Opinion

The Great Debate

What’s between the covers of al Qaeda’s ‘Inspire’ magazine

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Inspire is an English-language online magazine published since 2010 by al Qaeda. I just read the latest issue and found a lot of what I expected, and some things I didn’t.

Aimed primarily at radicalizing young audiences in the United States and Britain, the English language magazine appears semi-regularly (there have been 12 issues so far). Graphically well-done, the editorial parts of the magazine are a mix of religious and jihadi-inspirational pieces, reporting and bomb-making instructions.

Yep, bomb-making instructions. That’s the part that’s most controversial: the clear, step-by-step photo-illustrated instructions for making your own explosives using common materials, plus the encouragement to use them in crowded places.

The magazine was once thought to be the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen gone bad, who once preached at a Northern Virginia mosque and lunched at the Pentagon. Though al-Awlaki and his teenage son were assassinated by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, the magazine continues to be published. Al-Awlaki’s thoughts are reprinted posthumously and still carry influence. That tells you pretty much all you need to know in two sentences about the failure of the war on terror.

Because reading and or possessing Inspire may be illegal in the UK and Australia, and viewing it in the U.S. likely to land you on some sort of watch list, I will give you a taste of what you would find instead.

For once, the situation in Iraq wasn’t caused by an intelligence failure

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate

President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this year with New Yorker editor David Remnick, offered an unfortunate comparison. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate,” the president said, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president’s jayvee jihadists were the Islamic State militants.

Remnick called the analogy “uncharacteristically flip.” After all, the group’s flag then flew over Fallujah.

Today, the Islamic State boasts a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a cadre of battle-hardened fighters that dwarfs the membership of core al Qaeda and an international following large enough to support a brick-and-mortar gift shop in Turkey.

Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants, chant slogans in Baghdad

Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

Gitmo: Too dangerous to release? Not so fast.

File photo of detainees sitting in a holding area at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay

When the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opens Thursday, we will finally have a national institution dedicated to exploring the effects of the tragic events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The impact of that day on U.S. legal institutions, however, remains a work in progress. The federal court system has proven remarkably adept at handling the hundreds of criminal terrorism cases filed since Sept. 11, 2001. But the polarized politics of terrorism has left Washington paralyzed when it comes to handling the cases of dozens of indefinite detainees still imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In New York last week, the U.S. government rested its case against the one-eyed, hook-limbed Sheikh Abu Hamza al Masri, on trial in federal court on terrorism charges. For weeks spectators were treated to a string of government informants, including confessed terrorism supporters, who seemed to have no qualms about taking the witness stand and incriminating the fiery preacher the government says inspired and directed lethal acts against Americans. In April, another extremist cleric, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, was convicted based on similar evidence.

Swift U.S. jury verdict gives lie to Gitmo

The government’s charges against Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law looked pretty thin. Washington was basically claiming that the Kuwaiti imam had made a few inflammatory speeches — one praising the September 11 attacks and another warning that more attacks on tall buildings were soon to come. It didn’t sound like much, given that the charges were providing “material support” for terrorism and conspiring to kill Americans.

But less than a year later, 48 year-old Suleiman Abu Ghaith stands convicted on all counts, following a jury trial in a U.S. federal court. Over the three-week trial the government managed to convince a jury that the cleric’s actions — giving a handful of speeches for al Qaeda, some on camera seated next to bin Laden — made him responsible for the September 11 attacks, the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy ship docked in Yemen. Abu Ghaith didn’t even make his first videotaped speech until September 12, 2001.

It’s an odd quirk of U.S. conspiracy law. If someone joins a conspiracy, though it may be years after it started, he’s still liable for all the murder and mayhem his co-conspirators caused, even if it was long before he came along.

The religion-fueled fight in Syria

The second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.

Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument — one that many, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made — was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.

But the Syrian National Coalition, representing opposition forces, rejected the proposal outright. The coalition, which purports to be a post-Assad transitional government in waiting, has decided, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, that al Qaeda will be dealt with after Assad is gone. Its standing, however, is severely constrained by its lack of political credibility on the ground. It has become little more than a vehicle for Qatar and Saudi Arabia to vie for control of Syrian politics.

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Time for action on Syria

The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm. The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.

Thursday, both France and Turkey called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) renewed his call for a no-fly zone.

But does all this mean that the United States and the European Union will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?

Keep terrorism trials in U.S. courts

On Friday morning in downtown Manhattan, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law appeared in a federal courtroom to be charged with conspiring to kill Americans. In a sober, orderly proceeding that lasted a total of 17 minutes, Judge Lewis Kaplan explained to Suleiman Abu Ghaith his rights, appointed his defense lawyers, read the charges against him, recorded his plea of “not guilty,” ordered the prisoner’s continued detention and announced that he would set a trial date for the case in 30 days.

Prosecutors have already turned over the bulk of their unclassified evidence against the defendant. Abu Ghaith, who was transferred to New York from Jordan on March 3, is reportedly cooperating with federal authorities and providing important information about al Qaeda.

It was, in others words, an ordinary, orderly federal court arraignment in an international terrorism case. Almost 500 such defendants have been convicted in U.S. federal courts on U.S. soil since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Bringing a terror mastermind to justice

Four months after retaliation for the 9/11 attacks he masterminded brought devastation to al Qaeda’s haven in Afghanistan, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was living openly in neighboring Karachi, Pakistan and taking leisurely walks with his new prize recruit – a young computer geek from Maryland who wanted to join the jihad.

They talked about how Majid Shoukat Khan might poison water wells in the United States and blow up his family’s gas station. Mohammed was especially enthusiastic about using his young associate to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, perhaps by sneaking a suicide bomber into Khan’s planned arranged wedding to the daughter of a prominent Pakistani general.

The marriage never happened, and another Musharraf assassination plot fizzled, but the two continued to meet and scheme for more than a year. Mohammed’s patient grooming of his young associate ultimately paid off: Khan delivered $50,000 to al Qaeda associates for deadly attacks in Indonesia. And during trips back to the United States, he helped other al Qaeda operatives that Mohammed had dispatched on secret missions.

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