The legalities of pursuing al-Qaeda

Anwar al-Awlaki. Photo SITE Intelligence

AQ radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a US drone in Yemen

How far does a country’s legal authority extend when pursuing transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda for attacks carried out or still in the planning? Recent events in the Sahel region of Africa throw the issue into stark relief, but it had been in the news beforehand because of the controversy over deadly American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen – a programme overseen by John Brennan, Barack Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser and the president’s recent nomination as the new director of the CIA. Indeed, even before 9/11 lawyers and governments were debating the relevant principles of international law.

Two IISS consulting senior fellows have new papers that touch on the subject.

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Fact or fiction: jihadis in Syria?

Burying victims of those killed in Damascus car bombings. Photo: Sana

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

Despite efforts by many peaceful Syrian activists to regain the upper hand under the cover the UN-endorsed Annan plan, the uprising in Syria is growing in complexity and violence. This downwards spiral is plainly illustrated by the rise in car bombs, including those which exploded in Damascus last week, killing dozens. This may well be an ominous sign.

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From our Abbottabad correspondent …

Letters from Abbottabad, cover of CTC publicationBy Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk

Yesterday, a small sample of documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was released by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. The 17 documents and notes were found on thumb drives, memory cards or the hard drive of bin Laden’s computer by the US Navy Seals who found and killed the terrorist leader last year.

The 17 documents published are part of a cache of more than 6,000, and the criteria for choosing them have not been made clear. However, it would be a reasonable assumption that the documents not released are in some way of operational use. The earliest letter is dated September 2006, the latest April 2011, and some are undated. Except for those addressed to bin Laden, ‘it cannot be ascertained whether any of these electronic letters actually reached their intended destinations’, the CTC cautions.

Some commentators have speculated that the selection of documents published may reflect an effort to portray al-Qaeda and its erstwhile leader in a particular light. There may be some truth in this, but the picture of al-Qaeda that emerges from the correspondence is broadly in line with that discernible from other open-source information – namely of an organisation that is, in the words of US Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, ‘a shadow of its former self’, struggling largely without success to impose control on affiliated groups and maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world.

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Mali coup plays into the hands of Tuareg rebels

Malian soldiers take part in a joint exercise with US special forces, February 2011. © US AFRICOM

By Natalia Debczak-Debski, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

Known for its relative political stability in an otherwise volatile region, Mali has often been characterised as one of Africa’s best-functioning democracies. However, a mutiny which began on the evening of 21 March resulted in a coup against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, just a month before scheduled presidential elections in which he was not standing for re-election.

On the morning of 22 March, coup leaders, introducing themselves as the National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), pledged they would ‘return power to a democratically elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are restored’ in the north of the country. The committee, chaired by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, primarily accused Touré of incompetence and inadequately supporting them in the fight against the new Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a rebel movement seeking to establish an autonomous state in Mali’s desert north. The tension between the two groups had intensified in recent months following the fall of Muammar Gadhafi, which resulted in an influx of well-armed rebels returning from Libya.

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Saving Somalia

Somali PM Abdiweli Mohamed AliBy Hanna Ucko Neill, Global Conflicts Analyst

On the eve of today’s London conference on Somalia, the country’s prime minister, Dr Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, laid out at IISS his vision for a secure, stable and prosperous Somalia. Without a functioning national government since 1991, the country has become a haven for pirates and al-Shabaab Islamist insurgents. However, the Western-backed transitional government in Mogadishu hopes to take advantage of several recent changes on the ground to consolidate a working federal state.

The prime minister admitted it was an ‘unspeakably ambitious’ goal, but took heart in the old proverb that ‘if Somali people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky’. He hoped today’s conference would be a ‘game-changer’ for his country, and welcomed international assistance – even ‘targeted’ air-strikes against al-Shabaab, provided these did not harm innocent civilians.

However, he stressed that the only long-term solution was a Somali one, with a robust national army, police force and coastguard.

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The myth of ‘Tal-qaeda’

Felix Kuehn and map of al-Qaeda's globalist struggle

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

The poetry of the Taliban. The concept seemed to capture the audience’s imagination and may have derailed a less well-chaired discussion. Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten came to the IISS this week to discuss the ‘Myth of the Taliban/al-Qaeda merger’, but after they mentioned they would soon publish an English volume of translated Mujahadeen verse, several extra questioners raised their hands.

The book’s cover is semi-psychedelic, and the speakers’ central argument – that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are less inter-connected than often believed – was cleverly illustrated, too.

The Taliban, Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten said, projecting a photo of the dilapidated White Mosque in Kandahar where founder Mullah Omar taught during the late 1980s, was an insular group. The product of a city with then just two newspapers and one radio station, these relatively young followers of the hierarchical, literalist Hanafi tradition had ‘a very limited concept of the wider world’ and a ‘very nationalist outlook, even to this day’.

Al-Qaeda founding members, by contrast, tended to be older and much better educated. Engineers, architects, doctors, they saw themselves involved in a pan-Arab, pan-Islamist globalist struggle. This was depicted by a network of lines criss-crossing a world map (above), slightly reminiscent of the infamous McChrystal Afghanistan slide. ‘Fairly confusing,’ Kuehn conceded, to laughter.

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