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.

This week in terrorism history: Nov. 13-19

French fire brigade members tend to victims of the terrorist attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris, Nov. 13, 2015.
French fire brigade members tend to survivors of the terrorist attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris, Nov. 13, 2015. Nearly 100 were killed.

 

It is impossible to know right now what the election of Donald Trump to the White House will mean for US terrorism policy, but one thing is already certain. His victory at the polls has been hailed by al Qaeda propagandists as a blow to Western democracy and a step on the road to America’s ruin.

The Lebanese news site Now Media rounded up some of those reactions here. ISIS-affiliated jihadis also applauded the last week’s presidential election:

Islamic State jihadis have hailed the victory of Donald Trump while claiming the billionaire “fool” will ruin America himself allowing terror groups to take control of the country.

The Republican was branded a “donkey” by militants who warned his election is “an indication of the end of the American empire”.

 “It is either them or us. We ask Allah to make their destruction caused by their own plans and their death come among themselves.”The world is going to experience a change and this change will put Islam in the leadership position as the end result.”

One ISIS jihadi said: “What we want is their country be delivered to a donkey like Trump who will destroy it.

“In the end, they are all our enemies and we will only meet them on the battlefields.

Now on to this today’s look back at the week in terrorism history.

  • Nov. 13, 2005 — France: A series of attacks in and around Paris, most prominently at the Bataclan theater, kill 129 and injure more than 400. ISIS claims responsibility.
  • Nov. 14, 1991 — United Kingdom: The Ulster Volunteer Force kills two Catholics and a Protestant in an attack near Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, as the three were returning home from work. The UVF later apologized for killing the Protestant.
  • Nov. 15, 1983 — Greece: A US Navy officer is killed in Athens by the 17 November organization.
  • Nov. 16, 1970 — United Kingdom: The Irish Republican Army kills two men in Northern Ireland, accusing them of involvement in “anti-social” behavior. This was the first time the IRA killed anyone alleged to have been involved in criminality.
  • Nov. 17, 1997 — Egypt: Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya attack at the Temple of Hatsheput in Luxor kills 71, mostly foreign tourists.
  • Nov. 18, 2000 — Philippines: Car bomb explodes in Carmen, killing one and wounding two; grenade attack wounds three more in Isulan. Moro Islamic Liberation Front is suspected of responsibility.
  • Nov. 19, 1995 — Pakistan: Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad is bombed by Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Seven things (revisited)

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Almost exactly a year ago (July 9, 2015 to be precise), I posted a little piece called “Seven things I want to believe.” These weren’t predictions, per se, more like short observations, hopes, and expectations.

Even so, I thought it was worth it to look back and see how these panned out. In case you don’t want to read any further, here’s the short take:

I got some right (Clinton-Sanders and the Iran nuclear deal), I got some incredibly wrong (Trump and the Grateful Dead), some partly right but wrong in tragic ways (Confederate flag and dialogue on race, ISIS sympathizers and domestic terrorism), and one (Han Solo origin pic) where it’s too soon to tell but the signs are promising.

On to the original list, with an update for each.

1) Republican voters are not so completely alienated from the political process that they will actually cast their ballots for Donald Trump.

Wow, did I get that one wrong. It’s some comfort knowing that virtually everyone else got it wrong too, but still. Come next week the billionaire (maybe) blowhard (definitely) with authoritarian tendencies will officially go from presumptive to official Republican nominee for the White House. Who saw that coming a year ago? I sure didn’t.

2) The chances of reaching a deal with Iran on its nuclear ambitions are better than 50/50.

This one did pan out, despite intense political opposition in Congress. But in the end, Iran agreed to terms, it’s nuclear weapons program has been almost completely dismantled, most economic sanctions have been lifted, and the way is clear for the country to re-enter the international community.

It also represents an impressive diplomatic victory for Obama’s legacy which will make the US safer and the region more stable. Assuming some psycho blowhard doesn’t become the next president and tear the thing up.

3) Removing the Confederate battle flag from the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse will be the start of a meaningful national dialogue on race.

We’re having dialogue, that’s for sure. But black men are still dying at the hands of police, protests are still roiling American cities in ways reminiscent of the late 1960s, and racial politics still seem paralyzed. And we still have Rudy Giuliani.

4) The Grateful Dead are done.

Dear God, they’re actually on tour. Well, at least the creaky remnants.

5) Bernie Sanders will force Hillary Clinton to actually compete for the Democratic nomination.

Nailed this one. Not only did Clinton have to compete, she had to compete all the way into June before locking up the nomination. Sanders has dragged his feet on endorsing Clinton for the last month, trying to use every last ounce of the influence he won during the primaries to try to push her and the Democratic Party as far to the progressive left as possible.

And it has worked. Clinton has embraced a number of the proposals he championed, like a $15 national minimum wage and free (public) college education. Tomorrow Sanders and Clinton hit the campaign trail together.

6) FBI arrests of supposed ISIS sympathizers actually foiled July 4th terror plots.

Who knows if they did or didn’t. Doesn’t really matter, I suppose. After all, we still got San Bernardino and Orlando. Given the nature of domestic terrorism and patterns of radicalization, we would be foolish to assume that those will be the last.

7) The Han Solo origin movie will be awesome.

This one is too soon to call. But based on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the trailers for the upcoming Rogue One, I am more than cautiously optimistic.

Hell, I’m downright giddy.