Posts Tagged ‘Terrorism’


Al Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, January 2000

Source: Flashpoint Partners/Evan Kohlmann

Multiple news organizations are reporting that Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces officer with years of operational experience in al Qaeda, has been named acting leader of the organization in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death. The choice of al-Adel, and the unclear status of Ayman al-Zawahiri, offer some insights into the current state of the organization and the challenges it faces in a post-bin Laden world.

The key takeaways for me are first, that the Egyptians still have a considerable degree of influence within the organization during a period of disarray. It is worth keeping in mind that bin Laden’s longtime deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri is also Egyptian, and a good part of al Qaeda’s early membership came from al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. The two organizations formally merged in June of 2001.

Second, while this may be a short-term solution for them, the fact is no one will be able to fill bin Laden’s very large shoes as a leader and public figure. There are questions within the organization about the political viability of al-Zawahiri, his presumed successor. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics, told the Washington Post, “There is no one else who has his weight or intellect. He is a giant among the remaining figures in al-Qaeda. But there is no doubt Ayman al-Zawahiri has been a divisive figure.”

Third, while bin Laden can still inspire them posthumously and serve as a propaganda figure, the key question now will be whether al-Adel, al-Zawahiri or someone else can hold all of these different organizations together under the al Qaeda umbrella or if some will split off and focus their energies on their regional political and sectarian issues. Secession by some of the local franchises or affiliates from the main al Qaeda organization should be considered as a real possibility in the weeks and months ahead, especially if internal political disagreements can’t be sorted out.

Fourth, as Peter Bergen points out, al-Adel and al-Zawahiri are going to have to deal with the fallout of the massive intelligence breach to the organization. They have to assume that the organization’s most sensitive secrets have been compromised or eventually will be as U.S. intelligence officials go through the treasure trove of information recovered during the bin Laden operation. This may force them into several courses of action, including – but not limited to – jumping the gun on operations before they are fully ready to be carried out, or aborting planned operations because the operational security and secrecy of the plan might be compromised.

The death of bin Laden doesn’t automatically mean the death of the organization he created or the ideology he inspired. Georgetown’s Security Studies Program director Bruce Hoffman points out historical examples where the decapitation of terrorist organizations have not meant the end of the campaigns. [Full disclosure: I am currently a graduate student in the SSP, although not in any of Hoffman’s classes.] But bin Laden’s successors will clearly have their work cut out for them in keeping the organization as a viable force to attack the United States and its allies.

Al Qaeda’s biggest problem may be in the inherent nature of the organization itself – it has no political means of achieving its objectives, only by means of asymmetric warfare. Simply put, al Qaeda can only exist and function as a terrorist organization. As my former professor Paul Pillar said, it has no equivalent of Sinn Fein to pursue a political agenda and won’t sit down at a negotiating table with domestic or international leaders. It can’t be held accountable for delivering results by a political base of constituents, as Hezbollah or Hamas are. After the revolutions of the Arab Spring which forced regime changes or political reforms, al Qaeda and its ilk may simply be less appealing to people as an option when they see political objectives can be achieved by other means.

The worst thing that could happen to al Qaeda or any group like it is to become irrelevant, and that is precisely what al-Adel and al-Zawahiri have to deal with right now if they want the organization as it existed before bin Laden’s death to survive.

Update: On a related note, check out this article in the Atlantic Wire.

One of the traits which made Osama bin Laden such an effective leader of the organization he founded was his ability to get individual terrorists and terror groups to look past their political, sectarian, and national differences and focus on a common goal. This ability to overlook contradictions apparently extended into his personal life.

Then:

I knew from the beginning that [bin Laden] was not willing to drink any soft drinks from American companies, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sprite, 7-Up. He was trying to boycott all American products because he believed that without Americans, Israel cannot exist.
– Palestinian journalist Jamal Ismail, who met bin Laden in 1984
Source: Peter Bergen, “The Osama bin Laden I Know,” p. 39

Then:

“My Muslim Brothers: The money you pay to buy American goods will be transformed into bullets and used against our brothers in Palestine. By buying these goods we are strengthening their economy while our poverty increases. We expect the women of the land of the two Holy Places and other countries to carry out their role in boycotting American goods. The security and intelligence services of the entire world cannot force a single citizen to buy the goods of his/her enemy. The boycotting of American goods is a very effective weapon for weakening the enemy.”
– Osama bin Laden
“The Declaration of Jihad on the Americans Occupying the Country of the Two Sacred Places”
August 23, 1996
Source: Peter Bergen, “The Osama bin Laden I Know,” p. 165

Now:

May 4 (Bloomberg) — The two polite Pakistanis who helped Osama bin Laden hide in the shadow of their country’s army bought bulk food orders, chose major brands and equally favored Pepsi and Coke, neighbors and a local shopkeeper said.

While the administration and the media have focused much of the public’s attention on the intelligence gold mine recovered by Navy SEALs during the Osama bin Laden operation, it is important to remember a less dramatic, but important angle that both the government and the press can look into: the financial lifeline that allowed the Al Qaeda leader and his family to build and live in that compound for years.

Al Qaeda has demonstrated it has the knowledge and savvy to use the financial and banking system to achieve its ends. The 9/11 plot, which investigators believe cost the organization between $400,000-500,000 to carry out, was financed almost entirely by Al Qaeda using a combination of cash couriers, conventional wire transfers and banking methods in the United States and overseas. Reforms implemented in the aftermath of 9/11 have made it more difficult to use a financial or banking institution to launder or transfer funds for nefarious purposes. By focusing on the compound, investigators may be able to collect more information about Al Qaeda, which could potentially be just as promising as any of the data from the raid.

Anyone who has ever bought a property or built a home knows that the entire process is inherently a team sport, requiring the participation of multiple individuals to see through to the end.  Simply put, Osama bin Laden couldn’t have bought the land, filed the paperwork, hired people to design and build the compound, overseen the construction, set up heating, water and electricity, and pay for bills, taxes and living expenses by himself. At every step of the way, he needed intermediaries to do it on his behalf and pay for the goods received or services rendered. Separating the individual components necessary to build that compound and make it function may uncover possible Al Qaeda operatives, calculate the costs, and possibly get a sense of the organization’s financial state at the time the compound was being built and while bin Laden was living there.

According to property records obtained by the Associated Press, a man named Mohammed Arshad bought adjoining plots of land in 2004-2005 to build the compound for $48,000.   Two of the plots were purchased using an unidentified middleman who may have passed them on to Arshad – one of several possible aliases he used – who may have been bin Laden’s courier that inadvertently tipped off U.S. intelligence officials to the location and existence of the compound.

The courier and his brother who lived in the compound are literally a dead end from an interrogation perspective – both men were killed during the raid. However, the money trail may still yield promising leads.  Unless the plots of land were bought using cash, there would have been some type of transaction involving at least one financial institution, whether it was paid as a wire transfer or a check.  Following the money from the transaction to its original source may yield more leads: the name or alias of an operative or holding company, contact information, or other persons who helped to facilitate the deal.

After the acquisition of the land, it would have been necessary to hire professionals to design and build the compound, meager as it was. Gul Mohammed, identified by The Sun as the builder of the compound, was quoted by the tabloid saying he never saw bin Laden or knew he was living there, and described the oversight of the project saying, “Only one or sometimes two would come to supervise my work – and they never cared about money.” Unless Al Qaeda was somehow able to keep the job in house with someone affiliated with or trusted by the organization, checking with architects, contractors, or construction firms in Abbottabad or nearby cities may generate even further leads on the amount of money paid and who – possibly the courier and his brother based on media accounts by the previous owners of the land and the builder – was responsible for overseeing the entire project.

Although photographs of the compound and the video of Bin Laden watching himself on TV show that it was far from luxurious, housing and feeding as many as three dozen people required some basic utilities for the compound, specifically water, electricity and heating.  A private or government-owned utility company presumably would have been responsible for installing the necessary infrastructure during the construction process, and would have issued bills and collected revenues from one of the residents or an intermediary.

Moreover, the courier or another person may have had to pay some type of taxes on the property, on a one-time or recurring basis. If so, corresponding records might exist for the compound in a federal or local tax agency in Pakistan.

By taking these possible leads, in conjunction with accounts from local merchants who provided goods and services to the residents of the compound, it may be possible to calculate an estimate for how much it cost Al Qaeda to build and maintain the property. This information, if cross-referenced with previously available intelligence about the organization or some of the new material obtained during the raid, could help government officials create a picture of Al Qaeda’s financial structure and health during the past few years. By doing so, it may be possible to better assess its capability to carry out an operation or to function as an organization.

Bin Laden had been living there for at least five years, President Obama told 60 Minutes, and he didn’t do it alone: “We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don’t know who or what that support network was.” Excluding the question of whether or not anyone in the Pakistani government was involved, the existence of the compound alone and all that was necessary to build it and keep it operational for its residents proves bin Laden had a support network in his personal circle for his immediate daily needs.

To use an old cliché, money makes the world go round. Support networks for any criminal or terrorist organization require money to function.  Looking into how much it cost to build this compound and where the money came from could yield more leads on Al Qaeda worth pursuing.  Such information may contribute to achieving President Obama’s objective of “badly disabling” the group, because history has shown that understanding and disrupting the financial lifelines of criminal or terrorist networks can be just as damaging to them as bombs and bullets.

What does a guy cooped up in a house for five years with multiple wives do to pass the time? Apparently, he (or someone else living in the compound) had a porno collection:

(Reuters) – A stash of pornography was found in the hideout of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. commandos who killed him, current and former U.S. officials said on Friday.

The pornography recovered in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive, according to the officials, who discussed the discovery with Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The officials said they were not yet sure precisely where in the compound the pornography was discovered or who had been viewing it. Specifically, the officials said they did not know if bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the materials.

Even though no one knows whose material this was, or if bin Laden himself ever viewed it, U.S. officials have been brutally effective at chipping away at bin Laden’s carefully constructed image of a pious man risking it all for the cause. In the 12 days since the raid, we’ve found out that he was caught flat-footed by U.S. Navy SEALs, was obsessed with his self-image in the media, and now we discover this. It’s a good PR/public diplomacy pushback at bringing down bin Laden’s mystique and showing him for who and what he really was.

Not to mention that this discovery is going to be fodder for every late night comedian in the world. Even the press is having fun with this. As Politico reporter Josh Gerstein put it: “Readying my #FOIA for bin Laden’s porn. Fear JWatch will beat me to it. May require ProPublica or NYT to delve into it”

For those of you who are interested in the financial angle of terrorism, national security, and organized crime as I am, check out this article that ran in Foreign Policy yesterday.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has looked at the photos of Osama bin Laden’s body and has described them on the record.  Based on his account, it seems like pretty gruesome stuff:

In an interview with The Atlantic Wire after he returned from the CIA headquarters, Inhofe described the photos he saw. He said he was shown 15 photos. A dozen of those were taken at the Abbottabad compound and appear to be “taken right after the instant he was shot.” They sound gruesome. They show a massive head wound in the ear and eye. “The brains were coming out of his socket,” Inhofe said. But he said three other photos were taken on board the ship before bin Laden’s sea burial. In these, the body has been cleaned up and Inhofe, who has advocated releasing the photos, said, “It’s much more reasonable to show the public these photos.”


The Washington Post reports intelligence officials have found Bin Laden’s handwritten and electronic journals as part of the intelligence treasure trove recovered during the Abbottabad raid. The article is well worth reading in full, but here’s an excerpt:

Osama bin Laden was preoccupied with attacking the United States over all other targets, a fixation that led to friction with followers, according to U.S. intelligence officials involved in analyzing the trove of materials recovered from the al-Qaeda leader’s compound.

In handwritten journals and long-winded compositions saved on computer hard drives, the officials said, bin Laden always seemed to be searching for a way to replicate the impact of al-Qaeda’s most devastating strike.

He exhorted followers to explore ways to recruit non-Muslims “who are oppressed in the United States,” in the words of one official — particularly African Americans and Latinos — and to assemble a plot in time for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

First of all, from a historical perspective, those journals will probably be a fascinating read. If they are ever released by the U.S. government, I’m sure someone like Peter Bergen would have a field day with that material and crank out another book or two. I’m currently reading “The Osama bin Laden I Know,” which is a fascinating first-hand oral biography of OBL collected from people who have met and dealt with him over the years that was published in 2006. Obviously, a lot has happened since then… It would be interesting to compare this (and Bergen’s previous book, Holy War, Inc.) with what’s in the journals. Hopefully with the passage of time and a few FOIA requests, some of this material can see the light of day for journalists and historians to study.

Second, if the account about OBL’s idea to recruit African Americans and Latinos to attack the United States is correct, it would show his complete misunderstanding of American society and culture, where immigrants, foreigners, and minority groups tend to assimilate and gain acceptance fairly quickly, in comparison to Europe, where they remain segregated due to social, political, and economic circumstances. That’s not to say that Al Qaeda wouldn’t have been able to find an occasional misguided soul here and there, but if he really believed this would work, he had definitely been drinking too much of his own Kool Aid.

H/T to Chuck Todd for the idea for the title of this post

Update: ProPublica has more details about the contents of the Bin Laden documents. Although it’s unclear as to what stuff is from journals and what isn’t, the whole thing is worth a read. Big surprise: bin Laden himself personally vetoed an offer from Al Qaeda’s leader in Yemen to let Anwar al-Awlaki take over, because he knew and trusted the Yemeni and didn’t want to change the status quo. If this is accurate, it will probably lead to a reassessment by experts of Awlaki as a viable option to succeed bin Laden and lead al Qaeda.

After being kept in the dark about the Bin Laden operation until after it was over, Pakistani government officials have complained that they should have been involved or informed. The ISI – Pakistan’s intelligence agency – has been especially embarrassed by this entire episode, considering that they should have known Bin Laden was living in hiding on their soil for at least five years.

Then again, if this is the ISI’s idea of operational security and secrecy regarding a high-value target, the administration won’t have too much difficulty justifying its decision to keep Islamabad out of the loop:

Pakistan’s military intelligence organisation has confirmed that the leader of the Taliban group is hiding in the west of Pakistan’s Quetta city, reports say.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official has said the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) will step up a huge operation to detain or kill the Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister during his visit to China said the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan could end up helpful to Afghan peace process.

After the death of Osama Bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad, the country’s military intelligence agency has been planning to detain or kill the Taliban leader.

Some reports suggest the ISI has already launched a hunt-down operation in Quetta city of Pakistan.

Regardless of accuracy, imagine if this story had been about Bin Laden rather than Omar. U.S. government officials would be howling about it for weeks.

A couple of my friends/Georgetown classmates had good articles published recently I thought I should share here.

From Phillip Padilla (sharing a byline with my former professor Daniel Byman), this article published in Slate about how the Bin Laden operation could have gone wrong.

From Adam Elkus, who blogs over at Rethinking Security, this article about military raiding published in The Atlantic.

Both are well worth taking the time to read.

During a background briefing happening now at the Pentagon, a senior intelligence official showed reporters five videos of Osama bin Laden that were recovered by Navy SEALs during the raid on the Bin Laden compound last week.  The videos will be released to the media after the briefing at some point in the next few hours.

According to a quick readout on air from CNN’s Charley Keyes a little while ago, the videos show Bin Laden in a wool cap and blanket on a rocking chair watching TV coverage of himself.  Other videos are practice takes of his videotaped statements.   CNN’s Barbara Starr also pointed out that U.S. officials have removed the audio from the videos before their release, so that they can’t be used for possible propaganda value.

Stay tuned…

Update: The Pentagon fed the five videos, which are now being dissected by every news organization on the planet. Inevitably, #TVShowsBinLadenWatched started trending on Twitter.