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Friday, May 22, 2015

Weekly Brief 5/22/2015, Bin Laden's Bookshelf, Is ISIS Strategic?, and More

The U.S. government this week released a very large batch of documents seized during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. While many in the media rushed to make listicles out of bin Laden's English-language reading list and marveled at the al Qaeda job application (just like they did in 2007 when the last one appeared), those who want to take a more measured and thoughtful approach need turn only to Clint Watts for advice.

Clint used to work on the U.S. government's Harmony Program, which declassified important documents from the war on terror, so he knows a little something about sifting through long pages of sometimes turgid prose by al Qaeda leaders. Writing for War on the Rocks, he gives some very useful tips on how to work through the stash.

Related resources:
-- J.M. Berger


Barack Obama Still Misunderestimates ISIL
The Obama administration’s misguided rhetoric on ISIL finally sped over the edge of a cliff over the last week. Officials stand now like Wile E. Coyote, still taking steps over thin air, bemused, in the moment before gravity takes hold. With the fall of Ramadi, and continuing through the fall of Palmyra, officials up to and including President Barack Obama have sought to recast the Islamic State’s victories as “tactical” setbacks. For those who do not speak Wonkese, making reference to an enemy’s “tactical” success is code for saying that the enemy is not “strategic.”


A new type of financier supporting Islamist armed groups emerged during the initial years of the Syrian conflict. These Gulf-based financiers openly advertised their activities on social media, using the medium to attract donations from across the Gulf. The international community moved slowly to neutralize these financiers, but in August 2014, the US government sanctioned two of the most prominent individuals, Hajaj al-Ajmi and Shafi al-Ajmi of Kuwait. Although the sanctions announced in August 2014 did not target all of the individuals publicly fundraising for Islamist armed groups in Syria, it did create a new environment in the Gulf. By Asher Berman

Why Terrorists Weep: The Socio-Cultural Practices of Jihadi Militants
How the non-military activities of terrorist groups can shed important new light on how extremists think and behave. Related resource: The Bored Jihadi, a new reading list and noteboard focused on jihadi culture. Both by Thomas Hegghammer


Within a matter of days this week, the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, seized with apparent ease the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in both cases seemingly coming out of nowhere to rout government forces. Yet a closer look at the two battles shows the group following a longerterm strategy, in both cases biding its time, taking territory mainly from other insurgent groups. Then, after years of war, attrition and corruption had left the government forces demoralized and, particularly in Syria, hollowed out, it attacked, overrunning them.

Despite months of an American-led bombing campaign, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has conquered the Iraqi city of Ramadi. It is a major setback, and it should compel policymakers to assess whether our strategy -- which in the near term boils down to containing and disrupting ISIS while we bolster stable governance in Iraq -- is working. What it should not do is prompt half-baked calls for inserting more American troops into Iraq. By Brian Fishman.

A central goal of the Islamic State is expansion. This week, the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took over key cities in Iraq and Syria. It aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries. A year after announcing its expansion goals, it is operating or has cells in more than a dozen countries.

ISIS Finances Are Strong
The Islamic State has revenue and assets that are more than enough to cover its current expenses despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group’s finances, according to analysts at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization that researches public policy.

The President discusses ISIS, Syria and more.

Palmyra’s capture provides the extremist group with a strategic base from which to advance on key Syrian state-held areas.

In seeking to explain the recruiting success of the so-called Islamic State (IS), Western analysts tend to view the group through the lens of its most provocative acts: staged executions, destruction of heritage sites and calls to bring about the “End of Days.”* Yet while its Western enemies are preoccupied parsing the allure of its spectacular savagery and zealous apocalyptic ideology, IS is carefully cultivating a parallel appeal to its core Arab constituency, not through shock and awe but through routine and accomplishment. The brand that IS media most regularly markets to inhabitants of IS-controlled territory and supporters is that of a powerful but pragmatic actor sensibly governing a caliphate where they and their families can live and work, not just fight and die.

* J.M. Note: These aren't necessarily inconsistent with the article; in fact the local propaganda contributes to the group's Millenarian appeal.

Lonely Man Finds a Home in Islamic State
When Mark Taylor began visiting a New Zealand mosque about four years ago, worshippers there saw him as lonely, a little lost and possessing a childlike view of the world. They didn't see any anger or radicalism in the security guard who said he was a former Army soldier. And so they were not only appalled but also worried for him when he resurfaced last year in Syria, describing himself as an adventurer and posting social media messages under the Twitter handle "Kiwi Jihadi."


The Purge: How Somalia’s Al Shabaab Turned Against Its Own Foreign Fighters
Counterterrorism agencies have long been preoccupied with the threat posed by the recruiting successes of the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab in Western countries. In recent years, however, al Shabaab has turned on the foreign fighters in its own ranks, waging a brutal campaign to purge the perceived spies from its midst. An intimate account of the Shabaab civil war was provided to The Intercept in a series of interviews conducted with a current member of al Shabaab and a source who has maintained close contacts with the group.

Exit From Refuge Was on Bin Laden's Mind
Osama bin Laden was considering leaving his hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan, just months before Navy SEALs stormed his compound and killed him, according to a trove of documents seized from his compound during the raid and declassified this week by the Obama administration.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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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

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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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