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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

State Department's Files On The Nizari Assassin Cult

By J.M. Berger

The State Department released four cables in response to an INTELWIRE Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the the 11th century Islamic "Assassin" cult, also known as the Nizaris.

The request was based on the Department's electronic archive of diplomatic communications and not the entire body of State Department materials, including intelligence documents and documents dated prior to 1976.

The State Department released four documents and withheld a fifth in its entirety on the basis of national security concerns. In a previous INTELWIRE FOIA request to the CIA, all documents concerning the Nizari/Assassin cult were withheld as classified on national security grounds.


This October 2005 cable from Riyadh is directed to the White House, the Secretary of State, the National Security Council, two other embassies and an "Islamic Collective" distribution group, with additional routing instructions.

The cable has been redacted almost in its entirety, at the direction of James C. Oberwetter, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The reasons given for the redactions include protecting national security, personal privacy and "foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources."

During the period in question, the Kingdom was in the process of being accepted into the World Trade Organization. More likely to be of significance in terms of this document, a number of discussions were taking place concerning Islamic reform and the protection of Islamic minorities in the Kingdom. The one declassified section of the document released deals with Najran, a center for Ismaili Muslims, a modern sect historically linked to the Assassin cult, but today committed to a non-violent ideology.

The State Department's 2005 report on Human Rights Practices in Saudi Arabia may shed light on the general tenor of the redacted material.
An estimated 700 thousand Sulaimani Ismailis, a subset of Shi'a Islam, live in the country, primarily in Najran. Reportedly, at least 57 Sulaimani Ismailis are still in jail following rioting in Najran in 2000. Allegedly, the government discriminated against them by prohibiting them from having their own religious books, allowing religious leaders to declare them unbelievers, denying them government employment or restricting them to lower-level jobs, and relocating them from the Southwest to other parts of the country or encouraging them to emigrate.

Shi'a Ismailis (Seveners) in Najran reportedly were charged with practicing magic; however, the Shi'a Ismailis maintained that their practice adheres to the Seveners' interpretation of Islam.

On September 17, the NGO Human Rights First Society (HRFS) reported that Ismailis in Najran paid allegiance to the king, but requested that the government provide equal employment opportunities for Ismailis and the release of the Najran prisoners. They also requested that those "exiled" from Najran after riots be allowed to return, and a university and a literary and cultural club be established in Najran to raise the level of education and awareness.

A separate report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom echoed some of these concerns:
In Saudi Arabia, charges of blasphemy continue to be used by the Saudi authorities against Muslim reformers and those members of minority Muslim groups, such as Sufis and Ismailis, who are considered to be non-conforming "deviant sects" by the Saudi government. In a recent case, a Muslim high school chemistry teacher, labeled by the prosecution as an apostate, was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to more than three years in prison and 750 lashes for talking to his students about his views on Christianity, Judaism, and the causes of terrorism. Moreover, Ismailis in the Najran region are regularly charged with practicing "sorcery" and "witchcraft" as a pretext to stifle their private religious practice.


This PDF contains three State Department cables that touch on regional historical concerns related to the Nizari Ismaili sect of Islam. The first one, dated January 1995, deals with tribal history in Oman and mentions the Assassins only in passing.

The second, dated September 2000, primarily concerns the modern Nizari Ismaili community in Pakistan. The Ismailis trace their religious lineage to the Assassin cult, but the modern incarnation is non-violent and bears little resemblance to the Assassins of lore. However, the cable -- which discusses mainstream Pakistanis suspicions toward the Ismaili minority in that country -- discusses the modern Ismaili practice of dissimulation, under a theological concept key to the historical Assassin cult which allows members of the sect to "pass" as Sunni Muslims for reasons of safety.

The third cable, dated August 2005, is a survey of Islam in Madagascar which briefly touches on its modern Nizari Ismaili population.


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Friday, June 9, 2006

First Zarqawi Tribute Video Appears Online; U.S. Death Photos Prominently Featured

By J.M. Berger

In an analysis posted on Thursday, INTELWIRE predicted that the U.S. military's photographs of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi's corpse were ideally suited to jihadist "martyr tribute" videos and would be employed by terrorist propagandists.

Only one day later, the first Zarqawi tribute video has been posted to Islamist message boards. The video prominently features the photographs released by the U.S. military. The video was obtained by INTELWIRE. A screen capture is displayed below.


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Thursday, June 8, 2006

Analysis: Release of Zarqawi Death Photo Offers Propagandists Opportunity

By J.M. Berger

The U.S. military released a photo of the corpse of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi after announcing the terrorist leader's death in an air strike Thursday.

The release, while understandable, will almost certainly be integrated into al Qaeda propaganda videos and tributes with days, if not hours.

Traditionally, jihadist propaganda places a high premium on photos of deceased mujahideen and "martyred" terrorists, the gorier the better.

While unpleasant to a Western sensibility, the military's photo is made to order for al Qaeda propaganda purposes. For comparison purposes, the photo (which has already been widely distributed) is reproduced below, along with a photo from The Martyrs of Bosnia, an al Qaeda propaganda video.

The photo itself -- and its framed presentation during an Army press conference earlier Thursday -- are practically tailor-made for a martyr's tribute. At minimum, the U.S. should have sought to stylistically distinguish the photo from its jihadist counterparts. At best, the photo could simply have been withheld from the public.

Although the U.S. prides itself on openness, the Bush administration has not hesitated to invoke secrecy over any number of topics and a wide range of material. This is one instance in which a little discretion would have gone a long way.

Warning: Graphic pictures below

Warning: Graphic pictures above

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Zarqawi's Two Big Mistakes

By J.M. Berger

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was reported dead today. His death comes not long after the controversial terrorist leader made two sharp changes in strategy -- both of which may have contributed to his death.


  • Footage of Air Strike on Zarqawi
  • Zarqawi's Last Video Message
  • Outtakes From Zarqawi Video

    Previous reports:

  • Seeking Answers On Nick Berg
  • Zarqawi's Failed U.S. Strikes
  • Berg Killing Not Revenge
  • First, Zarqawi showed his face in a propaganda video released a few short weeks ago. Although a handful of still images had been released through various means in the past, the latest video represented a bold step forward to claim a higher visibility role, similar to that played by al Qaeda's top leadership, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

    But it also meant high visibility on the streets of Iraq. Before the April release, Zarqawi could move with impunity in Iraq and with the reasonable expectation he wouldn't be recognized. The video showed Zarqawi's face and frame with a clarity not seen before, and it received wide circulation inside and outside of Iraq.

    The second change was no so much of a change as a retrenchment. Last year, a letter was intercepted from Al Qaeda's top leader Zawahiri urging Zarqawi to scale back his attacks on Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq. For a time, it appeared Zarqawi was attempting to honor that request to some extent (though clearly not as much as Zawahiri had in mind).

    But in his most recent audio communique, Zarqawi returned to form with a vicious diatribe against Iraqi Shi'ites that sounded, to many analysts, like an act of defiance directed toward al Qaeda's central leadership. It also played like a reversal of steps taken in early 2005 to lessen the divisiveness of Zarqawi's role among Iraqi factions.

    Either way, from al Qaeda's perspective, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's usefulness to the cause began to look like a case of diminishing returns.

    One or both of these mistakes may have cost Zarqawi his life.

    The air strike that killed the al Qaeda leader was based on intelligence tipoffs. Zarqawi might simply have been recognized by someone who saw him in the video.

    However, in al Qaeda's world, it's a truism that inconvenient political figures don't just fade away -- especially when they get on Ayman Zawahiri's bad side.

    Al Qaeda itself was founded on the blood of legendary jihadist Abdullah Azzam, who died in a mysterious assassination sometimes blamed on Zawahiri.

    And Azzam was incredibly popular, compared to the Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, who sickened as many as he inspired.

    al Qaeda may simply have decided Zarqawi was more valuable to the cause as a glorious martyr than as a rogue homicidal sectarian. We will see soon whether that equation balances.

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    Monday, June 5, 2006

    Richard Guthrie's Suicide

    New Details Of 'Aryan' Bank Robber And OKBOMB Suspect's Death In Prison

    By J.M. Berger

    Richard GuthrieRichard Guthrie was a bank robber with ties to U.S. white supremacist movements. He and other members of his bank robbery gang, the Aryan Republican Army, have long been suspected of involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing. He died in prison as the result of an alleged suicide.

    For more documents and a fuller description of the story of Richard Guthrie, and another alleged prison suicide with striking similarities, see The Trentadue Files on INTELWIRE.

    INTELWIRE previously released more than 100 pages of files detailing the ATF's investigation of Guthrie. Some of the documents here reference Guthrie's suspected ties to the Oklahoma bombing. Now, for the first time, INTELWIRE is releasing the official record of Guthrie's death for journalists, researchers and the general public.

    The new documents were obtained from the U.S. Marshals Service via the Freedom of Information Act. They include the complete autopsy record, as well as documents relating to the investigation of Guthrie's death by local police and prison officials, and U.S. Marshals Service custody records.

    Source: INTELWIRE FOIA Requests (Donate)

    Richard Guthrie Autopsy and Death Records

    Findings reported appear consistent with suicide. Interestingly, neither the autopsy nor the arrest records make reference to Guthrie having a tattoo -- an alleged distinguishing characteristic that many investigators have cited in attempting to prove Guthrie was the never-apprehended OKC suspect known as "John Doe 2."

    Richard Guthrie Prison Records, Suicide Details

    Among many interesting items in the prison records, handwritten notes indicate Guthrie left two suicide notes and had threatened to attempt an escape shortly before his death. The testimony of the prison's guards, again, appears consistent with suicide.

    Richard Guthrie Custody Records, (USMS)

    The formal record of Guthrie's term of custody with the U.S. Marshals, which ended in his death.

    Letter to Guthrie from L.A. Times Reporter

    As previously reported, Guthrie had contemplated telling his story to the press shortly before his death. This letter from Judy Pasternak of the L.A. Times was found in his cell.

    Guthrie Spotted By Marshal In 1993

    Perhaps the most significant of the documents retrieved in this FOIA request from the perspective of possible connections with the Oklahoma City bombing. A suspect believed to be Guthrie was spotted in 1993 by a U.S. Marshal in Noel, Mo., who said the suspect was attempting to "recruit young boys" into "the Brotherhood." It has never been conclusively determined whether Guthrie had a formal affiliation with an organized white supremacist group. The "Brotherhood" here may refer to the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang affiliated with the Aryan Nations.


    ATF Investigative Files: Richard Guthrie

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    Saturday, June 3, 2006

    Al Qaeda Figures Lurk In Shadows Around Toronto Terror Cell

    By J.M. Berger

    For more than a year, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating Canadian terror cells, including members of a massive plot broken up this week near Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

    A Toronto terrorist cell with at least 17 members stockpiled three tons of ammonium nitrate, the same explosive used in the Oklahoma City bombing, Canadian police said Saturday. (Arrests and investigation, The Globe and Mail; al Qaeda explosives formulas and the Oklahoma City bombing, INTELWIRE)

    According to a recently unsealed affidavit, the JTTF was investigating the Toronto terror cell no later than March 2005, and possibly earlier. Special Agent Michael Scherck said the FBI was tracking "targets of an ongoing JTTF investigation" in Toronto no later than March 2005, including at least "three subjects in of an FBI international terrorism investigation" tied to conspirators in the United States.

    Although Canadian authorities say the terrorist plot is not connected to the "institutional" al Qaeda.

    But Mississauga, the Toronto suburb where about half the conspirators lived, was home to an early Egyptian Islamic Jihad sleeper agent in North America, a figure who later became a top-ranked member of al Qaeda. The city was also home to an al Qaeda-linked charity storefront.


    The link between the U.S. and Canadian cells was confirmed to Bloomberg News in an e-mail from FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko, who characterized the contact between the two operations as "limited."

    But the March affidavit by Scherck appears to outline a more substantial connection. Ahmed told investigators that he and Sadequee had traveled to Toronto to meet with "like-minded Islamic extremists." During the trip, the two men allegedly discussed "strategic locations in the United States suitable for a terrorist strike, to include oil refineries and military bases."

    The affidavit was filed to support the prosecution of Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, two Georgia residents arrested in March 2006. During a bail hearing, prosectutors said that Sadequee had "known terrorist ties," but refused to elaborate, prompting a show of skepticism about the entire case from the presiding judge.


    INTELWIRE publishes exclusive FOIA and purchased documents as a resource for journalists and researchers. Please cite if reporting directly from these pages.

    Full text of FBI affidavit describing Toronto cell links

    Full transcript of Sadequee bail hearing

    Regardless, the FBI said it was closely monitoring the Toronto group. According to the affidavit, Sadequee and Ahmed "met regularly with at least three subjects of an FBI international terrorism investigation." While in Toronto, the two also "met with several other targets of an ongoing JTTF investigation."

    According to Scherck, "the assembled group developed a plan for traveling to Pakistan where they would attempt to receive military training at one of the several terrorist-sponsored camps camps." At minimum, Ahmed did receive such training, the affidavit alleges.

    During the Toronto trip, Ahmed and Sadequee allegedly stayed with "an individual with whom they were conspiring concerning the travel to terrorist camps and the plots against civilian and military installations in the United States."


    Al Qaeda has long maintained a presence in the large Toronto suburb of Mississauga, the home town for at least six of the 17 arrested suspects. According to The Globe and Mail, the list includes:
    • Zakaria Amara, 20, of Periwinkle Crescent, Mississauga, Ontario;

    • Asad Ansari, 21, of Rosehurst Drive, Mississauga, Ontario;

    • Shareef Abdelhaleen, 30, of Lowville Heights, Mississauga, Ontario;

    • Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43, of Montevideo Road, Mississauga, Ontario;

    • Ahmad Mustafa Ghany, 21, of Robin Drive, Mississauga, Ontario;

    • Saad Khalid, 19, of Eclipse Avenue, Mississauga, Ontario.

    Mississauga was home to the Canadian branch of the Benevolence International Foundation, an Islamic charity dismantled by the U.S. after September 11 on grounds that its funds were being misdirected to al Qaeda.

    An international organization with broad links to al Qaeda operations in Bosnia, the Philippines and Chechnya, among others, BIF was also known in Arabic as Al Birr Al Dawalia or Lanjat al Birr.

    Prior to 2001, Benevolence ran operations in several locations where al Qaeda command-and-control networks dominated the local landscape, including in Peshawar and Islamabad, Pakistan; Khartoum, Sudan; Afghanistan; Sarajevo and Zenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

    The Foundation also maintained offices in Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Chechnya, China, Croatia, the Gaza Strip, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the Netherlands, Russia, Tajikistan, Yemen, the United Kingdom; and locations in Illinois, Florida and New Jersey in the United States.

    In Canada, BIF also maintained a significant presence, with offices at 2465 Cawthra Rd., #203, Mississauga, Ontario, as well as locations at 3 King Street, South Waterloo, Ontario, and in Ottowa.

    Next door to Benevolence, at 2445 Cawthra Road, were the offices of Human Concern International, described as "the first Islamic charity in North America to provide funds to the" mujahideen in Afghanistan, starting in 1979 (Burr and Collins, Alms for Jihad).

    Ahmed Khadr, an HCI employee who immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the 1970s, was also an EIJ operative and an "colleague of Osama bin Laden," according to an FBI affidavit. Khadr split his time between Canada and Pakistan. His sons received Canadian citizenship and also became involved in jihadist causes.

    Khadr worked for HCI during the 1980s and 1990s, mostly out of Pakistan, according to the FBI. HCI says it severed the relationship in 1995 after Khadr was accused of involvement in a terrorist attack in Pakistan, according to The National Post, a Canadian newspaper. HCI, which has never been formally charged with supporting terrorism, continues to maintain its offices at Cawthra Road and denies that any of its funds were ever used for terrorism.

    Ahmed's son, Abdullah Khadr, was arrested in December 2005 by Canadian police to face charges for allegedly purchasing munitions and explosives on behalf of al Qaeda in 2003. Another son, Abdurrahman Khadr, eventually became a CIA informant in Guantanamo Bay and Bosnia, according to PBS Frontline (interview).

    Ahmed Khadr became a top al Qaeda leader, according to the affidavit, and helped mediate in the event of conflicts among bin Laden, the Taliban and mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Khadr was eventually given "operational responsibility" for organizing attacks on U.S. forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He was reportedly killed in 2003.


    INTELWIRE publishes exclusive FOIA and purchased documents as a resource for journalists and researchers. Please cite if reporting directly from these pages.

    Full text of FBI affidavit regarding Ahmed and Abdullah Khadr

    Related stories (external links):

    From London to Toronto: Dismantling Cells, dodging their ideology

    Latest developments in Toronto

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    ISIS: The State of Terror
    "Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post

    More on ISIS: The State of Terror

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    Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
    "At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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