This is likely going to be my last post prior to the election (and God willing, this time we'll know by November 3 who the president is) so I'll try to cover as many bases as possible on this one.
There's been two very interesting articles out over the last several days, one of which I want to provide actual commentary for, and there is also a purported al-Qaeda videotape that was obtained by ABC News from an "intermediary" (Jamaat-e-Islami or Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islami, one wonders ...) in Waziristan. I'll also deal with the issue of what I know about the pre-election plot stuff and we'll go from there. Several of these remarks were prepared in response to questions that WoC reader praktike made on my own blog and I thought would be interesting enough to reference here.
Praktike, who has definitely been doing his homework, recently asked me about the following statements by former Indian intelligence chief B. Raman:
The Tora Bora operation failed for two reasons. First, the warlords and the narcotics barons played a double game. While ostensibly helping the US forces, they kept bin Laden and his fighters informed of the US military movements. Second, Pakistan, on which too the US depended for sealing off its border with Afghanistan to prevent the escape of bin Laden and other jihadi terrorists into Pakistani territory, quietly let them pass.
There is another issue here that I think everyone is ignoring with respect to the battle at Tora Bora is that it was during faux cease-fire and surrender negotiations on December 13 by members of bin Laden's personal guard that he and a number of other al-Qaeda leaders flew the coop into Pakistan. That was the same day, if you'll recall, that members of the al-Qaeda affiliate groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked the Indian Parliament, nearly bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of full-scale war. As a result, Pakistan was forced to shift its troops away from the Afghan border towards India for the purpose of countering an Indian attack. Now while I have never been able to prove this, I have long suspected that the Parliament attack was orchestrated at al-Qaeda's behest for the specific purpose of freeing up the Pakistani border to allow them to make good on their escape.
In fact, bin Laden, who was incapacitated by a shrapnel injury at Tora Bora, was shifted to the Binori madrassa in Karachi, where he was under treatment until August 2002. Since then he has disappeared. He was keeping in touch with his followers through video and audio messages until this April. Since then, he has been observing even electronic silence.
I've mentioned before that bin Laden received medical treatment at Tora Bora in my previous run-down of the terrorist leaders' fate, though the way I was given to understand it was that he was treated in the Bajaur tribal area of Pakistan by Dr. Ahmed Khawaja under the protection of the Ghilzai tribesmen, who then moved him to Peshawar where he sought refuge with members of the extremist Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islami party and received further treatment, including very possibly plastic surgery. I don't think that this is necessarily inconsistent with Raman's account either, since he could very easily been shifted to Binori Town after he was well enough to be moved.
Binori Town, as I noted in previous WoC post, is basically al-Qaeda's version of officer school and was at that point run by Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai before his ... untimely departure this last summer. If bin Laden wanted to recover safely, Binori Town would probably the place, as it serves as the center of the jihadi subculture in Pakistan. In addition, Binori Town is also located right in the middle of the Shi'ite portion of Karachi and the fact that Pakistani Shi'ite sectarian groups haven't moved against the place (and in case anybody cites the Shamzai assassination as an example, he was not killed by the Sipah-e-Mohammed despite what some have claimed) implies at the very least that the Shi'ite radicals either tolerate the place or are too scared to move against it. Given Iran's backing to a number of Pakistani Shi'ite groups based in the Karachi area, if bin Laden wanted to communicate with his son and lieutenants in Iran, he could fairly easily do it from Binori Town, either directly or through their Pakistani intermediaries.
August 2002, incidentally, was a very important month for al-Qaeda, because it was the month that bin Laden retook control of his organization, which had pretty much been running on autopilot while he had been recovering following the capture of Abu Zubaydah.
This whole idea that bin Laden is little more than a figurehead for his organization is IMO patently false - while I disagree with a lot of the 9/11 commission report, their depiction of just how personally involved he was in running his network is right-on from what I am given to understand.
During the month of August 2002, al-Qaeda's financial networks were reorganized, its hierarchy was reorganized, and its strategy was shifted away from evicting the US from Afghanistan towards expanding the field of battle to make the US war on terrorism truly a global affair. This expansion took the form of a successive series of terrorist attacks from September to November 2002 that were themselves intended to serve as a warming up for something far more sinister - the poison plots that Zarqawi and Midhat Mursi had planned to unleash against the US, Russia, and Western Europe in late 2002 and early 2003.
While the second (poison) wave of attacks were thwarted by the efforts of European law enforcement, the first wave appears to have fallen into place. If I were involved in law enforcement, I would be seriously consider using the level of "chatter" that occurred in August 2002 as a means for learning about and disrupting further attacks.
Continuing on, B. Raman also says the following:
He used to circulate at least three messages every year to his followers - on the anniversary of September 11, 2001, to pay homage to the terrorists who participated in the terrorist strikes in US territory; before the beginning of the Ramadan fasting period; and at the end of the fasting period. This year, he did not issue any message coinciding with September 11. Instead, there was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, his No 2. Nor was there a message before the start of the fasting period this Ramadan.
The continuing silence of bin Laden could be due to one of the following reasons:
- He is dead. Reliable Shi'ite sources in Pakistan believe there is a greater possibility of his being dead than alive. Though their arguments are strong, I am disinclined, for the present, to believe them because if he were really dead the news would have spread like wildfire in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He is literally worshipped there and his burial site, if in tribal territory, would have become a place of pilgrimage. The Sunni tribals insist he must be alive, though none of them claims to have seen him.
- He is observing electronic silence for his own physical security.
- He has been sidelined by his followers and has no longer any de facto or de jure control over al-Qaeda or the International Islamic Front (IIF) formed by him in February 1998. The increasing audibility of al-Zawahiri indicates the possibility of his playing the leadership role at least in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, though not in Iraq. I have been writing since April 2003 that bin Laden is no longer in day-to-day control of the IIF. This is now being exercised by Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), which has been in the forefront of recruiting volunteers and collecting funds for the jihad in Iraq.
There is also the other option, one that both myself and Michael Ledeen (among others) have referenced, that he is in Iran and has been there for some time now. B. Raman's claim as to when bin Laden ceased electronic communication with his followers (April 2003) is more or less consistent with when Mansoor Ijaz's timeline as to when bin Laden entered Iran with the intent of evading capture at the hands of Pakistani forces.
As far as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is concerned (which, if IIRC, was the focus of Praktike's question), they have become the "legitimate face" of bin Laden's International Islamic Front now that the al-Qaeda leadership has been forced underground. As part of these duties, they've taken over al-Qaeda's duties in the area of training, support, and infrastructure for the global jihad, even acting as the "secret police" for al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan (members of the Pakistani Sunni sectarian group LeJ are also used extensively by al-Qaeda, particularly in the Karachi area, but mainly as little more than dumb muscle).
I've learned more about the LeT in the last several months than I've ever truly cared to know, and take my word for it that these guys are bad news. They tried to assassinate President Bush and as much of the NATO leadership as possible earlier this year and will likely be responsible for the training and infrastructure for the perpetrators of any future al-Qaeda attack on the United States.
Which brings me to this recent New York Times editorial by Daniel Benjamin and Gabriel Weimann, which also references the LeT in the context of Iraq:
Meanwhile, radicals in dozens of countries are increasingly seizing on events in Iraq. Some Web sites have moved beyond describing the action there to depicting it in the most grisly way: images of Western hostages begging for their lives and being beheaded. These sites have become enormously popular throughout the Muslim world, thrilling those who sympathize with the Iraqi insurgents as they see jihad in action. Fired up by such cyber-spectacles, militants everywhere are more and more seeing Iraq as the first glorious stage in a long campaign against the West and the "apostate" rulers of the Muslim world.
It is remarkable, for example, that the Pakistani Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Tayba appears to be shifting its sights away from its longtime focus on Kashmir and toward Iraq. Probably the largest militant group in Pakistan, it has used its online Urdu publication to call for sending holy warriors to Iraq to take revenge for the torture at Abu Ghraib prison as well as for what it calls the "rapes of Iraqi Muslim women." "The Americans are dishonoring our mothers and sisters," reads a notice on its site. "Therefore, jihad against America has now become mandatory."
The organization's postings speak of an "army" of 8,000 fighters from different countries bound for Iraq. While that number is undoubtedly exaggerated, the statement is not pure propaganda: members of the group have already been captured in Iraq.
A couple of points on the LeT in Iraq that the people who know why I've researched them so heavily will no doubt appreciate:
- A number of LeT fighters who are now fighting in Iraq were there before the war as part of the jihadi army that Saddam Hussein called in from neighboring states to fight at his behest, as were members of a number of other al-Qaeda affiliate groups. In the case of the LeT members, they either entered Iraq through Iran or traveled to Saudi Arabia under the pretext of undertaking the hajj in February 2003 and then met with Saleh Mohammed al-Oufi, the man who is now the head of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, who assisted them in getting across the Iraqi border. In the case of the LeT cadres as well as members of other jihadi groups simply needed to get across the border as they were provided weapons, supplies, and explosives by members of Saddam Hussein's government with the understanding that they would fight the US.
- Most of the LeT fighters who entered Iraq were either members of the group's international brigade or themselves spoke Arabic. Because these are among the most extreme elements of the group and the most loyal to al-Qaeda (rather than the ISI or the Pakistani military), nobody in the Pakistani security establishment was all that sad to see them go. The actual number of LeT and JeM fighters inside Iraq is probably less than 200. I should mention that a number of sectarian LeJ members went with them and they have been used by Zarqawi and even Baathists loyal to al-Douri to carry out sectarian attacks against Shi'ite targets, such as the Ashura Massacre.
- Until the US actually captured a number of mid-level LeT commanders inside Iraq, there was a view among a sizeable number of US experts that a lot of this was nothing more than Indian propaganda designed to make Pakistan look bad and to implicate Pakistani groups in violence against US troops in Iraq. I honestly think that a lot of this Indian stuff is, if nothing else, just as worth reading as anything that Pillar et al. pump out.
- LeT cooperation with al-Qaeda is hardly a new phenomenon (bin Laden used to address their annual gatherings at Muridke either in person or via satellite phone), nor does it only date to the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. If you look at the US and Australian data with respect to people like David Hicks or Willie Brigitte, you'll see just how closely tied they are to al-Qaeda and how those ties have expanded as the LeT has adopted more and more responsibilities within the International Front to compensate for al-Qaeda's having gone underground.
- In conclusion, the LeT working with al-Qaeda or operating in Iraq is hardly a new phenomenon, it's just one that's getting more and more acceptance in certain quarters. This is good, because the sooner that we recognize the inter-connected nature of these groups, the easier it'll be to take them down.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, an AEI scholar whom I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for, has a fascinating piece on the Weekly Standard website in which he challenges the conventional line of thought that the war in Iraq has made al-Qaeda stronger and instead adopts a far more agnostic approach to the situation. While I very much doubt that this going to change any undecided minds on the subject, I would still like to excerpt a few key points and provide some of my own commentary to Mr. Gerecht's commentary (rather Talmudic, no?):
Now, leaving aside whether the war in Iraq is a distraction from the war on terror, are Kerry, Clarke, and it appears many if not most of the journalists on the terrorism beat and their official sources correct in their now-reflexive assumption that the war in Iraq has spurred a new generation of Islamic extremists to attack the United States? Probably not. One has to say "probably" since the answer is empirical: Not enough time has passed since March 2003 for scholars, journalists, and writers to travel among Islamic militants to get an accurate idea of what is actually happening in mosques and religious schools in the greater Middle East and Europe--the two primary breeding grounds for the jihadism of 9/11.
Another reason that this is problematic is due to al-Qaeda's tendency to make use of "sleeper" operatives or people who have no known background in Islamist extremism until the moment they blow something up. The cell that plotted the 3/11 attacks pretty much followed that pattern, as have members of a number of other cells from successful or failed terrorist attacks since 9/11.
Because of this, even if large numbers of European Muslims do start flocking to Iraq en masse (and I believe the numbers are ~200 at this point) to fight for Zarqawi, we have no way of knowing whether they had been recruited by al-Qaeda as a result of their anger over the US invasion of Iraq - or whether they had been enlisted years ago and were simply awaiting marching orders.
Either way, that's still a fairly disturbing situation because it means that either al-Qaeda has a hidden reserve force of hundreds of European jihadis that had more or less sat out the last several years in the war on terrorism to be activated now (and this isn't as farfetched as one might think - the al-Qaeda cell in Lackawanna, NY sat out the entire US campaign in Afghanistan as well as the capture of numerous al-Qaeda leaders) or the network retained sufficient logistical infrastructure in Europe to take advantage (at least until around December 2003 when the recruiting infrastructure was disrupted) of Muslim anger over the US war in Iraq and was able to spontaneously mobilize several hundred fresh operatives within a period of less than a year.
Like I said, it's frightening either way, which is why I think that the European governments need to commended for their excellent work in tracking down and disrupting these cells as fast as possible.
Remarkably little field work in the stamping grounds and intellectual factories of Islamic militancy has been published since the invasion of Iraq. Just think back to Jeffrey Goldberg's illuminating pre-9/11 essay in the New York Times magazine on the Haqqania madrassa outside of Peshawar. The director of central intelligence George Tenet loved this piece--which ran under the headline "Inside Jihad U.: The Education of a Holy Warrior"--and he strongly recommended it, say CIA officers, to the staff at Langley. The Haqqania madrassa was the primary incubator for Afghanistan's Taliban elite.
Well I dunno about Haqqania, but here's a break-down of the 2004 enrollment of foreign students at the Karachi madrassas for 2004. Of those foreign students, a large number of them (49%) appear to be Thai Muslims and like Paul Moloney
I suspect that if you look at who's behind the recent outbreaks of extremist violence in Thailand perpetrated by the al-Qaeda affiliate Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani and the names of those madrassa students and their founders, they are likely to be one and the same. Most of the Southeast Asians were intended to serve as the second generation of the Jemaah Islamiyyah leadership, while it might be interesting to see if the African students correspond to recent developments regarding the GSPC that I've written about in past.
Can anyone recall a comparable piece about Pakistan's militant madrassas since March 2003? Now, these institutions may be churning out a new, more virulent generation of Afghan-Pakistani holy warriors, but at this time, we just don't know. Information from Pakistani intelligence and the Pakistani press has been historically unreliable. Our knowledge of the official and unofficial madrassa system in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen is even more sparse. And in Western Europe, we are probably only a little better off.
I agree with Gerecht on this one. A large number of these madrassas (and no, not all madrassas are jihadi factories, but there are number of specific ones that are specifically set up for that purpose) al-Qaeda's "officer academies" exist in places like the Gulf states where the environment is, ahem, not at all willing to report their foreign enrollments to the semi-free or in many cases state-run press.
Even in France, where there are multiple layers of potentially very intrusive and competent police and domestic intelligence, the knowledge of what is transpiring in the country's numerous semi-official mosques probably isn't comforting to the Interior Ministry. One of the principal reasons why interior ministers have for years pushed for the local education of French-born imams is that they fear the influence of imported militant clerics. They also know that once extremists enter the bloodstream of the French Muslim community, it's difficult to monitor, and very difficult to circumscribe, their influence. Despite the omnipresent police, France is a free society, and most mosques and Muslim religious associations are pretty tight-knit communities, often opaque to even the inquisitive efforts of the internal-security service, the DST.
I would also that French racism towards its Arab/Muslim population and lack of desire to integrate them into French society has a fair bit to do with the spread of extremist ideologies among the Algerian and Moroccan immigrant populations. The DST is generally pretty good at breaking up plots aimed at France (as are most European anti-terrorism agencies), but they like other European countries are still having problems tracking groups that cross multiple borders, such as what the DST refers to as the "Chechen network" of Chechen-trained French Algerian extremists.
Finally to one of Gerecht's best points:
We don't really have a good idea of whether the extremist Algerian group the GSPC (from the French Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat) has become a more vibrant, seductive organization since it joined forces with al Qaeda in the mid- to late 1990s. Even the hyper-energetic French counterterrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguière couldn't tell you whether GSPC members had a good recruiting month in France in September 2004. As he probably couldn't tell you how they fared in September 1998 or September 2001. Any DST officer who tells you he has a baseline for GSPC or al Qaeda recruiting in France for any year since al Qaeda established a meaningful presence in Western Europe sometime in the late 1990s is either pulling your leg, fibbing, or both. In all probability, the numbers are so small that the only way you could know is for the principal GSPC or al Qaeda representative in a given European country to tell you. (It is possible that the arrests of Muslim militants made in Europe since 9/11 have given European security services a better idea of the numbers involved, but given the nature of the Muslim community in Europe--a community living largely apart from their non-Muslim compatriots--the element of doubt remains large.)
To be quite honest, one of the things that has always worried me about al-Qaeda in the US is the huge numerical disparity between the relatively small number that have been arrested here since 9/11 and the literally hundreds arrested or detained in Europe.
There's simply a lot that we really don't know about the network or its affiliate groups and how they operate, which makes objective discussions about how they recruit so difficult to measure. Gerecht's point about the small numbers involved is well worth noting - remember, al-Qaeda is a decentralized beast and judging from the information that I've seen concerning its recruiters, most of them are only interacting with less than a dozen potential jihadis at any given time. About the only guy who probably has some idea of how many jihadis were recruited to fight in Iraq between February and December 2003 is Abderrazak al-Mahdjoub, and even he might not know exact figures in the interest of operational security - he certainly doesn't know the exact where, when, and how of such things.
Now I'm sure that one might cite the recent report by the IISS claiming that al-Qaeda recruiting is up since the war in Iraq. I haven't gotten around to reading the Military Balance yet, but I'm a little skeptical because their upper level figure al-Qaeda and allied fighters is 18,000, whereas I (and Senator Bob Graham, among others) tend to regard the far larger figures of 70-110,000 fighters. Call it a professional disagreement, but I expect at least part of the problem has to do with us using different standards for what is (or is not) an "al-Qaeda fighter."
Finally from Gerecht:
What we do know: Al Qaeda was born and grew rapidly in a time when the United States was ignoring Afghanistan, wasn't occupying Iraq, and was committed to negotiating Palestinian nationalist and religious aspirations through the Oslo Accords. We know that Osama bin Laden used as a tocsin call American retreats from the Middle East; that the defining moment for him, and perhaps for his movement, was President Clinton's "Black Hawk Down" withdrawal from Somalia.
We know that Osama bin Laden, his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other much more respectable members of the Sunni Muslim community have called for the streets to rise in the Middle East against the infidel American invaders. Yet the streets have been, once again, mostly quiet (despite the Westerner-paid opinion polls that tell us how much the average Muslim man hates the United States). In a newspaper or magazine article we get a quick quote from some European intelligence official telling us that al Qaeda has been revitalized by the American invasion, but what we don't see or hear, at least not yet, are European officials and responsible academics who actually visit the Muslim communities they write about, screaming over the postwar radical deluge. (And we would hear the Europeans, particularly the French and the Germans, frantically pressing this with U.S. officials and reporters, yet all seems rather quiet.)
I would actually go even further than Gerecht with respect to the first part. Al-Qaeda grew during the early 1990s because, at least among the People Who Knew in the Islamist community, they seemed to be winning. As long as that remains the general perception within extremist circles, the network is going to continue to grow and evolve.
It's one of the reasons why a US defeat in Iraq, especially if Zarqawi or his successors were able to claim credit for it, would be such an unparalleled disaster for the US, because it will justify both the bin Laden Doctrine (that the US doesn't have the stomach for a real fight) and the network's message that it is possible to defeat the United States and its allies through a prolonged terrorist campaign. The affirmation of either of those perceptions by the general population of the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in specific will have horrid consequences for the rest of the planet.
To be quite honest, I think that many of the people who are now arguing back and forth about Iraq simply do not grasp the stakes we're dealing with here, in part because they have only anecdotal evidence as for what al-Qaeda's designs are. Regardless of how one felt about the war, there are no "pro/anti-war" sides anymore in this situation. We either succeed in Iraq, or a lot more than 1,100 Americans are going to die.
Just something to think about.
I may get in some trouble for saying this, so be prepared to see this part vanish if necessary. The CIA's long-vaunted claim to have obtained an asset inside al-Qaeda has been put to the test and the verdict, or so I am given to understand, is that at least one of these individuals is a "fabricator" at best and a double agent who's been feeding us BS at worst.
I am given to understand that this agent was also the source of the intelligence report concerning 25 Chechen Islamists having entered the US through Mexico.
That being said, other intelligence that a pre or even post-election terrorist attack was planned in early 2004, such as an apparent meeting in Waziristan of secondary al-Qaeda leaders over the spring, appears to still be genuine. They're still going through the information recovered with Khan and Ghailani and there are some suspicions that some of the surveillance may have been obtained through an inside job or with the assistance of a government intelligence agency. No word on who, but I have my suspicions based on some interesting deportations back in January...
The new al-Qaeda video
I haven't seen it yet, though I'll let you know as soon as I do or ABC airs it publicly, but here is what I am given to understand:
- The video was produced by al-Sahab, which is al-Qaeda's official video production company and the actual rant in question lasts for about 45 minutes in English and is spliced together with other al-Qaeda propaganda videos from Iraq and Chechnya. If that's the case, then there shouldn't be any serious questions about its authenticity, though I have my opinions as to why people might say otherwise. There is a remote chance that it's a forgery, but given the source of the tape (Waziristan) and the al-Sahab logo I would say that Occam's Razor if nothing else leads to it being the real deal
- The speaker on the video is identified as "Assam the American/Assam al-Ameriki." He may or may not be the same as Adam Yahiye Gadahn, aka Adam Pearlman, an American al-Qaeda operative from Orange County, California who, despite his appearance, was actually an important member of the terrorist network. Gadahn was a minor figure in bin Laden's court in Afghanistan and served as an English translator for non-Westernized al-Qaeda and affiliate leaders like Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani.
- He was also an advisor to Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on matters concerning anticipating US government reaction and possibly domestic politics as well. That being said, my impression of Gadahn is that he was kind of a flunky more than anything else, and was certainly neither a strategist or an operations planner for the network. Here again, there is some dispute as to whether or not it is Gadahn on the tape because at one point the speaker refers to Yemen as "the Yemen," something that some intel folks believe a native English speaker wouldn't do.
- The tape was produced recently, as it references the 9/11 commission report, the Massachusetts ruling on same-sex marriage, the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, and the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq. I've been told there may also be references to the events Beslan, the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon, and the US presidential election, but I can't confirm that at this time. I don't have a clue why al-Qaeda would care about the 9/11 commission, but my guess is that the speaker intends to use the Massachusetts ruling on same-sex marriage as part of al-Qaeda's general indictment of US culture and characterize US pressure on Sudan as yet another conspiracy by the US to attack and divide the Islamic world.
- I have no clue what the message behind the tape, aside from another supervillain rant, is actually supposed to mean. Sound bytes aren't going to be enough, a full transcript is likely to be helpful. I would also point out general caveats about al-Qaeda's tendency towards mendacity, exaggeration, and wishful thinking in viewing the tape. There may well be appeals to both the religious right and the anti-war left (interestingly enough, previous al-Qaeda statements have contained arguments and rhetoric designed to appeal to the most extreme elements of both groups) and/or a deliberate attempt to muddy the water with respect to the presidential election.
All I will say is that whoever you're voting for this coming Tuesday, I assume that those arguments that you found persuasive when making that decision held up before this tape came to light and unless you consider al-Qaeda a credible source, they still should.
People have e-mailed me asking whether or not this tape is a "trigger" of some kind. The bottom line is that I don't know and I doubt any of us will barring a full transcript. Until then, we'll just have to wait and see.