Articles from October 2011



Reflections on the Iranian Assassination Plot

Interesting analysis from STRATFOR of a story that’s creating lots of confusion.

Reflections on the Iranian Assassination Plot

By Scott Stewart

On Oct. 11, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that two men had been charged in New York with taking part in a plot directed by the Iranian Quds Force to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, on U.S. soil.

Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri face numerous charges, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives), conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism transcending national borders and conspiracy to murder a foreign official. Arbabsiar, who was arrested Sept. 29 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, is a U.S. citizen with both Iranian and U.S. passports. Shakuri, who remains at large, allegedly is a senior officer in Iran’s Quds Force, a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) believed to promote military and terrorist activities abroad.

Between May and July, Arbabsiar, who lives in the United States, allegedly traveled several times to Mexico, where he met with a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) confidential informant who was posing as an associate of the Mexican Los Zetas cartel. The criminal complaint charges that Arbabsiar attempted to hire the DEA source and his purported accomplices to kill the ambassador. Arbabsiar’s Iranian contacts allegedly wired two separate payments totaling $100,000 in August into an FBI-controlled bank account in the United States, with Shakuri’s approval, as a down payment to the DEA source for the killing (the agreed-upon total price was $1.5 million).

Much has been written about the Arbabsiar case, both by those who believe the U.S. government’s case is valid and by those who doubt the facts laid out in the criminal complaint. However, as we have watched this case unfold, along with the media coverage surrounding it, it has occurred to us that there are two aspects of the case that we think merit more discussion. The first is that, as history has shown, it is not unusual for Iran to employ unconventional assassins in plots inside the United States. Second, while the DEA informant was reportedly posing as a member of Los Zetas, we do not believe the case proves any sort of increase in the terrorist threat emanating from the United States’ southern border.

Unconventional Assassins

One argument that has appeared in media coverage and has cast doubt on the validity of the U.S. government’s case is the alleged use by the Quds Force of Arbabsiar, an unemployed used car salesman, as its interlocutor. The criminal complaint states that Arbabsiar was recruited by his cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior Quds Force commander, in spring 2011 and then handled by Shakuri, who is Shahlai’s deputy. The complaint also alleges that, initially, Arbabsiar was tasked with finding someone to kidnap al-Jubeir, but at some unspecified point the objective of the plot turned from kidnapping to murder. After his arrest, Arbabsiar told the agents who interviewed him that he was chosen for the mission because of his business interests and contacts in the United States and Mexico and that he told his cousin that he knew individuals involved in the narcotics trade. Shahlai then allegedly tasked Arbabsiar to attempt to hire some of his narco contacts for the kidnapping mission since Shahlai believed that people involved in the narcotics trade would be willing to undertake illegal activities, such as kidnapping, for money.

Reflections on the Iranian Assassination Plot is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

It is important to recognize that Arbabsiar was not just a random used car salesman selected for this mission. He is purportedly the cousin of a senior Quds Force officer and was in Iran talking to his cousin when he was recruited. According to some interviews appearing in the media, Arbabsiar had decided to leave the United States and return permanently to Iran, but, as a naturalized U.S. citizen, he could have been seen as useful by the Quds Force for his ability to freely travel to the United States. Arbabsiar also was likely enticed by the money he could make working for the Quds Force — money that could have been useful in helping him re-establish himself in Iran. If he was motivated by money rather than ideology, it could explain why he flipped so easily after being arrested by U.S. authorities.

Now, while the Iranian government has shown the ability to conduct sophisticated operations in countries within its sphere of influence, such as Lebanon and Iraq, the use of suboptimal agents to orchestrate an assassination plot in the United States is not entirely without precedent.

For example, there appear to be some very interesting parallels between the Arbabsiar case and two other alleged Iranian plots to assassinate dissidents in Los Angeles and London. The details of these cases were exposed in the prosecution and conviction of Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia in California and in U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks pertaining to the Sadeghnia case.

Sadeghnia, who was arrested in Los Angeles in July 2009, is a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian descent who at one point ran a painting business in Michigan. Sadeghnia was apparently recruited by the Iranian government and allegedly carried out preoperational surveillance on Jamshid Sharmahd, who made radio broadcasts for the Iranian opposition group Tondar from his residence in Glendora, Calif., and Ali Reza Nourizadeh, who worked for Voice of America in London.

Sadeghnia’s clumsy surveillance activities were a testament to his lack of tradecraft and were noticed by his targets. But even though he was fairly inept, a number of other factors seem to support claims that he was working as an agent for the Iranian government. These include his guilty plea, his international travel, and the facts that he conducted surveillance on two high-profile Iranian dissidents on two continents, was convicted of soliciting someone to murder one of them and then returned to Tehran while on supervised release.

Sadeghnia’s profile as an unemployed housepainter from Iran who lived in the United States for many years is similar to that of Arbabsiar, a failed used car salesman. Sadeghnia pleaded guilty of planning to use a third man (also an Iranian-American) to run over and murder Sharmahd with a used van Sadeghnia had purchased. Like the alleged Arbabsiar plot, the Sadeghnia case displayed a lack of sophisticated assassination methodology in an Iranian-linked plot inside the United States.

This does raise the question of why Iran chose to use another unsophisticated assassination operation after the Sadeghnia failure. On the other hand, the Iranians experienced no meaningful repercussions from that plot or much negative press.

For Iranian operatives to be so obvious while operating inside the United States is not a new thing, as illustrated by the case of David Belfield, also known as Dawud Salahuddin, who was hired by the Iranian government to assassinate high-profile Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabaei in July 1980. Salahuddin is an African-American convert to Islam who worked as a security guard at an Iranian diplomatic office in Washington. He was paid $5,000 to shoot Tabatabaei and then fled the United States for Iran, where he still resides. In a plot reminiscent of the movie Three Days of the Condor, Salahuddin, who had stolen a U.S. Postal Service jeep, walked up to Tabatabaei’s front door dressed in a mail carrier’s uniform and shot the Iranian diplomat as he answered the door. It was a simple plot in which the Iranian hand was readily visible.

There also have been numerous assassinations and failed assassination attempts directed against Iranian dissidents in Europe and elsewhere that were conducted in a rudimentary fashion by operatives easily linked to Iran. Such cases include the 1991 assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar in Paris, the 1989 murder of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna and the 1992 killing of three Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.

All that said, there was a lengthy break between the Iranian assassinations in the West in the 1980s and 1990s and the Sadeghnia and Arbabsiar cases. We do not know for certain what could have motivated Iran to resume such operations, but the Iranians have been locked in a sustained covert intelligence war with the United States and its allies for several years now. It is possible these attacks are seen as an Iranian escalation in that war, or as retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran, which the Iranians claim were conducted by the United States and Israel.

South of the Border

One other result of the Arbabsiar case is that it has re-energized the long-held U.S. fears of foreign entities using the porous U.S.-Mexico border to conduct terrorist attacks inside the United States and of Mexican cartels partnering with foreign entities to carry out such attacks.

But there are reasons this case does not substantiate such fears. First, it is important to remember that the purported Iranian operative in this case who traveled to the United States, Arbabsiar, is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is not an Iranian who illegally crossed the border from Mexico. Arbabsiar used his U.S. passport to travel between the United States and Mexico.

Second, while Arbabsiar, and purportedly Shahlai, believed that the Los Zetas cartel would undertake kidnapping or assassination in the United States in exchange for money, that assumption may be flawed. Certainly, while Mexican cartels do indeed kidnap and murder people inside the United States (often for financial gain), they also have a long history of being very careful about the types of operations they conduct inside the United States. This is because the cartels do not want to incur the full wrath of the U.S. government. Shooting a drug dealer in Laredo who loses a load of dope is one thing; going after the Saudi ambassador in Washington is quite another. While the payoff for this operation seems substantial ($1.5 million), there is no way that a Mexican cartel would jeopardize its billion-dollar enterprise for such a small one-time payment and for an act that offered no other apparent business benefit to the cartel. While Mexican cartels can be quite violent, their violence is calculated for the most part, and they tend to refrain from activities that could jeopardize their long-term business plans.

One potential danger in terms of U.S. mainland security is that the Arbabsiar case might focus too much additional attention on the U.S.-Mexico border and that this attention could cause resources to be diverted from the northern border and other points of entry, such as airports and seaports. While it is relatively easy to illegally enter the United States over the southern border, and the United States has no idea who many of the illegal immigrants really are, that does not mean that resources should be taken from elsewhere.

As STRATFOR has noted before, many terrorist plots have originated in Canada — far more than have had any sort of nexus to Mexico. These include plots involving Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian who was convicted of planning a suicide bombing of the New York subway system in 1997; Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested when he tried to enter the United States with explosives in 1999; and the so-called Toronto 18 cell, which was arrested in 2006 and later convicted of planning a string of attacks in Canada and the United States.

Moreover, most terrorist operatives who have traveled to the United States intending to participate in terrorist attacks have flown directly into the country from overseas. Such operatives include the 19 men involved in the 9/11 attacks, the foreigners involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the follow-on New York landmarks bomb plot, as well as failed New York subway bomber Najibulah Zazi and would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. Even failed shoe bomber Richard Reid and would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to fly directly into the United States.

While there is concern over security on the southern U.S. border, past plots involving foreign terrorist operatives traveling to the United States have either involved direct travel to the United States or travel from Canada. There is simply no empirical evidence to support the idea that the Mexican border is more likely to be used by terrorist operatives than other points of entry.

Reflections on the Iranian Assassination Plot is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Twitt

You’d Be Nuts to Vote for Obama . . . or Any One of the Republican Candidates

We’re screwed. None of the legitimate choices for president offer a chance for saving our once great nation. Those who somehow think they must vote for a Democrat because the Republicans are only concerned about the “evil rich,” just haven’t been paying attention. And those who believe that Republicans will somehow restore our economy, balance the budget and put everyone back to work, are dreaming. Should the Republicans win both the presidency and a majority in both houses in Congress, it still won’t happen.

Wake up America. Neither political party has our interests at heart (although I agree that a few sane voices do exist on both sides of the aisle). Ultimately, the majority in both parties seek a continuation of their own policies and their strategies for increased power and control. And, by definition, that excludes what’s best for our country and for those of us on Main Street.

If you believe things are bad now, just wait until January of 2013. An Obama victory will be a mandate to increase both the size and scope of government; and a Republican win will insure a convoluted slide towards chaos. I don’t believe for a moment that any of the major candidates will accomplish ANY of the significant campaign promises currently being made.

So, where does that leave us? Should we stay home on Election Day? Should we give up all hope of ever returning our country to sound fiscal policies and to the rule of law? Is our country doomed?

The answer to that last question affects the answers to the others; and my answer is, yes, we’re probably doomed—doomed to an extended period of struggle, joblessness, greater government intrusion into our lives and an ever-widening gap between the wealthy and what remains of the middle class. And I believe that because I see an electorate that’s so engrossed in the minutia and distractions of their lives that they ignore what’s actually happening, an electorate who refuse to educate themselves about the issues facing our country to the detriment of both the nation and their own well-being.

Sure, some will go to the polls on Election Day, and will cast informed ballots; but I sincerely believe that the majority of votes cast will be based upon emotion, the effectiveness of political ads, catchy slogans or the mutterings of their favorite political pundit. And those votes will guarantee a continuation of rule by the political elite whose principles are molded by the next election and by the wishes of their lobbyists’ cronies.

Yes, I believe you’d be nuts to vote for Obama . . . or any one of the Republican candidates; and when the election is over it’s why I believe we’ll continue our spiral towards the abyss.

Twitt

Yemen: Fallout from the al-Awlaki Airstrike

Yemen: Fallout from the al-Awlaki Airstrike

By Scott Stewart

U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an ideologue and spokesman for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen, was killed in a Sept. 30 airstrike directed against a motorcade near the town of Khashef in Yemen’s al-Jawf province. The strike, which occurred at 9:55 a.m. local time, reportedly was conducted by a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and may have also involved fixed-wing naval aircraft. Three other men were killed in the strike, one of whom was Samir Khan, the creator and editor of AQAP’s English-language magazine Inspire.

Al-Awlaki has been targeted before; in fact, he had been declared dead on at least two occasions. The first time followed a December 2009 airstrike in Shabwa province, and the second followed a May 5 airstrike, also in Shabwa. In light of confirmation from the U.S. and Yemeni governments and from statements made by al-Awlaki’s family members, it appears that he is indeed dead this time. We anticipate that AQAP soon will issue an official statement confirming the deaths of al-Awlaki and Khan.

As STRATFOR noted Sept. 30, the deaths of both al-Awlaki and Khan can be expected to greatly hamper AQAP’s efforts to radicalize and equip English-speaking Muslims. The group may have other native English speakers, but individuals who possess the charisma and background of al-Awlaki or the graphics and editorial skills of Khan are difficult to come by in Yemen. The al Qaeda franchise’s English-language outreach is certain to face a significant setback.

The deaths of al-Awlaki and Khan and the impact they will have on AQAP’s outreach efforts provide an opportunity to consider the importance of individuals — and their personal skill sets — to militant organizations, especially organizations seeking to conduct transnational media and ideological operations.

Bridging the Gap Between Militant Ideology and Operations

When considering militant groups with transnational objectives and reach such as AQAP, we need to recognize that there are several components necessary for such groups to conduct successful operations, including finances, logistics, planning, training and intelligence. But at a higher level, there is also the distinction between those elements of the group that are dedicated to operations on the physical battlefield and those who are focused on operations on the ideological battlefield. While physical operations are important for obvious reasons, the ideological component is also critically important because it allows a group to recruit new members, maintain the ideological commitment of those already in the group and help shape public perception through propaganda. Because of this, the ideological component is especially important for the long-term viability and continuity of a group or movement.

Groups such as the al Qaeda core and AQAP appreciate the importance of the ideological struggle. Published three days before the airstrike against Khan and al-Awlaki, the seventh edition of Inspire contains an article written by Khan titled “The Media Conflict,” wherein he quotes AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi (aka Abu Basir) as stating, “media work is half of the jihad.”

The role of the media in propagating militant ideology has been revolutionized by the Internet, which allows small groups in remote corners of the globe to produce and broadcast material that is almost instantly available to people all around the world. Indeed, jihadists have succeeded in radicalizing and recruiting people from disparate countries. Products such as Inspire or the video and audio recordings of militant leaders such as al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri are a giant leap forward from the way militants communicated 25 years ago, when groups like November 17 would send communiques to the newspapers and Hezbollah would release videos via major television networks of Western hostages they had kidnapped.

Interestingly, militant groups quickly recognized the significance of this media democratization and were early adopters of the Internet. By the mid-1990s, white supremacists in the United States had established Stormfront.org and in 1996, jihadists inaugurated azzam.com, a professional-looking website that allowed them to provide inspiration, news and instruction to adherents to their ideology and to potential recruits. Azzam.com eventually became an important mechanism through which funds for jihadist groups could be raised and willing volunteers could find ways to link up with jihadist groups in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia.

Thus, the Internet began to serve as a bridge that connected the ideological battlefield with the physical battlefield. When we look back at AQAP’s media activities, we can see that they, too, were intended to bridge this gap. For example, the group’s Arabic language magazine Sada al-Malahim (meaning “Echo of Battle”) regularly contained not only articles intended to propagate and defend the jihadist ideology but also articles designed to give practical and tactical guidance. And when al-Wahayshi in October 2009 began advocating that jihadists in the West practice a leaderless-resistance style of operations rather than traveling to places like Yemen or Pakistan for training, they promoted that tactical shift via Sada al-Malahim.

Khan’s and Al-Awlaki’s Significance for Inspire

In July 2010, AQAP launched the first edition of Inspire magazine. Khan, a longtime publisher of jihadist material, was chosen to spearhead the Inspire project for AQAP. (Khan was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents but raised in the United States.) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Khan began to publish an English-language pro-jihadist blog and eventually established jihadist websites and an Internet magazine called Jihad Recollections. It was the artistic similarities between Jihad Recollections and Inspire that helped identify Khan as the editor of Inspire. Khan left his parents’ home in Charlotte, N.C., in 2009 to move to Yemen after he learned the FBI was investigating him for his connections to jihadist groups.

Inspire was established intentionally to help further al-Wahayshi’s vision of jihadists adopting the leaderless resistance model. Its stated purpose was to radicalize and recruit young, English-speaking Muslims and then inspire and equip them to conduct attacks in the West.

Khan was only 16 years old when he began his jihadist propaganda activities in 2002, and he essentially grew up on the ideological battlefield. By the time he immigrated to Yemen in 2009, he was an experienced cyber-jihadist. In addition to his advanced computer security skills, Khan also energized the Inspire magazine project, and his youth, colloquial American English competency, graphic design flair and knowledge of American pop culture gave Inspire magazine an edgy quality that appealed to young, English-speaking Muslims.

Notably, Khan did not produce most of the written content for Inspire. In fact, he relied heavily on the speeches of al Qaeda figures such as al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, the books of Abu Musab al-Suri and interviews with AQAP figures such as al-Wahayshi and al-Awlaki. However, it was the way in which Khan packaged these materials that made them so appealing. Certainly, there may have been others working with Khan to produce Inspire, and other people undoubtedly can continue to translate portions of al Qaeda speeches or interview AQAP leaders, but Khan was the driving creative force behind the project. His death thus likely will have a substantial impact on the content and feel of Inspire — if the magazine continues at all.

AQAP’s Arabic-language propaganda efforts suffered a blow in December 2010 when Nayf bin Mohammed al-Qahtani, the founder and editor of Sada al-Malahim and the founder of Malahim media, was killed in a battle with Yemeni security forces. Sada al-Malahim had been publishing an edition roughly every two months since its inception in January 2008. However, since the release of its 16th edition in February 2011, possibly an edition al-Qahtani had worked on, the promised 17th edition has yet to be published. It is possible Inspire will meet the same fate.

However, Khan was not the only American-born jihadist living in Yemen who possessed unique talents that were useful to AQAP’s outreach efforts to English-speaking Muslims. Al-Awlaki had been the imam of congregations in Denver, San Diego and Falls Church, Va., but left the United States in 2002 after being investigated for his ties to two of the 9/11 hijackers and links to a number of other jihadist figures and plots. Al-Awlaki initially moved to the United Kingdom, where he continued to preach, but as authorities began to clamp down on radical preachers in what has been termed “Londonistan,” al-Awlaki moved to Yemen, his ancestral homeland, in 2004.

During his years in the United States and the United Kingdom, al-Awlaki had become a high-profile imam known for his intellect, charisma and ability to appeal to young, English-speaking Muslims. His sermons became very popular, and audio recordings of those sermons were widely distributed on the Internet via his personal website as well as several other Islamic websites. (Thousands of these videos have been posted to YouTube and have received tens of thousands of hits.) Despite his being under investigation by the U.S. government, in 2002 al Awlaki was asked to lead a prayer service at the U.S. Capitol and to speak at the Pentagon on the topic of radical Islam. These engagements reflected al-Awlaki’s popularity and added to the mystique that surrounded him. He was seen as a bit of a celebrity in the English-speaking Muslim world, and his presence in Yemen undoubtedly played a big factor in al-Wahayshi’s decision to expand AQAP’s outreach to al-Awlaki’s audience.

Through his work on the ideological battlefield, Al-Awlaki was able to draw men to the physical battlefield. These men could be sent on on suicide missions, such as would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or encouraged to conduct simple attacks where they live, as in the case of Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan.

It is important to remember that al-Awlaki was not AQAP’s primary theological authority. The group’s mufti, Suleiman al-Rubaish, a Saudi cleric with a degree in Islamic law, fought with al-Wahayshi and bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001 before being captured and spending five years in captivity at Guantanamo Bay. After being returned to Saudi Arabia in 2006, al-Rubaish completed the Saudi rehabilitation program and then promptly fled the country to Yemen after his release. Moreover, AQAP’s Shariah Council, of which al-Awlaki was a member, is chaired by a Yemeni cleric named Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab.

Al-Rubaish maintains serious credibility among jihadists because of his friendship with bin Laden, his survival at Tora Bora and his time served in Guantanamo, and al-Abab is a respected Yemeni cleric. However, neither of the men possesses the native-English language ability of al-Awlaki. They also lack the ability to culturally relate to and motivate Muslims in the West in the same way that al-Awlaki did — and continues to do, via his messages that live on in cyberspace. Because of this, al-Awlaki will not be easily replaced.

AQAP’s Operational Ability Intact

This brings us to the ideas of leadership and succession in militant groups. Some have argued that arresting or killing key members of militant networks does not impact such groups, but experience seems to indicate that in many cases the removal of key personnel does indeed make a difference, especially in the near term and if pressure is maintained on the organization. This dynamic has been reflected by the ongoing post-9/11 campaign against the al Qaeda core and their inability to conduct their oft threatened, and purportedly more deadly, follow-on attacks to 9/11. It has also been demonstrated by the operations mounted against regional jihadist franchise groups in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The removal of key personnel such as Saudi leader Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin and Indonesian jihadists Hambali and Noordin Top have had substantial impacts on those regional franchises.

Of course, while AQAP’s English-speaking outreach will be severely crippled following Khan’s and al-Awlaki’s deaths, the core of its physical battlefield operational leadership remains intact. Al-Wahayshi is a competent and savvy leader. His military commander, Qasim al-Raymi, is an aggressive, ruthless and fierce fighter, and his principal bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri is creative and imaginative in designing his innovative explosive devices. There were rumors circulating that al-Asiri had been killed in the airstrike directed against al-Awlaki, but they proved to be unfounded. If al-Asiri had been killed, the airstrike would have impacted both the ideological and operational abilities of the group.

The recent increase of U.S. airstrikes, including the one that killed al-Awlaki and Khan, will serve to keep AQAP’s leaders focused on survival, as will the conventional warfare in which the group is currently engaging as it fights for control over areas of Yemen. However, the AQAP leadership undoubtedly still desires to attack the United States and the West — perhaps even more so now to avenge their fallen comrades. If they are given the time and space to plot and plan, the AQAP leadership will continue their efforts to attack the United States. They certainly retain the capability to do so, despite the loss of two ideological leaders.

Yemen: Fallout from the al-Awlaki Airstrike is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Twitt