Friday, November 20, 2015

Paris: Made in Libya, Not Syria

To my many foreign policy friends, including terrorism experts, tonight is the night to mourn & . Tomorrow we analyze.--Anne-Marie Slaughter on Twitter, November 13, 2015

I recently characterized the tsunami of analysis about the Paris attacks as a case of Orientalism.  What isn't important is what may have happened.  What's important is that we control the alien entity: we define the problem, we dictate the proper response and, natch, we get to declare victory—or at least what victory would look like if we stopped listening to the handwringers and had our spooks and soldiers build us an impregnable fortress of pure gold.
I’m a cui bono guy to a fault; I’ll admit that.  I don’t give enough weight and legitimacy to emotions and irrationality as drivers for actions.
And I have to say I detected a distinct shortage of “bono” to IS in the Paris attacks, unless the thinking of the leadership runs to “It would be an excellent idea to focus the fury of the West upon us here in Iraq instead of laying low and letting the West go along with the GCC/Turkish plan of quagmiring Russia in Syria.”
Doesn’t make too much sense.  Which is why, in my opinion, is why you see a lot of metaphysical handwaving that the real motive for the attacks was to erase the Muslim “grey zone”, provoke a fatal over-reaction from the West, contribute to the agonies of the Syrian refugees in Europe, rend the time-space continuum and thereby bring the Crusaders to their knees, etc. 
Let me introduce some interesting factiness on the matter of the alleged mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud.  
Abaaoud was well known as a violent radical miscreant linked to an Islamic cell in Verviers, Belgium, that did all sorts of mean, murderous crap. 

In an article with the, in retrospect, bitterly ironic title “Second Paris averted by hours”, the Daily Mail reported on a January 2015 raid in Verviers, Belgium, the one Abaaoud famously evaded.

The Belgian terror cell linked to the Islamic State (Isis) group, which was raided by police overnight, was plotting to either take a passenger bus hostage or behead a member of Belgian authority such as a policeman or a magistrate, according to local media reports.

So, he was going to behead a policeman, or maybe hijack a passenger bus.
After Abaaoud was linked to the Paris outrage, the Verviers activities were retroactively upgraded to “major terrorist attack":

Abaaoud was the main target of a major police raid on a terrorist cell in Verviers, Belgium, in January in which two jihadists were killed. It was carried out within days of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, though police said the two events were not linked. 

In July he was sentenced to 20 years in absentia along with 32 other jihadists. The Belgian cell was said to have been planning a major terrorist attack, including abducting and beheading a prominent law enforcement official and posting a video of it online. 

Police believe Abaaoud helped arrange a terrorist attack on an Amsterdam to Paris train on August 21, which was thwarted by four passengers including British businessman Chris Norman. The French newspaper Liberation claimed he was in contact with Ayoub El-Khazzani, the man who opened fire in a carriage of the train before he was overwhelmed by passengers. 

The Verviers cell apparently hung out with the JAN cell at Vilvoorde, Belgium, an indication perhaps that we are talking about local radicalized Muslims more than the feared and dreaded sleeper cell staffed by professional jihadis of unknown provenance, maybe even…masquerading as refugees!   

For some perspective on whether or not attacks of the November outrage in Paris could be ginned up locally, as opposed to orchestrated out of Raqqa, the January Daily Mail article reminds us of how the Charlie Hedbo attackers acquired their gear:
Police said earlier this week that automatic weapons and a rocket launcher used in the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher supermarket attacks in Paris were purchased from Belgian gangs.

The Scorpion machine gun and the Tokarev handgun used by Amedy Coulibaly during his attack on the kosher supermarket which resulted in the deaths of four Jewish Parisians came from Brussels and Charleroi.

And the Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers used by the Kouachi brothers to attack the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, killing 12, were purchased by Coulibay near the Gare du Midi in Brussels for less than 4000 English pounds.
Yes, apparently you can go down to the train station in Brussels and purchase a rocket launcher.
So, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, radicalized Euro-thug of Moroccan descent, or ISIS’s chosen instrument for the destruction of Western civilization?
The indispensable first stop is the blog of a Belgian researcher, Pieter van Ostaeyen.  He writes about radicalized Belgian Muslims.  Back in January, he had a post that mentioned Abdelhamid Abaaoud:

It seems fair to state that there is a rather strong connection between an important part of the Belgian ISIS fighters and the supposedly Libyan brigade of ISIS.

After the foiled attacks in Verviers in Belgium on January 8, 2015, it became clear that the main suspect Abdelhamid Abaaoud can be linked directly to this group. His little brother Younes (aged 14 and hence probably the youngest foreign fighter in Syria) has been portrayed multiple times in the ranks of Libyan fighters in Syria.

Van Ostaeyen has a lot of interesting pictures from social media about the “supposedly Libyan brigade of ISIS”, which goes by the name “Katibat al-Battar al-Libi.”  The pictures make fighting in Syria look like Spring Break for radicalized Islamic bros, with the advantage that you get to blow things up and kill people, and the disadvantage that people can kill you.

Van Ostaeyen’s most remarkable get is a photograph of a list of martyrs from the brigade including the names of eight fighters surnamed “el-Belgiki”, presumably because they were ex-Belgium.  That’s about 20% of the fatalities listed.

Van Ostaeyen’s also quoted in a post-Paris NYT backgrounder.  It provides an interesting insight on why Abaaoud might fall in with a Libyan outfit:

Abdelhamid Abaaoud is suspected of being a leader of a branch of the Islamic State in Syria called Katibat al-Battar al Libi, which has its origins in Libya. This particular branch has attracted many Belgian fighters because of language and cultural ties, said Pieter van Ostaeyen, who tracks Belgian militants.

Many Belgian Muslims are of Moroccan origin, he said, and speak a dialect found in eastern Morocco that is similar to a Libyan dialect. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who studies jihadi groups at the Middle East Forum, a research center in Washington, said there was no evidence yet that the Paris attacks had been ordered by Adnani or the Islamic State’s overall leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But he added that the soldiers at Libyan branch that includes Abaaoud has played a prominent role in exporting violence. One of their tasks he said, has been to organize plots that “involved foreign fighters, sleeper cells in Europe that were connected with an operative inside of Syria and Iraq, usually in a lower to midlevel position.”

At the end of his January blogpost, van Ostaeyen links to a piece by Aymenn al-Tamimi (who's also quoted in the Times piece above) on Joshua Landis’ website.  You go there and you find a brief 2014 piece about Katibat al-Battar al-Libi.  Not much there:

This group, which has existed at least since the summer of last year, is the Libyan division of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), despite false rumours that the battalion had defected to Jabhat al-Nusra. Libya itself has been a big source of muhajireen in both Iraq and Syria over the past decade, so the fact that there is a battalion devoted to recruiting Libyan fighters should come as no surprise. The existence of Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi as a front group for ISIS perhaps reflects a wider pro-ISIS trend across central North Africa with the Ansar ash-Shari’a movements in Tunisia and Libya.

Wandering off into English-language Google, you don’t get a lot of hits.  But you get this from some murky Israeli intel outfit called “The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center” (points are abridged; go to link for full text):

Within the Arab foreign fighters there is a hard core of Salafist-jihadi, Al-Qaeda and global jihad operatives, some of them veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other Islamic combat zones

10. Estimates for the number of Libyan fighters in Syria vary between hundreds and almost a thousand .

11. Some of the fighters who joined the ranks of the rebels in Syria are Libyan nationals and some are foreign operatives who fought in Libya and transferred their activities to Syria after the fall of the Gaddafi regime..

12. Some of the Libyan fighters went to Syria and use their combat experience to train and organize the rebels . They gave them logistic support, teach them how to operate heavy weapons and manage communications. According to reports, the Libyan fighters operated training bases and taught the rebels military tactics (, August 12, 2012). They also provided humanitarian support and were involved in transporting weapons into Syria throughout 2013.
13. The fighters come from both eastern Libya (Benghazi) and western Libya (Tripoli). A significant number come from the city of Derna, located east of Benghazi, which Muammar Gaddafi called "an Islamic emirate" because it was a center for Islamic terrorism during his regime.

14. The Libyans arrive in Syria in much the same way as the other fighters, usually by air to Turkey (Libyans do not need visas for Turkey). From Istanbul they fly to Antakya in southern Turkey and from there they go overland to towns and villages near the Turkish-Syrian border. They usually receive support from Islamic networks and sometimes the trip to Syria is paid for by them (Der Spiegel, April 30, 2012).

15. In December 2012 a battalion was formed of Libyan foreign fighter which exists to this day. It is called the Katibat al-Battar (The Battalion of the Slicing Sword). It is affiliated with the ISIS and fights mainly in the regions of Latakia, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib. 

Aaron Zelin has some info in an April 2015 on Libya over at the Hudson Institute.  A footnote about IS fighters in Libya states:

These are under the command of what once was called MSSI and is comprised of those Libyans returned from Syria under the banner of Katibat al-Battar.

Interesting, right?  A military formation that pre-existed its deployment in Syria.  And guess what?  It even preceded ISIS.

Carnegie Endowment for Peace, in a March 2015 report:

Libyans had already begun traveling to fight in Syria in 2011, joining existing jihadi factions or starting their own. In 2012, one group of Libyans in Syria declared the establishment of the Battar Brigade in a statement laden with anti-Shia sectarianism. The Battar Brigade founders also thanked “the citizens of Derna,” a city in northeastern Libya long known as a hotbed of radical Islamism, for their support for the struggle in Syria.

Later, the Battar Brigade fighters in Syria would pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, and fight for it in both Syria and Iraq, including against its al-Qaeda rivals. In April 2014, the Battar Brigade announced the “martyrdom” of 25 of its fighters in a Nusra Front suicide attack on an Islamic State location.

In the spring of 2014, many Battar Brigade fighters returned to Libya. In Derna, they reorganized themselves as the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC). In September, an Islamic State delegation, including the Yemeni Abu al-Bara al-Azdi and the Saudi Abu Habib al-Jazrawi, arrived in Libya. After being received by the IYSC, they collected pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from IYSC-aligned fighters in Derna. They then declared eastern Libya to be a province of the Islamic State, calling it Wilayat Barqa, or the Cyrenaica Province.

Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, in other words, was formed as a rather bloody piece of outreach by the local Islamists to share Libya experience in insurrection and revolution with Syria.  After IS arose and became a dominant military and financial force, the "KBL" threw in their lot with ISIS, and members of the brigade subsequently returned to Libya to establish an IS beachhead.

A July 2015 study by Small Arms Survey which I cannot recommend highly enough makes the point that foreign fighters, in addition to accumulating general jihadi merit, were also interested in acquiring skills they could apply in their own struggles.  Moroccans--not just Europeans of Moroccan descent, like Abaaoud, but also, for lack of a better word, Moroccan Moroccans--are a big presence in the jihadi movement.  So, in passing, I would recommend thinking twice about the advantages of a Moroccan vacation timeshare. 
The SAR report also confirms the autonomous character of Katibat al-Battar al-Libi.

While the uncertain relationship between JAN and IS was being clarified, Libyans stayed ‘outside’ the fray, remaining in their own units and not integrating into other IS hierarchies or command structures. In Latakia for instance, Libyans kept their own separate battalion (The Daily Star, 2013). As the split between JAN and IS deepened, Libyans chose IS but remained apart, forming the Katibat al-Battar al-Libiya (KBL) (The Libyan al-Battar Brigade), under the auspices of IS. Since its formation, the KBL has been active in eastern Syria, notably in Al Hasakah and Deir az-Zor. The battalion maintained links with Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, an early and prominent supporter of IS. Ansar al-Sharia proved to be an excellent recruiting tool and played a role in the arrival of many Libyans in Syria prior to 2014.

And who is Ansar al-Sharia in Libya?  Via The Telegraph:

Washington believes the group is responsible for the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. 

In November, the United Nations blacklisted Ansar al-Sharia Benghazi and its sister group, Ansar al-Sharia Derna, over links to Al-Qaeda and for running camps for the Islamist State group. 

So there you have it.  The Paris outrage made in Libya.  Not Syria.  Brought to us by the people who killed Christopher Stevens in Benghazi.
I am sure that Hillary Clinton is grateful to the French police for botching the raid to capture Abaaoud and pumping 5000 rounds into his apartment instead of capturing him; otherwise, he might have become a lively topic of interest and curiosity and the right wing could have cooked off the Benghazi! munitions through election day.
To sum up: the alleged and now reportedly deceased architect of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, did not fight “for IS”.  He fought "with" Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, an outfit whose presence in Syria predates that of ISIS.  Even after Katibat al-Battar al-Libi decided to pledge allegiance to ISIS, it retained its independent identity.  It is possible that Abaaoud was acting under orders from al-Baghdadi to commit the Paris outrage.  But he might have been an angry guy with the skills, resources, and inclination to commit mass murder on his own kick.  And the police were already after him big time after the Verviers raid in January (we are now told that Abaaoud was “on” or a “candidate for” a spot on the drone assassination assignment list, but I wonder if this is post-hoc ass-covering).  So maybe he and his friends decided to pull the pin, and go out in a big way.   
I doubt we'll ever get the full story.  But "Paris: Made in Libya" is an honest hook.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Manhood-Measuring FONOP in South China Sea Comes Up Short

When the US destroyer USS Lassen finally executed its Freedom of Navigation sailthrough a.k.a. “The FONOP” within 12 miles of Subi Reef on October 27, the China hawks were ecstatic.

John Garnaut exulted that the United States had bested the PRC in a “seminal test of wills”.  On his Twitter feed plugging his piece he speculated that revealing the PLA Navy as a paper porpoise might encourage a rethink on Taiwan:  

I wonder about the big prize, Taiwan, now the U.S. has finally called China's bluff over its fake islands 

John Garnaut added, China's great wall of sand is theatrical bluster … by @jgarnaut

The thinking here, presumably, is that the FONOP revealed the PRC would back down in any confrontation with resolutely brandished US military force, so the DPP could and should explore those Taiwan-independence scenarios without excessive concern that the PRC is really going to try to fight its way past the US 7th Fleet.

Unfortunately, the assumption that the United States had successfully defied the PRC’s red line in the SCS is a misconception born of some magical combination of goalpost shifting, misunderstanding, and wishful thinking.

Because there was no red line.

The PRC repeatedly declared it would frown upon, indeed not “condone” a US Navy sailthrough that disregarded the (extremely murky) Chinese position on the inviolability of nearshore waters of its faux islands project.

However, it never said it wouldn’t allow it.

The PRC current position is that the US, as befits the world’s only hyperpower, gets to sail where it wants whether the PRC likes it or not.  And as long as the keystone of the PLAN’s power projection is a converted casino with balky engines masquerading as an aircraft carrier, that’s how it’s going to be.

In any case, the defiant posture of China hawks was deflated by the revelation that the Lassen sailthrough fell under the heading of “innocent passage” i.e. an internationally-accepted hustling of a military vessel from Point A to Point B through some other country’s seas for purposes of transit only (though “hustling” is something of a misnomer here; the Lassen apparently engaged in a “lingering” passage of several hours).

Indeed, the US action appeared to recapitulate a Chinese naval flotilla’s “innocent passage” sailthrough of US waters in the Aleutians in September.

In order for the Lassen operation to openly repudiate any PRC claims to territorial water rights, it would have had to engage in military operations deemed unacceptable in other countries’ territorial waters: turn on attack its attack radars, perhaps, or launch a drone or a helicopter, maybe drop some sensors.

But that didn’t happen, to the chagrin of proponents of the “FONOP”.  Via twitter, from the feed of an analyst who watches the issue closely:

Pentagon/WH needs to set record straight ASAP on unattributed statements Lassen engaged in innocent passage near Subi. Huge blunder if true.
Capt. Anthony Cowden on suggesting Lassen conducted innocent passage: "Not, I think, a msg the Navy wants to send"

.@MiraRappHooper & Klein: No certainty about FONOP yet, but innocent passage "worse than having done nothing at all"

But it was true!  Either through leaks of disgruntled hawks or background briefings by the White House to the Financial Times the story came out.
The revelations shrank the mighty FONOP to the puny dimensions of an “innocent passage” sailthrough.

According to five people familiar with the operation, the USS Lassen conducted what is known under international law as innocent passage when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, which could leave the legal significance of the US manoeuvre open to different interpretations.

But that decision angered many Pentagon and Navy officials who think the US should adopt a more forceful stance.

“It makes the [Obama] administration look weak externally and internally divided,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Lowy Institute in Australia.


Some critics suggested that the US operation was no different from when several Chinese warships recently made an innocent passage through waters surrounding the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska coast.

Mr Graham said that while most countries in the region were relieved when the US conducted the Subi operation, a “sense of anticlimax”…

Insert sad trombone sound here.

As befits the underpopulated insignificance of these small atolls in a rather large sea, it is very difficult to figure out what is actually going on there.  And it would not be beyond the cupidity of various participants to make stuff up.

The administration could just as easily have leaked disinfo that the Lassen had defiantly dropped some sonobuoys and recorded the cries of polyps groaning under the oppression of the Red landfill, and thereby mollified the China hawk quadrant.  Instead, the shortcomings of the FONOP were gracelessly and callously revealed.

If the info came courtesy of FONOP fans in order to embarrass the White House, it's another indication of the borderline insubordination of the Pentagon hawks on the SCS issue and their inclination to try to drive policy execution their way through leaks to the press.

There is another possibility: that the Obama administration was willing to advertise its FONOP dysfunction through backgrounders by not one, not two, but five insiders.

In terms of the White House, there are, I think, a few things at work.

One, obviously, is that President Obama is not too interested in rocking the boat with China right now, what with climate change, cyber, & whatnot on the agenda.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, I suspect President Obama is not too interested in creating additional headaches for himself as he winds down his second term.  The “innocent passage” FONOP threw a bone to the China hawks at home and abroad, but leaves it up to the next president, presumably Hillary Clinton, the creatrix of the pivot, to decide on the frequency and intensity of these operations over the long term.

Third, and my personal favorite, is perhaps President Obama also shares my opinion that the whole “confront the PRC in the SCS” strategy is stupid.

The obvious PRC riposte to enhanced US and ally presence in the SCS is not to resist prematurely; it is to massively muscle up the PRC military presence, not on the exposed islands, but in the Paracels, Hainan, and on the adjacent mainland. 

And that’s what’s happening. 

The PRC just deployed J11 fighters to Woody Island in the Paracels, recently completed its aircraft carrier dock at Sanya on Hainan Island (700 meters; big enough for 2 carriers!), and is certainly looking at studding the coast with ship-killing missiles.

Considering the PRC’s geographic and marginal cost advantages in militarizing its backyard vs. the sizable expense of power projection enhancement into the SCS from outside, I leave it to interested strategists to decide whether sustained military superiority by the U.S., Japan, and their allies in the SCS via the pivot is something really worth betting on…

…even if the US is able to return to Subic Bay in the Philippines and/or Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, prospects that certainly make the Navy’s heart go pitty-pat.

It seems inevitable that eventually the South China Sea will look as inhospitable as the Taiwan Strait, and a confrontation with the PRC over the SCS will require attacks to neutralize PLA capabilities inside PRC sovereign territory, a replay of the AirSeaBattle total war scenario that undoubtedly has fans among the Apocalypse Now! crowd but gives other people the heebie-jeebies.

The FONOP program didn’t start this process; but it’s safe to say that it will accelerate the PRC’s militarization of the SCS and move up the day when the PRC finally decides it really is able to circumscribe the activities of the US Navy.

For what it’s worth, I think the South China Sea is not a flashpoint for World War III; instead I see it as the golden trough where PRC, US, Philippine, and Vietnamese militaries expect to glut themselves for a generation.

Here’s hoping I’m right!

And if the PRC does finally issue an ultimatum to the United States on the activities of the US Navy in the seas surrounding China, here’s hoping we won’t be around to see it.  Because the PRC will only issue that ultimatum when it’s confident of prevailing, not against the cautious US civilian leadership, but against the China hawks in the US milsec quadrant.  

I suggest a useful if not exclusive metric is the carrier race in the West Pacific.  The US is shifting the focus of its carrier operations at San Diego westward to support the activities of the Japan-based Seventh Fleet; the PRC is pushing ahead with construction of its first domestically-born carrier with more undoubtedly to come; and Japan is pushing out two ships that masquerade as helicopter carriers but can quickly be converted into conventional aircraft carriers.

If and when the PRC has more aircraft carriers and overall lethal tonnage in the regional seas than the aggregate of the US, Japan, and any other local ally that wants to pitch in, that’s when we can expect a hard PRC challenge to the potency of the US Navy.