Senior al-Qaeda Veteran Captured, Successors Roam Planet

March 11, 2013 8:51 am 2 comments

Abu Ghaith seated to the left of Bin Laden.

Earlier this week, Americans learned about the arrest and extradition to the US of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a former al-Qaeda spokesman during the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11. Abu Ghaith is also a son-in-law to the terrorist group’s late leader, Osama bin Laden. His arraignment on a series of counter-terrorism charges took place at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. The indictment charged Abu Ghaith as an “associate of Bin Laden,” with participating in “a conspiracy to kill United States nationals, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2332(b).”

Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, George Venizelos lauded the arrest thus: “Suleiman Abu Ghaith held a key position in al-Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime.” One might think Abu Ghaith was a postmodern Joseph Goebbels or Saddam Hussein’s “Baghdad Bob.”

Venizelos accused the former al-Qaeda spokesman of using his position “to threaten the United States and incite its enemies. His apprehension is another important step in the campaign to limit the reach of al-Qaeda and enhance our national and international security.” Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco hailed the arrest as “an important milestone in our ongoing counterterrorism efforts.” US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara posited that the “law has a long arm and justice has a long memory.”

Thirteen years have passed since Abu Ghaith worked alongside Osama bin Laden in his campaign of terror, taking to the public airwaves to exhort others to join al-Qaeda’s cause, and warning the West that equally catastrophic terror attacks would follow the events of 9/11. Memories of that fateful day are branded in the psyche of the American people. To be sure, Abu Ghaith’s arrest is testament to America’s commitment to bringing enemies of the United States to justice, no matter how long it takes.

That criminals and terrorists must be pursued until captured is axiomatic among counterterrorism and defense strategists who understood that Abu Ghaith needed to be brought to justice no matter how long it took. Israel’s and the Allies’ half-century long hunt for Nazi war criminals, and international prosecution of the progenitors of genocide during and after the Cold War, in Sudan, and the Balkans, testify to the relentlessness of Justice. As a non US citizen and enemy combatant, Abu Ghaith is the typical case of an al Qaeda leader who should be sent to Guantanamo not to Manhattan, to join the other enemy combatants.

In the case of Abu Ghaith, however, the strategically minor significance of his capture is being ignored by the Administration and mainstream media. Some experts and a few lawmakers are portraying Abu Ghaith as a senior al-Qaeda leader, architect of the 9/11 attacks, and a powerful influence within the organization today. Congressman Peter King (R, NY) asserted that Abu Ghaith’s capture represents a great strategic victory for the US counterterrorism community and that al-Qaeda’s core is being devastated. According to King, his capture represents “a psychological victory for us and a psychological defeat for al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda specialist Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, added that “the capture of Mr. Abu Ghaith is significant because it takes a key player out of the game and will provide a window into a shadowy component of al-Qaeda, the management council in Iran.”

Notwithstanding the tidal wave of opinion lionizing Abu Ghaith’s capture, I would like to propose a different reality. There is no disagreement about the victory that his capture represents for the American system of justice. At some point, however, overinflating the arrest of a jihadi spokesman becomes counterproductive to US war efforts and misinforms the American people regarding actual progress we are making in the confrontation with al-Qaeda. Abu Ghaith is “small fry” in the global jihadi movement today, a toothless lion who was already out to pasture.

Suleiman Abu Ghaith is a symbolic representative of the old al-Qaeda, to be sure. His was the first face, other than Bin Laden and Zawahiri, to appear on al Jazeera following the 9/11 attacks. He is not, however, a current effective leader of al-Qaeda. After fleeing to Iran, he spent a decade under house arrest. During his forced exile, Abu Ghaith advised Iranian intelligence officials on al-Qaeda and Salafi affairs. His limited contacts with his comrades were made under Iranian surveillance and were of lower strategic significance. He was mysteriously able or enabled to flee Iran last year for Turkey where he hoped, or was led to believe, that Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party would grant him political asylum. It seems he was poorly advised, as Erdoðan refused to grant him any status that would anger Washington or the region’s Salafi jihadists. Abu Ghaith was flown to Jordan, an Arab country that would repatriate him to New York City.

Propagandists within Terrorist organizations are components of “killing machines” as they incite directly for violence, and as such are prosecutable. But Abu Ghaith may not have even been one of the planners of the 9/11 operation, as Osama bin Laden declared in a video that aired on ABC in 2002. More importantly, he is not a “key player” in today’s al-Qaeda as M. Jones from Rand reported. Unfortunately, this arrest will not show that the “core al-Qaeda is being devastated” as the esteemed Representative King stated. The arrest will not “strike at the heart of al-Qaeda, because it is Bin Laden’s son-in-law,” precisely because al-Qaeda’s political psyche is not influenced by the number of defunct relatives of Bin Laden that we capture. US analysis of al-Qaeda is strategically lacking, for the jihadi hydra today is ten times larger, stronger and more efficient, and spread out much further than its predecessor was in 2001. The arrest of Abu Ghaith is comparable to that of Joseph Goebbels in 1955 or Baghdad Bob in 2003. What is the value of arresting propagandist “has-beens” who are ten years disconnected from geopolitical reality? Historical and justice value notwithstanding, Abu Ghaith’s arrest is of very little strategic value. Tom Lynch, a senior research fellow at National Defense University who served under prominent US military leaders told the Associated Press that “Abu Ghaith’s charisma and impassioned rhetoric, which helped al-Qaida recruit followers and raise money, made him a natural choice as bin Laden’s spokesman and key adviser.” Historical reality may be otherwise. Abu Ghaith was not charismatic by the accounts of Jihadists in the chat rooms. In fact he was perceived by the fighters as a propagandist-only. His family tie to Bin Laden, and thus being faithful, not his efficiency, may have granted him the spokesperson position.

Lynch added that “Abu Ghaith would have all but certainly been included in discussions about the 9/11 attack before it was launched – even if he was not directly involved in the plot.” In fact the unauthorized wedding videotape which aired in 2002 showed Bin Laden expressly saying that “even Abu Gaith didn’t know much about the details of the operations.” Drawing a more realistic assessment of Abu Ghaith in the specific 9/11 operation the AP writers quoted unnamed officials stating “we’re not alleging that he was a planner, but a player within the group.” AP added “Believed to be more of a strategic player in bin Laden’s inner circle than an operational plotter, Abu Ghaith would be the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to stand trial on U.S. soil since 9/11.” According to intelligence officials “he may be able to shed new light on al-Qaida’s inner workings – concerning al-Qaida’s murky dealings in Iran over the past decade, for example – but probably will have few details about specific or imminent ongoing threats.” In short, the past propagandist may give information about the history of al Qaeda, its mood, its ideology, his own experience in Iran -not necessarily Iran’s global strategy regarding al Qaeda- and some details about the veterans of the organization.

I have great doubts about Abu Ghaith’s connectivity to present al-Qaeda. Having followed the tactics and political culture of the Jihadi movement for decades, I would suggest that a senior official of the organization, if still a player, would not have surrendered to the Turks. He would have sufficient connections within the jihadi web to flee Iran and join the commanders in Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Syria or Libya. He would have tried Sudan. A strategic victory against al-Qaeda today would be the capture of the publishers of “Inspire Magazine” the global mobilizer and recruiter for al-Qaeda today, or the arrest of senior commanders of sleeper cells in the West like Anwar al Awlaki.

The capture of an obsolete propagandist is a positive development, but the jihadist propagandists of 2013 who are on the loose, are operating on a strategic, macro scale, compared to the jihadists of 2001 like Abu Ghaith.

Dr Walid Phares is the author of Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America. He advises members of Congress on Terrorism and teaches Global Jihadi Strategies in Washington DC

2 Comments

  • Well said, further muddying the water is the growing evidence of the US support or at the least turning a blind eye regardin direct and indirect arms assistance via Turkey and Jordan. Much of whihc is ending up in the hands of al Qaeda offshoots within Syria. Ahrar al-Sham in particular, according to reports and video images, have been getting weapons evidently out of Yugoslavia funded by the Saudi Government and Qatar.

    THis coupled with today’s report that the Iraqi Government may be now supporting Assad with bases in Iraq resulting in an al Qaeda attack that killed 40+ Syria soldiers.

    Its getting very convoluted…

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    JNS.org – “This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.” So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders. Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    JNS.org – Rachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love. That included Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells JNS.org. “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.” A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.