thanks to the Syrian jihad drawing them away, could be another factor in the announcement of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent:

Just a few years ago, the Taliban was one of the two prime Islamist militant groups—the other being Al Qaida-aligned insurgents in Iraq—for foreign fighters around the world to enlist with. But with the self-proclaimed Islamic State on the warpath and new conflicts in North Africa, the Taliban has become less attractive. Specifically, the Pakistani Taliban. That’s the subject of a new report in CTC Sentinel, West Point’s counter-terrorism newsletter. As of July 2008, the Pakistani Taliban included around 8,000 foreign fighters, notes Raza Khan, a political analyst who authored the report. These fighters came from western Europe, the Middle East, China, Russia, India, and central Asian countries, particularly Uzbekistan. But today, only a few hundred remain.

But Arif Rafiq counsels against overstating the connection between ISIS and AQIS:

For the past few years, Al Qaeda has stepped up its outreach to Pakistanis. Its Urdu-language service is among its most active. Al-Zawahiri has also made a handful of statements addressing the plight of Muslims in Burma and India, and Islamic activists targeted by the state in Bangladesh. It’s been laying the groundwork for AQIS for some time. Indeed, more than beating out competition from IS, Al Qaeda is trying to fill a void in the South Asian jihadist communitythe absence of a grand patron. While Pakistan’s intelligence services continue to support militant groups in the region, such as Lashkar-e Taiba, its support for militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir has remained low for much of the past decade. That’s why Umar, the AQIS chief, in another video released this summer, asked Kashmiri Muslims to join Al Qaeda’s ranks and accused Pakistan of selling them out.

“The success or failure of Zawahiri’s new initiative,” Nisid Hajari writes, “may rest on one man: India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi”:

The fastest way to increase Al Qaeda’s limited appeal in India would be for the authorities to overreact, as China has done with Uighurs in its restive Xinjiang province. This would not only alienate the best source of intelligence on homegrown radicals — the local Muslim community — it would rapidly burnish the appeal of radicals over more moderate voices. Any government scapegoating of Indian Muslims would be equally damaging. Modi’s association with the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat and the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh make him a lightning rod for many Muslims. He bears a special responsibility to endorse the loyalty of Indian Muslims and assure them they will not be targeted unfairly.

Probably the best way to ensure Zawahiri’s grand designs never come to fruition would be for Modi to push forward the stalled India-Pakistan peace process. As long as the wounds that divide the South Asian nations continue to fester, leaders on both sides will remain hostage to the actions of a few radicals: Any post-Mumbai terrorist plot in India that is traced back to Pakistan bears a high risk of setting off a wider conflagration.

Al-Qaeda’s Newest Franchise

by Dish Staff

In a video released today, Al-Qaeda international leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the organization was establishing a branch in South Asia to wage jihad in India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Ishaan Tharoor examines the logic behind the decision:

Al-Qaeda’s desire for operational expansion eastward makes sense: There are roughly as many Muslims in South Asia as there are in the Arab world; there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than inside it. The history of the Mughal Empire allows al-Qaeda ideologues to invoke a narrative of lost Muslim preeminence, waiting for redemption, even though some Mughal emperors would have abhorred the terrorist organization’s brand of Islam. … But it’s hard to see how al-Qaeda can capitalize in South Asia if it hasn’t already. For all the tensions and enmities that exist in this diverse, overcrowded region, it’s a part of the world steeped in traditions of pluralism and tolerance. Al-Qaeda’s puritanical zeal, incubated in places such as Saudi Arabia, is wholly alien to the Indian subcontinent. And South Asian governments, particularly in India and Bangladesh, have stepped up cooperation on issues of counterterrorism.

One interpretation is that Zawahiri is trying to recapture al-Qaeda’s relevance as it loses ground in the Islamic heartland to even more radical outfits like ISIS, but Dan Murphy doubts it will work:

Can Zawahiri turn the tide against the upstart jihadis? For now, it seems unlikely. The small percentage of Muslims that support such movements seem elated by Baghdadi’s caliphate declaration, and imagine they’re living in epoch-defining times that will see their dream of converting the whole world at the point of a sword realized. The old Al Qaeda approach – that world domination wasn’t possible until “far enemies” like the US were somehow destroyed – is being upended by the arguably more conventional ISIS approach of seizing territory. For the small group of misfits and loners and true-believers who view the chopping of heads and gunning down captives in their hundreds as heroic, rather than revolting, ISIS is the emerging brand name. When was the last time Joe Biden vowed to chase Al Qaeda to the gates of hell?

Andrew North observes that al-Qaeda has even been losing support in its traditional Af-Pak stronghold. He suggests the decision has something to do with that as well:

Several Pakistani-based militant groups previously allied to al-Qaeda have recently pledged allegiance to IS and its goal of an Islamic caliphate. The group has now reportedly launched a support and recruitment drive in border areas like Peshawar. Booklets in the name of the Dawlat-e-Islamia (Islamic State) have been circulating among the many Afghan refugees living there. Graffiti, or wall-talk, another guide to sentiments, is also going the group’s way, with pro-IS slogans now regularly appearing on Peshawar buildings. And while Zawahiri’s announcement seems primarily aimed at India, the man he named as the new leader of al-Qaeda’s South Asia wing, Asim Umar, is reportedly a Pakistani.

Katherine Zimmerman, on the other hand, argues that the video proves al-Qaeda is still alive and dangerous:

The split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State is very real, as is the contest for the global jihadist movement. The Islamic State’s unprecedented success in Iraq and Syria has energized the movement as a whole, which is why al Qaeda leaders have supported Sunni victories in Iraq. The Islamic State, and then al Qaeda, must both be defeated. Going after one and dismissing the other is short-sighted and leaves American interests vulnerable to attacks. Allying with so-called lesser enemies like Iran, or Syria, as Senator Rand Paul (and others) have suggested, to go after the Sunni threat is just as short-sighted. Just because the Islamic State and al Qaeda want to kill Americans doesn’t mean Assad and Khamenei don’t. Al Qaeda’s newest affiliate is proof of life for those who were questioning. There are still groups seeking to affiliate with al Qaeda, and some of them, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group in the Sahel, have killed Americans. Al Qaeda is not dead. It is still a threat to the United States, and Ayman al Zawahiri wants us to know it.