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The Taliban has released a statement calling on rival jihadist factions in Syria to reconcile. The Taliban avoids any mention of the Islamic State, which recently decreed that it now rules as a caliphate, even though the organization is at the center of the jihadists' infighting.
The statement, published in Arabic on one of the group's websites as a "weekly analysis," was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Instead, the Taliban calls for the creation of a common shura council capable of mediating the differences between the warring insurgent groups in Syria. Al Qaeda's senior leadership has repeatedly encouraged the jihadists to settle their differences in this manner, but the Islamic State has rejected all attempts at mediation.
The Taliban's silence with respect to the Islamic State's announced caliphate is interesting because the claims made by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's group can be read as a challenge to the authority of all other jihadist entities.
"We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of the caliphate, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Caliph Ibrahim and support him," the Islamic State's announcement on June 29 reads. "The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the caliphate's authority and arrival of its troops to their areas."
Given that the Taliban considers itself to be a regional emirate (or state), the Islamic State's claim could be viewed as an attempted power grab, even if only a rhetorical one, with its imagined caliphate ruling over the Taliban's emirate and all other jihadist parties. The Taliban, of course, would never agree to such an arrangement. But the Islamic State's critics have already questioned if this is what Baghdadi and his followers intend.
For instance, Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, a highly influential jihadist ideologue, has already questioned where the Taliban fits in the Islamic State's schema. In a statement in early July, Maqdisi criticized the Islamic State's announcement.
Maqdisi pointed out that the Taliban long ago announced the creation of its regional emirate, "which was truly founded on the land for years," and that Mullah Omar "is still fighting the enemies, he with his soldiers." Maqdisi asked, "So what is the destiny of this [Taliban] emirate to those who speak in the name of the caliphate today and announced it?"
Maqdisi made the same point with respect to the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, an al Qaeda-affiliated group that claims to be a regional emirate and technically would be just one part of the Islamic State's announced caliphate.
The Taliban avoided any discussion of this issue. Instead, Mullah Omar's organization echoed previous calls for unity. However, while the Taliban does not explicitly criticize the Islamic State, parts of its message are almost certainly pointed in Baghdadi's direction.
"The Muslims also should avoid extremism in religion, and judging others without evidence, and distrusting one another," SITE's translation of the Taliban's statement reads. Of course, it is ironic to see the Taliban decry "extremism." But jihadist critics of the Islamic State frequently accuse the group of being too extreme due to its ultra-strict interpretation of sharia law and unwillingness to compromise with its ideological kin.
Al Qaeda has repeatedly said that an independent sharia court should be established to adjudicate between the rival jihadist groups in Syria. Even though the Islamic State has made it clear that it has no intention of submitting to such a court, the Taliban makes a similar recommendation.
"The Muslims should submit to the rules of Islamic sharia and comply with them," the Taliban says. "It is worthy for a shura [consultation] council to be formed from the leaders of all the jihadi factions and the distinguished people among the experts and the scholars in Sham in order to solve their conflicts in light of opinions and joint consultations."
Ayman al Zawahiri called for the establishment of a common sharia court in Syria as recently as late May. Earlier statements from the al Qaeda emir included the same proposal.
The US launched its first drone strike inside Pakistan's tribal agencies in more than three weeks, killing six "militants" in an area that in the past has served as a command and control center for al Qaeda's military.
Today's drone strike, which was carried out by the remotely piloted Predators or the more deadly Reapers, struck a compound and a vehicle in the village of Doga Mada Khel in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan.
The identities of the six militants were not disclosed. No senior Taliban, al Qaeda, or other jihadist leaders or operatives have been reported killed.
The Datta Khel area, where today's strike took place, is administered by Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the Taliban commander for North Waziristan. Bahadar provides shelter to top al Qaeda leaders as well as terrorists from numerous Pakistani and Central Asian terror groups.
Datta Khel is a known hub of Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda activity. While Bahadar administers the region, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and allied Central Asian jihadist groups are also based in the area. The Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda's Shadow Army, is known to operate a command center in Datta Khel. Some of al Qaeda's top leaders, including Mustafa Abu Yazid, a longtime al Qaeda leader and close confidant of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri; Abdullah Said al Libi, the commander of the Shadow Army; and Zuhaib al Zahibi, a general in the Shadow Army; have been killed in drone strikes in Datta Khel.
Today's strike is the first in Pakistan since June 18. The US launched three strikes in North Waziristan in June. Prior to the three strikes, the last US attack took place in late December 2013. The US put the program on hold after the Pakistani government entered into peace talks with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that there was no shortage of al Qaeda and other terrorists to target during the six-month lull. [See LWJ report, US launches 2 drone strikes in Pakistan, breaks 6-month lull.]
Today's strike also coincides with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani military offensive in North Waziristan. The military claims it has killed more than 400 "terrorists" and "foreigners," and zero civilians, during a series of airstrikes in North Waziristan. The Pakistani military also asserts that most of those killed are from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Turkistan Islamic Party, two regional jihadist groups with close ties to al Qaeda. The Pakistani military claims to have cleared 80 percent of Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan. But most of the jihadists in North Waziristan are thought to have fled the offensive long before it began.
The Pakistani military appears to be focusing on foreign terrorist groups as well as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and is not confronting the Haqqani Network or the Hafiz Gul Bahadar group. These two independent Taliban factions are considered "good Taliban" as they do not openly advocate attacking the Pakistan state. But the Haqqanis and the Bahadar group, the two most powerful Taliban factions in North Waziristan, shelter and support al Qaeda, IMU, TIP, and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (the "bad Taliban"). [See LWJ report, Pakistan launches 'comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists' in North Waziristan, and Threat Matrix report, Pakistani forces focus on 'foreigners' in North Waziristan operation.]
Hani al Sibai, an ideologue who is highly respected within al Qaeda, has called on al Qaeda's senior leadership and the group's regional branches to address the Islamic State's announced caliphate. Sibai has long been a critic of the Islamic State. And he doesn't think al Qaeda's quiet response to the group's attempted power grab within the jihadist world is sufficient.
"The silence of #Khorasan_leadership and its branches regarding the announcement of the new caliphate is not wise," Sibai wrote in Arabic in a tweet on July 8. The jihadists' Khorasan is a geographic area that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al Qaeda's senior leadership is based.
Sibai's tweet continues: "Suggestions and innuendoes will not do! An explicit...statement is necessary, for this intense issue is mighty."
Sibai's tweet was quickly retweeted by al Qaeda supporters and at least one official in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria. The Al Nusrah Front has been fighting with the Islamic State for months.
Thus far, neither al Qaeda's leadership, nor any of its formal branches (often called affiliates), has responded to the Islamic State's announcement that it now ruled over a caliphate, with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the group's leader, serving as "Caliph Ibrahim."
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released two messages just days later, including one that heaped praise on Zawahiri. Sibai retweeted both of AQAP's messages, but the organization made no mention of the Islamic State or Baghdadi in either of them. And al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also released a message praising the jihadists' advances in Iraq and calling for reconciliation in Syria, but that statement was written before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) rebranded itself as the Islamic State and announced its caliphate.
Ayman al Zawahiri has known and trusted Sibai for decades. So when Sibai talks, Zawahiri listens.
In April, Sibai was one of the several leading jihadists who called on Zawahiri to address specific aspects of al Qaeda's ongoing dispute with the ISIS/Islamic State.
A few weeks later, in early May, Zawahiri responded by releasing a new message, "Testimonial to Preserve the Blood of Mujahideen in al Sham." Although Zawahiri had addressed the infighting between the Islamic State and its jihadist rivals a number of times before and he was "content" with his previous testimony, Zawahiri said he decided to broach the topic once more because of his respect for the "venerable" Sibai. In a three-page document released in late May, Zawahiri again cited the request from Sibai, as well as other jihadists, as the reason why he decided to discuss events in Syria.
It remains to be seen if and when al Qaeda addresses the Islamic State's claims. Al Qaeda's propaganda arm, As Sahab, announced the same day as Sibai's tweet (July 8) that it was releasing three new productions. Judging by their titles, the three messages do not explicitly address recent events in Iraq. One is a message from deceased al Qaeda master Osama bin Laden. The second is part of Zawahiri's ongoing "Days with the Imam" series, which reviews bin Laden's life. The third stars two "martyred" jihadists discussing the Arab revolutions that began in 2011. The content of the three productions may have some historical bearing on the situation, however.
Sibai, like some other pro-al Qaeda jihadists, initially praised the Islamic State's gains in Iraq in June. In one tweet, Sibai used the hashtag "#Liberation_of_Mosul." Sibai's tweet reads, "The joy of controlling the city should not make us forget that the enemy is plotting and will not hesistate to bomb it with planes."
"I wonder who has been wounded with sadness due to the ongoing news about the liberation of #Mosul," Sibai wrote in another tweet. "[T]his day is a critical and gloomy day for the Shi'ites and the rulers who have given up the Gulf states to [Iranian leader] Khamenei."
In a third tweet written in June, Sibai said that if the ISIS "breaks its blockade on #Deir_Ezzor and moves to reinforce its forces in Mosul or to the war against the butcher Bashar [al Assad] and his paramilitary that would be the best for the elderly Muslims." The ISIS, now known as the Islamic State, has been fighting the Al Nusrah Front and other groups in Deir Ezzor. Sibai, therefore, was hoping that the Islamic State would leave the fight against its fellow jihadists in eastern Syria to focus on Assad's regime in Syria and Maliki's government in Iraq. The Islamic State continued to fight its jihadist rivals in Syria, however, and even gained ground.
Sibai's praise for the Islamic State's military advances in Iraq was short-lived, as he soon returned to criticizing the group. And he has now invited al Qaeda to do the same and criticize the Islamic State's caliphate.
Oren Adaki, a research associate and Arabic language specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.
The Taliban launched two major attacks in central and southern Afghanistan today, overrunning a provincial center in Ghor province and launching a suicide assault on government buildings in the capital of Kandahar.
In the central Afghan province of Ghor, the Taliban overran the Char Sada district center in an attack that included upwards of 300 fighters, according to Afghan officials. The remote district is said to be under Taliban control, but it is unclear if the Taliban plan to occupy it for an extended period of time.
In a statement released on Voice of Jihad, the Taliban claimed the fighting lasted for eight hours before their forces had "successfully overrun" Char Sada. The Taliban reported that "10 puppets," or Afghan security personnel, were "killed and dozens wounded as well as 6 vehicles packed with equipment seized." One Taliban fighter was also "martyred." The Taliban's claims could not be verified.
A Taliban commander known as Mullah Mustafa also is known to operate in Ghor. The International Security Assistance Force said in 2009 that Mustafa commands more than 100 fighters and receives support from Iran's Qods Force. ISAF thought it killed Mustafa in a June 9, 2009, airstrike in a rural area in Ghor. Mustafa later spoke to the media and denied reports of his death.
Mustafa was last spotted in January 2013, when he and Mullah Abdul Rahamn, the Taliban's shadow district governor for Char Sada, ordered the beating of a couple for having an affair.
Char Sada is the second district in Afghanistan reported to have fallen under Taliban control over the past several weeks. At the end of June, the Taliban took control of Sangin district in Helmand province, and launched attacks in the neighboring districts of Now Zad, Musa Qala, and Kajaki. More than 1,000 Taliban fighters massed for the assault in Helmand.
Suicide assault in Kandahar repelled
In the provincial capital of Kandahar, the Taliban launched a coordinated suicide assault that targeted the governor's compound and police headquarters. Three suicide bombers detonated their explosives while 19 more heavily armed fighters engaged in a firefight with Afghan forces from nearby buildings for more than an hour, TOLONews reported.
Afghan officials said that 22 Taliban fighters, four policemen, and five civilians were killed during the fighting. Kandahar's chief of police claimed that Pakistanis may have been fighting in the ranks of the Taliban.
The Taliban claimed today's attack in Kandahar City, and described it as a "synchronized double martyrdom attack" in a statement released on their website, Voice of Jihad. The group claimed that 11 fighters were involved in the attack on the police headquarters, and another seven in the assault on the governor's building.
Today's suicide assault in Kandahar is the third suicide operation executed by the Taliban in the past three days. Yesterday, the Taliban killed 16 people, including four Czech soldiers, in a suicide attack in Parwan province. And on July 7, a suicide bomber killed three soldiers in an attack on a bus in Herat province.
Nasir al Wuhayshi, who is both the emir of AQAP and the general manger of al Qaeda's global operations, released a poem praising Ayman al Zawahiri as the "Sheikh father."
Leaders in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released two messages in early July. The first, from AQAP emir Nasir al Wuhayshi, heaps praise on al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri, calling him the "sheikh father" of the mujahideen. The second, a video starring two leading AQAP ideologues, appears to be a critique of the Islamic State and its supporters.
Al Qaeda members online view the two messages as replies to recent claims made by the Islamic State, which declared in late June that it is a caliphate and its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, is now to be known as "Caliph Ibrahim." The Islamic State's caliphate announcement was a direct challenge to al Qaeda's and Zawahiri's authority among jihadists.
Wuhayshi's tribute to Zawahiri is in the form of a poem, which was accompanied by a jihadist anthem. Both the poem and the anthem were posted online on a twitter feed (@bashaer_Audio) that releases AQAP audio productions.
"He carried the flag in his youth, middle age, and old age and till this very day he continues to hold fast to it," Wuhayshi says of Zawahiri. The AQAP head goes on to describe Zawahiri as a "skillful teacher, seasoned veteran, and expert commander," who "was nursed by wisdom and reveled in it." Zawahiri "was taught by wars" and "is the second wise man of jihad," with Osama bin Laden presumably being the first. Zawahiri "is the apple of the eyes of mujahideen of this time" and "the theorist of the jihadist movement, its orator" and its "Sheikh father."
In addition to serving as AQAP's emir, Wuhayshi was named al Qaeda's general manager in the summer of 2013. The position gives Wuhayshi, who served as bin Laden's aide-de-camp prior to the 9/11 attacks, broad power across al Qaeda's international network.
AQAP video denounces "slander" of jihadist leaders
The AQAP video was released shortly after Wuhayshi's poem and features a pair of leading ideologues, Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari and Ibrahim al Rubaish. The production is entitled, "Responsibility of the Word." Both men defend the reputations of unnamed jihadist "scholars" and warn against "slandering" them. Although they don't mention specific events, it appears that the AQAP ideologues are addressing the vicious infighting between the Islamic State and its rivals in Syria.
A video starring Ibrahim al Rubaish (left) and Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari (right) decries the "slandering" of experienced jihadist leaders.
"The flesh of the scholars is poisoned ... so backbiting the scholars, the people of favor and goodness, contains much evil," Nadhari warns, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. "Devaluing the people of goodness and righteousness, and the people of knowledge and favor, is not from the teachings of Islam," Nadhari continues. "Among the teachings of Islam is to dignify the Muslim with gray hair: he has nothing, he has done nothing, and he is just a faithful Muslim. Although he is not from the people of favor, to dignify this good man, this faithful man, because he grew up with Islam, is among teachings of the religion."
Nadhari goes on to describe this unnamed man as having "gray hair" and being "very old," and as having "a lot of experience." The description could easily apply to Zawahiri, as well as to other leading jihadist thinkers who have been critical of the Islamic State's unilateral claims to power. "So respecting the ranks of those people and their positions is a great matter and it is from the teachings of Islam," Nadhari concludes.
Rubaish echoes Nadhari's warning. "Instead of sanctifying the scholars, disrespecting the scholars is found, and slandering them, and speaking badly about them for whatever reason, even in disputes," Rubaish says, according to SITE's translation. "This is among the calamities" experienced by jihadists today, Rubaish says. "We are not talking about the evil scholars who are known for supporting the tyrants, but those scholars who we consider and Allah knows them better, to be pious and to be those who speak the truth aloud."
Rubaish blasts jihadists who restrict "the religion ... to certain issues," making "those who concur" with them "loyalists and brothers," while disavowing those who disagree.
Nadhari is an increasingly important jihadist thinker. In addition to having his work promoted by AQAP, Nadhari's writings have been featured in Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad ("Voice of the Afghan Jihad"), a magazine that publishes the works of top al Qaeda leaders and their closest allies. The July edition of the magazine included a piece from Nadhari on "ideology and teachings."
Rubaish is a former Guantanamo detainee. During his time in custody in Cuba, American officials identified him as an al Qaeda member. Rubaish was transferred to his native Saudi Arabia in December 2006 and entered into a jihadist rehabilitation program before being released. By late 2009, Rubaish was publicly identified as one of AQAP's leading theologians.
Praise for AQAP's messages from al Qaeda members on Twitter
The AQAP leaders do not explicitly mention the Islamic State or its leader, let alone condemn him. But the messages were quickly trumpeted on Twitter by the Islamic State's rivals in the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
Among the Al Nusrah Front officials who tweeted or retweeted the AQAP messages are Abu Sulayman al Muhajir and Sami al Uraydi, both of whom are senior sharia officials in the group. Abu Sulayman and Uraydi have been engaged in a heated war of words with their Islamic State counterparts.
Other al Qaeda-linked jihadists on Twitter praised the messages from AQAP as well.
On the other hand, Mamoun Hatim, an AQAP ideologue who has long supported the Islamic State, disapproved of the video featuring Nadhari and Rubaish. In a series of tweets, Hatim wondered if his comrades had witnessed the Islamic State's gains in Iraq.
Oren Adaki, a research associate and Arabic language specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.
A screen shot from Musa Cerantonio's Twitter page. The 'map' behind the banner shows the Islands of Mindanao, Jolo, and others in the southern Philippines.
A popular radical Muslim cleric from Australia has joined the newly established Islamic State and traveled to Syria to support the establishment of the caliphate.
Musa Cerantonio, who in the past had renounced his Australian citizenship, announced on his Twitter account that he has "arrived in the land of Khilafah [Caliphate] in Ash-Sham [Syria]!" Cerantonio issued the statement on July 3.
Cerantonio telegraphed his travel to the Middle East. On July 1, Cerantonio announced that he "will be arriving in Ash-Sham very shortly, keep us in your du'a [supplications or prayers], getting ready to travel."
Cerantonio was thought to be hiding in the Philippines since leaving Australia in 2013. The map on the banner of his Twitter page indicates he resided in the southern Philippines, as the island of Mindanao and others are shown. He was likely sheltering with one of several al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups while in the Philippines.
Prior to traveling to Syria, Cerantonio had openly supported the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, the name of the Islamic State before it announced the formation of the caliphate on June 29.
Cerantonio traveled to Syria to fulfill the request by the Islamic State for Muslims, especially those with needed skills, to join the caliphate. On July 1, the Islamic State released a statement from Baghdadi in which he "issued 'a special call' to religious workers as well as for 'people with military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specializations and fields,'" to come to Iraq and Syria, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
In the past, Cerantonio served as a propagandist for the group, and dutifully retweeted the group's statements as well as his own supporting the group and its recent advances in Iraq. He has also called for the death of Western leaders.
He praised "the establishment of the Khilafah" and said the formation of the Islamic State "is a glad tiding for all Muslims and brings great joy to us."
"May Allah bless and protect our Imam, our Amir, our Khalifah, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi," he said on July 1, just before he began traveling to Syria.
The Australian cleric "relies on his effective use of social media networks to propagate support for a world-wide jihad against the West and encourage Muslims to join the ISIS in Syria and Iraq," according to the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, or TRAC. He is considered to be a popular figure in jihadist circles.
"A study conducted during early 2014 by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation concluded that one in four foreign fighters followed Cerantonio's Twitter account and that his Facebook page was the third-most 'liked' page among jihadists," TRAC continued.
Cerantonio is the third cleric from Australia to travel to Syria to support the jihadist cause. Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a firebrand cleric while in Australia, is currently a senior sharia (Islamic law) official in the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, which is a rival of the Islamic State. Abu Sulayman has been critical of the Islamic State in the past.
Mustapha al Majzoub, a dual Australian and Syrian citizen who resided in Sydney before traveling to Syria, was killed in a rocket attack in Aleppo on Aug. 19, 2012. According to jihadists, Majzoub was known for his efforts to recruit fighters from Australia, and had gone to Syria in June to "join the resistance alongside jihadi Salafis."
Zulkifli bin Hir, a jihadist commander and bomb expert who has worked with three jihadist groups in Southeast Asia and was reported killed by the Philippine military in 2012, is alive and thought to be operating in the southern Philippines.
The deputy chief of Malaysia's Counter Terrorism Division said that Zulkifli, who is a Malaysian citizen, is alive.
"We are aware of reports that said he was killed a few years ago. That is not true. We believe he is hiding in southern Philippines," Datuk Ayob Khan told the Malaysian Chronicle on July 3.
Two years ago, the Philippine Air Force asserted that Zulkifli and 14 other jihadists, including Umbra Jumdail, a senior Abu Sayyaf commander, were killed in an airstrike that targeted a camp in the village of Duyan Kabaw in Parang in the southern province of Sulu on Feb. 2, 2012.
"I am sure because I will not easily issue a statement here," Chief of Staff General Jessie Dellosa, the Philippines' top military commander, confidently said in a press briefing the day of the strike. "We have intelligence people and locals in the area."
But the military never recovered Zulkifli's body.
One indication that Zulkifli survived the strike is that the US State Department's Rewards for Justice Program never removed him from its list of wanted terrorists. A $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and conviction remains in place.
Zulkifli is the second jihadist leader from Southeast Asia to have surfaced after being thought killed in a counterterrorism operation. Abdul Basit Usman, an Abu Sayyaf Group operative and master bombmaker, was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan in 2010. But he has recently been spotted in Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
Zulkifli bin Hir, a.k.a. Zulkifli Abdhir, who goes by a number of aliases, including "Marwan," is "an engineer trained in the United States" and "is thought to be the head of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) terrorist organization and a member of Jemaah Islamiyah's central command," according to Rewards for Justice. He is said to have been sheltering in the Philippines since 2003 and has served as a bomb maker for the Abu Sayyaf Group. All three groups -- KMM, Jemaah Islamiyah, and Abu Sayyaf -- are linked to al Qaeda.
Zulkifli is thought to be sheltering with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a Muslim insurgent group in the southern Philippines that broke off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Members of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, and the KMM routinely shelter with and operate alongside other Muslim insurgent groups in the southern Philippines.
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is an Islamist terrorist group that seeks to establish a pan-Islamic state across Southeast Asia. While it is most active in Indonesia and the Philippines, Jemaah Islamiyah also conducts operations in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The terror group is al Qaeda's regional affiliate in Southeast Asia, and its operatives have been responsible for devastating attacks in the region, including the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, the 2004 suicide car bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the August 2003 car bombing of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta, and a series of bombings in Manila.
Jemaah Islamiyah has suffered major setbacks inside Indonesia, with many of its top leaders killed or captured over the past several years. Among them are Dulmatin, a top leader and military commander (killed in 2010); and Noordin Mohammed Top, a senior leader, recruiter, strategist, and fundraiser (killed in 2009). Umar Patek, a top JI leader, was captured in March 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, just months before al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden was killed in the same city in a US special operations raid. Abu Bakir Bashir, the terror group's founder, is currently in prison for founding, financing, and supporting al Qaeda in Aceh.
The Abu Sayyaf Group is a Philippines-based terrorist and criminal gang formed by fighters who returned from the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. The group was funded and financed by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, one of Osama bin Laden's brother-in-laws, according to Khaddafy Janjalani, the leader of Abu Sayyaf before his death in September 2006. Khalifa, an al Qaeda financier and facilitator, was killed by US special operations forces in Madagascar in January 2007.
The Islamic State has released a video of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the group's reclusive emir, leading prayers in the city of Mosul.
In late June, the Islamic State declared that it had established a caliphate with Baghdadi as its ruler. According to his group, Baghdadi is now known as "Caliph Ibrahim."
The group's caliphate declaration has been controversial within jihadist circles. A common critique has been that followers cannot and should not pledge their allegiance to a ruler they haven't even seen. In an era in which images and video are easily disseminated and broadcast, this critique carried some weight. The Islamic State's leader was rarely heard from and never seen. Only a few confirmed photos of Baghdadi existed prior to the newly-released video.
But Baghdadi and the Islamic State have now answered that criticism by posting a significant video of its leader delivering a sermon with a relatively calm and assured delivery.
Baghdadi addresses another criticism of the Islamic State's caliphate without explicitly telling the audience that he is doing so.
Jihadists and other Islamic organizations have dismissed the caliphate because the Islamic State formed it without consulting other recognized authorities. Baghdadi answers this charge by claiming that the jihadists, buoyed by recent victories in Iraq, were simply fulfilling their "duty" to declare a caliphate.
"As for your mujahideen brothers, Allah has bestowed upon them the grace of victory and conquest, and enabled them, after many years of jihad, patience, and fighting the enemies of Allah, and granted them success and empowered them to achieve their goal," Baghdadi says, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. "Therefore, they hastened to declare the Caliphate and place an imam, and this is a duty upon the Muslims - a duty that has been lost for centuries and absent from the reality of the world and so many Muslims were ignorant of it." Baghdadi concludes, "The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it, and they have done so, and all praise is due to Allah."
The Islamic State has earned a bloody reputation in Iraq and Syria because the organization is frequently at odds with other jihadist groups, even those that are supposedly its ideological kinsmen. This has opened up Baghdadi and the Islamic State to the charge that declaring the caliphate was merely a self-serving attempt at a power grab.
Baghdadi responds, without recognizing his critics, by portraying himself as a humble servant. "I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility," Baghdadi says, according to SITE. "I was placed as your caretaker, and I am not better than you. So if you found me to be right then help me, and if you found me to be wrong then advise me and make me right and obey me in what I obey Allah through you."
The Islamic State's jihadist critics will surely scoff at Baghdadi's claims. As the infighting between groups has raged in Syria, the Islamic State has refused various peace entreaties from some of the most widely-respected jihadist ideologues. He has shown no desire to be advised by anyone outside of his most trusted inner circle.
The video sends other signals to would-be supporters as well. Baghdadi is secure enough in Mosul, which was seized by a coalition of his forces and its Iraqi allies last month, that he can record a lengthy sermon without fear of being struck down by his enemies. And because he is shown leading prayers, Baghdadi is hoping to convince his audience that he has the proper religious credentials to be a legitimate leader.
The future is, of course, uncertain. It is unknown if the Islamic State will be successful in ruling over its newly-acquired territory, or if it will falter.
But if the group holds onto the fruits of its land grab, then the world has just been given its first look at an aspiring dictator.
Late last night in Kabul province, the Taliban destroyed hundreds of tankers and supply trucks carrying fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The attack took place as the vehicles gathered at a trucking terminal in the Paghman district of Kabul province. Claiming credit for the attack, said the Taliban said they planted bombs on the trucks and then detonated the devices remotely.
"Mujahideen first planted the huge trucks, the tankers other vehicles with magnet, sticky and plastic bombs which were later detonated, triggering a huge fire that spread form [sic] one vehicle to another one and soon engulfed the entire supply terminal," the Taliban said in a statement released on Voice of Jihad.
The district police chief for Paghman told Pajhwok Afghan News that more than 400 trucks were destroyed in the blaze. Another 250 trucks were moved to safety, the police chief said.
The Taliban claimed that more than 600 trucks were destroyed and "a large number of the local security guards and the US-Nato invaders were killed." No casualties were reported by Afghan officials. The Taliban routinely exaggerate the effects of their operations.
The Taliban said last night's attack on the trucking terminal was "the fourth in a series of attacks targeting US-NATO supply terminal [sic] since the operation Khaibar began." Operation Khaibar is the Taliban's name for their spring 2014 offensive.
The Taliban also carried out two other successful high-profile attacks in Kabul this week. On July 2, a suicide bomber killed eight members of the Afghan National Air Force in an attack on a bus in the capital of Kabul.
And on July 3, a Taliban rocket team hit the military side of Kabul International Airport. Three Afghan helicopters were hit in the attack, including one used to transport President Hamid Karzai, which was destroyed. The attack caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.
In the south, the Taliban have gone on the offensive as part of an effort to retake key areas lost during during US and NATO military operations from 2010 to 2011. The Taliban still control much of Sangin, a strategic district in Helmand province, after launching an operation with more than 1,000 fighters on June 19.
As the Taliban step up their operations in Kabul and in the provinces, the US is preparing to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan. The US hopes to keep 9,800 troops for advisory and special operations missions in the country until the end of 2015. That number will be halved by the beginning of 2016, and then withdrawn by the end of that year. Currently there are an estimated 30,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
On July 1, the US government filed a motion arguing that the only suspect charged with participating in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya should be held in pretrial detention. The motion was subsequently granted.
The court document provides specific allegations concerning the role that the jailed suspect, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, played in the events of that night.
Although US officials had been quick to portray the attack in Benghazi as part of a reaction to an anti-Islam video, US prosecutors now say that Khatallah's "participation ... was motivated by his extremist ideology."
And "days before" the attack, Khatallah "voiced concern and opposition to the presence of an American facility in Benghazi." Khatallah has also allegedly "continued to make efforts to target American personnel and property since the" attack in Benghazi and he has "discussed with others his deadly and destructive intentions."
According to US prosecutors, Khatallah "was a commander of Obaidah Ibn Al Jarrah, an extremist brigade that was absorbed into" Ansar Al Sharia (AAS) "after the recent Libya revolution." The government describes AAS as "an Islamic extremist militia in Libya that holds anti-Western views and advocates the establishment of Sharia law in Libya." Khatallah became a "senior leader" of AAS after his brigade merged with the organization.
Several members of AAS in Benghazi have been identified as being among the group that initially breached the gate at the US Mission on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. These fighters include Khatallah's "known associates."
Beyond the allegations of Khatallah's role in the attack, the government's filing includes several other reported details that may point to his ties to the broader terror network. The court filing provides little insight into Khatallah's relationships with other jihadists, however.
'Extensive contacts with senior-level members of extremist groups throughout Libya'
One reason the US government recommended that Khatallah be detained is because he could "communicate his plans for additional deadly attacks to other extremists and encourage them to carry out those plans."
The government alleges that Khatallah "has extensive contacts with senior-level members of extremist groups throughout Libya." Members of these organizations, as well as Khatallah's "close associates who participated in" the Benghazi attack, "are similarly dedicated to carrying out plots to attack American and Western interests."
Although Khatallah's contacts in other extremist groups are not identified in the legal filing, intelligence and evidence compiled by American authorities indicate that Khatallah's men were among fighters from several jihadist groups that participated in the assault on the US Mission.
The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence identified the groups responsible for the Benghazi attack in a report released on Jan. 15. "Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks," the report reads.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are both official branches of al Qaeda and have sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's emir. The head of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was also appointed the general manager of al Qaeda's network in August 2013.
In October 2013, both the UN and the US designated the Mohammad Jamal Network (MJN) as a terrorist organization. The designations explicitly recognized the MJN's ties to al Qaeda's senior leadership, including Ayman al Zawahiri, as well as to AQIM and AQAP.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's report also cited intelligence showing that AQAP, AQIM, and the Mohammad Jamal Network all established training camps in eastern Libya after the rebellion against Muammar el Qaddafi began in 2011.
In a terrorist designation released on Jan. 10, the State Department indicated that fighters from Ansar al Sharia chapters in both Derna and Benghazi took part in the attack. Ansar al Sharia in Derna is led by a former Guantanamo detainee named Sufian Ben Qumu. During his time in US custody, intelligence officials identified Ben Qumu as an al Qaeda operative.
Thus, when Khatallah and his men allegedly took part in the Benghazi raid, they were accompanied by fighters from at least four different terrorist organizations with known al Qaeda ties: AQAP, AQIM, the MJN, and Ansar al Sharia in Derna.
The US government reiterates in its legal filing that Khatallah has "significant relationships with active leaders and members of extremist groups in Libya, including AAS, who are similarly bent on harming American personnel and property."
Alleged retaliation plans after capture of senior al Qaeda operative
In late 2013, US prosecutors say, Khatallah "expressed anger that the US conducted a capture operation of a Libyan fugitive in Tripoli" and he "took steps to retaliate against the US by targeting US interests in the region."
The "Libyan fugitive" isn't named, but the term surely refers to a senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Anas al Libi.
At the time of his capture in October 2013, al Libi had been wanted by the US for well over a decade. Al Libi is accused of helping al Qaeda prepare for the Aug. 7, 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Witnesses during the embassy bombings trial identified al Libi as a trained al Qaeda operative who performed surveillance on the embassies and other Western targets prior to the attack. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda seeks to spin capture of top operative.]
An unclassified report published in August 2012 highlights al Qaeda's strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya and offers an analysis of al Libi's suspected role.
The report ("Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile") was prepared by the federal research division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the Defense Department's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. Al Libi is identified by the report's authors as the "builder of al Qaeda's network in Libya." The report concludes that Ansar al Sharia is likely a part of this network as well.
The US government's filing in Khatallah's case does not say that the imprisoned Benghazi suspect knew al Libi personally or that the pair conspired together. It is possible that such details, if they exist, were left out of the court papers. Based on the publicly available evidence, any conclusion would be speculative.
'Supervised the exploitation of material from the scene'
Prosecutors allege that after US personnel fled from the Mission, Khatallah "entered the compound and supervised the exploitation from the scene by numerous men." No further details are offered.
US intelligence officials have previously told The Long War Journal that another suspect in the Benghazi attack is thought to have brought materials recovered in the compound back to al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. That suspect, Faraj al Chalabi, served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden during the 1990s. Al Chalabi was detained in Pakistan and Libya following the attack, but eventually freed.
It is not publicly known if Khatallah has any ties to Chalabi, and the court documents do not assert any relationship between the two.
The Islamic State has taken control of several towns in eastern Syria, further securing its line of communications along the Euphrates River Valley from Western Anbar in Iraq to the city of Raqqah in Syria. Over the past two days, some local tribes and rebel factions in the area have responded to the pressure by pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, while other groups have vowed to continue fighting its advance.
Today, the Islamic State took full control of the city of Mayadan and the town of Shuhail in Deir al Zour province after the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, withdrew from the towns without a fight. Parts of Mayadin, the largest city between the provincial capital city of Deir al Zour and the border town of Albu Kamal, have been under the control of the Islamic State since the end of June.
Shuhail is the home town of Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front. During the Iraqi insurgency from 2004-2011, the town served as a jumpoff point for jihadists fighting for al Qaeda in Iraq and its successor organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, to launch attacks across the border. Once the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, Shuhail became a hub for the activities of the Al Nusrah Front inside Syria.
Additionally, the Al Omar oil field, which is located just east of Mayadan, has been under the control of the Islamic State since the end of June. The oil field is estimated to output 10,000 barrels of oil a day, and will serve as additional income for the group, which seized more than $400 million from banks when it took control of Mosul on June 10.
The Islamic State's consolidation of control over most of Deir al Zour province has forced more defections from jihadist groups. The tribes in Shuhail as well as in the villages of Hariji and Namliyah, along with insurgent groups Jaish al Islam, Jaish Mouta al Islami, Liwa al Ikhlas, and Harakat Taliban al Islamiya, have pledged bayat, or an oath of loyalty, to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State who calls himself Caliph Ibrahim. A video of the announcement was released on YouTube.
But in the town of Ashara and nearby villages, units from the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham (an Islamist brigade closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front), and Free Syrian Army pledged to continue to fight the Islamic State.
The Islamic State now controls contiguous territory along the Euphrates River Valley from the town of Jarabulus, which borders Turkey, in Syria's northern Aleppo province to the town of Anah in Iraq's Anbar province. The city of Haditha, farther south of Anah, is contested, while the Haditha Dam is under government control. Ramadi is also contested, but Fallujah and several nearby cities and towns are under the control of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State's recent advances in Deir al Zour were enabled by the takeover of the town of Albu Kamal on June 25 as well as Al Qaim in Iraq. An Egyptian Al Nusrah Front leader from Albu Kamal defected to to the Islamic State, causing the town to fall.
Control of the Euphrates River Valley along both sides of the Iraq-Syria border reinforces the Islamic State's perception that it has destroyed the boundaries between the two countries and is truly restoring the caliphate. Militarily, the Islamic State is now able to freely move fighters between Iraq and Syria to reinforce areas in need as well as expand on its recent gains in both countries.
Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi (right). The photo was posted on Twitter by sharia officials in the Al Nusrah Front, as well as other jihadists, after Maqdisi's release from prison in Jordan in mid-June.
Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, an influential jihadist ideologue who was recently released from prison in Jordan, has released a new statement concerning the Islamic State's advances in Iraq. Maqdisi has long been critical of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), as the Islamic State was previously known. The Jordanian's latest message demonstrates that he has not changed his opinions, and he fears that the Islamic State will use its recent power grab to target its jihadist foes.
In late May, Maqdisi issued a stinging rebuke of the ISIS, calling it a "deviant organization."
Online jihadists have speculated that Maqdisi's denunciation of the ISIS and other statements critical of the group were either coerced by Jordanian security services, or were misinformed because of his status behind bars. Some jihadists even wondered if he was going to retract or modify his previous missives, especially his wholesale condemnation of the ISIS.
But Maqdisi dismisses these claims and stands by his previous statements, saying they were issued after various attempts to reconcile the ISIS to its rivals failed.
"Moral pressures had been exerted upon me to retract the statement that I had issued [in May] after the fruit of long communication with the parties involved in the reconciliation or in the adjudication that the group of the State [ISIS or the Islamic State] had refused," Maqdisi argues, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group. The "claims by some people ... that the statement is null or will be voided" are not true, Maqdisi writes, adding that he "did not promise [to retract his statements] to anyone."
In his statement in late May, Maqdisi revealed new details about his own role in the attempts to mediate between the ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front. The Jordanian ideologue explained that he had been in contact with both the ISIS head Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
"I advised him [Baghdadi] privately and advised his [organization] publicly," Maqdisi claimed in his May statement. Maqdisi said he "also wrote to our beloved brother, the Sheikh, the Commander, the Mujahid Ayman al Zawahiri (may Allah protect him)" to "put him in the picture regarding my efforts at a reconciliation initiative or adjudicating between" the ISIS and its rivals. Maqdisi promised Zawahiri that he "would authorize some of [his] closest students to carry this out."
Maqdisi's efforts, like those of other jihadist ideologues, failed. And he criticized the ISIS for rejecting the advice and orders of jihadist leaders, including "especially" Zawahiri.
In his new message, Maqdisi defends his condemnation of the ISIS. The statement "came as a result of communications and correspondence with all the parties, especially the party [the Islamic State] that had rejected previous initiatives and that is refusing the adjudication of the Shariah," he writes.
And while Maqdisi applauds the jihadists' recent gains in Iraq, he fears that the group now called the Islamic State will use its improved position to quash its rivals.
Maqdisi says that he was "asked about the victories of the Islamic State in Iraq," which is one of the Islamic State's previous names. "There is no believer who does not rejoice for the victories of the Muslims no matter who they are," Maqdisi says. But the "fear is for the consequences of these victories and how the Sunnis and the other preaching or jihadi groups and Muslim masses will be treated in the liberated areas."
The Jordanian ideologue asks, "And against whom will the heavy weaponry taken from Iraq and sent to Syria be used?"
Maqdisi raises the same concern when addressing the Islamic State's announced caliphate. While he does not object to the goal of resurrecting the caliphate, Maqdisi fears that the Islamic State will use its new self-proclaimed status to continue targeting rivals.
The Jordanian jihadist asks, according to SITE's translation: "Will this Caliphate be a sanctuary for every oppressed one and refuge for every Muslim? Or will this creation take on a sword against those who oppose it from the Muslims, and strike away with it all the emirates that came before their declared state, and nullify all the groups that do jihad in the cause of Allah in the different battlefields before them. "
To buttress his point, Maqdisi points to the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) and the Taliban's Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. As the jihadists' regional emirates, they would technically fall under the authority of the caliphate, if it has been truly resurrected.
But Maqdisi says that in the case of the ICE, the group did "not make anything obligatory upon the Muslim masses in the world." Nor, Maqdisi argues, did the Taliban demand allegiance from jihadists elsewhere around the world, as the Islamic State now has.
With the Islamic State now claiming to be above all other jihadist organizations, Maqdisi wonders what will come "of the various fighting groups that pledged" obedience to other leaders in Iraq and Syria.
The straightforward meaning of Maqdisi's arguments and questioning is to challenge the Islamic State's demand of obedience from all other jihadist groups now that it claims to rule as a caliphate. By comparing the Islamic State to the Taliban and the ICE, Maqdisi is pointing out just how much power Baghdadi's group is really claiming to now wield.
Maqdisi was released from prison in mid-June. His freedom was celebrated by many jihadists, including leading figures in the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Syria and one of the Islamic State's chief jihadist adversaries.
Maqdisi's new statement shows that he is still on the side of the jihadists opposed to the Islamic State.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of al Qaeda's official branches, posted a statement on jihadist forums on July 1 praising the Islamic State's recent military gains in Iraq. AQIM also calls for reconciliation between the ISIS and rival jihadist groups in Syria. The message was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The statement was authored on June 22, one week before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) rebranded itself as the Islamic State and declared that it now ruled over a caliphate. The Islamic State's controversial caliphate announcement is not, therefore, addressed in AQIM's statement.
AQIM's message is addressed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which is how the group will be referred to here.
AQIM begins by praising "the victories of our people the Sunnis in Iraq under the command of their mujahideen sons, and on top of them the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham" (ISIS). Interestingly, AQIM argues that ISIS' advances in Iraq have "alleviated our calamity in" Syria and "mended the rift and directed arrows of the mujahideen to the necks of the enemies of the Ummah and the religion: the Crusaders, the [Shiites], and the apostates."
Therefore, AQIM sees ISIS' advances in Iraq as aiming the jihadists' "arrows" at their appropriate common enemies, instead of one another. However, the gains made by the ISIS in Iraq have not put an end to the infighting in Syria, where the ISIS and its rivals have battled for months.
After calling for broad support for the jihad in Iraq, AQIM's statement then says the jihadist factions should reconcile their differences. AQIM first addresses the ISIS. "We call upon our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and on top of them, our brothers in the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham [ISIS], to take advantage of these conquests and winds of victory to gather and meet, and forget the past of dispute and conflict, and open a new page with their brothers," the group's statement reads, according to SITE's translation.
Without naming any specific groups in Syria, AQIM addresses jihadists there, arguing that they should support the ISIS' efforts in Iraq. "We call upon our mujahideen brothers in Sham to strongly support the conquests of their brothers in Iraq and protect their backs and provide them with what they need to continue their march and complete their victory, as recommended by our Sheikh and Emir Sheikh Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve and protect him, because Iraq is a debt upon the entire Ummah."
By referring to Zawahiri as "our Sheikh and Emir," AQIM clearly states that Zawahiri is the group's overall leader. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, famously disobeyed Zawahiri's orders, leading al Qaeda's general command to disown Baghdadi's group in early February. Baghdadi and the ISIS have been attempting to win the support of al Qaeda's regional branches, including AQIM, since then. However, AQIM's statement does not indicate that AQIM is siding with Baghdadi over Zawahiri.
The statement's mention of Zawahiri's recommendation is likely a reference to the al Qaeda emir's repeated calls for the ISIS to abandon the jihad in Syria and return to the fight in Iraq. In early May, Zawahiri released a message entitled, "Testimonial to Preserve the Blood of Mujahideen in al Sham." Zawahiri argued that the expansion of Baghdadi's group into Syria has been a "political catastrophe for the people of the Levant." Zawahiri urged Baghdadi to return to Iraq so that the jihad in Syria would no longer be weakened by the intra-jihadist rivalries.
There is no evidence that the ISIS was in fact complying with Zawahiri's directive when it launched its offensive in Iraq in June. But AQIM is attempting to use the ISIS' gains in Iraq as a basis for reconciling Baghdadi's group with al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Thus, the group links the jihadist gains in Iraq to Zawahiri's stated goals.
Calls for reconciliation not new
AQIM's statement echoes previous calls for reconciliation in Syria. Al Qaeda's senior leadership has repeatedly called for reconciliation, even as the ISIS has denounced its former parent organization and taken the fight to its fellow jihadists. As recently as May, in fact, Zawahiri made yet another attempt at putting an end to the dispute.
In early March, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released an audio message online in which the al Qaeda branch addressed the infighting in Syria. The message was recorded in the aftermath of Abu Khalid al Suri's assassination in Syria. Al Suri was al Qaeda's chief representative in Syria at the time of his death and was presumably killed by fighters dispatched by the ISIS.
"We have one stance toward all groups that wage jihad for the sake of God and we feel sorry for the murder of any of the mujahideen in any group and clear ourselves before God from spilling proscribed blood," an AQAP representative said in the audio message, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. The message continued: "We, in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have been careful from the beginning to have a brotherly stance toward all the mujahideen. As such, we call upon every Muslim everywhere to keep his hand and tongue away from this sedition and to pray to God sincerely to unite the mujahideen and guide them to the right."
More recently, the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, Abu Iyad al Tunisi, issued a statement that is very similar to AQIM's. Abu Iyad hailed the mujahideen's "conquests in the Land of the Two Rivers," saying they should serve to bring together all of the "jihadist factions that fight to raise the banner of monotheism" and seek to enforce Islamic sharia law. Abu Iyad added that the mujahideen should set aside their differences and "open their hearts to a new comprehensive reconciliation."
As in AQIM's statement, Abu Iyad made an explicit reference to Zawahiri, calling him the "doctor of the Ummah" and "sheikh of the Mujahideen." Abu Iyad also said that he "defers" his "demands" for reconciliation to Zawahiri and the emir of the Al Nusrah Front, Abu Muhammad al Julani. If the pair announce their support for the gains made by the ISIS, other jihadist factions, and the Sunni tribes in Iraq, then it "might result in orders by the lead of the disputing organization that would put an end to infighting."
Abu Iyad has known ties to AQIM. In January, for example, the State Department designated Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, announcing that it "is ideologically aligned with al Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM."
AQIM desires jihadist cohesion with help of 'scholars'
There have been numerous attempts by al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists to reconcile the Islamic State with its rivals. These efforts have often centered on influential jihadist ideologues acting as mediators. The initiatives have all failed because the ISIS does not recognize any religious authority other than its own.
Nonetheless, AQIM once again suggests that jihadist "scholars" broker a peace deal.
"We call upon our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and Sham to be cohesive and to be merciful among each other, and to communicate with the active scholars, the symbols of the jihadi current, because the condition of the Ummah cannot be mended but by the goodness of the scholars and emirs, and the condition of the emirs cannot be mended but by the guidance of the scholars," AQIM says in its statement, according to SITE's translation.
Indeed, AQIM has long called for leading jihadi ideologues to help settle the dispute.
On Nov. 1, 2013, for instance, Sheikh Abu Yahya al Shinqiti, who serves on AQIM's sharia committee, released a statement concerning the jihad in Syria.
Al Shinqiti warned the mujahideen to avoid infighting, saying they should be "wary of disputes and division." Al Shinqiti also took note of the role played by social media, saying that "rumors" circulated online can serve to exaggerate the differences between various factions. (The latest statement from AQIM returns to this theme, saying the jihadists should "cease their campaign of slander and and backbiting on the forums and means of social communication.")
Al Shinqiti went on to single out Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini for praise. Al Shinqiti expressed his "gratitude" for al Muhaysini's fundraising activities, as well as the Saudi's attempt to established a unified Islamic court for settling the jihadists' differences in Syria. Al Shinqiti asked Allah to make al Muhaysini successful.
Muhaysini's efforts failed when the ISIS rejected his initiative in January 2014. Muhaysini, who is, at a minimum, pro-al Qaeda, is closely allied with the ISIS' rivals in Syria.
Thus, AQIM is keenly aware that the ISIS has rejected the efforts of jihadi ideologues to resolve the ongoing dispute. Still the group calls "upon the scholars of the Ummah and on top of them, our dear sheikhs, the people of honesty and affliction, to continue their quest to defuse the raging war between the mujahideen in Sham, and to work to unite them around the word of truth."
Since AQIM produced its message on June 22, the ISIS declared itself the new caliphate with virtually no outside support from the jihadi "scholars." It is unlikely that the group, which is demanding allegiance from jihadis and Muslims around the globe, will listen to these scholars now with respect to events in Syria.
Nine leading rebel groups in Syria have rejected the Islamic State's claim that it has established a Caliphate stretching across parts of Iraq and Syria.
In a statement released online, the nine groups say "the announcement by the rejectionists [the Islamic State] of a caliphate is null and void," both "legally and logically." The nine groups, all of which have long been opposed to the Islamic State, say that the announced Caliphate will not change how they deal with the organization.
The signatories warn other jihadist individuals and organizations not to support the Islamic State. They argue that the decision to announce a Caliphate is self-serving and an attempt to "abort the blessed revolutions in Syria and Iraq."
Two of the nine signatories are the Islamic Front, a powerful rebel coalition that includes the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham, and the Majlis Shura al Mujahideen (MSM) in Deir Izzor. The MSM is an alliance of groups, including the Al Nusrah Front, that is opposed to the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
On its Twitter feed, the MSM posted a link to the statement rejecting the Islamic State's announced caliphate. The MSM says the Islamic State's announcement is part of "a systematic campaign to distort sharia terms" and the Islamic State has "distorted jihad, sharia, and [the rules for] punishment, and now they want to distort the Caliphate."
In addition to the Islamic Front and the MSM, the sharia councils of seven other groups signed the rejection of the Islamic State's Caliphate.
The reaction from the Al Nusrah Front's leaders was equally dismissive. The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, grew out of the Islamic State's predecessor organizations, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Despite these common roots, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State have been openly at odds since last year.
In a series of tweets in both English and Arabic, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a top sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, sharply criticized the Islamic State's announcement. While using the hashtag #Khilafah_Proclaimed in his tweets, Abu Sulayman argued that the Islamic State's failure to consult jihadi leaders before making the announcement "is a clear breach of Islam."
"The situation has not changed at all here," Abu Sulayman said in one tweet, referring to Syria. "Only difference I see is there is a stronger 'Islamic' justification for them [the Islamic State] to kill Muslims." The Islamic State has long justified the killing of other rebel fighters and leaders by arguing that it is the only legitimate authority in Iraq and Syria.
Abu Sulayman, who is from Australia, served as a mediator during al Qaeda's early attempts to reconcile the ISIS with other jihadist groups in Syria. When those efforts failed, he became a vocal critic of the ISIS and is now a staunch opponent of the Islamic State.
Two other senior Al Nusrah Front officials who are active on Twitter also quickly denounced the Islamic State. One of them, Sami al Uraydi, said the Islamic State's announcement "is really a declaration of war against Muslims, rather than [the establishment of] an Islamic Caliphate." Uraydi levied a criticism similar to Abu Sulayman's as well, arguing that the Caliphate is supposed to be governed by rules agreed upon by Muslim scholars and not according to the demands of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.
Another Al Nusrah Front official, Al Gharib al Muhajir al Qahtani, dismissed the Islamic State's Caliphate as "imaginary." According to al Qahtani, the Islamic State previously failed to procure the support of "many students of [Islamic] knowledge and leaders." Thus, the group has now become obsessed with the idea of a Caliphate, hoping to earn the jihadist legitimacy it lacked when it was merely a state.
The criticisms of the Islamic State's announcement are unsurprising. In reality, the battle lines between the Islamic State and its rivals in Iraq and Syria were drawn long ago.
Over the weekend, suspected Boko Haram fighters attacked several villages in northeastern Nigeria, killing dozens of civilians and torching churches and homes.
The attacks took place in villages near Chibok, a predominantly Christian enclave in Borno state from which Boko Haram kidnapped over two hundred school girls in April.
The villages attacked included Kautikari, Kwada, Ngurojina, and Karagau. According to a witness in Kautikari, the insurgents stayed in the village for at least four hours while setting homes and buildings on fire.
During the attacks, the gunmen reportedly rode through the villages on motorcycles throwing explosives at targets. In Kwada, the insurgents burned the entire village, including five churches. The gunmen entered the churches, opened fire on Sunday worshipers, and then set the churches ablaze.
A Nigerian military plane was reportedly deployed five hours after the attacks commenced; at which time, the "gunmen sneaked into the bush."
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden," has launched a series of attacks across the country seeking to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. The group's brazen spate of recent attacks illustrates that it can operate openly and with relative impunity. The group is suspected of attacking a shopping center in Abuja and hitting a medical college in Kano last week after it attacked several villages in Borno state the previous weekend.
This past Sunday's attacks are not the first time the group has targeted Christians or churches. In 2012, a spokesman for the group promised that Boko Haram would "eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country" while fighting to establish "a proper Islamic state." The statement came on the heels of a Boko Haram suicide car bombing outside a church in Jos in February 2012.
On June 26, the United Nations Security Council's al Qaeda Sanctions Committee added Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau to its list of recognized terrorists, subjecting Shekau to financial sanctions and an arms embargo. The UN also added the Nigerian terrorist group Ansaru to its list of terrorist organizations, noting that it is associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram, as well as with Shekau himself.
The Iraqi military offensive to retake Tikrit, the provincial capital of Salahaddin province, appears to have suffered its first setback as the military withdrew troops from the city after heavy fighting.
The Iraqi troops pulled back from much of Tikrit after a ground offensive, which started yesterday, "met stiff resistance" from insurgent forces in the city, the BBC reported. The insurgent alliance includes the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, and the Naqshbandi Army, a collection of former Baathists and ostensible Islamists intent on reestablishing Sunni dominance.
Several armored columns of Iraqi forces entered Tikrit yesterday from the south. Heavy fighting was reported at the provincial council building, Saddam's Hussein's presidential palace, Tikrit University, and elsewhere.
The news of the withdrawal from Tikrit comes one day after Iraqi military officials boasted that they "routed" the fighters, and had "complete success in clearing ISIS from the city, with some militant commanders among the 60 killed."
Iraqi forces are said to have withdrawn to the town of Dijla near Tikrit to regroup.
Insurgents are reported to have heavily seeded the road south from Tikrit to the city of Samarra, which represents the edge of control northward for the Iraqi government, with IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
The toll of the fighting, which began on June 27 when Iraqi forces air assaulted into Tikrit University, has yet to be fully disclosed. A twitter account of an ISIS supporter, who reported 24 hours ago that "the Safavids [Iranian Shia] retreat 75 KMs away from Tikrit," claimed that 400 prisoners were taken, three helicopters were shot down, and 45 mechanized vehicles were destroyed. The report could not be confirmed.
At least one Iraqi helicopter was shot down during the June 27 air assault at the university, and another may have been damaged badly enough to not be able to leave the ground. Iraqi forces are said to have taken up positions at the university and a nearby base formerly called Camp Speicher by US forces. It is unclear if Iraqi forces remain at the two locations north of Tikrit.
ISIS and its allies seized control of Tikrit on June 11 after its forces captured Mosul to the north and pushed southward. Much of Anbar, Diyala, Ninewa, and Salahaddin provinces remain beyond the control of the Iraqi government, which is struggling to regroup its military after nearly two divisions of troops as well as police and border forces melted away or were defeated.
The Afghan Taliban have been battling government forces for the past week in an attempt to retake control of the district of Sangin in Helmand province. Scores of civilians, security personnel, and Taliban fighters are reported to have been killed in the ongoing fighting.
The Taliban launched their assault on June 19, with an estimated 800 to 1,000 fighters attacking police and military checkpoints in Sangin. The Taliban overran several outposts, then, in what is described as a coordinated offensive, attacked security forces and government personnel in the neighboring districts of Musa Qala, Now Zad, and Kajaki in northern Helmand. Local officials in Sangin claimed that "Pakistanis and Arabs" are involved in the Taliban offensive, while Afghanistan's Interior Minister accused the Pakistani military of participating in the attacks.
The status of the four districts is uncertain. Although Afghan officials have claimed that Sangin is "cleared of the insurgency," residents and local officials in the district said much of the district is no longer under the government's contro and the fighting is ongoing.
The spokesman for the governor of Helmand claimed that the fighting has ended in Musa Qala, Now Zad, and Kajaki.
The fighting in Sangin has taken a heavy toll on Afghan security forces. According to The New York Times, "more than 100 members of the Afghan forces and 50 civilians have been killed or wounded in fierce fighting," local officials said.
Seddiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, boasted that "more than 250 Taliban militants were killed" in Sangin alone, TOLONews reported. His claim could not be supported, but he also had said that the fighting in Sangin had ended on June 27.
The Taliban's move on Sangin was foreshadowed in December 2013, when local security forces negotiated a peace deal with the jihadist group. Security forces abandoned some checkpoints, which were then occupied by the Taliban. Additionally, reports from the district indicated that security forces largely remained on base as the Taliban roamed the bazaars.
Sangin was one of the last districts in Helmand province held by the Taliban after US and Coalition forces launched a series of offensives to retake the province in 2010. Scores of US Marines and British soldiers were killed during brutal fighting in the district.
Musa Qala, Now Zad, and Kajaki are also considered to be key terrain by the Taliban, which controlled the districts before the US "surge" and offensive that ended in 2012. Kajaki hosts the dam, which generates electricity for Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province. In the past, the Taliban pirated electricity and profited from it.
The Taliban resurgence in Helmand takes place as the US is drawing down forces for the eventual withdrawal at the end of the year. There are currently an estimated 33,000 US forces in country, but most are focused on "retrograding" from Afghanistan. The US government hopes to keep 9,800 troops in country after 2014, tapering down to only a small presence at the US Embassy by late 2016 .
The Pakistani military said it killed the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan's commander for the town of Miramshah in North Waziristan and captured an al Qaeda explosives expert during its ongoing offensive in the tribal agency.
The Inter-Services Public Relations, the Pakistani military's public affairs branch, claimed that the "TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] commander of Miramshah, Commander Umer has been killed by security forces last night on the outskirts of Miranshah."
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has not announced the death of its commander in Miramshah. An email sent to the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan's media department has not been answered at this time.
Additionally, security forces claimed to have captured "one prominent al Qaeda commander" who was "trying to flee from surrounded area in NWA [North Waziristan Agency]." The Pakistani military identified him as "an explosive, IED, [and] suicide belt expert," but did not name him.
Al Qaeda is known to operate an "electronics and explosives workshop in Pakistan, which is responsible for producing IED components for AQ [al Qaeda] senior leadership," the US State Department noted in a terrorist designation in June 2013. In that designation, the US identified 'Abd al Hamid al Masli as running a workshop in "Waziristan" that provided "paramilitary brigades," or the Lashkar al Zil (Shadow Army), "in Afghanistan with timers, circuits, mines, and remote control devices for use in IEDs." Al Masli, a Libyan, also served on al Qaeda's military committee. [See LWJ report, US adds al Qaeda explosives expert to list of global terrorists.]
Pakistan continues to boast of high "terrorist" and zero civilian casualties
The Pakistani military has claimed that 334 "terrorists," "foreign and local terrorists," "Uzbek foreigners," "foreigners," and "ETIM [Turkistan Islamic Party] terrorists," and zero civilians have been killed since it launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan on June 15.
The last two press releases by the ISPR claimed that an additional 32 "terrorists" were killed during operations. On June 25, the military claimed it killed 13 "terrorists" in airstrikes in Mir Ali. And on June 28, the military claimed it killed 11 terrorists in Mir Ali and eight more, including Commander Umer, in Miramshah. The military has relied almost exclusively on airstrikes from fighter planes and attack helicopters, as well as "Artillery, Tanks and Heavy weapons."
The Pakistani military has said its plan in North Waziristan is to cordon off population centers and allow civilians to flee while launching airstrikes against "terrorists" before moving in with ground forces to occupy the region. The military has used this strategy in the past, only to see top leaders slip the cordon while a rearguard Taliban force engages Pakistani forces in guerrilla warfare.
Pakistani officials have quietly promised US officials that the Haqqani Network, a Taliban subgroup supported by the military and intelligence services that attacks US forces in Afghanistan, would be targeted during the operation. The Haqqanis are headquartered in Miramshah. So far, however, not a single Haqqani Network leader, military commander, or member has been identified as killed or captured during the operation. The Haqqanis' madrassa, the Manba Ulom, has been untouched in the operation.
There is also no indication that Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar is a target of the operation. Bahadar also wages jihad in Afghanistan against US forces. Both the Haqqani Network and Bahadar's forces, two Taliban groups that shelter and support al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and other terrorist groups, are considered "good Taliban" by political and military officials as they do not advocate attacking the Pakistani state.
For more information on Pakistan's recent military operation in North Waziristan and "good Taliban" vs. "bad Taliban", see LWJ and Threat Matrix reports:
Pakistan launches 'comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists' in North Waziristan
Pakistani forces focus on 'foreigners' in North Waziristan operation
Pakistani military claims 257 'terrorists,' no civilians killed in North Waziristan offensive
Pakistani Army continues to boast of zero civilian casualties in North Waziristan operation
A former Guantanamo detainee named Lahcen Ikassrien was arrested earlier this month in Spain. Authorities suspect that he has led a network responsible for sending jihadist recruits off to fight in Syria and Iraq. Members of Ikassrien's group reportedly fought for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), although it is not clear when they did so.
Ikassrien's arrest is the latest twist in a story that stretches back to the late 1990s, when Spanish investigators first came to suspect that Ikassrien was involved in al Qaeda's international jihadist network.
Indeed, counterterrorism officials from both Spain and the US concluded that Ikassrien was part of an al Qaeda cell led by Imad Yarkas (also known as Abu Dahdah).
According to numerous accounts, Yarkas served as one of bin Laden's most trusted lieutenants in Europe. Spanish investigators think that Yarkas' men even helped orchestrate a critical planning meeting for the 9/11 attacks in the summer of 2001. Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda's key point man for the 9/11 plot, and Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, met in Tarragona, Spain in July 2001. According to the 9/11 Commission's final report, US intelligence officials did not find any evidence that suspects other than Binalshibh or Atta were involved in the meeting. But Spanish officials insist otherwise.
Regardless of his putative 9/11 role, Yarkas was arrested in late 2001 and later convicted on terror-related charges by a Spanish court; he was released in May 2013 after serving a reduced sentence. The members of Yarkas' cell who avoided jail went on to help execute the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid.
At the time of the 3/11 attacks, Ikassrien was still detained at Guantanamo. But according to leaked files authored by the State Department and Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), he knew some of the attackers well.
Evidence ruled inadmissible by Spanish court
In late 2001, Ikassrien was captured alongside Taliban members by US forces in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.
He was transferred to Spanish custody on July 18, 2005. The plan was for Ikassrien to stand trial, but he avoided a conviction. Leaked State Department cables reveal that the Spanish courts excluded the most incriminating evidence against Ikassrien, including communications intercepted prior to his detention at Guantanamo. That evidence tied Ikassrien directly to Yarkas' cell.
In a cable dated Oct. 20, 2006, the US Embassy in Madrid described the problems that arose in Ikassrien's legal proceedings. The section of the cable discussing Ikassrien's case is entitled, "High-profile Al-Qaeda Suspects."
"Spain's National Court on October 11  acquitted Lahcen Ikassrien after finding insufficient evidence that he was a member of either al Qaeda or of the Abu Dahdah terror cell in Spain, or that he fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan," the cable reads.
The evidence backing up these allegations existed, but it was excluded from Ikassrien's proceedings. "The court refused to admit any prosecution evidence that was obtained during his detention in Guantanamo or any information gleaned from intercepted phone calls in Spain."
Another leaked State Department cable, sent on July 28, 2006, describes the contents of the intercepted communications. "According to press reports," the cable reads, "the Spanish police intercepts place Ikassrien in Istanbul, Turkey in November 2000 along with suspected terrorists Amer Azizi and Said Berraj."
Both Azizi and Berraj worked for Yarkas. Azizi was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in northern Pakistan. Western counterterrorism officials connected Azizi to a constellation of al Qaeda actors, including those responsible for the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings. Azizi may have also played a role in coordinating the infamous Tarragona meeting between the 9/11 planners. Said Berraj was reportedly involved in the 3/11 train bombings.
"In a separate intercept," the July 28, 2006 cable continues, "Ikassrien requested assistance with [travel] documentation from al Qaeda cell leader [Imad] Yarkas."
These same intercepts were ruled inadmissible during the legal proceedings for Yarkas and other members of his cell. Prosecutors were able to overcome this hurdle with other evidence tying Yarkas to terrorism. But they could not overcome the same evidentiary hurdle with respect to Ikassrien.
The Spanish prosecutor "had sought an eight-year jail sentence" for Ikassrien, according to the Oct. 20, 2006 State Department cable. If the prosecutor had been successful in getting a conviction, and the sought-after sentence, then Ikassrien might have been imprisoned until later this year. But the prosecution could not move forward with its case, despite "noting publicly that Spanish authorities had obtained more than enough evidence of Ikassrien's membership in the Abu Dahdah [i.e., Yarkas] terror cell prior to his stay in Guantanamo."
There was an additional complicating factor in the Spanish prosecutor's attempt to try Ikassrien. His case had become linked to that of another former Guantanamo detainee, and the Spanish court's ruling in that matter nixed the prosecution's plan for trying Ikassrien.
Hamed Abderrahaman Ahmed, dubbed the "Spanish Taliban" by the press, was transferred from Guantanamo to Spain on Feb. 13, 2004. Abderrahaman was convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to six years in prison in September 2005. However, on July 24, 2006, the Spanish Supreme Court annulled the sentence, finding that Abderrahaman's admissions to Spanish investigators during his time at Guantanamo were inadmissible.
The Spanish Supreme Court ruled that "although it is not for [this Court] to issue a pronouncement regarding the situation of those held in indefinite detention, we must state that, as [Abderrahaman] was held in detention under the authority of the US military since he was turned over [to the US] on an undetermined date, all information obtained under such conditions must be declared totally null and nonexistent."
As noted in the State Department's cables, the Spanish court went on to denounce Guantanamo, saying the detention of "hundreds of people, among them [Abderrahaman], without charges, without rights, without controls, and without limits" is "impossible to explain, much less justify."
The court's anti-Guantanamo decision in Abderrahaman's case had an "immediate effect" on the ability of prosecutors to seek Ikassrien's conviction, according to the State Department's July 28, 2006 cable. Ikassrien had been held in preventative detention since his transfer to Spain in 2005, but prosecutors suddenly recommended that he be released on bail. This about-face came "less than a month after prosecutors filed formal charges against Ikassrien."
The evidence compiled by prosecutors for Abderrahaman's trial was the same type of evidence they planned to use against Ikassrien. "The case against Ikassrien is based on three police interviews with him when he was being held at Guantanamo (by the same investigators who interviewed Abderrahaman) and on telephone intercepts developed in the course of the [Imad] Yarkas investigation," the State Department noted. This was the "same evidence thrown out in the Abderrahaman case."
Interestingly, prosecutors also "maintained that Ikassrien's own testimony since his transfer from Guantanamo incriminate[d] him since he has acknowledged traveling to Afghanistan to 'collaborate with the Islamist regime,'" meaning the Taliban. But this was apparently not enough. And "court observers" claimed that "Ikassrien's statements to the National Court have been substantially less incriminating than those of Abderrahaman."
A "high" risk, according to leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment
Although Spanish authorities had intelligence directly connecting Ikassrien to Imad Yarkas' operations, Ikassrien apparently never admitted this connection during his time at Guantanamo. A one-page memorandum prepared for his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) noted that he "admits being a member of the Taliban" and to associating with members of al Qaeda-affiliated groups. But there is no mention of Yarkas in the memo.
A separate, leaked threat assessment authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), and dated Nov. 8, 2004, does describe Ikassrien's ties to Yarkas' al Qaeda cell. But JTF-GTMO had to rely on other sources to piece together the story, because Ikassrien did not admit that he was a part of Yarkas' operation.
"Although cooperative with his debriefers," the JTF-GTMO threat assessment reads, Ikassrien's "accounts remain vague and inconsistent when questioned on topics of a sensitive nature." Ikassrien "has yet to admit being part of al Qaeda and continues to deny any knowledge of [sic] any terrorist affiliation."
Ikassrien's denials of "any incriminating information" were not atypical, JTF-GTMO's memo notes. "This is a common anti-interrogation technique used by numerous JTF-GTMO detainees, as well as by known members of al Qaeda."
JTF-GTMO did not believe that Ikassrien's denials were credible, finding he was a "high" risk and recommending that he "be retained under Department of Defense control."
"As early as 1998," the JTF-GTMO reads, Ikassrien "was meeting on a regular basis to discuss the jihad going on in Afghanistan with Amer al Azizi."
Ikassrien's ties to Azizi were noted in the Spanish press. On Oct. 27, 2004, the Spanish daily El Mundo reported that Azizi stayed in a flat in Turkey with Ikassrien and others sometime in 2000. Azizi was "on his way to Chechnya and Afghanistan" at the time. The paper did not say if Ikassrien joined Azizi.
According to JTF-GTMO, other jihadists were involved in the "regular" meetings between Ikassrien and Azizi that began in 1998 as well. The meetings allegedly included some of the same men who went on to carry out the 3/11 Madrid train bombings. One of them was Jamal Zougam, who worked for Yarkas prior to 9/11 and reportedly provided the cell phone detonators used in the 3/11 attacks. Zougam "assisted" Ikassrien "financially on his trip to Afghanistan," the JTF-GTMO file reads.
Another 3/11 suspect and member of Yarkas' network, Mohammed Haddad, "admitted to giving his Moroccan travel document and a copy of his resident permit to" Ikassrien, "who used these documents to attempt to travel to Afghanistan." The JTF-GTMO file does not indicate when Haddad allegedly made this admission.
"Not resting quietly at home"
In early April 2009, US officials met with their Spanish counterparts to discuss the possibility of resettling additional Guantanamo detainees in Spain. Among the attendees, according to a leaked State Department cable summarizing the meeting, was Luis Felipe Fernandez de la Pena, who was then the Director General for North America, Asia and the Pacific in the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.
Fernandez De la Pena said the Spanish government's "position of principle" is to take a "positive, constructive approach to the issue," according to the cable, dated April 2, 2009. However, he "cited a number of legal and security-related concerns," including the court decision in Abderrahaman's case. "The ruling later became a precedent which prevented another former detainee, Lahcen Ikassrien, from being prosecuted in Spanish courts," the cable reads.
Citing "reports from [Spain's] security services," Fernandez De la Pena said "these same individuals are 'not resting quietly at home.'"
The only two "individuals" mentioned in the cable before this comment are Abderrahaman and Ikassrien. It appears, therefore, that Spanish counterterrorism officials suspected Ikassrien was assisting his jihadist brethren in 2009 -- that is, well before his arrest again earlier this month.
This image is of two juxtaposed pictures: one of Abu Yusuf al Masri pledging bayat to an ISIS commander who is thought to be Omar al Shishani (right) and the other of Abu Yusuf with a Al Nusrah Front leader named Abu Hassan al Kuwaiti (left). The banner at the bottom of the picture of Abu Yusuf with Shishani reads, "the bayat of the soldiers of Jabhat al Julani [Al Nusrah Front] in Albu Kamal to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham."
An Egyptian commander of an Al Nusrah Front faction in the border town of Albu Kamal in Syria's Deir al Zour province has recently sworn allegiance to the rival Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. The pledge to ISIS may help ISIS cement its control of both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border along the Euphrates River.
The pledge of allegiance to the ISIS by Abu Yusuf al Masri, the former Al Nusrah commander, was reported on various Twitter accounts managed by jihadists, as well as by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an independent news organization that reports on the Syrian civil war. Photographs of Abu Yusuf and an unnamed "Chechen commander," who looks to be none other than Omar Shishani, a top ISIS military leader, have been published on Twitter.
Abu Yusuf appears to have two Twitter accounts: @M24544344 and @M2544344. An analysis by The Long War Journal indicates that both accounts appear to be run by Abu Yusuf. These accounts both follow and are followed by established jihadists. And the angry response by another jihadists associated with the Al Nusrah Front, including one who is photographed by the erstwhile Al Nusrah commander, suggests that Abu Yusuf's tweets are legitimate.
Up until June 17, Abu Yusuf tweeted at an account called "Victory Front" (@M24544344, Jabhat al Nusrah); his last post that day was a retweet of al Qaeda ideologue Abu Musab al Suri's treatise on guerrilla warfare. He resumed tweeting on June 23, but on a new account called "Abu Yusuf al Masri" (@M2544344). On his new account, he justified his decision to join ISIS by claiming that Ansar al Islam, which has clashed with ISIS and its predecessors for 10 years, has come to a truce with ISIS and joined "the State."
"Ansar al Islam after fighting between it and the State that lasted for 10 years, its clerics and leaders agreed that this stage cannot bear the conflict so they united under the banner of the State two days ago," he wrote.
Abu Yusuf's claim of an agreement between ISIS and Ansar al Islam has not been corroborated, and it is unclear how he would be privy to such information. Neither ISIS nor Ansar al Islam has publicly disclosed such an agreement. But the two groups are operating as part of an alliance against the Iraqi government and have seized territory in Iraq's Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces.
Abu Yusuf also urged that the differences between jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria be resolved before the US re-enters the conflict.
"We were one group, we differed in opinions and the hearts disputed, and blood was shed and the voice of reason fell silent and the sound of the artillery rose. By Allah, the blood of the mujahideen is above all theories and interpretations," he tweeted.
"The matter is not related to an individual but to a subdued nation [ummah] that does not have the ease of the conflict, the enemy is gathering and America is planning, and it [America] will not distinguish between factions, soon America will come to promote virtue," he continued.
An established jihadist known as Abu Hassan al Kuwaiti, who previously was pictured with Abu Yusuf (see picture above) expressed anger and disappointment with Abu Yusuf's decision to defect from the Al Nusrah Front.
"How does he [Abu Yusuf] have the heart to betray his brothers besieged by ISIS in the city of Deir [al Zour?] who are being killed by the nusayri [Assad] regime, and he is extending his hand to shake with the killer ...." Abu Hassan wrote in a tweet today.
In another tweet today, Abu Hassan noted that "the blood of the Muslims and mujahideen has yet to be wiped off the land of Albu Kamal, so what heart does he have that he places his hand in the hand of he who kills them!"
Responding to arguments that Abu Yusuf joined ISIS in order to "unite the ranks" of the Muslims, Abu Hassan retorted, "Tomorrow he will join the rafida [Shi'ites] as well and Hezb al Shaytan [Hezbollah] and say that we were commanded to unite the ranks! What school of jurisprudence is this that allows one to leave Sunni groups and move over to the banner of the shockingly heretical ISIS?!"
Abu Yusuf's defection was also noted by SOHR director Rami Abdurrahman, who commented that ISIS' position along the Iraqi-Syrian border is now strengthened. "We cannot say (ISIS) controls Albu Kamal but we can say they are now in Albu Kamal," he said.
Existing tensions between jihadist factions in Deir al Zour and possible repercussions
It is unclear how many Al Nusrah fighters have joined ISIS in Albu Kamal. Jihadists on Twitter indicated that Abu Yusuf commanded 65 fighters. ISIS has scores of fighters outside of Albu Kamal and controls several villages in the area, according to reports.
Over the past few days, SOHR reports from Deir al Zour have indicated the emergence of tensions between rebel fighters, including some associated with Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front, who are joining ISIS and those who are still resisting the group, after months of infighting between jihadist groups in the province. Yesterday, SOHR reported that ISIS and "local militiamen" clashed violently with Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front near Mo Hasan, and that Al Nusrah "executed a defected first lieutenant who is the commander of An Islamic brigade because he swore allegiance to ISIS."
The day before, ISIS designated the towns of Khesham and Tabia as military areas, and distributed a statement in eastern Deir al Zour refuting rumors that ISIS considers other rebel fighters in the province to be infidels. Interestingly, the Islamic Front in Albu Kamal in Deir al Zour demanded that Al Nusrah clarify its position regarding ISIS after reports that ISIS and Al Nusrah cooperated in the city.
And on June 21, ISIS executed three Free Syrian Army officers in Deir al Zour (the vice-leader of the provincial military council and two commanders in the Al Haq group). The day prior, ISIS took over Mo Hasan and other strategic towns in eastern Deir al Zour, including the headquarters of the rebel battalions' military council.
As SOHR's Abdurrahman told Reuters on June 20, the only remaining strategic town for ISIS to take over in Deir al Zour is Albu Kamal. Clearly, the fighters from Al Nusrah and other rebel factions in the area have been under heavy ISIS pressure to either join the ISIS ranks, per the conciliatory ISIS statement mentioned above, or be overrun. SOHR reported today that ISIS and Al Nusrah are fighting in various locations in Deir al Zour, and that "[i]t is expected that ISIS will storm the city of Albu from Al Qaim area destination."
ISIS continues to advance in Iraq
Abu Yusuf's defection to ISIS may help the group to consolidate its control of both sides of the border, thus adding an additional source of revenue as well as command over what passes between the two countries.
ISIS has taken control of the town of Al Qaim, just across the border from Albu Kamal, as well as the border crossing after Iraqi forces abandoned the town earlier this week in what they called a "tactical retreat."
ISIS continues to slowly advance in other areas in Iraq, reportedly taking over the town of Al Alam north of Tikrit as well as the oil facilities nearby at Ajeel. Also, ISIS is said to have surrounded the Balad Air Base and launched attacks on it from three sides.
Lisa Lundquist contributed to this report.