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Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Awlaki Video A Work In Progress

A new video from Anwar Awlaki was posted onto one of the main jihadist forums this weekend. It's an odd duck. The video is in Arabic, lasts for 90 seconds of typical Awlaki fare about the plight of Muslims, then cuts off in mid-sentence. This led to a bizarre story on AFP saying a video had been released but offering no other information.

Awlaki is sporting a particularly huge version of the traditional Yemeni dagger, which seems to be pointed directly at an uncomfortable spot below the belt, and which waggles disconcertingly as he talks. Given Awlaki's history of visiting prostitutes and hanging around schoolyards, Shaykh Siddiqmund Al-Freud might have something cutting to say about this presentation.

Although it was posted to a forum, it was not posted through normal channels -- in other words, it was not designated as a formal release and promoted by the site's moderators. It also lacks the logo and graphics signature of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Al-Malahem media operation.

Given Awlaki's recent affiliation with AQAP, this is an interesting development. Is Awlaki trying to maintain an independent channel to Muslims where he can downplay his terrorist ties? Has there been a break (less likely)? Or is the video still in the process of being readied for an AQAP release (perhaps more likely)? Stay tuned.

UPDATE 1:35 p.m.: Christopher Anzalone of Views From The Occident tweets me that a similar teaser clip preceded the release of Awlaki's Al-Malahem interview. So keep your eyes peeled for a full release, which will be noted here when it arrives.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gadahn and Awlaki, Together At Last?

A slimmed-down Adam Gadahn is out with a new video that is just loaded with interesting elements (it can be seen here). Here's a somewhat hasty review.

The main focus of the video deals with the Mardin Conference, a gathering of Islamic scholars in Turkey earlier this year that sought to undercut much of the ideological basis of Al Qaeda's globalized declarations of war against the West.

Gadahn betrays the weakness of his position right at the start, saying that the young often realize the truth before the old and that laymen often recognize the truth ahead of the scholars.

Al Qaeda's leaders, including "Shaykh" Gadahn, have often sought to position themselves as the leading scholars of the day, diminishing competing messages on the basis that their own scholarship is superior. Saying that the laymen have outsmarted the scholars is a tacit admission that Al Qaeda's scholarship is lacking.

Gadahn seems to throw out a lot of the book here as far as conventional views of the ideological underpinnings of jihadist movements, saying that jihadists have "their own books of fiqh" (jurisprudence), and arguing the Mardin declaration is irrelevant to them since it's refuting a school of thought he claims is not used by Al Qaeda. (For more on this, check out Aaron Zelin's analysis on Jihadology.)

The graphics for this latest video are quite similar to recent Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula releases, and the attack on the Mardin conference echoes Anwar Awlaki's recent article in AQAP's Inspire magazine. The video also featured clips of Awlaki from a recent AQAP release. All of this reflects the rising prominence of AQAP's operation and perhaps hints at coordination of media operations.

Awlaki clips were inserted into the speech without preamble -- i.e., Gadahn doesn't introduce the clip. It is possible someone from AQAP, or simply someone other than Gadahn, produced the video from raw footage of the speech and that additional clips were added by the video's editor, without Gadahn's knowledge.

Clips of AQAP's "underwear bomber" were also featured in the same manner. However, Omar Abdulmutallab was named by Gadhan in the video, and Awlaki wasn't.

In my opinion, and maybe it's a reach, these considerations muddy the impact of Awalki's Al Qaeda Central debut. Is this a strong endorsement by AQ Central? I don't think so. It feels like someone tacked the Awlaki material on as an afterthought.

Whatever the case, Gadahn's message is markedly similar to Awlaki's. Gadahn ends with an apparent endorsement of lone-wolfism, the strategic approach to jihad promulgated first by Abu Musab Al Suri and now promoted by Awlaki and his crew at Inspire. If Al Qaeda is really adopting the leaderless approach to jihad, there's no question that this is a losing strategy for them in the long run (if not sooner).

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Demilitarizing Jihad

By J.M. Berger

This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Veterans Vision magazine.

Starting in 2008, the media and counterterrorism officials took note of a rising wave of American jihadists -- U.S. citizens who have adopted the ideology and methodology of Al Qaeda and its ilk.

In reality, these citizen extremists have been with us all along -- and in similar numbers to what we see today. Americans have taken part in the modern age of jihad from its very beginning in 1979, when two Americans joined a terrorist group that seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

I recently reviewed more than 250 documented stories of American jihadists from 1979 to the present, including both U.S. citizens and long-term legal residents. The list includes people who fought in foreign wars in the name of Islamic causes as well as people involved in terrorist networks.

Before September 11, no one in the U.S. government documented the number of Americans who had fought for jihadist causes. Even in the post-9/11 era, reliable numbers are hard to come by. But the data as it exists shows the number of American jihadists over the last 20 years has held steady or risen only modestly. The current "surge" seems larger than it is because people are paying more attention now.

But that doesn't mean it's a static field. There has been a dramatic evolution in the type of people who go to jihad. One of the most notable changes has been the increasing involvement of military amateurs.

In Afghanistan during the 1980s and in Bosnia during the 1990s, Americans were often first lured into Islamic extremist networks through idealism and good intentions. Both conflicts seemed like ethically clear situations in which innocent Muslims faced invasion and even extermination. And in both conflicts, the U.S. offered at least moral support to the Muslim side. In short, you could be a jihadist and still see yourself as a good American.

Because of this, it was relatively easy to recruit Muslim U.S. military veterans as jihadists. In Afghanistan, a number of Vietnam vets fought the Soviets. In Bosnia, a Saudi-backed program actively recruited Muslim veterans who had served in the Gulf War to assist the mujahideen. At least a dozen vets -- and probably more -- were recruited to Bosnia as either trainers or fighters.

Although activity in the U.S. provides a useful window on jihadist trends, this wasn't just an American phenomenon. For instance, commanders of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Bosnia served in the Egyptian armed forces, as did several early members of Al Qaeda. Many of these figures had been purged from their military positions after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 by a cell of army members.

One important Al Qaeda figure -- Ali Abdelsaoud Mohamed -- had experience in both the Egyptian and U.S. armed forces. He served in the Egyptian military prior to the Sadat assassination. Later, he emigrated to the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen, enlisting in the Army and serving at Fort Bragg.

Mohamed's military experience didn't just enhance his own performance as a terrorist; he passed his skills to others as one of Al Qaeda's most important teachers, running basic and advanced training camps in Afghanistan. Mohamed also stole and translated U.S. Army training manuals into Arabic for use by Al Qaeda and other self-styled jihadists.

Mohamed helped professionalize a generation of terrorists and also used his military skills directly against the United States. Al Qaeda sent Mohamed and at least one other U.S. Army veteran to Somalia during U.S. humanitarian operations during the 1990s, and they likely played a role in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in the death of 18 American soldiers.

In addition to recruiting a relatively small number of people from the large pool of Muslim veterans, jihadists in the pre-9/11 era sought out professional criminals, such as illegal gun dealers and bank robbers, and a handful of police officers. The common denominator in all these fields is experience with violence, weapons and operational discipline -- important skills when fielding an army.

In the post-9/11 world, the calculus of jihadist recruitment in the U.S. has changed. It is no longer possible to act as a jihadist and still maintain one's self-image as a "good American." Although jihadists still seek to sway U.S. military members, individual actors like Nidal Hasan do not transmit military skills to jihadist networks. The vast majority of American jihadist recruits are now young men with very little direct experience of violence, let alone combat.

There are a couple of reasons for this change. Jihadists before 9/11 were often selected by recruiters who knew them personally and could afford to be discriminating. Recruits were targeted not just for enthusiasm but for useful skills and experience.

Today's jihadist networks prioritize warm bodies over skills, and they use the Internet to empower self-selection rather than seeking out known individuals. As a result, the new demographic skews toward young men who are more likely to have attended computer camp than JROTC.

The data set I examined for this piece was confined to American citizens and long-term legal residents. But there is some evidence to suggest a similar trend is taking place worldwide. A study of foreign fighters by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found the vast majority of foreign jihadists entering Iraq had been students before they were fighters. Former military personnel represented significantly fewer than 10 percent of the cases examined, trailing behind teachers, professionals and skilled laborers.

The drop in the successful recruitment of American military veterans is particularly good news, since U.S. forces are among the world's most professional services. American vets also paid dividends to Al Qaeda and other jihadists since they could teach fighters how to counter specific tactics used by Americans (as they did in Somalia).

Foreign fighters are likely to field growing numbers of unprofessional soldiers, thanks to the change in America's political climate, continued vigilance about radicalism among foreign military services and the continued disruption of Al Qaeda training camps.

However, in specific locations, the risk continues and may even be heightened. Military members in Pakistan and Yemen are particularly at risk for terrorist infiltration, including outright defections and informal accommodations with jihadist networks.

Unprofessional forces present a decidedly mixed bag for U.S. strategists, especially when those forces are mixed with local insurgencies. Trained soldiers are more likely to professionalize their comrades. When untrained foreign fighters mix with local insurgencies, the results are unpredictable and nearly impossible to model, resulting in a constant flow of new and unexpected threats and challenges.

Another increasingly important consideration: Unprofessional soldiers are far more likely to put civilians at risk. Human shields and direct attacks on civilians aside, professional military training embeds the protection of innocent bystanders into its underlying assumptions.

U.S. forces have both explicit and implicit obligations to protect civilians. Unprofessional forces create situations that exacerbate such risks, sometimes intentionally and sometimes through ignorance of basic military practices. Collateral damage to civilians is a growing problem for U.S. forces trying to win the support of local populations. Unfortunately, that situation is likely to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.

J.M. Berger is a journalist and analyst covering terrorism for He has written for the Boston Globe and produced content on terrorism for National Public Radio, Public Radio International and the National Geographic Channel. Berger's book on American jihadists will be published in 2011.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Zach Did...

Zach Chesser pleaded guilty this week to a variety of charges and also signed a cooperation deal, which bodes poorly for his friends at Revolution Muslim, who can likely expect to see Zach's smiling face in court one day soon.

The specific charges that Zach pleaded to are detailed in the document below. Anyone studying the online jihad will find this to be a fascinating document with a fairly detailed description of his online activities.

The charges which will form the basis for Zach's likely 20-year prison sentence include the threats against South Park and, notably, his posting to the Al-Ansar forum the names and contact information of several people who signed up for the "Everybody Draw Mohammed" Facebook page. The personally identifying information posted to the Al Qaeda-linked Web forum were "just a suggestion," Zach wrote.

Read the full criminal complaint which is incorporated into Chesser's guilty plea

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mowing Machines And Other Circus Acts

The second issue of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine has been released, and it's much like the first -- a mix of amateurish and questionable advice, predictable tracts from terrorist leaders like Anwar Awlaki and overproduced graphics.

The issue's major emphasis is on "lone wolf" style terrorism, suggesting that readers attack Americans in their hometowns without openly espousing jihad or doing anything which might alert authorities, such as reading jihadi websites. It's not clear how these readers are supposed to keep up with Inspire if they don't look at jihadi websites, but never mind that for now.

Thomas Hegghammer at Jihadica accurately diagnoses the major flaw in this approach.

Khan’s strategy presupposes that individuals can aquire the motivation to die for the cause almost in a vacuum. However, in most historical cases, individuals only acquired this motivation after interacting with other radicals, going abroad for jihad, or accessing jihadi propaganda - all of which are activities discouraged by Samir Khan. Of course there have been exceptions, such as the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan, but even he was not completely “clean”, as evidenced by his email correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaki. Decentralized jihad is indeed a scary concept, but it does not necessarily work.

The biggest concern for those fighting terrorism today is whether or not the paragraph above is true. I tend to think it is, although we could certainly see some borderline personalities acting out based on Khan's advice, and anyone familiar with Western media and politics knows that two or three lone lunatics can make a significant impact on this country's national dialogue.

Aside from the obvious issue that, as Hegghammer points out, almost no one engaging in explicitly jihadist violence is totally clean, the Inspire approach to jihadism has a few more noteworthy problems.

First, and foremost, it is apparent from reading the operational advice in Inspire that its writers and editors have no direct experience of violence. They have not dirtied their hands -- fired guns at the enemy, blown up buildings, executed prisoners. Their advice on committing violence is completely speculative and often childishly stupid, as in last issue's "Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom" and this issue's "Ultimate Mowing Machine" in which aspiring terrorists are advised to weld lawnmower blades to the bumper of a truck and drive it into a crowd.

This leads to the second problem with Inspire. Jihadism is a social movement. It's trying to create social change in Islamic countries, within Islam writ large, and in the West. Lone-wolfism is the Unabomber, a pathological narcissist hurling bombs from a remote cabin in the woods. There is a meaningful distinction between jihadism and lone-wolfism (albeit sometimes a distinction without a difference).

A procession of individual lemmings driving their mowing machines off a bridge without community context is ultimately a very limited tool for Al Qaeda, which is built on a fraternity of experienced fighters whose most effective recruiting tools are credibility and commitment, both as soldiers and as religious figures. Awlaki aside, history shows us that the most effective terrorist recruiters are those who have fought in traditional conflicts in "defense" of Muslims overseas.

Mowing-machinists, on the other hand, will be flavors of the month, at best, laughingstocks at worst. They won't become recruiters or elder statesmen. The smart ones won't even sit behind mowing machines. They will aspire to be like Samir Khan himself, all talk and no action.

I'd love to tell you that the broad Al Qaeda movement will degenerate into this kind of absurd circus act, but I don't think Inspire as it currently exists has real legs. Eventually, someone will decide that Samir Khan needs some experience on the front lines. He probably won't come back from that experience, but if he does, he won't be churning out the same crap.

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

So If We DID Kill Bin Laden, What Next?

In my last post I speculated that U.S. drones or intelligence services might be closing in on Osama bin Laden. So what happens if we kill him?

UPDATE: We've Killed Bin Laden, What Happens Next?

It's not enough to strike a location and applaud. First off, we need verification and that means troops or CIA agents on the ground to make a positive identification. The reasons for this are obvious. The Pakistanis won't be happy, but they never are.

Second, we need to sterilize the site. We will obviously gather intelligence treasures from the scene, but we need to do more than that. The site should be scrubbed so thoroughly you can't tell anyone was there. Leave no bodies, leave no equipment, no evidence of an attack (inasmuch as possible).

There are a couple of reasons for doing this. In the aftermath of killing Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, U.S. messaging made significant mistakes. The most important of these was releasing a close-up photograph of Zarqawi's dead face. Those pictures were made into martyrdom fetishes online within hours of their release.

Such images are an essential part of the lifeblood of the jihadist movement. So if we hit a target we are highly confident is bin Laden, we should leave nothing to celebrate. We should also suppress photographs of bin Laden's body for as long as possible. Given our open society, they won't stay buried forever, but we should buy ourselves a lot of time, so that when the pictures eventually emerge, there is some distance from the actual event.

It's not just about the martyr pictures. Removing all bodies and all inventory from the scene will leave ambiguity for the jihadists. If they can't confirm bin Laden is dead, then we not only control the messaging, we also gain a slightly wider window to exploit any intelligence gained from the site.

This time is critical because killing bin Laden alone will not end Al Qaeda or even cripple it. Quite the opposite. In the short term, it will probably energize the base. But killing bin Laden and Zawahiri within a couple of days of each other would have a significant impact on both morale and operations.

Hitting bin Laden alone will have exponentially less impact on operations than killing both OBL and Zawahiri. If we got Yahya Al-Libi as well, we'd have a shot at truly paralyzing the organization for long enough that even the unenthusiastic Pakistanis might be willing to carve it up.

As Jarret Brachman famously observed, Al Qaeda has become a media operation with a terrorist component, rather than what it was before, a terrorist operation with a media component. There are plenty of qualified terrorists to take up Al Qaeda's "external operations." But as a media operation, it needs figureheads.

Take out AQ's three top stars, and who's going to step up? Mustafa Abu al-Yazid is already dead, and Gadahn doesn't have the intellectual weight or rhetorical passion to fill those big shoes. Certainly there will be no lack of people trying to fill the void, but bin Laden, Zawahiri and Al-Libi are the proven commodities. Knock out all three of them, and the marquee power of Al Qaeda's media operation goes from must-see-TV to basic cable.

Speaking of the Pakistanis, the likely impact of doubling down on these top-level kills is so significant that we should do whatever it takes to make it happen, whether the Pakistanis like it or not. If that means U.S. troops storming or even demolishing houses in Quetta, so be it. While this will create a significant diplomatic disaster, the benefits probably outweigh the costs. It's a calculated risk, but not a gamble. We can ameliorate the situation somewhat by making public statements or even pledges that these successes will allow us to scale back or even quit our current military activities inside Pakistan.

Finally, we should lower our expectations. Even a best case scenario where we capture or kill the trifecta of bin Laden, Zawahiri and Libi, Al Qaeda will continue for a very long time, both in Pakistan and elsewhere. A successful strike is not a solution to terrorism, but it would buy us much-needed flexibility in re-aligning our foreign policy in the region and around the world away from the current single-minded focus, which comes at the expense of many other priorities.

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Why Two Osama bin Laden Messages Instead Of One?

Osama bin Laden issues two audio messages in two days, both on the subject of relief efforts, specifically in Pakistan.

Things just got interesting. Why two? Double-releases from Al Qaeda are not unprecedented, but they're usually on separate topics.

One of the following explanations seems to me to be the most likely:

1) The doubled-up message may be operational redundancy reflecting a lack of confidence on bin Laden's part regarding the pipeline through which his messages are transmitted to the public.

2) The messages may have been recorded at different times, but there was a delay in delivery resulting in both messages reaching the distributor (likely Adam Gadahn) at the same time.

Either of these explanations suggests that OBL's communications pipeline is vulnerable and under significant pressure. That in turn suggests that our recent unprecedented drone offensive in Pakistan is landing bombs close to bin Laden -- possibly very close -- or possibly to his chief media officer, Adam Gadahn.

Of course, we may not know how close we are. The drones could have been targeting someone else (or a target of unclear identity) and only incidentally endangered bin Laden or Gadahn.

There are other possible explanations. A particularly appealing notion is that our intelligence may have infiltrated the pipeline. Or rather, that AQ may suspect this has happened and arranged the double-release as a way to diagnose the problem. If one version leaks but the other doesn't, that implicates one distribution channel over the other.

Certainly, there is clear evidence that AQ and its regional allies are concerned about exactly this kind of infiltration. Three bullet-ridden bodies were recently deposited in North Waziristan with a note reading "Anyone who dares spy for the Americans will meet the same fate," according to several reports.

If this was a diagnostic tactic, that still suggests we are very close to bin Laden, although perhaps with a person instead of a drone.

In addition to the drone blitz, we also have the question of the capture of Al Qaeda operative Ahmad Siddiqui, who has indicated that AQ is planning Mumbai-style terrorist attacks in Europe and possibly the U.S., and that the attack was personally authorized by bin Laden.

Siddiqui was captured in July and has been providing incrementally more information each day, according to CNN and other sources. As his intelligence is processed, it no doubt leads to operations -- like the drone blitz. Could it be a coincidence that the first intelligence on bin Laden in years is being followed by all this activity?

For all these reasons, I favor the pressure option over the constellation of more mundane explanations -- hardware failure, Gadahn on vacation, editing problem which required splitting a single audio file, or a decision to split a single audio file to create the illusion of more activity, or offering an arcane coded signal to sleeper agents somewhere.

And I suspect the fact that the message was actually released means the pressure is more likely on bin Laden's side than on Gadahn's. If AQ is reacting to a suspected infiltration, Gadahn may not even know why he got two communiques instead of one.

Next post: So If We DID Kill Bin Laden, What Next?

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", granular analysis..."

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

"...a timely warning..."

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

More on Jihad Joe


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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