CommunityThe Dissenter

Obama Administration’s Game of Geopolitical Terrorist Whack-a-Mole Expands with Strikes in Syria

Screen shot from US air strike video on an ISIS compound in Syria

The United States bombed targets in Syria, drastically expanding the warfront in the Middle East. America’s military forces attacked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets, as President Barack Obama had suggested would happen during his speech nearly two weeks ago. What came as a surprise was the fact that unilateral attacks also targeted the Khorasan Group, which Obama had not mentioned in his speech and is led by people who the US had been fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Lieutenant General William Mayville stated in a briefing that the Pentagon has been “watching this group” for a long time and believed the group was “nearing the execution phase in an attack either in northern Europe or the [US] homeland.”

US Central Command, in a press release which formed the basis for most US reporting on the air strikes, reported the US had “taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qaeda veterans – sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group – who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by US assets.”

A statement made by President Barack Obama acknowledged the strikes on Khorasan Group targets but avoided any specifics on why this group needed to be targeted now. Instead, Obama added, “It must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.”

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attacks reportedly killed about 70 militants from ISIS and about 50 from Nusra Front, which is the “parent organization of the Khorasan cell.” Eight civilians were killed too.

The rationale for escalating war in Syria is questionable enough when considering what will happen with US and US-led forces attacking ISIS targets. But the risks of mission creep and transforming Syria into a greater quagmire than it already happens to be would seem to rise exponentially if the US is going to conduct surprise attacks on other terrorist or militant groups.

What appears to have happened is, having won support for going after ISIS from Congress and various countries throughout the world, the Obama administration authorized the military to take advantage of operations supported by Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to bomb the Khorasan Group, which appears to have been viewed in the past months as much, much more of a threat to the United States than ISIS.

The Associated Press published a report on September 14 based almost entirely on classified intelligence disclosed by anonymous “American officials.” The group was described as a “cadre of veteran al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who traveled to Syria to link up with the al Qaeda affiliate there, the Nusra Front.”

Officials claimed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to “recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a US-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.”

Referencing “classified US intelligence assessments,” AP additionally reported the “Khorasan militants have been working with bomb-makers from Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to test ways to slip explosives past airport security.”

The potential threat is why the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced in early July that it would be banning uncharged electronic devices, including laptops and phones, from flights to the US that originated in Europe and the Middle East.

So, since at least July, according to unnamed US intelligence officials, the Obama administration has been aware or has strongly suspected that this cell of terrorists was developing technology to launch an attack. That should have been enough for administration officials to make an argument that there was an “imminent threat.” Operations could have been launched to disrupt the cell before they actually created devices. All the administration would have had to do is point to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and explained after the attacks this was their claimed legal authority just as it claims that gives it the ability to conduct operations in Iraq and Syria now.

Were any devices the Khorasan Group was developing acquired through some intelligence operation prior to attacks on targets?

CNN was told by an “intelligence source with knowledge of the matter” that US intelligence had uncovered a plot involving a “bomb made of a nonmetallic device, toothpaste container and clothes dipped in explosive material.” It is unclear how this would have been able to get past TSA.

The Obama administration has been ultra-secretive when it comes to this group, even though Mushin Al-Fadhli, the group’s leader, is someone US intelligence agencies have been tracking for the past decade and statements about him have been publicly made by officials before.

When White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest was asked about the group on September 18, he answered, “I’m not in a position to provide granular detail from here about specific threats or potential cells that may be operating and seeking to carry out attacks against American interests. Frankly, doing so would be counterproductive to our whole—of government approach to countering this challenge.”

Presumably, days ago, plans to attack Khorasan Group targets were in the works and Earnest did not want to reveal to the group’s militants that the administration was planning to attack them. Otherwise, the White House would not have blown off a reporter asking a specific question about an alleged threat that was supposedly very real.

The group has now been attacked. It has been put on notice that the US military will bomb them. They recognize fully that they are targets of the US government and will begin to exercise even more caution than they were previously to evade US intelligence so there should be no excuses now. The Obama administration should be more forthright about this group and what threat it believes it still poses.

*

What happens now?

Will these attacks drive Khorasan militants to act and try to get one of their devices on to an airplane bound for America? Is this action against Khorasan militants parallel to going after ISIS or is it somehow part of a wider strategy?

These all seem like questions to ask because the leadership of the Khorasan group was apparently in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US war in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan convinced them to flee and move to another country. They are being bombed again and, perhaps, its members will be leaving for another country soon.

Does the US just keep chasing these people from country to country, playing a game of geopolitical terrorist whack-a-mole?

The State Department’s annual report on global terrorism warned of a growth in al Qaeda affiliates and “like-minded groups” in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and northwestern Africa. These are all places where the US has tried covert intelligence operations or various levels of US military intervention to fight terrorism. Such action seems to have only made the country a more fertile ground for groups to recruit and train individuals.

Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, explained on “Democracy Now!”, that by the end of August, ISIS had moved much of its “heavy machinery” into Syria because the US was bombing them in Iraq. And, for the most part, they cleared out of buildings which the US military bombed:

…[T]hat’s been their strategy, is they’re not going to wait around for the bombing, you know, in the same way in Raqqa they had abandoned much of the central part of the city. And so, what the United states bombed in Raqqa were largely empty buildings. You know, they have been moving their heavy machinery around, their arms around. They are currently, as I said, attacking in northern Syria. So where the strikes happened were not exactly where their main fighting forces are right now based…

Prashad further questioned the targets that the US had chosen:

…[C]urrently there is a siege of a major city called Kobane, which is on the Turkish border, where half a million people have taken refuge. Tens of thousands of people from Kobane have crossed into Turkey. And these are Kurds. So it’s quite something that Kurdish refugees have been allowed into Turkey. This city is on the verge of falling. The ISIS fighters that have surrounded it are using heavy artillery that they stole in Mosul. So it’s very striking that the United States didn’t actually, you know, attack their forward, hardened positions, instead took out symbolic targets inside Raqqa. So I’m not sure that this is actually going to change the situation on the ground in northern Syria directly. This seemed like a major attack against ISIS as a demonstration of American strength. If America was truly trying to change the balance of forces in northern Syria, it would have struck some of these forward positions of ISIS that are laying siege at this point against Kobane… [emphasis added]

The US military is now chasing ISIS around Syria and Iraq. It may have killed 70 ISIS fighters, but the ISIS force has apparently swelled to somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand fighters in recent months. ISIS will regroup and respond.

This new chapter of warfare in the Middle East will inspire more and more individuals to join up and fight with ISIS.

No endgame exists. Rather than try and contain the group in one particular area until ISIS is isolated and collapse from within, the US military seems intent to give them the flames of war ISIS desires with another campaign of shock and awe, which will undoubtedly cause the risk of blowback to exponentially increase.

The US is also going to be bombing other groups. What effect will this have on fueling the formation of alliances that will challenge US forces?

A strategy of denying any terrorist group a safe haven does not create security if it primarily involves military force. It further destabilizes countries where the group has been operating. It also pushes the group’s members to go find another country with a political climate they can exploit to their advantage.

It is a dangerous game that greatly impacts and takes a toll on the lives of civilians, but, for American leaders, this all seems to be casually accepted as a feature of this perpetual war.

CommunityFDL Main Blog

Obama Administration’s Game of Geopolitical Terrorist Whac-a-Mole Expands With Strikes in Syria

Screen shot from US air strike video on an ISIS compound in Syria

The United States bombed targets in Syria, drastically expanding the warfront in the Middle East. America’s military forces attacked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets, as President Barack Obama had suggested would happen during his speech nearly two weeks ago. What came as a surprise was the fact that unilateral attacks also targeted the Khorasan Group, which Obama had not mentioned in his speech and is led by people who the US had been fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Lieutenant General William Mayville stated in a briefing that the Pentagon has been “watching this group” for a long time and believed the group was “nearing the execution phase in an attack either in northern Europe or the [US] homeland.”

US Central Command, in a press release which formed the basis for most US reporting on the air strikes, reported the US had “taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qaeda veterans – sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group – who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by US assets.”

A statement made by President Barack Obama acknowledged the strikes on Khorasan Group targets but avoided any specifics on why this group needed to be targeted now. Instead, Obama added, “It must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.”

Previous post

The Roundup for September 23rd, 2014

Next post

Obama Administration's Game of Geopolitical Terrorist Whack-a-Mole Expands with Strikes in Syria

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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

33 Comments