September 21, 2016

Ahmad Khan Rahami - the ISIS connection

A page from Rahami's blood-stained journal

In the official Department of Justice complaints filed against New York and New Jersey bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami, you will not find a connection noted between Rahami and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is there, nonetheless. The complaint did point to a connection between Rahami and al-Qa'idah.

First, here is the connection. Here is the text that is readable from a key page in Rahami's blood-stained journal. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of jihadi Arabic terminology will see this immediately. I have expanded it for those who do not.

Raw text:
"...back to sham. But __ this incident show the risk are ___ of getting caught under ___. ___ I looked for guidance and alhumdulilah guidance came from Sheikh Anwar & Brother Adnani of Dawla. Said it clearly attack the kuffar in their backyard."

My expansion:
"...back to Syria. But __ this incident shows the risks are ___ of getting caught under ___. ___ I looked for guidance and thank God, guidance came from Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki and Brother Abu Muhammad al-Adnani of the Islamic State (ISIS). It said it clearly: attack the infidels in their backyard."

Anwar al-Awlaki was a longtime propagandist for al-Qa'idah. A native born American citizen, he was responsible for inspiring and directing scores of terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at the United States. These attacks included Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber") and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. Awlaki was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen in September 2011.

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was the ISIS spokesman and its chief of external operations, responsible for a series of attacks in Europe, including the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 bombings in Brussels. Adnani was killed in a U.S. airstrike near Aleppo on August 30, 2016.

Now, here is why I think the ISIS-Rahami connection is missing.

This Administration, and hence its Department of Justice and Department of State, does not want these attacks to be tied to ISIS. It does not fit President Obama's narrative - remember the "JV team" and the fact that he created the conditions that led to the rise of the organization that rapidly took over 30 percent of Iraq and Syria?

The fact that ISIS can inspire attacks in the United States shows the failure of the President's plan to eradicate ISIS. What the Administration does not want are constant references to ISIS while the Rahami case progresses through the justice system.

Ahmad Khan Rahami will be tried in the federal court system and if convicted, will spend the rest of his days at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility, more commonly referred to as "the Supermax" in Florence, Colorado, in the company of many of his Islamist compatriots. If we can't send them to Guantanamo anymore, the Supermax will do.

That said, for the Administration - and the orders emanate from the White House - to ignore the ISIS connection is at best disingenuous, and at worst obstruction of justice.

September 16, 2016

American-Russian cooperation in Syria - what could go wrong?

Russian President Valdimir Putin with senior military officers

Secretary of State John Kerry insists that the ceasefire in Syria is holding. I am not sure what metrics he is using to measure compliance, but anyone reading media accounts readily available on the internet, be they from the Syrian government or the various opposition groups, would say that violations are constant and range from the north to the south of the country.

The violations include Syrian Air Force helicopters dropping their dreaded barrel bombs in areas in which there is no designated terrorist presence. Designated terrorist groups are generally defined as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the former al-Qa'idah affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front), now calling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (The Conquest of the Levant Front, or JFS). Of course, the Syrian government believes that anyone involved in the opposition is a terrorist and thus a valid target.

Artillery fire has been exchanged by virtually all parties in various parts of the country, including in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and in the besieged areas of Aleppo. As far as I can tell, no aid has yet reached the besieged sections of Aleppo. Secretary Kerry cited the humanitarian assistance provisions of the ceasefire as a key reason to accept an obviously flawed agreement. Mr. Kerry said after the agreement was reached that he will accept merely a "reduction in violence" as a measure of success.

Since the terms of the current "cessation of hostilities" does not include - as far as we can tell - any enforcement mechanism, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad continues to bomb opposition groups. They may be trying to inflict as much damage on these groups while they can. Although Mr. Kerry has not seen fit to completely tell us what is actually in the agreement between himself and his Russian counterpart, we are led to believe that once the U.S. and Russian forces begin cooperating and coordinating the fight against ISIS and JFS, the Syrian Air Force will be precluded from attacks on these non-terrorist opposition groups.

If the ceasefire holds for seven days (that would be until Monday), the Americans and Russians will establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to not only deconflict their air operations, but actually cooperate and coordinate airstrikes on ISIS and JFS. The JIC will be manned by intelligence specialists and operations officers. As with most military operations against non-state actors, this will be an intelligence driven effort.

As I ask above, what could go wrong?

Actually, a lot can go wrong. By necessity, we will have to provide not only operational information to the Russians, but sensitive intelligence information as well. That always comes with risk. Unless I missed something in what we know of the agreement, this is not a long-term intelligence exchange agreement with the Russians - they remain one of our primary adversaries.

Having been involved in operations in which I provided U.S. intelligence information to foreign intelligence services, you can try and protect the sources and methods used to gather and produce the information, but when you are dealing with professional intelligence officers, they will be able to glean a fair assessment of American intelligence capabilities.

Since the agreement - again, as we understand it - will preclude attacks on non-terrorist opposition groups, we will have to provide intelligence information on the locations of these groups, including those groups supported by the United States. If we think that information will not be relayed to the Syrian armed forces headquarters in Damascus, we are being terribly naive.

When, and I believe it is when and not if, this current ceasefire agreement completely collapses, the Syrian Air Force will once again take to the skies, this time armed - albeit indirectly - with excellent U.S. intelligence information on the location of the non-terrorist opposition groups.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the American-Russian coordinated operation against ISIS and JFS is successful - and it may very well be. American aircraft delivering precision guided munitions combined with the Russians' almost complete disregard for civilian casualties has the potential to eradicate the scourge of ISIS and JFS.

Then we turn to the future of Syria. At that point, the Americans and Russians will have removed Bashar al-Asad's greatest threats from the battlefield. In the absence of ISIS and JFS, and possibly other effective Islamist opposition groups, the remaining rebels - primarily the Free Syrian Army - will not have the military power to remove the Syrian regime, nor force it to the negotiating table.

The Syrian regime, likely still supported by Russian airpower and special forces, Iranian troops, Hizballah fighters as well as Iraqi Shi'a and Afghan Shi'a militias, will simply pivot and take on the remaining opposition. They will almost certainly be successful.

In that case, Russia and Iran will have achieved their foreign policy objective, that being the survival of the Ba'ath regime of Bashar al-Asad; we will have failed in ours.

That's what can go wrong.

September 13, 2016

Comments on the Syrian Ceasefire

I appeared on CNN International's Newsroom Live from LA in two segments last night, discussing prospects of success for the Syrian ceasefire negotiated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. I was joined by UC San Diego Professor Barbara F. Walter.

Neither Professor Walter or I believe the ceasefire will last very long.

The first segment can be watched here.

The second segment can he watched here.