At the NSA, analysts follow a law that is “effectively the same standard that’s used for stop-and-frisk,” according to the agency’s general counsel, Rajesh De, when asked this morning by Rachel Brand of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight board to explain the Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion Standard—the legal method through which NSA determines to further examine and query the phone records of supposed terrorists.
Swimming with Warlords – After Twelve Years of War, a Road Trip Through Afghanistan
nder the cover of a moonless night in mid-October 2001, I found myself loading thousands of pounds of camera equipment and supplies onto a giant pontoon boat on the northern bank of the Amu Darya River. The pontoons were normally used to carry weapons to the northern Alliance troops fighting the Taliban on the other side of the water. With all the gear and colleagues, there didn’t seem to be any room left on that raft for allegory, but I remembered feeling like one of the damned souls of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, about to be ferried across the River Acheron to hell. The American air strikes had begun, and I was headed into Afghanistan.
I was dispatched by NBC News only one week after Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network attacked the US, crashing planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I arrived in Afghanistan in October to bear witness to America’s righteous anger and retribution. It was swift and unrelenting.
In my first month on the ground, I watched as the US obliterated al Qaeda’s bases and, with the help of its Northern Alliance allies—a mix of mostly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Afghans—toppled the Taliban government that had hosted them. But the war, as we well know, did not end there.
I returned to Afghanistan in June for my fifth visit, on the eve of the planned 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops (a joint security agreement will likely keep some US military personnel there past the deadline) in attempt to understand what had happened to the country in the 12 years since I first set foot there and what might happen this time, after I left.
How the Shutdown Confused al-Qaeda
While the government shutdown seems like an expected event to Americans, recent research indicates that in other parts of the world it appears irrational and incomprehensible. This became apparent over the past few days as foreign media outlets struggled to make sense of the shutdown and the elaborate congressional choreography leading to it.
Furthermore, an intercept of a conversation between two al-Qaeda operatives confirmed what some have suspected for a long time: American politics is a joke. It also revealed that even an organization known for suicide operations can be baffled by the self-destructive tendencies of the US political system. Below is a transcript of this revealing conversation between the two al-Qaeda members, referred to as A and B.
A: Al Salamu Alaykom, Brother B.
B: Al Salamu Alaykom. How are the preparation or the, er, party?
A: Not so good. I’m afraid the venue is closed down.
B: Closed down? That’s bad news. Did you move to the alternative venue?
A: It’s also closed down. In fact, they are all closed down.
B: What? This is incredible. How could this happen?
A: All government buildings are closed. Didn’t you hear about the shutdown?
B: The shutdown? Vaguely, yes, I thought it was a new American movie. They were talking about it on TV and they were using that voice they use for movies.
A: It’s not a movie! They are closing down government departments!
B: That’s incredible, why would they do that?
A: It seems we have overestimated how efficient their political system is. When they can’t agree they just shut down the whole thing and go home.
Somali Jihadists’ Growing Pains Are a Pain for Everyone
When I left Somaliland (northern Somalia) a few weeks ago, after two months spent listening to the chatter and news in cafes and ministries, I’d come to believe that the Somalia-based violent jihadist group al-Shabaab, while still dangerous, was fundamentally shattered. During my stay I chatted with former Shabaab supporters and even an ex-Shabaab soldier, Qawdhan, whose stories of infighting between older members, who believed in a limited, nationalist agenda, and the younger recruits who advocated international jihad, led me to believe that the organization, though swollen with manpower, had descended into paralyzed bickering, limiting its ability to act.
Today the president of Kenya announced the siege carried out by members of Shabaabon the Westgate Shopping Center in Nairobi was over. Still, the attack, which began on Saturday when armed militants stormed the mall, killing civilians and taking hostages, made it clear my assumptions were incorrect. As of this writing, the body count sits at 67—61 civilians and six soldiers—with almost 200 wounded, at least ten of them officers, and the news remains dominated by images of bodies splayed on the ground and a plume of black smoke rising up from the mall.
Qawdhan was a member of the old Shabaab guard. During his time the group was composed of Somali nationalists pushing for an Islamic state as a means to end foreign interference in the country’s politics. He fled shortly after Moktar Ali Zubeyr (a.k.a. Ahmed Abdi Godane), a member of Qawdhan’s Arab clan and Shabaab’s current leader, officially affiliated the group with al Qaeda in early 2012, ushering in a new level of chaos and violence between the nationalist and international jihadist camps. By the end of this June, there were signs that the chaos might be tipping in Godane’s favor; Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the group’s longtime spiritual leader and advocate of limited, nationalist goals, fled Shabaab and surrendered to Somali government custody. In another recent boost to his authority, Godane’s forces purged two of his most vocal and visible opponents: Abu Mansoor al-Amriki and Usama al-Britani (the American and the Brit).
Are American Drones al-Qaeda’s Strongest Weapon in Yemen?
Things are getting really messy in Yemen at the moment. With soldiers being murdered in their sleep and embassies closing en masse in fear of an imminent wave of attacks and multiple drone strikes, the country seems to be the latest sandbox full of blood in our War on Terror.
Not that this warzone is all that new. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have had a presence in the area for years, their membership rose from around 300 in 2009 up to an estimated 1,000 today. In an attempt to combat this rise in manpower, the US has escalated its infamous drone program, allegedly targeting high-ranking AQAP members. Although, according to reports, they’ve yet to actually kill any of them.
Is this hit and hope policy really the best way to fight al-Qaeda in Yemen? Or are these drone strikes, which have a habit of killing civilians, exactly the PR ammo al-Qaeda need to lure new recruits in a country that is already as politically stable as a gang of jihadists on a bouncy castle?
I Ate Ice Cream with a Member of al Qaeda in Syria
Al Qaeda has a bit of an image problem. Their reputation as the world’s most feared terrorist network can be traced back to precisely 8:46 AM EST on September 11, 2001. And it’s a reputation that they’ve since cemented by kidnapping and executing foreign journalists and aid workers, bombing public transport systems in Europe and involving themselves in several particularly nasty African civil wars. So, when I had the opportunity to interview one of their members in Syria recently, I was—needless to say—a little nervous.
Al Qaeda are fighting in Syria’s civil war under a handful of banners. The most well known is the homegrown Jabhat al-Nusra, the first jihadist group to emerge in the conflict and the one that the US Government made infamous (and, incidentally, rather popular with many young Syrian fighters) when they stuck it on their list of forbidden terrorist networks back in December 2012.
But in recent months Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to distance itself from al Qaeda, and increasingly it is being overshadowed by the new kids on the block—the Iraqi, al Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a group that is both led by and almost exclusively made up of foreign Mujahideen fighters. ISIS established itself in Syria in April after a People’s Front of Judea-style spat between one Jabhat al-Nusra leader, who wanted to formally link the group to al Qaeda in Iraq, and another Jabhat al-Nusra leader, who didn’t.
It Don’t Gitmo Better than This – Molly Crabapple’s Account of Her Journey to the Dark Heart of Guantanamo Bay
A T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan IT DON’T GITMO BETTER THAN THIS is perhaps the definitive physical manifestation of globalization. Sewn in Honduras and sold by Jamaican contractors on land rented from Cuba, the shirt celebrates an American prison holding Muslims who’ve been declared enemies in the war on terror. It’s a popular item in the Gitmo gift shop (yes, Gitmo has a gift shop), displayed next to the stuffed banana rats and shot glasses engraved with GUANTÁNAMO BAY: DIVE IN.
Built in 1898, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base looks like a US suburb. There’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, and even a Christmas parade. On Halloween, military members dressed as zombies complete a 5K run. Winners of the Mr. and Ms. Gitmo Figure and Fitness Competition arch their backs on the cover of the Wire,the base’s in-house magazine. The Team Gitmo outdoor movie theater screens all the big blockbusters (when I visited it was World War Z), and in the evenings, visitors can eat jerk chicken next to swaying banyan trees, get drunk at O’Kelly’s (“the only Irish pub on Communist soil”), or sing karaoke.
But since the Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived in 2002, Guantánamo Bay has been home to the world’s most notorious prison.
Gitmo’s prison camps were built, in principle, to hold and interrogate captives outside the reach of US law. Nearly 800 Muslim men have been imprisoned since it opened, and the vast majority of them have never been charged with any crime. Since he was inaugurated in 2008, President Obama has twice promised to close Gitmo, but 166 men still languish in indefinite detention. It is a place where information is contraband, force-feeding is considered humane care, staples are weapons, and the law is rewritten wantonly.
Nabil Hadjarab arrived at Gitmo 11 years ago, in an orange jumpsuit and a diaper, his head covered by a hood, eyes blinded by blackout goggles, mouth gagged, and with headphones blaring white noise into his ears.