Bin Laden aide released from Guantanamo, sent home to Sudan

Ibrahim al-Qosi at a press conference in Khartoum on Wednesday
One of the longest-held prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has been released and sent home to Sudan after serving two years of a 14-year sentence for providing support to Al Qaeda's late founder, Osama bin Laden.

Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud Qosi, 52, had been held at the compound for suspected terrorists since early 2002, shortly after it was opened at the U.S. Navy base in southern Cuba. His release and transfer to his homeland on Tuesday fulfilled a plea deal at the time of his July 2010 conviction for providing assistance in the form of cooking, driving and bookkeeping to Al Qaeda's terrorist training center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Qosi's release spurred new calls by human rights organizations for President Obama to release or transfer the remaining 168 foreign men still held at Guantanamo and to close the prison and military tribunal that have brought international condemnation of the U.S. practice of indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without charges or trials.

With the release of Qosi, one of only seven to be tried among nearly 800 detainees brought to Guantanamo over the last decade, the Obama administration "has no justification" for continuing to hold dozens of men who have never been charged with any crime and aren't considered dangerous, said Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

"As Obama embarks on his second presidential campaign, he should uphold the promises on which he was elected the first time, including closing Guantanamo and ending this shameful chapter in U.S. history," Azmy insisted.

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Gunman claiming ties to Al Qaeda takes hostages in France

A gunman claiming links to Al Qaeda was holding staff members of a bank hostage in southern France on Wednesday, not far from the former home of drive-by killer Mohamed Merah, who in March shot and killed seven people, including three Jewish schoolchildren
PARIS -- A gunman claiming links to Al Qaeda was holding staff members of a bank hostage in southern France on Wednesday, not far from the former home of drive-by killer Mohamed Merah, who in March shot and killed seven people, including three Jewish schoolchildren.

Police surrounding the CIC bank in a suburb of Toulouse said they had heard a shot fired inside Wednesday morning. The gunman is holding four people, including the bank manager, and has demanded to speak to officers from RAID, a special-forces police brigade in Paris.

It was members of the elite SWAT-like squad who negotiated with Merah during a 32-hour siege before storming his flat and fatally shooting him. Merah had admitted to killing a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school as well as three French paratroopers in shooting attacks that shocked France. Merah, 23, had also claimed links with Al Qaeda.

One local woman who runs a restaurant next to the CIC bank told Paris Match magazine that she heard a gunshot Wednesday. Police have asked residents to remain in their homes, fearing the gunman could open fire if they attempt to evacuate the area. A bomb-disposal team is also at the scene because the gunman says he has explosives.

"We have no idea if his claims to be linked to Al Qaeda are serious or fantasy," a police union spokesman told Reuters.

Another police officer told French journalists that the hostage-taking appeared to be the result of a bank robbery that had gone wrong.


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Photo: The apartment where drive-by shooter Mohamed Merah lived in Toulouse, France, in a photo taken in March. Credit: Pascal Pavani / AFP/Getty Images

As Egypt voted, Al Qaeda leader urged Islamists to unite

Ayman Zawahiri
CAIRO -- As Egyptians voted in a landmark presidential election pitting Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi against Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, Al Qaeda’s leader urged Islamists to unite and revoke Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Although Al Qaeda's influence has diminished over the years, Ayman Zawahiri sent out the message during a pivotal time as Egyptian voters faced the choice between an Islamist and a secular holdover from the former regime. The election has left Egyptians deeply divided.

"Islamic movements in Egypt must unite and confront the secular American schemes, which only want evil for Egypt," Zawahiri said in the recording, which was published through the weekend in news outlets across the Middle East.

In his 10th address to Egyptians since he became Al Qaeda's leader after Osama bin Laden was killed last year in an American raid in Pakistan, Zawahiri accused Egypt's ruling military council, which assumed power after Mubarak's ouster last year, of taking orders from Washington.

Zawahiri, who is Egyptian, also called on fellow citizens to prevent Jerusalem from becoming a Jewish city and to liberate  Palestinians.

"You must apply Islamic laws in the great state of Egypt to exert pressure on Israel and end the treaty," Zawahiri said in a voice recording posted on a militant website.

Zawahiri also praised militants in Sinai for bombing the gas pipeline to Israel 14 times over the last year since Mubarak left power.

Egypt canceled its gas deal with Israel in April, alleging that the company delivering the gas to Israel failed to pay for it. As a result, Ampal-American Israel Corp. said in May that it was pursuing a legal arbitration case against Egypt.

Egypt’s signed the 20-year gas deal with Israel in 2005.


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Photo: A video grab provided by the SITE Intelligence Group on Feb. 12, 2012, shows Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri at an undisclosed location making an announcement in a video-relayed audio message posted on militant forums. Credit: AFP/Getty Images


Death of Al Qaeda No. 2 means more decentralization, experts say

Al Qaeda's deputy leader Abu Yahya Libi

The killing of Abu Yahya al Libi, the latest blow to Al Qaeda's leadership, is likely to result in a  continuation of the decentralization that U.S. officials and experts have already witnessed.

The chief threat was already shifting to Al Qaeda affiliates in other countries such as Yemen when Osama bin Laden was killed last year. The death of Libi, second only to Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, is likely to continue that trend as the rattled central organization tries to replace him, experts said.

“Someone can always move into a No. 2 spot. That’s not the issue,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of Rand Corp. “But his skills are hard to replace. And the disruption pushes their heads even lower.”

The shift in Al Qaeda toward regional groups, in turn, could change the focus of global terrorism, leaving local groups to attack local governments, said Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The Al Qaeda core has sought to unite its branches across the world behind global attacks on the United States rather than focusing on more local issues.  

But its power to do so has long been limited. The Al Qaeda core in Pakistan has strong connections to nearby groups such as the Pakistan Taliban, but lacks the numbers and capacity to manage its far-flung affiliates in Somalia or Yemen, said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

“We haven’t been talking for some time about direction from some core group hiding out in South Asia,” said Paul Pillar, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “Their role is best described as exhortation –- not direction.”

With a crippled core, the Al Qaeda branches are still dangerous. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen affiliate that claimed responsibility for training the underwear bomber who tried to down a jet near Detroit three years ago, is now seen as the greatest threat to the U.S.

But those different, distant branches of Al Qaeda may not mobilize as easily behind complex, coordinated attacks on the West, experts said. Rand Corp. terrorism researcher Brian Jackson said the result could be sporadic “popcorn violence” that lacks a greater strategy.

"It's an organization that has very big aspirations," Jackson said. "That doesn't get achieved by a lot of little pieces of the group acting on their own."


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Photo: A video still dated Oct. 18, 2011, shows Al Qaeda's deputy leader Abu Yahya Libi speaking at an undisclosed location. Credit: IntelCenter

U.S. confirms death of No. 2 Al Qaeda figure

Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, was killed in a U.S. drone missile strike on a Pakistani compound near the Afghan border, a U.S. official said
WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s second-in-command was killed in a U.S. drone missile strike on a Pakistani compound near the Afghan border, a U.S. official said Tuesday, confirming previous speculation.

The death of Abu Yahya al-Libi was another big step in Washington’s effort to dismantle the Al Qaeda network. Al-Libi became top deputy to Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri following the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May 2011.

“Zawahiri will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into [Al-Libi’s] shoes,” said a U.S. official who confirmed the drone strike but was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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Al-Libi’s “religious credentials gave him the authority to issue fatwas, operational approvals, and guidance to the core group in Pakistan and regional affiliates,” the official added. “There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise Al Qaeda has just lost.”

The drone strike occurred Monday in Hesokhel, a small village in North Waziristan, a tribal region that has long been a stronghold for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militant groups.

Pakistani intelligence sources said Tuesday that Al-Libi may have been killed in the second of two drone strikes targeting the area. He was in a vehicle at the time, the sources said.

Washington has stepped up its drone campaign against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal regions in recent weeks, despite Islamabad’s repeated demands that the U.S. abandon the use of drone attacks as a tactic against militant groups.

Pakistani civilian and military leaders insist that the tactic violates their country’s sovereignty and provides tribesmen along the Afghan border a motive to join the ranks of insurgents. Nevertheless, Washington has carried out seven drone strikes within Pakistan in the last two weeks.

In the aftermath of errant U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border last November, Pakistani officials have demanded an end to all drone strikes as a condition to a full restoration of ties between Washington and Islamabad. Pakistani officials have yet to end a six-month blockade that has prevented Afghanistan-bound NATO supply convoys from using Pakistan as a transit route.

On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Deputy Ambassador Richard Hoagland to protest the continuation of drone strikes on Pakistani territory. The issue of drone strikes, the ministry said in a prepared release, “represented a clear red line for Pakistan.”


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Photo: A 2007 image purportedly shows Al Qaida militant Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was targeted in a U.S. drone missile strike Monday. Credit: IntelCenter / Associated Press

Pakistan contends doctor's conviction wasn't tied to Bin Laden raid

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani doctor arrested after helping the CIA track down Osama bin Laden was convicted and sentenced on charges of militancy, Pakistani authorities insisted Wednesday,  not because of his links with the effort to pinpoint the whereabouts of the Al Qaeda leader.

Officials released copies of the verdict handed down against Shakeel Afridi. They show that a tribal court convicted him of aiding Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group based in the tribal region of Khyber along the Afghan border.

Characterizing the charges as being related to his alleged relationship with Lashkar-e-Islam makes it more difficult for Washington to continue to argue for Afridi’s release.

Last week when Khyber authorities announced Afridi’s conviction and sentence of 33 years, they said the treason verdict against him stemmed from his work with the CIA.

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NATO says Al Qaeda's No. 2 in Afghanistan killed in airstrike

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- U.S.-led coalition troops battling Afghan Taliban insurgents have killed Al Qaeda's second-in-command in Afghanistan in an airstrike in the country's eastern province of Kunar, the coalition said Tuesday.

Sakhr al-Taifi, a Saudi national, commanded foreign insurgent fighters and frequently moved between Afghanistan and Pakistan, often overseeing the transport of militants into Afghanistan, NATO said in a prepared statement. The airstrike occurred Sunday in the Watahpur district of Kunar, a volatile Afghan province along the Pakistani border. 

Al-Taifi and one other unnamed Al Qaeda militant were killed in the airstrike, NATO said.

Over the last two years, the U.S. has steadily eroded Al Qaeda's leadership ranks. U.S. drone missile strikes during that time period have killed at least 18 senior Al Qaeda leaders and commanders, as well as several top Taliban commanders. The death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a secret U.S. commando raid in the Pakistani military city of Abbottabad in May 2011, was followed by a drone strike the next month that killed a top Al Qaeda planner, Ilyas Kashmiri, in Pakistan's militant-infested tribal region along the Afghan border.

In August, U.S. officials reported the killing of Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Atiyah Abdul Rahman, in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal region. Then, in September, a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric who served as a key propaganda figure for Al Qaeda, using sermons on the Internet to inspire disaffected Muslims to attack the U.S.

Last summer, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he believed Al Qaeda's defeat was "within reach," though experts have cautioned against thinking that the terror network no longer poses a threat against the U.S. or its allies.


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Car bomb kills 9 in Syria amid fears of Al Qaeda links to attacks

Syria (12)

BEIRUT -- A car bomb targeting a military complex in an eastern Syrian city Saturday killed at least nine people and left dozens injured amid growing fears that Al Qaeda might be behind some of the attacks in the country.

The bombing in Deir Ezzor damaged homes and government buildings, state media reported. Both civilians and military guards were killed by the suicide bomber, who ignited the explosives while inside the car.

The complex houses the branches of military intelligence and the much-feared air force intelligence as well as a military hospital, according to the anti-government Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group reported that gunfire followed the explosion.

The Syrian Arab News Agency reported that the car was packed with more than 2,200 pounds of explosives, the exact amount it cited was used in a bombing in the Syrian capital, Damascus, two weeks ago.

The latest bombing in the Syrian conflict, which has seen an increasing use of large explosives in recent months, came two days after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed Al Qaeda for the attack in Damascus two weeks ago that killed 55 people.

The opposition, however, has continued to blame the regime itself for perpetrating the explosions in an attempt to portray the activists and rebels as terrorists.

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Could Al Qaeda be infiltrating the Syrian uprising?

Damascus bomb
Suicide bombings and sophisticated attacks on key Syrian government sites have stirred fear among some Middle East analysts that Islamic extremist groups are trying to infiltrate the 14-month-old rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

GlobalFocusAssad has blamed foreign militants for the uprising against him since it began in March 2011, trying to cast his bloody crackdown as part of the broader fight against Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda.

Although no direct evidence of Al Qaeda involvement has emerged, some Obama administration officials and Middle East analysts say they have detected the group's hand in recent attacks. They point to the scale and tactics of recent suicide car bombings in Damascus and to calls by Al Qaeda leaders for Muslim holy warriors to join the fight against Assad.

“We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an Al Qaeda presence in Syria, but frankly we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week in Washington.

In February, Ayman Zawahiri, the elusive Al Qaeda strategist who took the reins of the terrorist network after Osama bin Laden was killed last year, called on Muslims from neighboring countries to flock to Syria to help their embattled brethren topple the Syrian regime.

A little-known militant group calling itself Al Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for bombing Syrian government sites, including the coordinated suicide attacks in Damascus on May 10 that killed 55 people. Al Nusra Front has said its attacks are carried out by fighters returning from battles elsewhere, triggering suspicion of links to Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq.

Rebel leaders in the Free Syrian Army have insisted that  they want nothing to do with the terrorist  network. But some security analysts contend that Al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take advantage of Syria's chaos and violence to resume operations in the region.

“Al Qaeda has this historical interest in having a stronger base in the Levant,” Bilal Y. Saab, a Middle East analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said of the eastern Mediterranean region that spans Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and parts of Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.

Some argue that the failure of the West to come to the aid of Syria's outgunned rebels provides an opening for an opportunistic Al Qaeda to infiltrate the disparate forces fighting Assad.

"Given the chaos in Syria over the last year, it's probable that some radical groups with links to Al Qaeda have made their way into Syria," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "They're not being accepted into the communities as a legitimate movement but they are still effective as armed gangs, and maybe some rebels accept it when they go and blow up a Syrian army intelligence building."

Salem sees a danger of some rebel factions, desperate for assistance in their fight to oust Assad, cooperating with extremists on the fringes of the Syrian conflict.

"They do share in some objectives, and Al Qaeda has lethal capacities that some people may be looking for," Salem said.

Al Qaeda's influence in the Middle East has  eroded over the last decade, damaged by its reckless violence in Iraq that  added to the thousands of civilian deaths from the U.S. invasion, occupation and the anti-American insurgency that followed. Al Qaeda was ultimately defeated in Iraq by fellow Sunnis who rose up against them, no longer willing to tolerate the carnage.

In Syria, Al Qaeda may be ideologically drawn to a fight in which the Sunni majority is paying the heaviest price in a conflict that has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones as the killing escalates.

“From their point of view, the battle going on in Syria is against defenseless Sunnis, that no one is helping them,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior national security advisor to President George W. Bush and staunch advocate of more decisive action in the Middle East to contain Iran and Shiite militias.

Though Abrams conceded that it can't be said with certainty that Al Qaeda is involved, he argued there are compelling signs that foreign Islamic extremists are in Syria on both sides of the conflict.

"They’re attracted like a moth to a flame," he said. "How many, we don’t know. But it does seem that there are some there, and it does seem to be growing.”

For Abrams and others, the danger lies in withholding aid to the rebels even as they see indications that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Shiite Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon have come to Assad's side.

“What have we given them? Kofi Annan,” Abrams said disparagingly of the former United Nations chief,  a special U.N. and Arab League envoy whose six-point peace plan has failed to halt the Syrian bloodshed.

It is unlikely that more than tightened economic sanctions and moral support is on the way. The Obama administration is in the midst of a reelection campaign, and Americans have tired of bloody, expensive foreign wars and want to focus on economic woes at home. Neither do allies in Europe have the stomach or the money to join a fight that would almost certainly be deadlier and longer than the seven-month campaign last year to oust Libya's Moammar Kadafi.

Analysts are divided about the effect of adding an Al Qaeda presence to the volatile mix, unsure whether that would dissuade Washington and its allies from more forceful intervention to aid the rebels or encourage it. To avoid a quagmire like Iraq, the Western allies alternately could craft a response like the stepped-up U.S. targeting of an Al Qaeda branch in Yemen with airstrikes.

The rebels have shown an ability to use more sophisticated tactics in recent weeks, a sign of outside expertise, some say. But the advances could be related to the rebels getting better organized after more than a year of battling an enemy with superior firepower.

Even in the attack that most cite as a possible footprint of Al Qaeda, the massive twin car bombings that struck a government intelligence building in the capital last week, many have blamed Assad agents aiming to sow fear of the rebels and shore up support for the regime.

“The very sophistication of the attack could tell us this is the work of Al Qaeda, because of the similarity we saw in incidents in Iraq during the occupation,” said Saab of the Monterey Institute. “But it’s still not unthinkable that the Syrian government is behind it. They’ve already killed thousands of their own people.”


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Photo: Middle East experts monitoring the clashes in Syria saw traces of Al Qaeda militants' strategy and tactics in the May 10 coordinated suicide bombings in Damascus that left at least 55 people dead and damaged an intelligence compound. Credit:  Youssef Badawi / European Pressphoto Agency 


U.S. escalates clandestine war in Yemen

WASHINGTON -- In an escalation of America’s clandestine war in Yemen, a small contingent of U.S. troops is providing targeting data for Yemeni airstrikes as government forces battle to dislodge Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents in the country’s restive south, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.

Operating from a Yemeni base, at least 20 U.S. special operations troops have used satellite imagery, drone video, eavesdropping systems and other technical means to help pinpoint targets for an offensive that intensified this week, said U.S. and Yemeni officials who asked not to be identified talking about the sensitive operation.

The U.S. forces also advised Yemeni military commanders on where and when to deploy their troops, two senior Obama administration officials said. The U.S. contingent is expected to grow, a senior military official said.

The Obama administration’s direct military role in Yemen is more extensive than previously reported and represents a deepening involvement in the nation’s growing conflict.

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