Sometimes the threat of violence can be as effective at instilling fear as violence itself. And sometimes it represents a dramatic overreach by a group relying on propaganda to accomplish what it couldn't possibly imagine doing by deed.
The claim of responsibility by the self-styled Supreme Council of Holy Warriors (Magles Shura al-Mujahideen) for a failed rocket attack on the Israeli city of Eilat yesterday is almost certainly the latter – particularly given the claim that it was in retaliation for an alleged Israeli drone strike inside Egypt that killed four militants last week. The rocket was shot down by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.
"In a swift response to the latest crime of the Jews that killed four Mujahideen in the land of Sinai through a (drone) strike the lions of Magles Shura al-Mujahideen ... were able to strike the occupied city" of Eilat, the group's online claim reads, according to Reuters. "We assure that neither Eilat nor any other Israeli cities will be blessed with security."
That is a frankly laughable assertion. Eilat is Israel's access to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, and is within spitting distance of Jordanian and Egyptian territory. The Sinai has long been Egypt's most lawless region and smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip have helped the weapons trade flourish on the Peninsula, as well as given access to militants coming out of Gaza. In that respect, Eilat is the most exposed city on Israel's southern flank – and has been for a long time.
Yet Sinai-based jihadis have been singularly unsuccessful in doing damage to the town. While they might one day get lucky, the deployment of Iron Dome missile defenses to the area have further shifted the odds against them. And until they can damage their easiest target, their claims of putting other Israeli cities at risk should be treated as the bluster that it is.
Of course, sometimes empty jihadi threats have something for everyone. The jihadi group gets a boost of publicity and perhaps improved recruitment opportunities by looking dangerous, and the security services of their targets have a greater justification for funding and harsh tactics.
Consider the hullabaloo the US had last week, with 19 embassies and consulates shut in response to an unclear Al Qaeda threat that had something to do with Yemen. Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri got a nice shot of publicity, and the US intelligence services, under fire for intrusive global surveillance practices, got some "proof" that they're keeping everyone safe. Some analysts were even saying the event was evidence of a reformed, more dangerous Al Qaeda – even though the group's core in Pakistan hasn't been able to carry out a major international attack for years.
Is there a problem in Egypt's Sinai? Yes. The Egyptian military has failed in asserting government control over the area – and if it really did sign off on an Israeli drone strike inside the territory, that would be an exceptional bit of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. Especially since so much of Egypt's officer corps is invested in the belief that they helped lead to the end of Israel's occupation of the Sinai, and that if the Egyptian public becomes convinced their generals gave the Jewish state permission to carry out an attack in the Sinai, it could be devastating to their public support.
But while much has been made of "rising" lawlessness in the Sinai since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt's dictator in February of 2011, this isn't really a new phenomenon. There were two failed rocket attacks on Eilat in 2010 from the Sinai (one of which overshot and killed a civilian in Jordan's Aqaba).
Egyptian interests have also long been targeted in the Sinai. For instance in 2004, 34 people were murdered by two jihadi bombings in the Egyptian tourist town of Taba, just across from Eilat. In 2005, three bombs on the Egyptian tourist resort of Sharm al-Sheikh (where Mubarak kept a second home and security was always unusually tight) killed 83 people.
Who are the "Supreme Council of Holy Warriors?" In June of last year, the group claimed responsibility via the Internet for the killing of an Israeli civilian in an attack on the Sinai border. Last October, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said an Israeli airstrike there had killed a member of the group. It appears to be an Al Qaeda-inspired local group, probably involving some Egyptians and some Palestinians from Gaza.
Beyond that? They haven't proven they're much of a threat to anyone yet outside of the Sinai's borders.
Whatever the accuracy of the claims of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Snowden and Greenwald, the columnist through whom he's carried out most of his leaks over the past few months, the storm of outrage over allegations that NSA intelligence collection frequently targets the phone calls and emails of US citizens has gotten the attention of President Barack Obama.
Today, Obama ordered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to name an outside panel to review the United State's global collection of signals intelligence - meaning its efforts to target phone calls, internet messages, and various forms of electronic communication.
While the letter appears to focus on the risk of leaks and counter-intelligence by enemies, more than on concerns that the Constitution is being violated by NSA dragnets, it's clear that Obama is worried about the backlash.
"Recent years have brought unprecedented and rapid advancements in communications technologies, particularly with respect to global telecommunications," his letter to Clapper reads. "These technological advances have brought with them both great opportunities and significant risks for our Intelligence Community: opportunity in the form of enhanced technical capabilities that can more precisely and readily identify threats to our security, and risks in the form of insider and cyber threats
I believe it is important to take stock of how these technological advances alter the environment in which we conduct our intelligence mission. To this end, by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I am directing you to establish a Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies (Review Group)."
Obama's focus appears to be on stopping leaks like Snowden's – what he calls "unauthorized disclosures" – but also makes a nod towards public concern about US intelligence targeting of citizens, with a brief comment about the "need to maintain the public trust."
The proof of the pudding will obviously be in the eating. Obama has asked for a review group to be named by Clapper to brief him, via the DNI, within 60 days and to provide a final report and recommendations by Dec. 15 of this year. Who these people are, and where they decide to place their emphasis, will have a lot to do with their findings.
It's possible that they will be overwhelmingly focused on securing US government secrets – but Obama's mention of public trust implies that their tasking will at least require some consideration of the constitutional issues and the politics of US government surveillance on citizens.
On the other hand, Clapper has not exactly developed a reputation for candor when testifying before Congress, and since he'll oversee the details of this review, it could be more of the same.
A few weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was greeted by the applause of his staff as he boarded his plane after a hard fought and successful bout of diplomacy. The achievement? Getting Israeli and Palestinian officials to agree to peace talks under the terms of the Oslo Accords, which were created and signed in 1993.
Getting the two sides to start talking again on the basis of a preliminary agreement that is now 20-years old – and was supposed to have been long since replaced by the creation of a durable peace pact and an independent Palestinian state – doesn't seem like much of an achievement. But on July 19, Mr. Kerry and his aides were convinced – nay they knew – that this time would be different.
Hopefully they enjoyed the warm glow while it lasted. Because what Kerry and the Obama administration are discovering this week is that "an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations," as Kerry explained the breakthrough in July, doesn't usually amount to much, at least not on the time-frame of US presidencies. Oslo itself was meant to establish a basis for "direct final-status negotiations," yet has yielded little of consequence in that direction in the past two decades. The whole schmear was supposed to be wrapped up by the end of 1999.
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In the years since, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have expanded enormously. Successive Israeli governments, supportive of the settlement enterprise and with less to fear by the way of Palestinian militants from the West Bank (or in Gaza, for that matter, given how tightly the population there is bottled up), have turned rightward and shown little willingness to slow the de facto annexation of land the Palestinians had hoped and expected would be theirs.
A pattern has been repeated endlessly of trumpeted "peace process" breakthroughs followed by promised settlement expansions – a series of false dawns that have undermined the credibility of each successive US government that has proclaimed a new day.
The Obama administration's realization that they might be mired in the same-old peace process hamster wheel is what we witnessed today with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki's declaration of "serious concerns" over the (wait for it...) latest announcement of a settlement expansion by the Israeli government yesterday.
Palestinian officials, supposed to sit down with Israeli counterparts on Wednesday to resume negotiations, are saying the announcement made by pro-settler Housing Minister Uri Ariel yesterday are a sign of bad faith. Mr. Ariel said that 1,200 new homes would be built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, considered occupied territory by the Palestinians and most foreign governments, and was defiant in making his announcement.
"No country in the world accepts diktats from other countries on where it is allowed to build or not," said Ariel yesterday. "We shall continue to market apartments and build throughout the country."
Take that, peace process!
As for Kerry's State Department, they're not happy about the state of affairs, but they've signaled they aren't going to make much of a fuss about it. About the strongest thing Ms. Psaki said today was "we don't accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity." But a new fact on the ground is a real thing, whether it's called "legitimate" or not.
To be sure, Israel did announce today that it would release 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a confidence building measure. The vast majority of the people on the list have been in prison since before the Oslo Accords were signed, and their release may bring some good will for Abbas and his decision to reengage. The Palestinian president has spent years refusing to negotiate until settlement expansion stopped. Since it carried on despite his protestations, the calculus now appears to be that he might as well get something else while settlement expansion continues, instead of nothing.
Will talks of some kind happen on Wednesday? Probably. Martin Indyk – the former US ambassador to Israel, Obama's envoy, and a peace process veteran – is already on the scene, and Abbas will have enough breathing room from the celebrations of the prisoner release not to face too much backlash from allowing his people to participate (though many Israelis are furious that men convicted of killing Israelis will be getting out of jail).
But the prospect of meaningful progress, in an atmosphere that looks and feels just like the past five or so declared "breakthroughs?" Pretty bleak. The Israeli press has been reporting that Obama's people signed off privately on settlement expansion to balance the prisoner releases. But the US are not the people who need convincing.
It's the Israelis and Palestinians that will have to live with the consequences of peacemaking or its failure. And when both or either side is more focused on what the US wants, the long-sought progress seems to have a habit of sinking into the mud.
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Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, was marked in Iraq last week with a string of murders carried out by Al Qaeda's local affiliate, which has driven violence this year in the country to its highest level since 2008.
As mothers shopped to prepare feasts and families gathered in parks to celebrate the end of the fast, the group detonated bombs, claiming almost 80 lives. That after an unusually bloody period: July was the deadliest month in the country in five years.
The immediate reasons for a resurgent Sunni jihadi movement in Iraq are clear. The civil war in Syria has energized regional jihadis, and the flow of arms and men across the porous Iraqi-Syrian border have created more opportunities for fighters inside Iraq. Iraq's local Al Qaeda affiliate formally merged with the one in Syria earlier this year, and now calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
National reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite Arab majority who emerged as the big political winners of the Iraq war never really materialized after war cooled in 2007 and 2008. Many Sunni Arab fighters who switched sides to fight with the United States and the government were left disillusioned when the jobs and money they were promised from the government of Nouri al-Maliki never materialized.
But often lost in the daily reports of rising violence in Iraq has been the truly awful job of basic governance carried out by Mr. Maliki, his ministers, and the national parliament. When you scratch the surface in Iraq, examples of state failure abound. The spectacular jihadi jail break from Abu Ghraib prison at the end of last month, when jihadis attacked and defeated government forces there and released hundreds of their comrades, is one instance that has made the headlines.
But often missed is how bad electricity production in Iraq is, how irregular trash collection and sewage repairs are even in cities like Baghdad, and the general failure of the elected government to deliver on basic services, even as oil revenue has surged.
From 2010 to 2012 Iraq managed to increase daily crude output by over 25 percent, to 2.9 million barrels a day (though even in this most crucial area for any Iraqi government, progress has slowed, if not reversed). Oil production in July of this year fell slightly compared to a year earlier, the first decline since 2010, as a combination of increased insecurity and pipeline attacks in the north of the country and poor maintenance in the south have eaten into the nation's lifeblood.
Still, the country is the 11th largest oil producer in the world and the fifth largest in the Middle East, and daily production of about 2.7 million bbl is worth about $270 million a day– or $98 billion a year. Has increasing oil revenue been invested wisely? Not as far as anyone can tell.
As the blistering heat of the Iraqi summer settled over the country this year and demand for power to run air conditioners rose, Iraq once again experienced wide-spread power outages, and in July protests demanding the resignation of Maliki and Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani over the shortages erupted in five provinces. Joel Wing had a good roundup of Iraq's electricity woes – and what it says about the deficiencies of the government – last month.
"Many Iraqis have simply lost faith in Baghdad providing for their needs," he wrote.
"Every year since 2003, the Americans and then the Iraqi authorities have claimed that the country would overcome its chronic power outages in just a few months to a year. While production has steadily increased, so has demand as Iraqis, freed from sanctions, have bought more and more consumer goods like refrigerators, televisions, and air conditioners. That’s what has led to these constant protests over the last several years, as the Electricity Ministry has never produced enough power to catch up with the escalating levels of usage."
When I lived in Iraq from 2003-2008, the American failure to produce a regular and adequate power supply was constantly harped on by Iraqis as a sign of US bad faith and, even by Iraqis sympathetic to the US-led mission there, as a reason for why the insurgency was growing. Now failure is owned by Maliki's government, and is one of many signs that while Iraq has elections now and is theoretically a democracy, meaningful oversight by the elected representatives of the people by and large does not exist. Mr. Wing writes:
Parliament has tried, but failed to hold the government accountable for the repeated failure to solve the electricity problems. The legislature recently called on Deputy Premier Hussein Shahristani and Electricity Minister Abdul Karim Aftan to appear before it, but the former refused. Aftan testified to the oil and energy committee, and tried to deflect blame to the Finance Ministry for not allocating funds for projects, and the Oil Ministry for not providing enough fuel. At the same time, the minister admitted that he lacked experienced and trained staff to man all the new power plants being buil[t]. Parliament has brought up other issues as well such as why Iraq bought gas driven turbines when it doesn’t have enough natural gas to fuel them, and continues to purchase them, as well as why 18% of the country is not connected to the national grid. These problems and others have been known for years, and brought up again and again by lawmakers, but to no affect. The parliament is given wide ranging oversight powers under the 2005 constitution, but either chooses not to exercise them or is ignored by the government. Electricity is a perfect example, as lawmakers’ constant criticism has brought no changes.
That's evidence of a toothless parliament, though there are perks: The $22,500 that an Iraqi MP makes in a month is among the most lavish parliamentary salaries in the world. While government ministers may refuse to explain themselves to the legislature, particularly over the purchase of essentially worthless gas turbines, Iraq's MPs have been loathe to hold a vote of no-confidence in the government – since that would lead to new elections and perhaps the loss of their lucrative seats. Meanwhile Maliki has blamed Mr. Shahristani for the problem, while Shahristani has blamed Karim Aftan, the electricity minister.
Not surprisingly, this contributes to an environment of contempt for the central state – which exercises only nominal control over parts of its territory at the moment.
The below video, for instance, purports to show Al Qaeda style jihadis riding in convoy out of Iraq to fight in Syria – whose government the Maliki regime nominally supports. Hardly a covert operation:
The central government meanwhile says it needs more arms to fight insurgents on its territory, and the country recently inked a $4 billion contract with Russia on the sale of attack helicopters and air defenses, though deliveries have been held up because of allegations of massive kickbacks demanded by government officials. It wouldn't be the first time. In 2006, former Finance Minister Iyad Allawi alleged that $800 million had been stolen by officials in an arms deal. In 2008, Iraq's Interior Ministry was involved in the corrupt purchase of fake bomb detectors from a UK company – and was insisting that officers continue use them, despite all evidence that they didn't work and were putting police and average Iraqis in harm's way, as recently as May of this year.
Does all this breed contempt among average Iraqis for their government? Certainly. And it increases the numbers of Iraqis willing to take up arms against it, or at least look the other way when others do so.
Forget Egypt - Bahrain is about to experience another round of large countrywide protests and chances are, you might not hear about them.
A tiny island nation, Bahrain sits near Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf and is important to US interests in the region because it hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet, responsible for patrolling the oil-rich region's waters.
On August 14, protesters have promised to take to the streets once more to demand democratic reform in the latest installment of a two-year long protest movement. The response of the government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to the protest wave has been repression, and the government has made it almost impossible for foreign reporters to cover the turmoil.
This has forced Bahraini citizen journalists to cover their own protests for the outside world and they've succeeded - until now.
With August 14 quickly approaching, citizen journalists are the government's new targets. A week ago, I spoke online with a citizen journalist inside Bahrain who told me his arrest might be imminent because he feared a crackdown had begun against him and his colleagues. He had good reason to worry. At 3 am on July 31, fifteen masked men woke up Bahraini blogger Mohammed Hassan in his house and arrested him.
His computer, camera, phone and every other electronic item found in his room were also confiscated. The young blogger's family was only told that he was "wanted." On Friday, after his lawyer AbdulAziz Mosa tweeted about evidence that Hassan had been beaten in detention, Mr. Mosa was arrested.
The family knew who the men were; early morning arrests by multiple masked men are usually the work of the country's feared Central Intelligence Department (CID), Said Yousif, the head of monitoring at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) who spoke to the family, told me in a phone call from Bahrain.
That evening, Hassan's best friend photographer Hussain Hubail was arrested by police at Bahrain's main airport. He managed to call his family to tell them he had been surrounded by police at the immigration check while he was trying to fly to Dubai. He, too, was only told that he was "wanted."
Less than 300 square miles in size and with a population of 1.2 million, half of them non-nationals, Bahrain's capital Manama and its scattering of villages each have their own bloggers and photographers to cover the unrest. Hassan and Hubail were responsible for disseminating information from the village of Sitra, in the east.
Their arrests were followed on Aug. 2 by Qassim Zainaldeen's, a photographer from the village of Diraz in the north. The culprits again were masked men who took him away from his home in the wee hours of the morning with his electronic equipment. All three were transferred to the main prison at the dry docks after several days of no news about their whereabouts.
Their arrests came after a hastily created series of recommendations from the Bahraini national parliament on July 28 that seek to severely curtail freedoms. Besides banning all protests in the capital and threatening to revoke the citizenship of those found guilty of "terrorist crimes," one of the 22 recommendations grants "the security bodies all required and appropriate powers to protect society from terror incidents and prevent spreading them."
Not yet made law, Human Rights Watch writes that the recommendations would give the authorities too much power and could hamper freedom of assembly and speech. Bahraini activists claim they have been created to stop the August 14 protests and their coverage.
"Under the frame and discourse of terrorism, the Bahraini regime is attempting to prevent protests from taking place," Maryam AlKhawaja, the Acting President of BCHR, told me over the phone from Copenhagen in Denmark. She accused the government of going after citizen journalists and activists to make coverage of the protests impossible. She tried to fly into Bahrain this Friday, but was turned away at the airport in Copenhagen, told by her airline that she was on a list of people banned from entering Bahrain.
Her BCHR colleague Said Yousif is not surprised by how blatantly the citizen journalists were detained. "Since April, 700 protesters have been arrested and over 100 have been injured in protest due to police brutality," he said.
Now it seems it's the citizen journalists' turn.
In the past two years at least 80 protesters have been killed and in 2011 alone, an independent commission concluded that almost 3,000 were arrested. Many have been sent to prison for taking part in protests or clashing with police, including a dozen Bahrainis who were sentenced on July 31 to two-year sentences. Claims of torture against citizens are rampant, but the government has yet to prosecute or find any high-ranking official guilty of the crime. A high-ranking official was acquitted last month of charges of torturing medics who'd treated protesters.
The new recommendations on terrorism are a terrifying specter for the citizen journalists who are still free, with some believed to be in hiding. Ordinary protesters, too, are feeling the pinch. Yousif told me that a few days ago, he was made aware that the government was holding a "terrorist" in custody at a local hospital. "I went there, expecting to see someone like Osama bin Laden," he said, "When I got there, the terrorist turned out to be a protester, with a tear gas canister wound on his head."
Richard Dawkins, the British scientist who is arguably as famous for his zealous promotion of atheism as he is for his groundbreaking work in evolutionary biology, found rare common ground with Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who wears his devotion to Christianity on his sleeve, yesterday.
Both men, it turns out, don't like Muslims very much. While Dawkins' comments were milder, they betrayed a generalized distaste for Muslims surprising in a man noted for his devotion to science and distaste for simplistic explanations of complex phenomena.
It is true of course true that Trinity College's 32 Nobel Prizes are more than the 10 awarded to Muslims. But what makes this an "intriguing fact" to Dawkins? The fact that Muslim majority societies have been generally poorer than Western ones for centuries is well understood. When the Nobel Prize was founded in 1901, the vast majority of the world's Muslims lived in countries ruled by foreign powers, and for much of the 20th century Muslims did not have much access to great centers of learning like Cambridge.
The ranks of Nobel prize winners have traditionally been dominated by white, Western men – a reflection of both the economic might of the West in the past century, preferential access to education for that class of people and also, it must be added, a wonderful intellectual tradition. But one might as well be intrigued by the fact that Africans have fewer Nobels than Trinity (nine) or that Indians do (four) or that Chinese do (eight). Or perhaps Dawkins is "intrigued" that women have only won 44 Nobel Prizes, compared with 791 for men?
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
You can attack someone for his opinion. But for simply stating an intriguing fact? Who would guess that a single Cambridge College . . .— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
Why mention Muslim Nobels rather than any other group? Because we so often hear boasts about (a) their total numbers and (b) their science.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
Dawkins, as an educated man, should be well aware of the legacy of colonialism and of simple poverty. And he is certainly aware that the divergence of academic achievement across the world is a complex topic that needs to take into account culture, politics, and economics. His comments today did not indicate that.
Well, at least he has company.
Mr. Huckabee had a few words about Muslims in general on his syndicated radio show yesterday. Responding to the US embassy closures across Africa and the Middle East this week, he targeted the entire faith, saying that attendance at Friday prayers whips Muslims up into a violent, animalistic frenzy and linked terrorism to the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which was yesterday.
I know we’re not supposed to say anything unkind about Islam... I mean, it’s politically incorrect. I get that. But can someone explain to me why it is that we tiptoe around a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet in their so-called ‘holiest days.'
You know, if you’ve kept up with the Middle East, you know that the most likely time to have an uprising of rock throwing and rioting comes on the day of prayer on Friday. So the Muslims will go to the mosque, and they will have their day of prayer, and they come out of there like uncorked animals — throwing rocks and burning cars.
You know, I’m just pointing out that for all of the demands that we’re supposed to be so very polite, and I’m not saying all Muslims are radical and I am not saying that all Muslims are violent. I’m not. But we as a government recognize that the most likely times for them to erupt in some type of terrorist activity, violent storming of an embassy, is on their holy days.
The good news for "them" is that so far no animals, uncorked or otherwise, have been observed emerging from mosques as the world's estimated 1.3 billion Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr.
It's always nice when atheists and men of faith can find common ground. Isn't it?
Did the US do the right thing by shutting down 19 embassies and consulates this week in response to an unspecified "terror threat?" While some have called the decision "crazy pants," I think that's unfair.
It's conceivable that the decision was appropriate based on what the US government thinks it knows. And it's also conceivable that it was an enormous overreaction. Since we don't know what exactly it is the government overheard or was told by informants (or both), it's impossible to fairly judge the decision.
It's highly unlikely that Al Qaeda and affiliated groups could pull off simultaneous or near-simultaneous attacks in 17 countries. The amount of planning and coordination such a plot would require, involving hundreds of operatives, dramatically increases the risk of exposure before it can be carried out.
But what is believable is that the US could be convinced that something was in the works in one or a few of these locations – the Obama administration was most worried about Yemen – without being certain of which ones. So in certain circumstances, the minor inconvenience of the nearly unprecedented embassy closures could seem like a bargain when weighed against the costs of even one successful attack. Consider the political fallout of the attack on the large CIA operation in Benghazi, Libya, last September, and you'll see why an "abundance of caution" approach might appeal.
What does the US know? We simply don't know. Wednesday, The Daily Beast had a rather strange scoop. It cited three unnamed officials as saying that the embassy closures were prompted by a conference call involving Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda leader in Yemen Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and about 19 other people spread across the Middle East and Africa.
Yesterday, the authors clarified that it wasn't a "conference call" as typically understood. Their point appears to be that the participants weren't using phones, but we'll assume for now that they were talking, perhaps over an Internet service like Skype. The authors, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, explained that the lack of specificity about the precise type of conference was withheld at the request of their sources.
But that brings us back to the strange part. If a conference call of some sort took place, then the participants know full well how they did it. And the moment they see a news report that says the United States was listening in to the call, they're going to shut that means of communication down. So instead of a theoretical intelligence gold mine being kept up and running, the leaks have killed off eyes and ears that we appeared to have on some of the most wanted terrorists in the world. And if the sources are to be believed, they also appear to have compromised a courier between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi.
Why would anyone in the US government with knowledge of such an operation put that out there?
I'm having trouble coming up with a reason – though it's possible perhaps that the US government knew that their eavesdropping technique was already compromised. And then there's the simple strangeness of Zawahiri putting himself at such risk for exposure, with all those militants getting together on some kind of electronic communications at a moment when public discussion is at an all time high of the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) tools to sift through reams of data.
One argument put forth is that Zawahiri's feeling confident and thinks he has a large measure of control over Al Qaeda's various global affiliates. Mr. Rogin made that argument himself yesterday on Fox.
"I think the significance of this is that it shows despite what we may have heard that the Al Qaeda core is diminished – this is something the administration likes to say often – as it turns out they're very much alive and well and very much in control and in touch with the affiliates," he said. "It's a much more cohesive organization than we previously realized."
"The working assumption had been that Al Qaeda was operating what you might call franchises, independent operations that had little connection to the headquarters back in Pakistan and were basically doing what they wanted when they wanted with some top level approval. What we're seeing now as an evolution of Al Qaeda into a new phase that is actually much more integrated than it had previously been. There is a lot of top down management.... we're seeing that it's not really on its heels at all."
I take these claims with large grains of salt. Whether Rogin was told the alleged complete contents of that call isn't clear – he hasn't said one way or another. Just running off what he and Lake reported, there is no evidence that these assertions are true. A group of people with similar interests got on a conference call to plan or discuss ... something. Does that mean that Zawahiri has the power to order attacks across the world? Not by itself.
The history of Al Qaeda's core, under Osama Bin Laden and now under Zawahiri, who was second in command until Bin Laden's death, has been one of difficulty in controlling its affiliates.
Consider the last major crest for jihadis in the Middle East in Iraq in the middle of the past decade, when the US-led occupation energized a Sunni Arab insurgency that allowed Al Qaeda allies to create a beachhead for themselves in the country, particularly in Anbar Province. The early lion for Al Qaeda in Iraq was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who was eventually killed in a US airstrike in June 2006.
Under Zarqawi's leadership, Al Qaeda in Iraq killed Iraqi Shiites and Sunni Arabs it deemed collaborators, and delighted in filming its members beheading and murdering helpless captives. It was not an effective hearts and minds strategy, something that Zawahiri was well aware of.
In a letter to Zarqawi in 2005, Zawahiri took him to task: "If we look at the two short-term goals, which are removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic emirate in Iraq, or a caliphate if possible, then we will see that the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy – after the help and granting of success by God – is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries," he wrote to Zarqawi.
Zawahiri, at pains to reassure Zarqawi that his own hatred for Shiites burned as brightly as his own, warned the younger militant that he was losing the Iraqi street with his murderous sectarian rampages, his bombing of mosques, and the "slaughtering of hostages," as he put it. Zawahiri argued that success for their agenda was being sharply undermined by Zarqawi's actions and urged him to focus attacks on US and Iraqi government forces.
The response? He was completely ignored, and in February 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the Askariyah Shrine, revered by Iraq's Shiites, touching off the bloodiest phase of Iraq's sectarian conflict and setting the stage for Al Qaeda in Iraq's defeat.
The simple fact of the matter is that it's hard to control people who are fighting and dying in their own countries. In Syria, the local Al Qaeda affiliate has been involved in murderous rampages of its own, once again undermining its local support.
The events of the past week indicate neither strength nor weakness. There have as yet been no attacks, though the US has killed nine alleged militants with drone strikes in Yemen in the past few days. It's been years since a major international attack has been successfully carried out under the direction of Al Qaeda's core. Until there's evidence that state of affairs has changed, it doesn't make sense to ascribe to Zawahiri abilities he has not been able to demonstrate.
The killings coincide with 19 US embassy and consulate closures across the Middle East and Africa this week and assertions from unnamed US officials that the decision was prompted by communications between Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of its affiliate in Yemen, and unspecified other fellow travelers. You have to wonder if the Obama administration's decision to increase the pace of killing in Yemen is tied to the alleged plot against US embassies. Or whether whatever precise intelligence that led to the embassy closures also revealed the whereabouts of men the US has long hoped to kill.
Unfortunately the information (and, perhaps, disinformation) that has trickled out into public this week is insufficient to decide. But it's clear that US government alarm about the activities of Nasir al-Wuhayshi's Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is on the rise. The US has hit Yemen with seven drone strikes since July 27 – a remarkable pace given that it's launched a total of 77 such attacks on the country since the campaign began in 2010.
One of the first killings of an Al Qaeda associate with a drone came in Yemen in 2002, when a Predator fired a Hellfire missile to kill the top Al Qaeda member in the country Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harithi and five others. Mr. Harithi was accused of being a top planner for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen's Aden harbor in 2000, which claimed the lives of 17 US sailors.
But the risks of backlash from the assassination campaign in Yemen have long been understood. Jeb Boone wrote from Yemen in 2011 that killing people in the country was leading to intensified attacks on the government from Yemenis seeking revenge for its assistance to the US program, essentially creating the very instability on which Al Qaeda thrives:
"Our reaction [to the presence of drones] is like any Yemeni’s. It is a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and a crime committed against the Yemeni people," says Ahmed al-Shabwani, whose brother, former deputy governor of the Marib Governorate Jabr al-Shabwani, was accidentally killed in a May 2010 US drone strike. Even after being paid blood money by the Saleh regime, the Al Shabwani family carried out attacks against Marib’s oil and power infrastructure demanding that the Yemeni government stop cooperating with the US drone and missile strikes.
... What's more, says Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, there's a strong link between the failing Yemeni economy and American drone and missile strikes. “That one drone strike in May of last year has cost Yemen over $1 billion dollars and the cost is still rising as the main Marib pipeline is still shut down,” says Mr. Iryani. “The truth is, we can’t anticipate the cost of these drone strikes, in terms of the humanitarian costs as well as the economic costs, but they will be dire."
It seems prudent to take threats emanating from Yemen seriously. In September 2008, Al Qaeda supporters in Yemen launched a complex attack involving rocket-propelled grenades and at least one suicide bomber on the US Embassy in Sanaa. The attack claimed 18 lives, one of them American, and a breach of the embassy compound and a full blown disaster was only narrowly averted.
In early December 2009, the US responded, but disastrously. A US cruise missile delivered a cluster bomb to an alleged Al Qaeda training camp in southern Yemen that claimed 55 lives, 41 of them civilians, an event that heightened anti-Americanism in the country and caused a rethink on US targeting procedures. That 2009 strike was the first US attack in the country since 2002, but was a harbinger of the drone war to come. A US attack that was the first attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki followed on Dec. 24, 2009 and claimed dozens of lives.
The next day would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student in Yemen who moved in Awlaki's circles, tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253. That failed attack intensified the air campaign, though drone strikes did not feature heavily again until 2011. That summer, there were at least 14 drone attacks inside the country with fatalities. Awlaki was finally killed by a US drone on Sept. 30, 2011. In 2012 there were over 45 suspected drone strikes in Yemen. This year the pace had slackened – with 17 such attacks through July – but the Obama administration now appears to be making up for lost time.
What has all this achieved? A lot of people have been killed, but many who follow Yemen closely believe that America's "mowing the lawn" approach of killing alleged militants is also spreading a lot of seeds.
Gregory D. Johnsen, who's studying for a Ph.D at Princeton in Near Eastern studies and focuses on Yemen and its militant networks, wrote earlier this week that the drones are figuratively shooting the US in the foot.
For all the strikes and all the dead, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as it is often known, continues to attract more members, growing from 300 in 2009 to well over a thousand today.
... Why, if the US counterterrorism approach is working in Yemen, as the Obama administration claims, is AQAP still growing? Why after nearly four years of bombing raids is the group capable of putting together the type of plot that leads to the U.S. shuttering embassies and missions from North Africa to the Persian Gulf?
The answer is simple, if rather disheartening: Faulty assumptions and a mistaken focus paired with a resilient and adaptive enemy have created a serious problem for the US. Part of the US approach to fighting AQAP is based on what worked for the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drone strikes have decimated what is often called Al Qaeda's core. (Although as Al Qaeda's strength moves back toward the Arab world, analysts will need to start rethinking old categories.) Unfortunately not all lessons are transportable. What this means is that the US is fighting the Al Qaeda that was, instead of the Al Qaeda that is.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda was largely a group of Arabs in non-Arab countries. In Yemen, Al Qaeda is made up mostly of Yemenis living in Yemen.
This has two key implications for the US. First, new recruits no longer need to travel abroad to receive specialized training. For years, men like Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of AQAP and the man believed by U.S. officials to be recently promoted to Al Qaeda's global deputy, had to spend time in training camps in Afghanistan to acquire the requisite experience. But since AQAP has developed its own network in Yemen, that is no longer the case. Now young Yemenis who want to join al Qaeda can study with Ibrahim Asiri, the group's top bombmaker, without ever leaving home....
The second drawback to assuming that what worked in one place would automatically work in another is what Yemenis call tha'r, or revenge -- a concept the US appears to have overlooked in Yemen. The men that the US is killing in Yemen are tied to the local society in a way that many of the fighters in Afghanistan never were. They may be Al Qaeda members, but they are also fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, tribesmen, and clansmen with friends and relatives.
Mr. Johnsen thinks that Al Qaeda in Yemen has proven itself more than capable to weather the loss of top leaders and that US policy in the country, focused on stopping possible immediate threats to US interests without much attention payed to long-term consequences and strategy, is failing.
On the measure of 19 embassies and consulates closed this week, it appears he has a point.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who succeeded Osama bin Laden as boss of Al Qaeda, has spent his adult life operating in clandestine organizations. He has been intensely hunted by the United States since at least February 1998, when he and bin Laden issued a declaration calling on Muslims the world over to kill Americans wherever they might find them.
On Aug. 7 of that year, Al Qaeda had its first major success against the US: attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Cruise missile strikes ordered by President Bill Clinton on alleged Al Qaeda training camps in the Sudan and Afghanistan soon followed, but Mr. Zawahiri managed to survive those attacks – as he did the US invasion of Afghanistan after Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the years since, literally billions have been spent tracking Zawahiri and his close associates. He's managed to remain alive this long thanks to limiting his exposure to a broader network of people via direct telephone or email communication. That's how bin Laden avoided detection for so many years, too. After the daring US raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbotobad, Pakistan, in 2011, it emerged that no internet or phone lines were allowed in the house. Bin Laden communicated with the outside world via a network of trusted couriers.
But a story today in The Daily Beast claims the reason that 19 US embassies and consulates in Africa and the Middle East have been shuttered this week – the broadest such closures since the week after 9/11 – is because US intelligence successfully eavesdropped on a conference call involving Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and about 19 other people who belong to either Al Qaeda or affiliated terrorist groups.
That's passing strange, to say the least. The story cites three unnamed US "officials" as providing the information about a conference call one of the officials likened to a meeting of the Legion of Doom.
The conference call provided a new sense of urgency for the US government, the sources said. Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
The claim flies in the face of every assumption and informed opinion about Al Qaeda's operational security that there is. That many people, on a call all at once, would appear to dramatically increase the exposure of all of them – as would the simple logistics of setting up a calling time for all those people to be on the phone. There's the simple chance that one of the participants is already an informant to the US or another intelligence service. And then there's the chance that the National Security Agency (NSA) would be listening in on the call.
The Daily Beast story says that "Al Qaeda leaders had assumed the conference calls, which give Zawahiri the ability to manage his organization from a remote location, were secure." But that's astonishing too. No matter what kind of encryption or other method was being used to hide the conversations, Zawahiri would have been a fool to believe security was ironclad. And whatever else he's known for, Zawahiri has not exactly developed a reputation as a fool (and, as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, everyone knows that 20-person conference calls never accomplish anything).
But if the information being provided by anonymous US officials is both honest and accurate, that might be even worse than if it's disinformation, since what it amounts to is the US blowing the cover off an opportunity to listen in to the unguarded conversations of the members of its A-list of wanted terrorists. In other words, as leaks go, this ranks right up there at the top of those that have compromised US national security (again, assuming that it's true). What could have been a flood of candid conversations from an overconfident Zawahiri, itching for Al Qaeda's first successful international attack in years, will now have dried up completely.
The court-martial of US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who murdered 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, began today, and the accused killer admitted he pulled the trigger in a brief opening statement.
"The evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter," said Major Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who was agitated over the prospect of a deployment to Afghanistan at the time of his killings. "Evidence will show I was on the wrong side of America's war and I later switched sides," Hasan said. "We in the mujahideen are imperfect beings trying to establish a perfect religion … I apologize for any mistakes I have made in this endeavor."
A mujahideen, or holy warrior? It appears that Hasan believes gunning down 13 unarmed people he was sworn to protect and fight with makes him a "warrior," since his interpretation of Islam justifies such killing. Though Hasan may tell himself that he was attacking soldiers, his 12 military victims and 1 civilian victim were not armed at the time he killed them, nor were they near a field of battle. His trial is a last chance to feed his grandiose self-image, and his words indicate today he's going to try to take full advantage of it.
But his comments put me in mind of what Judge William Young said at the sentencing of would-be shoe bomber and wannabe jihadi Richard Reid, who tried to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to the US on Dec. 22 2001.
You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too much stature. Whether it is the officers of government who do it or your attorney who does it, or that happens to be your view, you are a terrorist.
And we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not treat with terrorists. We do not sign documents with terrorists.
We hunt them down one by one and bring them to justice.
So war talk is way out of line in this court. You're a big fellow. But you're not that big. You're no warrior. I know warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders.
In a very real sense Trooper Santiago had it right when first you were taken off that plane and into custody and you wondered where the press and where the TV crews were and you said you're no big deal. You're no big deal.
The trial of Hasan will justifiably be given a great deal of attention, though Hasan's comments today have guaranteed its conclusion. He stole 13 lives, a huge and important loss to the friends and loved ones of Hasan's victims.
But beyond that, he's no big deal.