January 29, 2015

Jordan to exchange suicide bomber for its pilot - professional opinion and personal comment

Sajidah al-Rishawi and 1st Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah

Jordan has agreed to release a convicted suicide bomber to the group calling itself the Islamic State or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in exchange for the release of a Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) pilot who was captured by ISIS in Syria after his jet went down during a bombing mission near the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of al-Raqqah. That exchange was supposed to take place on the Turkish-Syrian border before sunset on January 29.

That deadline passed as the Jordanians asked for proof that 1st Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah is still alive. See my earlier article on the December 24, 2014 on the downing of the Jordanian F-16, Downing of a Jordanian fighter aircraft and ISIS capture of the pilot.

Jordan's agreement is a stark reversal of Jordan’s normally hardline refusal to negotiate with terrorists, and could set a precedent for future concessions to terrorist organizations. I understand the position of Jordanian King 'Abdullah II - the Kasabah family is large and influential in the kingdom. The Kasasbahs have been long-time supporters of the Hashemite dynasty that has ruled the country since its founding in the aftermath of World War One.

Before we cast stones at Jordan's seeming acquiescence to ISIS, we should remember that just last year, the United States made a deal with the Taliban in which it released five senior Taliban officials from the detention center in Guantanamo in exchange for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who many believe deserted his post in Afghanistan. See my article on this from June, The Bowe Bergdahl exchange - a mixed blessing.

As I said, I understand King 'Abdullah's position - I can only imagine the pressure he is under from not only the Kasasbah family, but from popular demonstrations in the kingdom against Jordanian involvement in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.

While many in the kingdom - those demonstrating for sure - believe that this is not Jordan's fight, most rational thinkers understand that Jordan is probably next on the agenda for ISIS. ISIS fighters have already skirmished with Jordanian army units on the border with Iraq.

A major question is what will Jordan's role be in the coalition after this issue is resolved, one way or the other? If Jordan withdraws from active participation in the coalition - its stance since the loss of the F-16 and capture of Lt. al-Kasasbah - will they still allow coalition access to Jordanian air bases, a key to effective air operations against ISIS in Syria?

In my professional opinion, Jordan is making a mistake in changing its position in dealing with ISIS. That said, I understand why they are willing to do so, although they may regret it later. I was also against the U.S. (read President Obama) decision to release five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for a likely deserter.

Now to my personal comments. I realize that I am supposed to be a Middle East analyst, and a military analyst - I am paid for my professional opinions. However, I am going to diverge here for a few minutes and talk about my personal opinion - please bear with me.

In the mid-1990s, I was an adviser to the Jordan Armed Forces. While many of the details of that assignment remain classified, suffice it to say that I gained a healthy respect for my colleagues in the storied "Arab Legion" (the Jordanian Army) and the RJAF. They are professionals with whom I am proud to have served.

The suicide bomber the Jordanians have agreed to release is Sajidah al-Rishawi. She is originally an Iraqi and was recruited to become a suicide bomber by a Jordanian national who was the head of al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi. As we all know, AQI is the forerunner of ISIS. The couple was assigned to detonate explosive vests at the Raddison Hotel in Amman, Jordan. While attempting to do just that on November 9, 2005, her vest failed. Her accomplice/husband pushed her aside and detonated his vest - Sajidah survived.

The attack on the Radisson - where I have spent many nights - was part of a coordinated attack on three Amman hotels frequented by foreigners and wealthy Jordanians. The other attacks took place at the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn.

It is the attack at the Grand Hyatt - where I have also stayed - that is germane. A suicide bomber named Rawad Jasim Muhammad 'Abid, operating in collaboration with Sajidah al-Rishawi and her husband, detonated his explosive vest, killed seven hotel employees and Syrian-American movie producer Moustapha Akkad (Mustafa al-'Aqad), along with his 34 year-old daughter, Rima.

Moustapha Akkad was born in Aleppo, Syria and emigrated to the United States with his family. He ended up as a Hollywood filmmaker, producing "The Message" and "Lion of the Desert," both starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Pappas. His younger brother Usamah - known to those of us who know him as Sam - ended up as an instructor of the Arabic language at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), located at the Presidio of Monterey, California. I was among Sam's many Arabic language students there and later got to know Sam much better when I served on the faculty of the Arabic department at DLI in the late 1970s.

In 2005, I called Sam and offered my condolences, but what really can you say? We have had numerous conversations since then on the current state of affairs in the region. Until today Sajidah al-Rishawi, one member of the conspiracy that ended with Sam's brother's death, was in custody and sentenced by a Jordanian military court to death by hanging and remained on death row.

I get the Jordanian government's decision to exchange her for their pilot. I almost understand (but still disagree with) the Obama Administration's agreement to release five senior Taliban officials for a likely deserter.

I get it, but I don't like it - it's personal.

January 27, 2015

Syrian regime recruits Sunni tribes - a page from the American playbook

Dayr al-Zawr

Dayr al-Zawr is a key city on the Euphrates River between the city of al-Raqqah - self-claimed capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or "The Islamic State" as they prefer*) and the internationally-recognized border with Iraq. The city has been contested between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Syrian rebel forces, most notably the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Control of parts of the city have vacillated between the two sides since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Much of the city's interesting and architecturally significant infrastructure has been destroyed, including several iconic bridges over the Euphrates River. Overall, the fighting has been a stalemate with neither side achieving full control of the area which sits at the heart of the critical Syrian oil industry - most of Syria's oil is located in the fields surrounding the city.

Dayr al-Zawr air base

Key facilities in Dayr al-Zawr are the air base (which doubles as the city's now-closed civil airport) and an adjacent air defense center. These two military facilities have been targets of the Syrian rebels for years. The base was on the verge of collapse late last year as ISIS joined the fight to take the base. See my article, The likely fall of Syria's Dayr al-Zawr air base - another slaughter on the horizon?

I suspect that given ISIS's brutal treatment of captured Syrian and Iraqi troops, the Syrian armed forces have put up a valiant defense of the base, pouring in reinforcements by air from garrisons further to the west. Control of the base is critical to the resupply and reinforcement effort. Should the situation worsen, an air evacuation may be the only way out for the Syrian soldiers defending the base.

In addition, the Syrian military seems to have taken a page from the American playbook of 2006-2007 in neighboring Iraq - the "Anbar Awakening." They approached the shaykhs of the local Sunni tribes in or near the areas controlled by ISIS and asked them if the Islamic state being created by ISIS is the form of government under which they wish to live. Of course, in these tribal areas in eastern Syria, the tribes are powerful and the shaykhs are not wont to lose that power to ISIS and live under what is arguably the most repressive form of Islam on the planet.

As it did in Iraq, the appeal resonates with the tribal leaders. As a result, some of the tribes have allied with the Syrian army and the locally formed National Defense Forces (NDF), which is a militia mostly composed of Ba'ath Party members. These militia are often referred to as shabihah** - "ghosts" or "phantoms" - by the rebels.

According to Syrian media, the combined forces of the Syrian armed forces, the NDF militias and the tribal units have been able to stop the ISIS advance on the base. Further reporting on January 27 claims that they have secured the entire perimeter of the base and pushed ISIS forces back at least one kilometer.

Failure to seize the air base has been a major setback for all of the opposition groups, be they the Free Syrian Army or ISIS. While on the map, it appears to be a flat area that should be easily overrun, in reality, the air base and adjacent air defense facility sit atop a plateau overlooking the city and the Euphrates River. The ridge is fairly steep - I remember standing in the city and being surprised at just how high and steep the approaches to the military bases were.

The stalemate continues in the east with neither side able to make lasting headway. Either ISIS or the FSA attack the military facilities, enjoy some temporary success, then are pushed back by reinforced Syrian troops. The bloodletting goes on unabated.
* In Arabic, it is الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-dawlat al-islamiyah fil-'iraq wal-sham. That translates to "the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Syria or the Levant)." Much of the Arabic-language media uses an acronym comprising the first letters of the Arabic words - داعش, or da'ish, to describe the group, as have some official government spokespersons. The group punishes people for using the perceived derogatory term.

** In the trivia department, it is derived from the same root word used to describe American stealth aircraft.

January 24, 2015

Naming of new Saudi deputy crown prince - future crisis averted?

محمد بن نايف بن عبد العزيز آل سعود‎
Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud
Deputy Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

In what can be described as uncharted seas for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the new king, King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud has named a deputy crown prince from the second generation - a grandson of the founder of the kingdom, King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. (This should be read in conjunction with an article I wrote earlier this month: Saudi King 'Abdullah's illness highlights looming succession issue.)

Saudi royal watchers are all waiting to see if and how the new line of succession will proceed - peacefully or will there be a power struggle among the other grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz? No one knows, of course, but there are enough issues to wonder if there will be acceptance of King Salman's appointment of a son of his full brother Nayif to be second in line for the throne.

Both Salman and Nayif are two of the seven sons of King 'Abd al-'Aziz and his eighth wife Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudayri. These seven brothers - known as "the Sudayri Seven"* - have been key power brokers in the kingdom for decades. The new deputy crown prince's father was himself the crown prince for a short period of time until his death in 2012, at which time Salman assumed that position.

In addition to formally appointing his half-brother Muqrin as crown prince and naming his nephew Muhammad bin Nayif as the new deputy crown prince, King Salman appears to be reasserting the power of the Sudayri Seven - he immediately named his son Muhammad bin Salman Al Sa'ud as the minister of defense and aviation, as well as head of the royal court.

Although the new crown prince is the ex officio head of the powerful Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), King Salman has ensured that a direct descendant of a full Sudayri brother controls the Saudi armed forces and the powerful Ministry of the Interior (MOI). The MOI is responsible for internal security in the kingdom - Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif will retain that portfolio.

The new deputy crown prince has the qualifications to lead the kingdom when his time comes. Besides being part of the Sudayri clan, he was educated in American universities and trained by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's Scotland Yard. As Minister of the Interior, he has a reputation for close cooperation with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

His qualifications are not the issue - it will be the acceptance of his selection by the rest of the Al Sa'ud, the House of Sa'ud. The current crown prince, Muqrin bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, will likely have no resistance from the family since he is a rightful heir in the first generation after 'Abd al-'Aziz.

The Allegiance Council set up by King 'Abdullah in 2006 to address the succession issue once there are no more sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz, has no doubt come up with an as yet undisclosed plan to ensure the survival of the House of Sa'ud. That said, there are hundreds of princes in that second generation who probably feel that they have as much right as anyone else to the throne.

The question is - will any of those princes attempt to rectify a perceived slight by interfering with the peaceful transition of power to the second generation?
* See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudairi_Seven

January 11, 2015

The confluence of Charlie Hebdo, al-Qa'idah and ISIS

Said Kouachi - Cherif Kouachi - Amedy Coulibaly - Hayat Boumeddiene

We are all familiar with the actions that began in France on January 7 in which three Islamist terrorists murdered 17 people, including two police officers, and four citizens who had been taken hostage. The three terrorists, all French-born nationals, were killed in two separate, simultaneous police operations on January 9 following a massive manhunt.

The identities and backgrounds of the three perpetrators have been widely publicized. Two were brothers - Said and Cherif Kouachi, ages 32 and 34, who were trained by the al-Qa'idah affiliated group in Yemen known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both received training on small arms and possibly explosives in 2011 under the tutelage of American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi (before he was killed in an American drone strike).

The third terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, 32 years old, was radicalized in France and belonged to a cell with the two Kouachi brothers and possibly other radical Islamists known as the "Buttes Chaumont Terror Group" - named for the park at which members of the cell met and conducted physical training.

The details of the actual attacks have been adequately covered by the media. What I want to address are some interesting facts that have emerged during and after the attacks on the Charlie Hedbo offices, the streets of Paris and the kosher supermarket.

According to the available reporting on the training received by the Kouachi brothers, the pair traveled to Oman and were smuggled into the Marib area of Yemen, a known AQAP area. They were there for two weeks - they received enough training to properly handle the types of weapons they later used in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

The two brothers entered the offices with AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and an RPG* launcher. These weapons, especially the RPG launcher, are not easily obtainable in France. It will be interesting to know where the weapons originated and how the brothers obtained them. Are there other members of the Buttes Chaumont Terror Group cell that may have assisted with the logistics for the attacks?

The fact that the shooters wore body armor and face masks tells me they planned to survive the initial attack, probably to prolong the event as long as possible for the maximum impact. If they were planning to die in that attack, they could have used a suicide vest and killed everyone.

Crashing their car while departing the attack scene may have complicated whatever initial escape plan the brothers had, but after they hijacked another car, they should have had a place to go with money, food, weapons, clothing, another vehicle, etc., rather than resorting to robbing a gas station for food and fuel.

Although the brothers handled the weapons well and were disciplined and ruthless shooters, their post-attack planning was not that professional. The fact that Said Kouachi's identification card was dropped and found later by police in their vehicle indicates the lack of proper planning - they should not have been carrying any identification.

AQAP later claimed to have ordered the attacks, which may or may not be true. In an interview they granted to a reporter during the hostage portion of the event, the Kouachi brothers declared that they were operating on behalf of the al-Qa'idah affiliate.

Contrast the affiliation of the Kouachi brothers with that of fellow Buttes Chaumont Terror Group cell members Amedy Coulibaly and his Islamic-law wife (France does not recognize the religious marriage). These two claim to have an affiliation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In a video and again during an interview during the hostage stage of the event, Coulibaly declared his allegiance to the Islamic Caliphate (as ISIS sometimes refers to itself) and Caliph Ibrahim (also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), the head of ISIS. The fact that Coulibaly arranged for his wife to enter Turkey and make her way to Syria underscores their commitment to ISIS.

This apparent dichotomy in the allegiance of members of the same cell - some loyal to AQAP and others loyal to ISIS - is telling. While we have seen periods of cooperation and alliance between the two Islamist groups - al-Qa'idah in Iraq was the founder of ISIS, after all - neither of the two have resolved their differences in how an Islamic caliphate should be or will be structured and managed.

It appears to me that these four Islamists were able to put aside the ideological issues between the two groups which they represented in order to be able to conduct these attacks - a tactical alliance to achieve a common objective. We should also be careful not to read too much into this mutual assistance arrangement. First, it is not an indication that the two groups are entering an alliance - events in Syria between the two groups bear that out.

Second, we should not assess that since they were not members of larger al-Qa'idah or ISIS groups that there are not many more Islamists terrorists already in place in France and other European countries. The nature of cells may have precluded them from knowing of others of similar bent. We have already seen threats from ISIS that these attacks are but the first wave - it would be unwise not to assume that there are more sleeper cells in the country.

If this is the first wave of attacks, they may not be limited to France or even Europe. Although there are much fewer American Islamists who have returned from the battlefields of the Middle East, it only takes one or two who are willing to die.


Note: The French transliterate Arabic names mush differently than the English-speaking countries. In the transliteration system used by the U.S. and UK governments, the names of the two brothers and the wanted woman would be rendered as Sa'id al-Kawashi, Sharif al-Kawashi and Hayat Bumaydin. Amedy Coulibali is a Senegalese name.

* Later determined to be an anti-tank missile launcher similar to the M72 LAW.

January 10, 2015

ISIS official photo report on public amputations


ISIS press release

I realize this is graphic - even I get queasy looking at these images, but I think it is important to see just what we are dealing with when it comes to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, although they refer to themselves as "The Islamic State.")

This is part of a press release from the so-called Islamic State's information office for the province of al-Barakah - what the rest of the world calls al-Hasakah province in northeast Syria. It details the barbaric amputations of two individuals for aggravated robbery. Each man had his right hand and left foot chopped off in public. In this part of the world, cutting off the right hand creates lasting difficulties as the left hand is regarded as unclean.

My translation of the press release:

Photo Report - Aggravated Robbery - Ending the banditry of two criminals

By order of the Shar'iyah Court, justice was carried out by cutting off the hands and feet of two evildoers in the presence of a group of Muslims.

The two convicts were found guilty of the crime of blocking a road and robbing Muslims by impersonating soldiers of the Islamic State.

The two convicts expressed acceptance of the judgement of Allah on them, and as such were provided medical care following the execution of the sentences, including surgery and measures to prevent complications from the injuries.

I really don't think any comments are needed - the text and photographs speak for themselves.

That said, I disagree with the Obama Administration's belief that these subhumans can be "managed" or "contained." We need to hunt them down and kill them - nothing else will stop this madness.

Note: Thanks to Jenan Moussa for bringing this to my attention.

January 5, 2015

ISIS press release: "The Day of Punishment"

Title image of ISIS press release - "The Day of Punishment"

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - it calls itself "The Islamic State" - has established provinces loosely based on the provinces of the areas in Syria and Iraq over which it now exercises control.

As ISIS seizes new territory, it establishes the trappings of governance - Islamic courts, taxes, charities, vehicle registration, school curriculum, social services - and just recently banks and issuance of currency. It also establishes an active information office to document and publicize its activities.

This is not surprising since much of the leadership of ISIS is composed of former members of the Ba'ath Party. Between ISIS's former Iraqi military officers and these party functionaries, it understands both military operations and governance.

This particular press release originates in the information office of the Salah al-Din province in Iraq (see map). The province is located north of Baghdad in the Tigris Valley - the area in which ISIS has made remarkable progress not only in seizing, but holding despite the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and repeated failed assaults by the Iraqi armed forces.

The press release is entitled "The Day of Punishment." It is a chronicle of the execution of eight Iraqis found guilty of betraying the Islamic State (the verb of committing apostasy appears numerous times in the Arabic text). The original Arabic-language press release can be accessed here (as of this writing - it may be taken down as social media object to its publication.)

I would caution that these press releases must be read with a bit of skepticism - ISIS has mounted an effective propaganda campaign to shape its message to the world, primarily the Muslim world, be it in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, Europe or even North America.

These images are the most pertinent from the original press release. The prisoners are all accused of repenting to ISIS and then becoming apostates working for (collaborating with) the "Safavi government" - a derogatory slang term for the perceived pro-Iranian Iraqi government.

Although the press release does not specifically state, it appears this was an Iraqi government military/intelligence operation that was discovered - this is the price intelligence assets pay when captured.

A police colonel accused of "repenting" to ISIS but working for the "Safavi" government.

A secret intelligence informant who provided locations for coalition bombing.

A police captain who later returned to collaborate with the "Safavi" government.

Preparing for the "execution."

The actual murder, or as they call it, the execution.

While we view these murders with disgust, these press releases are a powerful recruiting tool. ISIS has attained the reputation of practicing the most pure form of Islam - reminiscent of the 7th Century. Radicalized youth, disenfranchised youth, young men from all over the world who feel they have no future in their societies are drawn to this extreme form of Islam.

ISIS publishes these press releases for several reasons. Among them is an appeal to disaffected youth - potential recruits - around the world, and the chilling, frightening effect it has on potential adversaries.

ISIS has thought this out.

January 3, 2015

Saudi King 'Abdullah's illness highlights looming succession issue*

King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud* has been hospitalized to treat a lung infection and reportedly is using tracheal intubation to assist in his breathing. The monarch is 90 years of age and in declining health. The issue of succession always arises when a Saudi king takes ill.

The term "king" has not been accurate since the title was officially changed in 1986 to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (خادم الحرمين الشريفين - khadam al-haramayn al-sharifayn), a declaration that the Saudi head of state is also entrusted with the protection of the two holiest sites in Islam - the mosques in Mecca and Medina. For the sake of convention, I will use the commonly accepted western term of king.

In March of 2014, King 'Abdullah appointed his half-brother Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud** as the kingdom's deputy crown prince, a new position. Muqrin will be second in line for the Saudi throne after 'Abdullah's death. 'Abdullah will be succeeded by another half-brother, Crown Prince Salman.

Crown Prince Salman is now 79. I think it safe to assume that it will not be long before King 'Abdullah passes and Prince Salman ascends to the throne. At that point, Prince Muqrin will become the crown prince. Muqrin, at age 69, is the third youngest son of the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. More to the point, he is the youngest surviving son.

Muqrin is a former captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force - an F-15 pilot - and was recently the chief of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (the "mukhabarat"). During his tenure at GID, Saudi Arabia defeated an al-Qa'idah insurgency and drove the militants out of the Kingdom (most went to Yemen). The prince is hawkish on Iran and has encouraged the United States to take a harder line with Iran and the Shi'a state's ambition to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

When the kingdom was founded in 1932, King 'Abd al-'Aziz established the succession to be among his sons, from brother to brother, not from father to son. Normally the oldest surviving son was the first choice, but not always. When kings have died, the surviving sons of King 'Abd al-'Aziz have gathered and selected the new king by consensus.

This system has been in place since the death of King 'Abd al-'Aziz in 1953. With 37 sons that reached adulthood (there were 45 total), there did not seem to be any urgency to provide for further succession. However, since the youngest of the surviving sons, Prince Muqran, is now 69 years old, the family will need to come to terms with selecting a monarch from the next generation - that may cause divisions in the family. There are already rivalries among the various groups based on their different mothers - 'Abd al-'Aziz had 22 wives.

Given the close relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the past 70 years - although somewhat strained during the Obama years - it is in America's national interest that there continue to be smooth transitions of power in Riyadh.

The Saudi leadership and the Obama administration have differing thoughts on the issues of Iran, Syria and Egypt, although they have joined the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). To that end, Saudi fighter aircraft have participated in airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. The Saudis are understandably concerned about ISIS - the group has vowed to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, and Saudi Arabia is a major recruiting ground for the Islamist group.

To address the succession issue, in 2006 King 'Abdullah created the Allegiance Council, comprised of 35 princes charged with determining, in consultation with the king, the line of succession. With the selection of Muqrin as the deputy crown prince, they have exhausted the supply of brothers, the first generation sons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. When Muqrin dies, the real issue will surface - who in the second generation becomes the king?

No matter who is chosen from the hundreds of men that make up the second generation - the grandsons of founder King 'Abd al-'Aziz - there will be a power struggle in Riyadh. Hopefully, it can be resolved without lasting damage to the monarchy and threatening the stability of the Kingdom.

* This article is an update of a piece I wrote in March 2014: Saudi Arabia succession issue - it's coming....)

** Note the difference in the transliterations of the Arabic al- and Al. In the name 'Abd al-'Aziz, al- is the Arabic definite article "the." The word Al in Al Sa'ud is Arabic for "house of" or "family."