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Anwar al-Awlaki and the face of Western Jihad

October 5, 2011

How Anwar al-Awlaki Became the Face of Western Jihad

by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens


An interesting study of al-Qaeda propaganda efforts within Western nations. Some points:


  • Awlaki represents the most effective and refined version of his English speaking Salafi-jihadi predecessors, who has adapted more effectively to Western political and social culture. However, unlike his forebears, he was also long considered a leading moderate Muslim and critic of al-Qaeda, having cultivated this image in the years both before and immediately following 9/11. The ideological and intellectual journey that is evident within his public discourse makes him a useful and pertinent case study for the radicalisation of Western Muslims.
  • Despite some reports to the contrary, Awlaki was well known as a popular preacher long before the recent media interest in him. According to some sources, by 2000 he was one of the most well known English speaking Islamic preachers in the United States.
  • Although there is a clear shift towards violence in his later work, a close analysis of the corpus of Awlaki’s sermons and articles shows a surprising level of consistency throughout. Little has changed from his earlier years in both his discourse and ideological worldview. Rather, the only significant change has been in the prescriptions for solving the perceived problems faced by the ummah (global Muslim community).

On the issue of CIA ‘vaccinations’

July 13, 2011

According to news sources (and yet unconfirmed), CIA has used a fake vaccination program in order to obtain DNA samples from Bin Laden family members in the Abottabad area of Pakistan.

The reason why this idea is appallingly stupid (if true), is obvious not only for the merits of worldwide vaccination campaigns, but in the realm of counter-insurgency efforts. Vaccination and basic medical care are the bread and butter of any regional COIN efforts, and running covert CIA programs (however legitimate the target), undermines these basic efforts and creates incredible damage by giving credence to conspiracy-theorists and religious zealots who believe the worst about these programs.

This recent article from Wired confirmed my initial apprehension at the idea of CIA or other government agencies using vaccination programs as a cover for covert work in the hunt for Bin Laden.

There is no evidence the “vaccinations” produced DNA that helped identify bin Laden. The physician named in the article has been arrested by the Pakistani security forces. The CIA has understandably refused any comment. But the allegation that a vaccine program was not what it seemed — that it was not only suspect, but justifiably suspect — has been very widely reported.

This is awful. It plays, so precisely that it might have been scripted, into the most paranoid conspiracy theories about vaccines: that they are pointless, poisonous, covert shields for nefarious government agendas meant to do children harm.

That is not speculation. The polio campaign has already seen this happen, based on just those kind of suspicions — not in a single poor slum in New Delhi, but across much of sub-Saharan Africa.

10 Years since 9/11 – a look at al Qaeda and its subgroups

May 4, 2011

excellent conference organized by Steve Coll (author of Pulitzer prize winning Ghost Wars)

Panel I: A Net Assessment of Al Qaeda

Bruce Hoffman
Director, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University
Author, Inside Terrorism

Peter Bergen
Director, National Security Studies Program, New America Foundation
Author, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda

Juan Zarate
Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Former Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism

Glenn Carle
Former National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats
Author, The Interrogator: An Education (forthcoming)

Steve Coll
President, New America Foundation

Usama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaida insurgent group is killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan

May 2, 2011

from BBC

May 2, 2011

The BBC’s Adam Brookes: US intelligence analysts believed the compound was “the sort of place that you might try to hide”

Death of Bin Laden

Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden has been killed by US forces in Pakistan, President Barack Obama has said.

Bin Laden was killed in a ground operation outside Islamabad based on US intelligence, the first lead for which emerged last August.

Mr Obama said after “a firefight”, US forces took possession of the body.

Bin Laden is believed to be the mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 and a number of others.

He was top of the US’ “most wanted” list.

Mr Obama said it was “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda”.

The US has put its embassies around the world on alert, warning Americans of the possibility of al-Qaeda reprisal attacks for Bin Laden’s killing.

Continue reading the main story

At the scene

image of Aleem Maqbool Aleem Maqbool BBC News, Abbottabad

So the trail led here, to the lush green hills of Abbottabad, a beautiful tranquil location. But footage from inside the large modern compound tells of the bloody fire fight that left the al- Qaeda leader dead.

A large area around the site has now been cordoned off but there’s no concealing the fact it lies so close to the main gate of the Pakistan military academy. While residents of the area say they are stunned Osama Bin Laden was living in their midst and that there had been no rumours that he was, it will surprise many that he had been in a large building with high walls so close to an army base without the knowledge of the Pakistani security forces.

The authorities here in a statement have been hailing this as a moment of huge victory. But the amount of time it took for them to react indicates the news had surprised them as much as it had everyone else.

Crowds gathered outside the White House in Washington DC, chanting “USA, USA” after the news emerged.

A US official quoted by Associated Press news agency said Bin Laden’s body had been buried at sea, although this has not been confirmed.

Compound raided

Bin Laden had approved the 9/11 attacks in which nearly 3,000 people died.

He evaded the forces of the US and its allies for almost a decade, despite a $25m (£15m) bounty on his head.

Mr Obama said he had been briefed last August on a possible lead to Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

“It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground,” Mr Obama said.

“I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located Bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.

“And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorised an operation to get Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice,” the president said.

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden was top of the US “most wanted” list

On Sunday, US forces said to be from the elite Navy Seal Team Six undertook the operation in Abbottabad, 100km (62 miles) north-east of Islamabad.

After a “firefight”, Bin Laden was killed and his body taken by US forces, the president said.

Mr Obama said “no Americans were harmed”.  US officials said Bin Laden was shot in the head after resisting.  US media reports said that the body was buried at sea to conform with Islamic practice of a burial within 24 hours and to prevent any grave becoming a shrine.

Giving more details of the raid, one senior US official said a small US team had conducted the attack in about 40 minutes.

Three other men were killed in the raid – one of Bin Laden’s sons and two couriers – the official said, adding that one woman was also killed when she was used as “a shield” and two other women were injured.

One helicopter was lost due to “technical failure”. The team destroyed it and left in its other aircraft.  One resident, Nasir Khan, told Reuters the helicopters had come under “intense firing” from the ground.

The size and complexity of the structure in Abbottabad had “shocked” US officials.  It had 4m-6m (12ft-18ft) walls, was eight times larger than other homes in the area and was valued at “a million dollars”, though it had no telephone or internet connection.

The US official said that intelligence had been tracking a “trusted courier” of Bin Laden for many years. The courier’s identity was discovered four years ago, his area of operation two years ago and then, last August, his residence in Abbottabad was found, triggering the start of the mission.

Another senior US official said that no intelligence had been shared with any country, including Pakistan, ahead of the raid.

map of area

“Only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance,” the official said.

The Abbottabad residence is just a few hundred metres from the Pakistan Military Academy – the country’s equivalent of West Point.

The BBC’s Aleem Maqbool in Abbottabad says it will undoubtedly be a huge embarrassment to Pakistan that Bin Laden was found not only in the country but also on the doorstep of the military academy.

He says residents in the town were stunned the al-Qaeda leader was living in their midst.

The senior US official warned that the possibility of revenge attacks had now created “a heightened threat to the homeland and to US citizens and facilities abroad”.

But the official added that “the loss of Bin Laden puts the group on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse”.

He said Bin Laden’s probable successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was “far less charismatic and not as well respected within the organisation”, according to reports from captured al-Qaeda operatives.

However, the root causes of radical Islam – the range of issues that enabled al-Qaeda to recruit disaffected young Muslims to its cause – remain, for the most part, unaddressed, Islamic affairs analyst Roger Hardy told the BBC.

“The death of Bin Laden will strike at the morale of the global jihad, but is unlikely to end it,” he warned.

‘Momentous achievement’

World leaders welcomed the news of Bin Laden’s death.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Bin Laden had “paid for his actions”.

Pakistani PM Yusuf Raza Gilani said the killing was a “great victory” but added that he “didn’t know the details” of the US operation.

Barack Obama gives a statement confirming the death of Osama Bin Laden

Former US President George W Bush described the news as a “momentous achievement”.

“The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done,” Mr Bush said in a statement.

But a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban threatened revenge attacks against the “American and Pakistani governments and their security forces”.

In Gaza, which is governed by militant group Hamas, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya condemned the killing of “a Muslim and Arabic warrior”.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says that, to many in the West, Bin Laden became the embodiment of global terrorism, but to others he was a hero, a devout Muslim who fought two world superpowers in the name of jihad.

The son of a wealthy Saudi construction family, Bin Laden grew up in a privileged world. But soon after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan he joined the mujahideen there and fought alongside them with his Arab followers, a group that later formed the nucleus for al-Qaeda.

After declaring war on America in 1998, Bin Laden is widely believed to have been behind the bombings of US embassies in East Africa, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington.

470 prisoners set free by pro-Taliban operation

April 25, 2011

Devastating news for the Afghan government, as well as Allied forces stationed in Kandahar. An operation that set this many prisoners free could not have been done without massive corruption and wheel-greasing. People were paid to look the other way, to open this or that gate, and not to fire or ring alarms when the prisoners were set free.

The central question now becomes, how much success can a counter insurgency effort produce, in a fragmented, ultra-corrupt and tribalistic society such as that of the Afghan Pashtuns?  When 470 prisoners are set free without a major battle with prison guards, when a 300+ meter tunnel is dug into main prison complex, for months, without notice or suspicion – the level of corruption must be incredible.

from BBC, April 25, 2011

More than 470 inmates at a prison in southern Afghanistan have escaped through a tunnel hundreds of metres long and dug from outside the jail.

Officials in the city of Kandahar said many of those who escaped from Sarposa jail were Taliban insurgents.

The Kandahar provincial governor’s office said at least 12 had since been recaptured but gave no further details.

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the escape was a “disaster” which should never have happened.

The Taliban said it had taken five months to build the 320m (1,050ft) tunnel. It is believed to have been dug from a house rented by the Taliban.

About 100 of those who escaped were Taliban commanders, and most of the others were fighters with the insurgency. The prison holds about 1,200 inmates.

Second jailbreak


  • June 2008: More than 900 prisoners escape from Sarposa prison in Kandahar after a suicide bomber blasted open the gates
  • July 2010: 19 prisoners escape after a blast at a prison in Farah province
  • November 2009: 12 prisoners escape after tunnelling out of a jail from their cells in Farah province

“A tunnel hundreds of metres long was dug from the south of the prison into the prison and 476 political prisoners escaped last night,” said prison director General Ghulam Dastageer Mayar.

Kandahar’s provincial authorities said that a search operation was under way.

One escapee told the BBC it had taken him about 30 minutes to walk the length of the tunnel. The escape took most of the night and vehicles were waiting at the exit point to take prisoners away.

The jailbreak is the second major escape from the prison in three years.

In June 2008 a suicide bomber blew open the Kandahar prison gates and destroyed a nearby checkpoint, freeing about 900 prisoners, many of them suspected insurgents.

After that, millions of pounds were spent upgrading the prison. The 2008 breakout was followed by a major upsurge in violence.

The governor of Kandahar said some of the prisoners had been found

The prison is under Afghan control, but Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said it was ready to provide assistance if requested by Afghan officials.

Afghan politician and former MP Daoud Sultanzai told the BBC that the escape exposes “the porousness of our security apparatus”.

He said its penetration by the Taliban was “really a serious matter”.

Insurgents considered to be the most dangerous are likely to be held at a high-security facility outside the US Bagram air base, north of Kabul, rather than at the Sarposa prison, analysts say.

Nato forces are preparing for the long process of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The first stage is the transfer of security powers to local forces from July, but Kandahar is not among the first tranche of provinces and cities to be handed over to the Afghans.

Analysts say that it is only to be expected that those regions will once again be the focus of insurgent activity as the Taliban will be planning to seize them back.

Taliban ‘justice’.

March 7, 2011

Ghosts of Alexander has an excellent write up on the recent Taliban stoning of a young unmarried couple, transgressing local Pashtun traditions and customs, and enforcing their own puritanical law.


…the elders of the Mullah Quli village in the Archi district responded moderately. They held a meeting in which they decided if Khayyam’s family paid the same $9,000, both Khayyam and Siddiqa would be allowed to return, without retribution. They were invited back.

But the night they returned, the Taliban entered the families’ homes at 2:00 am and forcibly took the couple. The stoning took place that morning. […]

The families did not want this punishment, nor did their respective tribes. But local officials say cousins of the victims were forced to attend the stoning, and nobody in the local police or government attempted to prosecute the stone throwers.

Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl on the ‘Long War’

February 21, 2011

The ‘Long War’ May Be Getting Shorter


reprinted from NY Times, Feb. 20th, 2011.



IT is hard to tell when momentum shifts in a counterinsurgency campaign, but there is increasing evidence that Afghanistan is moving in a more positive direction than many analysts think. It now seems more likely than not that the country can achieve the modest level of stability and self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down its forces from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years.

The shift is most obvious on the ground. The additional 30,000 troops promised by President Obama in his speech at West Point 14 months ago are finally in place and changing the trajectory of the fight.

One of us, Nathaniel, recently flew into Camp Leatherneck in a C-130 transport plane, which had to steer clear of fighter bombers stacked for tens of thousands of feet above the Sangin District of Helmand Province, in southwestern Afghanistan. Singly and in pairs, the jets swooped low to drop their bombs in support of Marine units advancing north through the Helmand River Valley.

Half of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in only 9 of its nearly 400 districts, with Sangin ranking among the very worst. Slowly but surely, even in Sangin, the Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries as the coalition focuses on protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity, and along the roads that connect them. Once these areas are cleared, it will be possible to hold them with Afghan troops and a few American advisers — allowing the United States to thin its deployments over time.

A significant shift of high-tech intelligence resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, initiated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander, is also having benefits. The coalition led by the United States and NATO has been able to capture or kill far more Taliban leaders in nighttime raids than was possible in the past.

The United States certainly can’t kill its way to victory, as it learned in Vietnam and Iraq, but it can put enough pressure on many Taliban fighters to encourage them to switch their allegiance, depriving the enemy of support and giving the coalition more sources of useful intelligence.

Afghan Army troop strength has increased remarkably. The sheer scale of the effort at the Kabul Military Training Center has to be seen to be appreciated. Rows of new barracks surround a blue-domed mosque, and live-fire training ranges stretched to the mountains on the horizon.

It was a revelation to watch an Afghan squad, only days from deployment to Paktika Province on the Pakistani border, demonstrate a fire-and-maneuver exercise before jogging over to chat with American visitors. When asked, each soldier said that he had joined the Army to serve Afghanistan. Most encouraging of all was the response to a question that resonates with 18- and 19-year-old soldiers everywhere: how does your mother feel? “Proud.”

These changes on the ground have been reinforced by progress on three strategic and political problems that have long stymied our plans.

The first is uncertainty about how long America and its allies will remain committed to the fight. The question is still open, but President Obama and the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, have effectively moved the planned troop withdrawal date from July 2011 to at least 2014, with surprisingly little objection. Congress and the American public seem to have digested without a murmur the news that far fewer troops will be withdrawn in 2011 than will remain. NATO is not collapsing because of Afghanistan. In fact, the International Security Assistance Force continues to grow, with one-quarter of the world’s countries on the ground in Afghanistan with the United States.

Two more vexing problems are the corruption of the Afghan government and the complicity of some Pakistanis with the insurgency. While it is safe to assume that neither the Afghan nor Pakistani leaders will fundamentally alter their policies any time soon, we are changing ours. Previously, our policy options with Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari were limited to public hectoring and private pleading, usually to little effect.

Now, however, the coalition’s military and civilian leaders are taking a new approach to the Afghan and Pakistani governments. We are establishing a task force to investigate and expose corruption in the Afghan government, under the leadership of Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster. We are also shoring up the parts of the border that the Taliban uses by thickening the line with Afghan forces, putting up more drones and coordinating more closely with Pakistani border guards.

Not since the deterioration in conditions in Iraq that drew our attention away from Afghanistan have coalition forces been in such a strong position to force the enemy to the negotiating table. We should hold fast and work for the day when Afghanistan, and our vital interests there, can be safeguarded primarily by Afghans.

That day is coming, faster than many Americans think.

Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine captain, is the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. John Nagl, a former Army lieutenant colonel, is the president of the center.