Despite bombing, Islamic State is no weaker than a year ago

This image made from gun-camera video taken on July 4, 2015 and released by United States Central… Read more

WASHINGTON (AP) — After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded.

U.S. military commanders on the ground aren’t disputing the assessment, but they point to an upcoming effort to clear the important Sunni city of Ramadi, which fell to the militants in May, as a crucial milestone.

The battle for Ramadi, expected over the next few months, “promises to test the mettle” of Iraq’s security forces, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, who is helping run the U.S.-led coalition effort in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon in a video briefing from the region.

The U.S.-led military campaign has put the Islamic State group on defense, Killea said, adding, “There is progress.” Witnesses on the ground say the airstrikes and Kurdish ground actions are squeezing the militants in northern Syria, particularly in their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa.

But U.S. intelligence agencies see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.

The assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others appear to contradict the optimistic line taken by the Obama administration’s special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, who told a forum in Aspen, Colorado, last week that “ISIS is losing” in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was described by officials who would not be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

“We’ve seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers,” a defense official said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group’s total strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August, when the airstrikes began.

The Islamic State’s staying power raises questions about the administration’s approach to the threat that the group poses to the U.S. and its allies. Although officials do not believe it is planning complex attacks on the West from its territory, the group’s call to Western Muslims to kill at home has become a serious problem, FBI Director James Comey and other officials say.

Yet under the Obama administration’s campaign of bombing and training, which prohibits American troops from accompanying fighters into combat or directing airstrikes from the ground, it could take a decade or more to drive the Islamic State from its safe havens, analysts say. The administration is adamant that it will commit no U.S. ground troops to the fight despite calls from some in Congress to do so.

The U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian and Kurdish allies have made some inroads. The Islamic State has lost 9.4 percent of its territory in the first six months of 2015, according to an analysis by the conflict monitoring group IHS.

A Delta Force raid in Syria that killed Islamic State financier Abu Sayyaf in May also has resulted in a well of intelligence about the group’s structure and finances, U.S. officials say. His wife, held in Iraq, has been cooperating with interrogators.

Syrian Kurdish fighters and their allies have wrested most of the northern Syria border from the Islamic State group, and the plan announced this week for a U.S.-Turkish “safe zone” is expected to cement those gains.

In Raqqa, U.S. coalition bombs pound the group’s positions and target its leaders with increasing regularity. The militants’ movements have been hampered by strikes against bridges, and some fighters are sending their families away to safer ground.

But American intelligence officials and other experts say the Islamic State is in no danger of being defeated any time soon.

“The pressure on Raqqa is significant … but looking at the overall picture, ISIS is mostly in the same place,” said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Although U.S. officials have said it is crucial that the government in Baghdad win back disaffected Sunnis, there is little sign of that happening. American-led efforts to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State have produced a grand total of 60 vetted fighters.

The militants have adjusted their tactics to thwart a U.S. bombing campaign that tries assiduously to avoid civilian casualties, officials say. Fighters no longer move around in easily targeted armored columns; they embed themselves among women and children, and they communicate through couriers to thwart eavesdropping and geolocation, the defense official said.

Oil continues to be a major revenue source. By one estimate, the Islamic State is clearing $500 million per year from oil sales, said Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. That’s on top of as much as $1 billion in cash the group seized from banks in its territory.

Although the U.S. has been bombing oil infrastructure, the militants have been adept at rebuilding oil refining, drilling and trading capacity, the defense official said.

The stalemate makes the battle for Ramadi all the more important.

Iraqi security forces, including 500 Sunni fighters, have begun preparing to retake the Sunni city, Killea said, and there have been 100 coalition airstrikes designed to support the effort. But he cautioned it will take time.

“Momentum,” he said, “is a better indicator of success than speed.”

Karam and Mroue reported from Beirut.
By KEN DILANIAN, ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE
Jul. 31, 2015 1:36 PM EDT

Find this story at 31 July 2015

AP News | © 2015 Associated Press

Why Britain hasn’t Followed the US into Syria

It seems like a generation ago now, but it was only in late August 2013 that Britain’s House of Commons narrowly rejected launching airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s Syria in response to his military’s use of chemical weapons. While the U.S. and France noted their resolve to continue to push for military action in the wake of the vote, it is undeniable that this event had a significant impact in halting the rush to war. With accusations of a war-weary Parliament and fear for what the UK’s refusal to intervene would do to the Anglo-American “Special Relationship,” the vote has been the most high-profile and public foreign policy blow of David Cameron’s premiership.

There is no straightforward reason behind why MPs rejected the measure. Certainly, a degree of war-weariness was palpable in the context of Iraq and the imminent (and rather ignominious) withdrawal from Afghanistan. Parallels to Iraq were all too clear when the Government was attempting to press for action before a group of UN weapons inspectors reported their findings on the chemical attack; the idea that the British Military would become involved in another Middle East quagmire with no clear exit strategy was a bit too much for many MPs to stomach. In addition, the Syrian rebel groups Western powers supported were a large question mark; it was uncertain as to what they were about and, if supplied with weapons, would they go on to lose them to extremist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front? There was simply too much uncertainty surrounding an intervention – its legality, its exit strategy and its “allies” in Syria.

The Commons defeat two years ago has haunted Cameron’s foreign policy, with there being a distinct unwillingness for his Government’s to stick its neck out unless Parliamentary support is guaranteed. But the situation in Syria has changed dramatically over the past two years, as the self-styled Islamic State has overrun much of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, and inspired and aided in terrorist attacks around the Middle East and wider world.

While in 2013 the justification to intervene was primarily the responsibility to protect Syrian citizens from a dictator – and topple the regime in the process – in 2015 the justification also involves restoring stability to the Middle East and ensuring the wider world’s security from terrorist attacks. Despite this, Cameron’s Government has been constrained by the Commons defeat to only strike ISIS in Iraq (unless RAF pilots are embedded in allied air forces striking Syria). But, in a veritable Gulf of Tonkin moment – the killing of dozens British holidaymakers in Tunisia by a man with connections to ISIS – Cameron has been handed an opportunity to expand the RAF’s mandate to strike ISIS in Syria. It only took a few days before feelers to that effect were put out by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon. With the opposition Labour Party in the middle of a leadership election, a repeat Commons vote is likely to be on hold until at least mid-September when a new leader is officially elected. Despite this uncertainty, it is expected that Labour will support the Government (unless the Party lurches to the left and elects Jeremy Corbyn – a prominent member of the Stop the War Coalition – as leader).

Despite the lack of a comprehensive solution to Syria’s problems, bombing when in doubt and having nothing else to do is not a viable solution. It may be enough to win the war, but it definitely will not be enough to win the lasting peace.

From what has been said, it would appear fairly reasonable to pass such a motion and bomb Syria – ISIS pose a more substantial threat to the region and national security than Assad did and Britain’s allies are already doing so. The only reason the RAF is not over Syria already is the legacy of the 2013 vote, before ISIS was even on the scene. But this is working under the assumption that bombing an entity into submission will bring about peace. To take a step back, bombing ISIS in Syria would appear to make no strategic sense; it will not resolve the conflict satisfactorily or the overt justification for the proposed intervention.

The Strategic Deficit

The doubts surrounding bombing Syria in 2013 are actually more acute today (on the whole). The issues surrounding the legality of bombing Syria have now largely been resolved. Coalition aircraft only strike ISIS forces and while Assad may preach Syria’s sovereignty, he is in desperate need of any sort of aid when fighting ISIS, the al-Nusra Front, moderate rebel groups and the Kurds. Despite this, the moderate Syrian opposition is in a much weaker position today than it was in 2013, primarily due to the advance of ISIS. The increasingly assertive Saudis are even said to be more willing to back the al-Nusra Front and other extremists instead of the moderate rebels to ensure the pro-Iranian and Shiite Assad does not regain control of Syria. While Turkey’s commitment to aid the rebels may yield some results, this is yet to be seen. If they were to succeed in taking control of Syria, there are a plethora of groups over as many fault lines to contend for power. The only question is whether the international coalition leaves these various factions to fight for power immediately, as in Libya, or wait nearly a decade, as in Iraq.

In reality, a clear international consensus needs to be reached at the UN and be fully implemented for stability to return to Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East. While it may sound defeatist, this will not be reached due to various competing geopolitical interests and the desire to avoid intervention becoming a norm. Despite the lack of a comprehensive solution to Syria’s problems, bombing when in doubt and having nothing else to do is not a viable solution. It may be enough to win the war, but it definitely will not be enough to win the lasting peace. At least there is an Iraqi government in place to establish control when ISIS is defeated in Iraq (so long as it resolves its sectarian issues). In contrast, the people of Syria would be starting from scratch with a highly uncertain amount of international assistance. If the self-interest of nations in the conflict so far is anything to go by, international support would be minimal.

The reason why ISIS is a legitimate threat to British national security is twofold. First, the territory it controls can be used as a safe haven for planning terrorist attacks; second, its existence and prominence inspires and cultivates home-grown terrorists. In addition to the doubts surrounding the bombing of ISIS in Syria, neither of these issues would be resolved in the process.

One of the reasons behind the British Government calling for airstrikes on Syria is because it is suspected that the Tunisia beach attack was planned and coordinated from ISIS-controlled areas of Syria. Even if this is the case, one look at the simplicity of the attack highlights how it could be planned and executed anywhere – there were no specialist explosives or weaponry, there was no intricate set of demands and there was little originality. A man went onto a tourist beach, opened fire with a Kalashnikov rifle and left. It was a striking example of hit-and-run urban terrorism which has become all too familiar in recent years with the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the Charlie Hebdo shootings earlier this year. Whereas security forces are used to facing a long (stationary) standoff with terrorists, the game has changed. Simply killing as many indiscriminate targets as possible is the end goal of these shootings, not securing demands through a complex hostage-taking.

More than just unleashing terrorists on the world, with ISIS having such a high profile in the media and many foreign Muslims coming to Iraq and Syria to fight for them (including hundreds of Brits), the group has the potential to inspire Muslims in distant lands to commit terrorist attacks. But, again, simply bombing ISIS in Syria does not resolve the issue. The root of the matter is that there are disaffected young Muslims in Western states who have not been effectively integrated into society. It is known that ISIS do not look to recruit foreign Muslims with strong religious backgrounds as they cannot be moulded easily; instead, recruiters go after young, disenfranchised and vaguely religious Muslims who see ISIS as an escape from a world they do not understand. Attacking ISIS for this reason would be attacking a symptom of successive British governments’ failure to integrate young Muslims into British society.

Why Intervene?

In Syria, the UK has no horse in the race. The opposition is too weak and, like the international community, divided. Intervention will not lead to a lasting peace in Syria and the region, protect Syrian civilians or resolve the threat ISIS pose to national security. The only reason for the UK to intervene in Syria is to sure up the “Special Relationship” and prove that Britain will not shy away from a fight, reversing the damage done from the 2013 vote.

For many, while they may not say so in public, this will be enough, and why not? Fewer than 5% of coalition airstrikes in Iraq are made by the RAF’s ageing Tornado fleet, so expanding the mission to Syria would only be a token gesture of solidarity with little impact. It could also open up British bases in Cyprus to be used by other coalition partners (but Turkey recently allowing the U.S. to use some of its bases has largely resolved the issue of U.S. planes having to fly from outrageous distances to strike ISIS in Syria). It would mean Britain could do its part in this aspect of the war against ISIS, even if it does not win the peace and Syria’s chaos simply morphs into a new shape.

Bearing all of this in mind, here is something to consider. About fifty years ago, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to let British troops get entangled in the jungles of Vietnam, much to President Johnson’s anger and dismay. While the “Special Relationship” took a hit, British interests ultimately were not in a far off war with no clear exit strategy. In hindsight, Wilson wisely ensured that Britain avoided the South-East Asian quagmire and Britain’s relationship with the U.S. certainly rebounded. Later this year, British law-makers are likely to decide whether or not to intervene in Syria. Although it is tempting to blindly follow an ally into war, let us hope that they think carefully of where Britain’s interests truly lie in this conflict.

August 17, 2015 at 6:00 am
BY PETER STOREY

Find this story at 17 August 2015

Copyright

Exclusive: The spy who fooled the Assad regime

AMMAN // In a highly successful double-cross, a senior army officer from the Assad regime secretly gave Western-backed rebels vital intelligence that led to critical losses for government forces in southern Syria.

The defeat at Tal Al Harra, an electronic warfare station 50 kilometres south of Damascus, sent president Bashar Al Assad’s mukhabarat, or secret police, on a hunt for the source of the leaks and resulted in the killing of dozens of military personnel wrongly accused of treason.

The fog of conspiracy unleashed by the secret defection of General Mahmoud Abu Araj also helped spread discord between regime forces and their Iranian allies – and may have inadvertently played a role in the undoing of one of the Middle East’s most infamous intelligence chiefs, Syria’s Rustom Ghazalah.

Rebels overran the strategic military installation at Tal Al Harra on October 5, pushing troops loyal to Mr Al Assad out of their mountain vantage point, from where they had tracked rebel movements and shelled the surrounding countryside.

Tal Al Harra was where regime forces, and their allies from Iran and Hizbollah, intercepted Israeli communications and kept watch on Syria’s border with Israel, just 12km to the west.

A swift rebel victory there was improbable: regime forces held the only high ground for miles, the army’s 7th Division was on hand and well dug-in, and they enjoyed uncontested air superiority.

A visual guide to the battle for Tal Al Harra

All of that should have been enough to hold off a lightly armed opposition that had to fight its way up steep, exposed slopes with no air cover.

But, unknown to regime forces, one of their own had joined the effort to overthrow the Assad dynasty, which had begun as peaceful protests in nearby Deraa in March 2011.

Rather than fleeing to join the rebels, Abu Araj took the huge risk of working from within to undermine regime defences, according to rebel accounts of the defection that give a rare glimpse inside the murky spy war raging on the southern front.

The general, who commanded the 7th Division’s 121st Mechanised Brigade, contacted the rebels months before the assault on Tal Al Harra, somehow evading Mr Assad’s notoriously effective secret police – the brutal enforcers who have enabled the Assads to rule Syria for almost five decades.

As rebels planned the attack, Abu Araj smuggled out detailed plans of defensive positions, force strength, military orders, code words and information about Iranian military reinforcements from his headquarters in the town of Kanakar, 25km from Tal Al Harra.

“Gen Mahmoud supplied us with so much information, he was instrumental in our victory at Tal Al Harra,” said a rebel commander involved in intelligence operations on the southern front. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Defectors have played a major role in Syria’s civil war, with tens of thousands of soldiers deserting Mr Al Assad’s military. Iran, Hizbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias stepped in to bolster the crumbling army, fuelling a dangerously sectarian proxy conflict in which more than 220,000 people have been killed.

Abu Araj went so far as to deploy his troops in ways that made it easier for the rebels to defeat them, said the commander, who is himself a defector and part of the opposition alliance backed by the West and Gulf states, still sometimes colloquially known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

“He was smart, he used to send the regime’s forces where they can be easily targeted by the FSA, and he gave orders for soldiers to retreat at just the right time for us,” the rebel commander said.

Regime intelligence agents, suspecting an insider was working against them, began to close in.

To evade capture, and to cast suspicion elsewhere, Abu Araj and the rebels he was working with staged a fake ambush when he was travelling near Sanamayn, 18km east of Tal Al Harra.

A rebel faction went so far as to boast on Facebook that it had killed the general in combat, posting a copy of his ID card as proof.

In fact, Abu Araj had crossed safely into Jordan on October 15.

Exactly what happened on the regime side after that remains unclear, but rebel commanders say there was an unprecedented rise in executions in the months after Abu Araj’s escape, with loyalist officers accused of treason and killed.

“We believe as many as 56 of its own officers were accused of treason in the months after Tal Al Harra, and executed, not all at once, but over time,” said the rebel commander, citing testimony of captured regime soldiers and intercepted communications.

Rebels involved in southern front operations say regime forces may have suspected at some stage that Abu Araj had defected, but later believed they were mistaken and that he had been captured by rebels, interrogated and killed.

Adding to the confusion, a month after he arrived in Jordan, Abu Araj, only just falsely reported dead, actually did die. The 52-year-old had apparently been suffering from a terminal heart defect – it is not clear when his health began to deteriorate but he returned to Syria just before he died of natural causes.

The loss of Tal Al Harra was a significant blow to Mr Al Assad’s forces, which had been steadily losing ground in the south and continued to do so in November and December last year.

Alarm over those defeats appear to have triggered Iran’s decision that General Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds force, would take direct control of operations on the southern front.

That happened in January with an influx of thousands of Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and the start of a new counter offensive, aimed in part at retaking Tal Al Harra. Heavy fighting is ongoing in the southern area.

There have been indications that this Iranian takeover was not popular with all regime officers, especially those who consider themselves proud nationalists and were angered at being given a subservient role in their own country.

According to a Syrian source in Lebanon who is well connected to political security circles in Damascus, Rustom Ghazalah, the Assad regime’s political security chief, was among those who objected to being told to take orders from an Iranian.

“We’ve heard things that made it seem the situation was tense inside political security over this, that Ghazalah was angry and saying that he would only take orders from Assad, no one else,” the source said.

Mr Ghazalah was appointed head of political security in 2012.

He had previously dominated Lebanon as Syria’s top mukhabarat officer there from 2002 to 2005, after which he was investigated by the UN-backed tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Tribunal prosecutors have not made a formal link between Mr Ghazalah and the February 14, 2005, car bomb that killed Hariri and 21 other people.

Originally from Deraa province, Mr Ghazalah, 62, had been involved in managing the recent fight against rebels in the south, a fight that, after the fall of Tal Al Harra, the regime seemed to be losing.

In December, as rebels continued to advance, Mr Ghazalah’s palace, in his hometown of Qurfa 20km north of Deraa, was reportedly blown up. Footage uploaded to YouTube showed his mansion engulfed in flames after a huge explosion. Before the blast, the footage showed men rigging up gas canisters and cans of fuel in the property. They claimed to be from The National Resistance Movement, a secretive pro-regime organisation.

At the time, it was widely believed that Mr Ghazalah had ordered it razed to prevent it from falling into rebel hands. But Qurfa didn’t fall.

Then, in February – a month after Iran assumed command on the southern front and began to counter-attack rebels – a Syrian opposition journalist claimed Mr Ghazalah had been sacked as head of political security.

Following that, rumours circulated that he had actually been wounded, perhaps in a rebel attack. This was confirmed to pan-Arabic newspaper Alsharq Alawsat BY Assem Qanso, a member of Lebanon’s Baath party, which backs Mr Al Assad.

Mr Qanso said he had visited Mr Ghazalah in hospital, where he was being treated for shrapnel wounds sustained in fighting rebels in Deraa. He denied Mr Ghazalah had been removed as head of political security.

Al Jazeera also reported on the speculation over Mr Ghazalah, citing various theories – that he had been earmarked for assassination by an Iranian hit squad after planning to carry out a coup against Mr Al Assad, or that he knew too many regime secrets and was therefore dangerous.

In a further twist, on March 8, the pro-opposition Sham News Network carried a story that Mr Ghazalah had been detained by the regime’s military intelligence, stripped of his weapon, tortured and then dumped at a Damascus hospital.

MTV Lebanon countered the same day with a report that the office manager of the Syrian military intelligence chief, Major General Rafik Shehadeh, was suspended following a dispute with Mr Ghazalah. Other unconfirmed reports suggested Maj Gen Shehadeh assaulted Mr Ghazalah during an angry confrontation, beating him severely enough to hospitalise him for more than a week.

“We have heard all kinds of conspiracy theories about Rustom Ghazalah, that he was wounded by rebels or that he was tortured because he had disagreements with the Iranians,” said the source in Lebanon with connections to Syrian political security.

“Other people are saying his house was burnt down because the Iranians wanted to search it and he refused to let them. In Syria, it is difficult to know the truth, maybe none of it is true or maybe all of it, we will probably never know.”

Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh
March 17, 2015 Updated: March 20, 2015 06:35 PM

Find this story at 17 March 2015

Copyhttp://www.thenational.ae

A New Image for an Old al-Qaeda

Over three decades, al-Qaeda has undergone a number of changes. Faced by an alliance of powerful governments and ISIS, another is now required. What it will be, we do not know with any certainty, but a couple of possible strategies have emerged in recent months.

In a 55 minute video released at the beginning of September 2014, the leader of al-Qaeda announced that the movement was expanding into India. Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri assured Muslims in Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Indian states of Assam and Gujarat, and Kashmir, that “your brothers” in the militant organization “did not forget you and…they are doing what they can to rescue you.” The declaration came two months after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in his black cloak of Caliph Ibrahim, declared his hegemony over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the one hundred and seventy-five million Muslims of India. Al-Zawahiri did not mention ISIS, but repeated his allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Emir al-Mu’minin and erstwhile leader of the Afghan Taliban. He appears not to have known that Mullah Omar had died nearly a year and a half earlier.

After al-Zawahiri released the September 2014 video, he disappeared for the next eleven months. The rumor mill produced stories that he had died, been removed in a coup, or was planning some spectacular event. The failure of the Emir to praise the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, AQAP, for the successful attack in January upon the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was unusual. In addition, failing to eulogize the death of Nasir al-Wuhayshi in June, the leader of AQAP and his chosen successor, left many members worried, especially as the movement was increasingly under attack by ISIS in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The return in August of the Emir in a ten minute audio message did not explain his absence. He simply pledged his allegiance to the new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, and eulogized the late Mullah Omar. The surprise which might explain the disappearance was that al-Qaeda has followed the Taliban back to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province from where it had fled fourteen years ago.

However, in the same month, one other surprise was the introduction of Hamza bin Osama bin Laden in a ten minute video that was recorded in May. The twenty-four year old son of Osama bin Laden praised martyrs to the cause, urged more attacks upon the West, and pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar. As his grooming for great things continues, his introduction comes at a time when al-Qaeda is undergoing a transformation.

Al-Zawahiri and “Political Guerrilla War”

A recording by al-Zawahiri released this September and believed to have been made towards the start of 2015 reflects the shift in al-Qaeda’s strategy. “Despite the big mistakes [of ISIS], if I were in Iraq or Syria I would co-operate with them in killing the crusaders and secularists and Shi’ites even though I don’t recognise the legitimacy of their state, because the matter is bigger than that.” Abdullah bin Mohammed, an al-Qaeda ideologue, has similarly proposed that the strategy of recent years has been a failure and that change is necessary. In what he terms “Political Guerrilla War,” he advocates the merging of the al-Qaeda movement within a coalition of jihadi organizations. For these men, the path forward for al-Qaeda relies upon limited cooperation with those once shunned.

One branch of al-Qaeda where bin Mohammed’s methods appear to have been put into operation is in Syria. Abu Mariah al-Qahtani, the second-in-command of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the al-Nusra Front, has voiced his support for a strategy of Political Guerrilla War. Al-Qahtani has noted his opposition to confronting powerful states that can overwhelm the movement or creating caliphates which are easy targets for superior military forces. In recent months, the al-Nusra Front has joined with a number of other jihadist groups to form the Army of Conquest. Through this application of bin Mohammed’s strategy, the united force concluded a lengthy siege and captured Abu al-Duhur Airbase – the last remaining government military base in Idlib Province. This group has even received approval and economic and material support from the Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari sponsors.

However, there have been reservations regarding the inclusion of the al-Nusra Front in any alliance, with this strategic shift causing a schism within the organization between those wishing to focus on Syria and those wanting to pursue the traditional objective of targeting the far off enemy (the West). Responding to doubters, al-Zawahiri outlined the al-Nusra Front’s strategy earlier this year. The al-Qaeda leader instructed the leadership to adapt to the local cultural and political environment by coordinating more closely with other radical groups, while promoting a Sharia legal system and strengthening its position.

AQAP’s Consolidation of Power

AQAP has been the most active al-Qaeda branch in international operations. Among the long list of foreign attacks this branch has been implicit in, there has been the Charlie Hebdo attack, as well as attempts to send bombs to the United States. There is no evidence that the shift in policy to localize operations has been extended to AQAP in Yemen. If anything, the opposite is the case, with the first public statement of AQAP’s new leader, Qassim al-Raymi, being used to call for more attacks upon the United States.

The real change for AQAP’s seizure of territory has come as a result of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen’s Civil War which began in March. So far, the Saudis have ignored AQAP and the al-Qaeda branch has avoided contact with the Saudis, with AQAP using this time wisely to consolidate its own position in the region. To this effect, the branch has taken control of the south-eastern province of Hadramawt – the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden – and is strictly enforcing Sharia law throughout the province.

A further interesting development is that Iran released five of AQAP’s leaders in a prisoner exchange with the organization at about the same time as the Saudi-led intervention began. The loss of so many of AQAP’s key personnel to drone strikes in recent years makes the return of these five a much-needed infusion of vital management, ensuring that AQAP is a more dangerous force. Of these five, Saif al-Adel is viewed to be the most dangerous. The former colonel in the Egyptian Army has a five million dollar bounty on his head and is believed to have been involved in the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa. In addition, Abu Mohamed al-Misri was substantially involved in al-Qaeda’s operational planning pre-9/11, while Abul Qassam was a contemporary of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the key figures in al-Qaeda in Iraq before his death in 2006.

So long as the Saudi-led coalition is occupied through fighting Houthi rebels, AQAP has a substantial opportunity to consolidate its position in Yemen. Thus, when the time is right and the coalition inevitably abandons the battlefield, AQAP will be in a fantastic position to use its consolidated base to both strike out at the far enemy and challenge for supremacy in Yemen.

Reconciling the Two Strategies

The two potential paths of al-Qaeda are not necessarily mutually exclusive. AQAP’s unpragmatic approach may be difficult to pair with the realpolitik of al-Zawahiri and bin Mohammed’s Political Guerrilla Warfare, but the opposite need not be the case. Indeed, al-Zawahiri has also advocated lone wolf-style attacks on Western targets in addition to militants outside of the West concentrating on local conflicts and working with other extremist groups.

However, why Hamza bin Laden has been placed center-stage at this time remains an open question. A simple answer is that the young man provides al-Qaeda with a very strong psychological link to the figure who founded the organization and whom many revered as the Lion of Jihad. But is the son the Lion’s cub or will he also follow the path of Political Guerrilla Warfare? Time will tell.

OPINIONOctober 13, 2015 at 11:59 pm
BY FELIX IMONTI

Find this story at 13 October 2015

© Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

Officials: Islamic State arose from US support for al-Qaeda in Iraq

A former Pentagon intelligence chief, Iraqi government sources, and a retired career US diplomat reveal US complicity in the rise of ISIS

A new memoir by a former senior State Department analyst provides stunning details on how decades of support for Islamist militants linked to Osama bin Laden brought about the emergence of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS).

The book establishes a crucial context for recent admissions by Michael T. Flynn, the retired head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), confirming that White House officials made a “willful decision” to support al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists in Syria — despite being warned by the DIA that doing so would likely create an ‘ISIS’-like entity in the region.

J. Michael Springmann, a retired career US diplomat whose last government post was in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, reveals in his new book that US covert operations in alliance with Middle East states funding anti-Western terrorist groups are nothing new. Such operations, he shows, have been carried out for various short-sighted reasons since the Cold War and after.

In the 1980s, as US support for mujahideen fighters accelerated in Afghanistan to kick out the Soviet Union, Springmann found himself unwittingly at the heart of highly classified operations that allowed Islamist militants linked to Osama bin Laden to establish a foothold within the United States.

After the end of the Cold War, Springmann alleged, similar operations continued in different contexts for different purposes — in the former Yugoslavia, in Libya and elsewhere. The rise of ISIS, he contends, was a predictable outcome of this counterproductive policy.

Pentagon intel chief speaks out

Everyday brings new horror stories about atrocities committed by ISIS fighters. Today, for instance, the New York Times offered a deeply disturbing report on how ISIS has formally adopted a theology and policy of systematic rape of non-Muslim women and children. The practice has become embedded throughout the territories under ISIS control through a process of organized slavery, sanctioned by the movement’s own religious scholars.

But in a recent interview on Al-Jazeera’s flagship talk-show ‘Head to Head,’ former DIA chief Lieutenant General (Lt. Gen.) Michael Flynn told host Mehdi Hasan that the rise of ISIS was a direct consequence of US support for Syrian insurgents whose core fighters were from al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, former Director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), in a lengthy interview with Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan
Back in May, INSURGE intelligence undertook an exclusive investigation into a controversial declassified DIA document appearing to show that as early as August 2012, the DIA knew that the US-backed Syrian insurgency was dominated by Islamist militant groups including “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

Asked about the DIA document by Hasan, who noted that “the US was helping coordinate arms transfers to those same groups,” Flynn confirmed that the intelligence described by the document was entirely accurate.

Telling Hasan that he had read the document himself, Flynn said that it was among a range of intelligence being circulated throughout the US intelligence community that had led him to attempt to dissuade the White House from supporting these groups, albeit without success.

Flynn added that this sort of intelligence was available even before the decision to pull out troops from Iraq:

“My job was to ensure that the accuracy of our intelligence that was being presented was as good as it could be, and I will tell you, it goes before 2012. When we were in Iraq, and we still had decisions to be made before there was a decision to pull out of Iraq in 2011, it was very clear what we were going to face.”
In other words, long before the inception of the armed insurrection in Syria — as early as 2008 (the year in which the final decision was made on full troop withdrawal by the Bush administration) — US intelligence was fully aware of the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) among other Islamist militant groups.

Supporting the enemy

Despite this, Flynn’s account shows that the US commitment to supporting the Syrian insurgency against Bashir al-Assad led the US to deliberately support the very al-Qaeda affiliated forces it had previously fought in Iraq.

Far from simply turning a blind eye, Flynn said that the White House’s decision to support al-Qaeda linked rebels against the Assad regime was not a mistake, but intentional:

Hasan: “You are basically saying that even in government at the time, you knew those groups were around, you saw this analysis, and you were arguing against it, but who wasn’t listening?”
Flynn: “I think the administration.”
Hasan: “So the administration turned a blind eye to your analysis?”
Flynn: “I don’t know if they turned a blind eye. I think it was a decision, a willful decision.”
Hasan: “A willful decision to support an insurgency that had Salafists, Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood?”
Flynn: “A willful decision to do what they’re doing… You have to really ask the President what is it that he actually is doing with the policy that is in place, because it is very, very confusing.”
Prior to his stint as DIA chief, Lt. Gen. Flynn was Director of Intelligence for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command.

Flynn is the highest ranking former US intelligence official to confirm that the DIA intelligence report dated August 2012, released earlier this year, proves a White House covert strategy to support Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Syria even before 2011.

In June, INSURGE reported exclusively that six former senior US and British intelligence officials agreed with this reading of the declassified DIA report.

Flynn’s account is corroborated by other former senior officials. In an interview on French national television , former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said that the US’ chief ally, Britain, had planned covert action in Syria as early as 2009 — after US intelligence had clear information according to Flynn on al-Qaeda’s threat to Syria:

“I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business. I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria.”

Former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas on French national television confirming information received from UK Foreign Office officials in 2009 regarding operations in Syria
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the movement now known as ‘Islamic State,’ was on the decline due to US and Iraqi counter-terrorism operations from 2008 to 2011 in coordination with local Sunni tribes. In that period, al-Qaeda in Iraq became increasingly isolated, losing the ability to enforce its harsh brand of Islamic Shari’ah law in areas it controlled, and giving up more and more territory.

By late 2011, over 2,000 AQI fighters had been killed, just under 9,000 detained, and the group’s leadership had been largely wiped out.

Right-wing pundits have often claimed due to this background that the decision to withdraw troops from Iraq was the key enabling factor in the resurgence of AQI, and its eventual metamorphosis into ISIS.

But Flynn’s revelations prove the opposite — that far from the rise of ISIS being solely due to a vacuum of power in Iraq due to the withdrawal of US troops, it was the post-2011 covert intervention of the US and its allies, the Gulf states and Turkey, which siphoned arms and funds to AQI as part of their anti-Assad strategy.

Even in Iraq, the surge laid the groundwork for what was to come. Among the hundred thousand odd Sunni tribesmen receiving military and logistical assistance from the US were al-Qaeda sympathisers and anti-Western insurgents who had previously fought alongside al-Qaeda.

In 2008, a US Army-commissioned RAND report confirmed that the US was attempting to “to create divisions in the jihadist camp. Today in Iraq such a strategy is being used at the tactical level.” This included forming “temporary alliances” with al-Qaeda affiliated “nationalist insurgent groups” that have fought the US for four years, now receiving “weapons and cash” from the US.

The idea was, essentially, to bribe former al-Qaeda insurgents to breakaway from AQI and join forces with the Americans. Although these Sunni nationalists “have cooperated with al-Qaeda against US forces,” they are now being supported to exploit “the common threat that al-Qaeda now poses to both parties.”

In the same year, former CIA military intelligence officer and counter-terrorism specialist Philip Geraldi, stated that US intelligence analysts “are warning that the United States is now arming and otherwise subsidizing all three major groups in Iraq.” The analysts “believe that the house of cards is likely to fall down as soon as one group feels either strong or frisky enough to assert itself.” Giraldi predicted:

“The winner in the convoluted process has been everyone who wants to see a civil war.”
By Flynn’s account, US intelligence was also aware in 2008 that the empowerment of former al-Qaeda insurgents would eventually backfire and strengthen AQI in the long-run, especially given that the Shi’a dominated US-backed central government continued to discriminate against Sunni populations.

Syriana

Having provided extensive support for former al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni insurgents in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 — in order to counter AQI — US forces did succeed in temporarily routing AQI from its strongholds in the country.

Simultaneously, however, if Roland Dumas’ account is correct, the US and Britain began covert operations in Syria in 2009. From 2011 onwards, US support for the Syrian insurgency in alliance with the Gulf states and Turkey was providing significant arms and cash to AQI fighters.

The porous nature of relations between al-Qaeda factions in Iraq and Syria, and therefore the routine movement of arms and fighters across the border, was well-known to the US intelligence community in 2008.

In October 2008, Major General John Kelly — the US military official responsible for Anbar province where the bulk of US support for Sunni insurgents to counter AQI was going — complained bitterly that AQI fighters had regrouped across the border in Syria, where they had established a “sanctuary.”

The border, he said, was routinely used as an entry point for AQI fighters to enter Iraq and conduct attacks on Iraqi security forces.

Ironically, at this time, AQI fighters in Syria were tolerated by the Assad regime. A July 2008 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point documented AQI’s extensive networks inside Syria across the border with Iraq.

“The Syrian government has willingly ignored, and possibly abetted, foreign fighters headed to Iraq. Concerned about possible military action against the Syrian regime, it opted to support insurgents and terrorists wreaking havoc in Iraq.”
Yet from 2009 onwards according to Dumas, and certainly from 2011 by Flynn’s account, the US and its allies began supporting the very same AQI fighters in Syria to destabilize the Assad regime.

The policy coincided with the covert US strategy revealed by Seymour Hersh in 2007: using Saudi Arabia to funnel support for al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamists as a mechanism for isolating Iran and Syria.

Reversing the surge

During this period in which the US, the Gulf states, and Turkey supported Syrian insurgents linked to AQI and the Muslim Brotherhood, AQI experienced an unprecedented resurgence.

US troops finally withdrew fully from Iraq in December 2011, which means by the end of 2012, judging by the DIA’s August 2012 report and Flynn’s description of the state of US intelligence in this period, the US intelligence community knew that US and allied support for AQI in Syria was directly escalating AQI’s violence across the border in Iraq.

Despite this, in Flynn’s words, the White House made a “willful decision” to continue the policy despite the possibility it entailed “of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor)” according to the DIA’s 2012 intelligence report.

The Pentagon document had cautioned that if a “Salafist principality” did appear in eastern Syria under AQI’s dominance, this would have have “dire consequences” for Iraq, providing “the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi,” and a “renewed momentum” for a unified jihad “among Sunni Iraq and Syria.”

Most strikingly, the report warned that AQI, which had then changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI):

“ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”
As the US-led covert strategy accelerated sponsorship of AQI in Syria, AQI’s operations in Iraq also accelerated, often in tandem with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhut al-Nusra.

According to Prof. Anthony Celso of the Department of Security Studies at Angelo State University in Texas, “suicide bombings, car bombs, and IED attacks” by AQI in Iraq “doubled a year after the departure of American troops.” Simultaneously, AQI began providing support for al-Nusra by inputting fighters, funds and weapons from Iraq into Syria.

As the Pentagon’s intelligence arm had warned, by April 2013, AQI formally declared itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In the same month, the European Union voted to ease the embargo on Syria to allow al-Qaeda and ISIS dominated Syrian rebels to sell oil to global markets, including European companies. From this date to the following year when ISIS invaded Mosul, several EU countries were buying ISIS oil exported from the Syrian fields under its control.

The US anti-Assad strategy in Syria, in other words, bolstered the very al-Qaeda factions the US had fought in Iraq, by using the Gulf states and Turkey to finance the same groups in Syria. As a direct consequence, the secular and moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army were increasingly supplanted by virulent Islamist extremists backed by US allies.

A Free Syrian Army fighter rests inside a cave at a rebel camp in Idlib, Syria on 17th September 2013. As of April 2015, moderate FSA rebels in Idlib have been supplanted by a US-backed rebel coalition led by Jabhut al-Nusra, al-Qaeda in Syria
Advanced warning

In February 2014, Lt. Gen. Flynn delivered the annual DIA threat assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee. His testimony revealed that rather than coming out of the blue, as the Obama administration claimed, US intelligence had anticipated the ISIS attack on Iraq.

In his statement before the committee, which corroborates much of what he told Al-Jazeera, Flynn had warned that “al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) also known as Iraq and Levant (ISIL)… probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.” He added that “some Sunni tribes and insurgent groups appear willing to work tactically with AQI as they share common anti-government goals.”

Criticizing the central government in Baghdad for its “refusal to address long-standing Sunni grievances,” he pointed out that “heavy-handed approach to counter-terror operations” had led some Sunni tribes in Anbar “to be more permissive of AQI’s presence.” AQI/ISIL has “exploited” this permissive security environment “to increase its operations and presence in many locations” in Iraq, as well as “into Syria and Lebanon,” which is inflaming “tensions throughout the region.”

It should be noted that precisely at this time, the West, the Gulf states and Turkey, according to the DIA’s internal intelligence reports, were supporting AQI and other Islamist factions in Syria to “isolate” the Assad regime. By Flynn’s account, despite his warnings to the White House that an ISIS attack on Iraq was imminent, and could lead to the destabilization of the region, senior Obama officials deliberately continued the covert support to these factions.

US intelligence was also fully cognizant of Iraq’s inability to repel a prospective ISIS attack on Iraq, raising further questions about why the White House did nothing.

The Iraqi army has “been unable to stem rising violence” and would be unable “to suppress AQI or other internal threats” particularly in Sunni areas like Ramadi, Falluja, or mixed areas like Anbar and Ninewa provinces, Flynn told the Senate. As Iraq’s forces “lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped and supplied,” they are “vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration and corruption.”

Senior Iraqi government sources told me on condition of anonymity that both Iraqi and American intelligence had anticipated an ISIS attack on Iraq, and specifically on Mosul, as early as August 2013.

Intelligence was not precise on the exact timing of the assault, one source said, but it was known that various regional powers were complicit in the planned ISIS offensive, particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey:

“It was well known at the time that ISIS were beginning serious plans to attack Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey played a key role in supporting ISIS at this time, but the UAE played a bigger role in financial support than the others, which is not widely recognized.”
When asked whether the Americans had attempted to coordinate with Iraq on preparations for the expected ISIS assault, particularly due to the recognized inability of the Iraqi army to withstand such an attack, the senior Iraqi official said that nothing had happened:

“The Americans allowed ISIS to rise to power because they wanted to get Assad out from Syria. But they didn’t anticipate that the results would be so far beyond their control.”
This was not, then, a US intelligence failure as such. Rather, the US failure to to curtail the rise of ISIS and its likely destabilization of both Iraq and Syria, was not due to a lack of accurate intelligence — which was abundant and precise — but due to an ill-conceived political decision to impose ‘regime change’ on Syria at any cost.

Vicious cycle

This is hardly the first time political decisions in Washington have blocked US intelligence agencies from pursuing investigations of terrorist activity, and scuppered their crackdowns on high-level state benefactors of terrorist groups.

According to Michael Springmann in his new book, Visas for al-Qaeda: CIA Handouts that Rocked the World, the same structural problems explain the impunity with which terrorist groups have compromised Western defense and security measures for the last few decades.

Much of his book is clearly an effort to make sense of his personal experience by researching secondary sources and interviewing other former US government and intelligence officials. While there are many problems with some of this material, the real value of Springmann’s book is in the level of detail he brings to his first-hand accounts of espionage at the US State Department, and its damning implications for understanding the ‘war on terror’ today.

Springmann served in the US government as a diplomat with the Commerce Department and the State Department’s Foreign Service, holding postings in Germany, India, and Saudi Arabia. He began his diplomatic career as a commercial officer at the US embassy in Stuttgart, Germany (1977–1980), before becoming a commercial attaché in New Delhi, India (1980–1982). He was later promoted to head of the Visa Bureau at the US embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1987–1989), and then returned to Stuttgart to become a political/economic officer (1989–1991).

Before he was fired for asking too many questions about illegal practices at the US embassy in Jeddah, Springmann’s last assignment was as a senior economic officer at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (1991), where he had security clearances to access restricted diplomatic cables, along with highly classified intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA.

Springmann says that during his tenure at the US embassy in Jeddah, he was repeatedly asked by his superiors to grant illegal visas to Islamist militants transiting through Jeddah from various Muslim countries. He eventually learned that the visa bureau was heavily penetrated by CIA officers, who used their diplomatic status as cover for all manner of classified operations — including giving visas to the same terrorists who would later execute the 9/11 attacks.

CIA officials operating at the US embassy in Jeddah, according to Springmann, included CIA base chief Eric Qualkenbush, US Consul General Jay Frere, and political officer Henry Ensher.

Thirteen out of the 15 Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers received US visas. Ten of them received visas from the US embassy in Jeddah. All of them were in fact unqualified, and should have been denied entry to the US.

Springmann was fired from the State Department after filing dozens of Freedom of Information requests, formal complaints, and requests for inquiries at multiple levels in the US government and Congress about what he had uncovered. Not only were all his attempts to gain disclosure and accountability systematically stonewalled, in the end his whistleblowing cost him his career.

Springmann’s experiences at Jeddah, though, were not unique. He points out that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted as the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, received his first US visa from a CIA case officer undercover as a consular officer at the US embassy in Khartoum in Sudan.

The ‘Blind Sheikh’ as he was known received six CIA-approved US visas in this way between 1986 and 1990, also from the US embassy in Egypt. But as Springmann writes:

“The ‘blind’ Sheikh had been on a State Department terrorist watch list when he was issued the visa, entering the United States by way of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Sudan in 1990.”
In the US, Abdel Rahman took-over the al-Kifah Refugee Center, a major mujahideen recruitment hub for the Afghan war controlled by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. He not only played a key role in recruiting mujahideen for Afghanistan, but went on to recruit Islamist fighters for Bosnia after 1992.

Even after the 1993 WTC attack, as Springmann told BBC Newsnight in 2001, “The attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 did not shake the State Department’s faith in the Saudis, nor did the attack on American barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three years later, in which 19 Americans died.”

The Bosnia connection is highly significant. Springmann reports that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad “had fought in Afghanistan (after studying in the United States) and then went on to the Bosnian war in 1992…

“In addition, two more of the September 11, 2001, hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both Saudis, had gained combat experience in Bosnia. Still more connections came from Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who supposedly helped Mohammed Atta with planning the World Trade Center attacks. He had served with Bosnian army mujahideen units. Ramzi Binalshibh, friends with Atta and Zammar, had also fought in Bosnia.”
US and European intelligence investigations have uncovered disturbing evidence of how the Bosnian mujahideen pipeline, under the tutelage of Saudi Arabia, played a major role in incubating al-Qaeda’s presence in Europe.

According to court papers filed in New York on behalf of the 9/11 families in February, covert Saudi government support for Bosnian arms and training was “especially important to al-Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the US.”

After 9/11, despite such evidence being widely circulated within the US and European intelligence communities, both the Bush and Obama administrations continued working with the Saudis to mobilize al-Qaeda affiliated extremists in the service of what the DIA described as rolling back “the strategic depth of the Shia expansion” across Iraq, Iran and Syria.

The existence of this policy has been confirmed by former 30-year MI6 Middle East specialist Alastair Crooke. Its outcome — in the form of the empowerment of the most virulent Islamist extremist forces in the region — was predictable, and indeed predicted.

In August 2012 — the same date as the DIA’s controversial intelligence report anticipating the rise of ISIS — I quoted the uncannily prescient remarks of Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who forecast that US support for Islamist rebels in Syria would likely to lead to “the slaughter of some portion of Syria’s Alawite and Shia communities”; “the triumph of Islamist forces, although they may deign to temporarily disguise themselves in more innocent garb”; “the release of thousands of veteran and hardened Sunni Islamist insurgents”; and even “the looting of the Syrian military’s fully stocked arsenals of conventional arms and chemical weapons.”

I then warned that the “further militarization” of the Syrian conflict would thwart the “respective geostrategic ambitions” of regional powers “by intensifying sectarian conflict, accelerating anti-Western terrorist operations, and potentially destabilizing the whole Levant in a way that could trigger a regional war.”

Parts of these warnings have now transpired in ways that are even more horrifying than anyone ever imagined. The continued self-defeating approach of the US-led coalition may well mean that the worst is yet to come.

by Nafeez Ahmed
Aug 13

Find this story at 13 August 2015

Copyright https://medium.com/

Despite bombing, Islamic State is no weaker than a year ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded.

U.S. military commanders on the ground aren’t disputing the assessment, but they point to an upcoming effort to clear the important Sunni city of Ramadi, which fell to the militants in May, as a crucial milestone.

The battle for Ramadi, expected over the next few months, “promises to test the mettle” of Iraq’s security forces, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, who is helping run the U.S.-led coalition effort in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon in a video briefing from the region.

The U.S.-led military campaign has put the Islamic State group on defense, Killea said, adding, “There is progress.” Witnesses on the ground say the airstrikes and Kurdish ground actions are squeezing the militants in northern Syria, particularly in their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa.

But U.S. intelligence agencies see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.

The assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others appear to contradict the optimistic line taken by the Obama administration’s special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, who told a forum in Aspen, Colorado, last week that “ISIS is losing” in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was described by officials who would not be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

“We’ve seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers,” a defense official said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group’s total strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August, when the airstrikes began.

The Islamic State’s staying power raises questions about the administration’s approach to the threat that the group poses to the U.S. and its allies. Although officials do not believe it is planning complex attacks on the West from its territory, the group’s call to Western Muslims to kill at home has become a serious problem, FBI Director James Comey and other officials say.

Yet under the Obama administration’s campaign of bombing and training, which prohibits American troops from accompanying fighters into combat or directing airstrikes from the ground, it could take a decade or more to drive the Islamic State from its safe havens, analysts say. The administration is adamant that it will commit no U.S. ground troops to the fight despite calls from some in Congress to do so.

The U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian and Kurdish allies have made some inroads. The Islamic State has lost 9.4 percent of its territory in the first six months of 2015, according to an analysis by the conflict monitoring group IHS.

A Delta Force raid in Syria that killed Islamic State financier Abu Sayyaf in May also has resulted in a well of intelligence about the group’s structure and finances, U.S. officials say. His wife, held in Iraq, has been cooperating with interrogators.

Syrian Kurdish fighters and their allies have wrested most of the northern Syria border from the Islamic State group, and the plan announced this week for a U.S.-Turkish “safe zone” is expected to cement those gains.

In Raqqa, U.S. coalition bombs pound the group’s positions and target its leaders with increasing regularity. The militants’ movements have been hampered by strikes against bridges, and some fighters are sending their families away to safer ground.

But American intelligence officials and other experts say the Islamic State is in no danger of being defeated any time soon.

“The pressure on Raqqa is significant … but looking at the overall picture, ISIS is mostly in the same place,” said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Although U.S. officials have said it is crucial that the government in Baghdad win back disaffected Sunnis, there is little sign of that happening. American-led efforts to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State have produced a grand total of 60 vetted fighters.

The militants have adjusted their tactics to thwart a U.S. bombing campaign that tries assiduously to avoid civilian casualties, officials say. Fighters no longer move around in easily targeted armored columns; they embed themselves among women and children, and they communicate through couriers to thwart eavesdropping and geolocation, the defense official said.

Oil continues to be a major revenue source. By one estimate, the Islamic State is clearing $500 million per year from oil sales, said Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. That’s on top of as much as $1 billion in cash the group seized from banks in its territory.

Although the U.S. has been bombing oil infrastructure, the militants have been adept at rebuilding oil refining, drilling and trading capacity, the defense official said.

The stalemate makes the battle for Ramadi all the more important.

Iraqi security forces, including 500 Sunni fighters, have begun preparing to retake the Sunni city, Killea said, and there have been 100 coalition airstrikes designed to support the effort. But he cautioned it will take time.

“Momentum,” he said, “is a better indicator of success than speed.”

Karam and Mroue reported from Beirut.
By KEN DILANIAN, ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE
Jul. 31, 2015 1:36 PM EDT

Find this story at 31 July 2015

© 2015 Associated Press

C.I.A. Cash Ended Up in Coffers of Al Qaeda

WASHINGTON — In the spring of 2010, Afghan officials struck a deal to free an Afghan diplomat held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the price was steep — $5 million — and senior security officials were scrambling to come up with the money.

They first turned to a secret fund that the Central Intelligence Agency bankrolled with monthly cash deliveries to the presidential palace in Kabul, according to several Afghan officials involved in the episode. The Afghan government, they said, had already squirreled away about $1 million from that fund.

Within weeks, that money and $4 million more provided from other countries was handed over to Al Qaeda, replenishing its coffers after a relentless C.I.A. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan had decimated the militant network’s upper ranks.

“God blessed us with a good amount of money this month,” Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the group’s general manager, wrote in a letter to Osama bin Laden in June 2010, noting that the cash would be used for weapons and other operational needs.

Photo

Abdul Khaliq Farahi, who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in 2008. Credit Michael Kamber for The New York Times
Bin Laden urged caution, fearing the Americans knew about the payment and had laced the cash with radiation or poison, or were tracking it. “There is a possibility — not a very strong one — that the Americans are aware of the money delivery,” he wrote back, “and that they accepted the arrangement of the payment on the basis that the money will be moving under air surveillance.”

The C.I.A.’s contribution to Qaeda’s bottom line, though, was no well-laid trap. It was just another in a long list of examples of how the United States, largely because of poor oversight and loose financial controls, has sometimes inadvertently financed the very militants it is fighting.

While refusing to pay ransoms for Americans kidnapped by Al Qaeda, the Taliban or, more recently, the Islamic State, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the last decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which has been siphoned off to enemy fighters.

The letters about the 2010 ransom were included in correspondence between Bin Laden and Mr. Rahman that was submitted as evidence by federal prosecutors at the Brooklyn trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani Qaeda operative who was convicted this month of supporting terrorism and conspiring to bomb a British shopping center.

The letters were unearthed from the cache of computers and documents seized by Navy SEALs during the 2011 raid in which Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and had been classified until introduced as evidence at the trial.

Details of the C.I.A.’s previously unreported contribution to the ransom demanded by Al Qaeda were drawn from the letters and from interviews with Afghan and Western officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The C.I.A. declined to comment.

The diplomat freed in exchange for the cash, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, was serving as the Afghan consul general in Peshawar, Pakistan, when he was kidnapped in September 2008 as he drove to work. He had been weeks away from taking up his new job as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan.

Afghan and Pakistani insurgents had grabbed Mr. Farahi, but within days they turned him over to Qaeda members. He was held for more than two years.

The Afghan government had no direct contact with Al Qaeda, stymieing negotiations until the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent faction with close ties to Al Qaeda, stepped in to mediate.

Qaeda leaders wanted some captive militants released, and from the letters it appeared that they calibrated their offer, asking only for men held by Afghan authorities, not those imprisoned by the Americans, who would refuse the demand as a matter of policy. But the Afghans refused to release any prisoners, “so we decided to proceed with a financial exchange,” Mr. Rahman wrote in the June 2010 letter. “The amount we agreed on in the deal was $5 million.”

Photo

A 2009 surveillance video image of Abid Naseer, right, who was convicted this month in a bombing plot. Credit U.S. Attorney’s Office, via Associated Press
The first $2 million was delivered shortly before that letter was written. In it, Mr. Rahman asked Bin Laden if he needed money, and said “we have also designated a fair amount to strengthen the organization militarily by stockpiling good weapons.” (The Qaeda leaders named in the letters were identified by aliases. Bin Laden, for instance, signed his letters Zamray; Mr. Rahman, who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in August 2011, went by the alias Mahmud.)

The cash would also be used to aid the families of Qaeda fighters held prisoner in Afghanistan, and some was given to Ayman al-Zawahri, who would succeed Bin Laden as the Qaeda leader and was identified in the letters under the alias Abu-Muhammad, Mr. Rahman said.

Other militant groups had already heard about the ransom payment and had their hands out, Mr. Rahman reported. “As you know, you cannot control the news,” he wrote. “They are asking us to give them money, may God help us.”

But Bin Laden was clearly worried that the payout was an American ruse intended to reveal the locations of senior Qaeda leaders. “It seems a bit strange somewhat because in a country like Afghanistan, usually they would not pay this kind of money to free one of their men,” he wrote.

“Is any of his relatives a big official?” he continued, referring to Mr. Farahi, the diplomat. It was a prescient question: Mr. Farahi was the son-in-law of a man who had served as a mentor to then-President Hamid Karzai.

Advocating caution, Bin Laden advised Mr. Rahman to change the money into a different currency at one bank, and then go to another and exchange the money again into whatever currency was preferred. “The reason for doing that is to be on the safe side in case harmful substances or radiation is put on paper money,” Bin Laden wrote.

Neither of the two men appeared to have known where the money actually came from. Aside from the C.I.A. money, Afghan officials said that Pakistan contributed nearly half the ransom in an effort to end what it viewed as a disruptive sideshow in its relations with Afghanistan. The remainder came from Iran and Persian Gulf states, which had also contributed to the Afghan president’s secret fund.

In a letter dated Nov. 23, 2010, Mr. Rahman reported to Bin Laden that the remaining $3 million had been received and that Mr. Farahi had been released.

The C.I.A., meanwhile, continued dropping off bags of cash — ranging each time from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million — at the presidential palace every month until last year, when Mr. Karzai stepped down.

The money was used to buy the loyalty of warlords, legislators and other prominent — and potentially troublesome — Afghans, helping the palace finance a vast patronage network that secured Mr. Karzai’s power base. It was also used to cover expenses that needed to be kept off the books, such as clandestine diplomatic trips, and for more mundane costs, including rent payments for the guesthouses where some senior officials lived.

The cash flow has slowed since a new president, Ashraf Ghani, assumed office in September, Afghan officials said, refusing to elaborate. But they added that cash was still coming in, and that it was not clear how robust any current American constraints on it are.

“It’s cash,” said a former Afghan security official. “Once it’s at the palace, they can’t do a thing about how it gets spent.”

By MATTHEW ROSENBERGMARCH 14, 2015

Find this story 14 March 2015

© 2015 The New York Times Company HomeSearch

ISIS fighter was trained by State Department

Washington (CNN) An ISIS fighter who calls for jihad in a new online video was trained in counterterrorism tactics on American soil, in a program run by the United States, officials tell CNN.

The video features a former police commander from Tajikistan named Col. Gulmurod Khalimov. He appears in black ISIS garb with a sniper rifle and a bandolier of ammunition. He says in the video that he participated in programs on U.S. soil three times, at least one of which was in Louisiana.

The State Department has confirmed this claim.

“From 2003-2014 Colonel Khalimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the United States and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program,” said spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala.

The program is intended to train candidates from participating countries in the latest counterterrorism tactics, so they can fight the very kind of militants that Khalimov has now joined.

A State Department official said Khalimov was trained in crisis response, tactical management of special events, tactical leadership training and related issues.

In the video, Khalimov says that what he saw during his training sessions turned him against his sponsors.

“Listen, you American pigs: I’ve been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims,” he says in Russian. “You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims.”

Then, in the most chilling part of the 10-minute video, he looks directly into the camera and says, “God willing, we will find your towns, we will come to your homes, and we will kill you.”

He then demonstrates his dexterity with a sniper rifle by blowing apart a tomato from a distance of perhaps 25 yards. The scene is played in slow motion.

Who are the women of ISIS?

The American program in which Khalimov participated is designed to teach tactics used by police and military units against terrorists by countries that cooperate with the United States on security matters. But now experts are concerned that this defector has brought ISIS not only a propaganda victory, but also an insider’s knowledge of the playbook the United States is using in the fight against ISIS.

“That is a dangerous capability,” said former Army intelligence officer Michael Breen. “It’s never a good thing to have senior counterterrorism people become terrorists.”

“It sounds like he was involved in defending sensitive people and sensitive targets,” said Breen, who is now with the Truman Project in Washington. “He knows how to plan counterterrorism operations. So he knows how the people who protect a high-value target will be thinking; he knows how people who protect an embassy would be thinking.”

Former Army sniper Paul Scharre, now with the Center for a New American Security, said Khalimov could not only help train other ISIS fighters in tactics, but also serve as a recruiter for the group.

“They’re obviously trying to draw in recruits” with the video, he said.

War against ISIS: Successes and failures

Khalimov was an officer of the primary counterterrorism unit which responds to terrorist threats in Tajikistan, a State Department official said, so he and other members of his unit were recommended for the program by the Tajik government.

“All appropriate Leahy vetting was undertaken in advance of this training,” said spokeswoman Jhunjhunwala.

Scharre, who has served as a trainer of Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan, says there is always a risk that a trainee will turn against their American instructors.

But Breen, who has also participated in training sessions overseas, said building counterterrorism partners requires a necessary leap of faith. “There’s absolutely no way to beat an opponent like the Islamic State, without training a lot of people,” he said. “That’s a core of our strategy.”

By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN
Updated 1804 GMT (0104 HKT) May 30, 2015 | Video Source: CNN

Find this story at 30 May 2015

© 2015 Cable News Network.

Inquiry Weighs Whether ISIS Analysis Was Distorted

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials have skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress, according to several officials familiar with the inquiry.

The investigation began after at least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst told the authorities that he had evidence that officials at United States Central Command — the military headquarters overseeing the American bombing campaign and other efforts against the Islamic State — were improperly reworking the conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama, the government officials said.

Fuller details of the claims were not available, including when the assessments were said to have been altered and who at Central Command, or Centcom, the analyst said was responsible. The officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity about classified matters, said that the recently opened investigation focused on whether military officials had changed the conclusions of draft intelligence assessments during a review process and then passed them on.

Photo

Iraqi Army recruits in Taji in April with U.S. Army trainers. About 3,400 American troops are advising Iraqi forces. Credit John Moore/Getty Images
The prospect of skewed intelligence raises new questions about the direction of the government’s war with the Islamic State, and could help explain why pronouncements about the progress of the campaign have varied widely.

Legitimate differences of opinion are common and encouraged among national security officials, so the inspector general’s investigation is an unusual move and suggests that the allegations go beyond typical intelligence disputes. Government rules state that intelligence assessments “must not be distorted” by agency agendas or policy views. Analysts are required to cite the sources that back up their conclusions and to acknowledge differing viewpoints.

Under federal law, intelligence officials can bring claims of wrongdoing to the intelligence community’s inspector general, a position created in 2011. If officials find the claims credible, they are required to advise the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. That occurred in the past several weeks, the officials said, and the Pentagon’s inspector general decided to open an investigation into the matter.

Spokeswomen for both inspectors general declined to comment for this article. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the White House also declined to comment.

Col. Patrick Ryder, a Centcom spokesman, said he could not comment on a continuing inspector general investigation but said “the I.G. has a responsibility to investigate all allegations made, and we welcome and support their independent oversight.”

Numerous agencies produce intelligence assessments related to the Iraq war, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and others. Colonel Ryder said it was customary for them to make suggestions on one another’s drafts. But he said each agency had the final say on whether to incorporate those suggestions. “Further, the multisource nature of our assessment process purposely guards against any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision makers,” he said.

It is not clear how that review process changes when Defense Intelligence Agency analysts are assigned to work at Centcom — which has headquarters both in Tampa, Fla., and Qatar — as was the case of at least one of the analysts who have spoken to the inspector general. In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Pentagon has relocated more Defense Intelligence Agency analysts from the agency’s Washington headquarters to military commands around the globe, so they can work more closely with the generals and admirals in charge of the military campaigns.

Mr. Obama last summer authorized a bombing campaign against the Islamic State, and approximately 3,400 American troops are currently in Iraq advising and training Iraqi forces. The White House has been reluctant, though, to recommit large numbers of ground troops to Iraq after announcing an “end” to the Iraq war in 2009.

The bombing campaign over the past year has had some success in allowing Iraqi forces to reclaim parts of the country formerly under the group’s control, but important cities like Mosul and Ramadi remain under Islamic State’s control. There has been very little progress in wresting the group’s hold over large parts of Syria, where the United States has done limited bombing.

Some senior American officials in recent weeks have provided largely positive public assessments about the progress of the military campaign against the Islamic State, a Sunni terrorist organization that began as an offshoot of Al Qaeda but has since severed ties and claimed governance of a huge stretch of land across Iraq and Syria. The group is also called ISIS or ISIL.

Continue reading the main story
Obama’s Evolution on ISIS
Some of President Obama’s statements about the American strategy to confront ISIS and its effectiveness.

In late July, retired Gen. John Allen — who is Mr. Obama’s top envoy working with other nations to fight the Islamic State — told the Aspen Security Forum that the terror group’s momentum had been “checked strategically, operationally, and by and large, tactically.”

“ISIS is losing,” he said, even as he acknowledged that the campaign faced numerous challenges — from blunting the Islamic State’s message to improving the quality of Iraqi forces.

During a news briefing last week, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was more measured. He called the war “difficult” and said “it’s going to take some time.” But, he added, “I’m confident that we will succeed in defeating ISIL and that we have the right strategy.”

But recent intelligence assessments, including some by Defense Intelligence Agency, paint a sober picture about how little the Islamic State has been weakened over the past year, according to officials with access to the classified assessments. They said the documents conclude that the yearlong campaign has done little to diminish the ranks of the Islamic State’s committed fighters, and that the group over the last year has expanded its reach into North Africa and Central Asia.

Critics of the Obama administration’s strategy have argued that a bombing campaign alone — without a significant infusion of American ground troops — is unlikely to ever significantly weaken the terror group. But it is not clear whether Defense Intelligence Agency analysts concluded that more American troops would make an appreciable difference.

In testimony on Capitol Hill this year, Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the agency’s director, said sending ground troops back into Iraq risked transforming the conflict into one between the West and ISIS, which would be “the best propaganda victory that we could give.”

“It’s both expected and helpful if there are dissenting viewpoints about conflicts in foreign countries,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a forthcoming book, “Red Team,” that includes an examination of alternative analysis within American intelligence agencies. What is problematic, he said, “is when a dissenting opinion is not given to policy makers.”

The Defense Intelligence Agency was created in 1961, in part to avoid what Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense at the time, called “service bias.” During the 1950s, the United States grossly overestimated the size of the Soviet missile arsenal, a miscalculation that was fueled in part by the Air Force, which wanted more money for its own missile systems.

During the Vietnam War, the Defense Intelligence Agency repeatedly warned that even a sustained military campaign was unlikely to defeat the North Vietnamese forces. But according to an internal history of the agency, its conclusions were repeatedly overruled by commanders who were certain that the United States was winning, and that victory was just a matter of applying more force.

“There’s a built-in tension for the people who work at D.I.A., between dispassionate analysis and what command wants,” said Paul R. Pillar, a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst who years ago accused the Bush administration of distorting intelligence assessments about Iraq’s weapons programs before the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.

“You’re part of a large structure that does have a vested interest in portraying the overall mission as going well,” he said.

By MARK MAZZETTI and MATT APUZZOAUG. 25, 2015

Find this story at 25 August 2015

© 2015 The New York Times Company

Ex-CIA head: Other terror groups more dangerous than ISIS

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) does not pose the biggest threat to the U.S., according to a former leader of the CIA.

It isn’t even in the top three.

“Despite that significant threat from ISIS, it is not the most significant threat to the homeland today,” former CIA deputy and acting Director Michael Morell said on Monday. “The most significant threat to the homeland today still comes from al Qaeda and three al Qaeda groups in particular.”
Those three al Qaeda subgroups — including the “core” al Qaeda branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as affiliates in Yemen and Syria — have shown more willingness to confront the U.S. on its home soil, Morell said.

Of those, the most dangerous is the Yemen branch, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“The last three attempted attacks to the United States were by al Qaeda in Yemen,” Morell said. He was referring to the failed 2009 “underwear bomber” plot on Christmas Day, as well as a scuttled 2010 plan to insert bombs into printer ink cartridges and the 2012 discovery of a plan to destroy a plane with a non-metallic suicide vest.

“They have the ability to bring down an airliner in the United States of America tomorrow,” Morell said during remarks at the National Press Club.

The two other groups posing a significant threat to the U.S., he added, were the Syria-based Khorasan Group and the original senior leadership of al Qaeda, including head Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The remarks come after dramatic new gains by ISIS in Iraq. Over the weekend, the extremist group captured the city of Ramadi, a critical regional capital, in a major setback for the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

On Monday, Morell appeared unfazed by that development.

“There’s going to be ups and downs in this war,” he said. “There’s going to be battles won and battles lost. This is a battle lost.”

“I do think that, when you look at the broader context, taking back 25 percent of the territory that they took in their blitzkrieg, it looks pretty good,” Morell added. “And I have confidence that the strategy that we have in place is eventually going to win back Iraq.”

Morell, who retired from the CIA in 2013, is promoting a new book he wrote about the fight against al Qaeda, called The Great War of Our Time.

By Julian Hattem – 05/18/15 11:26 AM EDT

Find this story at 18 May 2015

©2015 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp

Secret Intel Reports on Syria & Iraq Revealed

Almost three years ago the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the U.S. Dept of Defense accurately characterized the conflict in Syria and predicted the emergence of the Islamic State. This stunning revelation has emerged as a result of a Freedom of Information Act law suit filed by Judicial Watch in connection with the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

The heavily redacted August 2012 seven page intelligence report reveals the following:

1. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) confirmed the sectarian core of the Syrian insurgency. It says

“EVENTS ARE TAKING A CLEAR SECTARIAN DIRECTION. THE SALAFIST, THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA.” (capitalization in the report; AQI = Al Queda in Iraq)

This analysis is in sharp contrast with western media and political elite which has characterized the “Syrian revolution” as being driven by protestors in a quest for “democracy and freedom”.

2. DIA confirmed the close connection between Syrian opposition and Al Queda. The report says

“AQI SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING, BOTH IDEOLOGICALLY AND THROUGH THE MEDIA….. AQI CONDUCTED A NUMBER OF OPERATIONS IN SEVERAL SYRIAN CITIES UNDER THE NAME JAISH AL NUSRAH (VICTORIOUS ARMY)”

3. DIA confirmed that the Syrian insurgency was enabling the renewal of Al Queda in Iraq and Syria. The report says,

“THERE WAS A REGRESSION OF AQI IN THE WESTERN PROVINCES OF IRAQ DURING THE YEARS OF 2009 AND 2010; HOWEVER, AFTER THE RISE OF THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA, THE RELIGIOUS AND TRIBAL POWERS IN THE REGIONS BEGAN TO SYMPATHIZE WITH THE SECTARIAN UPRISING. THIS SYMPATHY APPEARED IN FRIDAY PRAYER SERMONS, WHICH CALLED FOR VOLUNTEERS TO SUPPORT THE SUNNIS IN SYRIA.”

4. DIA predicted the Syria government will survive but foreign powers and the opposition will try to break off territory to establish an opposition ‘capital’ as was done in Libya. The report says,

“THE REGIME WILL SURVIVE AND HAVE CONTROL OVER SYRIAN TERRITORY…… OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS. THIS HYPOTHESIS IS MOST LIKELY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DATA FROM RECENT EVENTS, WHICH WILL HELP PREPARE SAFE HAVENS UNDER INTERNATIONAL SHELTERING, SIMILAR TO WHAT TRANSPIRED IN LIBYA WHEN BENGHAZI WAS CHOSEN AS THE COMMAND CENTER OF THE TEMPORARY GOVERNMENT.”

5. DIA predicted the expansion of Al Queda and declaration of “Islamic State” (two years before it happened). The report says

“IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE STRATEGIC DEPTH OF THE SHIA EXPANSION (IRAQ AND IRAN). THE DETERIORATION OF THE SITUATION HAS DIRE CONSEQUENCES ON THE IRAQI SITUATION…… THIS CREATES THE IDEAL ATMOSPHERE FOR AQI TO RETURN TO ITS OLD POCKETS IN MOSUL AND RAMADI, AND WILL PROVIDE A RENEWED MOMENTUM UNDER THE PRESUMPTION OF UNIFYING THE JIHAD AMONG SUNNI IRAQ AND SYRIA AND THE REST OF THE SUNNIS IN THE ARAB WORLD AGAINST WHAT IT CONSIDERS ONE ENEMY, THE DISSENTERS. ISI COULD ALSO DECLARE AN ISLAMIC STATE THROUGH ITS UNION WITH OTHER TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA, WHICH WILL CREATE GRAVE DANGER IN REGARDS TO UNIFYING IRAQ AND THE PROTECTION OF ITS TERRITORY.”

The last prediction (in summer 2012) is especially remarkable since it predates the actual declaration of the “Islamic State” by two years.

The August and September 2012 secret reports were sent to the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, State Department, Department of Defense and U.S. Central Command.

Conclusions and Questions

The Defense intelligence report accurately characterized the sectarian core of the Syrian opposition and predicted the renewal and growth of ISIS leading to the declaration of an “Islamic State”.

The consequence has been widespread death and destruction. Today much of the world looks on in horror as ISIS military forces murder and behead Palmyra soldiers and government supporters and threaten the destruction of one of humanity’s greatest archaeological treasures.

Knowing what was in this report raises the following questions:

* Why did the U.S. Government not change their policy?

* Why did the U.S. Government continue to demonize the secular Assad government and actively support a Syrian insurgency where “THE SALAFIST, MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCE”?

* Why did the U.S. Government prevent mainstream media from seeing and reporting on this intelligence in 2012? (It might have quieted the barking hounds of war.)

* Why did the U.S. Government continue to allow the shipping of weapons to the Syrian opposition, as documented in another secret report from September 2012?

* Is the destruction and mayhem the result of a mistake or is it intentional?

Intentional or not, aren’t the U.S. government and Gulf/NATO/Turkey allies significantly responsible for the mayhem, death and destruction we are seeing in Iraq and Syria today?

Rick Sterling is a founding member of Syrian Solidarity Movement. He can be reached at rsterling1@gmail.com
Posted By Rick Sterling On May 22, 2015 @ 8:55 am In articles 2014 onward | Comments Disabled

Find this story at 22 May 2015

Copyright http://www.counterpunch.org/

After Iraq-Syria Takeover, the Inside Story of How ISIL Destroyed Al-Qaeda from Within

A year ago this month, fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State declared they had established a caliphate in the territories they controlled in Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Islamic State has continued to grow, building affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa while recruiting new members from across the globe. In response, President Obama has sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq. The deployment of another 450 troops was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State has reshaped the jihadist movement in the region, essentially bringing al-Qaeda to the brink of collapse. According to a new investigation by The Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched “a coup” against al-Qaeda to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaeda’s branch in the heart of the Middle East but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the Islamic State has since flourished, The Guardian reports al-Zawahiri is now largely cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty. We are joined by Guardian reporter Shiv Malik.

TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A year ago this month, fighters from the Islamic State declared they had established a caliphate in the territories they controlled in Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Islamic State has continued to grow, building affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa while recruiting new members from across the globe. In response, President Obama has sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq. The deployment of another 450 troops was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State has reshaped the jihadist movement in the region, essentially bringing al-Qaeda to the brink of collapse.

AMY GOODMAN: According to a new investigation by The Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched a coup against al-Qaeda to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaeda’s branch in the heart of the Middle East but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the Islamic State has since flourished, The Guardian reports al-Zawahiri is now largely cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty. The Guardian also reports the United States has been slow to grasp the implications of al-Qaeda’s decline and possible collapse.

Joining us now from London is Shiv Malik, lead author on The Guardian investigation headlined “How Isis Crippled al-Qaida.” Shiv, if you can talk about, well, just how ISIS crippled al-Qaeda and your meeting in Jordan with the leading al-Qaeda theorists?

SHIV MALIK: Yeah. So, this has been going on for a while now, for a couple of years at least. And, you know, from the outside, we get little pictures. You hear these skirmishes that have been going on. You hear that sort of ISIS has killed a few other members of al-Qaeda, the sort of Syrian branch of al-Qaeda called Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a big conflagration in January last year, in 2014, in which thousands died.

But the real inside story of this comes from just actually a few players, really. And thankfully, we were able to interview Muhammad al-Maqdisi and another guy called Abu Qatada. To British people, he’s quite famous because he lived here for many years, and the home secretary here—actually, various home secretaries tried to deport him over a process of almost 10 years to Jordan to face terrorism charges. He was acquitted of those eventually. But he’s been described as kind of al-Qaeda’s spiritual—or Bin Laden’s spiritual ambassador in Europe. And Maqdisi, who is actually little known in the West, is actually even more senior than Qatada in regards to al-Qaeda.

And what they’ve been doing is, actually, behind the scenes, kind of negotiating between al-Qaeda and ISIS, trying to bring these people back to the table. And they finally gave up about sort of, you know, six months ago or thereabouts, because they all used to be one family. It used to be, if you want, the al-Qaeda family. So, that’s the story that we’ve got from them, which is this process, as I said, of about over two years of how ISIS has sort of risen to take the mantle of the leadership of the sort of global jihad, if you want, from al-Qaeda.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Shiv Malik, could you explain how you came to research this story? And you went to Jordan to speak to these two figures. Could you talk a little about that?

SHIV MALIK: Yeah. So, Maqdisi and Qatada kind of, for obvious reasons, both have—well, Maqdisi also has sort of terrorism convictions, but they’re in and out of prison all the time, as you can imagine—Maqdisi often without charge. He’s just sort of taken by Jordanian security services and sort of locked up. But he was released in February again, and so we went to visit him then, sort of soon afterwards. And then we carried on interviewing him. We’ve got—you know, there’s a big team of investigators that were on this piece, and so we continued to interview him and ask him questions.

And actually, when you meet him, you know, you sort of—you don’t really know what you’re going to get. This guy is the spiritual godfather of al-Qaeda, and Zawahiri counts him as a personal friend. He’s been mentor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He mentored him, and Zarqawi is the founder of ISIS, if you want. He mentored him for five years in prison, and Zarqawi then went on to, of course, create absolute havoc in Iraq in 2003, beheading people, massacring Shias by the thousands. And so, you don’t know what to expect. But when you meet him, he’s sort of—he’s this very interesting guy. I mean, he’s completely energetic, enthusiastic. He’s almost childlike in his enthusiasm for talking about almost anything. His hands flail all over the place. He’s rake thin. And he’s got a real sense of humor, which, you know, sort of throws you, and you don’t really know what to do.

Qatada, on the other hand, is this very large, lumbering man, and he’s very tall, and physically, in that sense, quite intimidating. It’s quite hard to grasp just how big this guy is from sort of the pictures that we have. And he speaks very quietly, and he almost sounds like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, you know, but sort of slightly higher-pitched. So it’s this sort of—and he pauses a lot. So they kind of make an odd pair, if you want.

But we went to speak to them, and they were both very upset. They’ve spent—their life’s work has basically been bringing jihadis under one banner. And for that, that was al-Qaeda. So al-Qaeda is not just an organization, which we know has been incredibly ruthless and bloody and plotting away at terrorism events around the globe; they’re also an idea. And the idea is sort of twofold. First, it’s—and we often look at this from a Western perspective, but, you know, of course, these guys have their own agency. So, the first part of this is that al-Qaeda was created as a kind of a failure, a response to the failures of kind of localist jihadist issues going back to the ’80s and ’90s, and Algeria, for example, being a failure, and Afghanistan. So the idea was that they would all come together under one banner, and they would attack, and they would put their focus on America, because they said this is—the theory was that, look, attack the snake’s head, if you want. And so that’s what they did. And they planned against that, obviously, culminating most visciously in September the 11th. And these scholars then—this was their idea there.

But the second part of this is they’re also a vanguard for a revolutionary idea of setting up the caliphate. And those who are au fait with kind of what happened with the communist movements will know about vanguardist organization, but the idea is that they educate the people to accepting the notion of an Islamic state, and then they eventually, one day, set it up. So this is what al-Qaeda has meant for these two scholars.

And ISIS have been quietly bubbling away. They’ve alway been—they’ve been a branch of—they’ve been al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. That’s the best way to think of them. And they had been, for a very long time, the most troublesome branch, as well—kind of don’t listen to orders, don’t take criticism very well, won’t listen to anyone. And bin Laden had problems with them, and we know that from the Abbottabad documents that have sort of come out, the sort of tranche of documents that were seized when Americans went in and killed bin Laden in 2011 in May. But we also know this from, then, subsequently, what’s happened and what Zawahiri has said publicly. So they’ve been very troublesome.

And at one point, the sort of the peace was broken, if you want, when ISIS sent—when the Syrian civil war started, they sent some people into Syria, and they said, “You know, we’ll grab some turf. We’ll start a branch there.” And the people who then went on to lead that, sort of bunch of rebels fighting against Assad, went on to become incredibly powerful. And ISIS in Iraq say, “Ah, we’re a bit threatened by this. I’ll tell you what. We’ll just create a merger.” And it’s that point that—it was basically a bit of a power play over territory and patches of land and who would control what. Zawahiri steps in and says, “Actually, let’s just put things back to where they were.” Baghdadi steps up and says, “No way. You know what? We’re not going to do this. We don’t need you, old man in Waziristan, anymore. And if you tell us otherwise, we’re just not going to listen to you.”

So, that’s what starts a giant civil war, basically, and eventually it gets to the point where, as I said, in January 2014 just all hell breaks loose. And jihadis just keep killing jihadis, and veterans from al-Qaeda are killed, and people in ISIS are killed, and it’s incredibly messy. And it’s almost impossible to keep track of. And we spent a very long time trying to piece together, bit by bit, which villages ISIS were taking over, who was getting killed when, who was saying what. And at one point, they even killed—ISIS ended up killing Zawahiri’s emissary, which he had sent over to make peace. They killed him, too. So it was incredibly vicious and incredibly bloody. In step with scholars, which is—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, very soon, Shiv Malik—

SHIV MALIK: Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Very soon after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was already a split, a falling out between Maqdisi, whom you spoke to, and al-Zarqawi, who was initial leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the so-called—the precursor to ISIS. So could you talk about what the ideological divisions are between these two groups and, in particular, focus on what their position came to be on the recruitment of former Baath leaders within this movement, the position of ISIS versus the position of al-Qaeda, what it had been and what it became?

SHIV MALIK: So, I mean, in terms of ideological divisions, the big division came when ISIS set up this caliphate. They declared this caliphate. And I said, you know, al-Qaeda is supposed to be the vanguardist organization. And there they are, ISIS, setting up a caliphate and saying, “You know, the revolution is complete. We’ve done it. We set up the caliphate. We’ve got there finally.” And that has also made, in that sense, al-Qaeda a bit redundant. They managed, ISIS, to hold onto this caliphate for a whole year now, or almost—we’re coming up to the anniversary in a couple of weeks—which is remarkable. So that’s certainly one ideological difference. And with that, they’ve been able to—ISIS have been able to capture the imagination of young radicals, who would already be susceptible to this, and also the funders. So the money and the men, the prestige is all going to ISIS at this point in time. And al-Qaeda therefore is being drained of all of that, of that pool. So they’ve been really left on the back foot.

Now, these scholars are saying—Maqdisi and Qatada, that we spoke to, have said, “Look, actually, these guys aren’t the real deal.” And that’s why they sort of stepped in. They said, “Look, we’re the elite scholarship. You know, if you’re more than gangsters, and you’re ideologues, then you’ve got to listen to us, because we’re the people who wrote the books.” So, they stepped in, and ISIS basically completely—there was a long period of time when they thought maybe there can be some reconciliation. Baghdadi actually wrote a letter to Maqdisi and said, “Please, come join us in the caliphate. Come see what it’s like. Judge for yourself.” And there was some suggestion from these two, when we interviewed them, that if they went, they’d never come back: They might get killed. So they’re obviously frightened, as well. And there was a situation, as well, a security situation in Jordan, where, again, these two might get bumped off because they’d been so critical of ISIS. You know, someone might just appear masked and gun them down. So, there’s been that, as I said, that fraticide, but ultimately, they want the same thing in the end, and these are, to Western observers certainly, very petty ideological differences.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Shiv Malik, this may sound like a far-out question, but could you see any scenario in which the U.S. would side with al-Qaeda against ISIS?

SHIV MALIK: Not really. And they shouldn’t. I mean, you know, it’s not like al-Qaeda are friends of America by any means. In fact, they’re still very much focused on attacking America. And that’s how they—you know, this is where they find their niche now. If their marketplace has been closed down for them by ISIS, some of it anyway, then they—again, they reformulate themselves on doubling what they did before, if you want, which is to attack the West and gain, if you want, prestige from that, to appeal to their own base. And that should be very worrying for the West.

Now, that doesn’t mean that America should simply carry on focusing on al-Qaeda and not regear its intelligence machine, its military machine towards ISIS. You know, if you were wondering what’s a greater threat, ISIS certainly is. And the reason is, is because, as I mentioned before, they have a patch of land. It’s actually a very sizable territory with a massive city of a couple million people, in Mosul, in Iraq, which they’re in charge of. And this is very worrying, because this idea is now real. They’ve managed to say to the world, “Actually, we’ve held it for a year. We’ve even expanded it by taking Ramadi, which is another major city in Iraq. And look, you know, clearly God’s on our side.” You know, these people are, in that sense, sort of people of faith and religion. And if the caliphate carries on existing, it must be that we’re on the winning side. So, America should regear. And what they’ve announced already, or what seems to have been reported, was, you know, they’re going to send a few other thousand people over to Iraq, or a couple hundred other extra advisers to advise the Iraqi army. I’m not sure if that will be enough, but we’ll see.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And before we conclude, Shiv Malik, could you talk about the significance of the civil war in Syria in precipitating the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s rise and the collapse or near collapse of al-Qaeda?

SHIV MALIK: Yeah, I mean, the civil war has allowed for chaos, and in that sense, you know, these people are sort of like gangsters or sort of drug dealers. They need turf, and they need turf so they can get money and, as I said, recruits. And it’s like a business in that sense. It has to keep itself going. And Syria provided that field. Once the revolution broke out, Assad then brutally put people down and killed them and slaughtered them. And then people decided to arm themselves, and that created the chaos. Then, in stepped—as I said, you know, in stepped ISIS, who were over the border, or ISI, as they were known then, and sent people over to sort of take advantage of all of this. So, in that sense, they have taken advantage completely of what’s been going on, but that’s not to say that people shouldn’t want to resist Assad. They should, you know? He’s been using chemical weapons and certainly chlorine bombs on his population. He’s a despicable dictator. So the question—you know, it’s a complete mess. And someone at some point is going to have to step in, whether it’s European and American forces or something else, and sort that out. But until then, as I said, ISIS will certainly take advantage of it. And they’re doing very well out of it financially.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Shiv Malik, for joining us, investigative reporter at The Guardian, lead author of the new in-depth report, “How Isis Crippled al-Qaida: The Inside Story of the Coup That Has Brought the World’s Most Feared Terrorist Network to the Brink of Collapse.” Shiv was speaking to us in London. We’ll link to that piece at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Texas. Major anti-choice actions are taking place there. Stay with us.

THURSDAY, JUNE 11, 2015

Find this story at 11 June 2015

Creative Commons License The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

In a propaganda war against ISIS, the U.S. tried to play by the enemy’s rules

CONFRONTING THE ‘CALIPHATE’ | This is part of an occasional series about the rise of the Islamic State militant group, its implications for the Middle East, and efforts by the U.S. government and others to undermine it.

Hear from the man responsible for one of the most controversial counter-messaging videos produced by the U.S. State Department. EDITOR’S NOTE: The Washington Post has blurred the graphic images from the State Department video. (The Washington Post)
As fighters surged into Syria last summer, a video surfaced online with the grisly imagery and sneering tone of a propaganda release from the Islamic State.

“Run, do not walk, to ISIS Land,” read the opening line of a script that promised new arrivals would learn “useful new skills” such as “crucifying and executing Muslims.” The words were juxtaposed with images of the terrorist group’s atrocities: kneeling prisoners shot point-blank; severed heads positioned next to a propped-up corpse; limp bodies left hanging from crosses in public squares.

The source of the video was revealed only in its closing frame: the U.S. Department of State.

“Welcome to ISIS Land” was in some ways a breakthrough for the U.S. government after years of futility in attempting to compete with the propaganda of al-Qaeda and its offshoots. The video became a viral phenomenon — viewed more than 844,000 times on YouTube — and a cause of significant irritation to its target.

But the minute-long recording also became a flash point in a much broader debate over how far the United States should go in engaging with a barbaric adversary online.

The clip was assembled by a special unit at the State Department charged with finding ways to contain the spread of militant Islamist ideology. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, had direct backing from President Obama, help from the CIA, and teams of Arabic, Urdu and Somali speakers who were thrust into the fray on Twitter and other social-media platforms.

The center was to function “like a war room in a political campaign — shake things up, attack ads, opposition research,” said Alberto Fernandez, a veteran U.S. diplomat who was put in charge of the group. The video targeting the Islamic State, which is also known by the abbreviations ISIS and ISIL, was emblematic of that edgy approach, using the enemy’s own horrific footage to subvert the idea that recruits were “going off to Syria for a worthy cause,” Fernandez said, “and to send a message that this is actually a squalid, worthless, dirty thing.”

The propaganda wars since 9/11 VIEW GRAPHIC
In seeking to change minds overseas, however, the CSCC also turned heads in Washington. Experts denounced the group’s efforts as “embarrassing” and even helpful to the enemy. Critics at the State Department and White House saw the use of graphic images as a disturbing embrace of the adversary’s playbook. And for all the viral success of “ISIS Land,” even the center’s defenders could never determine whether it had accomplished its main objective: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria.

The fallout has put the U.S. government in a frustratingly familiar position — searching yet again for a messaging strategy that might resonate with aggrieved Muslims and stem the spread of Islamist militancy.

It is a problem that has proved more difficult to solve than almost any other for counterterrorism officials. In the 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has degraded al-Qaeda, tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden and protected the country from any mass-casualty follow-up attacks.

Al-Qaeda’s brand of militant ideology, however, has only spread.

Previous U.S. efforts have ranged from covert CIA propaganda programs to a Walt Disney-produced film. Their ineffectiveness has hindered attempts to rebalance U.S. counterterrorism policy, leaving the government heavily dependent on armed drones, commando teams and other instruments of lethal force.

With less than two years to go in Obama’s second term, his administration is trying yet another approach. Fernandez, 57, has been replaced, and the unit he led has been instructed to stop taunting the Islamic State. The State Department recently launched a new entity, the Information Coordination Cell, which plans to enlist U.S. embassies, military leaders and regional allies in a global messaging campaign to discredit groups such as the Islamic State.

The plan is to be “more factual and testimonial,” said Rashad Hussain, 36, a former White House adviser brought in to lead the effort. It will seek to highlight Islamic State hypocrisy, emphasize accounts of its defectors, and document its losses on the battlefield — without recirculating its gruesome images or matching its snide tone. “When amplified properly, we believe the facts speak for themselves,” Hussain said.

‘What I’ve been asking for’
The CSCC began with more going for it than any of its predecessors, but it also faced major obstacles.

It was always vastly outnumbered by its online adversaries, had a minuscule budget by Washington standards, and was saddled with what some regard as the insurmountable burden of having to affix the U.S. government label to messages aimed at a skeptical Muslim audience.

The center was conceived by senior officials at the State Department, including its counterterrorism chief, Daniel Benjamin, who was among a group of administration insiders who worried that the White House had become more focused on killing terrorists than preventing the recruitment of new ones.

It also became a priority for then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote in a memo that the unit should be modeled on a campaign “war room,” equipped to monitor every utterance by the adversary and respond rapidly.

[From hip-hop to jihad, how the Islamic State became a magnet for converts]

Even with Clinton’s backing, however, a 2010 meeting at the White House offered an early indication of how contentious the plan would be. The CIA’s drone war in Pakistan was at full throttle when Benjamin pitched the idea for the center to Obama and key players on his national security team, including Clinton, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and senior aide Denis McDonough.

As Benjamin wrapped up, Obama erupted.

“This is what I’ve been asking for — why haven’t we been doing this already?” the president demanded, according to a former senior U.S. official who attended the meeting and did not represent the State Department.

“There was irritation” in Obama’s voice, the former official said, aimed at aides he had been pressing for options to keep al-Qaeda’s ideology from spreading. “Everybody on his counterterrorism team had a little bit of egg on their face at that point,” said the former official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting and requested anonymity.

McDonough, Brennan and others seemed angered to have been upstaged, former officials said, and would continue to be seen as obstacles to the plan.

“The whole thing got off on a bad foot bureaucratically,” the former official said. “The antibodies were out to kill it from the beginning.”

The proposal languished long after Obama’s flash of frustration. In her memoir, Clinton said that “despite the president’s pointed comments in July 2010, it took more than a year for the White House to issue an executive order” establishing the center.

That order, which was finally signed just two days shy of the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11. attacks, outlined the center’s mission in broad terms and made Obama’s backing explicit. But its most important provision to State was language requiring the CIA, Pentagon and Justice Department to contribute employees and resources to the CSCC.

‘Happy Muslim’ campaign
The authority seemed to mark a turning point for the State Department after years of being powerless to compel cooperation from other departments, and an opportunity to break from approaches tried in a string of earlier, ill-fated initiatives.

Among them were videos commissioned in 2002 by former Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers, who was appointed to the public diplomacy post one month after the Sept. 11 attacks. The $15 million campaign, called “Shared Values,” profiled Muslims living contentedly in the United States, including a baker in Ohio and a fire department medic in Brooklyn.

Some in the State Department derisively labeled it the “Happy Muslim” campaign. It was quickly shelved, and Beers left the administration in 2003.

As the Iraq war raged in 2005, President George W. Bush turned to his longtime communications adviser, Karen Hughes, to reverse the plunging global opinion of the United States. As the new head of public diplomacy, she created a unit named the Digital Outreach Team to defend U.S. policies in online chat rooms that seethed with hostility toward the United States. She also persuaded Disney to produce a feel-good “Portraits of America” film that was shown in airports and U.S. embassies.

As U.S. efforts faltered, al-Qaeda was learning to take advantage of a rapidly changing media landscape.

The group’s early attempts at messaging had often been amateurish, consisting mainly of stilted videos that showed bin Laden staring into the camera, lecturing followers and referring to world events that had occurred weeks or months earlier — a reflection of how long it took to smuggle out the recordings.

Osama bin Laden speaks in this image made from an undated video broadcast on Friday, Oct. 29, 2004 by Arab television station Al-Jazeera. In the statement, bin Laden directly admitted for the first time that he carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, and said “the best way to avoid another Manhattan” was to stop threatening Muslims’ security. ((Al-Jazeera via AP))

In this Monday, Nov. 8, 2010 file photo taken from video and released by SITE Intelligence Group, Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical Web sites. ((SITE/AP))
But al-Qaeda understood the importance of messaging from the outset. It had established a media wing known as As-Sahab, or “The Cloud,” to manage its propaganda efforts. The unit began turning out dozens of films a year and was led by an American convert, Adam Gadahn, who helped produce the group’s Western-aimed propaganda until he was killed in January in a CIA drone strike.

By 2009, al-Qaeda had found a compelling voice for the Internet age in Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who joined the terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen, known as AQAP. Awlaki’s English-language sermons attracted a global following, and his calls for violence were seen as a catalyst in a series of attacks, including a 2009 shooting at Fort Hood in Texas that killed 13 people.

A year later, that same Yemen-based franchise began releasing an English-language online magazine called Inspire with bomb recipes and articles encouraging lone wolf attacks. The first issue arrived the same month as the White House meeting in which Obama endorsed the CSCC plan.

[The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s.]

As the center finally began to take shape at the State Department, there was a sense that significant ground had already been lost.

When Richard LeBaron, a career U.S. diplomat, was asked to be the center’s first director, he described the job offer to his wife. Noting that it had been nine years since the Sept. 11 attacks, she reacted with disbelief.

“You’re doing this now?” she asked.

LeBaron spent much of his first year securing resources and assembling staff. As the group’s work got underway, he steered away from the mass audience approaches of Beers and Hughes, campaigns that he thought had only convinced Muslims that “the United States perceived them as a problem,” he said. He believed that al-Qaeda’s ideology appealed to a tiny fraction of that population and that any effort to divert recruits had to be “fought in a very, very narrow trench.”

Under LeBaron, the group produced its first online video mocking al-Qaeda. The video alternated footage of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring that only violence would bring change to the Middle East with scenes of what were then the largely peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring.

GoPro cameras and fanboys
The center’s appetite for barbed attacks intensified when LeBaron retired in early 2012 and was replaced by Fernandez.

A Middle East expert and one of the State Department’s best Arabic speakers, Fernandez had studied al-Qaeda’s ideology and propaganda strategy with the mind-set of a scholar. But he also had a penchant for bluntness that sometimes rankled his bosses. In 2006, he was forced to apologize for remarks during an interview on Al Jazeera television in which he said the United States had been guilty of “arrogance and stupidity” in Iraq.

As head of the center, Fernandez sought to sharpen a campaign that some in the State Department already saw as uncomfortably edgy. He pushed the team to take a more combative stance against al-Qaeda online. But his arrival coincided with the emergence of a new adversary with its own impulse to escalate.

The Islamic State began as an Iraq-based franchise of al-Qaeda, but it severed those ties and transformed itself into the most potent militant force in Syria with a mix of daring assaults on major cities and public displays of gruesome violence, including videotaped beheadings of Western prisoners.

The group’s power in Syria accounts for much of its appeal. But the danger it poses beyond the Middle East is based largely on the global following it has amassed by exploiting Twitter and other social media in ways that al-Qaeda never envisioned.

Compared with the Islamic State, “al-Qaeda is your parents’ Internet,” Fernandez said. “It’s AOL.com or MySpace.”

Over the past four years, more than 20,000 foreign fighters have flocked to Syria and Iraq, including at least 3,400 from Western countries. The migration has eclipsed the flow of militants into Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Islamic State has been the main draw.

Map: Flow of foreign fighters to Syria VIEW GRAPHIC
The Islamic State’s media wing employs a virtual production line, turning battle footage captured on GoPro cameras into polished propaganda films, including an hour-long documentary called “Flames of War,” that are disseminated by an army of followers and “fanboys.” The group has produced unsettlingly authentic “news” reports with the coerced cooperation of one of its prisoners, British television correspondent John Cantlie. Through exchanges on Twitter, it has also enticed Western women to travel to Syria to become “ISIS brides.”

U.S. officials have described the Islamic State’s propaganda as remarkably slick and sophisticated, characterizations that LeBaron called “borderline racist.” “The notion behind that is how could these Arabs be so smart? How could these terrorists be so skilled?” he said. “Why wouldn’t they be? They’re growing up with the same exposure to social media.”

[Islamic State appears to be fraying from within]

By mid-2013, the Islamic State had eclipsed al-Qaeda as the CSCC’s top priority. The team produced dozens of videos and banners depicting ISIS as a menace to Muslims in Syria, and it tried to trade blows with the group on Twitter, even though State Department posts were often drowned out by the volume of Islamic State messages.

As the center’s campaign intensified, the Islamic State showed flashes of irritation. The group launched a Twitter account, @Al-Bttar, specifically to engage in running arguments with the State Department team.

It also orchestrated campaigns aimed at getting the team kicked off Twitter and YouTube by bombarding those companies with waves of complaints accusing the CSCC of violating their terms of service. At times, Fernandez said, the effort forced State Department officials to appeal to the companies to get their accounts restored.

There were also death threats. Most were vague vows by Islamic State followers to track down the center’s employees. But in one case, ISIS managed to identify one of the center’s contract workers by name and singled him out as a target. The threat was traced to a militant in Spain who was subsequently arrested, U.S. officials said.

Inspired by Monty Python
The center occupies a cramped second-floor office at the State Department that officials said is the only space in the department’s Public Diplomacy Bureau equipped with the locks, alarms and other systems needed to serve a classified facility. Inside, employees track terrorist propaganda and devise responses at computers that are equipped with access to reports from the CIA’s Open Source Center and other channels. Most of the front-line work on social media is carried out by contractors in a separate building nearby.

Since its inception, the center had purposely avoided posting any material in English. It did so in part to avoid running afoul of rules barring the State Department from attempts to influence American citizens. But officials also cited another concern: venturing into English would expose the center’s efforts to more scrutiny in Washington.

At times the constraint seemed absurd. In September 2013, gunmen from al-Shabab staged an assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi while supporters of the Somali terrorist group touted the unfolding carnage on Twitter. Although the al-Shabab tweets were in English, the State Department team could respond only in Somali or Arabic.

As the Islamic State expanded its efforts to attract Western recruits — largely through English-language propaganda — the State Department scrapped its policy.

In late 2013, the center unveiled an English-language campaign dubbed “Think Again Turn Away” aimed at the Islamic State. In a typical skirmish last year, the terrorist group launched a barrage of messages on Twitter under the hashtag #CalamityWillBefallUS. The center tried to disrupt the stream with caustic replies. One showed a feeble-looking bin Laden watching television in the compound where he was killed and warned Islamic State followers: “I want to remind you what happens to terrorists who target us.”

At first, the messages caused only small ripples of reaction outside these narrow channels on social media. But Fernandez soon began scribbling out a script for a new video that would draw a much bigger audience.

The idea for “ISIS Land” emerged in the summer of 2014, while the Islamic State was rapidly expanding. The group had stormed into Iraq and seized Mosul, a city of 2 million, with virtually no resistance from the American-trained Iraqi army. The organization changed its name from ISIL to the Islamic State as it formally declared itself ruler of a restored caliphate — a highly symbolic move that harked back to the historic empires of Islam.

Simultaneously, the Islamic State unleashed a barrage of new videos in English. Among them were segments dubbed “five-star jihad” that depicted life for Islamic State fighters as lavish, with access to hillside mansions, gleaming SUVs and swimming pools overlooking the group’s conquered terrain.

Fernandez, who had served in Syria, wanted to counter that message with a video that would both mock and mimic the Islamic State’s preening style. Fernandez drew inspiration from Monty Python spoofs of the Crusades, and he asked his team to gather some of the most brutal footage of the Islamic State available online.

“Welcome to ISIS Land” sat largely unnoticed on the center’s YouTube channel after it was posted on July 23, 2014. It was part of a much larger collection that included nearly 300 other clips, including more than 200 in Arabic.

Then, like so many online phenomena, “ISIS Land” was propelled into the mainstream by seemingly inexplicable forces.

Alberto M. Fernandez is the State Department’s Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
A reporter for a British newspaper, the Guardian, posted a link to the video on his Twitter feed. CNN aired an arched-eyebrow segment. HBO comedian John Oliver lambasted the video on his mock news show. And Islamic State followers responded with a parody of their own called “Run Do Not Walk to U.S. Terrorist State.”

Critics blasted not only the video, but also the broader “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. Rita Katz, whose SITE Intelligence Group tracks the online communications of terrorist groups, began cataloguing what she considered to be the center’s most embarrassing materials and said the campaign was playing into the Islamic State’s hands by bolstering its reputation for cruelty and expanding its audience.

“It’s better to not do anything than to do what they’re doing at the State Department,” Katz said.

Others bridled at what they considered the unseemly spectacle of a U.S. government entity behaving like a social-media punk. “They’re trying to reach these kids, but it’s backfiring,” said Patrick M. Skinner, a former CIA agent who works as a counterterrorism consultant. “It’s like the grandparents yelling to the children, ‘Get off my lawn.’ ”

Underfunded, falling short
Fernandez had made sure that the “ISIS Land” video was approved in advance by officials from the White House, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department. But the public reaction emboldened insiders who were already skeptical of the center’s work.

Amid the rash of negative coverage, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, began urging that the CSCC be reined in. In an e-mail to White House communications adviser Ben Rhodes and others, she said that she was “supremely uncomfortable” with the graphic images that were “going out under the State Department seal.”

The center’s ability to fend off the criticism was hampered by the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of its work. The group could point to the size of its following on Twitter and argued that all the death threats and efforts to shut down its accounts were evidence that the center had gotten under the Islamic State’s skin.

But the claims were seen by many as irrelevant or unconvincing.

“The consensus has been that this has been ineffective,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has oversight of the State Department and its operations. “If we can’t measure the impact of what we’re doing, how do we prove that it’s effective?”

“Welcome to ISIS Land” went on to be viewed in numbers never approached by any of the center’s other films. But even now it is not clear that any of those viewers were ever at risk of joining the Islamic State, let alone diverted from that path.

To Fernandez, the center has been subjected to an impossible standard.

“How do you prove a negative?” he asked. “Unless some guy comes out with his hands up and says, ‘I was going to become a terrorist. I saw your video. I loved it. I changed my mind.’ You’re never going to get that.”

The fallout weakened the center’s already wobbly footing in Washington.

Since its creation, the center’s budget had hovered between $5 million and $6 million per year, a range that barely registers on Washington’s spending scale.

The Pentagon, by comparison, spends about $150 million each year to influence public opinion and win “hearts and minds.” The CIA has spent more than $250 million to monitor social media and other “open” sources of intelligence, according to documents obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, with millions more spent on covert propaganda efforts.

At the State Department, the stagnant funding became a major source of frustration, at times spilling into public view. When an ABC News story described the administration’s media strategy against militant Islam as underfunded and falling short, Rhodes, the Obama adviser, fired off an e-mail to Fernandez saying that he had backed the group’s work. He also told Fernandez that he thought criticism of the White House was unfair.

Fernandez replied in an e-mail that he hadn’t been a source for the story, but he agreed with its contents, according to several officials familiar with the exchange. Fernandez declined to comment on the matter.

The center’s troubles were compounded as its supporters in the administration dwindled. Benjamin, who had pushed to create the group, left the State Department at the end of 2012 for an academic position at Dartmouth College. Clinton resigned as secretary of state weeks later and was replaced by John F. Kerry, who overhauled the department’s public diplomacy ranks.

Even so, Fernandez pressed ahead late last year with an ambitious proposal to double the center’s budget. He made his case in a memo that detailed how badly the center was overmatched. Because of budget constraints, the outreach team could be online only five days a week, rarely during hours that corresponded with peak Internet activity in the Middle East. The proposal cited the poor production quality of its videos as proof that even its equipment was inferior to that of the Islamic State.

But in a broader sense, Fernandez saw the budget struggle as a test of U.S. resolve after years of waiting for moderate Muslim leaders to take on the religion’s most radical strains.

“It is about contesting a space that had been ceded to the adversary,” Fernandez said. “Even if you’re outnumbered, even if you’re shouted down, there is value in showing up.”

‘The backfire effect’
The new leadership at the State Department eventually decided that more resources were needed, but that they would go to a new entity, and that it was time for Fernandez to retire.

Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine hired by Kerry as head of public diplomacy, had concerns about the center’s “snarky tone.” He pushed an approach he had employed at Time: “Curate more and create less.”

“The kind of content we were creating wasn’t resonating in ways I would have hoped,” Stengel said in an interview. Going forward, messages would be more fact-based. “You say the caliphate is heaven on earth? We’re going to show you pictures where sewers don’t work. You’re winning on the battlefield? Here’s a satellite picture of you guys retreating.”

Scores of hostages, including Westerners, have been killed by the Islamic State since 2014. Here are some of the major incidents where the Islamic State killed the hostages. VIEW GRAPHIC
As foreign officials gathered in Washington in February for a White House-sponsored summit on countering violent extremism, the State Department announced the creation of the Information Coordination Cell.

In part, Stengel said the new direction was driven by resource realities. There is no way for the department to match the volume of output on social media from the Islamic State, and therefore it should enlist other departments and allies. One of the cell’s main initiatives is to distribute a “talking points” memo each day to U.S. embassies and allied governments, urging them to emphasize a common set of themes or news items about the Islamic State.

But Stengel also acknowledged that the changes reflect competing points of view in a philosophical debate.

Fernandez was convinced that the Islamic State’s appeal was largely emotional, casting itself as an antidote to feelings of victimhood and powerlessness among alienated Muslims. Undermining that appeal required using — and hopefully subverting — the graphic images and themes that resonated with the group’s recruits.

Skeptical, Stengel cited what he said researchers have called “the backfire effect: when you try to disabuse somebody who has a strongly held belief, more often than not it makes their belief even stronger.”

In February, Fernandez was replaced by Hussain, the Obama adviser who served as special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and was a close associate of Rhodes at the White House.

The center has not produced a new English-language video in several months. The “Think Again Turn Away” campaign is being shelved in favor of a new tag line: “Terror Facts.” And the CSCC is expected to be combined with the Information Coordination Cell as part of an unnamed new entity.

The center’s creators see the changes as a retreat from the war room they envisioned.

[The Islamic State’s war against history]

“The fate of the CSCC just underscores the difficulty of experimentation in government — there is zero tolerance for risk and no willingness to let a program evolve,” Benjamin said.“It’s easier to do the same stuff over and over and wring your hands instead of investing resources and having patience.”

In interviews, Hussain and Stengel described ambitious plans to build on the work of the center and help other nations set up messaging operations modeled on the one at State. The first of these was recently established in the United Arab Emirates, although officials said its messaging work remains in “beta mode” and has not yet surfaced online.

The department also appears to be revisiting some pages of the Bush administration’s propaganda playbook.

Late last year, Stengel reached out to Hollywood, asking for help to counter the messages of both the Islamic State and Russia. On Oct. 14, he met with Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, according to company e-mails obtained by hackers and released by WikiLeaks in April.

“Michael: It was great to see you yesterday. As you could see, we have plenty of challenges in countering ISIL narratives in the Middle East,” Stengel wrote the next day. “I’d love to convene a group of media executives who can help us think about better ways to respond.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.
Scott Higham is reporter assigned to The Post’s investigative unit.

By Greg Miller and Scott Higham May 8

Find this story at 8 May 2015

© 1996-2015 The Washington Post

Iraqi officer under Saddam masterminded rise of Islamic State

A former intelligence officer for the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was the mastermind behind Islamic State’s takeover of northern Syria, according to a report by Der Spiegel that is based on documents uncovered by the German magazine.

Spiegel, in a lengthy story published at the weekend and entitled “Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”, says it gained access to 31 pages of handwritten charts, lists and schedules which amount to a blueprint for the establishment of a caliphate in Syria.

The documents were the work of a man identified by the magazine as Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force, who went by the pseudonym Haji Bakr.

Spiegel says the files suggest that the takeover of northern Syria was part of a meticulous plan overseen by Haji Bakr using techniques — including surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping — honed in the security apparatus of Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi national was reportedly killed in a firefight with Syrian rebels in January 2014, but not before he had helped secure swathes of Syria, which in turn strengthened Islamic State’s position in neighboring Iraq.

“What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover,” the story by Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter says.

“It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an ‘Islamic Intelligence State’ — a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.”

The story describes Bakr as being “bitter and unemployed” after U.S. authorities in Iraq disbanded the army by decree in 2003. Between 2006 to 2008 he was reportedly in U.S. detention facilities, including Abu Ghraib prison.

In 2010 however, it was Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers who made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the official leader of Islamic State, with the goal of giving the group a “religious face”, the story says.

Two years later, the magazine says, Bakr traveled to northern Syria to oversee his takeover plan, choosing to launch it with a collection of foreign fighters that included novice militants from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Europe alongside battle-tested Chechens and Uzbeks.

Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, whose cousin served with Bakr, describes the former officer as a nationalist rather than an Islamist. The story argues that the secret to Islamic State’s success lies in its combination of opposites – the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of another, led by Bakr.

Spiegel said it had obtained the papers after lengthy negotiations with rebels in the Syrian city of Aleppo, who had seized them when Islamic State was forced to abandon its headquarters there in early 2014.

(Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Crispian Balmer)
World | Sun Apr 19, 2015 12:42pm EDT Related: WORLD, SYRIA, IRAQ
REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI

Find this story at 19 April 2015

Copyright http://www.reuters.com/

Terror-Mastermind Haji Bakr

Der Spitzel-Führer des “Islamischen Staates”

Er entwarf den Masterplan zur Machtübernahme in Syrien, baute ein Spitzelnetz auf, installierte den selbst ernannten Kalifen: Haji Bakr war der wichtigste IS-Stratege, die Religion nutzte er nur als Mittel zum Zweck. Der SPIEGEL hat seine Geheimdokumente ausgewertet.

Die meisten kannten ihn als den Mann mit dem weißen Bart, manche als den mit dem schwarzen Bart. Der örtliche Rebellenkommandeur erinnerte sich an ihn unter dem Namen “Schweib”, zuständig für die Waffenbeschaffung. Einer der örtlichen politischen Köpfe kannte ihn als “Abu Bakr al-Iraqi”, als den Verantwortlichen für religiöse Belange in der Kleinstadt Tal Rifaat in der umkämpften Ebene Nordsyriens.

Erst nachdem ein kleines Rebellenkommando ihn erschossen hatte, Anfang 2014, wurde allen klar: Es war stets derselbe Mann. Ein Mann, der darauf bedacht war, möglichst keine Spuren zu hinterlassen.

Die Rebellen wussten im ersten Moment nicht, wen sie da im Feuergefecht erschossen hatten. Aber sie wunderten sich: Warum brachte der “Islamische Staat” eine regelrechte Streitmacht von Süden heran, um die Stadt zu stürmen? Warum rückten sie mit mehr als einem Dutzend Pick-ups mit aufmontierten Maschinengewehren an? Warum schickten sie einen Selbstmordattentäter vor, der sich am Stadtrand in die Luft sprengte?

Sie hatten den Trupp frühzeitig entdeckt, erwartet und zurückgeschlagen. Aber keiner wusste zunächst, welches Ziel so wertvoll war, dass der IS mit solcher Wucht angriff. Die Leiche des Erschossenen verstauten die Rebellen in einer Kühltruhe.

Bakr steuerte anderthalb Jahre lang die Eroberung Nordsyriens

So endet die Geschichte von Haji Bakr, wie der Mann innerhalb der IS-Miliz hieß. Es ist die Geschichte des wohl einflussreichsten Terror-Strategen der jüngeren Vergangenheit – dem Architekten der Organisation, die in den vergangenen Jahren weite Teile Syriens und des Iraks unter ihre Kontrolle und Terror über viele Tausend Menschen gebracht hat. Es ist die Geschichte des Kopfes hinter dem “Islamischen Staat”.

Die Rebellen holten den Leichnam erst wieder hervor, als ein Anführer aus einer anderen Stadt sie alarmierte. Sie legten den leblosen Körper auf eine orangefarbene Wolldecke im tiefgrünen Wintergras – jeder sollte ihn sehen können; jeder sollte sich von seinem Tod überzeugen. Dann verscharrten sie ihn, den Mann mit den vielen Namen, in einem namenlosen Grab.

Sein richtiger Name lautet Samir Abed al-Mohammed al-Khleifawi, einst Oberst im irakischen Militärgeheimdienst mit dem erhöhten Rang einer Generalstabsverwendung. Mehr als zwei Jahrzehnte lang hatte er im Herzen von Saddam Husseins Geheimdienststaat gelernt, wie man mit einem System aus flächendeckender Überwachung und feindosiertem Schrecken eine Bevölkerung im Griff hält.

Wie sehr er seine Lektionen verinnerlicht, wie geschickt und penibel er geplant hatte, das wurde den Rebellen erst klar, als sie das unscheinbare Haus durchsuchten, in dem Haji Bakr gelebt und von dem aus er anderthalb Jahre lang die Eroberung Nordsyriens gesteuert hatte.

Im Haus fanden sie die Pläne, die die Strategie des IS offenbarten – und anhand derer sich das Vorgehen der Terrororganisation in den vergangenen Jahren en détail rekonstruieren lässt: Wie eine Handvoll aus dem Irak eingesickerter erfahrener Machtübernahme-Profis unter Bakrs Anleitung ihren schleichenden Eroberungszug begonnen und wie der IS zur wichtigsten Terrororganisation der Gegenwart wurde.

Die Papiere liegen dem SPIEGEL vor (hier finden Sie die Dokumente in der aktuellen Ausgabe). Es sind komplexe handschriftliche Aufrisse, manche so umfangreich, dass sie auf mehrere zusammengeklebte Blätter gezeichnet worden waren. “So etwas hatten wir noch nie gesehen”, sagte Radwan Qarandel, der örtliche Rebellenführer.

In dem Konvolut findet sich unter anderem Folgendes:

der detaillierte Plan für den Einstieg: Spionagezellen, als islamische Missionsbüros getarnt, sollen in allen Dörfern und Städten etabliert werden
Ablaufpläne dafür, wie Orte “geöffnet” werden sollten
Organigramme für konkurrierende Geheimdienste
der Entwurf für separate Abteilungen, die geheime Morde und Entführungen planen und durchführen, als Vorstufen zur anschließenden Machtübernahme.
“Hochintelligent, entschlossen, exzellenter Logistiker”

Die Geschichte Haji Bakrs ist weniger die Geschichte eines Ideologen als die eines kühlen Strategen. Er war “absolut kein Islamist”, erinnert sich der irakische Journalist und Kenner der Radikalenszene, Hischam al-Haschimi, an den früheren Karriereoffizier, der gemeinsam mit Haschimis Cousin auf der Luftwaffenbasis Habbaniya stationiert gewesen war. “Oberst Samir”, wie er ihn nennt, “war hochintelligent, entschlossen und ein exzellenter Logistiker.” Aber als Paul Bremer, der US-Statthalter nach Saddams Sturz in Bagdad, “im Mai 2003 einfach per Dekret die gesamte Armee auflöste, war er arbeitslos und verbittert”.

Es begann der lange Weg des nüchternen Geheimdienstprofis, der nichts dem Zufall und schon gar nicht dem Glauben überließ, an die Spitze der schon damals brutalsten Dschihadistengruppe, die als al-Qaida im Irak bekannt wurde. Im Untergrund traf Haji Bakr, wie er sich nun nannte, Abu Mussab al-Sarkawi, den weltweit berüchtigten Drahtzieher zahlloser Selbstmordanschläge auf amerikanische Soldaten, das Uno-Hauptquartier in Bagdad, aber ebenso auf schiitische Heiligtümer und Geistliche.

Für zwei Jahre saß Haji Bakr im amerikanischen Gefangenenlager Camp Bucca und im Gefängnis von Abu Ghuraib, wo viele der späteren Terrorkontakte erst geknüpft wurden. Die US-Besatzer im Irak hatten ein tragisches Talent dafür, sich erst mit der Auflösung der gesamten Armee und dann mit oft wahllosen Massenverhaftungen ihre intelligentesten Feinde selbst zu schaffen und zu vereinen.

Die Intrige um al-Baghdadi

Es dauerte Jahre, bis die kühlen Strategen aus Saddams Geheimdiensten und die islamistischen Fanatiker zusammenkamen. Erst als 2010 der aus al-Qaida im Irak hervorgegangene “Islamische Staat” fast seine gesamte Führungsspitze verlor, war dies der goldene Moment für Haji Bakr: Stets die graue Eminenz im Hintergrund intrigierte er den heutigen “Kalifen” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi an die Spitze des IS.

Er erzählte den versteckten Anführern je einzeln, dass die anderen schon einverstanden seien. Wer trotzdem noch dagegen war, würde in den folgenden Monaten spurlos verschwinden. So wie ab 2013 im anarchischen Nordsyrien die von Haji Bakrs Spitzel-Kohorten ausgemachten Gegner einer nach dem anderen verschleppt und ermordet würden.

In seinen Plänen, die akribisch umgesetzt wurden und den IS bis 2014 zum Herrscher über ungefähr ein Drittel Syriens machten, tauchte der Islam, außer in den Eingangsfloskeln, gar nicht auf. Scharia, islamische Gerichtsbarkeit, verordnete Frömmelei – alles war nur Mittel zum Zweck, unterworfen einem einzigen Ziel: die neu gewonnenen Untertanen zum Gehorsam zu zwingen und die enorme Zugkraft des Dschihad, die zu Tausenden aus aller Welt strömenden Radikalen, benutzen zu können.

Selbst für die zwangsweise Bekehrung zum Islam, in seinem Verständnis die sklavische Unterwerfung, verwendet Haji Bakr keinen religiösen, sondern einen technischen Begriff: “Takwin”. Er bezeichnet die Implementierung. Ein nüchternes Wort, das sonst in der Geologie oder Bauwissenschaft verwendet wird.

Vor 1200 Jahren allerdings war es schon einmal auf eigentümliche Art berühmt geworden: bei schiitischen Alchemisten als Bezeichnung für die Schaffung künstlichen Lebens. In seinem “Buch der Steine” hatte der Perser Jabir Ibn Hayyan im 9. Jahrhundert von der Erschaffung eines Homunkulus, eines künstlichen Menschen, geschrieben, in Geheimschrift und Codes: “Das Ziel ist es, alle zu täuschen, bis auf jene, die Gott liebt.”

Ob Haji Bakr von dieser lang versunkenen Bedeutung seines Wortes für die Schaffung der Gläubigen wusste? Wahrscheinlich nicht. Aber die alten Geheimdienstler an der Spitze des IS agieren wie Alchemisten der Gegenwart, die aus der Angst der anderen und ihrem nüchternen Machtkalkül den künstlichen Gottesstaat erschaffen wollten.

19. April 2015, 13:17 Uhr
Von Christoph Reuter

Find this story at 9 April 2015

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015

Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq

The sectarian terror group won’t be defeated by the western states that incubated it in the first place

The war on terror, that campaign without end launched 14 years ago by George Bush, is tying itself up in ever more grotesque contortions. On Monday the trial in London of a Swedish man, Bherlin Gildo, accused of terrorism in Syria, collapsed after it became clear British intelligence had been arming the same rebel groups the defendant was charged with supporting.

The prosecution abandoned the case, apparently to avoid embarrassing the intelligence services. The defence argued that going ahead withthe trial would have been an “affront to justice” when there was plenty of evidence the British state was itself providing “extensive support” to the armed Syrian opposition.

That didn’t only include the “non-lethal assistance” boasted of by the government (including body armour and military vehicles), but training, logistical support and the secret supply of “arms on a massive scale”. Reports were cited that MI6 had cooperated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to the Syrian rebels in 2012 after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

Clearly, the absurdity of sending someone to prison for doing what ministers and their security officials were up to themselves became too much. But it’s only the latest of a string of such cases. Less fortunate was a London cab driver Anis Sardar, who was given a life sentence a fortnight earlier for taking part in 2007 in resistance to the occupation of Iraq by US and British forces. Armed opposition to illegal invasion and occupation clearly doesn’t constitute terrorism or murder on most definitions, including the Geneva convention.

But terrorism is now squarely in the eye of the beholder. And nowhere is that more so than in the Middle East, where today’s terrorists are tomorrow’s fighters against tyranny – and allies are enemies – often at the bewildering whim of a western policymaker’s conference call.

For the past year, US, British and other western forces have been back in Iraq, supposedly in the cause of destroying the hyper-sectarian terror group Islamic State (formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq). This was after Isis overran huge chunks of Iraqi and Syrian territory and proclaimed a self-styled Islamic caliphate.

The campaign isn’t going well. Last month, Isis rolled into the Iraqi city of Ramadi, while on the other side of the now nonexistent border its forces conquered the Syrian town of Palmyra. Al-Qaida’s official franchise, the Nusra Front, has also been making gains in Syria.

Some Iraqis complain that the US sat on its hands while all this was going on. The Americans insist they are trying to avoid civilian casualties, and claim significant successes. Privately, officials say they don’t want to be seen hammering Sunni strongholds in a sectarian war and risk upsetting their Sunni allies in the Gulf.

A revealing light on how we got here has now been shone by a recently declassified secret US intelligence report, written in August 2012, which uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria and an al-Qaida-controlled Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. In stark contrast to western claims at the time, the Defense Intelligence Agency document identifies al-Qaida in Iraq (which became Isis) and fellow Salafists as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” – and states that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” were supporting the opposition’s efforts to take control of eastern Syria.

Raising the “possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality”, the Pentagon report goes on, “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)”.

American forces bomb one set of rebels while backing another in Syria
Which is pretty well exactly what happened two years later. The report isn’t a policy document. It’s heavily redacted and there are ambiguities in the language. But the implications are clear enough. A year into the Syrian rebellion, the US and its allies weren’t only supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups; they were prepared to countenance the creation of some sort of “Islamic state” – despite the “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity – as a Sunni buffer to weaken Syria.

That doesn’t mean the US created Isis, of course, though some of its Gulf allies certainly played a role in it – as the US vice-president, Joe Biden, acknowledged last year. But there was no al-Qaida in Iraq until the US and Britain invaded. And the US has certainly exploited the existence of Isis against other forces in the region as part of a wider drive to maintain western control.

The calculus changed when Isis started beheading westerners and posting atrocities online, and the Gulf states are now backing other groups in the Syrian war, such as the Nusra Front. But this US and western habit of playing with jihadi groups, which then come back to bite them, goes back at least to the 1980s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which fostered the original al-Qaida under CIA tutelage.

It was recalibrated during the occupation of Iraq, when US forces led by General Petraeus sponsored an El Salvador-style dirty war of sectarian death squads to weaken the Iraqi resistance. And it was reprised in 2011 in the Nato-orchestrated war in Libya, where Isis last week took control of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte.

In reality, US and western policy in the conflagration that is now the Middle East is in the classic mould of imperial divide-and-rule. American forces bomb one set of rebels while backing another in Syria, and mount what are effectively joint military operations with Iran against Isis in Iraq while supporting Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. However confused US policy may often be, a weak, partitioned Iraq and Syria fit such an approach perfectly.

What’s clear is that Isis and its monstrosities won’t be defeated by the same powers that brought it to Iraq and Syria in the first place, or whose open and covert war-making has fostered it in the years since. Endless western military interventions in the Middle East have brought only destruction and division. It’s the people of the region who can cure this disease – not those who incubated the virus.

Seumas Milne
Wednesday 3 June 2015 20.56 BST Last modified on Thursday 4 June 2015 11.37 BST

Find this story at 3 June 2015

© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited

Terror trial collapses after fears of deep embarrassment to security services

Swedish national Bherlin Gildo’s lawyers argued British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as he was
A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon during clashes in Aleppo. The Old Bailey was told by the crown that there was no longer a reasonable prospect of a prosecution.

The prosecution of a Swedish national accused of terrorist activities in Syria has collapsed at the Old Bailey after it became clear Britain’s security and intelligence agencies would have been deeply embarrassed had a trial gone ahead, the Guardian can reveal.

His lawyers argued that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as he was, and were party to a secret operation providing weapons and non-lethal help to the groups, including the Free Syrian Army.

Bherlin Gildo, 37, who was arrested last October on his way from Copenhagen to Manila, was accused of attending a terrorist training camp and receiving weapons training between 31 August 2012 and 1 March 2013 as well as possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist.

Riel Karmy-Jones, for the crown, told the court on Monday that after reviewing the evidence it was decided there was no longer a reasonable prospect of a prosecution. “Many matters were raised we did not know at the outset,” she told the recorder of London, Nicholas Hilliard QC, who lifted all reporting restrictions and entered not guilty verdicts.

In earlier court hearings, Gildo’s defence lawyers argued he was helping the same rebel groups the British government was aiding before the emergence of the extreme Islamist group, Isis. His trial would have been an “affront to justice”, his lawyers said.

Henry Blaxland QC, the defence counsel, said: “If it is the case that HM government was actively involved in supporting armed resistance to the Assad regime at a time when the defendant was present in Syria and himself participating in such resistance it would be unconscionable to allow the prosecution to continue.”

Blaxland told the court: “If government agencies, of which the prosecution is a part, are themselves involved in the use of force, in whatever way, it is our submission that would be an affront to justice to allow the prosecution to continue.”

After Monday’s hearing, Gildo’s solicitor, Gareth Peirce, said his case had exposed a number of “contradictions” – not least that the matters on which he was charged were not offences in Sweden, and that the UK government had expressed support for the Syrian opposition.

“He has been detained in this country although he did not ever intend to enter this country. For him it’s as if he has been abducted by aliens from outer space,” she said.

“Given that there is a reasonable basis for believing that the British were themselves involved in the supply of arms, if that’s so, it would be an utter hypocrisy to prosecute someone who has been involved in the armed resistance.”

Gildo’s defence lawyers quoted a number of press articles referring to the supply of arms to Syrian rebels, including one from the Guardian on 8 March 2013, on the west’s training of Syrian rebels in Jordan. Articles on the New York Times from 24 March and 21 June 2013, gave further details and an article in the London Review of Books from 14 April 12014, implicated MI6 in a “rat line” for the transfer of arms from Libya.

Gildo was was flying to Manila to join his wife, a Filipina, when he was stopped under schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, the same statute used to question David Miranda, partner of the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, in 2013.

The court heard that Gildo had sought the help of the Swedish secret service, Sapo, when he wanted to return to his home country.

It is not the first time a British prosecution relating to allegations of Syrian terrorism has collapsed. Last October Moazzem Begg was released after “new material” was said to have emerged.

The attorney general was consulted about Monday’s decision. Karmy-Jones told the court in pre-trial hearings that Gildo had worked with Jabhat al-Nusra, a “proscribed group considered to be al-Qaida in Syria”. He was photographed standing over dead bodies with his finger pointing to the sky.

The Press Association contributed to this report

Richard Norton-Taylor
Monday 1 June 2015 14.33 BST Last modified on Monday 1 June 2015 18.19 BST

Find this story at 1 June 2015

© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited

The Red Line and the Rat Line; Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels (2014)

In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.​* Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.

Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.

For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’

The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)

Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.

The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.

A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’

London Review Cake Shop
In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.

The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’

In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.

Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.

By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.

At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)

The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’

The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’

The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.

The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’

Contemporary Ceramics Centre
Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.

The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.

Obama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)

*

The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)

In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)

The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.

The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’

Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.

World Literature Series Masterclasses
By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’

There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.

An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.

The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoğlu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)

But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.

The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.

Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.

*

The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’

A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’

BIRMINGHAM CITY – MA MEDIA AND CREATIVE ENTERPRISE
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’

The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’

Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.

Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’

Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014

Find this story at 4 April 2014

© LRB Limited 2014

From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads (2013)

In 2004, with the war in Iraq going from bad to worse, the US drafted in a veteran of Central America’s dirty wars to help set up a new force to fight the insurgency. The result: secret detention centres, torture and a spiral into sectarian carnage

An exclusive golf course backs onto a spacious two-storey house. A coiled green garden hose lies on the lawn. The grey-slatted wooden shutters are closed. And, like the other deserted luxury houses in this gated community near Bryan, Texas, nothing moves.

Retired Colonel Jim Steele, whose military decorations include the Silver Star, the Defence Distinguished Service Medal, four Legions of Merit, three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart, is not at home. Nor is he at his office headquarters in Geneva, where he is listed as the chief executive officer of Buchanan Renewables, an energy company. Similar efforts to track him down at his company’s office in Monrovia are futile. Messages are left. He doesn’t call back.

For over a year the Guardian has been trying to contact Steele, 68, to ask him about his role during the Iraq war as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s personal envoy to Iraq’s Special Police Commandos: a fearsome paramilitary force that ran a secret network of detention centres across the country – where those suspected of rebelling against the US-led invasion were tortured for information.

On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion the allegations of American links to the units that eventually accelerated Iraq’s descent into civil war cast the US occupation in a new and even more controversial light. The investigation was sparked over a year ago by millions of classified US military documents dumped onto the internet and their mysterious references to US soldiers ordered to ignore torture. Private Bradley Manning, 25, is facing a 20-year sentence, accused of leaking military secrets.

Steele’s contribution was pivotal. He was the covert US figure behind the intelligence gathering of the new commando units. The aim: to halt a nascent Sunni insurgency in its tracks by extracting information from detainees.

It was a role made for Steele. The veteran had made his name in El Salvador almost 20 years earlier as head of a US group of special forces advisers who were training and funding the Salvadoran military to fight the FNLM guerrilla insurgency. These government units developed a fearsome international reputation for their death squad activities. Steele’s own biography describes his work there as the “training of the best counterinsurgency force” in El Salvador.

Of his El Salvador experience in 1986, Steele told Dr Max Manwaring, the author of El Salvador at War: An Oral History: “When I arrived here there was a tendency to focus on technical indicators … but in an insurgency the focus has to be on human aspects. That means getting people to talk to you.”

But the arming of one side of the conflict by the US hastened the country’s descent into a civil war in which 75,000 people died and 1 million out of a population of 6 million became refugees.

Celerino Castillo, a Senior Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who worked alongside Steele in El Salvador, says: “I first heard about Colonel James Steele going to Iraq and I said they’re going to implement what is known as the Salvadoran Option in Iraq and that’s exactly what happened. And I was devastated because I knew the atrocities that were going to occur in Iraq which we knew had occurred in El Salvador.”

It was in El Salvador that Steele first came in to close contact with the man who would eventually command US operations in Iraq: David Petraeus. Then a young major, Petraeus visited El Salvador in 1986 and reportedly even stayed with Steele at his house.

But while Petraeus headed for the top, Steele’s career hit an unexpected buffer when he was embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair. A helicopter pilot, who also had a licence to fly jets, he ran the airport from where the American advisers illegally ran guns to right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. While the congressional inquiry that followed put an end to Steele’s military ambitions, it won him the admiration of then congressman Dick Cheney who sat on the committee and admired Steele’s efforts fighting leftists in both Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In late 1989 Cheney was in charge of the US invasion of Panama to overthrow their once favoured son, General Manuel Noriega. Cheney picked Steele to take charge of organising a new police force in Panama and be the chief liaison between the new government and the US military.

Todd Greentree, who worked in the US embassy in El Salvador and knew Steele, was not surprised at the way he resurfaced in other conflict zones. “It’s not called ‘dirty war’ for nothing; so it’s no surprise to see individuals who are associated and sort of know the ins-and-outs of that kind of war, reappear at different points in these conflicts,” he says.

A generation later, and half the world away, America’s war in Iraq was going from bad to worse. It was 2004 – the neo-cons had dismantled the Ba’athist party apparatus, and that had fostered anarchy. A mainly Sunni uprising was gaining ground and causing major problems in Fallujah and Mosul. There was a violent backlash against the US occupation that was claiming over 50 American lives a month by 2004.

The US Army was facing an unconventional, guerrilla insurgency in a country it knew little about. There was already talk in Washington DC of using the Salvador option in Iraq and the man who would spearhead that strategy was already in place.

Soon after the invasion in March 2003 Jim Steele was in Baghdad as one of the White House’s most important “consultants”, sending back reports to Rumsfeld. His memos were so valued that Rumsfeld passed them on to George Bush and Cheney. Rumsfeld spoke of him in glowing terms. “We had discussion with General Petraeus yesterday and I had a briefing today from a man named Steele who’s been out there working with the security forces and been doing a wonderful job as a civilian as a matter of fact.”

In June 2004 Petraeus arrived in Baghdad with the brief to train a new Iraqi police force with an emphasis on counterinsurgency. Steele and serving US colonel James Coffman introduced Petraeus to a small hardened group of police commandos, many of them among the toughest survivors of the old regime, including General Adnan Thabit, sentenced to death for a failed plot against Saddam but saved by the US invasion. Thabit, selected by the Americans to run the Special Police Commandos, developed a close relationship with the new advisers. “They became my friends. My advisers, James Steele and Colonel Coffman, were all from special forces, so I benefited from their experience … but the main person I used to contact was David Petraeus.”

0:00
/
0:00
With Steele and Coffman as his point men, Petraeus began pouring money from a multimillion dollar fund into what would become the Special Police Commandos. According to the US Government Accounts Office, they received a share of an $8.2bn (£5.4bn) fund paid for by the US taxpayer. The exact amount they received is classified.

With Petraeus’s almost unlimited access to money and weapons, and Steele’s field expertise in counterinsurgency the stage was set for the commandos to emerge as a terrifying force. One more element would complete the picture. The US had barred members of the violent Shia militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army from joining the security forces, but by the summer of 2004 they had lifted the ban.

Shia militia members from all over the country arrived in Baghdad “by the lorry-load” to join the new commandos. These men were eager to fight the Sunnis: many sought revenge for decades of Sunni-supported, brutal Saddam rule, and a chance to hit back at the violent insurgents and the indiscriminate terror of al-Qaida.

Petraeus and Steele would unleash this local force on the Sunni population as well as the insurgents and their supporters and anyone else who was unlucky enough to get in the way. It was classic counterinsurgency. It was also letting a lethal, sectarian genie out of the bottle. The consequences for Iraqi society would be catastrophic. At the height of the civil war two years later 3,000 bodies a month were turning up on the streets of Iraq — many of them innocent civilians of sectarian war.

But it was the actions of the commandos inside the detention centres that raises the most troubling questions for their American masters. Desperate for information, the commandos set up a network of secret detention centres where insurgents could be brought and information extracted from them.

The commandos used the most brutal methods to make detainees talk. There is no evidence that Steele or Coffman took part in these torture sessions, but General Muntadher al Samari, a former general in the Iraqi army, who worked after the invasion with the US to rebuild the police force, claims that they knew exactly what was going on and were supplying the commandos with lists of people they wanted brought in. He says he tried to stop the torture, but failed and fled the country.

“We were having lunch. Col Steele, Col Coffman, and the door opened and Captain Jabr was there torturing a prisoner. He [the victim] was hanging upside down and Steele got up and just closed the door, he didn’t say anything – it was just normal for him.”

He says there were 13 to 14 secret prisons in Baghdad under the control of the interior ministry and used by the Special Police Commandos. He alleges that Steele and Coffman had access to all these prisons and that he visited one in Baghdad with both men.

“They were secret, never declared. But the American top brass and the Iraqi leadership knew all about these prisons. The things that went on there: drilling, murder, torture. The ugliest sort of torture I’ve ever seen.”

0:00
/
0:00
According to one soldier with the 69th Armoured Regiment who was deployed in Samarra in 2005 but who doesn’t want to be identified: “It was like the Nazis … like the Gestapo basically. They [the commandos] would essentially torture anybody that they had good reason to suspect, knew something, or was part of the insurgency … or supporting it, and people knew about that.”

The Guardian interviewed six torture victims as part of this investigation. One, a man who says he was held for 20 days, said: “There was no sleep. From the sunset, the torture would start on me and on the other prisoners.

“They wanted confessions. They’d say: ‘Confess to what have you done.’ When you say: ‘I have done nothing. Shall I confess about something I have not done?’, they said: ‘Yes, this is our way. The Americans told us to bring as many detainees as possible in order to keep them frightened.’

“I did not confess about anything, although I was tortured and [they] took off my toenails.”

Neil Smith, a 20-year-old medic who was based in Samarra, remembers what low ranking US soldiers in the canteen said. “What was pretty widely known in our battalion, definitely in our platoon, was that they were pretty violent with their interrogations. That they would beat people, shock them with electrical shock, stab them, I don’t know what else … it sounds like pretty awful things. If you sent a guy there he was going to get tortured and perhaps raped or whatever, humiliated and brutalised by the special commandos in order for them to get whatever information they wanted.”

He now lives in Detroit and is a born-again Christian. He spoke to the Guardian because he said he now considered it his religious duty to speak out about what he saw. “I don’t think folks back home in America had any idea what American soldiers were involved in over there, the torture and all kinds of stuff.”

Through Facebook, Twitter and social media the Guardian managed to make contact with three soldiers who confirmed they were handing over detainees to be tortured by the special commandos, but none except Smith were prepared to go on camera.

“If somebody gets arrested and we hand them over to MoI they’re going to get their balls hooked, electrocuted or they’re going to get beaten or raped up the ass with a coke bottle or something like that,” one said.

He left the army in September 2006. Now 28, he works with refugees from the Arab world in Detroit teaching recent arrivals, including Iraqis, English.

“I suppose it is my way of saying sorry,” he said.

When the Guardian/BBC Arabic posed questions to Petraeus about torture and his relationship with Steele it received in reply a statement from an official close to the general saying, “General (Ret) Petraeus’s record, which includes instructions to his own soldiers … reflects his clear opposition to any form of torture.”

“Colonel (Ret) Steele was one of thousands of advisers to Iraqi units, working in the area of the Iraqi police. There was no set frequency for Colonel Steele’s meetings with General Petraeus, although General Petraeus did see him on a number of occasions during the establishment and initial deployments of the special police, in which Colonel Steele played a significant role.”

But Peter Maass, then reporting for the New York Times, and who has interviewed both men, remembers the relationship differently: “I talked to both of them about each other and it was very clear that they were very close to each other in terms of their command relationship and also in terms of their ideas and ideology of what needed to be done. Everybody knew that he was Petraeus’s man. Even Steele defined himself as Petraeus’s man.”

Maass and photographer Gilles Peress gained a unique audience with Steele at a library-turned-detention-centre in Samarra. “What I heard is prisoners screaming all night long,” Peress said. “You know at which point you had a young US captain telling his soldiers, don’t, just don’t come near this.”

0:00
/
0:00
Two men from Samarra who were imprisoned at the library spoke to the Guardian investigation team. “We’d be tied to a spit or we’d be hung from the ceiling by our hands and our shoulders would be dislocated,” one told us. The second said: “They electrocuted me. They hung me up from the ceiling. They were pulling at my ears with pliers, stamping on my head, asking me about my wife, saying they would bring her here.”

According to Maass in an interview for the investigation: “The interrogation centre was the only place in the mini green zone in Samarra that I was not allowed to visit. However, one day, Jim Steele said to me, ‘hey, they’ve just captured a Saudi jihadi. Would you like to interview him?’

“I’m taken not into the main area, the kind of main hall – although out the corner of my eye I can see that there were a lot of prisoners in there with their hands tied behind their backs – I was taken to a side office where the Saudi was brought in, and there was actually blood dripping down the side of this desk in the office.

Peress picks up the story: “We were in a room in the library interviewing Steele and I look around and I see blood everywhere, you know. He (Steele) hears the scream from the other guy who’s being tortured as we speak, there’s the blood stains in the corner of the desk in front of him.”

Maass says: “And while this interview was going on with this Saudi with Jim Steele also in the room, there were these terrible screams, somebody shouting Allah Allah Allah. But it wasn’t kind of religious ecstasy or something like that, these were screams of pain and terror.”

One of the torture survivors remembers how Adnan Thabit “came into the library and he told Captain Dorade and Captain Ali, go easy on the prisoners. Don’t dislocate their shoulders. This was because people were having to undergo surgery when they were released from the library.”

General Muntadher fled after two close colleagues were killed after they were summoned to the ministry, their bodies found on a rubbish tip. He got out of Iraq and went to Jordan. In less than a month, he says, Steele contacted him. Steele was anxious to meet and suggested he come to the luxury Sheraton hotel in Amman where Steele was staying. They met in the lobby at 8pm and Steele kept him talking for nearly two hours.

“He was asking me about the prisons. I was surprised by the questions and I reminded him that these were the same prisons where we both used to work. I reminded him of the incident where he had opened the door and Colonel Jabr was torturing one of the prisoners and how he didn’t do anything. Steele said: ‘But I remember that I told the officer off’. So I said to him: ‘No, you didn’t — you didn’t tell the officer off. You didn’t even tell General Adnan Thabit that this officer was committing human rights abuses against these prisoners’. And he was silent. He didn’t comment or answer. I was surprised by this.”

According to General Muntadher: “He wanted to know specifically: did I have any information about him, James Steele? Did I have evidence against him? Photographs, documents: things which proved he committed things in Iraq; things he was worried I might reveal. This was the purpose of his visit.

“I am prepared to go to the international court and stand in front of them and swear that high-ranking officials such as James Steele witnessed crimes against human rights in Iraq. They didn’t stop it happening and they didn’t punish the perpetrators.”

0:00
/
0:00
Steele, the man, remains an enigma. He left Iraq in September 2005 and has since pursued energy interests, joining the group of companies of Texas oilman Robert Mosbacher. Until now he has stayed where he likes to be – far from the media spotlight. Were it not for Bradley Manning’s leaking of millions of US military logs to Wikileaks, which lifted the lid on alleged abuses by the US in Iraq, there he may well have remained. Footage and images of him are rare. One video clip just 12 seconds long features in the hour-long TV investigation into his work. It captures Steele, then a 58-year-old veteran in Iraq, hesitating, looking uncomfortable when he spots a passing camera.

He draws back from the lens, watching warily out of the side of his eye and then pulls himself out of sight.

Mona Mahmood, Maggie O’Kane, Chavala Madlena, Teresa Smith, Ben Ferguson, Patrick Farrelly, Guy Grandjean, Josh Strauss, Roisin Glynn, Irene Baqué, Marcus Morgan, Jake Zervudachi and Joshua Boswell
Wednesday 6 March 2013 16.16 GMT Last modified on Friday 3 October 2014 16.50 BST

Find this story at 6 March 2013

© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited

Pentagon report predicted West’s support for Islamist rebels would create ISIS

Anti-ISIS coalition knowingly sponsored violent extremists to ‘isolate’ Assad, rollback ‘Shia expansion’

This story is published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a new crowd-funded investigative journalism project.

Support us to break the stories that no one else will — become a patron of independent, investigative journalism for the global commons.
A declassified secret US government document obtained by the conservative public interest law firm, Judicial Watch, shows that Western governments deliberately allied with al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups to topple Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad.

The document reveals that in coordination with the Gulf states and Turkey, the West intentionally sponsored violent Islamist groups to destabilize Assad, and that these “supporting powers” desired the emergence of a “Salafist Principality” in Syria to “isolate the Syrian regime.”

According to the newly declassified US document, the Pentagon foresaw the likely rise of the ‘Islamic State’ as a direct consequence of this strategy, and warned that it could destabilize Iraq. Despite anticipating that Western, Gulf state and Turkish support for the “Syrian opposition” — which included al-Qaeda in Iraq — could lead to the emergence of an ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the document provides no indication of any decision to reverse the policy of support to the Syrian rebels. On the contrary, the emergence of an al-Qaeda affiliated “Salafist Principality” as a result is described as a strategic opportunity to isolate Assad.

Hypocrisy

The revelations contradict the official line of Western governments on their policies in Syria, and raise disturbing questions about secret Western support for violent extremists abroad, while using the burgeoning threat of terror to justify excessive mass surveillance and crackdowns on civil liberties at home.

Among the batch of documents obtained by Judicial Watch through a federal lawsuit, released earlier this week, is a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document then classified as “secret,” dated 12th August 2012.

The DIA provides military intelligence in support of planners, policymakers and operations for the US Department of Defense and intelligence community.

So far, media reporting has focused on the evidence that the Obama administration knew of arms supplies from a Libyan terrorist stronghold to rebels in Syria.

Some outlets have reported the US intelligence community’s internal prediction of the rise of ISIS. Yet none have accurately acknowledged the disturbing details exposing how the West knowingly fostered a sectarian, al-Qaeda-driven rebellion in Syria.

Charles Shoebridge, a former British Army and Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism intelligence officer, said:

“Given the political leanings of the organisation that obtained these documents, it’s unsurprising that the main emphasis given to them thus far has been an attempt to embarrass Hilary Clinton regarding what was known about the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012. However, the documents also contain far less publicized revelations that raise vitally important questions of the West’s governments and media in their support of Syria’s rebellion.”

The West’s Islamists

The newly declassified DIA document from 2012 confirms that the main component of the anti-Assad rebel forces by this time comprised Islamist insurgents affiliated to groups that would lead to the emergence of ISIS. Despite this, these groups were to continue receiving support from Western militaries and their regional allies.

Noting that “the Salafist [sic], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” the document states that “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition,” while Russia, China and Iran “support the [Assad] regime.”

The 7-page DIA document states that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to the ‘Islamic State in Iraq,’ (ISI) which became the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,’ “supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media.”

The formerly secret Pentagon report notes that the “rise of the insurgency in Syria” has increasingly taken a “sectarian direction,” attracting diverse support from Sunni “religious and tribal powers” across the region.

In a section titled ‘The Future Assumptions of the Crisis,’ the DIA report predicts that while Assad’s regime will survive, retaining control over Syrian territory, the crisis will continue to escalate “into proxy war.”

The document also recommends the creation of “safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre for the temporary government.”

In Libya, anti-Gaddafi rebels, most of whom were al-Qaeda affiliated militias, were protected by NATO ‘safe havens’ (aka ‘no fly zones’).

‘Supporting powers want’ ISIS entity

In a strikingly prescient prediction, the Pentagon document explicitly forecasts the probable declaration of “an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”

Nevertheless, “Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts” by Syrian “opposition forces” fighting to “control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to Western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar)”:

“… there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
The secret Pentagon document thus provides extraordinary confirmation that the US-led coalition currently fighting ISIS, had three years ago welcomed the emergence of an extremist “Salafist Principality” in the region as a way to undermine Assad, and block off the strategic expansion of Iran. Crucially, Iraq is labeled as an integral part of this “Shia expansion.”

The establishment of such a “Salafist Principality” in eastern Syria, the DIA document asserts, is “exactly” what the “supporting powers to the [Syrian] opposition want.” Earlier on, the document repeatedly describes those “supporting powers” as “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey.”

Further on, the document reveals that Pentagon analysts were acutely aware of the dire risks of this strategy, yet ploughed ahead anyway.

The establishment of such a “Salafist Principality” in eastern Syria, it says, would create “the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi.” Last summer, ISIS conquered Mosul in Iraq, and just this month has also taken control of Ramadi.

Such a quasi-state entity will provide:

“… a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of territory.”
The 2012 DIA document is an Intelligence Information Report (IIR), not a “finally evaluated intelligence” assessment, but its contents are vetted before distribution. The report was circulated throughout the US intelligence community, including to the State Department, Central Command, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, FBI, among other agencies.

In response to my questions about the strategy, the British government simply denied the Pentagon report’s startling revelations of deliberate Western sponsorship of violent extremists in Syria. A British Foreign Office spokesperson said:

“AQ and ISIL are proscribed terrorist organisations. The UK opposes all forms of terrorism. AQ, ISIL, and their affiliates pose a direct threat to the UK’s national security. We are part of a military and political coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and are working with international partners to counter the threat from AQ and other terrorist groups in that region. In Syria we have always supported those moderate opposition groups who oppose the tyranny of Assad and the brutality of the extremists.”
The DIA did not respond to request for comment.

Strategic asset for regime-change

Security analyst Shoebridge, however, who has tracked Western support for Islamist terrorists in Syria since the beginning of the war, pointed out that the secret Pentagon intelligence report exposes fatal contradictions at the heart of official pronunciations:

“Throughout the early years of the Syria crisis, the US and UK governments, and almost universally the West’s mainstream media, promoted Syria’s rebels as moderate, liberal, secular, democratic, and therefore deserving of the West’s support. Given that these documents wholly undermine this assessment, it’s significant that the West’s media has now, despite their immense significance, almost entirely ignored them.”
According to Brad Hoff, a former US Marine who served during the early years of the Iraq War and as a 9/11 first responder at the Marine Corps Headquarters Battalion in Quantico from 2000 to 2004, the just released Pentagon report for the first time provides stunning affirmation that:

“US intelligence predicted the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), but instead of clearly delineating the group as an enemy, the report envisions the terror group as a US strategic asset.”
Hoff, who is managing editor of Levant Report — an online publication run by Texas-based educators who have direct experience of the Middle East — points out that the DIA document “matter-of-factly” states that the rise of such an extremist Salafist political entity in the region offers a “tool for regime change in Syria.”

The DIA intelligence report shows, he said, that the rise of ISIS only became possible in the context of the Syrian insurgency — “there is no mention of US troop withdrawal from Iraq as a catalyst for Islamic State’s rise, which is the contention of innumerable politicians and pundits.” The report demonstrates that:

“The establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in Eastern Syria is ‘exactly’ what the external powers supporting the opposition want (identified as ‘the West, Gulf Countries, and Turkey’) in order to weaken the Assad government.”
The rise of a Salafist quasi-state entity that might expand into Iraq, and fracture that country, was therefore clearly foreseen by US intelligence as likely — but nevertheless strategically useful — blowback from the West’s commitment to “isolating Syria.”

Complicity

Critics of the US-led strategy in the region have repeatedly raised questions about the role of coalition allies in intentionally providing extensive support to Islamist terrorist groups in the drive to destabilize the Assad regime in Syria.

The conventional wisdom is that the US government did not retain sufficient oversight on the funding to anti-Assad rebel groups, which was supposed to be monitored and vetted to ensure that only ‘moderate’ groups were supported.

However, the newly declassified Pentagon report proves unambiguously that years before ISIS launched its concerted offensive against Iraq, the US intelligence community was fully aware that Islamist militants constituted the core of Syria’s sectarian insurgency.

Despite that, the Pentagon continued to support the Islamist insurgency, even while anticipating the probability that doing so would establish an extremist Salafi stronghold in Syria and Iraq.

As Shoebridge told me, “The documents show that not only did the US government at the latest by August 2012 know the true extremist nature and likely outcome of Syria’s rebellion” — namely, the emergence of ISIS — “but that this was considered an advantage for US foreign policy. This also suggests a decision to spend years in an effort to deliberately mislead the West’s public, via a compliant media, into believing that Syria’s rebellion was overwhelmingly ‘moderate.’”

Annie Machon, a former MI5 intelligence officer who blew the whistle in the 1990s on MI6 funding of al-Qaeda to assassinate Libya’s former leader Colonel Gaddafi, similarly said of the revelations:

“This is no surprise to me. Within individual countries there are always multiple intelligence agencies with competing agendas.”
She explained that MI6’s Libya operation in 1996, which resulted in the deaths of innocent people, “happened at precisely the time when MI5 was setting up a new section to investigate al-Qaeda.”

This strategy was repeated on a grand scale in the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, said Machon, where the CIA and MI6 were:

“… supporting the very same Libyan groups, resulting in a failed state, mass murder, displacement and anarchy. So the idea that elements of the American military-security complex have enabled the development of ISIS after their failed attempt to get NATO to once again ‘intervene’ is part of an established pattern. And they remain indifferent to the sheer scale of human suffering that is unleashed as a result of such game-playing.”

Divide and rule

Several US government officials have conceded that their closest allies in the anti-ISIS coalition were funding violent extremist Islamist groups that became integral to ISIS.

US Vice President Joe Biden, for instance, admitted last year that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Islamist rebels in Syria that metamorphosed into ISIS.

But he did not admit what this internal Pentagon document demonstrates — that the entire covert strategy was sanctioned and supervised by the US, Britain, France, Israel and other Western powers.

The strategy appears to fit a policy scenario identified by a recent US Army-commissioned RAND Corp report.

The report, published four years before the DIA document, called for the US “to capitalise on the Shia-Sunni conflict by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes in a decisive fashion and working with them against all Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world.”

The US would need to contain “Iranian power and influence” in the Gulf by “shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.” Simultaneously, the US must maintain “a strong strategic relationship with the Iraqi Shiite government” despite its Iran alliance.

The RAND report confirmed that the “divide and rule” strategy was already being deployed “to create divisions in the jihadist camp. Today in Iraq such a strategy is being used at the tactical level.”

The report observed that the US was forming “temporary alliances” with al-Qaeda affiliated “nationalist insurgent groups” that have fought the US for four years in the form of “weapons and cash.” Although these nationalists “have cooperated with al-Qaeda against US forces,” they are now being supported to exploit “the common threat that al-Qaeda now poses to both parties.”

The 2012 DIA document, however, further shows that while sponsoring purportedly former al-Qaeda insurgents in Iraq to counter al-Qaeda, Western governments were simultaneously arming al-Qaeda insurgents in Syria.

The revelation from an internal US intelligence document that the very US-led coalition supposedly fighting ‘Islamic State’ today, knowingly created ISIS in the first place, raises troubling questions about recent government efforts to justify the expansion of state anti-terror powers.

In the wake of the rise of ISIS, intrusive new measures to combat extremism including mass surveillance, the Orwellian ‘prevent duty’ and even plans to enable government censorship of broadcasters, are being pursued on both sides of the Atlantic, much of which disproportionately targets activists, journalists and ethnic minorities, especially Muslims.

Yet the new Pentagon report reveals that, contrary to Western government claims, the primary cause of the threat comes from their own deeply misguided policies of secretly sponsoring Islamist terrorism for dubious geopolitical purposes.

by Nafeez Ahmed
22 May 2015

Find this story at 22 May 2015

Copyright https://medium.com/