This week in terrorism history: March 11-17

(Infographic: Council on Foreign Relations)
(Infographic: Council on Foreign Relations)

 

While the world’s attention has been riveted on the rise and now near demise of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda has quietly rebuilt, solidifying its influence in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, returning to Afghanistan, and adding new affiliates in places like Kashmir. So argues veteran terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman in a report published last week by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Forces loyal to al-Qaeda and its affiliates now number in the tens of thousands, with a capacity to disrupt local and regional stability, as well as launch attacks against their declared enemies in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Russia. Indeed, from northwestern Africa to southeastern Asia, al-Qaeda has knit together a global movement of more than two dozen franchises. In Syria alone, al-Qaeda now has upwards of twenty thousand men under arms, and it has perhaps another four thousand in Yemen and about seven thousand in Somalia.

According to Hoffman’s report, this resurrection comes despite the killing of many of AQ’s top leadership, including Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces in 2011. A key moment, he argues, comes in 2012-13 when thousands of AQ veterans were freed from Egyptian prisons during the tumultuous Arab Spring period in that country. The AQ franchise in Syria, Jabhatat al-Nusra, now know as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has emerged as the largest rebel group still standing, having helped eliminate most of its both secular and Islamist rivals.

While ISIS has been eclipsed in Syria and elsewhere, it still commands more attention from counterterrorism experts and policymakers due to the belief that it remains capable of carrying off spectacular attacks in Europe and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda, seemingly, does not represent such a threat. Hoffman, however, argues that the supposed inability of a revived al-Qaeda to launch attacks against targets outside of its areas of current operation is a matter of strategic choice, not lack of capability.

[This] … is a product of [AQ leader Ayman] Zawahiri’s strategic decision to prohibit external operations in the West so that al-Qaeda’s rebuilding can continue without interference. The handful of exceptions to this policy—such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the 2017 St. Petersburg Metro bombing in Russia—provide compelling evidence that al-Qaeda’s external operations capabilities can easily be reanimated. Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s capacity to commit acts of international terrorism—especially the targeting of commercial aviation—was recently the subject of a revealing New York Times story.

Hoffman finally argues that the success of AQ’s rebuilding efforts are the result of a series of key decisions made by Zawahiri — to strengthen its “franchising” model of organization; to avoid mass-casualty operations, especially those which might kill Muslims civilians, as a way to rebuild popular support; and third, to let ISIS take the heat from the West.

As Hoffman’s report makes clear, we ignore AQ to our peril. You should give it a read. Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • March 11, 2004 — Madrid: The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades claimed responsibility for the detonation of four bombs on Madrid mass transit trains, killing 198 and wounding more than 600. The group claimed an affiliation with al Qaeda, however, in the years since the attack, scholars and analysts have raised doubts about the both the group’s ties to al Qaeda and its responsibility for the 2004 bombing.
  • March 12, 1999 — Colombia: FARC leader Vladimir Gonzales Obregon is killed by the Colombian army.
  • March 13, 1999 — Turkey: A bombing at a shopping center kills three and wounds six. The Revenge Falcons of App, a Kurdish ethnic-nationalist group, claims responsibility.
  • March 14, 2004 — Ashdod, Israel: Two near-simultaneous suicide bombings kill 10 and wound 18. Both Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claim responsibility.
  • March 15, 2001 — Saudi Arabia: Chechen hijackers seize control of a Russian airliner en route from Turkey to Moscow, forcing it to land in Saudi Arabia. Three people were killed, including two believed to be passengers, when Saudi security forces stormed the plane in a rescue operation.
  • March 16, 1984 — Beirut, Lebanon: William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped by Hezbollah. He dies in captivity three months later. Buckley’s remains were recovered in 1991.
  • March 17, 1992 — Buenas Aires, Venezuela — A car bomb destroys the Israeli embassy, killing 28 and wounding 220. Hezbollah claims responsibility.

This week in terrorism history: Dec. 4-10

A member of Jahabat Fateh al-Sham with  the group's flag in Idlib province, northern Syria.
A member of Jahabat Fateh al-Sham with the group’s flag in Idlib province, northern Syria.

 

It was a relatively quiet week on the global terrorism front, so let me start this week’s look back by drawing to your attention a fascinating article posted at The Atlantic this morning profiling Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, an Egyptian who was killed in Syria three weeks ago in an air strike carried out the United States.

Muhajir, a veteran of the Afghan jihad 1980s, is credited with developing the theological justifications for the extreme violence that would later characterize ISIS and other groups. At the time of his death he had broken with ISIS and thrown in with Jahabat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, fighting against both his one-time allies and the Assad regime in northern Syria.

As the article, penned by reporters Charlie Winter and Abdullah K. al-Saud, puts it:

While there is a striking paucity of open-source information about him, the Egyptian national, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and long-time al-Qaeda associate, had a massive impact upon the development of jihadist thought in the last four decades. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate his importance in the context of modern Islamist terrorism—neither the Islamic State nor al-Qaeda would be where they are today without him.

The profile highlights Muhajir’s role as the “theological brains” behind the ultraviolence that characterized the emergence of AQI, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor group to the Islamic State:

Ranging from ruminations on the merits of beheading, torturing, or burning prisoners to thoughts on assassination, siege warfare, and the use of biological weapons, Muhajir’s intellectual legacy will remain a crucial component of the literary corpus of ISIS—and, indeed, whatever comes after it—as a way to render practically anything permissible, provided, that is, it can be spun as beneficial to the jihad.

The full article is well worth your time if you are interested in understanding how religiously motivated terrorist groups justify the extreme levels of violence they characteristically exhibit. Here’s the link to the article again. Now on to this week’s list.

  • Dec. 4, 2000 — Israel: Awad Selmi, senior HAMAS leader, is killed during a terrorist operation.
  • Dec. 5, 2013 — Yemen: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) kills 52 and wounds 167 in a car bombing and gun attack on a military hospital in Sanaa.
  • Dec. 6, 2000 — Sri Lanka: Landmine believed planted by the LTTE kills four bus passengers and wounds 21.
  • Dec. 7, 2009 — Pakistan: Explosions in Lahore and Peshawar kill 58 and wound more than 150. No credible claim of responsibility.
  • Dec. 8, 2009 — Iraq: Near-simultaneous vehicle bombs at government buildings kill 127. Al Qaeda is blamed.
  • Dec. 9, 1976 — Northern Ireland: The Irish Republican Army carries out a series of fire-bomb attacks on shops in Derry.
  • Dec. 10, 1992 — Ireland: The Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name used by the Ulster Defense Association, carry out seven incendiary bomb attacks on shops in Dublin and in other Irish towns near the border with Northern Ireland.

Of course he read Chomsky

bin-ladin_bookshelf_5

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released a lengthy list of documents seized during the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan back in 2011.  I’ll leave it to others to parse the contents, but a couple of things stand out to me.

First, there’s a distinct lack of “fun” reading represented on Bin Laden’s list.* I mean, what did he read while sitting on the can?**

Second, the list reveals a kind of actor-reading-his-own-reviews sort of thing going on. Plenty of media stories, think tank studies, and books on Al Qaeda are represented.

Third, international relations theory! Look Ma, we’re relevant! Though he probably could have done better than Ikenberry and Mastanduno …

Finally, based on the strategy guide found, somebody in that compound was a gamer, although not apparently a very discerning one given the reviews for “Delta Force Xtreme 2,” described by IGN as “a game that’s every bit as bad as its spelling.” Gamespot was slightly more generous, boiling its essence down to “large ugly maps with death waiting behind every polygon,” and remarking that its artificial intelligence “can be amazingly stupid in certain situations.”

Somewhere in those reviews there’s a metaphor for the diminished fortunes that led Al Qaeda’s leader to spend his last few years hunkered down in a Pakistani safe house that wasn’t so safe after all. But someone else can puzzle that out.

*Unless you read Noam Chomsky for fun, in which case, I’m not sure you ought to be reading me.

**OK, maybe Chomsky wasn’t such a bad choice after all.