Al-Qaeda

ISIL, Iraq and Syria: Why Military Action Won’t Do The Trick

(AP Photo, File)
O n September 10, 2014, President Obama announced a new strategy aimed at “ degrading and destroying ” ISIL (also known as ISIS and the Islamic State). Ideally, the United States should avoid fighting in Iraq and Syria. Now that that the U.S. has committed itself to bombing Iraq and Syria, however, ISIL and the threat it represents should be placed into a historical context that until now has only sporadically informed U.S. plans. In 1994 the United States faced a similar Salafi Islamist non-state entity: the Afghan Taliban. ( Salafism is a strict interpretation of Islamic theology, as laid out by the Qur’an and the Hadith, wherein life must adhere as closely as possible to the conditions that existed during the religion’s first three generations). ISIL, like the Taliban, is a militant Islamist reaction to failed governance. Examining American-Taliban history can help American leaders understand the threat posed by ISIL, the dangers of trying to defeat the movement outright, as well...

So Much For the End of the War on Terror

U.S. Navy photo by Carmichael Yepez
Remember when Barack Obama was going to end the War on Terror? Well today, not only did the U.S. launch air strikes within Syria to target ISIL, we also struck against the Khorasan group, a small al-Qaeda offshoot that was purportedly plotting to blow up American airplanes, and the al-Nusra front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Back in May of last year, Obama gave a speech meant to signal a break with the prior twelve years, in which he said, "we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America." One could argue that that's a distinction without a difference, that it's only about rhetoric. You might also say that the War on Terror isn't so much a set of military actions as it is a mindset. It's the state of being terrorized, in which the nation is constantly on the edge of panic, willing to approve almost anything in the name of staying "...

Beware Simple Solutions On Iraq

The aftermath of a bombing in Baghdad. (Flickr/Salam Pax)
With the situation in Iraq growing more grave by the hour, we're going to be hearing a lot from the gang of cretins who brought us the Iraq War in the first place, who will now be emerging to tell us that it was all a splendid American victory until Barack Obama came along and screwed the whole thing up. (I can't wait to see what Bill Kristol has to say when he appears on ABC's This Week on Sunday.) More than anyone else, we'll be hearing endlessly from President McCain, a man so uninformed he is unaware that ISIS, the group now controlling large parts of the country, is not actually the same thing as Al Qaeda. ("Al Qaeda is now the richest terrorist organization in history," he said after ISIS raided the bank in Mosul.) But reporters and TV bookers are beating a path to his door, so important is it that the American people hear his wise counsel. If there's one thing you should keep in mind as this develops, it's that anyone who says there's a simple solution to the problem of Iraq is...

Where Terrorists and Assassins Don't Hide

Flickr/Wyn Van Devanter
At the end of last week, I wrote about a report showing how law enforcement authorities reacted to Occupy protests as if they were the advance guard for an al Qaeda invasion of America, on the apparent assumption that unlike non-violent right-wing dissent, non-violent left-wing dissent is likely a prelude to violence and thus must be met with surveillance, infiltration, and ultimately force. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a decision on a case involving the Secret Service that seems to grow from a similar assumption about the connection between dissent and violence. The case was about an incident in 2004 when President George W. Bush stopped at an outdoor restaurant in Oregon. A crowd quickly formed, with some people cheering Bush and some jeering him. The Secret Service forced both groups away from the location, but let the pro-Bush citizens stay closer than the anti-Bush citizens; the plaintiffs charged that this was impermissible viewpoint discrimination. The Court ruled 9-0...

Drone War Testimonials

A reporter sits down with one Pakistani family who traveled more than 7,000 miles to tell their story to Congress—only five representatives showed up to listen. 

Humna Bhojani
Humna Bhojani The Rehmans: Nabila, Rafiq, and Zubair. T wo beams of light came down from the drone lingering over the field where they had been gathering okra and hit Nabila’s grandmother, Mamana Bibi. The earth shuddered. Nabila fell; terrified, she stumbled into a run. Blood was gushing from her arm. She wrapped her red chaddar (head covering) around the shrapnel wound; moments later it was soaked through. Through the smoke, Nabila caught a glimpse of Mamana’s brown sandal. She passed out. The day Mamana was killed, October 24 th 2012, was a beautiful one in the North Waziristan village of Tapi in Pakistan. A few clouds sprinkled over the bright blue sky—perfect weather for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which was the next day. For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is the holiest day of the year, celebrating the sacrifice Abraham made. “They have told me that Eid is like Christmas,” Zubair, Nabila’s, 13-year-old brother said during his testimony at a Congressional briefing on October 29,...

Get Your Hands Off My War on Terror!

AP Images/Holly Ramer
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File P resident Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University last week represented the latest and probably most significant rhetorical shift away from the “war on terror” since he took office in January 2009. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said in one of the speech’s key passages. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” “Core al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” the president said. “ Groups like AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that label themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.” Time will tell whether Obama puts real weight behind some of the changes articulated in the speech. There’s no question that it marked another important turn toward a more nuanced assessment of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. But like...

Ringside Seat: War Is Over?

To be honest, before President Obama delivered his speech today on the "war on terror," we weren't too optimistic about what new ground it might break. But it turned out to be quite significant—perhaps not completely revolutionary, but meaningful nonetheless. Even as he made a lengthy argument in defense of the use of drones, Obama acknowledged not only that we have killed American citizens in drone strikes, but that the strikes have also killed civilians. He made, as he hasn't in some time, a strong case to shut down the prison in Guantanamo, and also announced a lifting of the moratorium on sending prisoners who have been declared to not be a threat to the U.S. (because they weren't terrorists in the first place) back to Yemen. According to The New York Times, "Of the 86 detainees approved for transfer when 'security conditions' are met, 56 of them are from Yemen. In theory, this move could lead to a significant reduction in the prison population." Obama also called for repealing...

The Forever War, Still Forever

White House photo by Eric Draper
*/ AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File T oday, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny. Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush and his administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda nor even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone can use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win. Nevertheless, when Obama was running...

Bin Laden Photos to Stay Hidden

This will remain Bin Laden's enduring image.
Remember the Bin Laden photos? When the al-Qaeda leader was killed two years ago, people immediately began asking whether the world would ever get to see an image of his body. At first, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said photos would be released, but President Obama overruled him. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch that the government may continue to keep the photos hidden from public view. At the time, I argued that a photo should be released—not every photo that everyone took of the body, but perhaps one shot of it being lowered into the ocean in a respectful ceremony. I went on NPR's On the Media and debated the question with The New Yorker 's Philip Gourevitch, who treated me like I was some kind of contemptible ghoul for suggesting such a thing, but I made what I thought was a perfectly reasonable argument. Here's an excerpt of the column I wrote: Might the image be disturbing? Yes, it might...

Doesn't Anybody Here Know How to Run a Conspiracy?

Victoria Nuland's actual email.
In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what. But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to...

Do Drones Work?

AP Images/Eric Gay
Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes. The two hearings mark the first time Congress has explicitly scrutinized drones as a stand-alone issue; previous discussions were wrapped up in confirmation hearings and Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster in March. But in narrowing the focus of the debate over drones to encompass only the moral gray areas of the Obama administration’s targeted killings policy, Congress is failing to ask more important questions. There’s no doubt that drone strikes can have horrific consequences. Beyond the disputed numbers of noncombatants killed, there are psychological consequences to consider as well. In the Senate hearing, Farea al-Muslimi, an American-educated Yemeni writer and activist, spoke eloquently of the heartbreak and fear that drones cause...

A Sheikh's Life

What Tariq al-Fadhli's story says about the mixed-up world of Yemeni politics

Tariq al-Fadhli wept when he heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. “I love him and thank him for supporting me. If it wasn't for Osama Bin Laden, maybe I wouldn't have returned to my country,” recalled al-Fadhli, a well-known Yemeni tribal Sheikh recently expelled from his compound in southern Abyan province at gunpoint by anti-al-Qaeda militiamen who were convinced he was aiding militants in the area. But during an interview at his government-proffered villa in neighboring Aden, al-Fadhli insisted that he is affiliated with not al-Qaeda. “If I had a relationship with al-Qaeda, the local intelligence would know,” he said, waving a cigarette in his neatly manicured hand. Safe behind a high wall buffered with heavily armed tribesmen—most of whom had a wad of khat (a mildly narcatoic leaf chewed by many Yemenis) in their cheek—Sheikh al-Fadli was relaxed. Wearing a local kilt-like futa, a traditional dagger known as a jambiya, and other colorful accessories, he even cracked jokes...

Beware Of "Ties"

Flickr/Fernando de Souza
Something to think about as we learn more in the coming days about both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother Tamerlan. Everything investigators have released so far suggests that they acted alone, and you can easily find instructions to make the kind of bomb they used on the Internet. But as details get fleshed out about where they went, what they did, and whom they met in the last few years, there's a phrase we'll be hearing a lot: "ties to al-Qaeda." So before people start saying the brothers had "ties to al-Qaeda," we should make sure we know exactly what we're saying when we use that term. We still don't know much about why the Russian government contacted the FBI regarding Tamerlan, and what he did on an extended trip to Chechnya and Dagestan in 2012. Who knows, maybe Ayman al-Zawahiri himself went to Grozny to meet with him, told him how to make the bombs, and ordered him to carry out the attack. But probably not. It's a lot more likely that we'll find out about some far...

On Foreign Policy, Romney Promises Bush Redux

If there’s one must-read on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it’s Kurt Eichenwald’s op-ed in the New York Times , in which he illustrates the extent to which intelligence agencies had warned the Bush administration of Osama bin Laden’s activities on American soil. The most striking detail is the fact that the infamous August 6 memo—“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”—was preceded by a series of documents, stretching back to the spring of 2001. For example: By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible. But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who...

Keyboard Jihadist?

(John Ritter)
I t’s unusual for a domestic terrorism suspect to have a fan club. But every morning of Tarek Mehanna’s eight-week trial late last year on federal terrorism charges, supporters packed the domed, ornate courtroom in downtown Boston, smiling and waving whenever Mehanna turned to face them. Their support was unflagging, even though Mehanna was charged with crimes prosecutors called “among the most serious a person can commit,” including material support of terrorism and conspiracy to kill American soldiers in Iraq. The government had been collecting information on Mehanna, a 29-year-old second-generation Egyptian American, for more than eight years. In court, prosecutors provided transcripts from online chats in which Mehanna had praised Osama bin Laden, calling him “my real father,” and invited friends over for “movie night” to watch a video of a beheading in Iraq that he called “Head’s Up.” Most damning, the government also claimed that Mehanna had gone to Yemen to find a terrorist...

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