NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria have prompted several central al Qaeda groups, including its two most dangerous regional affiliates, to reconsider their opposition to the ultraviolent offshoot organization.
According to U.S. counterterrorism officials, both the North Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have seen defections of fighters and leaders to the Islamic State in recent weeks.
The first indictor came Sept. 15 in a joint statement issued by both groups that appeared to support the Islamic State without using its name, U.S. officials said. The groups urged jihadists in Iraq and Syria to join forces against the common enemy and fight the U.S.-led military coalition.
Last month, two AQIM battalions — one in Algeria, the other in Tunisia — defected from al Qaeda to the Islamic State. The defections followed at least three AQIM leaders who joined the Islamic State, including regional commander Khalid Abu Sulayman, who accused al Qaeda of “deviating from the true path of jihad.” In response, he formed a new group called the Caliphate Soldiers of Algeria that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
That group kidnapped a French tourist and videotaped his beheading last month.
In June, an AQIM Shariah official, Sheikh Abu Abdallah Uthman al-Asimi, released an audio message announcing his alignment with the Islamic State and urging other jihadists to join him. He also questioned the decision by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who announced in February that al Qaeda was breaking all ties with the Islamic State.
The Algerian AQIM battalion known as Al-Huda in May announced it had joined the Islamic State, describing the group in an online forum as the “victorious sect and the surviving group for which we have been waiting for so long.”
The Yemen-based AQAP group announced Sept. 30 that jihadists in Syria and Iraq should set aside their ideological differences to join the fight against the U.S.-led coalition.
In a statement from an AQAP leader, Nasr al-Anisi, the group described Syria’s official al Qaeda-affiliate Nusra Front and the Islamic State as “our mujahidin brothers” while calling on all Muslims to put aside their differences in the fight against the U.S.-led military coalition.
Al-Anisi also called for terrorist attacks around the world, mainly against the United States and its interests.
Officials said the statements and defections indicate that al Qaeda factions are moving closer to ending the rift.
Another ominous sign was seen in recent social media messages from an al Qaeda terrorist who is part of the Khorasan Group of veteran al Qaeda fighters operating inside Syria.
Khorasan member Sanafi al-Nasr wrote a series of Twitter messages calling for joining forces with the Islamic State.
“I will stand alongside any Muslims in the war against the crusaders, whether they be Sufi or extremist,” he stated. “Arab and non-Arab tyrants have come together to fight the Muslims, so when will we come together?”
U.S. officials have said the Khorasan Group, working within Nusra Front in Syria, was in the late stages of planning a terrorist attack on the West before U.S. bombing strikes Sept. 23 against its facilities in Syria.
The airstrikes are believed to have killed Khorasan leader Muhsin al-Fadhli.
Al Qaeda central issued a series of messages Sept. 26 that made no indication of reconciliation with the Islamic State, although U.S. officials said those messages could have been produced prior to the Sept. 23 missile and air strikes.
UPPING U.S.-JAPAN DEFENSES
New defense guidelines outlining cooperation between the U.S. and Japanese militaries will give a greater role to Tokyo in conducting regional military activities, and boost intelligence-sharing and joint efforts to counter cyber and space threats, according to a an interim report on the guidelines made public Wednesday.
The report on the revised U.S.-Japan defense guidelines makes no direct mention of the threat to Japan from China. However, U.S. officials said China is Tokyo’s most immediate regional threat, followed by North Korea.
China has sharply increased military activities and political rhetoric against Japan over the East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands, which Tokyo owns and Beijing claims as its territory.
China’s naval and maritime police forces have sought to exert control over the islets, and U.S. officials fear the dispute could lead to armed conflict.
According to the report, the guidelines, when formally approved by the end of the year, will “enable the two countries to make expanded contributions to international peace and security.”
The guidelines were last updated in 1997, and the current effort is part of the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia that has included mainly non-military elements as a result of the current defense spending crisis.
“Looking to the future, the revised guidelines will update the general framework and policy direction for the roles and missions of the two countries, as well as ways of cooperation and coordination,” the report says.
The Obama administration invoked the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty last year in warning China not to threaten Japan over control of the Senkakus.
The new guidelines will improve defense planning between the two militaries and expand the alliances to include multinational security and defense cooperation.
Among the areas where the guidelines will produce greater cooperation are intelligence-sharing, training and exercises, uses of facilities, logistics, air and missile defenses, and maritime security.
In response to growing threats from space and cyberspace, the guidelines will outline efforts to strengthen the stability in those areas.
“Cooperation on space will include sharing information about actions and events that might impede the safe and stable use of space and cooperative ways to build space resiliency,” the report said. “Cooperation on cyberspace will include sharing information from peacetime to contingencies about cyber threats and vulnerabilities as well as strengthening cyber security for mission assurance.”
China is developing several space warfare capabilities including anti-satellite missiles and lasers. Beijing’s cyber warfare capabilities also are advanced.
“This interim report indicates that Tokyo and Washington are updating alliance cooperation to better meet threats from China and North Korea,” said Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“However, it appears that Washington will carry the major burden for ‘offensive’ operations, which are really ‘defensive’ in the face of a looming or a first strike, and Japan should have a better regional ‘offensive’ capability,” Mr. Fisher added.
Also extending alliance defense and security cooperation to countries closely aligned with Japan is very positive, indicating Japan could play a role in the defense of South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan, Mr. Fisher added.
STUDY: THE WEAKER SEX
Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness, recently analyzed Marine Corps’ studies on women in direct ground combat, and has concluded in a new report that the studies make a strong case for keeping them out.
One example in the CMR report is a physical strength study by the Corps’ Training and Education Command, based on 409 male and 379 female volunteers. In a critical test of upper body strength, women averaged less than four pull-ups, while men did about 15. The test raises the question of whether a woman would be able to help move a wounded Marine to safety on the battlefield.
In another strength test, only 8.7 percent of women passed a weight-lifting exercise, compared with 80 percent of men.
“None of the USMC research results produced so far support activists’ theories that women can be physical equals and interchangeable with men in the combat arms,” Mrs. Donnelly writes.
“Reliance on unrealistic ‘best case’ scenarios would impose heavy burdens on women and put all troops at greater risk,” she stated. “Congress should exercise diligent oversight, challenging all assumptions and theories, political mandates, media bias, public misperceptions, and misguided group-think in academia and the administration. Respect for military women, which is greater than ever, demands nothing less.”
A key event, the Corps’ pursuit of the Obama administration’s goal of putting women in ground combat plays out next with the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force. Its units will take part in simulated ground combat, integrated with 25 women.
Mrs. Donnelly asserts that outside groups involved, such as the Rand Corp., “are not independent, objective, or likely to challenge the administration’s monolithic group-think on military/social issues. “
The Task Force is scheduled to begin training this month at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and complete the experiment early next year.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.