Analysis: Al-Qaeda shifts strategic focus to Syria while still seeking to attack West

Jabhat al-NusraIn an effort to remain relevant, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic focus from Yemen to Syria but continues to pursue a globalist agenda by seeking ways to attack Western targets, according to an expert report. Following the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda found it difficult to retain its title as the main representative of the worldwide Sunni insurgency. But in an argue published last week on the website of the RAND Corporation, two al-Qaeda experts argue that the militant group is rebounding.

The authors, Middle East Institute senior fellow Charles Listeris and RAND senior political scientist Colin Clarke, editorial that al-Qaeda followed a pragmatic and patient strategy after 2014. Specifically, the group remained on the margins and “deliberately let the Islamic State bear the brunt of the West’s counterterrorism campaign” they argue. At the same time, al-Qaeda has sought to remain relevant by shifting the center of its activity from Yemen to Syria. That decision appears to have been taken in 2014, when the group began to systematically transport assets and resources from its traditional strongholds of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Levant, the authors argue.

Observers are still evaluating the implications of al-Qaeda’s strategic shift. Listeris and Clarke note that counterterrorism experts have yet to fully understand them. What appears certain is that al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, “proved to be the most potent military actor on the battlefield” in the Levant. It did so by operating largely independently from al-Qaeda central, which allowed it to act with speed in pursuit of a strictly localized agenda that attracted many locals. At the same time, however, al-Nusra’s independence effectively separated it from its parent organization. Many al-Qaeda loyalists accused the group of abandoning al-Qaeda’s principles and left it when it rebranded itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Levantine Conquest Front) in 2016 and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) in 2017.

Al-Qaeda itself denounced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in 2018 and today supports a number of smaller militias that operate on the ground in Syria. These smaller groups appear to be extremely professional and experienced, and are staffed by “veterans with decades of experience at al Qaeda’s highest levels”. What does this mean about al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities? Listeris and Clarke argue that Syria remains al-Qaeda’s priority. But the group remains focused on attacking the West while also pursuing guerrilla warfare in Syria, they say. This reflects al-Qaeda’s overarching narrative, namely to fight in local conflicts while pursuing the “far enemy” (the West), which it sees as a mortal enemy of Islam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 2019 | Permalink

Al-Qaeda is enduring security threat despite Hamza bin Laden’s death, experts warn

Al-Qaeda in YemenAl-Qaeda and its affiliate groups continue to be the most persistent transnational threats to the security of the West, according to experts who spoke after the alleged death of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. Last week The New York Times reported that Hamza bin Laden, widely seen as an ascending figure in the group that his father co-founded in the 1980s, was killed sometime after 2017. The paper cited two anonymous United States government officials who said that Hamza bin Laden died in 2017 or 2018 as a result of a military operation led by an unnamed state.

But experts have since warned that the death of Hamza bin Laden has not significantly weakened al-Qaeda. At a briefing in Washington on Thursday, Nathan Sales, a US Department of State acting under secretary who focuses on security and terrorism, stressed that “al-Qaeda is as strong as it has ever been”. The group’s relative quietness in recent years should not be perceived as an indication of weakness or resignation, said Sales. On the contrary, the Sunni militant group remains “very much in this fight”, he cautioned. Unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda has been patient in the past five years and has strategically allowed ISIS to “absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts”, said Sales. During that time, al-Qaeda patiently rebuilt itself and largely recovered from the blow it suffered in the years leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Today al-Qaeda retains significant territory in northwest Syria and is also present throughout Yemen, where it counts on the support of many thousands of armed fighters, according to Sales. Its affiliate group in Somalia was behind a car bombing in Mogadishu in July, while the group also took responsibility for an armed attack in an upscale suburb of Kenya in January of this year. Another expert, Jason Blazakis, who until last year directed the US Department of State’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, appears to agree with Sales. In an article published last Friday, Blazakis cautioned that Hamza bin Laden’s demise, if true, “doesn’t mean that al Qaeda no longer represents a critical threat to US national security”. On the contrary, he said, the group’s “strategic patience and focus on the ‘far enemy’”, i.e. the United States, make it “the most enduring transnational threat to US national security interests”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 August 2019 | Permalink

Dutch counterterrorism report sees rise in Islamist recruitment in the West

NCTV HollandHolland’s chief counterterrorism agency has warned that, despite losing its territories in the Middle East, the Islamic State continues to recruit operatives and is ready to launch attacks in the West “at a moment’s notice”. The warning is contained in a report published last week by the Dutch National Coordinator of Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV). Established in 2005 as the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and renamed in 2012, the NCTV works under Holland’s Justice and Security Minister. It is responsible for analyzing terrorism threats and assessing the country’s domestic terrorism threat level.

In its most recent report (.pdf), entitled Terrorist Threat Assessment Netherlands, the NCTV warns that it is not only the Islamic State (known also as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) that remains highly active, but also al-Qaeda. The two groups are riding a wave of Salafist Muslim extremism that appears to be on the rise throughout Europe, says the report. ISIS, in particular, continues to engage in extensive recruitment drives in the West, which take place mostly through the dissemination of propaganda material online. There is also a proliferation of an underground recruitment movement in conservative Muslim schools and mosques across the West, says the report (.pdf).

But the most serious short-term threat to European and North American security, according to the NCTV document, comes from so-called returnees, citizens of European countries who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and are now returning —or trying to return— to their home states in the West. The majority of these men and women remain faithful to the idea of the caliphate despite the failure of their efforts in the Middle East. There is a risk that, upon their return to the West, they will connect with existing —and growing— Salafist underground networks there, and remain active in radical circles. The report also notes that both ISIS and al-Qaeda are showing increasing interest in developing chemical and biological weapons for use against civilian and military targets.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 March 2019 | Permalink

ISIS using Turkey as strategic base to reorganize, Dutch intelligence report says

Turkey ISISIslamic State cells are using Turkey as a strategic base in which to recuperate, rebuild, and plan an underground war in Europe, according to a new report by Dutch intelligence. This assessment is featured in a report published on Monday by Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service, known as AIVD. The document, which is available in the Dutch language on the website of the AIVD, is entitled The Legacy of Syria: Global Jihadism Remains a Threat to Europe.

The 22-page report argues that the government of Turkey does not see Sunni Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), as a pressing national security threat. Instead, Turkish security services are far more concerned with the ethnic Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. Therefore, although Turkish authorities do sometimes take action to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS, “Turkish interests do not always correspond with European priorities on the field of counter-terrorism”, says the report. For that reason, Turkey served as a large transit center of tens of thousands of foreign fighters who poured into Syria to fight for Sunni Islamist groups during the height of the Syrian Civil War. At least 4,000 of those fighters are believed to be Turkish citizens, according to the AIVD report.

Today Turkey is home to tens of thousands of sympathizers of both al-Qaeda and ISIS —two organizations that maintain an active presence throughout the country— claims the report. The hands-off approach of the Turkish government is giving these groups “enough breathing space and freedom of movement” to operate relatively freely on Turkish soil. Additionally, al-Qaeda and ISIS members exploit the relative peace and stability of Turkey to forge plans to attack Western target, claims the AIVD report. It is from Turkey, it argues, that the Islamic State plans to shape and direct its pending underground war on the European continent.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2018 | Permalink

ISIS remains strong with 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, experts warn

ISIS forces in RamadiThe Islamic State has recovered from some of its recent defeats in the battlefield and has as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria, according to two reports by American and United Nations experts. Last month, the Iraqi government announced that the war against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been won. The statement was echoed by the United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over. But now two new reports, one produced by the United States Department of Defense and the other by an expert UN panel, warn that both ISIS and al-Qaeda remain powerful, popular and dangerous in Iraq, Syria, and many other regions of the world.

The UN report was published on Monday by the organization’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which is tasked with monitoring the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions. The report recognizes that ISIS has suffered unprecedented military defeats in Iraq and Syria in the past year, and that many of its most hardened fighters are dead or have abandoned the conflict zones in the region. But it warns that the militant organization is now morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. What is more, ISIS’ center is backed by as many as 30,000 unreconstructed members, who are split roughly equally between the two countries. The US Pentagon report, which was delivered this week to Congress states that ISIS has as many as 17,100 fighters in Iraq and another 14,000 in Syria. Many of those surviving fighters are citizens of dozens of different countries around the world, according to the report. Some of them are still engaged in armed fighting, while others are “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas”, mostly in Iraq, the UN report states.

There are also tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, and in several West African and Southeast Asian countries, according to the reports’ authors. These fighters are led by commanders who remain in contact with senior ISIS leaders and continue to revere Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s central figure. In addition to ISIS, al-Qaeda also remains strong and dangerous, according to the UN report. Its regional structure “continues to show resilience” and in some regions of the world it is far stronger than ISIS. These include several regions of Africa, including areas of Somalia and the Sahel, as well as in Yemen, where al-Qaeda is believed to command as many as 7,000 armed fighters at the moment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2018 | Permalink

High-level MI6 spy inside al-Qaeda writes book detailing his work

Aimen Dean, a.k.a. Ramzi

Aimen Dean, a.k.a. Ramzi

A Saudi-born man, who some refer to as the most valuable British-run spy inside al-Qaeda, has authored a soon-to-be-published book about his experiences. Aimen Dean, known in al-Qaeda circles simply as ‘Ramzi’, became radicalized in the first half of the 1990s in response to the Bosnian War. At that time, he traveled from his home country of Saudi Arabia to Bosnia, where he joined large numbers of foreign Muslim fighters who fought in support of Bosnian-Muslim forces. In subsequent interviews, Dean has said that he continues to view his participation in the Bosnian War as an “ethical and moral” act in defense of a “defenseless population”. Following the end of the Bosnian War, Dean joined many foreign-born fighters who followed al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan. While there, he pledged allegiance to bin Laden and gained his trust.

Dean’s task in Afghanistan was to train new al-Qaeda recruits in Islamic theology and history. But he was also tasked with combat duties, which included bomb-making. He witnessed the drastic shift in al-Qaeda’s raison d’être from a group ostensibly fighting to defend Muslims under attack, to a center of a violent campaign against the West. Dean has stated that during his first period in Afghanistan, he sincerely believed that the West was involved in a systematic campaign to destroy Islam and Muslims. Gradually, however, Dean’s views began to conflict with those of al-Qaeda’s leaders. He especially objected to the use of suicide bombers and the deliberate targeting of civilians by al-Qaeda fighters. His disillusionment with al-Qaeda peaked in August of 1998, when the organization targeted the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in coordinated strikes.

During a leave of absence from al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan stronghold, Dean was approached by the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, more commonly known as MI6. He says that he quickly agreed to work as a spy for the British agency and did so from 1998 until 2007, when he claims that his cover was blown. Dean has now written a book, co-authored with two CNN reporters, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister. Entitled Nine Lives: My Time As MI6’s Top Spy Inside al-Qaeda, the book is due to appear in stores on June 7.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 May 2018 | Permalink

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