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State Department Ignores How US Forces Have Inspired ‘Emergence’ of Al Qaeda Affiliates

The United States State Department has released its annual report on global terrorism where it highlights “serious threat” posed to the US by the growth in affiliates of Al Qaeda while also acknowledging that the “international community has severely degraded Al Qaeda’s core leadership.”

As it describes, “Leadership losses in Pakistan, coupled with weak governance and instability in the Middle East and Northwest Africa, have accelerated the decentralization of the movement and led to the affiliates in the AQ network becoming more operationally autonomous from core AQ and increasingly focused on local and regional objectives.”

“The past several years have seen the emergence of a more aggressive set of AQ affiliates and like-minded groups, most notably in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Northwest Africa, and Somalia,” the report adds.

Each of those countries or the region of northwest Africa are places where the US is engaged in covert intelligence or military operations. Or, particularly, in the case of Iraq, it is a country which has experienced the harsh effects of the aftermath of US military intervention.

The State Department reports that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) ” carried out approximately one hundred attacks throughout Yemen in 2013, including suicide bombings, car bombings, ambushes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations, regaining the initiative it had lost through 2012 as a result of sustained Yemeni government counterterrorism efforts.”

Such a description omits the extent to which the US is fighting alongside Yemeni forces or in control of any “initiative” against AQAP. There were 17 reported drone strikes in 2013, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Fifteen or sixteen possible drone strikes were reported. In total, anywhere from 67 to 105 people were reported killed, many of them potentially “militants.” But anywhere from 17 to 26 civilians were killed, along with four children.

In testimony at a congressional briefing on November 20, 2013, Entesar Qadhi, a Yemeni youth leader who was elected to a position in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) from the Mareb province, described what it had been like in her village to fight al Qaeda and drive members of the militant group out of her village.

“We were told that drones are used to target al Qaeda and only al Qaeda, but the reality is my village didn’t know al Qaeda [until] after those drones” started hovering over our skies, Qadhi said. When her village and their tribes “enter into armed clashes” with al Qaeda militants, the Yemeni government provides no support except for the drones.

“Drone strikes actually make al Qaeda people more popular because of the fact that they are striking inside of our villages, which makes the presence of Qaeda justified in our place,” she stated.” They’ll kick out al Qaeda militants, but then those militants will return when drones begin to hover over the village again.

This human example of the impact of US policy is reinforced in a story published by The Washington Post on May 29, 2012. It reported, “An escalating campaign of US drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.”

Even the State Department recognizes that AQAP has grown from around 200 people in 2009 to “several thousand” people now. AQAP has taken advantage of a political vacuum in Yemen. Amel Ahmed, a Yemeni freelance writer, has suggested, “Al Qaeda would not be in Yemen but for a discredited central government that has failed to provide its people with opportunities and better living conditions.”

The State Department’s report indicates, “In East Africa, the Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab remained the primary terrorist threat. Somali security forces and the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) continued to make gains against al-Shabaab in 2013, but an inability to undertake consistent offensive operations against the group allowed al-Shabaab to develop and carry out asymmetric attacks, including outside of Somalia. Most notably, al-Shabaab launched an attack against the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya on September 21 that left at least 65 people dead.”

Unmentioned and unaddressed is what journalist Jeremy Scahill extensively details in his book Dirty Wars—how “Washington’s own actions” eventually made “al Shabaab and its al Qaeda allies more powerful in Somalia than it—or the CIA—could ever have imagined.”

The CIA backed Somali warlords were defeated by the Islamic Courts Union in the mid-2000s. “Blowback sparked by US policies in Somalia and abroad,” further inspired al Qaeda activity.

“The civilian tolls the wars were taking in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, gave credence to the perception that the United States was waging a war against Islam,” Scahill wrote. “While the United States backed its own warlords in Mogadishu, Washington’s post-9/11 actions led to the formation of a coalition of former warlords and religious movements that would challenge the rule of the US proxies in Somalia.”

When Ethiopia got involved in the fighting, that further escalated the conflict. Malcolm Nance, a “career navy counterterrorist specialist who trained elite US Special Operations Forces,” told Scahill, “The Shabab existed in a very small warlord-like infrastructure, prior to that, but once Ethiopia went in there—it’s pretty obvious that they were acting as a [US] surrogate—al Qaeda said, ‘Great! New full-on Jihadi battlefront. We’ve got ’em here. We’ve got the Christian Ethiopians, we’ve got American advisers. Now we just create a new battlefront and we will reinvigorate East Africa’s al Qaeda organization.’ And that is exactly what happened.”

This same strategy is continuing in northwestern Africa and other parts of the continent at a break-neck pace. Nick Turse for TomDispatch recently reported forces are averaging around one mission a day.

“US troops carry out a wide range of operations in Africa, including airstrikes targeting suspected militants, night raids aimed at kidnapping terror suspects, airlifts of French and African troops onto the battlefields of proxy wars, and evacuation operations in destabilized countries.  Above all, however, the US military conducts training missions, mentors allies, and funds, equips, and advises its local surrogates,” according to Turse.

US Africa Command’s operations have skyrocketed. “Since 2011, U.S. Army Africa alone has taken part in close to 1,000 “activities” across the continent, but independent reporters have only been on hand for a tiny fraction of them, so there are limits to what we can know about them beyond military talking points and official news releases for a relative few of these missions.”

“Only later did it become clear that the United States extensively mentored the military officer who overthrew Mali’s elected government in 2012, and that the U.S. trained a Congolese commando battalion implicated by the United Nations in mass rapes and other atrocities during that same year, to cite two examples,” Turse recounted.

In Syria, the CIA’s objective of arming the “rebels,” moderate ones they can trust to not turn antitank missiles against Western targets, has hit a major speed bump. The Obama administration is afraid that if they give “rebels” weapons they will wind up in the hands of Islamic militant groups who see themselves as being at war with the US. They want to ensure they are only used against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, however, the weaponry being shipped to “rebels” is low-tech and probably incompatible with “high-tech security equipment,” such as the fingerprint scanners and GPS systems, the administration would like to attach before deploying the weapons.

As for the country of Iraq, there is no better example of what is likely to happen to a country if the US occupies it for years and then withdraws after its forces have bred sectarian warfare.

There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq prior to the US invasion in 2003. Now, under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Al Qaeda is resurgent, benefiting from the autocratic rule of the country’s prime minister. Maliki has shelled Fallujah, killed civilians and committed alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity because he became convinced al Qaeda was taking over the city. Iraq’s criminal system is plagued by torture and corruption. The rape and abuse of women is increasingly common. Government officials engage in torture and there is no accountability for their actions. Record numbers of executions have taken place in the country, with Maliki insistent that this is what must be done to secure the country.

The extent to which US forces have played a role in fueling the escalation in activity in these areas is not something the State Department or the larger US government has an interest in confronting, as it maintains a permanent war footing in the “war on terrorism.” But citizens of these countries see horrific policies carried out by their governments. They see the US providing aid or support to governments that are brutalizing their people. They see US forces engaged in secret missions that result in carnage that affects their families directly. They do not see their own government or the US helping them to address their needs, the repression or poverty they are enduring in their country.

The result is a climate perfect for groups like Al Qaeda and its affiliates. But the State Department won’t acknowledge this reality, that it might be better for US forces to disengage and entirely rethink strategy. So, in the end, the government perpetuates a cycle of violence that leads to more terrorism, that fuels more intense conflict in countries and leaves citizens wondering if this is the goal of the US: to maintain conditions for fighting groups like Al Qaeda so it can continue to justify its presence in places around the world.

Creative Commons-Licensed Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Tech. Sgt. Molly Dzitko / U.S. Army, Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway / U.S. Army

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."