UPDATED: Pentagon admits US-trained Syrian rebels joined al-Qaeda

Jabhat al-NusraAfter issuing successive denials earlier in the week, United States officials have now confirmed reports that a group of Syrian rebels trained by the American military surrendered to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria almost as soon as they were deployed there from bases in Turkey. Early this week, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that 71 fighters calling themselves the New Syrian Force (NSF) had entered Syria to fight the Islamic State. The NSF group is part of a larger force calling itself Division 30, which consists of what Washington calls “moderate” Syrian rebels that have US support. Around two hundred fighters have been trained in Turkey by the US Pentagon under a $500 million program aimed to build a 5,400-strong rebel force to combat the Islamic State, which today controls much of Syria and Iraq.

But soon after the NSF group entered Syrian territory, a man claiming to be its commander issued a statement saying his group of rebels had denounced the US and broken off from Division 30. Major Anais Ibrahim Obaid, more commonly known as Abu Zayd, said in his statement that the NSF would continue to fight the Islamic State, but would do so independently. Shortly afterwards, a statement from Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as al-Nusra Front), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, claimed that Major Obaid and his men had surrendered their weapons to them. According to the statement, issued by Jabhat al-Nusra commander Abu Fahd al-Tunisi, the NSF had surrendered its ammunition, weaponry and several pick-up trucks in exchange for safe passage though al-Nusra-controlled territory. He also claimed that Major Obaid had said he had tricked his American trainers in order to receive weapons from them.

On Wednesday, the US Department of Defense had rejected claims that the NSF had surrendered to al-Qaeda. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters that the US had “no information to suggest that [such claims were] true”. A brief statement issued by CENTCOM insisted that “all coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of NSF fighters”. No further information on the matter has been released by the US government. On Friday, however, a Pentagon spokesman admitted that “the NSF unit now says it did in fact provide six pick-up trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected al-Nusra Front” group.

This development marks the second major setback for Division 30 in recent months. In August, when the group sent its first team of 54 fighters to Syria, al-Nusra forces quickly attacked and kidnapped many of them. Last week, CENTCOM commander General Lloyd Austin told the US Congress that the Division 30 training program had only managed to produce around 200 fighters, a far cry from its intended 5,400. Of those, said General Austin, only about a handful were still active inside Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2015 | Permalink

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Analysis: The significance of Osama bin Laden’s bookshelf release

Osama bin LadenThe release this week of material from Osama bin Laden’s personal stack of books and documents, which were confiscated from his Abbottabad compound, is timely as it is important. The decision by the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to declassify the documents was almost certainly in response to recent claims that bin Laden was being kept under house arrest by the Pakistani intelligence services at the time of his assassination. American journalist Seymour Hersh, who made the allegations in the London Review of Books earlier this month, said that the Pakistanis were forced to give Washington permission to kill bin Laden once the CIA was able to confirm his presence in Pakistan.

By releasing the documents, the ODNI hopes to show that the al-Qaeda founder could not possibly have been under house arrest and still have been able to communicate with his al-Qaeda lieutenants. But there is a counterargument too, which rests on the view that al-Qaeda has been integrated into the command structure of the Pakistani intelligence services ever since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. According to this view, it would not have been especially difficult for bin Laden’s captors to permit him to maintain carefully supervised communications with his organization. This would have given the Pakistanis the benefit of monitoring the operational thinking of al-Qaeda, while at the same time dispelling any speculation about his rumored death, which was widespread in the decade prior to his actual demise. Additionally, the feeling one gets from reading Hersh’s article is that the Pakistanis’ arrangement with bin Laden was a cross between internment and protection, with the emphasis shifting from one to the other depending on the changing needs of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.

The documents themselves are also revealing. They show that, almost to the end of his life, bin Laden continued to regard the United States as the foremost target of militant Islam. To that extent, it is interesting that the ODNI’s release includes almost no documents about Israel, Russia, India, or China. This points to a tactical prioritization of America as a target, and perhaps also a sense of vendetta that bin Laden himself held against his former allies in the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Moreover, the documents show that bin Laden continued to favor attacks designed to cause mass casualties, in the style of 9/11. Knowing that, and considering that no such attack took place against the United States after 9/11, one might logically conclude that al-Qaeda has been willing but unable to carry one out. Read more of this post

Al-Qaeda still a more serious threat than ISIS, says ex-CIA official

Al-Qaeda in YemenAl-Qaeda and its affiliates continue to pose the most serious unconventional threat to American security, despite the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, according to a former senior official in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Michael Morell, who was deputy director of the CIA, and served twice as the Agency’s acting director, did not deny that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, poses a significant threat to the security of the US. However, the militant group “is not the most significant threat to the homeland today”, he said. Morell made the comment while speaking on Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, while promoting his new book, The Great War of Our Time: An Insider’s Account of the CIA’s Fight Against Al Qa’ida.

The former CIA official told his audience that the most serious unconventional threat to the US continues to come from three al-Qaeda groups, all of which remain far cogent and willing to engage the US on its home soil. According to Morell, the three groups consist of the so-called ‘al-Qaeda Central’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as its Syrian branch, known as the Khorasan Group, and its Yemen affiliate, which goes by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He added that the last three serious efforts to strike the US with the intent of causing mass casualties all came from AQAP. Morell was referring to the 2009 so-called ‘underwear bomber’ and the 2010 ‘ink-cartridge bomb plot’, as well as the ‘plastic suicide vest bomb pot’ in 2012, all of which were unsuccessful. The former CIA official said that, unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda has “the ability to bring down an airliner in the US tomorrow”. Most importantly, he added, unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda has shown willingness to confront America on its home soil.

Morell’s argument echoed similar comments expressed in September 2014 by the then-Director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen. Olsen, who held the US’ most senior counterterrorism post until his retirement last year, opined at a forum in Washington that ISIS did not currently pose a direct threat to America or Western Europe. He added that the risk of a “spectacular, al-Qaeda-style attack” on American or European targets by ISIS was negligible, saying that ISIS was “significantly more limited than al-Qaeda”, especially in the run-up to 9/11.

Hersh: Pakistanis gave CIA permission to kill bin Laden

Osama bin LadenBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Journalist Seymour Hersh has cited senior American intelligence officials in claiming that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a joint operation between the United States and Pakistan. In a lengthy article published over the weekend in The London Review of Books, the veteran investigative reporter suggests that Pakistan had kept the al-Qaeda founder in prison for several years in the city of Abbottabad. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate —known commonly as ISI— had planned to turn bin Laden over to the US in its own time, in a quid-pro-quo move. But the Pakistanis’ plan had to be scrapped when bin Laden’s hideout was betrayed to the Central Intelligence Agency by a former ISI officer, says Hersh. His assertion agrees with previous accounts of the US raid against bin Laden, offered by security expert R.J. Hillhouse in 2011, and earlier this year by Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, who led the ISI from 1990 to 1992.

The unnamed sources behind Hersh’s claims are an American “retired senior intelligence official” who was privy to early intelligence concerning bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Hersh also cites “information from inside Pakistan”, as well as two other sources from America, who have been “longtime consultants to the [US] Special Operations Command”.

The initial tip about bin Laden’s whereabouts came to the CIA in the form of a ‘walk-in’ —a term used to denote someone who voluntarily contacts an intelligence outpost, usually by simply walking into an embassy or consulate and asking to speak to the intelligence officer on duty. Hersh says the walk-in was a former high official in the ISI, who told the Agency’s Islamabad station that he could lead them to the al-Qaeda founder’s location. The retired official was successfully polygraphed and was eventually able to claim the $25 million reward offered by the US Department of State for bin Laden’s head. He and his family are now living in the Washington, DC, area, says Hersh.

The walk-in told the CIA that the compound in Abbottabad where bin Laden was living was “not an armed enclave”, as Langley had initially assumed. Instead it was a prison and was under the complete control of the ISI. The latter had managed to capture bin Laden in the Hindu Kush Mountains in 2006, by paying off some of the local tribesmen who were sheltering him. Hersh also reiterates information previously reported by intelNews, namely that the government of Saudi Arabia had entered into an agreement with Islamabad to finance the construction and maintenance of bin Laden’s prison-compound in Abbottabad.

According to Hersh, the US government eventually informed Pakistan that it had uncovered and was incessantly monitoring bin Laden’s location. Along with threats, Washington offered the ISI commanders, who were in charge of bin Laden’s security, “under-the-table personal incentives” to agree to stand aside during a US raid on the compound. Under the final agreement, struck at the end of January 2011, the Americans promised to send in a small force that would kill bin Laden, thus sparing Islamabad and Riyadh the embarrassment of the al-Qaeda founder speaking out about his previously close relations with both governments. The Pakistanis even provided the CIA with accurate architectural diagrams of the compound. Accordingly, when the US forces went into Abbottabad in May of that year, “they knew where the target was —third floor, second door on the right”, says the retired US intelligence official quoted by Hersh.

The veteran journalist adds that the American planners of the operation knew well that bin Laden had been held in virtual isolation from the outside world for years, and that he was not “running a command center for al-Qaeda operations” from Abbottabad, as the White House later claimed. Consequently, the stories about “garbage bags full of computers and storage devices” that the US Navy SEALs brought back from the compound were false. Some of the SEALs took with them some books and papers found in bin Laden’s bedroom. But most of the material that was eventually acquired by the CIA was voluntarily provided to the Americans by the Pakistanis, who took control of the compound immediately after the SEALs left and eventually razed it.

CIA funds given to Afghan officials ended up in al-Qaeda coffers

Atiyah Abd al-RahmanBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
Millions of dollars given by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to Afghanistan following the 2001 American invasion ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda, according to documents found in the personal archive of the organization’s founder, Osama bin Laden. The documents were confiscated by US Special Forces from bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed in 2011. They were declassified this week for use as evidence in the trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani citizen accused of planning a series of suicide bombings in Britain and the US. The New York Times, which cited “interviews with Afghan and Western officials”, said the documents show that Washington “has sometimes inadvertently financed the very militants it is fighting”. The paper attributed this to poor oversight of the billions of dollars in cash payments that the CIA supplied to the corrupt Afghan government of Hamid Karzai for over a decade.

The letters used in Naseer’s trial concern $5 million paid as ransom to al-Qaeda by the Afghan government in 2010, in exchange for the release of Abdul Khaliq Farahi, Afghanistan’s consul general in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Farahi had had been abducted by militants two years earlier and delivered to the hands of al-Qaeda, who promptly contacted Kabul demanding payment. In the spring of 2010, the Afghan government agreed to pay a $5 million ransom for the kidnapped diplomat’s release. According to The Times, at least $1 million in ransom money came from the several millions of dollars in cash that the CIA would deliver each month to the presidential palace in Kabul. The other $4 million came from Iran as well as from a number of Arab oil kingdoms, says the paper.

In June 2010, almost as soon as the funds were delivered to al-Qaeda’s hands, the organization’s accounts manager, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, wrote to bin Laden: “Allah blessed us with a good amount of money this month”. The al-Qaeda founder responded by expressing surprise that the US would have allowed a ransom to be paid to the militant group, and cautioned al-Rahman to check the cash for signs of poison or radiation that may have been planted there by the Americans. It appears, however, that no trap had been set up by the CIA, and al-Qaeda was able to use the funds for weaponry and routine operational expenses. The Times said it asked the CIA whether officials at Langley were aware of the ransom paid to al-Qaeda by the Afghan government, but the Agency declined comment.

Ex-spy chief says Pakistan probably knew bin Laden’s whereabouts

Osama bin LadenBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A former director of Pakistan’s all-powerful national intelligence agency has said that senior officials in Pakistan were probably aware that Osama bin Laden was living in the country prior to his assassination. Lieutenant General Asad Durrani led the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from 1990 to 1992. He was later appointed Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany, from 1994 to 1997, and then to Saudi Arabia until 2002.

Durrani was asked during an appearance on Al-Jazeera’s flagship interview program Head to Head, on Tuesday, whether he believed that the al-Qaeda founder could have been living in Pakistan for several years without the ISI knowing about it. The former spy chief said he had no specific information on the issue. He added, however, that although “it is quite possible that [the ISI] did not know”, his personal assessment was that “it was more probable that they did”.

The former ISI strongman was then asked why the ISI would have chosen to shelter bin Laden instead of delivering him to the Americans. He responded that “the idea was that at the right time his location would be revealed” to Washington. He added that “the right time” would have depended on when Islamabad could have received “the necessary quid pro quo”. Speaking with characteristic frankness, Durrani said that “if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States” without asking for something in return. In the case of Pakistan, the reward would possibly have been a bilateral agreement between the US and Pakistan to give the latter greater say over America’s dealings with neighboring Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda plotter claims Saudi royals helped fund 9/11 attacks

Turki Al FaisalBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
An al-Qaeda member, who helped plot the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, has said during court testimony that members of the Saudi royal family provided financial support for the terrorist operation. Zacarias Moussaoui is serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison in the US state of Colorado, after admitting in federal court that he conspired to kill US citizens as part of the 9/11 attacks. Moussaoui, a citizen of France, was being paid by al-Qaeda to take flying lessons in Minnesota when he was arrested on immigration charges less than a month before 9/11. He said during his trial that he was supposed to be the fifth member of an al-Qaeda hijacker team that aimed to fly a Boeing 747 into the White House.

On Wednesday it emerged that Moussaoui gave testimony last October in a US court, as part of a lawsuit brought by family members of 9/11 victims and several insurance companies against the government of Saudi Arabia. They claim that members of the Saudi government helped fund al-Qaeda in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks through a variety of means. Speaking under oath, Moussaoui said a number of “extremely famous” Saudi government officials were systematically funding al-Qaeda’s operations in the years immediately preceding the 9/11 attacks. Among them, said Moussaoui, was Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the youngest son of the late King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Prince Turki directed the Kingdom’s intelligence agency, the Al Mukhabarat Al-A’amah, from 1979 until 2001, when he briefly became ambassador to Britain and then the United States, before retiring. Moussaoui told the court that he also met another senior Saudi official who worked in the US embassy in Afghanistan in the 1990s. The purpose of the meeting, said Moussaoui, was to arrange a trip to Washington, DC, where the two men would search for a suitable location from where a laser-guided Stinger missile could be launched against Air Force One, the personal aircraft of the President of the US.

Moussaoui’s testimony emerged on Wednesday as a result of a legal push by the government of Saudi Arabia to have the lawsuit thrown out of court. Spokesmen for the Saudi government have blasted the lawsuit, claiming it is based on testimony by “deranged criminals” like Moussaoui, who have “zero credibility”.