Russian airstrikes targeted the Islamic State throughout Syria this past week. The self-declared “caliphate” released dozens of propaganda photos claiming that
Singapore is testing whether mass surveillance and big data can not only protect national security, but actually engineer a more harmonious society.
In October 2002, Peter Ho, the permanent secretary of defense for the tiny island city-state of Singapore, paid a visit to the offices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Defense Department’s R&D outfit best known for developing the M16 rifle, stealth aircraft technology, and the Internet. Ho didn’t want to talk about military hardware. Rather, he had made the daylong plane trip to meet with retired Navy Rear Adm. John Poindexter, one of DARPA’s then-senior program directors and a former national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Ho had heard that Poindexter was running a novel experiment to harness enormous amounts of electronic information and analyze it for patterns of suspicious activity — mainly potential terrorist attacks.
The two men met in Poindexter’s small office in Virginia, and on a whiteboard, Poindexter sketched out for Ho the core concepts of his imagined system, which Poindexter called Total Information Awareness (TIA). It would gather up all manner of electronic records — emails, phone logs, Internet searches, airline reservations, hotel bookings, credit card transactions, medical reports — and then, based on predetermined scenarios of possible terrorist plots, look for the digital “signatures” or footprints that would-be attackers might have left in the data space. The idea was to spot the bad guys in the planning stages and to alert law enforcement and intelligence officials to intervene.
“I was impressed with the sheer audacity of the concept: that by connecting a vast number of databases, that we could find the proverbial needle in the haystack,” Ho later recalled. He wanted to know whether the system, which was not yet deployed in the United States, could be used in Singapore to detect the warning signs of terrorism. It was a matter of some urgency. Just 10 days earlier, terrorists had bombed a nightclub, a bar, and the U.S. consular office on the Indonesian island of Bali, killing 202 people and raising the specter of Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia.
Ho returned home inspired that Singapore could put a TIA-like system to good use. Four months later he got his chance, when an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) swept through the country, killing 33, dramatically slowing the economy, and shaking the tiny island nation to its core. Using Poindexter’s design, the government soon established the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning program (RAHS, pronounced “roz”) inside a Defense Ministry agency responsible for preventing terrorist attacks and “nonconventional” strikes, such as those using chemical or biological weapons — an effort to see how Singapore could avoid or better manage “future shocks.” Singaporean officials gave speeches and interviews about how they were deploying big data in the service of national defense — a pitch that jibed perfectly with the country’s technophilic culture.
Back in the United States, however, the TIA program had become the subject of enormous controversy. Just a few weeks after Poindexter met with Ho, journalists reported that the Defense Department was funding experimental research on mining massive amounts of Americans’ private data. Some members of Congress and privacy and civil liberties advocates called for TIA to be shut down. It was — but in name only.
In late 2003, a group of U.S. lawmakers more sympathetic to Poindexter’s ideas arranged for his experiment to be broken into several discrete programs, all of which were given new, classified code names and placed under the supervision of the National Security Agency (NSA). Unbeknownst to almost all Americans at the time, the NSA was running a highly classified program of its own that actually was collecting Americans’ phone and Internet communications records and mining them for connections to terrorists. Elements of that program were described in classified documents disclosed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, sparking the most significant and contentious debate about security and privacy in America in more than four decades.
Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society.
Because of such uproars, many current and former U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they’d build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren’t standing in the way. After Poindexter left DARPA in 2003, he became a consultant to RAHS, and many American spooks have traveled to Singapore to study the program firsthand. They are drawn not just to Singapore’s embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country’s curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people’s basic needs — housing, education, security — in return for almost reverential deference. It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of “order” is all-encompassing.
Ten years after its founding, the RAHS program has evolved beyond anything Poindexter could have imagined. Across Singapore’s national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis from RAHS for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs and bugs. They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren — and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to “gauge the nation’s mood” about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest.
In other words, Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society.
Singapore was the perfect home for a centrally controlled, complex technological system designed to maintain national order.
In a country run by engineers and technocrats, it’s an article of faith among the governing elite, and seemingly among most of the public, that Singapore’s 3.8 million citizens and permanent residents — a mix of ethnic Chinese, Indians, and Malays who live crammed into 716 square kilometers along with another 1.5 million nonresident immigrants and foreign workers — are perpetually on a knife’s edge between harmony and chaos.
“Singapore is a small island,” residents are quick to tell visitors, reciting the mantra to explain both their young country’s inherent fragility and its obsessive vigilance. Since Singapore gained independence from its union with Malaysia in 1965, the nation has been fixated on the forces aligned against it, from the military superiority of potentially aggressive and much larger neighbors, to its lack of indigenous energy resources, to the country’s longtime dependence on Malaysia for fresh water. “Singapore shouldn’t exist. It’s an invented country,” one top-ranking government official told me on a recent visit, trying to capture the existential peril that seems to inform so many of the country’s decisions.
But in less than 50 years, Singapore has achieved extraordinary success. Despite the government’s quasi-socialistic cradle-to-grave care, the city-state is enthusiastically pro-business, and a 2012 reportranked it as the world’s wealthiest country, based on GDP per capita. Singapore’s port handles 20 percent of the world’s shipping containers and nearly half of the world’s crude oil shipments; its airport is the principal air-cargo hub for all of Southeast Asia; and thousands of corporations have placed their Asian regional headquarters there. This economic rise might be unprecedented in the modern era, yet the more Singapore has grown, the more Singaporeans fear loss. The colloquial word kiasu, which stems from a vernacular Chinese word that means “fear of losing,” is a shorthand by which natives concisely convey the sense of vulnerability that seems coded into their social DNA (as well as their anxiety about missing out — on the best schools, the best jobs, the best new consumer products). Singaporeans’ boundless ambition is matched only by their extreme aversion to risk.
That is one reason the SARS outbreak flung the door wide open for RAHS. From late February to July of 2003, the virus flamed through the country. It turned out that three women who were hospitalized and treated for pneumonia in Singapore had contracted SARS while traveling in Hong Kong. Although two of the women recovered without infecting anyone, the third patient sparked an outbreak when she passed the virus to 22 people, including a nurse who went on to infect dozens of others. The officials identified a network of three more so-called “superspreaders” — together, five people caused more than half the country’s 238 infections. If Singaporean officials had detected any of these cases sooner, they might have halted the spread of the virus.
Health officials formed a task force two weeks after the virus was first spotted and took extraordinary measures to contain it, but they knew little about how it was spreading. They distributed thermometers to more than 1 million households, along with descriptions of SARS’s symptoms. Officials checked for fevers at schools and businesses, and they even used infrared thermal imagers to scan travelers at the airport. The government invoked Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act and ordered in-home quarantines for more than 850 people who showed signs of infection, enforcing the rule with surveillance devices and electronic monitoring equipment. Investigators tracked down all people with whom the victims had been in contact. The government closed all schools at the pre-university level, affecting 600,000 students.
By mid-April, fewer people were visiting the country, and hotel occupancy rates plummeted, along with revenues at shops and restaurants. Taxi drivers reported fewer fares. The unemployment rate ticked up. Officials slashed the country’s economic growth forecast for 2003, from a strong 2.5 percent to a possible 0.5 percent. When the full effects of the outbreak were finally measured, the economy had actually contracted 4.2 percent from the same time the previous year. The SARS outbreak reminded Singaporeans that their national prosperity could be imperiled in just a few months by a microscopic invader that might wipe out a significant portion of the densely packed island’s population.
Months after the virus abated, Ho and his colleagues ran a simulation using Poindexter’s TIA ideas to see whether they could have detected the outbreak. Ho will not reveal what forms of information he and his colleagues used — by U.S. standards, Singapore’s privacy laws are virtually nonexistent, and it’s possible that the government collected private communications, financial data, public transportation records, and medical information without any court approval or private consent — but Ho claims that the experiment was very encouraging. It showed that if Singapore had previously installed a big-data analysis system, it could have spotted the signs of a potential outbreak two months before the virus hit the country’s shores. Prior to the SARS outbreak, for example, there were reports of strange, unexplained lung infections in China. Threads of information like that, if woven together, could in theory warn analysts of pending crises.
The RAHS system was operational a year later, and it immediately began “canvassing a range of sources for weak signals of potential future shocks,” one senior Singaporean security official involved in the launch later recalled.
The system uses a mixture of proprietary and commercial technology and is based on a “cognitive model” designed to mimic the human thought process — a key design feature influenced by Poindexter’s TIA system. RAHS, itself, doesn’t think. It’s a tool that helps human beings sift huge stores of data for clues on just about everything. It is designed to analyze information from practically any source — the input is almost incidental — and to create models that can be used to forecast potential events. Those scenarios can then be shared across the Singaporean government and be picked up by whatever ministry or department might find them useful. Using a repository of information called an ideas database, RAHS and its teams of analysts create “narratives” about how various threats or strategic opportunities might play out. The point is not so much to predict the future as to envision a number of potential futures that can tell the government what to watch and when to dig further.
The officials running RAHS today are tight-lipped about exactly what data they monitor, though they acknowledge that a significant portion of “articles” in their databases come from publicly available information, including news reports, blog posts, Facebook updates, and Twitter messages. (“These articles have been trawled in by robots or uploaded manually” by analysts, says one programdocument.) But RAHS doesn’t need to rely only on open-source material or even the sorts of intelligence that most governments routinely collect: In Singapore, electronic surveillance of residents and visitors is pervasive and widely accepted.
Surveillance starts in the home, where all Internet traffic in Singapore is filtered, a senior Defense Ministry official told me (commercial and business traffic is not screened, the official said). Traffic is monitored primarily for two sources of prohibited content: porn and racist invective. About 100 websites featuring sexual content are officially blocked. The list is a state secret, but it’s generally believed to include Playboy and Hustler magazine’s websites and others with sexually laden words in the title. (One Singaporean told me it’s easy to find porn — just look for the web addresses without any obviously sexual words in them.) All other sites, including foreign media, social networks, and blogs, are open to Singaporeans. But post a comment or an article that the law deems racially offensive or inflammatory, and the police may come to your door.
Singaporeans have been charged under the Sedition Act for making racist statements online, but officials are quick to point out that they don’t consider this censorship. Hateful speech threatens to tear the nation’s multiethnic social fabric and is therefore a national security threat, they say. After the 2012 arrest of two Chinese teenage boys, who police alleged had made racist comments on Facebook and Twitter about ethnic Malays, a senior police official explained to reporters: “The right to free speech does not extend to making remarks that incite racial and religious friction and conflict. The Internet may be a convenient medium to express one’s views, but members of the public should bear in mind that they are no less accountable for their actions online.”
Singaporean officials stress that citizens are free to criticize the government, and they do. In fact, one of the country’s most popular books this year has been a provocative rebuttal to the decades-old official dogma concerning the country’s existential peril. Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, argues that the ruling People’s Action Party, which has held uninterrupted power since 1959, may have invented the notion that Singapore is one step away from ruin in a bid to subdue the masses and cement the government’s hold on power.
Commentary that impugns an individual’s character or motives, however, is off-limits because, like racial invective, it is seen as a threat to the nation’s delicate balance. Journalists, including foreign news organizations, have frequently been charged under the country’s strict libel laws. In 2010, the New York Times Co. settled a lawsuit over a column in the International Herald Tribune about “dynastic politics,” which implied that Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, owed his job to nepotism. Lee’s father is Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, co-founder of the People’s Action Party, and the country’s patriarch — revered in Singapore like George Washington might be in the United States if he were still alive. The company paid $114,000, and the Herald Tribune published an apology.
Not only does the government keep a close eye on what its citizens write and say publicly, but it also has the legal authority to monitor all manner of electronic communications, including phone calls, under several domestic security laws aimed at preventing terrorism, prosecuting drug dealing, and blocking the printing of “undesirable” material. According to the civil rights watchdog Privacy International, “the government has wide discretionary powers … to conduct searches without warrants, as is normally required, if it determines that national security, public safety or order, or the public interest are at issue.”
The surveillance extends to visitors as well. Mobile-phone SIM cards are an easy way for tourists to make cheap calls and are available at nearly any store — as ubiquitous as chewing gum in the United States. (Incidentally, the Singaporean government banned commercial sales of gum because chewers were depositing their used wads on subway doors, among other places.) Criminals like disposable SIM cards because they can be hard to trace to an individual user. But to purchase a card in Singapore, a customer has to provide a passport number, which is linked to the card, meaning the phone company — and, presumably, by extension the government — has a record of every call made on a supposedly disposable, anonymous device.
Privacy International reported that Singaporeans who want to obtain an Internet account must also show identification — in the form of the national ID card that every citizen carries — and Internet service providers “reportedly provide, on a regular basis, information on users to government officials.” The Ministry of Home Affairs also has the authority to compel businesses in Singapore to hand over information about threats against their computer networks in order to defend the country’s computer systems from malicious software and hackers, a defense official told me. The U.S. Congress has been debating for years now a similar provision that could compel some industries deemed crucial to the U.S. economy or security to hand over threat data, but it has been blocked by the Chamber of Commerce and businesses that see it as costly, heavy-handed government regulation of private security matters.
“In Singapore, people generally feel that if you’re not a criminal or an opponent of the government, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Perhaps no form of surveillance is as pervasive in Singapore as its network of security cameras, which police have installed in more than 150 “zones” across the country. Even though they adorn the corners of buildings, are fastened to elevator ceilings, and protrude from the walls of hotels, stores, and apartment lobbies, I had little sense of being surrounded by digital hawk eyes while walking around Singapore, any more than while surfing the web I could detect the digital filters of government speech-minders. Most Singaporeans I met hardly cared that they live in a surveillance bubble and were acutely aware that they’re not unique in some respects. “Don’t you have cameras everywhere in London and New York?” many of the people I talked to asked. (In fact, according to city officials, “London has one of the highest number of CCTV cameras of any city in the world.”) Singaporeans presumed that the cameras deterred criminals and accepted that in a densely populated country, there are simply things you shouldn’t say. “In Singapore, people generally feel that if you’re not a criminal or an opponent of the government, you don’t have anything to worry about,” one senior government official told me.
This year, the World Justice Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group that studies adherence to the rule of law, ranked Singapore as the world’s second-safest country. Prized by Singaporeans, this distinction has earned the country a reputation as one of the most stable places to do business in Asia. Interpol is also building a massive new center in Singapore to police cybercrime. It’s only the third major Interpol site outside Lyon, France, and Argentina, and it reflects both the international law enforcement group’s desire to crack down on cybercrime and its confidence that Singapore is the best place in Asia to lead that fight.
But it’s hard to know whether the low crime rates and adherence to the rule of law are more a result of pervasive surveillance or Singaporeans’ unspoken agreement that they mustn’t turn on one another, lest the tiny island come apart at the seams. If it’s the latter, then the Singapore experiment suggests that governments can install cameras on every block in their cities and mine every piece of online data and all that still wouldn’t be enough to dramatically curb crime, prevent terrorism, or halt an epidemic. A national unity of purpose, a sense that we all sink or swim together, has to be instilled in the population. So Singapore is using technology to do that too.
In 2009, Singapore’s leaders decided to expand the RAHS system and the use of scenario planning far beyond the realm of national security — at least as it’s commonly understood in the United States. They established the Strategic Futures Network, staffed by deputy secretaries from every ministry, to export the RAHS methods across the entire government. The network looks beyond national security concerns and uses future planning to address all manner of domestic social and economic issues, including identifying “strategic surprise” and so-called “black swan” events that might abruptly upset national stability.
The RAHS team has mounted a study on the public’s attitude toward the housing system and what people want out of it. The provision of affordable, equitable housing is a fundamental promise that the government makes to its citizens, and keeping them happy in their neighborhoods has been deemed essential to national harmony. Eighty percent of Singapore’s citizens live in public housing — fashionable, multiroom apartments in high-rise buildings, some of which would sell for around U.S. $1 million on the open market. The government, which also owns about 80 percent of the city’s land, sells apartments at interest rates below 3 percent and allows buyers to repay their mortgages out of a forced retirement savings account, to which employers also make a contribution. The effect is that nearly all Singaporean citizens own their own home, and it doesn’t take much of a bite out of their income.
Future planning has been applied to a broad variety of policy problems. It has been used to study people’s changing attitudes about how kids should be educated and whether it’s time to lessen Singapore’s historically strong emphasis on test scores for judging student achievement. The Singapore Tourism Board used the methodology to examine trends about who will be visiting the country over the next decade. Officials have tried to forecast whether “alternative foods” derived from experiments and laboratories could reduce Singapore’s near-total dependence on food imports.
Singaporeans have even begun studying what officials describe as a pervasive “nostalgia” among many citizens, who are longing for a simpler, slower-paced time before the city-state’s breathtaking economic rise, moving from Third World to First World status in a generation and a half. “But there is also an ugly side to nostalgia,” the government warns. “It can be about rejecting certain aspects of the present, such as the growth of Singapore into a diverse, global city, and cultivating an insular sense of nationalism. We explore what can be done to channel this urge for nostalgia in a direction that is more forward-looking.”
But the future is one of the things that worries Singaporeans. In 2013, the government issued a so-called “population white paper” that described its efforts to grow the country and forecast a 30 percent population increase by 2030, bringing the number of residents to as many as 6.9 million in the already crowded city-state. Immigrants were expected to make up half the total. Singaporeans revolted. Four thousand people attended one rally against the population plan — one of the largest public protests in the country’s history. The white paper revealed a potential double threat: Singaporeans were already turning against the government for growing the country too big and too fast, and now they were turning on their immigrant neighbors, whom they blamed for falling wages and rising home prices.
The protests shook the “nation’s mood” at the highest level, and the government was prepared to take drastic measures to quell the unrest, starting with cutting immigrant labor. The National Population and Talent Division — a kind of immigration-cum-human-resources department — intends to slow the growth of the workforce to about 1 to 2 percent per year over the rest of the decade, which is a dramatic departure from the more than 3 percent annual growth over the past 30 years. With that, GDP growth is likely to retract to an average of 3 to 4 percent per year. It is impossible to know whether wealthy Singaporeans — and the country’s foreign investors — will tolerate an economic slowdown. (Or whether a country with an abysmal fertility rate of 1.2 children can even sustain its economy without foreign labor.) But the government has concluded that a slowdown is the right price to pay for keeping a harmonious society. The data tells it so.
Singapore is now undertaking a multiyear initiative to study how people in lower-level service or manufacturing jobs could be replaced by automated systems like computers or robots, or be outsourced. Officials want to understand where the jobs of the future will come from so that they can retrain current workers and adjust education curricula. But turning lower-end jobs into more highly skilled ones — which native Singaporeans can do — is a step toward pushing lower-skilled immigrants out of the country.
If national stability means more surveillance and big-data scanning, Singaporeans seem willing to make the trade-off.
“In Singapore, the threshold for surveillance is deemed relatively higher,” according to one RAHS study, with the majority of citizens having accepted the “surveillance situation” as necessary for deterring terrorism and “self-radicalization.” Singaporeans speak, often reverently, of the “social contract” between the people and their government. They have consciously chosen to surrender certain civil liberties and individual freedoms in exchange for fundamental guarantees: security, education, affordable housing, health care.
From the angry citizen who takes a photo of a policeman sleeping in his car and posts it to Twitter to an opposition blogger who challenges party orthodoxy, Singapore’s leaders cannot escape the watch of their own citizens.
But the social contract is negotiable and “should not be taken for granted,” the RAHS team warns. “Nor should it be expected to be perpetual. Surveillance measures considered acceptable today may not be tolerable by future generations of Singaporeans.” At least not if those measures are applied only to them. One future study that examined “surveillance from below” concluded that the proliferation of smartphones and social media is turning the watched into the watchers. These new technologies “have empowered citizens to intensely scrutinise government elites, corporations and law enforcement officials … increasing their exposure to reputational risks,” the study found. From the angry citizen who takes a photo of a policeman sleeping in his car and posts it to Twitter to an opposition blogger who challenges party orthodoxy, Singapore’s leaders cannot escape the watch of their own citizens.
In the nation’s 2011 elections, the People’s Action Party won “only” 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament, an outcome that most political observers considered a disaster. The opposition had its best showing in Singapore’s history. For the first time, partisan adversaries mounted a credible threat to the status quo, and Singaporeans voted in larger numbers against the government’s management of the country. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saw his party’s victory as an alarming loss. “It marks a distinct shift in our political landscape,” Lee told reporters after the vote. “Many [Singaporeans] wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach.”
The election results had little to do with surveillance per se, but surveillance and its ostensible benefits are an integral part of how the government has defined Singapore as a nation. When Peter Ho, the senior defense official, met with John Poindexter back in 2002 about the Total Information Awareness program, Poindexter suggested that Singapore would face a much easier time installing a big-data analysis system than he had in the United States, because Singapore’s privacy laws were so much more permissive. But Ho replied that the law wasn’t the only consideration. The public’s acceptance of government programs and policies was not absolute, particularly when it came to those that impinged on people’s rights and privileges.
It sounds like an accurate forecast. In this tiny laboratory of big-data mining, the experiment is yielding an unexpected result: The more time Singaporeans spend online, the more they read, the more they share their thoughts with each other and their government, the more they’ve come to realize that Singapore’s light-touch repression is not entirely normal among developed, democratic countries — and that their government is not infallible. To the extent that Singapore is a model for other countries to follow, it may tell them more about the limits of big data and that not every problem can be predicted.
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy and the author of the forthcoming book @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, which will be published in November 2014.
Editor’s note: Shane Harris’s trip to Singapore was jointly sponsored by the Singapore International Foundation and the New America Foundation, where he is a fellow. The FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy, is partnering with Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures and Peter Ho, who is quoted above, to convene an expert forum on the global impacts of rapid technological change. Neither Peter Ho nor the Singaporean government had any control over the content of this article.
Court says Abubaker Sharif Ahmed urged burning of churches and incited protests that left four dead.
A Kenyan cleric who the UN has accused of urging the killing of US citizens has been charged in court with inciting violent protests that left four people dead last week in Kenya’s second-largest city.
Abubaker Sharif Ahmed appeared before the court on Monday in the port city of Mombasa after an arrest warrant was issued. He denied the charges.
Sharif is also accused of supporting al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Violent protests erupted in Mombasa last week following the assassination of Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a close friend of Ahmed’s.
Abubaker Sharif allegedly urged protesters to burn down churches and kill police officers in Kenya’s second-largest city during riots that killed five people, including three police.
The violence followed the assassination of another Muslim cleric, Aboud Rogo, also accused by the United States of supporting al-Shabab – the armed group that Kenya’s military have been battling since invading Somalia last year.
Sharif turned himself in at a court in Mombasa on Monday after an arrest warrant was issued against him last week.
He said his life was in danger in the wake of the rioting.
“He, without lawful excuse uttered words that all sheikhs associated with the government, and who are government agents (should) be slaughtered,” the chargesheet read.
The cleric, who was accompanied by his lawyer and a group of activists, pleaded not guilty to the charges and was remanded in police custody until Wednesday.
Rogo, who had been facing charges of possessing weapons, was shot in his car by unknown attackers last Monday.
His supporters fought running street battles with security forces in the hours after his death, and sporadic violence continued over the following days. Churches were torched and two grenades were thrown at police vehicles.
The government said the violence was organised by Kenya’s ‘enemies’ and blamed Muslim radicals – including the slain cleric – for supporting al-Shabab.
The violence stoked fears that the unrest could become more sectarian in the city, a tourist hub and major Indian Ocean port, where grenade attacks blamed on Somali fighters and their sympathisers have already strained Muslim-Christian relations.
Sharif had previously been arrested in December after a grenade attack on a bus in Nairobi killed one person.
He, like Rogo, had been out on bail. The two are on a US sanctions list for allegedly supporting al-Shabab.
Both men are under a travel ban and asset freeze by the UN Security Council and the United States for supporting al-Shabab.
Despite their origins as part of an obscure border tribe from the hills of Afghanistan’s Khost and Paktia provinces, the Haqqani clan now find themselves center-stage in the Afghan conflict. On 1 October, only days after former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, in congressional testimony, pointed to the Haqqanis and their supporters (possibly including Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)) as key threats to stability in Afghanistan, NATO announced the arrest of Mali Khan, a “senior leader” of the Haqqani Network. Sometimes these revelations of insurgents killed or captured exaggerate the importance of the “trophy.” Not so this time. Mali Khan really has been one of the lynchpins of the Haqqani Network, and his capture will pose a whole series of challenges for those who lead and cooperate with them.Mali Khan was a trusted confidant of the patriarch of the Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin, and his son Siraj. Khan was an effective commander directly involved in supervising operations and the myriad logistics and organizational activities required to keep a clandestine insurgency underway. His effectiveness as a leader was in part due to the fact that he spent much of his time on the ground in southeastern Afghanistan. Although he had made his main residence in Waziristan’s main town of Miranshah, Mali Khan did not spend much of his time at home. This point is important because the NATO kill-and-capture campaign has made it difficult for known senior commanders to travel inside Afghanistan. Until now, Mali Khan had managed to stay a step ahead of the targeters. However, they got close – in June ISAF announced that they had killed the deputy to Mali Khan in an airstrike.
The Haqqani Network is in its essence a clan within the Zadran tribe, in addition to the clan’s manifold alliances built up in different stages of the Afghan conflict. Mali Khan achieved his senior status in part because he was a member of the clan, rather than just an ally. His family is doubly related to Jalaluddin and Siraj; Mali Khan’s sister is Siraj’s mother, and Mali Khan’s uncle is married to Jalaluddin’s sister. As a family insider, Mali Khan has helped play a role in the network’s dynastic succession — the passage of the leadership from Jalaluddin to Siraj. Recent analyses havestressed Jalaluddin’s “Islamist internationalist credentials.” But the patriarch was foremost a leading commander of the anti-Soviet mujahideen and one of the pillars of the “commanders shura” in the final stages of the jihad, which famously tried to unite the field commanders across party and ethnic divides. His 1980’s role has given Jalaluddin genuine prestige — he is a peer of the old men Hamid Karzai invites to his informal “leaders shura” in Kabul. Siraj, however, has never had either the public exposure or the battlefield experience of his father. Having a senior loyalist family commander like Mali Khan in the field helps offers continuity in the network, as he can encourage cooperators to transfer the respect they have for Jalaluddin to his lesser-known son.
It was this privileged insider status which allowed Mali Khan to be involved intimately in a wide range of Network activities. More light needs to be shed on the span of the command chain employed in the Haqqanis’ trademark spectacular attacks — the group clearly draws on the expertise of their range of allies in Waziristan, including al-Qaeda. However Mali Khan has played his own role in these attacks. Afghans who know the network well suggest he probably supplied some of the “fidayeen” recruits and supervised some of them in the attacks, such as the storming of the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel. And in addition to his military functions, Mali Khan had also served as one of the Haqqani business managers. Even during the jihad of the 1980’s, fronts built up portfolios of assets, as military effectiveness depended upon having an economic base. And while the Haqqani Network is notorious for profiting from kidnapping, they have also been quick to take advantage of some of the business opportunities in post-2001 Afghanistan. Afghan researchers in the southeastern provinces believe that Mali Khan was responsible for managing many of those assets.
Given just how central Mali Khan was to Haqqani operations, the fact that he was taken alive makes his loss all the more troubling for the group. He is an example of how “capture” can be more effective then “kill.” The Haqqanis have to work on the assumption that the Afghan Government and NATO are acquiring a rather better understanding of network operations than just about anyone else might have been able to supply them. Commander networks which have been targeted in a “kill and capture” operation always move to appoint a successor to the man they have lost, and the Haqqanis will do the same for Mali Khan. However, they have barely a handful of family insiders capable of taking over the kind of commander-cum-leader-cum-manager role which Mali Khan played. And although it is far too early to write off the Haqqanis, the experience should push analysts to think ahead to the question of who the non-Afghan Waziristan militants will work through if there ever really is a weakening of the Haqqani role. After all, the Haqqanis are by no means the only strategic threat originating in Waziristan.
Michael Semple is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
In SECRETS OF SEAL TEAM SIX, viewers are invited behind closed doors to learn the story of this top-secret Special Operations unit that officially doesn’t even exist. For three decades, SEAL Team Six has been considered one of the most – if not the most – elite group in the U.S. military. These are the men who took down Osama Bin Laden. Now that this undisclosed group has made headlines, will they still be as effective as they’ve proven to be in the past?
In addition to the group’s background and history, viewers will get a look at the recruiting, weapons and technology necessary in carrying out the year’s top news story. Team members are put through some of the most rigorous training and examinations to prove that they have what it takes to complete missions intelligently, discreetly and seamlessly.
Through graphics, interviews and dramatic military b-roll, the stories of those who put it all on the line will be told candidly and informatively. The special introduces viewers to the team’s founder, Dick Marcinko, and former members to give the first tell-all account of their experience in this underground organization.
“There’s a group that will kick ass and save you,” says Marcinko.
Viewers will also meet former SEALS, military analysts, journalists and Seal Team Six wives for an outsider’s knowledge and expertise on the group’s ability to remain under the radar while carrying out tasks successfully.
“We’re rough boys. We want to fight. That’s why we joined,” says former Seal Don Shipley.
Delve into this mysterious world and learn the SECRETS OF SEAL TEAM SIX.
SECRETS OF SEAL TEAM SIX is produced for Discovery Channel by NBC Peacock Productions. Gretchen Eisele is executive producer for NBC Peacock Productions, and Brooke Runnette is executive producer for Discovery Channel.
About Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel is dedicated to creating the highest quality non-fiction content that informs and entertains its consumers about the world in all its wonder, diversity and amazement. The network, which is distributed to 100.8 million U.S. homes, can be seen in over 180 countries, offering a signature mix of compelling, high-end production values and vivid cinematography across genres including, science and technology, exploration, adventure, history and in-depth, behind-the-scenes glimpses at the people, places and organizations that shape and share our world. For more information, please visit www.discovery.com.
By MARK MAZZETTI, ERIC SCHMITT and ROBERT F. WORTH
September 30, 2011; NYT
WASHINGTON — Anwar al-Awlaki did not leave much of a trail, frustrating the American and Yemeni intelligence officials pursuing him over the last two years.
They believed they finally had found him in a village in southern Yemen last year. Yemeni commandos, equipped with tanks and heavy weapons, surrounded the hamlet, but he slipped away, according to a Yemeni official. In May, his pursuers targeted him in a drone attack, but narrowly missed him and other members of his entourage as they drove across a desert.
The search for Mr. Awlaki, the American-born cleric whose fiery sermons made him a larger-than-life figure in the shadowy world of jihad, finally ended on Friday. After several days of surveillance of Mr. Awlaki, armed drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency took off from a new, secret American base in the Arabian Peninsula, crossed into northern Yemen and unleashed a barrage of Hellfire missiles at a car carrying him and other top operatives from Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, including another American militant who had run the group’s English-language Internet magazine.
The strike was the culmination of a desperate manhunt marked not only by near misses and dead ends, but also by a wrenching legal debate in Washington about the legality — and morality — of putting an American citizen on a list of top militants marked for death. It also represented the latest killing of a senior terrorist figure in an escalated campaign by the Obama administration.
“The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate,” President Obama said in remarks at a swearing-in ceremony for the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, outside Washington. Mr. Obama said the cleric had taken “the lead role in planning and directing the efforts to murder innocent Americans.”
Mr. Obama also called Mr. Awlaki “the leader of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” — the first time the United States has publicly used that description of him. American officials say he inspired militants around the world and helped plan a number of terrorist plots, including the December 2009 attempt to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit.
The drone strike was the first C.I.A. strike in Yemen since 2002 — there have been others since then by the military’s Special Operations forces — and was part of an effort by the spy agency to duplicate in Yemen the covert war the it has been running in Pakistan. Friday’s operation was the first time the agency had carried out a deadly strike from a new base in the region. The agency began constructing the base this year, officials said, when it became apparent to intelligence and counterterrorism officials that the threat from Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen had eclipsed that coming from its core group of operatives hiding in Pakistan.
American officials said that the missile strike also killed Samir Khan, an American citizen of Pakistani origin who was an editor of Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language online magazine. Mr. Khan, who grew up in Queens and North Carolina, proclaimed in the magazine last year that he was “proud to be a traitor to America,” and edited articles with titles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
United States officials said that Friday’s strike may also have killed Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi bomb maker responsible for the weapon carried by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber in the jetliner plot. He is also thought to have built the printer-cartridge bombs that, 10 months later, were intended to be put on cargo planes headed to the United States. Neither of those plots were successful.
A high-ranking Yemeni security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Awlaki was killed while traveling between Marib and Jawf Provinces in northern Yemen — areas known for having a Qaeda presence and where there is very little central government control.
A tribal sheik from Jawf Province, Abdullah al-Jumaili, said he had seen the place where Mr. Awlaki was killed. Reached by phone in Jawf, Mr. Jumaili said that the car Mr. Awlaki and two or three companions had been traveling in was nearly destroyed, and that it might be difficult to recognize bodies. But he said he had also spoken to other tribesmen in the area and was “100 percent sure” that Mr. Awlaki had been killed.
There had been an intense debate among lawyers in the months before the Obama administration decided to put Mr. Awlaki on a target list in early 2010, and officials said that Mr. Khan was never on the list. The decision to make Mr. Awlaki a priority to be sought and killed wascontroversial, given his American citizenship. The American Civil Liberties Union, which fought unsuccessfully in the American court system to challenge the decision to target Mr. Awlaki, condemned the killing.
Mr. Awlaki’s death comes in the midst of a deepening political crisis in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been resisting repeated calls to relinquish power. Mr. Saleh has argued that he is essential to the American efforts to battle Al Qaeda in Yemen, but American officials said there was no connection between Mr. Saleh’s abrupt return this week from Saudi Arabia, where he had been recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt, and the timing of Friday’s airstrikes.
Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, Mr. Awlaki, 40, began preaching in mosques while a college student in the United States. During that time, as a preacher in San Diego, he met two of the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers. He returned to Yemen in 2004 and his English-language sermons became ever more stridently anti-American.
American counterterrorism officials said his Internet lectures and sermons inspired would-be militants and led to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the United States, Britain and Canada. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki before the shootings. Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, cited Mr. Awlaki as an inspiration.
Many ordinary Yemenis — schooled in the cynicism of Yemeni politics — believe that their government could have killed or even captured Mr. Awlaki at any time, and chose to do so only now for political reasons.
But in fact, the Yemeni security services, many trained by American Special Forces soldiers, appear to have pursued Mr. Awlaki for almost two years in a hunt that was often hindered by the shifting allegiances of Yemen’s tribes and the deep unpopularity of Mr. Saleh’s government.
In 2009 and 2010, Mr. Awlaki seems to have been mostly in the southern heartland of his own powerful tribe, the Awaliq, where killing him would have been politically costly for the government, and capturing him nearly impossible. The area where Mr. Awlaki was finally killed, in the remote north, did not afford him the same tribal protection. There are also many tribal leaders in the far north who receive stipends from Saudi Arabia — the terrorist group’s chief target — and who would therefore have had more motive to assist in killing him.
The hunt for Mr. Awlaki has involved some close calls, including the failed American drone strike in May, and the previously unreported operation in the Yemeni village. Yemen’s elite counterterrorism commandos, backed by weapons from Yemen’s regular armed forces, formed a ring around the town as commanders began negotiating with local leaders to hand Mr. Awlaki over, said one member of the unit.
“We stayed a whole week, but the villagers were supporting him,” said the counterterrorism officer, who is not authorized to speak on the record. “The local people began firing on us, and we fired back, and while it was happening, they helped him to escape.”
Yemen’s political crisis has seriously hampered counterterrorism efforts, and may have slowed down the hunt for Mr. Awlaki. In May and June, armed jihadists overran two towns in southern Yemen, beating back the army brigades in the area and penning one of them behind the walls of its base for two months.
The elite counterterrorism unit was not deployed until August, because of fears of civil war in the capital. Eventually, the unit regained control of the city of Zinjibar, but the counterterrorism officer, who took part in the fight, said the militant forces appeared to have expanded during Yemen’s crisis, with recruits from Somalia and several Arab countries.
Fresh information about Mr. Awlaki’s location surfaced about three weeks ago, allowing the C.I.A. to track him in earnest, waiting for an opportunity to strike with minimal risks to civilians, American officials said.
A senior American military official who monitors Yemen closely said Mr. Awlaki’s death would send an important message to the surviving leaders and foot soldiers in the Qaeda affiliate. “It’s critically important,” the senior official said. “It sets a sense of doom for the rest of them. Getting Awlaki, given his tight operational security, increases the sense of fear. It’s hard for them to attack when they’re trying to protect their own back side.”
But some Islamist figures said Mr. Awlaki’s status could be elevated to that of a martyr. Anjem Choudhry, an Islamic scholar in London, said, “The death of Sheik Anwar al-Awlaki will merely motivate the Muslim youth to struggle harder against the enemies of Islam and Muslims.”
He added, “I would say his death has made him more popular.”
Reporting was contributed by Laura Kasinof from Sana, Yemen; Alan Cowell from London; and Souad Mekhennet and Rick Gladstone from New York.
Now and then preventive detention laws without charges and trials are hotly debated topics on the Malaysian political scene. In the past, detention laws like for example, the Internal Security Act, was successful in creating peace inMalaysia. Its use to detain suspicious persons involved in communist activities, terrorism or activities that create unrest in society in the 50s, 60s, and 70s did bring notable outcomes. Despite their usefulness in those eras, these laws are now a miscarriage of justice. As a matter of fact, there is no justice. Justice here is based on the knowledge of the Government’s insistence for its policy to be either successful and/or accepted. It’s also a slippery slope where policies are justified to prevent deliberations.
Last year, Najib’s Administration tabled a bill to reform the Internal Security Act. Despite many governmental agencies and laypersons view this as progress, its not. Basically, detention laws like the ISA do not require a formal criminal trial in Court. As long as the Government thinks that a citizen’s action or activity is subversive and/or a threat to national security, they can order that person be detained without a trial. The question here is do we need these laws today? The answer is simple… ABOLISH ALL DETENTION LAWS! The following are why such laws are no longer useful.
A. The simple fact is all democracies respect the rule of law
Detention laws are retaliatory in nature and de facto punishment without due process. It behaves like a bullet firing from a gun travelling at maximum velocity to its intending target incapacitating the individual to death or severe injuries. There is no space for arguments, conciliatory communication or counseling – these laws act as passive violence.
B. Detention is indefinite
It does not specify how long an individual is detained. Basically, if the Government feels that the individual is dangerous, the detention order is prolonged. Come to think about it – it’s actually a form of solitary confinement, well, psychologically, the detained person feels confined to an institution and perhaps had waived any release date from his inhibitions. Even a prisoner sentenced to death has prior knowledge of his or her end of days.
C. Cruel and unusual
Detentions in these centers are Spartan and basically they are penal coffins, especially when an individual is unable to secure a release date. Many citizens also do not have first hand knowledge as to the extent of these institutions for detention. Reports do not really discuss the conditions of these detention centers because they are to a certain extent classified. Albeit citizens do not have first hand knowledge of these institutions, there are irregular visits by officials to enhance the working order and image of these institutions run within the UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners. C’mon, lets not kid ourselves, these institutions are basically illegal under UN Minimum Rules because they detain people without trials.
D. Unpredicted surge of overcrowding
If there is an en masse arrest of individuals under ISA or Emergency Ordinance, can all these arrested individuals be placed in these institutions? If everyone is jam packed or sardined into a containment facility, for an unspecified duration, this is overcrowding and situation in a packed/sardined prison cell can be treacherous – not forgetting hazards like spreading of contaminants, diseases or an outbreak of fire. Overcrowded institutionalized regimes easily lead to conflicts, fights and affrays.
E. Due process & the light of truth
Detaining an individual without trial is detrimental to the truth behind the detentions. NGOs and interested individuals can easily concoct conspiracy theories to unravel the incorrigible actions of the Government and most times this may lead to “suppression of freedoms” generalizations. Such suspicions will only seep deeper as more citizens are aware of “tactics” which may generally be deemed totalitarian. Nevertheless, having a trial whether its good or bad, a trial can still minute and record proceedings and that’s the prove of record, albeit controversial, is still evidentiary material. Unrecorded verbatims are merely hearsay.
F. Trials set precedent
Court cases once recorded are materials of reference and authorities will refer to purported cases and perhaps will not repeat mistakes again. Legal authorities can always infer of court cases to caution authorities on high handed tactics and techniques.
Here again, I urge that the Government should repeal all the detention laws. Reforming the ISA is a futile exercise.
The Jihadists’ War With Islamist Democrats
WILLIAM MCCANTS is an analyst at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths From Antiquity to Islam .
A May 1st update to the print story from the September/October 2011 issue: Al Qaeda leaders often compare the outcome of their jihad to that of a harvest. One year after the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s crop seems mixed. The organization’s central leadership, operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has nearly collapsed, but its offshoots are mounting full-blown insurgencies in Somalia and Yemen. The group’s operatives have failed to carry out major strikes on U.S. or European soil, but its online supporters still excite fear among Western governments and media. And al Qaeda’s argument against democracy has lost out in Arab nations where long-ruling autocrats have fallen, but its gospel of violence continues to resonate in those countries where dictators refuse to abdicate. Yet although some al Qaeda plots have continued to succeed, the organization has hardly experienced the bounty that it long expected.
Following the assassination of bin Laden and several of his most capable operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda has largely shifted its attention away from Central and South Asia to Somalia and Yemen. In Somalia, the militant group al Shabab, engaged in a long struggle to conquer the country, formally joined al Qaeda in February to staunch recent losses at the hands of intervening armies. Although it remains unclear whether the entire organization endorsed the merger, al Qaeda can now likely count large parts of Somalia as its own. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the front group of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Sharia, has exploited the country’s political turmoil to capture territory in the south. The organization quickly began providing basic services to the inhabitants of captured areas, documenting its efforts as part of a savvy public relations campaign.
With its attention focused on its insurgencies around the Gulf of Aden and its top commanders imprisoned or killed, al Qaeda has proven unable to replicate the large-scale operations that it once conducted in the United States and Europe. Weakened and disorganized, the group has turned to calling on supporters to commit lone-wolf attacks — calls that have largely gone unanswered. Those few attacks that have succeeded, such as the recent shooting spree in Toulouse, France, did kill innocent civilians, but caused nowhere near the same carnage as the Madrid train bombings or September 11th. Nevertheless, Western governments and media remain worried that the propaganda activity of al Qaeda supporters on the Internet, such as images portraying New York City as a terrorist target or the Twitter activity of al Shabab, will translate into attacks on the homeland.
Al Qaeda has also struggled to respond to the Arab Spring. In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, Islamists have rejected al Qaeda’s model of autocratic governance through sharia law in favor of parliamentary politics. Even many of al Qaeda’s theological fellow travelers, such as the ultraconservative Salafis in Egypt, have embraced the democratic process and formed political parties to compete in elections. Al Qaeda supporters in Egypt grapple over whether to remain loyal to the organization or embrace their local Salafi religious leaders, who have endorsed the party system. Some foreign Jihadi scholars popular on the Internet, to whom these al Qaeda adherents have turned, have conceded that although party politics is an unacceptable evil, it is at least better than dictatorship. But if al Qaeda has lost the ideological battle in countries that have overthrown their tyrants, its message remains potent in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad refuses to abdicate. Seizing the opening, a number of al Qaeda supporters have migrated to Syria to fight the regime and teach their trade to rebels willing to receive it.
Tallying its harvest, al Qaeda has victories to savor. It holds territory in two weak or collapsed states; it still provokes anxiety in the United States and Europe; and its message resonates in some Muslim-majority countries undergoing violent transition. But the people of the Arab Spring, when allowed to choose their own destiny, have voted against the despotic political vision of al Qaeda. For the organization’s leadership, which spent a generation sowing the seeds of its vision in the region, this is a bitter fruit to reap.
“Al Qaeda’s Challenge” from the September/October 2011 issue:
The Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden represent a moment of both promise and peril for the global jihadist movement. On the one hand, the overthrow of secular rulers in the heartland of the Muslim world gives jihadists an unprecedented opportunity to establish the Islamic states that they have long sought. On the other hand, jihadists can no longer rally behind their most charismatic leader, bin Laden. And the jihadist flagship that he founded, al Qaeda, may lose its relevance in the Muslim world to rival Islamist groups that are prepared to run in elections and take power through politics.
The last time jihadists faced such a crossroads was at the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse emboldened jihadist strategists. Convinced that they had defeated a global superpower, they plotted to overthrow secular Arab governments and replace them with Islamic states, with the goal of eventually uniting them under a single caliphate. At the same time, however, the Soviet Union’s demise opened up the Arab world to U.S. influence. Having been long constrained by the Soviet presence in the region, the United States quickly asserted itself by spearheading the coalition against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, thus increasing its military presence in the Arab world. As a result, jihadists — and al Qaeda in particular — concluded that Washington now enjoyed virtually unchecked power in the Middle East and would use it to prevent the creation of the Islamic states they desired.
Several established Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, shared this belief with al Qaeda. But al Qaeda rejected the Brotherhood and like-minded groups because of their willingness to work within existing systems by voting for and participating in legislative bodies. Such tactics would fail to establish Islamic states, bin Laden and his comrades asserted, because they involved pragmatic political tradeoffs that would violate the principles of such future states and leave them susceptible to U.S. pressure. Only attacks on the United States, al Qaeda argued, could reduce Washington’s regional power and inspire the masses to revolt.
Two decades later, bin Laden’s long-sought revolutions in the Arab world are finally happening, and the upheaval would seem to give al Qaeda a rare opportunity to start building Islamic states. But so far at least, the revolutions have defied bin Laden’s expectations by empowering not jihadists but Islamist parliamentarians — Islamists who refuse to violently oppose U.S. hegemony in the region and who are willing to engage in parliamentary politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Renaissance Party leads in the polls ahead of legislative elections in October. In Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, the new faction created by the Muslim Brotherhood, is likely to gain a large number of seats in parliament in elections this fall. Should countries that have experienced more violent revolutions also hold elections, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Islamist parliamentarians are well positioned to compete in those nations as well.
Al Qaeda and its allies will not support these Islamists unless they reject parliamentary politics and establish governments that strictly implement Islamic law and are hostile to the United States. The Islamist parliamentarians are unlikely to do either. Having suffered under one-party rule for decades and wary of rival Islamist parties, the Arab world’s Islamist parliamentarians (like their secular counterparts) will be unwilling to support such a system in the future. And although they will certainly seek to implement more conservative social laws, the Islamist parliamentarians will likely come to accept that their countries require the economic and military aid of the United States or its allies.
Unable to make progress in countries where Islamist parliamentarians hold sway, such as Egypt, al Qaeda will instead attempt to diminish Washington’s clout by attacking the United States and focus on aiding rebels in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. But even in those countries, it will need to make compromises to work with existing rebel groups, and these groups, like their fellow Islamists elsewhere, may accept some level of U.S. support should they take power. What all this means is that despite the seemingly opportune moment, al Qaeda is unlikely to make much progress toward its ultimate goal of establishing Islamic states in the Arab world.
Both al Qaeda and today’s Islamist parliamentarians are outgrowths of the Islamism that arose in the nineteenth century as a response to the colonial domination of Muslim lands. Islamists believed that Muslims’ abandonment of their faith had made them vulnerable to foreign rule. In response, they advocated for independent Muslim rulers who would fully implement Islamic law, or sharia. A large number of these Islamists adhered to Salafism, a revivalist ideology that sought to purge Islam of Western influence and supposedly improper legal innovations by returning to the religious instruction of the first generations of Muslims, or Salaf. Pan-Islamic sentiment intensified after World War I, when France and the United Kingdom created colonies out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Sunni Muslims were further outraged when the new secular government in Turkey abolished the caliphate, a largely symbolic institution that nonetheless had represented the unity of the Muslim empire under a single leader (or caliph) in the religion’s early days.
When nationalist movements succeeded in ending the direct rule of foreign powers in the Middle East, beginning when Egypt gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, Islamist activists sought to replace the secular laws and institutions governing the newly independent states with systems based on sharia. Perhaps the most famous of the Islamist organizations of this period was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the 1920s. Yet when it tried to compete in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 1942, the Egyptian government, under British pressure, forced it to withdraw. Although they failed to achieve their aims through parliamentary politics, some Brotherhood activists turned to peaceful social activism, whereas others, such as Sayyid Qutb, who was one of the group’s most prominent members, developed an ideology of violent revolution. Qutb rejected the idea of man-made legislation and held that Muslim-led governments that made their own law, as opposed to adopting sharia, were not truly Muslim. Qutb encouraged pious Muslims to rebel against such regimes; his writings have inspired generations of Sunni militants, including the founders of al Qaeda.
Islamists continued to focus on domestic matters until the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. In a burst of pan-Islamic spirit, thousands of young Arab men flooded into Pakistan hoping to battle the Soviets. Among them was bin Laden, who recruited men, procured equipment, and raised money for the cause. His training camps in Afghanistan, and others like it, gave jihadists of all backgrounds a shared identity and mission. In doing so, they served as early incubators of global jihadism. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan nearly a decade later, the jihadists believed that they had helped defeat a superpower.
Al Qaeda, which was created in 1988, grew out of those camps. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian Islamist who merged his organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, with al Qaeda in 2001, explained al Qaeda’s mission in 2010 as providing a “base for indoctrination, training, and incitement that gathered the capabilities of the ummah [universal Islamic community], trained them, raised their consciousness, improved their abilities, and gave them confidence in their religion and themselves.” This base, Zawahiri said, involved “large amounts of participation in jihad, bearing the worries of the ummah, and seizing the initiative in the most urgent calamities confronting the ummah.” In other words, al Qaeda envisioned itself as a revolutionary vanguard and special operations unit working to defend the Muslim world.
BIN LADEN’S DAYS OF PROMISE
Al Qaeda’s early years seemed full of possibility. The collapse of the Soviet Union created new opportunities for radicals in the empire’s former client states. Islamists took control of Sudan in 1989, and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 galvanized Islamist political protests in Algeria, culminating in an Islamist victory in the country’s elections the following year. When the secular Algerian military nullified the results and retained power, it only underscored the perceived need for a committed Muslim vanguard.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait turned al Qaeda’s attention to the United States. Bin Laden offered to send al Qaeda operatives to Saudi Arabia to help protect the country from attack by Saddam. But the Saudis rejected his proposal and instead invited the U.S. military to lead an assault on Iraq from their territory. The decision insulted bin Laden and raised his fears about the growth of unchecked U.S. power in the Middle East. Bin Laden’s concerns grew the following year, when the United States deployed peacekeeping troops to Somalia soon after he had moved al Qaeda’s headquarters to Sudan — although he celebrated the U.S. withdrawal following the infamous “Black Hawk down” ambush (in which al Qaeda operatives claim to have participated). By 1993, al Qaeda members began identifying U.S. targets in East Africa, and in 1994 they sent explosives to Saudi Arabia to attack an unspecified U.S. facility.
Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996 after Islamist-controlled Sudan expelled him at Washington’s behest. He viewed his exile as further evidence that Arab Islamists could not build Islamic states until Western power in the region was diminished. In a public declaration that same year, he announced that he was turning his gaze from Africa to the Persian Gulf and urged Muslims to launch a guerrilla war against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden not only resented the Saudis for refusing his help in the Gulf War and banning him from the kingdom but also could not tolerate the continued presence of U.S. forces in the country. If jihadists inflicted enough damage on the United States, he argued, the U.S. military would withdraw from Saudi soil, a move that would allow the Islamists to confront the deviant Saudi royal family directly. Although bin Laden did not have the resources to carry out his threat, his statement infuriated the Saudi government, which instructed its clients in Afghanistan, the ruling Taliban, to restrict his activities.
But bin Laden only escalated his rhetoric against the United States. In 1998, in a joint fatwa with the leaders of other militant organizations, he called on every Muslim to murder Americans. Soon thereafter, al Qaeda made good on this threat by bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden later described these attacks in his will and testament as the second of three “escalating strikes” against the United States — the first being Hezbollah’s bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the third being 9/11 — all of which would “lead to the withdrawal [from the Middle East] of the United States and the infidel West, even if after dozens of years.”
In fact, 9/11 did not mark the logical culmination of the Lebanon and Africa bombings, as bin Laden suggested. Instead, it represented a subtle but significant shift in al Qaeda’s strategy. Before 9/11, al Qaeda had targeted U.S. citizens and institutions abroad, never attacking U.S. soil. The idea behind a mass-casualty attack against the U.S. homeland arose only after the Africa bombings. Two months before 9/11, Zawahiri, who had become al Qaeda’s second-in-command, published Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, which offers insight into why al Qaeda decided to attack the United States within its borders. In it, he stated that al Qaeda aimed to establish an Islamic state in the Arab world:
Just as victory is not achieved for an army unless its foot soldiers occupy land, the mujahid Islamic movement will not achieve victory against the global infidel alliance unless it possesses a base in the heart of the Islamic world. Every plan and method we consider to rally and mobilize the ummah will be hanging in the air with no concrete result or tangible return unless it leads to the establishment of the caliphal state in the heart of the Islamic world.
Achieving this goal, Zawahiri explained elsewhere in the book, would require a global jihad:
It is not possible to incite a conflict for the establishment of a Muslim state if it is a regional conflict. . . . The international Jewish-Crusader alliance, led by America, will not allow any Muslim force to obtain power in any of the Muslim lands. . . . It will impose sanctions on whomever helps it, even if it does not declare war against them altogether. Therefore, to adjust to this new reality, we must prepare ourselves for a battle that is not confined to a single region but rather includes the apostate domestic enemy and the Jewish-Crusader external enemy.
To confront this insidious alliance, Zawahiri argued, al Qaeda had to first root out U.S. influence in the region, which it could best accomplish by attacking targets on U.S. soil. Zawahiri predicted that the United States would react either by waging war against Muslims worldwide or by pulling back its forces from Muslim lands. In other words, the United States would either fight or flee. A successful direct strike against U.S. centers of power, he believed, would force this choice on the United States and allow al Qaeda to overcome the obstacles preventing it from rallying the Muslim masses and ending U.S. hegemony in the Middle East: a lack of leadership, the lack of a clear enemy, and a lack of confidence among Muslims. Al Qaeda would soon test that theory on 9/11.
JIHADIST STATE BUILDING
From an operational perspective, the 9/11 attacks succeeded far beyond bin Laden’s imagination, killing more than 3,000 civilians and unexpectedly destroying the World Trade Center. But to al Qaeda’s dismay, 9/11 did not rally Muslims to its cause. Indeed, the organization lost legitimacy when bin Laden, hoping to avoid angering his Taliban hosts, initially denied responsibility for the attacks. And when the United States retaliated against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, it did so without providing the group with the kind of clear enemy — a large “Crusader” army — the militant Islamists had hoped for. The United States kept its footprint small, using overwhelming airpower and deploying special operations forces and CIA agents to work with allied tribes to depose the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda’s base of operations.
Although the U.S. military failed to capture bin Laden, it quickly overran the Taliban and toppled what many jihadists considered the only authentic Islamic state. Afghanistan’s fall thus represented a huge blow to al Qaeda, whose professed goal, of course, was to establish such states. The majority of al Qaeda’s Shura Council had reportedly counseled bin Laden against attacking the United States for fear of precisely this outcome.
Having failed to rally Muslims to his cause or bog down the U.S. military in a protracted ground war, bin Laden fled to Pakistan and refocused his efforts on the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had been at the forefront of bin Laden’s thoughts since 1994, and he now had the resources to launch a major offensive against the U.S. presence in the kingdom. In early 2002, he sent hundreds of jihadists to Saudi Arabia to organize attacks on U.S. military and civilian personnel in the country. After a year of preparation, bin Laden and Zawahiri impatiently launched these attacks over objections from their Saudi branch that it was not ready. The campaign was a disaster. Although al Qaeda attempted to strike only U.S. targets, it killed many Arab Muslims in the process, turning the Saudi public against the group. In one particularly disastrous example, an al Qaeda attack on a residential compound in Riyadh in November 2003 killed mainly Arabs and Muslims, many of whom were children. After a two-year battle, Saudi forces had stamped out the organization’s presence in the kingdom.
Yet al Qaeda’s targeting miscalculations were not the only reason for its failure in Saudi Arabia. Despite a series of spectacular attacks, the organization could not compete for attention with the battle in Iraq. The U.S. invasion of that country in 2003 inflamed Muslim opinion worldwide and had finally given jihadists the clear battle they craved. Bin Laden and Zawahiri seized the opportunity to recover from their strategic blunders in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and to spark an all-consuming battle between the United States and the Islamic world. They hoped that this struggle would rally Muslims to al Qaeda’s cause and, most important, bleed the United States of its resources. As U.S. casualties mounted in Iraq, al Qaeda strategists began citing the lessons of Vietnam and quoting the U.S. historian Paul Kennedy on the consequences of “imperial overstretch.” By the end of 2004, bin Laden had begun publicly referring to al Qaeda’s “war of attrition” against the United States.
Al Qaeda hoped that Iraq would be the first Islamic state to rise after the loss of Afghanistan. In a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the Iraqi insurgency who eventually joined al Qaeda and formed the subsidiary group al Qaeda in Iraq, Zawahiri asserted that victory would come when “a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world. . . . The center would be in the Levant and Egypt.” Zawahiri argued that to expel the United States and establish an Islamic state, jihadists needed “popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries.” Zawahiri told Zarqawi that gaining this support would be easier while U.S. forces continued to occupy Iraq. But to preserve their legitimacy after a U.S. retreat, Zawahiri said, jihadists would need to avoid alienating the public through sectarianism or gratuitous violence. They had to cooperate with Muslims of all ideological and theological stripes as long as they shared the desire for a state dedicated to sharia. Zawahiri warned Zarqawi that if he declared an Islamic state before al Qaeda had built an effective coalition of Muslim groups and garnered popular approval in Iraq, the state would fail and the jihadists’ secular and Islamist opponents would take power.
Zarqawi’s followers did not heed Zawahiri’s advice. Al Qaeda in Iraq declared the founding of an Islamic state soon after Zarqawi was killed in an air strike in 2006, and, as Zawahiri had warned, the group ended up alienating more moderate Sunnis through its brutal implementation of Islamic law and its relentless assault on Iraq’s Shiites. It also lost many of its allies in the insurgency by demanding their obedience and then targeting them and their constituencies if they refused to cooperate. Additionally, the fact that al Qaeda in Iraq’s so-called Islamic state controlled so little territory earned the scorn of fellow Sunni militants in Iraq and abroad. Al Qaeda had botched its first real attempt at state building. Even if it had followed Zawahiri’s counsel, however, al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as the larger organization, would have faced a new threat on the horizon: Islamist parties with the desire and know-how to enter the political system.
THE ISLAMISTS WHO VOTE
Whereas al Qaeda’s brutal, sectarian tactics turned the Iraqi populace against it, the Sunni forces willing to engage in parliamentary politics gained the most power. Chief among them was the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Iraqi Islamic Party dominates Sunni politics in Iraq today and regularly supplies one of the country’s two vice presidents.
The jihadists, of course, reject this success. Zawahiri has been particularly critical of Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, a one-time member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership council who is now an independent candidate for president in Egypt. Abou el-Fatouh stated before the Arab revolutions that the Brotherhood would respect the results of any popular election in Egypt and remain in loyal opposition should its opponents win. This idea was anathema to Zawahiri, who argued that a government’s legitimacy derives not from the ballot box but from its enforcement of Islamic law. “Any government established on the basis of a constitution that is secular, atheist, or contradictory to Islam cannot be a respected government because it is un-Islamic and not according to sharia,” he wrote in a revision of Knights published in 2010. “It is unacceptable that a leader in the Brotherhood evinces respect for such a government, even if it comes about through fair elections.”
To be clear, Zawahiri does not oppose all elections; for example, he supports elections for the rulers of Islamic states and for representatives on leadership councils, which would ensure that these governments implemented Islamic law properly. But he opposes any system in which elections empower legislators to make laws of their own choosing. In the second edition of Knights, Zawahiri outlined al Qaeda’s vision for the proper Islamic state:
We demand . . . the government of the rightly guiding caliphate, which is established on the basis of the sovereignty of sharia and not on the whims of the majority. Its ummah chooses its rulers. . . . If they deviate, the ummah brings them to account and removes them. The ummah participates in producing that government’s decisions and determining its direction. . . . [The caliphal state] commands the right and forbids the wrong and engages in jihad to liberate Muslim lands and to free all humanity from all oppression and ignorance.
Bin Laden agreed with Zawahiri’s take on elections, stating in January 2009 that once foreign influence and local tyrants have been removed from Islamic countries, true Muslims can elect their own presidents. And like Zawahiri, bin Laden argued that elections should not create parliaments that allow Muslims and non-Muslims to collaborate on making laws.
Although al Qaeda’s leaders concurred on elections, they differed on the utility of using nonviolent protest to achieve Islamist goals. In bin Laden’s January 2009 remarks, he claimed that demonstrations without weapons are useless. This contradicted a statement made by Zawahiri a week earlier, in which he called on Egyptian Muslims to go on strike in protest of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Now that Zawahiri has replaced bin Laden as the leader of al Qaeda, his openness to nonviolent tactics may help the organization navigate the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Even so, his hostility toward parliamentary politics cedes the real levers of power to the Islamist parliamentarians.
SPRINGTIME FOR THE PARLIAMENTARIANS
Al Qaeda now stands at a precipice. The Arab Spring and the success of Islamist parliamentarians throughout the Middle East have challenged its core vision just as the group has lost its founder. Al Qaeda has also lost access to bin Laden’s personal connections in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf, which had long provided it with resources and protection. Bin Laden’s death has deprived al Qaeda of its most media-savvy icon; and most important, al Qaeda has lost its commander in chief. The raid that killed bin Laden revealed that he had not been reduced to a figurehead, as many Western analysts had suspected; he had continued to direct the operations of al Qaeda and its franchises. Yet the documents seized from bin Laden’s home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, reveal how weak al Qaeda had become even under his ongoing leadership. Correspondence found in the raid shows bin Laden and his lieutenants lamenting al Qaeda’s lack of funds and the constant casualties from U.S. drone strikes. These papers have made the organization even more vulnerable by exposing its general command structure, putting al Qaeda’s leadership at greater risk of extinction than ever before.
Al Qaeda has elected Zawahiri as its new chief, at least for now. But the transition will not be seamless. Some members of al Qaeda’s old guard feel little loyalty to Zawahiri, whom they view as a relative newcomer. Al Qaeda’s members from the Persian Gulf, for their part, may feel alienated by having an Egyptian at their helm, especially if Zawahiri chooses another Egyptian as his deputy.
Despite these potential sources of friction, al Qaeda is not likely to split under Zawahiri’s reign. Its senior leadership will still want to unite jihadist groups under its banner, and its franchises will have little reason to relinquish the recognition and resources that come with al Qaeda affiliation. Yet those affiliates cannot offer al Qaeda’s senior commanders shelter. Indeed, should Pakistan become too dangerous a refuge for the organization’s leaders, they will find themselves with few other options. The Islamic governments that previously protected and assisted al Qaeda, such as those in Afghanistan and Sudan in the 1990s, either no longer exist or are inhospitable (although Somalia might become a candidate if the militant group al Shabab consolidates its hold there).
In the midst of grappling with all these challenges, al Qaeda must also decide how to respond to the uprisings in the Arab world. Thus far, its leaders have indicated that they want to support Islamist insurgents in unstable revolutionary countries and lay the groundwork for the creation of Islamic states once the existing regimes have fallen, similar to what they attempted in Iraq. But al Qaeda’s true strategic dilemma lies in Egypt and Tunisia. In these countries, local tyrants have been ousted, but parliamentary elections will be held soon, and the United States remains influential.
The outcome in Egypt is particularly personal for Zawahiri, who began his fight to depose the Egyptian government as a teenager. Zawahiri also understands that Egypt, given its geostrategic importance and its status as the leading Arab nation, is the grand prize in the contest between al Qaeda and the United States. In his recent six-part message to the Egyptian people and in his eulogy for bin Laden, Zawahiri suggested that absent outside interference, the Egyptians and the Tunisians would establish Islamic states that would be hostile to Western interests. But the United States, he said, will likely work to ensure that friendly political forces, including secularists and moderate Islamists, win Egypt’s upcoming elections. And even if the Islamists succeed in establishing an Islamic state there, Zawahiri argued, the United States will retain enough leverage to keep it in line. To prevent such an outcome, Zawahiri called on Islamist activists in Egypt and Tunisia to start a popular (presumably nonviolent) campaign to implement sharia as the sole source of legislation and to pressure the transitional governments to end their cooperation with Washington.
Yet Zawahiri’s attempt to sway local Islamists is unlikely to succeed. Although some Islamists in the two countries rhetorically support al Qaeda, many, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, are now organizing for their countries’ upcoming elections — that is, they are becoming Islamist parliamentarians. Even Egyptian Salafists, who share Zawahiri’s distaste for parliamentary politics, are forming their own political parties. Most ominous for Zawahiri’s agenda, the Egyptian Islamist organization al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), parts of which were once allied with al Qaeda, has forsworn violence and recently announced that it was creating a political party to compete in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Al Qaeda, then, is losing sway even among its natural allies.
This dynamic limits Zawahiri’s options. For fear of alienating the Egyptian people, he is not likely to end his efforts to reach out to Egypt’s Islamist parliamentarians or to break with them by calling for attacks in the country before the elections. Instead, he will continue urging the Islamists to advocate for sharia and to try to limit U.S. influence.
In the meantime, Zawahiri will continue trying to attack the United States and continue exploiting less stable postrevolutionary countries, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which may prove more susceptible to al Qaeda’s influence. Yet to operate in these countries, al Qaeda will need to subordinate its political agenda to those of the insurgents there or risk destroying itself, as Zarqawi’s group did in Iraq. If those insurgents take power, they will likely refuse to offer al Qaeda safe haven for fear of alienating the United States or its allies in the region.
Thanks to the continued predominance of the United States and the growing appeal of Islamist parliamentarians in the Muslim world, even supporters of al Qaeda now doubt that it will be able to replace existing regimes with Islamic states anytime soon. In a recent joint statement, several jihadist online forums expressed concern that if Muammar al-Qaddafi is defeated in Libya, the Islamists there will participate in U.S.-backed elections, ending any chance of establishing a true Islamic state.
As a result of all these forces, al Qaeda is no longer the vanguard of the Islamist movement in the Arab world. Having defined the terms of Islamist politics for the last decade by raising fears about Islamic political parties and giving Arab rulers a pretext to limit their activity or shut them down, al Qaeda’s goal of removing those rulers is now being fulfilled by others who are unlikely to share its political vision. Should these revolutions fail and al Qaeda survives, it will be ready to reclaim the mantle of Islamist resistance. But for now, the forces best positioned to capitalize on the Arab Spring are the Islamist parliamentarians, who, unlike al Qaeda, are willing and able to engage in the messy business of politics.
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