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.

Trump hands Assad (and Putin) a win in Syria

Trump-Putin-Assad-678x381

In case you’ve forgotten, there’s still a brutal civil war raging in Syria. And a couple of days ago, President Trump handed Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin, a sweet little gift.

Trump administration officials acknowledged Wednesday that a covert program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels would be discontinued. The program was put in place in 2013 by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, and while its effectiveness has been in question, Putin, in particular, has long sought to see the initiative killed.

Trump delivered.

That helps Assad, and by extension, helps Putin. As I’ve written before, the Russian president has a deep interest in seeing the Assad regime retain power, and has been willing to facilitate or commit all manner of war crimes and civilian atrocities to see that through.

Back in October 2015, right after Russian warplanes began flying combat missions in Syria, I argued that Putin’s tactic of targeting air strikes against anti-Assad rebels, especially those backed by the United States, while scrupulously avoiding hitting Islamic State targets, reflected a strategy of clearing the field so that the rest of the world would have to choose between a Syria controlled by Assad, or one dominated by ISIS.

This strategy scored a major victory in December 2016, when Syrian government forces, supported by indiscriminate bombing by Russian warplanes, succeeded in retaking the city of Aleppo from the same moderate rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, and other outside powers opposed to both Assad and ISIS.

And now, by killing the US program to arm and train these moderate forces, President Trump has delivered yet another victory to Assad and Putin.

This was all fairly predictable. Recall that just a month after Trump was elected, Assad in an interview with Syrian state television, referred to him as his “natural ally”:

Trump’s statements were clear during his campaign in relation to fighting terrorism, non-intervention against states in order to depose governments, as the United States has been doing for decades. This is good, but this depends on Trump’s will to carry on with this approach, and his ability to do that. We know that there are powerful lobbies in the United States which stood against Trump and they will exert their utmost pressure, when he is in office, to push him towards retracting what he said in this area and in other areas as well. Otherwise, he will have a confrontation with these lobbies in the Congress, in the Senate, in the media, and in the industrial lobbies which gain from wars, like what happened in Iraq and Yemen recently. That’s why if Trump was able to overcome all these obstacles and really act against terrorism, I believe that he will be our natural ally.

For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:

“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.

He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.

“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”

Oh yeah? Watch us.

Signals matter

Victim of Syrian gas attack/Hindustan Times photo
Victim of Syrian gas attack/Hindustan Times photo

 

On Tuesday the Syrian government gassed its own citizens, dropping nerve agent on a rebel-held town in Idlib Province. The death toll is still being figured, but dozens, including many children, are among the casualties.

Four days earlier, on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this, in response to a question as to whether the Trump administration considered Bashar Assad the legitimate president of Syria:

Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.

When pressed about what the Trump administration sees as the endgame for Assad in Syria, and reminded that Assad is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Spicer had this to say:

 I think we believe there’s a need to deescalate violence and to have a political process through which Syrians will decide their own political future consistent with the principles that have been enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.  But there’s a bit of — as I mentioned just a second ago, there’s a bit of reality on the ground in terms of what the options are.

The day before, on Thursday, discussing Trump administration policy toward Syria, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters:

You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.

Fast forward to yesterday and the horrific images of dead children and crippled survivors gasping feebly for breath, all the victims of the Assad regime’s brutality.

In response, the President Trump blamed … Barack Obama.

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

It’s true. In 2012 President Obama threatened a US military response to any use of chemical weapons by Syria. Assad called his bluff and Obama backed down. Of course in 2013 Trump himself said that was the right call.

To claim five years later that Obama’s failure in 2012 is why Assad dropped nerve agent on his own people yesterday, is simply absurd.

Far more likely is Assad’s calculation, based on the Trump administration’s own statements, that the United States will turn a blind eye to whatever new atrocity the Syrian regime decides to unleash in order to cling to power.  To no one’s surprise, Trump’s statement makes no mention of any new action in response to the chemical weapons attack.

Obama may have drawn a red line, but the Trump administration gave the green light. As I wrote back in December, Bashar Assad had high hopes for the incoming Trump administration, telling an interviewer from Syrian state television, “I believe that he will be our natural ally.” Looks like those hopes were well placed.

In Syria, Assad and Putin are getting the civil war they want

Vladimir Putin, Bashar Assad

With the imminent fall of the last rebel-held enclaves in the Syrian city of Aleppo to government forces, aided by a Russian bombing campaign that has wreaked devastation on the civilians trapped there, Syrian President Bashar Assad is on the verge of scoring his greatest victory in a brutal civil war which has been raging for nearly six years.

So too is Vladimir Putin.

When Aleppo falls it will also mark the virtual extinguishing of the moderate nationalist Syrian opposition forces, who are retreating to Idlib, the last rebel-controlled city of any size, which is dominated by the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, Assad’s forces and, more importantly their Russian allies, have largely left ISIS alone while they pound Aleppo to rubble. ISIS has taken advantage of this opportunity, recapturing the city of Palmyra and in the process grabbing up Russian rocket launchers and surface-to-air missile batteries left behind when the Russian garrison pulled out to focus its efforts elsewhere.

Russian military officials have scoffed at the idea that these weapons threaten the US-led coalition that has continued to battle ISIS while the Russian and Syrian militaries have been fighting everyone but.

In a press release, the Institute for the Study of War, which has been tracking the fight for Aleppo from the beginning, succinctly summarizes the implications of the endgame we now seeing unfold:

Eastern Aleppo’s imminent fall – to a coalition that includes Russia and Iran and its various proxies – will accelerate the war’s destabilizing effects. Jihadists will further improve their position within the Syrian opposition. Fighters aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will continue committing atrocities against civilians. The United States, its allies, and its international partners must now confront this new, yet predictable, phase in the Syrian war.

This is the natural result of a strategy that I first wrote about back in early October 2015, right after Russia began launching airstrikes in support of the Syrian military. From the beginning it was clear that Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s strategy was to clear the field of the “moderate” rebels, turning the civil war into a showdown between Assad and ISIS.

As I wrote back then, assuming the strategy works, it presents the rest of the world, and the United States in particular, with the impossible choice of backing Russia’s longtime ally or seeing the country fall to the Islamic State:

If the other Syrian insurgent groups are smashed between a Russian hammer and the ISIS anvil, then the failure of Putin’s strategy will mean victory for ISIS. And that’s a result that everyone else with interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war will be loathe to accept.

If the choice is between Assad and ISIS, then Obama’s “managed transition” is much more likely to turn into a full on regime restoration. Just what Putin wants.

With President Obama committed to defeating ISIS, and, crucially, seeing Assad removed from power, there was still the possibility of a different outcome, no matter how unlikely it seemed on the ground.

But with Donald Trump in the White House? Assad expects a transformed relationship between Syria, under his leadership, and Washington. Don’t take my word for it though. Take it from Assad himself:

Trump’s statements were clear during his campaign in relation to fighting terrorism, non-intervention against states in order to depose governments, as the United States has been doing for decades. This is good, but this depends on Trump’s will to carry on with this approach, and his ability to do that.

We know that there are powerful lobbies in the United States which stood against Trump and they will exert their utmost pressure, when he is in office, to push him towards retracting what he said in this area and in other areas as well. Otherwise, he will have a confrontation with these lobbies in the Congress, in the Senate, in the media, and in the industrial lobbies which gain from wars, like what happened in Iraq and Yemen recently.

That’s why if Trump was able to overcome all these obstacles and really act against terrorism, I believe that he will be our natural ally and your natural ally.

If Assad is right, a Trump presidency will contribute not just to his victory in Syria, but to Russia’s as well. No wonder Putin wanted him to win the election.