Posted tagged ‘Taliban’

Afghanistan’s terrorist resurgence: Al Qaeda, ISIS, and beyond

April 27, 2017

Afghanistan’s terrorist resurgence: Al Qaeda, ISIS, and beyond, Long War Journal, April 27, 2017

More than 15 years after the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda, the group maintains a persistent and significant presence in the country. Despite the Obama administration’s surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, the Taliban, which has maintained its close alliance with al-Qaeda, is resurgent and today holds more ground in the country since the U.S. ousted the jihadists in early 2002.

And the threat posed by jihadist groups in Afghanistan has expanded. The Islamic State has established a small, but significant, foothold in the country. Pakistani jihadist groups that are hostile to the U.S. – such as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Harakat-ul-Muhajideen – operate bases inside Afghanistan as well.

For nearly seven years, the Obama administration wrote off al-Qaeda as a spent force. The group has been described as “decimated.” After Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, President Obama said the “core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is on a path to defeat.” The Obama administration pushed this narrative hard, with many counterterrorism analysts adopting the line that al-Qaeda was either defeated or close to it.

Between 2010 and 2016, Obama administration officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, as well as other U.S. military and intelligence officials, characterized al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan as minimal and consistently told the American public that the group has a presence of just 50 to 100 fighters. “I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan,” Panetta said on ABC News This Week.

 

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Editor’s note: Below is Bill Roggio’s testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation. A PDF of the testimony, with footnotes, can be downloaded here.

Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and other members of this subcommittee, thank you for inviting me here today to speak about the terrorist groups based in Afghanistan and their continuing threat to U.S. national security.

More than 15 years after the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda, the group maintains a persistent and significant presence in the country. Despite the Obama administration’s surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, the Taliban, which has maintained its close alliance with al-Qaeda, is resurgent and today holds more ground in the country since the U.S. ousted the jihadists in early 2002.

And the threat posed by jihadist groups in Afghanistan has expanded. The Islamic State has established a small, but significant, foothold in the country. Pakistani jihadist groups that are hostile to the U.S. – such as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Harakat-ul-Muhajideen – operate bases inside Afghanistan as well.

U.S. Estimates on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan Were Incorrect

For nearly seven years, the Obama administration wrote off al-Qaeda as a spent force. The group has been described as “decimated.” After Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, President Obama said the “core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is on a path to defeat.” The Obama administration pushed this narrative hard, with many counterterrorism analysts adopting the line that al-Qaeda was either defeated or close to it.

Between 2010 and 2016, Obama administration officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, as well as other U.S. military and intelligence officials, characterized al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan as minimal and consistently told the American public that the group has a presence of just 50 to 100 fighters. “I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan,” Panetta said on ABC News This Week.

This assessment, which contradicted the U.S. military’s own press releases announcing raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was consistently repeated by U.S. intelligence and military officials. In June 2015, the U.S. military claimed in its biannual Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report that al-Qaeda “has a sustained presence in Afghanistan of probably fewer than 100 operatives concentrated largely in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where they remain year-round.” The December 2015 report claimed that al-Qaeda is “primarily concentrated in the east and northeast.

This estimate of al-Qaeda’s strength, which consistently downplayed al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, came crashing down in mid-October 2015, when the U.S. military and Afghan forces orchestrated a large-scale operation against two al-Qaeda camps in the Shorabak district in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

The scale of al-Qaeda’s presence at the two camps in Shorabak quickly disproved the longstanding 50 to 100 estimate. A U.S. military statement, quoting spokesman Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, described the raid as “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” It took U.S. and Afghan forces more than four days to clear the two camps, with the aid of 63 airstrikes.

Shoffner’s description of the al-Qaeda facilities indicated that they had been built long ago. “The first site, a well-established training camp, spanned approximately one square mile. The second site covered nearly 30 square miles,” Shoffner said. “We struck a major al-Qaeda sanctuary in the center of the Taliban’s historic heartland,” he added.

Weeks later, General John F. Campbell, then the commander of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support mission, described one of the camps, which was run by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al-Qaeda’s branch in South Asia, as “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

It has been estimated that at least 150 al-Qaeda fighters were killed during the raids on the two camps in Shorabak. This is 50 more al-Qaeda fighters than the upper end of the Obama administration’s estimate of al-Qaeda’s strength throughout all of Afghanistan. And the al-Qaeda members were killed in southern Afghanistan, not in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, where we have been told they were concentrated.

The U.S. military was ultimately forced to concede its estimate of al-Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan was wrong. In mid-December 2016, General Nicholson admitted that the U.S. military killed or captured 50 al-Qaeda leaders and an additional 200 operatives during calendar year 2016 in Afghanistan.

In April 2016, Major General Jeff Buchanan, Resolute Support’s deputy chief of staff, told CNN that the 50 to 100 estimate was incorrect based on the results of the Shorabak raid. “If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intel estimates that said within Afghanistan al-Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but in this one camp we found more than 150,” he said. The estimate of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan was revised upwards to about 300.

However, well before the Shorabak raids, it was evident to those of us closely watching the war in Afghanistan that al-Qaeda was stronger in Afghanistan than the official estimates, and was not confined to small areas in the northeast. Al-Qaeda consistently reported on its operations throughout Afghanistan, and the U.S. military, up until the summer of 2013, reported on raids against al-Qaeda cells in multiple provinces.

Surely, there was something seriously wrong with the CIA and the U.S. military’s ability to properly report on al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda’s footprint inside Afghanistan remains a direct threat to U.S. national security and, with the resurgence of the Taliban, it is a threat that is only growing stronger.

The Enduring Taliban-al-Qaeda Relationship

Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has not occurred in a vacuum. It has maintained its strength in the country since the U.S. invasion, launched a new branch, AQIS, and established training camps with the help and support of the Taliban.

When Generals Campbell and Buchanan discussed al-Qaeda in the wake of the Shorabak raid, they described the group as resurgent. Campbell described the Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship as a “renewed partnership,” while Buchanan said it “has since ‘grown stronger.’”

But like the estimate that al-Qaeda maintained a small cadre of 50 to 100 operatives in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2016, the idea that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have only recently reinvigorated their relationship is incorrect. Al-Qaeda would not have been able to maintain a large cadre of fighters and leaders inside Afghanistan, conduct operations in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, establish training camps, and relocate high-level leaders from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Afghanistan without the Taliban’s long-term support.
Al-Qaeda has remained loyal to the Taliban’s leader, which it describes as the Amir al- Mumineen, or the “Commander of the Faithful,” since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Osama bin Laden maintained his oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder and first emir. When bin Laden died, Ayman al-Zawahiri renewed that oath. And when Mullah Omar’s death was announced in 2015, Zawahiri swore bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Mullah Mansour, the Taliban’s new leader. Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s oath.

The close relationship between the two jihadist groups is also evident with the assent of the Taliban’s new deputy emir, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the powerful Taliban subgroup known as the Haqqani Network. Sirajuddin and the Haqqani Network have maintained close ties to al-Qaeda for years. The relationship is evident in the U.S. government’s designations of multiple Haqqani Network leaders. Two documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound show that Siraj has closely coordinated his operations with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship remains strong to this day. And with the Taliban gaining control of a significant percentage of Afghanistan’s territory, al-Qaeda has more areas to plant its flag.

Rise of the Islamic State

Shortly after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the caliphate in 2014, announcing the formation of the Islamic State, a small number of disgruntled jihadists from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as al-Qaeda, discarded their oaths to the Taliban, pledged their fealty to Baghdadi, and established the so-called Khorasan province.

While the Islamic State dominates the jihad in Iraq and is a major player in Syria, the group has posed a smaller threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan when compared to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their jihadist allies. The U.S. military estimated the group had upwards of 2,000 fighters at the beginning of 2016, but had lost between 25 and 30 percent of its men in the months that followed. While U.S. military estimates of the strength of jihadist groups in Afghanistan must be taken with a grain of salt, this number is likely in the right ballpark.
The Islamic State has a much smaller presence in Afghanistan when compared to the Taliban. While the Taliban controls or contests more than 200 of Afghanistan’s 400 districts, the Islamic State only controls terrain in several districts in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The group also reportedly has a presence in the Afghan north.

The Islamic State’s Khorasan province has remained entrenched in Nangarhar and has withstood multiple U.S.-backed offensives over the past two years. The U.S. military has had success in killing key leaders, but the group has proven resilient.

Still, the so-called caliphate’s Khorasan province has remained on the margins of the Afghan war. It has conducted a limited number of suicide attacks and other operations in the Afghan capital of Kabul and elsewhere, but has not come close to matching the Taliban’s operational tempo.

Khorasan province has had a difficult time gaining traction throughout much of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as it is unwilling to cooperate with other, long-entrenched jihadist groups. In fact, the Taliban crushed the Khorasan province’s forces in Helmand, Farah, and Zabul after they demanded that the Taliban’s fighters swear allegiance to Baghdadi.

Pakistani Jihadist Groups Operating in Afghanistan

In addition to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, numerous Pakistan-based jihadist groups are known to operate in Afghanistan. For the most part, these organizations remain in the Taliban and al-Qaeda sphere, and leaders of the groups often backfill leadership positions when al-Qaeda commanders are killed in U.S. airstrikes.

The three largest Pakistani groups operating in Afghanistan are the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Harakat-ul-Muhajideen.

The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) is largely made up of Taliban groups from Pakistan’s tribal areas. It is closely allied with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. In 2010, the TTP organized the Times Square bombing plot.

The TTP has taken advantage of the turbulent and ungoverned Afghan-Pakistani border to shift its base of operations when the Pakistani military targets it in offensives. The U.S. has killed several TTP leaders in airstrikes in Afghanistan.

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is a dangerous jihadist group that is backed by Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. The LeT is known to operate training camps in Afghanistan and attacked the Indian Consulate in Herat in 2014.26 The U.S. has killed several senior LeT operatives in airstrikes in northeastern Afghanistan over the years. The U.S. has also listed several senior LeT operatives, including Hafiz Saeed, the group’s emir, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) is another Pakistani jihadist group that is known, as of August 2014, to operate training camps in Afghanistan.27 HuM has been involved in numerous acts of terror in the region, including hijacking an Indian airplane, attacking the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, and murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

The Legacy of the Taliban: Sunni Allies of Tehran

April 20, 2017

The Legacy of the Taliban: Sunni Allies of Tehran, The Jerusalem Center via YouTube, April 20, 2017

(Please see also Taliban Decry ‘Detriments for the Environment’ from U.S. MOAB Explosion. — DM)

The blurb beneath the video states,

The West must not allow terror sanctuaries to grow, thrive, and be used to plan attacks against the West.

The U.S. decision to drop an 11-ton bomb, known as the “mother of all bombs,” in Afghanistan against an ISIS target brought back into focus that entire war and the fact that, aside from the problem of ISIS, there has still been a problem in Afghanistan of the Taliban.

How did the Taliban become so significant over the last number of years since the 9/11 attacks? It’s important to remember that the Taliban are as much a problem as the terror organizations that have congregated on Afghan soil. Taliban policies since the late 1990s involved a number of acts which they undertook which have undermined not just the security of the Middle East but also the security of the world. Of course it was the Taliban who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and to al-Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks. They were originally located or protected by the regime in Sudan, but then in the mid-90s, bin Laden moved to Afghanistan where the Taliban had taken control and offered him a location for his training camps. It was there that bin Laden planned and implemented the horrible attack on the United States – against New York and against Washington, D.C.

One thing we’ve learned from this entire experience is that the West must not allow terror sanctuaries to grow, to thrive, and to be used to plan attacks against the West. That is the first lesson from the experience the West has had with the Taliban.

There’s a second experience with the Taliban that should be recalled. In March 2001, the Taliban decided to dynamite Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan that were 2,000 years old. These statues were located along the Silk Route and they were treasured by adherents of Buddhism, but all of a sudden the Taliban decided to attack these religious sites. The Taliban attack actually induced a debate in many radical Islamic circles about whether it was the right thing to do. At first, for example, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi , thought it would be a mistake for the Taliban to attack the Buddhas because it would set up Muslims to be assaulted in Buddhist countries. Later, later Qaradawi and others said, “You know what? The attack on these pre-Islamic sites was the right thing to do” and there was even a discussion about destroying pre-Islamic sites in Egypt like the pyramids and the Sphinx.

It isn’t surprising that the derivatives of al-Qaeda that have grown, like ISIS, have been attacking pre-Islamic religious sites all over the Middle East, destroying the heritage of mankind in tens of cities that were once manned and lived in by ancient empires – the Persians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians. This tendency to attack religious sites of other faiths is a very dangerous trend that really had its first modern example with the attacks of the Taliban, and they remind us of a disastrous effects of the Taliban in the years that came afterward.

A third feature of the Taliban presence in Afghanistan is an opportunity we have to learn what are the exact relations between Shiites and Sunnis. Taliban, of course, are radical Sunnis and almost everybody who starts learning about the Middle East begins thinking that Sunnis are at war with Shiites, and that’s how you understand the politics of the Middle East. But it doesn’t always work that way because the Taliban today are equipped and even trained by Iranian forces. Iran is an essential ally of the Taliban despite the fact that the Taliban are radical Sunnis and the Iranians are radical Shiites.

So if there are those who think that they could allow Iran to expand its influence around the area of the Middle East and South Asia and it won’t affect them because their enemies are essentially Sunni, they’re making a big mistake, because an expanded Iran will also enhance radical Sunnism as it has with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

 

Taliban Decry ‘Detriments for the Environment’ from U.S. MOAB Explosion

April 20, 2017

Taliban Decry ‘Detriments for the Environment’ from U.S. MOAB Explosion, PJ Media, Bridget Johnson, April 19, 2017

Afghan commandos are positioned in Pandola village near the site of the U.S. MOAB bombing in the Achin district of Afghanistan on April 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

(St. Al the Gored has not yet registered his displeasure at this obvious effort to promote global warming. — DM)

“The use and experimentation of such destructive weapons by foreign occupiers on our war-weary people and in every corner of our war-ravaged country is inexcusable,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. “The Islamic Emirate condemns such barbarity in the strongest of terms and considers its perpetrators as war criminals. Such over-proportionate use of destruction poses long-term detriments for the environment and the development of our nation.”

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster visited Afghanistan after the MOAB attack to help determine if the U.S. will have an increased presence in Afghanistan moving forward.

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The Taliban accused Washington of harming the environment and using disproportionate force against ISIS by dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Nangarhar province last week.

It was the first time the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, packed with 11 tons of TNT and dropped from an MC-130, was used in combat.

The U.S. Resolute Support Mission said forces “took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties with this strike.” An Afghan army spokesman told the country’s Tolo News that one civilian family lived in the blast area, but they were evacuated by security forces before the MOAB was dropped.

“Many families had long been displaced from the area due to ISIS brutality,” said Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. “Government also took great care to avoid civilian harm.”

Tolo reported Tuesday that the majority of the 96 fighters killed by the MOAB in the ISIS stonghold were Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and members of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. TTP’s attacks include the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the shooting of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, and the 2014 massacre at a Peshawar school. Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been allied with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, was behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Also reportedly among the dead: 13 ISIS commanders, 12 Tajiks, and 13 Indian nationals who had joined ISIS.

ISIS operatives are still active in other provinces including Kunar, Zabul, Ghor, Jawzjan and Sar-e-Pul, where Afghan officials say ISIS has beheaded children and torched homes.

ISIS and the Taliban called a truce last August, agreeing to stop fighting each other to both focus on fighting U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed Afghan forces.

In a statement posted on their website over the weekend, the Taliban said the “barbarity” of the Achin district MOAB drop “was followed with much fanfare with the Americans proudly boasting about it in the media thus showcasing the increasing barbarity of the foreign occupation.”

“The use and experimentation of such destructive weapons by foreign occupiers on our war-weary people and in every corner of our war-ravaged country is inexcusable,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. “The Islamic Emirate condemns such barbarity in the strongest of terms and considers its perpetrators as war criminals. Such over-proportionate use of destruction poses long-term detriments for the environment and the development of our nation.”

He added that ISIS in Afghanistan is an internal Afghan matter and “if Americans fear for their security they should foil such plots at their own borders.”

Mujahid accused the U.S. of using ISIS “as a ploy” to “experiment novel weapons and extend the illegitimate occupation.” Further, he claimed the Taliban “came close to completely eradicating this group” but their operations were stymied by U.S. bombing.

“The fact that the Americans claim that their presence in Afghanistan is limited only to a train and assist role while dropping 10 kiloton bombs on our lands only strengthens the voices of independence and jihad in our land,” he added. “…Such irresponsible actions only light the flames of vengeance and show the ugly face of foreign occupation.”

Taiban terrorist attacks this year include a car bombing that killed 7 people outside of a bank and an insider attack that killed a dozen policemen in February. In November, the Taliban claimed a suicide bombing at Bagram Airfield that killed four Americans.

The Obama administration would not call the Taliban a terrorist group, claiming they were an “armed insurgency” and encouraging the Afghan government to broker a deal with the group.

The Taliban were the first terrorist group to openly address President Trump after he won the election, telling him in November and again in December to pull out of Afghanistan or face an “incurable wound.” After the inauguration, Mujahid argued in an open letter to Trump that the previous administration erred in viewing the Taliban as “mere rebellion” instead of “a governing system,” and he should “unwaveringly accept” the “historically successful struggle” of jihadists over the past 15 years and give up the fight in Afghanistan.

Gen. John Nicholson, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, told a Senate panel in February that Russia has been giving support to the Taliban, who have been training with al-Qaeda.

Nicholson said “just within the last year” Russia began cozying up to the Taliban — “this has started and it was a gradual progression,” and the support continues to increase as the Kremlin is “concerned that if there’s a coalition and a U.S. presence in Afghanistan that this affects their ability to influence the Central Asian states to the north.”

Pressed on what Russia’s endgame in Afghanistan could be, Nicholson said he thinks the Kremlin’s goal is to “undermine United States and NATO.”

This month, some Afghan officials in Uruzgan province reported seeing Russian trainers among the Taliban.

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster visited Afghanistan after the MOAB attack to help determine if the U.S. will have an increased presence in Afghanistan moving forward.

Taliban rejects US general’s call for reconciliation

March 3, 2017

Taliban rejects US general’s call for reconciliation, Long War Journal, March 2, 2017

It is high time that US officials and military commanders put an end to calls for the Taliban to reconcile. After 15 plus years of war, the Taliban has proven to be a committed enemy unwilling to compromise to achieve its objective of ruling Afghanistan again. The Taliban and al Qaeda remain close allies to this day. When US leaders plead with the Taliban to make peace, they deliver the Taliban all of the fodder it needs to score a propaganda victory and show how disillusioned the US remains about their enemy.

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Hours after The FDD’s Long War Journal noted the Taliban would likely reject US General John Nicholson’s call for reconciliation, the Taliban did just that yesterday.

Nicholson, the commander of US Forces – Afghanistan and Resolute Support, was quoted in a press release announcing the death of Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s shadow emir for Kunduz province:

Salam’s death is an opportunity for change. The people of Afghanistan want peace and the Government of Afghanistan is committed to achieving peace through reconciliation. The Taliban know the only path forward is reconciliation.

US, European, and Afghan officials had been urging the Taliban to reconcile for well over a decade. But the Taliban had proven unwilling to negotiate a peace deal and join the government, even after suffering setbacks.

Taliban spokesman Zabihulllah Mujahid rejected the call for reconciliation in a statement entitled “Response by spokesman of Islamic Emirate to comments by General Nicholson.” Predictably, Mujahid said that the Taliban would fight until NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan and “accept the lawful demands of the valiant Afghan,” which means the return of a Taliban government. The crux of Mujahid’s argument is quoted at length below:

The Muslim Afghan nation views you Americans with the same eye as the invading English and Soviets and with the blessing of Jihad and help of Allah, will throw you out of their motherland in a similar fashion.

We do not view the martyrdom of Mullah Abdul Salam as failure or regret but as honor and victory which has intensified the thirst for revenge of the people of Kunduz and Afghanistan. It has revealed the truthfulness of the Mujahideen and has further increased the love for Mullah Abdul Salam and his companions in the community. Understand that we are a nation that loves martyrdom in the path of Allah as you love the short life of this fleeting world.

These are not our emotions or assumptions talking but are the realities which forced over one hundred and fifty thousand fully equipped troops to kneel.

If you do not end this occupation and accept the lawful demands of the valiant Afghan nation then this nation (Allah willing) will force you out of Afghanistan as the commander of US and NATO forces with all your might and technology just as this resistance broke, deranged and forced out your most celebrated commanders and experienced generals.

It is high time that US officials and military commanders put an end to calls for the Taliban to reconcile. After 15 plus years of war, the Taliban has proven to be a committed enemy unwilling to compromise to achieve its objective of ruling Afghanistan again. The Taliban an al Qaeda remain close allies to this day. When US leaders plead with the Taliban to make peace, they deliver the Taliban all of the fodder it needs to score a propaganda victory and show how disillusioned the US remains about their enemy.

HUMOR | ‘We’re Making Real Progress,’ Say Last 17 Commanders In Afghanistan

February 27, 2017

‘We’re Making Real Progress,’ Say Last 17 Commanders In Afghanistan, Duffel Blog, February 27, 2017

afghanprogress

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The past 17 commanders of international forces in Afghanistan, as well as other US leaders, say the coalition is making “real progress” towards defeating the Taliban insurgency and stabilizing the country, sources confirmed today.

That positive outlook has offered new hope for peace and stability as the current commander, Gen. John Nicholson, looks to deploy “a few thousand” more troops to theater to build upon all the progress that has already been made

Gen. Tommy Franks served as commander of US Central Command from 2000-2003, and was in charge of operations in the Middle East when the Taliban was conclusively defeated in 2002.

“What a difference 10 months makes in a country like Afghanistan,” Franks said in an interview that year. “Taliban’s gone.”

Many other commanders have talked about the incredible progress that has been achieved in Afghanistan, where NATO has crippled the Taliban and put them against the ropes. As most terror analysts note, the terror group can barely hold on after more than 15 years of fighting.

In 2005, Gen. John Abizaid, who succeeded Franks at CentCom, promisingly judged that international activity in Afghanistan had “shown interesting progress.” He also noted the coalition was making progress in “reconstruction projects that showed some tangible progress” and “the cessation of hostilities after 25 years worth of hostilities in the vast majority of the country.”

And Gen. Dan McNeill, who served as commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2007-2008, prudently assessed that “there is significant progress in the forward move of the Afghan National Army,” while scrupulously reminding the audience that “NATO’s an interim force in Afghanistan.”

Still, there have been setbacks.

In 2009, Gen. David McKiernan was fired from his post as ISAF commander after brashly stating that the US “must define winning in Afghan terms: meaning improved security, reduced civilian casualties, trustworthy government, economic and social progress.”

He went on to suggest that a satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan would take a decade or more to achieve, despite historical precedent to the contrary and Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were won back in 2004.

After taking the post from McKiernan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was rightfully relieved in 2010 after failing to recognize the great progress that was being made.

Fortunately, Gen. David Petraeus replaced McChrystal and masterfully implemented a grand strategy to inject more progress into the campaign for progress. In a letter to the troops in July 2010 he declared, “progress has been achieved in some critical areas, and we are poised to realize more.”

Full progress in Afghanistan was achieved definitively in May 2011 with a high-profile raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Vice President Joe Biden then drove a proverbial stake through the heart of the war when he said in 2012, “we are leaving [Afghanistan] in 2014. Period.”

Gen. John Allen paved the path to victory for his successors, stating in 2013, “I think we are on the road to winning,” as he turned over command to Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Before “Fightin’ Joe” closed out the war in 2014, he offered a more somber assessment, saying, “At this point we have made significant progress, but we are not yet at the point where it is completely sustainable.” He also reassured Americans that though there would be a US presence in Afghanistan after 2014, “the actual fighting on a day-to-day basis will all be done by Afghans.”

And as ISAF transitioned to the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) at the end of 2014, Gen. John Campbell maintained a bright outlook.

“Together, we have lifted the Afghan people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope for the future,” he said during the transition ceremony.

Gen. Nicholson, the current RSM commander, is looking to continue the progress made by his predecessors over the past 15 years. He has big shoes to fill, as at least two presidents and perhaps a dozen commanders have successfully won the war thus far.

But his plans are on track, as he stated in a press briefing in July 2016, “I would say overall our mission in Afghanistan is on a positive trajectory.”

Interestingly, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who served as the sole Taliban leader from 1996 until his death in a jet ski accident in 2013, also says the Taliban is making “real progress” in the region.

 

NYC jihad bomber spent weeks getting “Islamic education” at pro-Taliban Pakistan seminary

September 25, 2016

NYC jihad bomber spent weeks getting “Islamic education” at pro-Taliban Pakistan seminary, Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, September 25, 2016

This one is really going to leave New York Mayor de Blasio and other New York City authorities scratching their heads: they will be racking their brains trying to figure out how a pious young man instructed in the Religion of Peace could have become such a spectacular misunderstander of Islam. Does he have an ex-girlfriend in Chelsea? Was he “mentally unstable”? What, oh what, could have driven him to kill?

piecemaker

“Chelsea bombing suspect spent weeks at Islamist seminary in Pakistan,” by Kathianne Boniello, New York Post, September 25, 2016:

The alleged New Jersey terrorist charged with trying to blow up Chelsea last weekend with homemade bombs spent weeks getting an “Islamic education” at a Pakistani seminary, according to a report.

Ahman [sic] Khan Rahami spent three weeks in Kuchlak, an area described as a longtime “hub” for the Taliban, in 2011, a security official inside the country told the Guardian.

Rahami, 28, attended lectures at the Kaan Kuwa Naqshbandi madrasa.

US authorities have been tight-lipped with details of Rahami’s trips to Pakistan, acknowledging he was married during a visit to Quetta.

Security agencies inside Pakistan have tried to “hide all details” of his visits to Quetta, one anonymous official told the Guardian….

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda fights on

September 12, 2016

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda fights on, Long War Journal, September 11, 2016

All appeared lost for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in December 2001. In the years leading up to the 9/11 hijackings, bin Laden believed that the US was a “paper tiger” and would retreat from the Muslim majority world if al Qaeda struck hard enough. The al Qaeda founder had good reasons to think this. American forces withdrew from Lebanon after a series of attacks in the early 1980s and from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” episode in 1993. The US also did not respond forcefully to al Qaeda’s August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, or the USS Cole bombing in October 2000.

But bin Laden’s strategy looked like a gross miscalculation in late 2001. An American-led invasion quickly overthrew the Taliban’s regime just weeks after 19 of bin Laden’s men hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Some of al Qaeda’s most senior figures were killed in American airstrikes. With al Qaeda’s foes closing in, bin Laden ordered his men to retreat to the remote Tora Bora Mountains. Here, bin Laden must have thought, al Qaeda would make its last stand. The end was nigh.

Except it wasn’t.

Bin Laden slithered away, eventually making his way to Abbottabad, Pakistan. When Navy SEALs came calling more than nine years later, in early May 2011, the world looked very different.

Documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound reveal that he and his lieutenants were managing a cohesive global network, with subordinates everywhere from West Africa to South Asia. Some US intelligence officials assumed that bin Laden was no longer really active. But Bin Laden’s files demonstrated that this view was wrong.

Writing in The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qa’ida to ISIS, former CIA official Mike Morell explains how the Abbottabad cache upended the US intelligence community’s assumptions regarding al Qaeda. “The one thing that surprised me was that the analysts made clear that our pre-raid understanding of Bin Laden’s role in the organization had been wrong,” Morell writes. “Before the raid we’d thought that Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was running the organization on a day-to-day basis, essentially the CEO of al Qaeda, while Bin Laden was the group’s ideological leader, its chairman of the board. But the DOCEX showed something quite different. It showed that Bin Laden himself had not only been managing the organization from Abbottabad, he had been micromanaging it.”*

Consider some examples from the small set of documents released already.

During the last year and a half of his life, Osama bin Laden: oversaw al Qaeda’s “external work,” that is, its operations targeting the West; directed negotiations with the Pakistani state over a proposed ceasefire between the jihadists and parts of the government;ordered his men to evacuate northern Pakistan for safe havens in Afghanistan;instructed Shabaab to keep its role as an al Qaeda branch secret and offered advice concerning how its nascent emirate in East Africa should be run; received status reports on his fighters’ operations in at least eight different Afghan provinces; discussed al Qaeda’s war strategy in Yemen with the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other subordinates; received updates from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, including details on a proposed truce with the government of Mauritania; authorized the relocation of veteran jihadists to Libya, where they could take advantage of the uprising against Muammar al Qaddafi’s regime; corresponded with the Taliban’s leadership; and generally made decisions that impacted al Qaeda’s operations everywhere around the globe.

Again, these are just a handful of examples culled from the publicly-available files recovered in bin Laden’s compound. The overwhelming majority of these documents remain classified and, therefore, unavailable to the American public.

Al Qaeda has grown under Zawahiri’s tenure

The story of how bin Laden’s role was missed should raise a large red flag. Al Qaeda is still not well-understood and has been consistently misjudged. Not long after bin Laden was killed, a meme spread about his successor: Ayman al Zawahiri. Many ran with the idea that Zawahiri is an ineffectual and unpopular leader who lacked bin Laden’s charisma and was, therefore, incapable of guiding al Qaeda’s global network. This, too, was wrong.

There is no question that the Islamic State, which disobeyed Zawahiri’s orders and was disowned by al Qaeda’s “general command” in 2014, has cut into al Qaeda’s share of the jihadist market and undermined the group’s leadership position. But close observers will notice something interesting about al Qaeda’s response to the Islamic State’s challenge. Under Zawahiri’s stewardship, al Qaeda grew its largest paramilitary force ever.

Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, warned about the rise of Al Nusrah Front during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 28. “With direct ties to Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor, Nusra[h] is now al [Qaeda’s] largest formal affiliate in history,” McGurk said. US officials previously contacted by The Long War Journal said Nusrah could easily have 10,000 or more fighters in its ranks.

It is worth repeating that Nusrah grew in size and stature, while being openly loyal to Zawahiri, after the Islamic State became its own jihadist menace. Far from being irrelevant, Zawahiri ensured al Qaeda’s survival in the Levant and oversaw its growth.

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On July 28, Al Nusrah Front emir Abu Muhammad al Julani announced that his organization would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or the “Conquest of the Levant Front”) and would have no “no affiliation to any external [foreign] entity.” This was widely interpreted as Al Nusrah’s “break” from al Qaeda. But Julani never actually said that and al Qaeda itself isn’t an “external entity” with respect to Syria as the group moved much of its leadership to the country long ago. Al Nusrah’s rebranding was explicitly approved by Abu Khayr al Masri, one of Zawahiri’s top deputies, in an audio message released just hours prior to Julani’s announcement. Masri was likely inside Syria at the time.

Julani, who was dressed like Osama bin Laden during his appearance (as pictured above), heaped praise on bin Laden, Zawahiri and Masri. “Their blessed leadership has, and shall continue to be, an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group,” Julani said of Zawahiri and Masri.

Most importantly, Al Nusrah’s relaunch as JFS is entirely consistent with al Qaeda’s longstanding strategy in Syria and elsewhere. Al Qaeda never wanted to formally announce its role in the rebellion against Bashar al Assad’s regime, correctly calculating that clandestine influence is preferable to an overt presence for many reasons. This helps explain why Nusrah was never officially renamed as “Al Qaeda in the Levant” in the first place. However, fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, there is such widespread ignorance of al Qaeda’s goals and strategy that Nusrah’s name change is enough to fool many.

Al Qaeda has grown in South Asia as well. In Sept. 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which brought together elements of several existing jihadist organizations. AQIS quickly got to work, attempting to execute an audacious plan that would have used Pakistani arms against American and Indian ships. The plot failed, but revealed that al Qaeda had infiltrated Pakistan’s military.

Pakistani officials recently told the Washington Post that they suspect AQIS has a few thousand members in the city of Karachi alone. And al Qaeda remains closely allied with the Taliban while maintaining a significant presence inside Afghanistan. In October 2015, for instance, Afghan and American forces conducted a massive operation against two large al Qaeda training camps in the southern part of the country. One of the camps was approximately 30 square miles in size. Gen. John F. Campbell, who oversaw the war effort in Afghanistan, explained that the camp was run by AQIS and is “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

With Zawahiri as its emir, al Qaeda raised its “largest formal affiliate in history” in Syria and operated its “largest training” camp ever in Afghanistan. These two facts alone undermine the widely-held assumption that al Qaeda is on death’s door.

Elsewhere, al Qaeda’s other regional branches remain openly loyal to Zawahiri.

From April 2015 to April 2016, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controlled a large swath of territory along Yemen’s southern coast, including the key port city of Mukalla. An Arab-led coalition helped reclaim some of this turf earlier this year, but AQAP’s forces simply melted away, living to fight another day. AQAP continues to wage a prolific insurgency in the country, as does Shabaab across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. Shabaab’s leaders announced their fealty to Zawahiri in February 2012 and remain faithful to him. They have taken a number of steps to stymie the growth of the Islamic State in Somalia and neighboring countries. Shabaab also exports terrorism throughout East Africa, executing a number of high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to operate in West and North Africa, often working in conjunction with front groups. Like al Qaeda’s branches elsewhere, AQIM prefers to mask the extent of its influence, working through organizations such as Ansar al Sharia and Ansar Dine to achieve its goals. Late last year, Al Murabitoon rejoined AQIM’s ranks. Al Murabitoon is led by Mohktar Belmokhtar, who has been reportedly killed on several occasions. Al Qaeda claims that Belmokhtar is still alive and has praised him for rejoining AQIM after his contentious relations with AQIM’s hierarchy in the past. While Belmokhtar’s status cannot be confirmed, several statements have been released in his name in recent months. And Al Murabitoon’s merger with AQIM has led to an increase in high-profile attacks in West Africa.

In sum, AQAP, AQIM, AQIS and Shabaab are formal branches of al Qaeda and have made their allegiance to Zawahiri clear. Jabhat Fath al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusrah, is an obvious al Qaeda project in Syria. Other organizations continue to serve al Qaeda’s agenda as well.

Al Qaeda’s veterans and a “new generation” of jihadist leadership

As the brief summary above shows, Al Qaeda’s geographic footprint has expanded greatly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some US officials argue that al Qaeda has been “decimated” because of the drone campaign and counterterrorism raids. They narrowly focus on the leadership layer of al Qaeda, while ignoring the bigger picture. But even their analysis of al Qaeda’s managers is misleading.

Al Qaeda has lost dozens of key men, but there is no telling how many veterans remain active to this day. Experienced operatives continue to serve in key positions, often returning to the fight after being detained or only revealing their hidden hand when it becomes necessary. Moreover, al Qaeda knew it was going to lose personnel and took steps to groom a new generation of jihadists capable of filling in.

3-aq-leaders-released-from-iran-1023x313From left to right: Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Abu Khayr al Masri. These photos, first published by the FBI and US intelligence officials, show the al Qaeda leaders when they were younger.

Last year, several veterans were reportedly released from Iran, where they were held under murky circumstances. One of them was Abu Khayr al Masri, who paved the way for Al Nusrah’s rebranding in July. Another is Saif al Adel, who has long been wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. At least two others freed by Iran, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Khalid al Aruri, returned to al Qaeda as well.

Masri, Al Adel, and Aruri may all be based inside Syria, or move back and forth to the country from Turkey, where other senior members are based. Mohammed Islambouli is an important leader within al Qaeda. After leaving Iran several years ago, Islambouli returned to Egypt and eventually made his way to Turkey, where he lives today.

Sitting to Julani’s right during his much ballyhooed announcement was one of Islambouli’s longtime compatriots, Ahmed Salama Mabrouk. The diminutive Mabrouk is another Zawahiri subordinate. He was freed from an Egyptian prison in the wake of the 2011 uprisings.

Al Qaeda moved some of its senior leadership to Syria and several others from this cadre are easy to identify. But al Qaeda has also relied on personnel in Yemen to guide its global network. One of Zawahiri’s lieutenants, Hossam Abdul Raouf, confirmed this in an audio message last October. Raouf explained that the “weight” of al Qaeda has been shifted to Syria and Yemen, because that is where its efforts are most needed.

The American drone campaign took out several key AQAP leaders in 2015, but they were quickly replaced. Qasim al Raymi, who was trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, succeeded Nasir al Wuhayshi as AQAP’s emir last summer. Raymi quickly renewed his allegiance to Zawahiri, whom Raymi described as the “the eminent sheikh” and “the beloved father.” Another al Qaeda lifer, Ibrahim Abu Salih, emerged from the shadows last year. Salih was not public figure beforehand, but he has been working towards al Qaeda’s goals in Yemen since the early 1990s. Ibrahim al Qosi (an ex-Guantanamo detainee) and Khalid al Batarfi have stepped forward to lead AQAP and are probably also part of al Qaeda’s management team.

This old school talent has helped buttress al Qaeda’s leadership cadre. They’ve been joined by men who signed up for al Qaeda’s cause after the 9/11 attacks as well. In July, the US Treasury Department designated three jihadists who are based in Iran. One of them, known as Abu Hamza al Khalidi, was listed in bin Laden’s files as part of a “new generation” of al Qaeda leaders. Today, he plays a crucial role as the head of al Qaeda’s military commission, meaning he is the equivalent of al Qaeda’s defense minister. Treasury has repeatedly identified other al Qaeda members based in Iran, Afghanistanand elsewhere.

Some members of the “new generation” are more famous than others. Such is the case with Osama’s son, Hamzah bin Laden, who is now regularly featured in propaganda.

This brief survey of al Qaeda is not intended to be exhaustive, yet it is still sufficient to demonstrate that the organization’s bench is far from empty. Moreover, many of the men who lead al Qaeda today are probably unknown to the public.

The threat to the West

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.” His statement underscored how the threats have become more geographically dispersed over time. With great success, the US worked for years to limit al Qaeda’s ability to strike the West from northern Pakistan. But today, al Qaeda’s “external operations” work is carried out across several countries.

During the past fifteen years, Al Qaeda has failed to execute another mass casualty attack in the US on the scale of the 9/11 hijackings. Its most recent attack in Europe came in January 2015, when a pair of brothers backed by AQAP conducted a military-style assault on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. AQAP made it clear that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was carried out according to Zawahiri’s orders.

Thanks to vigilance and luck, al Qaeda hasn’t been able to replicate a 9/11-style assault inside the US. Part of the reason is that America’s defenses, as well as those of its partner nations, have improved. Operations such as the 9/11 hijackings are also difficult to carry out in the first place. Even the 9/11 plan experienced interruptions despite a relatively lax security environment. (Most famously, for example, the would-be 20th hijacker was denied entry into the US at an Orlando airport in the summer of 2001.)

But there is another aspect to evaluating the al Qaeda threat that is seldom appreciated. It is widely assumed that al Qaeda is only interested in attacking the West. This is flat false. Most of the organization’s resources are devoted to waging insurgencies in Muslim majority countries.

The story in Syria has been telling. Although al Qaeda may have more resources in Syria than anywhere else, Zawahiri did not order his men to carry out a strike in the West. Al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group” laid the groundwork for such operations, but Zawahiri did not give this cadre the green light to actually carry them out. Zawahiri’s stand down order is well known. In an interview that aired in May 2015, for instance, Julani explained that the “directives that come to us from Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri], may Allah protect him, are that Al Nusrah Front’s mission in Syria is to topple [Bashar al Assad’s] regime” and defeat its allies. “We have received guidance to not use Syria as a base for attacks against the West or Europe so that the real battle is not confused,” Julani said. However, he conceded that “maybe” the mother al Qaeda organization is plotting against the West, just “not from Syria.” Julani emphasized that this “directive” came from Zawahiri himself.

To date, al Qaeda has not lashed out at the West from inside Syria, even though it is certainly capable of doing so. Al Qaeda’s calculation has been that such an attack would be too costly for its strategic interests. It might get in the way of al Qaeda’s top priority in Syria, which is toppling the Assad regime. This calculation could easily change overnight and al Qaeda could use Syria as a launching pad against the West soon. But they haven’t thus far. It helps explain why there hasn’t been another 9/11-style plot by al Qaeda against the US in recent years. It also partially explains why al Qaeda hasn’t launched another large-scale operation in Europe for some time. Al Qaeda has more resources at its disposal today than ever, so the group doesn’t lack the capability. If Zawahiri and his advisors decided to make anti-Western attack planning more of a priority, then the probability of another 9/11-style event would go up. Even in that scenario, al Qaeda would have to successfully evade the West’s defenses. But the point is that al Qaeda hasn’t been attempting to hit the West nearly as much as some in the West assume.

In the meantime, it is easy to see how the al Qaeda threat has become more diverse, just as Clapper testified. AQAP has launched several thwarted plots aimed at the US, including the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing. In 2009, al Qaeda also plotted to strike trains in the New York City area. In 2010, a Mumbai-style assault in Europe was unraveled by security services. It is not hard to imagine al Qaeda trying something along those lines once again. Other organizations tied to al Qaeda, such as the Pakistani Taliban, have plotted against the US as well.

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda lives. Fortunately, Zawahiri’s men have not replicated the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. But the al Qaeda threat looms. It would be a mistake to assume that al Qaeda won’t try a large-scale operation again.

*The spellings of al Qaeda and bin Laden are changed in this quote from Morell to make them consistent with the rest of the text.