Iraq, Gaza, Drone Strikes in Pakistan– the Radicalization of CIA Assassin Humam al-Balawi

I just saw a clip on Aljazeera Arabic of the “martyrdom tape” of Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian-Palestinian double agent who carried out a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, last week, killing 7 Americans working for the Central Intelligence Agency along with his handler, a Jordanian intelligence operative. He said his action was a message to the enemies of the Muslim community in the Jordanian and US intelligence agencies. The tape began with him outside firing a weapon, then he was seated against a black backdrop in Afghan clothing. He said he would prove that religion could not be bought and sold (was the CIA offering him millions as a reward?) He said that his suicide operation would be revenge for the killing by CIA drone of Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan (Urdu acronym: TTP). He noted that Mahsud had said that Usama Bin Laden was not in South Waziristan, but that if he came there, he would be protected. Al-Balawi asserted that Baitullah Mahsud was killed for these words, which were right words. He spoke of the latter’s son and successor, Hakimu’llah Mahsud, as his ‘amir’ or leader, and wished him every success in his holy struggle. The Arabic print press is now picking up the story.

Although Pakistani troops fighting in South Waziristan had found Arab passports and other effects suggesting a small presence of Arab fighters with the TTP, al-Balawi had clearly joined the movement and given it his allegiance. It seems to me an alarming development, as the Aljazeera anchor also noted, that Arab jihadi volunteers might now be enlisting under the banner of the Pakistani Taliban rather than, as in the past, al-Qaeda or one of the Afghan insurgent groups. The Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan is only about 7 years old, there never having been Pakistani Taliban until the early 21st century–it was a phenomenon of the Soviet ethnic cleansing of Afghans, which forced 3 million into refugee camps in Pakistan, where many became radicalized. (And were encouraged in that direction by the Reagan administration).

Many intelligence specialists had insisted that the Khost bombing was the work of the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan. But I read al-Balawi’s emotionalism about the Mahsuds as a clear indication that he was working for them rather than for the Haqqanis. He must have repeated seven or eight times that Baitullah Mahsud would be avenged. The militant founder of the TTTP was killed by a US drone strike in South Waziristan in August.

The Obama administration convinced the Pakistani military to launch an attack on the Taliban Movement of Pakistan in South Waziristan this fall, so that Hakimu’llah Mahsud is on the run.

The day before, Mustafa al-Yazid, the reputed head of ‘al-Qaeda in Afghanistan’ (which doesn’t really exist; there are only 100 al-Qaeda fighters in that country) said that the Khost operation was in revenge for US drone strikes on militants in the Federally Administered Tribal areas of Pakistan.

Two US drone strikes, on Wednesday and Friday, have killed an estimated 16 militants in North Waziristan.

Al-Balawi’s sad biography in fact ties together the whole history of Western, including Israeli, attacks on the Middle East. Al-Balawi’s family is Palestinians displaced from Beersheba by Zionist immigrants into British Mandate Palestine, who in 1948 ethnically cleansed about 700,000 Palestinians from what became Israel. Most Palestinians in Jordan are bitter about the loss of their homes, for which they never received compensation, and some still live in refugee camps. The British Empire and the United States supported this displacement of the Palestinians and to this day the US government often attempts to criminalize even charitable aid to the suffering Palestinian people.

AP has a video interview with al-Balawi’s Turkish wife, in which she traces his radicalization to the brutal US occupation of neighboring Iraq, including reports of the rape of Iraqi women by US troops at Abu Ghraib (where much of the torture had sexual overtones) and the US destruction of the city of Fallujah in November-December 2004.

The Arabic press is confirming that al-Balawi was further enraged by the Israeli war on poor little Gaza last winter. A physician, he volunteered to be part of a group that intended to go to Gaza to do relief work for the victims of Israel’s brutal targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. (The Israelis were trying to destroy the fundamentalist Hamas party, which rules Gaza, and gave as their pretext the occasional rockets Hamas fired into Israel, though in fact there had been a truce for much of 2008, a truce of which the Israelis coldly took advantage to plan their war.)

The Jordanian secret police arrested al-Balawi to prevent him from going to Gaza. It may be that he had to agree to work for it as a quid pro quo to regain his freedom.

After the vicious war on Gaza was over, and the schools and hospitals lay in ruin, Israel ratcheted up a siege of the small territory of 1.6 million persons, half of them children, denying them enough services, fuel and even food for a decent life. In some parts of Gaza, 10 percent of the children are stunted because of malnutrition. Israel destroyed Gaza’s airport and harbor and strictly controls what goes into the territory. Israel never says what its end game is here, and how long exactly they are going to keep the children of Gaza in what one Vatican official has called a ‘concentration camp.’

In the past couple of weeks (though you would not know it from American television), two separate civilian Western aid convoys were mounted to relieve the Gazans via Gaza’s small southwestern border with Egypt (the Israelis would never have allowed them to do this, and the Egyptian state wasn’t happy either). One was supported with a hunger strike by an elderly Holocaust survivor. Some of those in the second were assaulted by the Egyptian police. British MP George Galloway was deported and forbidden to return to Egypt. Egypt is dragooned into supporting the illegal blockade of Gaza by the US on behalf of Israel, and is also afraid of the fundamentalist Hamas, which has resorted to terrorism.

Collective punishment of a whole population, especially one still technically occupied, is illegal in international law.

What is fascinating is the way al-Balawi’s grievances tie together the Iraq War, the ongoing Gaza atrocity, and the Western military presence in the Pushtun regions– the geography of the Bush ‘war on terror’ was inscribed on his tortured mind.

Morally speaking, al-Qaeda is twisted and evil, and has committed mass murder. Neither the US nor Israel is morally responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots. Al-Qaeda or a Taliban affiliate turned al-Balawi to the dark side. Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us the proper response to social injustice (and it should not be forgotten that Gandhi had a significant following among the Pashtuns). But from a social science, explanatory point of view, what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.

So, yes, this al-Balawi person was going to help Jordan and the US find al-Qaeda leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sure he was. Walmart does better background checks on its store clerks than the CIA and Jordanian intelligence did on this guy.

End/ (Not Continued)

20 Responses

  1. Neither the US nor Israel is responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots.

    Then who is ?

    Also with all the due respect Professor but mass murder are not social injustices…

  2. Excellent paper, though a saddening one. It is fascinating to note that Afghanistan remains the graveyard of empires (no quote unquote marks) after such a long time and so many experiences.

  3. Professor – was it not you who so belittled the late Baitullah Mahsud's threats on the US homeland a few months back?

  4. Where do we go from here? To be safe are we yet wiling to board air planes naked? Are we yet willing to be handcuffed while in flight?

    No, these are not the answer. The answer can only be found by first asking the question, why they hate us. No, they don't hate us for our freedom – as suggested by our government, and propagated by our corporate owned media. (Unless the freedom we are talking about is our freedom to bomb and occupy their countries with impunity)

    So, where do we go from here? It should be clear to everyone that Pres Obama is not the answer. Our government is run by a military-industrial-congress complex. Our democracy is in shambles (it is the best democracy money can buy). Today, as voters, we do not have a choice – both major parties represent the same interests.

    We need campaign finance reform and we need independent media. Come next election we should vote only for candidates who support the above two issues to start with. Unless we do so I see no hope of peace for the world an no hope for our country getting back on track.

  5. "So, yes, this al-Balawi person was going to help Jordan and the US find al-Qaeda leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sure he was. Walmart does better background checks on its store clerks than the CIA and Jordanian intelligence did on this guy."

    Now, now Juan. Donald Rumsfeld explained to us several years ago that al-Balawi is an "unknown unknown" upon which US policy is based, so you see, the system works.

  6. I very much agree with Prof. Cole's identification of political benefit being derived from a vicious circle of violence.

    This would be a good moment for readers to check the Wikipedia entry for German philosopher Carl Schmidt. The entry suffers from some spelling and grammar problems, but see if you do not recognize Dick Cheney's "unitary executive" in Schmidt's ideas about authority making a permanent exception for itself, and the role of enmity against guerrillas and other "partisans."

    This ideological connection has been openly discussed among political scientists for more than a decade. It is what distinguishes the unitarists from other neo-cons, and it is how we can realize that the political party of limited government has been infiltrated by a faction that believes in unlimited government.

    I would leave out the connection to the military industrial complex. The Bush administration did not mind starving the traditional military industries that wanted to produce armor for the Iraq war. Money went instead to military "contractors" that were, for instance, given immunity from prosecution for any crime whatsoever in Iraq. It is not really about the money, it is about unrestrained power and violence.

    What has been added to Schmidt is the realization that such a system of arbitrary, violent authority creates enemies and, as Prof. Cole points out, this feeds back to support further abuse of power.

  7. Dr. Cole,

    You write that neither the US nor Israel is responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots. Then you continue with many reasons why US and Israeli policies create intolerable conditions which facilitate violence and increase despair, the continual combination of which is the best growth medium for violent crackpots. That the US and Israel are not responsible is only true within a thin theoretical slice.

    The numbers of the radically disaffected are not as important as the trend, the dynamic, and the energy. Al-Balawi's clearly stated reason was revenge for Mahsud's death via a drone strike. The trend, dynamic, and energy of the conflict he describes are not simply those of Mahsud, Al-Balawi, and other disaffected people, but also of the US (and perhaps other unknown players). Focusing on the reactions of those labelled "terrorist" misdirects away from the reasons for the reactions. The US trend, dynamic, and energy are toward MORE drone attacks, MORE military intervention, more local covert activity, more intervention. Drone stikes didn't even exist just a few years ago. They are the new baby of the CIA and US military about which every detail, including the dead, is "reported". No proof means no oversight. And, in terms of care and feeding of continual war, as long as the dead are unidentified that identity can be used repeatedly. Who will run DNA checks on a mid level terrorist? Does Bin Laden lie crushed and buried in some collapsed cave while his legend marches on?

    The log in America's eye is that it choses not to comprehend that many actions such as those of Al-Balawi are merely blowback–payback– for US actions, made possible by technology and individual will. The choice to not comprehend is intentional ignorance, which Bush II enthusiastically endorsed and which has become increasingly popular. But intentional ignorance is unpleasant beyond the short term and suicidal in the long term. Actions such as Al-Balawi's only rate in the short-term/unpleasant category. In the scope of time and with increasing US interventions, much uglier consequences await. America's further dilemma is that the log in its eye is held there by continual constructs by the military and military industrialists–which before advertising were hated by Americans as blood sucking war profiteers–to whom the effective manipulations of social science upon the public mind are as critically important as a plump budget and a new upcoming war.

    If the dynamic of the US is toward more and more violent intervention, by what equation does one believe that the reactions of ordinary people will not follow suit. By what equation does the US prove it can "win" by using one multi-million dollar missile to kill six people, half of them innocent, when ordinary people, motivated to suicide by a personal compulsion based on family, religion, and culture, can kill several people for a hundred dollars or less. How does the equation change if the number of missiles is 50, 100, or 500? This is America's dilemma, not that of those affected by American policy, because Americans, placed in the same situation, would do the same thing. America's dilemma is how to stop shooting itself.

  8. This mess is the result of policy decisions dating back to at least FDR. As unintended consequences from these policy decisions exploded in our faces, new decisions were made which also had unintended consequences. So like a person in a maze, we continue to blunder along looking for the exit, taking advice from whomever promises us an exit. The military/industrial complex tells us that the increased use of drones, along with increased intelligence, will suppress terrorist elements in the Middle East and East Africa. Is this without conseqences? And with every hurt inlicted on us, we react with outrage, demanding revenge. This all works to those elements that want our continued involvement in this region, and as near as I can tell, it is exceeding.

  9. >> So, yes, this al-Balawi person was going to help Jordan and the US find al-Qaeda leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sure he was. Walmart does better background checks on its store clerks than the CIA and Jordanian intelligence did on this guy. <<

    Say someone comes to the intelligence agencies and says "I've got a background with these jihadist groups, I've been involved with them for several years, I've got a history of expressing views that'll give me credibility with them, if they check out my history and family background they'll find it convincing, and I can use this to find some of their leaders for you."

    They check out his story and it's all like he said. He does have that background and those connections and has expressed those views.

    Now what do you make of this background check?

  10. Anonymous wrote:
    >> Professor – was it not you who so belittled the late Baitullah Mahsud's threats on the US homeland a few months back? <<

    Wait, are you implying that this somehow shows Baitullah Mahsud's threats "on the US homeland" are somehow bigger than they seemed? How so?

  11. Dear Professor Cole :
    You wrote ; "The Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan is only about 7 years old, there never having been Pakistani Taliban until the early 21st century–it was a phenomenon of the Soviet ethnic cleansing of Afghans, which forced 3 million into refugee camps in Pakistan, where many became radicalized. (And were encouraged in that direction by the Reagan administration)." That is how I understood the origins – but I've just read Churchill's tale of The Malakand Field Force . He wrote ;
    " Their superstition exposes them to the rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood–"Mullahs," "Sahibzadas," "Akhundzadas," "Fakirs,"
    –and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, who correspond with the theological students in Turkey, and live free at the expense of the
    people. "
    Young Winston was not the most unbiased reporter , and I doubt he knew more Pushtu than me , but … " talib-ul-ilm " ?
    I suspect that there is more to the history of the talibs than we hear about . In a society that is mostly illiterate , those who are learning must have some status , so I suspect that there may be stories about " students to the rescue " which predate the present taliban .
    Please shed some light on this – I suspect there is a story here .

  12. "Professor – was it not you who so belittled the late Baitullah Mahsud's threats on the US homeland a few months back?"

    And if he did, so what? Since when is Khost, Afghanistan part of the "US Homeland?" Did I miss a congressional annexation vote, and an application for statehood by the new US territory of Afghanistan?

  13. "Neither the US nor Israel is morally responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots."

    Do you not believe in self defense?

    Maybe your use of this phrase hinges on the word "crackpots", because surely by invading and occupying a country you are responsible for the ensuing civil unrest. You can't expect to illegally invade a country without encountering legitimate resistance.

    Otherwise, for example, the Nazis would be blameless for the actions of the French Resistance. I wouldn't call them crackpots. Would you have expected them to behave like MLK?

  14. Cole: "Neither the US nor Israel is responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots."

    From Glen Greenwald's piece "Helen Thomas Deviates From the Terrorism Script":

    "The evidence of what motivates Terrorism when directed at the U.S. is so overwhelming and undeniable that it takes an extreme propagandist to pretend it doesn't exist.

    What is (John) Brennan so afraid of? It's true that religious fanaticism is a part of their collective motivation, but why can't he just say what's so obviously true: "they claim that the U.S. is interfering in, occupying and bringing violence to their part of the world, they cite things like civilian deaths and our support for Israel and Guantanamo and torture, and claim that their terrorism is in retaliation"? "

  15. Following the link, the stunting rate in Gaza was 10% in 2006.

    It is certainly higher now, as much less food is entering, unfortunately I don't think a solid figure is available.

  16. I'm not clear how blowing up seven CIA people in Afghanistan, while they are engaged in terrorizing that nation's population with drones, is an act of terrorism. According to the US "Defense" Dept, terrorism is violence directed against a civilian population to further political goals.

    Starving and bombing the civilians of Gaza falls under that definition, as does the regular murder of Afghan civilians being undertaken by those CIA people when they were blown up. But blowing up people engaged in such activity in someone else's country is not terrorism by the Pentagon's definition, no more than it would have been terrorism for one of Washington's soldiers to set a match to some gunpowder to kill senior British officers at the cost of his own life.

    And it must be said that although the British burned some American seaports, they never contemplated the sorts of atrocities that are routine in America's colonial wars today.

  17. i think it's weird when Americans and their media talk about terrorist attacks on US = "people within the arbitrary border that is the U.S.A." when the problem is Americans getting killed by terrorists ~ what, more or less every day? wherever in the world they happen to be. i think it's weird that Americans put hundreds of thousands of their citizens in uniforms and say, "it's OK to kill and maim THEM, bring it on," and so thousands of them die and tens of thousands of them are grievously wounded ~ but somehow these "terrorist attacks" on Americans Over There are not the same as "terrorist attacks" on Americans Over Here. But most of all, i think it's weird that Americans send hundreds of thousands of their citizens ~ soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines ~ over to places like IRAQ and AFGHANISTAN, obviously to serve as an Occupation Force: yet then, what ~ feel ashamed? by this Mission, apparent ~ the word "occupation" itself becomes media radioactive ~ ashamed to such an extent that they fail to Just DO It = OCCUPY the place; take control of it. "What strange occupiers not," the peoples living under U.S. military occupation-not, must think of US, "that they would so enthusiastically send so many of their citizens over here to die and become wounded, mostly not in real combat, but in the act of just being here in the first place." That some political leaders and corporations profit from this macabre enterprise is certainly true. but yeah, i think it's weird that so many Americans hold the delusion that this ritual sacrifice (could future historians and cultural anthropologists reach any other conclusion?) of so many of their citizens somehow makes Americans feel, or will some day then make them real secure.

  18. I found where you say this following quote to be interesting.

    "The Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan is only about 7 years old, there never having been Pakistani Taliban until the early 21st century–it was a phenomenon of the Soviet ethnic cleansing of Afghans, which forced 3 million into refugee camps in Pakistan, where many became radicalized. (And were encouraged in that direction by the Reagan administration)."

    But, when I think of the timelines, the events you site were basically back in the 1980's. So, if they were the cause, you'd have expected the TTP to arise at around the same time. Yet, you point out that they only arose 7 years ago.

    What happened 7 or 8 years ago? It was Bush and the Democrats both agreeing that launching a war on Afghanistan in the region was a great idea.

    Doesn't it seem much more likely that the rising of this new group in the last 7 years is much more to do with the US bipartisan war in the region that it had as anything to do with Charlie Wilson's war of 20 years ago?

  19. "Our democracy is in shambles (it is the best democracy money can buy)." And the Israelis can attest to that. Regarding the use of crackpots being twisted and evil, I guess you must agree that the whole Israeli political elite were a bunch of crackpots and terrorists. Weren't they the initiators of terrorism, the way we know in the Middle East, through Irgun and other terrorist groups?

Comments are closed.