Monthly Archives: August 2016

Dehumanization and Murder in Assad’s Prisons

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 19, 2016

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The picture above “went viral” on Thursday. The boy, five-year-old Omran Daqnees, was pulled from a building in rebel-held eastern Aleppo City after an airstrike either by the regime of Bashar al-Assad or Russia.

Like Alan Kurdi last September, Omran’s is hardly a unique case—twelve children were treated at just that one medical centre in Aleppo on Wednesday. But it seemed to capture something of the indiscriminate brutality that has been visited on the Syrian population, which rose against Assad five-and-a-half long years ago.

On the same day this shocking image came to global attention, Amnesty International released a report documenting in greater detail the monstrous scale of the cruelty and murder inflicted on Syrians who fall into the regime’s grasp. Continue reading

The Dangers of Emptying Guantanamo

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 17, 2016

It was announced on 15 August that fifteen more inmates from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility have transferred, twelve Yemenis and three Afghans, to the United Arab Emirates, the largest individual release of the Obama administration. The U.A.E. also took in five “lower-level” Yemeni detainees in November. The Emirates had previously taken in just one—Abdullah al-Hamiri, in 2008—but President Obama leveraged this deal with the Gulf states at the May 2015 meeting when the Khaleejis were deeply concerned about the then-impending Iran nuclear deal, and in exchange for security reassurances, Obama extracted further concessions.

One reason why so many jihadists have been released to the U.A.E., other than having a similar language and culture, is because the U.A.E. has a competent security apparatus to monitor these people. Those released last November were kept in “a custodial rehabilitation program“—a version of house-arrest, basically. The conditions this time around are less clear.

What is clear is just how dangerous the operatives who are being let out of the Guantanamo detention facility are. Every single one of them has been assessed as posing a “high” risk to America, her interests, and her allies. Continue reading

An Islamic State Suicide Bombing in Canada

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 16, 2016

aaron-driver-5

On 10 August 2016, Aaron Driver, 24, detonated a bomb in the back of a taxi in Strathroy, Ontario, Canada, as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) closed in, wounding himself and the driver before the police opened fire and killed him. A convert and long-time supporter of the Islamic State—Driver was arrested for such support in June 2015—Driver had followed the pattern of many recent operatives of the Islamic State by making a martyrdom video declaring his allegiance to the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which was sent to the IS “news agency” Amaq in preparation for his impending terrorism. This was among the communications intercepted by the FBI. Continue reading

The Intellectual Roots of the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 15, 2016

Published at The Wall Street Journal

Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb

Why did Prohibition in America fail? The Pakistani Islamic scholar Abul Ala Mawdudi argued that it was because the law “required people to accept human rather divine reasoning.” What was needed was a harsh and absolute divine mandate to root out evils like alcohol. As the Ottoman empire was being swept away and national-independence movements were about to overrun the Muslim world, men like Mawdudi began articulating a new ideology that would meld medieval and modern concepts. That ideology, Salafi-jihadism, now represents one of the West’s greatest security challenges. Continue reading

The Structure of Al-Qaeda

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 14, 2016

Screenshot of Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) during a video interview, 12 April 2014

Screenshot of Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) during a video interview, 12 April 2014

Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir) is an Australian citizen who was born on 14 February 1984 in Port Said, Egypt. Mahamed currently occupies a “senior leadership position” within al-Qaeda in Syria—formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)—according to the sanctions levied against him in May by the U.S. Treasury. In an indication of Mahamed’s seniority, he moved from Australia to Syria in late 2012 and within a few months led the mediation efforts between al-Nusra and the then-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now the Islamic State (IS), that began with a breach in April 2013 and ended with al-Qaeda expelling ISIS from its command structure in February 2014. Mahamed is also one of the public faces of al-Qaeda in Syria, now calling himself the “Director of Foreign Media Relations of JFS”. In this capacity, Mahamed has inter alia recently communicated with CNN to further the narrative that al-Nusra/JFS has “split” with al-Qaeda—something, let it be noted, neither the leader of al-Nusra/JFS nor Mahamed have actually said.

With regard to both the ongoing narrative war between IS and al-Qaeda over what their actual relationship was in the lead-up to the schism and al-Qaeda’s structure—the two things very much interlinked—Mahamed gave a very useful interview on 12 April 2014, about ten weeks before ISIS became IS when it declared its caliphate. Mahamed also touches on other interesting matters, such as those jihadi ideologues al-Nusra/JFS regards as guides, and—small point—al-Qaeda’s continuing claim that IS’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have sided with them. (This is matched on the other side by IS continuing to feature Usama bin Ladin in their propaganda as one of their forebears, while regarding Ayman al-Zawahiri as deviant.)

In watching the video back, I ended up taking notes, which turned into a partial (though fairly substantial) transcript that will perhaps be of use to others as well, so it’s posted below. Continue reading

The West’s Kurdish Allies in Syria Can’t Escape Their Authoritarian Legacy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 13, 2016

PYD/YPG fighters

PYD/YPG fighters

The Islamic State (IS) was driven from the city of Manbij yesterday, a key supply route to the Turkish border in northern Syria, the conclusion of an operation launched on 31 May by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a front-group for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), represented in Syria by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF was backed by U.S. airstrikes. It is difficult not to see the defeat of IS as a positive development. It is, however, worth more closely examining the forces that are being enabled by Western power to fasten their rule across northern Syria, whose vision is deeply problematic—even in narrow terms of the fight against IS. Continue reading

Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Qaeda

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 12, 2016

The Islamic State’s (IS) weekly newsletter, al-Naba, interviewed a high-ranking al-Qaeda defector, Abu Ubayda al-Lubnani, across two issues in February and March. Abu Ubayda appeared on a list of prominent clerics supporting IS’s caliphate declaration in February 2014, and two months later his defection from al-Qaeda to IS was announced by al-Battar. Abu Ubayda is described by al-Naba—as best as can be told accurately—as having been a member of al-Qaeda’s: Shura [Consultation] Council, a training officer in its Military Committee, and a counter-intelligence officer. Abu Ubayda is advertised as speaking about many secret aspects of al-Qaeda.

Among the topics Abu Ubayda covers is the alleged infiltration and manipulation of al-Qaeda by foreign intelligence services, specifically Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is not only a violation of jihadist doctrine by collaborating with an “infidel” and illegitimate state but led to the deaths of a number of senior al-Qaeda leaders.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of what Abu Ubayda has to say relates to al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the Syrian revolution. This persistent campaign has followed a pattern of disguising al-Qaeda’s presence and attempting to influence and eventually co-opt the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One lever al-Qaeda relied upon, according to Abu Ubayda, was Ahrar al-Sham, an organization that disclaims all connections to al-Qaeda and dissimulates about its ideology. Whatever Ahrar’s dominant ideology, it is simply a fact that it has served as the bridge between the foreign-led jihadists and Syrian Islamists, and its connections to al-Qaeda are evident enough. Abu Ubayda suggests Ahrar’s connections to al-Qaeda are even deeper than they appear. Continue reading