Massacre City

The extent of the 1982 bloodletting in Hama wasn't fully known until years later. The media revolution in the interceding three decades may have just helped prevent another massacre.

Something was stirring in the Syrian city of Hama. The Assad regime appeared to be losing control; it had issued vague warnings about an Islamist takeover, but had gone ominously silent for over a week. A government-planned trip to the city was canceled. Syrian officials warned privately that any attempt by intrepid journalists to visit Hama would be "life-threatening."

It was February 1982, but the parallels to Syria today are striking. During that bloody month nearly 30 years ago, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members rose up in the city, killing hundreds of troops loyal to the Alawi-led regime of President Hafez al-Assad. In response, Assad conducted one of the most chilling acts of retribution in the modern Middle East: Forces under the command of his brother, Rifaat, leveled entire neighborhoods of the city, killing an estimated 20,000 people.

Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce -- but he never traveled to Hama. Syria's fifth largest city, enraged by the brutal murder and torture of a 13-year-old boy in May, rose up again this year, and again a dictator bearing the surname Assad appears determined to use overwhelming military force to quell the rebellion. In the intervening three decades, new tools have helped the media circumvent some old problems in covering the Middle East's civil wars. But while the coverage today provides a clearer picture of events than it did in 1982, serious gaps still remain in the world's understanding of developments in the besieged city.

Hafez al-Assad's crackdown on Hama began in the dead of night on Feb. 2, 1982, and continued over the next month until every neighborhood in the city was subdued or destroyed. While reporters stationed in Damascus were acutely aware that a bloody insurgency was underway in the city, they had little sense of its scope. On Feb. 24, the Associated Press quoted Western diplomatic sources saying that the fighting in Hama had "resulted in an estimated 2,000 casualties on both sides" -- an approximation that grossly underestimated the number of people killed.

It was not until a year and a half later that reports of the Hama massacre's true extent filtered into the international media. Amnesty International's November 1983 report estimated that 10,000 to 25,000 people had been killed during the crackdown. The report also contained chilling details about the Assad regime's methods of coercion. "I was stripped naked.... My wrists were then tied and I was hung up and whipped on my back and all over my body," recounted a Syrian trader detained in 1980. "I was beaten on the toes until my nails fell out."

Even then, Hama did not become a byword for the brutality with which Middle Eastern autocrats treated their subjects until the publication of Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem in 1989, which offered a blow-by-blow account of the massacre. Friedman recounted a conversation he had with a friend -- a businessman who had been involved in several deals with Rifaat al-Assad -- who said that the Syrian general had pushed back against some estimates of those killed as too low, not wanting to erode the fear that the Assad regime had instilled in the Syrian population. "What are you talking about, 7,000?" Rifaat reportedly said. "No, no. We killed 38,000."

But Friedman's and Amnesty's reports were released long after Assad had consolidated his control, rendering their impact in Syria largely moot. At the time, reporters were not only constrained by the media blackout -- they also had to contend with that old standby, fear of government retribution. On March 4, 1982, Washington Post assistant managing editor Jim Hoagland described the difficulty journalists in then Syria-occupied Beirut faced in reporting on the unfolding struggle. "One British journalist working the Middle East is convinced that some senior Syrian authorities did make a deliberate decision nearly two years ago to silence press critics," he wrote, the result of which was the assassination of several Lebanese journalists and the shooting of a Reuters correspondent. "[T]he perception of danger has spread throughout the Beirut press corps," Hoagland concluded.

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Today, President Bashar al-Assad -- despite instituting an even stricter media blackout and inspiring just as much fear among journalists as his father -- has found it much more difficult to control the flow of information out of Hama. Even as Assad's troops seized Hama's Assi Square, in the center of town, Syrian citizen journalists uploaded videos that purportedly show tanks securing positions across Hama, civilians wounded and bloodied as the crackdown unfolded, and corpses piled in a morgue (warning: extremely graphic). Not all of the reports are videos -- this account of the Hama crackdown posted on Facebook was purportedly provided by an observer who escaped the besieged city.

Of course, this new information comes with a price: It is often impossible for journalists to verify whether the events shown in any given video took place at the time and in the place described by those who uploaded them. For example, Assad loyalists recently circulated a video that supposedly shows Syrian opposition figures dumping the bodies of soldiers into a river near Hama -- "evidence," they claimed, that the opposition revolt had turned violent. However, observers raised doubts about the identity of those killed and contended that the incident could not have taken place in Hama, and other versions of the clip described the events as taking place in the restive town of Jisr al-Shughour. While the facts remain inconclusive, both pro-regime and opposition activists clearly have ample incentives to distort events in order to support their preferred narrative.

Beyond original reporting, the Internet has also been a vital tool for rallying attention to the events in Hama. The hashtag #RamadanMassacre was created on July 31, at the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and Assad's crackdown in the city. "The regime is telling Syria & the world: We can do another Hama," wrote @BSyria in a typical tweet featuring the hashtag. "In fact, we are doing another one right now."

According to the Twitter trend-tracking site Trendistic, #Ramadanmassacre was included in 0.1 percent of all tweets at 8 p.m. on Aug. 1 -- and then peaked at 0.3 percent of all tweets at 6 a.m. on Aug. 5, when government troops moved to quell the traditional Friday protests. While that may seem like a small percentage, Twitter estimated that it receives an average of 2,200 tweets per second, which would mean that there were approximately 23,760 tweets to #Ramadanmassacre over that hour -- a sizable community drawing attention to the unfolding violence.

The increased attention to the violence has been complemented by a better, though by no means perfect, understanding of its scope. Opposition networks such as the Local Coordination Committees of Syria and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights post daily updates of the crackdown as well as casualty figures. The online human rights organization Avaaz has also launched a feature to bring attention to the almost 3,000 Syrians who have been "disappeared" since the beginning of the unrest. While these figures should be treated with caution, as they come from partisans in the dispute, it is indisputable that they have had an impact -- fueling public outrage at the Assad regime's brutal methods of submission. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Aug. 4 that at least 2,000 people had been killed in Syria and that President Barack Obama's administration was "working around the clock to try to gather up as much international support for strong actions against the Syrian regime as possible."

Syrian state media broadcast images of Hama on Aug. 5 that suggest its military offensive has been largely successful in subduing the city's population.  But the violence, while horrible, is still relatively minor compared with the devastation wrought the first time around. Activist groups said that at least 200 people had lost their lives to shelling and snipers in the week's violence -- perhaps 1 percent of those killed in the 1982 massacre.

Heightened media attention is undoubtedly one reason for the Assad regime's comparative restraint. It is also undoubtedly a factor encouraging Syrians to take to the streets across the country in solidarity with their besieged countrymen. Hama's history may be repeating itself, but this time there's a chance for a less horrific ending.

Library of Congress (Hama, before and after the government assault)


Mission Not Accomplished

Reports of al Qaeda's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's statement last month that al Qaeda's defeat is "within reach" should be cause for celebration. But given the decentralization of the jihadi movement over the past decade, that victory may be meaningless. Although U.S. counterterrorism efforts have indeed substantially weakened the organization, Panetta's comments miss the bigger point about the terrorist threat facing the United States. Over the past decade, that threat has morphed from one led by a hierarchical al Qaeda organization into something much more diffuse, with a greater presence online, that no longer depends on orders from senior leaders in Pakistan.

Without doubt, Osama bin Laden's death was a major setback to the organization, and his charismatic leadership will be difficult to replace. But senior officials in Barack Obama's administration are also arguing that the tactic of targeting mid- to senior-level al Qaeda leaders is finally -- after many years -- beginning to pay dividends. That is, perhaps, an overly optimistic view. The reality is the terrorist threat has simply adapted to the post-9/11 security environment, and there is no evidence to suggest there are any fewer jihadists targeting the United States today. In fact, most anecdotal evidence seems to suggest there are more. Over the last three years, while the policy of targeted killings has been waged, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has emerged as the most lethal of the terrorist network's franchises. While Panetta and other officials have acknowledged that AQAP now poses the greater threat to the United States, the pronouncing of al Qaeda's impending demise nonetheless downplays the the equally if not more dangerous enemy that has emerged out of the ideology of the original. Over the coming years, American-born cleric and AQAP spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki seems poised to prove a significant politicizing figure -- perhaps even more so than bin Laden -- and a highly effective radicalizing force for militant jihad.

As drone warfare has waged in Waziristan and Afghanistan, AQAP leaders have operated with relative ease in Yemen and have successfully carried out a number of attacks against foreign and Yemeni targets in the country. These include deadly attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008, dual suicide bombings against South Korean delegations in March 2009, the alleged dispatching of Carlos Bledsoe to open fire at a military recruitment office in Little Rock, Arkansas, in June 2009, and scores of attacks against security forces in Marib, Abyan, Shabwa, and other provinces of Yemen over the last two years. AQAP has also attempted two explosives attacks against airliners arriving in the United States, notably Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted suicide bombing on Christmas Day 2009, using advanced chemicals in creative ways to bypass security measures. It seems unlikely the group would not attempt another similar attack in the future.

As the New York Times reported this June 14, the CIA is building a new base somewhere near the Arabian Peninsula to launch additional airstrikes against AQAP. Whether future attacks against the group will pay dividends is unknown, but those in recent years did not succeed in preventing, or even hindering, the emergence of this organization. AQAP has supplanted al Qaeda central at least in the sense that Awlaki garners significantly more online interest, especially from youth, than new al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and it is the franchise most active in attempting attacks outside its local environment, i.e., against Western targets. Given that the demise of this al Qaeda organization could well be years away, it seems premature, to say the least, to announce al Qaeda's near demise.

Behind the public leadership of al Qaeda and its franchises, there is a depth of strategic thinking that buoys the movement, and it remains intact. Reading jihadi publications, one finds dozens of former militant commanders from campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s -- Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir -- who continue to provide advice to the movement, guidance on training and tactics, and a seemingly perpetual source of open-source written material that offers lessons for adapting to the enemy's capabilities. Beyond these, there are dozens of highly qualified scholars who provide the religious justification for targeting and killing declared enemies. None of this infrastructure and intellectual framework has been weakened in any meaningful way during the last 10 years of warfare against al Qaeda. True, the Arab Spring took away some of al Qaeda's luster as a revolutionary organization, but the protesters' successes have not been meaningfully secured in Egypt or Tunisia, and change remains in the balance in Syria and Yemen.  

Jihadi "strategic thinkers" such as Abu Musab al-Suri and Yusuf al-Uyayri (now captured and killed, respectively) left behind a wealth of writing on their experiences waging militant campaigns. Al-Suri, a veteran of Syrian jihadi campaigns in the 1980s, and Uyayri, a commander in the local al Qaeda jihad against the Saudi state, gained copious lessons from their experiences and spread them globally online. Even though they are no longer active, their writing remains a critical component of jihadi literature and continues to shape the movement. Such continuity suggests an endurance of the militant jihadi movement beyond al Qaeda or even AQAP. They, along with other such strategists, were pragmatic and adaptive, two qualities we should be concerned about in an enemy as persistent as al Qaeda. As with AQAP's experimentation with PETN (an explosive with the potential to cause significantly more damage than military-grade C4) and its attempts to outsmart security measures (the October 2010 attempted parcel bombing, as well as the August 2009 attack on Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef), this suggests an enemy that is likely to endure. And now, such strategic thinking has become further democratized, or crowdsourced.

Missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have proved damaging to jihadi groups, particularly those operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. This issue is being addressed, in part, by jihadi sympathizers (and perhaps participants) in discussion forums online. On a number of the most popular Arabic-language forums, an ongoing conversation is taking place over security measures to prevent drone attacks.

These countermeasures largely come in two categories: a technical response of hacking into the UAVs' communications to down or redirect them, and the tactic of conducting attacks against Western targets in retaliation for these strikes. A number of discussants on various forums have suggested that Western citizens be kidnapped around the world to pressure the U.S. public to cease drone attacks against Muslims. In one such discussion, a user on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum said in June, "after each [drone] strike, there must be a punishment, a jihadist operation in the land of the enemy, even if it is a simple one. Alternately, an operation could be carried out to execute Western captives for every time there is a drone attack. It must be automatic, and in response to every drone strike."

The user goes on to specify that these should not be mass-casualty attacks or biological or chemical attacks, but should be targeted and accompanied by statements that make clear they are in retaliation for drone strikes, in order to turn American public opinion against their use. Most interesting about this discussion is the consideration of American public opinion in determining the target of an attack. Along the lines of this user, others suggested various rhetorical means to demonstrate to the American public how many innocent Muslims are killed by drones. It is a rather nuanced terrorist tactic -- discrete attacks to persuade a population toward a specific position, rather than a blunt, mass-casualty attack intended to intimidate that same populace.

As for technical means of countering drones, a number of jihadi groups or operatives have claimed to have successfully hacked into drones and posted images of UAV wreckage. They provide tutorials on software like SkyGrabber, a program that grabs free-to-air satellite data, with discussion-thread titles like "How to Down a Drone." It is conceivable that some UAVs have been downed by jihadists, but they have yet to demonstrate the tactic as a reliable and consistent deterrent to drone attacks. If indeed it is not, small-scale or targeted attacks countering the strikes are a distinct possibility for which Western publics should be prepared.

In mid-June, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned of a 40-person hit list generated by jihadi commentators on discussion forums in response to a video statement from U.S.-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn. That video, titled La Tukallafu Illa Nafsak, or roughly, No One Is Ordering You to Act Except Yourself, was a lengthy two-part series encouraging individuals to undertake solitary acts of jihad, accompanied by a media campaign on the forums in praise of "lone wolves." According to an open-source Department of Homeland Security report, commentators on the Arabic-language section of Ansar al-Mujahideen, in response to the Gadahn video, posted up to 40 names of government and industry leaders who could be potentially targeted in such "lone wolf" jihadi actions.

Although no major attacks have been carried out in the United States thus far, the development of this (albeit crude) plot in an open, online space, between individuals connected only by their shared ideology, represents the danger facing the West, particular in this post-bin Laden era. AQAP, with its high-profile, English-language Inspire magazine, has aggressively called on Muslims in the United States to train for and conduct attacks on their own. Most often, these are simple in nature -- a licensed gun owner opening fire in a crowded Washington restaurant or public event. Thankfully, there does not appear to be a ready supply of volunteers heeding this call, but it only takes one such individual to cause significant damage. Jason Naser Abdo could have been one such case: He was arrested July 27 after going AWOL on July 4 and allegedly preparing explosives from the instructions provided in "How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," from the inaugural issue of Inspire magazine.

Viewing the terrorism threat as solely embodied by al Qaeda as a discrete and hierarchical organization is both inaccurate and dangerous. The more important metric is the popularity of the Islamist movement generally and the jihadi movement specifically. Although it is difficult to measure, its online presence has undoubtedly grown rapidly over recent years. The jihadists' media capabilities have expanded considerably over the past 10 years, and that content can easily be found across the Internet, even on the most mainstream of websites. By this time, it's no surprise that jihadi videos are on YouTube. But their viewership isn't all armchair jihadists; they are also people like Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed her member of Parliament in Britain after watching "more than a hundred hours" of Awlaki lectures on YouTube.

Al Qaeda as we knew it 10 years ago may be no more. But at the rate it has been adapting, it seems likely the United States will be at war with this enemy for another decade. Whether individuals can be mobilized by AQAP's media or that of other jihadi outfits to carry out effective attacks on the United States without training overseas is the most important question in counterterrorism and will likely remain so for years to come. Despite what appeared to be major gains for democracy and pluralism in the Arab Spring, the ideology behind al Qaeda remains compelling and widely consumed online. It was set back, but far from entirely discredited. And given that AQAP's Inspire magazine -- which has been consistently praising Maj. Nidal Hasan and encouraging individuals to attack U.S. targets -- was found among Abdo's downloads after his arrest and alleged bombing plot against personnel at Fort Hood, AQAP's efforts to radicalize American Muslims should be taken seriously.

On Aug. 3 the White House took a good first step in creating a framework to counter violent jihad, in releasing "Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism." But it is just that: a framework. Ten years after 9/11, this document marks the U.S. government's first concerted policy effort at countering radicalization. Certainly, it is coming years too late, but it is also short on detail and built largely around the concept of community engagement. Community engagement has been the centerpiece of British and Australian efforts to counter radicalization for at least the last four years. What those programs lacked was an element that confronted the ideology of militant Islam, at the national level and online. Emphasizing local community efforts is a logical endeavor, but the jihadi message is global and focused on Muslim suffering abroad, not on local issues in London, Melbourne, or Chicago. Eventually, Washington will have to confront the underlying ideology of militant Islam, not just its byproducts.

-/AFP/Getty Images