Barcelona- I have written an extensive profile of Said Bahaji, one of the last members of the Hamburg cell still on the run (the other being Zakariya Essabar) in the new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor. Bahaji was a core member of the 9/11 plot and one of it’s least known figures. With the death of Osama bin Laden back in May, Bahaji is one of the few men alive to have operational knowledge of 9/11. Bahaji is still being sheltered by certain Pakistanis, out of reach of everything but a Hellfire missile it seems.
It would be a damn shame if we were to find out he had simply been obliterated in a drone strike rather than somehow captured alive. In fact, his logistical knowledge of the 9/11 operation makes him much more valuable to the historical record than bin Laden (if in a fantasy bin Laden had been captured alive and tried in a court of law rather than assassinated). If it were possible to abduct him from North or South Waziristan and bundle him to the West, I reckon his debriefing could finally shut up the tiresome 9/11 conspiracy theory crowd. But that is another fantasy. The ‘truther’ movement is apparently impervious to reality and updated historical record keeping. You cannot have a serious debate with people who have made up their minds before they have heard the first question.
It is highly unlikely Bahaji will live out a quiet retirement in the bazaars of Mir Ali or Miranshah. It is more probable that he will be collaterally assassinated in a CIA drone strike on some TTP big in a convoy along the border with Khost. In several ways, he is the ideal AQ operative being half Western and half Maghrebi. Adam Gadahn has nothing on Bahaji. The United States has made great strides in nailing AQ men in Pakistan’s cities-Ramzi bin al-Shibh in Karachi in 2002, KSM in Rawalpindi in 2003, and ObL in Abbottabad in 2011. It has had much, much less success in FATA where Pakistan’s writ is barely existent in many swaths of the tribal belt. Instead the US has been going after TTP figures like Baitullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud, essentially getting caught up in the sticky web of Pakistan’s varied and sundry internal conflicts rather than sticking to what should be very narrow goal. It seems the White House is “smokin’ ‘em out” more than ever before as the drone programme shows no sign of letting up. But are we smoking out the right men? Should Langley be smoking out Islamabad’s internal enemies in a remote control dirty war? The security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme (from its own people) has become a raison d’être for supporting a hideously corrupt, loathsome Zardari government that has no friends other than the American tax payer and its PPP patrons. It is the perpetuation of a deadly inertia as policy writ large.
Barcelona- I appeared on CNN today discussing some of my observations about my recent trip to Jebel Nafusa. Produced by Tim Lister in Atlanta.
(CNN) — Six months and more than 17,000 air sorties after it began, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in the skies over Libya grinds on.
What was envisaged in March as a rapid engagement to prevent Moammar Gadhafi’s forces from razing Benghazi to the ground has evolved into a long slog. And increasingly NATO operations have dovetailed with those of the rebels — with the aim of making pro-Gadhafi forces incapable of offensive action.
The initial mandate set out by the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 was to protect civilians under threat or attack, to enforce an arms embargo on the country and implement a no-fly zone.
“What was initially supposed to be a neutral intervention to protect civilians that were threatened specifically in Benghazi has morphed into being largely a one-sided affair to support the Libyan rebel force to overthrow Gadhafi,” says Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Throughout the conflict NATO has continued to insist that all its actions are aimed at protecting civilians from pro-Gadhafi forces, and that it has not “taken sides.” On Thursday, the Royal Air Force spoke of “precision strikes on former regime facilities at Sabratah [west of Tripoli], including a commando base which had been used by Colonel Gadhafi’s men to launch numerous reprisals against the local people.”
See a timeline of the conflict
But such missions are invariably close to areas where the rebels are trying to break through. In recent weeks, sustained NATO strikes around Brega, Misrata and in the western Nafusa mountains have helped tip the military balance in the rebels’ favor, to the point that Gadhafi’s opponents have become reluctant to enter the fray until air power has softened up the enemy.
Derek Flood, a journalist and analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, has just spent several weeks in western Libya. “I found the rebels had become almost overly dependent on NATO to the point they wouldn’t act without NATO actually softening up the targets first.”
Libyan hospital overwhelmed Rebels gaining ground in Tripoli Libyan rebels claim critical victory Video: Libyan rebels free prisoners
Most recently, rebel efforts to take the vitally important town of Zawiyah, just 30 miles west of Tripoli, were preceded by several days of NATO sorties. NATO lists about a dozen “key hits” around Zawiyah in the past five days. The Royal Air Force also targeted a boat commandeered by several Libyan soldiers to get out of Zawiyah, but a statement said that “since it was clear from their actions that these troops continued to pose a threat to the local population, the RAF patrol engaged the ship,” which was destroyed.
There appears to be growing coordination between NATO and rebel military commanders.
Video footage emerged at the beginning of this month of a column of rebel tanks and pickup trucks, outside the city of Brega in eastern Libya, daubed with orange paint to distinguish them from government forces and ensure they weren’t erroneously bombed.
In previous days, NATO planes had hit several pro-regime targets around Brega.
On a fluid battlefield, where military assets are poorly marked and often hidden in civilian areas, NATO needs forward air controllers to help with targeting.
“Western air forces don’t bomb without that direct ability to visualize the battlefield, especially when the regime has placed so many of its assets within civilian protected areas,” Zenko says.
NATO spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie was pressed on the issue at a news briefing last month. “NATO does not have direct coordination with opposition forces or rebel forces in Brega,” he said. But he added: “We follow the situation through allied information sources that are in the area.”
Zenko says such “allied information sources” may be retired special forces soldiers or military contractors. They are said to be in contact with a liaison office in rebel-held Benghazi, which passes on information to the NATO command center in Naples, Italy.
NATO won’t comment on such arrangements.
The arms embargo has been liberally interpreted by some, with Qatar and France supplying the rebels with weapons and military advice. Qatar is reported to have supplied the rebels with antitank missiles, flying them into Benghazi. And Derek Flood said he believes Qatar was also getting weapons to the rebels via the Tunisian border. In the western mountains “there was support on the ground from Qatari officials as well as Emirati officials,” he said. Tunisian officials deny weapons are crossing their border. Neither Qatar nor the United Arab Emirates have commented on such involvement.
France acknowledged in June that it had air-dropped assault rifles and ammunition to Berber militia groups in the western mountains but said they were to help civilians protect themselves.
At sea, NATO has operated a blockade — in accordance with U.N. resolutions — to prevent any resupply of Gadhafi forces. But in one instance in May a Canadian frigate stopped a rebel tugboat carrying howitzer rounds, ammunition and “lots of explosives” from Benghazi to Misrata. NATO commanders allowed the vessel to proceed on the grounds that it was moving from one Libyan port to another.
More recently, there was the murky case of the oil tanker Cartagena, a vessel owned by the Libyan government but stranded at sea with 30,000 tons of gasoline since May. Rebels boarded the ship in international waters and diverted it to Benghazi with NATO permission. The unknown: Did the rebels have help in seizing the ship? It’s not the sort of operation they are used to.
NATO’s mission has shifted in another way. After hitting more than 3,000 military targets — from ammunition dumps to tanks to radar and command-and-control facilities — there are not many more left. So it has turned to the regime’s infrastructure. The satellite dishes of Libyan state TV were bombed on the grounds that the broadcaster was being used to “incite violence.” The radar at Tripoli airport also was taken out, and the sprawling Gadhafi compound in Tripoli has been targeted several times.
NATO officials say operations will continue for as long as it takes, though how long it takes to do what is an open question. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said repeatedly that the conflict can only end with a political solution, but the outlines of such a solution are far from clear.
Zenko says the goal from early on has been regime change, and the latest tactic is to try to cut off all economic and outside supplies to make it cease functioning.
While the Libyan regime has lost access to much of the country and is losing critical routes to the east, west and south, Derek Flood says it appears to retain control of border crossings in the Sahara desert — from Algeria, Chad and Niger.
The military balance has tipped in the rebels’ favor. Flood says the capture by rebels of the important road junction at Gharyan 80 kilometers south of Tripoli can only further isolate the regime, cutting off fuel supplies from Algeria. Even so, it still controls large tracts of a vast country.
NATO’s current mandate in Libya expires at the end of September. Its members may yet be asked to extend it once again.
Barcelona- I’ve got a new feature length piece in this week’s edition of Terrorism Monitor on this vague, ill formed concept of reconciliation with the Quetta shura Omar-led Taliban and what it could mean for the future of inter-ethnic and sectarian tension in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Otherwise it’s been a fairly relaxed week or two lolling away en la costa del Barcelona. This place is one of the best for people watching as well as being a living laboratory for everything that’s right and wrong with the 21st century European Union. For a major city, the beaches aren’t half bad either. I’m definitely enjoying the pace of the Mediterranean lifestyle along with it’s attendant diet. I’m working away on the July issue of MLM and planning my next adventure to North Africa’s fluid trouble zones. ¡La Dulce Vida!
New York- I picked up the American printing of James Brabazon’s My Friend the Mercenary which details his adventures in the early to mid-aughts in West Africa and his Afrikaner mercenary pal who wound up on the wrong side of the failed Wonga coup in Obiang’s Equatorial Guinea in 2004. I read nearly a third of this book as soon as I got it. Fun stuff. I was a bit on the fence about picking it up because the photos are by the late Tim Hetherington and I thought that might be a bit sad (I saw his book, Infidel, while I was rooting around the same Barnes & Noble) but this book is kind of uplifting in an odd sort of way. Perhaps the fact that I can identify with the central character, Brabazon himself, having endured my fair share of sketch in the global Balkans during those heady days of the Bush years (Pankisi Gorge comes to mind-thanks Colin Powell).
I have an article out in this week’s edition of Terrorism Monitor pictured et linked here. I was noting with a friend last week just how much Bahrain has fallen off the front page–a combination of that government’s efforts to keep people like myself out and the sheer volume of globe rocking events occurring–a no sooner than I put something out that it pops back on CNN International, PBS Newshour, and Al Jazeera English. Strange how the world seems to work that way some times.
Libya continues to burn and Syria is showing no signs of letting up. The Times of London’s Martin Fletcher managed, I think somewhat foolishly, to get into Syria on a tourist visa. That was a serious risk considering what had happened to an Al Jazeera reporter there. Now Pakistan is back in vogue as some interest in the Arab Spring begins to recede. And then of course there is the never-ending story of poor Afghanistan. The is more going on these days than even I can keep up with as a serious news junkie. Time to baton down the hatches.
New York- The fruits of my intellectual East African labors came to bear and my Jubaland article is out in this week’s edition of the Jamestown Foundation’sTerrorism Monitor. Though it may appear to be a concise, quiet analysis, a lot of shoe leather went into the production of this piece, not to mention a decent sunburn or two in the thin air of the Ethiopian capital. I must say, after having returned stateside two weeks ago now, I desperately miss my daily helpings of injera, the oddly (at first anyway) delectable Ethiopian national dish. A young Ethiopian-American kid I met in Lalibela told me how I would be in great shape after the combination of high altitude walking and zero fat, zero preservative food. Unfortunately, I am sure I am back to me old habits after multiple trips to some of my favorite DC and NYC eateries and drinkeries since I’ve been back.
Just cranked out yet another issue of Militant Leadership Monitor, should be another great issue. I will post a plug for that when we go live with it. I’ve also added two Wikileaks links along the right side of this page-that connecting to the Guantánamo files and that connecting to the Cablegate Cable Viewer. Take a look.
In other, more dire news, Syria still seems to be burning in it’s own self imposed Hades. Aside from sanctions and further isolation, the internationals are powerless to stop al-Assad from smashing the Syrian people as protests are now reported in all corners of the country-including Qamishle in the very vulnerable northeastern pocket of Syrian Kurdistan.
New York- I’ve just read on Al Jazeera English that the staff of the hospital in Ajdabiya have decided to rename a square after fallen English journalist Tim Hetherington. When I read that he had died in Misurata, my first reaction was that I did not know he was in Libya in the first place. That was until I read a blog post by Jon Lee Anderson on the newyorker.com which jogged my memory somehow of my last day in Libya where I realized that I had seen and noted Hetherington…standing outside the emergency room in Ajdabiya alongside Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario (who would be taken hostage there the following afternoon). What a fateful image that now replays in my mind.
In other much more comparatively staid developments, C-SPAN has posted videos from the Jamestown Foundation’s April 20 MENA conference at the Carnegie Endowment where I spoke on my experiences in the Libyan conflict.
New York- Following six weeks of African adventure of all sorts, it felt alright to return to New York (before turning right around and heading to Washington for Jamestown’s MENA conference) with all of the difficult readjustment that entails. I’ve realized that one of the most difficult things about returning to the United States is the change in diet. After eating a nearly vegan, preservative-free diet in pre-Lent Orthodox Ethiopia-where practicing Christians eat vegan for nearly half of every year- for the last ten days, it’s tough on the body returning to a sugar heavy, preservative-laden American diet.
To buy tickets to this Wednesday’s MENA conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on think tank row in DC, click here.