Belmont Club

The Return of the Prisoner Snatch

Al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda are reacting to the failed attempt by SEALs to snatch Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadar — AKA Ikrima — by searching their ranks for an American mole. The NYT says “people suspected of spying for the enemy [the US] have been rounded up and arrested” even as more security was added to the beachfront town of Barawe where the raid took place.

The reasons for their precautions are obvious. What Ikrima knew nearly fell into the hands of the SEALs. He’s believed to be a link to Shabaab’s funders and the liaison with al-Qaeda abroad. “Residents of Barawe, the town where the raid took place, say Ikrima is a leader in the militia with responsibility for logistics,” probably meaning ‘for supplying money’. Reuters describes his international connections thus:

One defector from al Shabaab, who now works with Somali intelligence, described Ikrima as a well-connected man in his 30s able to mastermind operations across the border into Kenya.

In 2004, he travelled to Norway where he applied for asylum but left in 2008 before there was a decision on his application, Norway’s TV2 reported. When in Norway, he lived in the Oslo area but visited Somalia, it said. …

J Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council think tank said Ikrima had a range of links including with another active group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“Ikrima seems to have his own connections both to al Hijra and to al Qaeda, including what is left of the central leadership in Pakistan and AQAP in Yemen,” he said.

Normally attended by a retinue of 20 bodyguards, Ikrima was valuable to the SEALs only if he could be taken alive. One piece of information the US may have sought was whether al-Qaeda was planning an attack on the West, a possibility that the NYT curiously restates as a consequence of rather than a probable cause of the raid.

But there is also the question of whether, by engaging the group so aggressively, the United States may have made itself more of a target. The Shabab have claimed responsibility for deadly strikes in Uganda and Kenya, two nations that have sent troops to fight it in recent years, and the group has killed scores of civilians in what it has called reprisals for military incursions into Somalia.

But that Ikrima  would target America must be a given, since Pentagon spokesman George Little said “Ikrima was also closely associated with Harun Fazul and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who he said “played roles” in the 1998 bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombassa, Kenya.”

The raid may revive public debate over the question of the importance of human intelligence in fighting al-Qaeda. Recent stories on NSA signals omnipotence hide the fact there are many things the NSA can’t learn from wiretapping. Human intelligence played a role in finding Osama bin Laden, a fact highlighted when the Obama administration tried to pull strings to save Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani health official who helped find him in Abbotabad.

The man was rewarded for his actions by Pakistan who sentenced him to 33 years in jail, a sentence that has just been overturned.

A Pakistani administrator has overturned a judgment sentencing a doctor who helped CIA agents hunting the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to 33 years in prison.

Lawyers for Shakil Afridi, who was convicted of treason in May last year, played down his chances of release, but experts said the decision could be related to a recent improvement in difficult relations between the US and Pakistan. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, raised the issue of Afridi’s imprisonment when visiting Islamabad in July….

As first revealed by the Guardian, in the weeks running up to the assault by US navy seals Afridi ran a bogus hepatitis B vaccination campaign for the CIA, designed to collect blood samples in the hope of finding people who matched the Bin Laden family DNA. A match would have helped to definitively identify the extremist leader.

Naturally the Shabaabs are looking for the inside man in the Barawe raid. And if they find him they will not be gentle in asking how he made the acquaintance of US intelligence.

The return of the prisoner snatch is ironically justified under the very law President Obama seeks to repeal. Bill Roggio writes, “the Department of Defense cited the AUMF [Authorization to Use Military Force] in a press release announcing the raid that targeted Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, also known as Ikrima, a Kenyan who serves as a senior Shabaab leader and coordinates the group’s operations outside Somalia with al Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan.”

But the Pentagon’s use of the AUMF to justify the raid to capture Ikrima comes just four months after Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University calling for the repeal of the law. Obama painted a rosy picture of the war in Afghanistan and al Qaeda, claiming that the former is “coming to an end” and the latter is “a shell of its former self.”

“I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing. The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old,” Obama said. “The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

Shabaab was not mentioned by Obama as posing a threat to the United States.

For most of Obama’s first term the administration acted as if they were out of the prisoner capture business. US prisons like Guantanamo were slated for closure in favor of simply zapping suspected militants with drones. The US could certainly have incinerated Ikrima’s house with airstrike or drone — but they did not.

Some in the administration may have thought al-Qaeda was finished even before the bin Laden raid, and could therefore dispense with politically dangerous acts like taking prisoners and holding them for interrogation. Vince Coglianese at the Daily Caller quotes the author of Chuck Pfarrer, author of Seal Target Geronimo as saying the administration preferred to take the victory lap rather than exploit the intel captured in Abbotabad.

President Obama stepped up to a podium in the East Room of the White House that night to announce bin Laden’s death. That rapid announcement, explained Pfarrer, posed a major threat to U.S. national security.

“There was a choice that night,” Pfarrer told TheDC. “There was a choice to keep the mission secret.” America, Pfarrer explained, could have left things alone for “weeks or months … even though there was evidence left on the ground there … and use the intelligence and finish off al-Qaida.”

But Obama’s announcement, he said, “rendered moot all of the intelligence that was gathered from the nexus of al-Qaida. The computer drives, the hard drives, the videocasettes, the CDs, the thumb drives, everything. Before that could even be looked through, the political decision was made to take credit for the operation.”

The fact that it’s back suggests the administration may now have come around to the belief that the Sunni Islamic militancy is far from dead. The damage inflicted by Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA capabilities may have created blind spots, or the intelligence community may simply have decided that taking prisoners again was the only way to find out what they needed to know.

In retrospect the Bush years, for all their defects, probably handed Obama a security margin that he felt it was too large to actually squander. He could earn a political dividend by safely spending that accumulated surplus. Scaling back was not only politically popular with his base, but gave away nothing essential. However his calculations, like his Obamacare website, fell short in anticipation and execution.  Al-Qaeda is back and full of confidence. Emblematic of the new situation is the story of Abu Omar, as related by Foreign Policy.  Omar is now shopping in Turkey for GPS equipment, digital maps and computing equipment he intends to take with him on his return to the Jihad.

Abu Omar, a handsome young man with long black hair, is not the only one making the trek to Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners — mostly suspected or convicted jihadists — were freed in July after al Qaeda-linked militants staged a deadly jailbreak at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. At the time, Iraqi and Western authorities feared that some of those men would travel to Syria, helping to fuel the rise of extremist groups there. Those fears have now become a reality.

Abu Omar is one of the al Qaeda members who escaped during the Abu Ghraib prison break. He says six of his former cellmates have also made it to Syria. “Many more are on their way,” he says in a strong Iraqi Arabic accent. “Everybody wants to go for jihad to Syria.”

Where Abu Omar goes after Syria is starting to worry MI5 Chief Andrew Parker who unambiguously fears that people like Omar are headed West after gaining combat experience in Syria, according to the Washington Post. From half-closing Abu Ghraib, half-trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed to half-overthrowing Assad in Syria and thence is a story of choices made, or rather half made.

“Threats are diversifying, but not diminishing,” Parker told the Royal United Services Institute in his first public speech. “The Internet, technology and big data are transforming our society. … We can’t stop every plot, much as we try and much as we would like to. There are choices ahead that will determine whether we can sustain what we do, or accept that it will erode.”

President Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy is now getting an implicit bug fix, though naturally it’s only experiencing temporary glitches. Publicly all remains well, but anyone can guess there are nagging problems about the administration’s competence, which are now getting too big to hide. As Jon Stewart told Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, won’t you even admit you have a problem?

“We’re gonna do a challenge,” Stewart said. “I’m gonna try to download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare and we’ll see what happens first.”

Manifestly the administration has no problems.  Like the Obamacare website, the President’s security strategy is simply overwhelmed by its own success.

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