Foreign Policy - The Fugitive < 5min

Meet Abu Omar: Al Qaeda busted him out of Abu Ghraib. Now he has gone to fight in Syria. ... Abu Omar is one of the al Qaeda members who escaped during the Abu Ghraib prison break. He says six of his former cellmates have also made it to Syria. "Many more are on their way," he says in a strong Iraqi Arabic accent. "Everybody wants to go for jihad to Syria." ... Abu Omar sees the Syrian war as much more than a struggle against a brutal dictator. For him, it's a war against unbelievers, and its ultimate aim is the establishment of an Islamic government that transcends the borders of the modern Middle East. "Syria and Iraq are the same struggle to us," he explains. "Both governments in Iraq and Syria are run by unbelievers, so we will fight both. Syria is currently very weak and close to falling into the hands of the mujahideen [jihadists]." ... Abu Omar spent 26 months imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, which gained notoriety in 2004 after shocking pictures were published of American guards torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. He was imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, but claims he is innocent of any crime. According to him, the experience of being locked up in Abu Ghraib led to his radicalization. "When I was in prison I met a lot of ISIS inmates," he says. "They convinced me of their ideas. Their ideology of creating a caliphate is the best, and I decided to join them in their fight."

The New York Times - Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror 5-15min

Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe. ... While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year. ... In news releases and statements, the United States Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total at around $165 million over the same period. ... These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The inner workings of the kidnapping business were also revealed in thousands of pages of internal Qaeda documents found by this reporter while on assignment for The Associated Press in northern Mali last year. ... In its early years, Al Qaeda received most of its money from deep-pocketed donors, but counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans. ... While in 2003 the kidnappers received around $200,000 per hostage, now they are netting up to $10 million, money that the second in command of Al Qaeda’s central leadership recently described as accounting for as much as half of his operating revenue. ... “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” wrote Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”

BuzzFeed - Inside the Underground Trade to Sell Off Syria's History 5-15min

The trade in stolen antiquities from Syria funds all sides of the civil war that has engulfed the country. BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio traveled along its porous border with Turkey to meet the people involved in this black market, from grave robbers and excavators to middlemen and dealers. ... Four years into a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 and displaced millions, Syria’s immense history is being sold off on en masse as looters descend on ruins across the country. An untold number of people have joined Mohamed in a black market that helps to fund armed groups from ISIS to Western-backed rebels to the Syrian regime. Many of the newcomers have no interest other than making money, but Mohamed is enamored with the history of the ancient objects in which he trades. Known among his colleagues for having an expert eye, his phone buzzes endlessly as he receives photos via WhatsApp from sellers trying to catch his interest and fellow traders wanting advice. People ask him to come and “talk” with their artifacts. “Falso,” he says, his voice rising, when he sees a forgery. If he likes a piece, he calls it “fantastic.” ... “We have been living in a war for more than four years, and people will do anything to feed their kids,” said one middleman on the border, guilt-ridden over his role in bleeding Syria’s history. “I don’t care if the artifact is coming from [rebels] or from ISIS. I just want to sell it.” ... diggers around Syria work daily to pull them from the ground. The digs range from backyard affairs by heavy-handed amateurs to skilled excavations. ... The risks of traveling to Syria make the looting all but impossible to witness firsthand, leaving archaeologists with little more than satellite images that reveal a pockmarked landscape.

Rolling Stone - Yemen's Hidden War 5-15min

A journey into one of the most remote and dangerous countries in the world ... Djibouti is a tiny state of citrus-colored shacks and goat-lined boulevards tucked into a barren, volcanic stretch of the Horn of Africa. It sits astride the narrow straits that lead to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and is home to the U.S.'s only permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, linchpin of one of the Obama administration's most secretive and controversial programs: the drone-based campaign of surveillance and assassination against Al Qaeda and its allies in Somalia and Yemen. ... as Yemen has become the latest country in the Middle East to descend into a full-fledged civil war. In March, after Houthi rebels seized control of the government, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which accuses the Houthis of being supported by its archrival Iran, launched a U.S.-supported campaign of airstrikes and imposed a land, air and sea blockade of the country — which it says is necessary to keep out Iranian weapons. ... Four months of bitter fighting later, the Houthis control even more territory. And the conflict has pushed this already impoverished country to the brink of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, with the aid community warning of an impending famine if the blockade is not lifted. ... Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos to seize wide swaths of eastern Yemen, including the port city of Mukalla, and has called for new attacks against the U.S. ISIS has gained a foothold and launched car-bomb attacks in the capital. Forced to evacuate its embassy and 125 special-operations advisers, the U.S. found its counterterrorism strategy in shambles, with many of the weapons and equipment it supplied to Yemen reported to be in the hands of militias.

The Atlantic - How ISIS Spread in the Middle East (And how to stop it) 5-15min

ISIS is mysterious in part because it is so many things at once. It combines Islamic piety and reverence for the prophet and his companions with the most modern social-media platforms and encryption schemes; its videos blend the raw pornographic violence of a snuff film with the pious chanting of religious warriors; the group has the discipline of a prison gang (many of its recruits were indeed drawn from U.S.-organized prisons in Iraq), but also the tactical subtlety and capacity for deception of the most skilled members of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services, who were also pulled into the ISIS net. It appears less brittle than al-Qaeda because its members care less about religious doctrine and organizational hierarchy. As has been said of the Episcopal Church (forgive the comparison), ISIS is solid at the core but loose at the edges. ... What is ravaging the Middle East right now is obviously deeper than ISIS. It has become commonplace over the last year to observe that we are witnessing the collapse of the post-Ottoman order—that the “lines in the sand” conjured in 1916 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot are being blown to dust. But we haven’t reckoned with how the insurgents perceive that process. ISIS has religious, psychological, and technological faces. But in some fundamental respects it is an anti-colonial movement that takes as its reference point Islam’s pre-colonial conception of power—an Islamic state, a Sunni caliphate. Even if ISIS is crushed, this idea of “our caliphate” is likely to persist, and return.

The New York Times - The Doomsday Scam 5-15min

To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist. ... Legends of red mercury’s powers began circulating by late in the Cold War. But their breakout period came after the Soviet Union’s demise, when disarray and penury settled over the Kremlin’s arms programs. As declining security fueled worries of illicit trafficking, red mercury embedded itself in the lexicon of the freewheeling black-market arms bazaar. Aided by credulous news reports, it became an arms trafficker’s marvelous elixir, a substance that could do almost anything a shady client might need: guide missiles, shield objects from radar, equip a rogue underdog state or terrorist group with weapons rivaling those of a superpower. It was priced accordingly, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilogram. With time, the asking price would soar. ... Red mercury was a lure, the central prop of a confidence game designed to fleece ignorant buyers. ... When the Crocodile placed his order, Abu Omar said, the smuggler asked how much the Islamic State was willing to pay. The answer was vague. The Islamic State would pay, he said, ‘‘whatever was asked.’’ This was not the practical guidance a businessman needs. So the Crocodile sharpened the answer. Up to $4 million — and a $100,000 bonus — for each unit of red mercury matching that shown in a set of photographs he sent to Abu Omar over WhatsApp, the mobile-messaging service. ... the hoax has roots in an intelligence-service put-on, a disinformation campaign of phony news articles planted decades ago in Russian newspapers by the K.G.B. and one of its successors, the F.S.B.

Brookings Institution - The Believer: How an Introvert with a Passion for Religion and Soccer became Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State > 15min

Early on, Ibrahim’s nickname was “The Believer.” When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home at the end of the day, according to one of his brothers, Shamsi, he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law. ... Now Ibrahim al-Badri is known to the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruler of the Islamic State or ISIS, and he has the power not just to admonish but to punish and even execute anyone within his territories whose faith is not absolute. His followers call him “Commander of the Believers,” a title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the Middle Ages. Though his own realm is much smaller, he rules millions of subjects. Some are fanatically loyal to him; many others cower in fear of the bloody consequences for defying his brutal version of Islam. ... Since Baghdadi’s sudden emergence from obscurity in 2014 as the monster who ordered and broadcast on YouTube the beheading and even burning alive of those he deemed his enemies, news articles and books have traced his radicalization back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although the American invasion fed the fire and enabled it to spread, in fact, his radicalization began much earlier, ignited by an unlikely but highly volatile mixture of fundamentalism, Saddam Hussein’s secular totalitarianism, and his own need to control others. ... there is evidence that several of Baghdadi’s family members, perhaps even his father, were Salafis—adherents of an extreme, puritanical form of Sunni Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia and throughout much of the Middle East, including Iraq, where it has deep roots. ... Saddam’s creation of new jobs teaching the scripture may have influenced Baghdadi’s academic career. Unable to study law at the University of Baghdad as he wanted because of his middling grades in high school—he nearly failed English—Baghdadi studied the Quran there instead. ... Baghdadi’s master’s thesis was a commentary on an obscure medieval text on Quranic recitation. His task was to reconcile various versions of the manuscript. While tedious, it involved little imagination and no questioning of the content—a perfect project for a dogmatist. ... Radical jihadist manifestos circulated freely under the eyes of the watchful but clueless Americans. ... The growing unrest in Syria in 2011 played directly into their hands. Presented with an opportunity to inject violence into what had been a peaceful revolt, Baghdadi sent one of his Syrian operatives to set up a secret branch of the Islamic State in the country that year. The branch, later known as the Nusra Front, initially followed the Islamic State’s playbook by attacking civilians as part of a clandestine terror campaign to sow chaos. The hope was that the Islamic State would be able to capitalize on that chaos in order to make its first land grab.

Vanity Fair - Terrorism, Migrants, and Crippling Debt: Is This the End of Europe? 5-15min

Europe is beset by so many crises that it can be hard to remember them all. In rough order of prominence, they are: homegrown terrorism, the largest migration of people since World War II, sovereign debt, doubts about the euro’s viability, the rise of extreme right-wing parties such as France’s National Front, Russia’s menace to its western neighbors, growing Euro-skepticism (especially in Britain, which may easily vote to leave the European Union in a forthcoming referendum), the election of hard-line governments in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Catalan independence movement. Many of these are related—the sovereign-debt crises and doubts about the euro, for example—but they have combined over the last two years into a perfect storm which, with the notable exception of Germany’s Angela Merkel, has shown Europe’s leadership to be wanting in both speed and imagination. ... This is exactly what ISIS wants: to shut non-Muslim Europe down, to close the schools and places of culture and have people trembling in their beds, which, to be fair, was what ordinary Belgians were saying. ... The last time I knew for certain that I was witnessing history was on the night of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 26 years ago, perhaps the most optimistic moment in Europe’s postwar era. Today, this trek of the needy and desperate through Europe’s hopelessly undefended borders may not be as cinematic as the images of people tearing down the wall between freedom and dictatorship, but it is every bit as transformative, and it does now threaten the “tranquil sway” of the Continent.

The New Yorker - The Unravelling: In a failing state, an anti-Islamist general mounts a divisive campaign. 5-15min

Early last year, General Khalifa Haftar left his home in northern Virginia—where he had spent most of the previous two decades, at least some of that time working with the Central Intelligence Agency—and returned to Tripoli to fight his latest war for control of Libya. Haftar, who is a mild-looking man in his early seventies, has fought with and against nearly every significant faction in the country’s conflicts, leading to a reputation for unrivalled military experience and for a highly flexible sense of personal allegiance. In the Green Mountains, the country’s traditional hideout for rebels and insurgents, he established a military headquarters, inside an old airbase surrounded by red-earth farmland and groves of hazelnut and olive trees. Haftar’s force, which he calls the Libyan National Army, has taken much of the eastern half of the country, in an offensive known as Operation Dignity. Most of the remainder, including the capital city of Tripoli, is held by Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of militias, many of them working in a tactical alliance with Islamist extremists. Much as General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has boasted of doing in Egypt, General Haftar proposes to destroy the Islamist forces and bring peace and stability—enforced by his own army. ... Haftar is a top-priority assassination target for Libya Dawn’s militias. Last June, a suicide bomber exploded a Jeep outside his home near Benghazi, killing four guards but missing the primary target. Now there is heavy security around Haftar at all times. At his base, soldiers frisk visitors and confiscate weapons. A few months ago, someone reportedly attempted to kill him with an explosive device concealed in a phone, and so his men collect phones, too.

The New Yorker - Exporting Jihad: The Arab Spring has given Tunisians the freedom to act on their unhappiness. 5-15min

Tunisia has many advantages over other Arab states: no deep ethnic or sectarian divisions; no oil wealth that distorts the economy and draws foreign interference; a tradition of moderate Islam; widespread literacy; a small, apolitical army. ... Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. ... Salafis follow literalist interpretations of the Koran and maintain that all spheres of society must be ruled according to strict Sharia law (which, for example, promotes the removal of women from the public sphere). Those who support jihad make selective theological and legal arguments to justify violence against the perceived enemies of Islam. The targets do not change: the West, Jews, Shiites, the secular governments and security forces of Islamic countries, and Sunni Muslims who are deemed apostates. But the factors that drive young men and women to adopt Salafi jihadism are diverse and hard to parse: militants reach an overwhelmingly reductive idea by complex and twisted paths. ... Part of the success of ISIS consists in its ability to attract a wide array of people and make them all look, sound, and think alike. ... In Tunisia, leaving to wage jihad has become a social phenomenon. Recruitment spreads like a contagion through informal networks of friends and family members, and the country is small enough so that everyone knows of someone who has disappeared.

National Geographic - Kurds Fight to Preserve 'the Other Iraq' 5-15min

Most young Kurds had not expected another war. At least, not the one brought by ISIS. Only a couple of years before, Iraqi Kurdistan had been thriving. The Americans had deposed Hussein, the Kurds’ most hated enemy, in 2003, opening the way for Kurds to establish control over their mountainous, Switzerland-size territory. Though they remained part of Iraq, they essentially created a protostate of their own. Investment, development, and oil-fueled optimism (Kurdistan sits atop vast oil deposits) were soon transforming the region. Skyscrapers rose over Slemani, the “Paris of Kurdistan,” and Hewler, the Kurdish capital, attended by shopping malls, luxury-car dealerships, and gelato cafés. Universities were built. Something like universal health care was established. Promoters even dreamed up a slogan to lure tourists and businesses: “Kurdistan, the Other Iraq.” And while Arab portions of the country seethed in those years, some five million Kurds entered what many call a golden decade. ... Kurds have a distinct culture and language, but except for a few historical moments of self-rule, they’ve always lived under the shadow and control of a larger culture—Persian, Arab, Ottoman, Turkish. Today some 25 million Kurds are believed to live in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (though the true size of the population is unknown), and it’s often suggested that they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation. This may be true, but it hints at unity. There really isn’t any. ... From region to region Kurds speak different dialects and support hyper-local and often fractious political parties, and even if given the chance, they probably wouldn’t try carving a greater Kurdish state out of those diverse lands.

Foreign Policy - Present at the Creation - Part 1 12min

Over the course of our more than 15 meetings with Abu Ahmad, we questioned him intensively about his knowledge of the jihadi group and his bona fides as one of the “soldiers of the caliphate.” Over a period of 10 months, we spent more than 100 hours with him. He patiently answered our questions on everything from how he ended up with the Islamic State, how the organization is organized, and the identity of the European foreign fighters within the group. Our interviews would go on for six hours a day, in week-long stretches. ... Abu Ahmad agreed to speak to us, he explained, for several reasons. Although he is still with the Islamic State, he doesn’t agree with everything the outfit does. He is attracted to the organization because he views it as the strongest Sunni group in the region. However, he is disappointed that it “has become too extreme,” blaming it for doing such things as crucifying, burning, and drowning its opponents and those who violate its rules. ... Abu Ahmad would soon sour on aspects of the jihadi group. First, the Islamic State has not brought jihadis together; on the contrary, tensions have risen with other groups, and he worried that “the rise of ISIS led to the breakup with the Nusra Front and the weakening of unified jihadi forces in Syria.” ... Secondly, while some of the foreign fighters were men who led truly religious lives in Europe, he discovered another group that he took to thinking of as the “crazies.” These were mostly young Belgian and Dutch criminals of Moroccan descent, unemployed and from broken homes, who lived marginal lives in marginal suburbs of marginal cities. Most of these crazies had no idea about religion, and hardly any of them ever read the Quran. To them, fighting in Syria was either an adventure or a way to repent for their “sinful lives” in Europe’s bars and discos. ... Baghdadi, the most wanted man in the world, drank either Pepsi or Mirinda, an orange-flavored soda.

Foreign Policy - The Man Who Could Have Stopped the Islamic State 15min

Most importantly, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his passport, the man conceded that his name was not actually Muhammet Reza Reanjbar Rezaei. It was Abdulrahman bin Yar Muhammad. Moreover, he admitted that he was not actually Iranian: He had been born in Takhar, Afghanistan, and lived in Kabul with his wife and four children. ... Most importantly, they knew that the man arrested in Gaziantep was neither Muhammet Reza Reanjbar Rezaei nor Abdulrahman bin Yar Muhammad. And he was certainly not a refugee en route to Europe. ... the man in Gaziantep police custody was best known as Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and he was on a desperate mission to reassert al Qaeda’s authority over its rebellious affiliate in Iraq. ... The Islamic State’s so-called caliphate would not be declared until 2014, but that is not when the group established an Islamic state. Indeed, just one day before Abd al-Hadi’s arrest, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Its mission was to govern territory and ultimately re-establish the caliphate. ... Al Qaeda’s leadership, hiding in the tribal lands of Pakistan far from Iraq, was not consulted. The announcement was therefore a deep challenge to al Qaeda’s authority and foreshadowed the violent, public divorce between the jihadi organization and what would become the Islamic State.

Wired - Can You Turn A Terrorist Back Into A Citizen? 19min

As he fielded guilty pleas throughout 2015, Davis thought about how he might offer leniency to the conspiracy’s least culpable members. He could do so only if he knew for sure that the men would never again be tempted by jihadism. To that end, Davis began to research whether there are effective therapies for reforming extremists. He hoped to find a credible way to transform Yusuf and his friends back into the ordinary young men they’d once been. This could spare the youths years behind bars—an act of compassion that would undermine the Islamic State narrative that the West despises its Muslim citizens. ... Davis discovered that numerous nations, from Denmark to Indonesia, have developed methods for nudging young men and women back from the extremist brink—a process known as deradicalization. The judge became intent on starting the first laboratory for deradicalization in the US; he just needed to find an expert he could trust, someone with a proven track record of liberating young minds from violent extremism. ... Koehler’s key finding has been that all extremists, regardless of ideology, develop a sort of tunnel vision as they go through the indoctrination process. ... Koehler sees little point in starting moral or theological arguments with these young people, who are more interested in becoming warriors than debating the finer points of scripture. Instead, he advocates repluralization: the careful reintroduction of problems and solutions into a radicalized person’s life, so that they can no longer devote all their mental energy to stewing over their paranoia. ... Koehler believes that each client needs at least four mentors plus an “intervention coordinator” and that full deradicalization can be achieved only after a matter of years, not months.

The New Yorker - The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS 75min

The SWAT team was created in 2008 and, in conjunction with U.S. Special Forces, conducted raids in Mosul to arrest high-value terrorism suspects. After the American withdrawal from the country, in 2011, the unit hunted down insurgents on its own. ... In the areas it controls, ISIS typically offers Iraqi security forces a kind of amnesty by means of an Islamic procedure called towba, in which one repents and pledges allegiance to the Caliphate. But the SWAT team was not eligible for towba. ... Aside from martial aptitude, there were two principal requirements for recruits: they had to have been wounded by ISIS or its Islamist precursors—either physically, by bullets and blasts, or psychically, by the death of a loved one—and they had to crave revenge. ... For them, the Mosul offensive was merely the continuation of a war that they had been fighting most of their lives. When the men referred to older terrorist groups that had wounded them or killed their relatives—Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Jaesh al-Mujahideen, or obscurer offshoots—they always called them Daesh, the Arabic term for ISIS, even though ISIS, in most cases, did not yet exist. ... The unit was small and lacked logistical support: there was no one to bring them food, water, ammunition, or extra weapons, let alone reinforcements. They didn’t have their own medics, intelligence officers, mechanics, engineers, or bomb technicians. They had no mortar or artillery teams (or any contact with units that did have them). No one on the SWAT team was authorized to request air support. None of the American advisers embedded with the various military divisions seemed to know that the unit existed.

The Atlantic - The American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS 14min

The figure of Yahya—an English-speaking convert within ISIS with powerful connections and the cojones to challenge Baghdadi to a death match—intrigued me. But Cerantonio didn’t elaborate on his identity and referred to him only by an alias, in the traditional Arabic style, with his first name and the name of his firstborn: Yahya, father of Hassan. He said Yahya was a fellow Dhahiri—a member of an obscure, ultra-literalist legal school that had enjoyed a sort of revival within the Islamic State. He didn’t, or wouldn’t, say more. I wrote down the name and committed to investigating Yahya later. ... Soon enough, I began collecting clues to his identity.

Defense One - What the Largest Battle of the Decade Says About the Future of War 10min

The bloody battle to wrest Mosul from ISIS was the world’s largest military operation in nearly 15 years. ... As Iraq looks to rebuild, and tens of thousands of Moslawis return to their homes—or what’s left of them—ISIS is still holding onto territory south and west of Mosul. ... If the U.S. military has learned anything about Iraqi insurgencies over the past 15 years, it’s that violence will likely return to Mosul, as it has on occasion in Baghdad—which the group never seized. ... On top of that is the ISIS presence in Syria, where an entirely separate large-scale operation has been progressing for months. The target: the group’s de facto headquarters in Raqqa. Beyond that, ISIS also maintains strongholds south of Raqqa in the Euphrates River city of Deir Ez-Zour, and some 200 kilometers west, around the ancient city of Palmyra. ... Which is all to say: the battle for Mosul may soon be over, but the war against ISIS — already a generational conflict — is far from finished.