Tag Archives: Islamic State

Al Qaida a bigger threat than ISIS, ex-CIA honcho warns

Michael Morell (on left) says al Qaida is a greater threat than ISIS. (Tanni Deb/MEDILL NSJI)

Michael Morell (on left) says al Qaida is a greater threat than ISIS. (Tanni Deb/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON — The Islamic State group has attracted foreign recruits for its war in Iraq and Syria because the extremist network has what it sees as a compelling story to share with them, according to the CIA’s former deputy director.

“Their narrative is that the West, the United States, the modern world is a significant threat to their religion [and] that they have an answer to that threat to their religion, which is the establishment of this caliphate,” said Michael Morell, who held the post from 2010 to 2013. They say “they are being attacked by the United States … and because they are being attacked as they try to set up this caliphate to protect their religion, they need support.”

Morell is the author of “The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism, From al Qa’ida to ISIS,” published this month. Indeed, ISIS presents a clear threat, he said Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. But it’s al Qaida, which perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and continues to have widespread influence abroad, that remains a greater danger, he added.

“The most significant threat to the homeland today,” Morell said, “still comes from al Qaida.”

ISIS seeks support in two ways, he said. It wants fighters to carry out its war in the Middle East, and it urges people to attack Americans and other coalition nations in their homelands.

The U.S., on the other hand, doesn’t really have a strong counter narrative, he said.

“Not because we’re not doing our job, but because it’s really hard to have a counter narrative in a conversation about a religion where we have absolutely no credibility,” he said.

Morell was an intelligence analyst who delivered daily briefings to then-President George W. Bush in 2001. He also assisted with planning the 2011 raid in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. His new book includes his assessment of the CIA’s counterterrorism successes and failures of the past two decades, and highlights growing threats from terrorist groups that could impact the U.S.

Three al Qaida groups in particular pose the greatest threat to the U.S., he said.

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, remains the most dangerous, Morell said. The international terrorist organization was responsible for the last three attempted attacks against the U.S.: the would-be Christmas Day underwear bomber in 2009, the printer cartridge plot in 2010 and the nonmetallic bomb plot on an airliner in 2012.

“They have the capability to bring down an airline in the United States of America tomorrow,” Morell said.

The second most dangerous, he said, is the Khorasan Group, which has operatives from Pakistan. It was formed to assist the jihadist organization Jabhat al-Nusra in its fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the goal of using Syria as a base of operations to attack the West.

Finally, the third group is al Qaida’s senior leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said.

But Morell did not downplay the ISIS threat — either on the battlefield or in its attempts to radicalize young men and young women around the world.

“The first and probably the most important right now is the stability of the entire Middle East. ISIS threatens the territorial integrity of Syria, the territorial integrity of Iraq and the potential for spillover to the rest of the region,” Morell said.

ISIS killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians and security forces and caused thousands to flee their homes as it captured the city of Ramadi in central Iraq on Sunday, according to multiple news reports.

Morell said that Islamic educators are needed to inform people who may consider joining terrorist groups.

“We really need the leaders of Muslim countries, we need leading Muslim clerics [and] we need Muslim teachers to have this dialogue in those countries themselves.”

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Experts: Terrorism groups find new revenue sources

From left, witnesses Seth G. Jones, Jonathan Schanzer and Juan C. Zarate testify before the Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing, part of the House Committee on Financial Services. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

From left, witnesses Seth G. Jones, Jonathan Schanzer and Juan C. Zarate testify before the Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing, part of the House Committee on Financial Services. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

As the number of terrorist groups around the world increases, so do the ways in which they’re raising money to fund their activities, experts say.

“The funding is more global and more diversified than ever before, and it’s interacting less with the financial system,” said Juan C. Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who spoke Wednesday at the first meeting of Congress’ Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing.

Funding for groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthi in Yemen traditionally has come from wealthy donors and charitable organizations based in the Persian Gulf. U.S. counterterrorism officials within law enforcement and the Treasury Department have long had safeguards in place to identify those paper trails and trace their sources.

But with groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria openly controlling large swaths of land, counterterrorism efforts in the U.S. now must account for a host of new revenue streams that are augmenting the more entrenched sources.

These include the oil trade, farming, taxation and antiquities smuggling in addition to the more established illicit trades of drug trafficking, bank robbery, and kidnapping and ransom.

As a result, counterterrorism experts are looking to the military for strategic and operational assistance in choking off terrorist funding.

“The military and counterterrorism are closer than ever before,” Zarate told the panel of about 20 members of the House Financial Services Committee. “These groups have grown more local in their ability to raise funds, so we have to dislodge them from territory if we want to starve them of funds.”

Also casting doubt on some of traditional U.S. allies within the region is the involvement of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in the oil trade, which accounts for around 30 percent of the militant group’s estimated $2 billion net worth.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said there are “trust issues” with Turkey in particular, which is thought to be one of the main consumers of the Islamic State’s stolen oil.

Speaking of a recent trip to the region, Lynch said, “When we confronted senior members of the Turkish government with aerial and satellite imagery of trucks crossing the border and selling oil in Turkey, there was serious denial.”

While oil and other territory-based revenue streams pose serious tactical questions for both lawmakers and the military, the task force acknowledged that they actually may be an indication of progress in the fight against terrorism.

“To an extent, we’re a victim of our own success,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the task force. “We’ve been so effective at driving these groups out of the financial sector that they’re working more local and more underground.”

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Iraqi leader: ISIS still ‘frightening’

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi speaks Thursday morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi speaks Thursday morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

WASHINGTON — Despite a recent series of military losses, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is still more than capable of concerning Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

“They are frightening their enemies,” he said this morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “and they’re very good at using the media to achieve this end.”

Al-Abadi is making his first official visit to Washington this week, meeting with President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders to drum up support for his campaign against the insurgent group, which still controls significant portions of the country including major cities Mosul and Anbar, as well as to seek foreign investment in Iraq’s flagging economy.

To combat “the psychological force” of ISIS, Al-Abadi stressed the need for his own government to “remain visible.”

“People want to see the restitution of their government,” he said. “The state must actually be there.”

Last month Iraqi forces were able to recapture the city of Tikrit from ISIS, which had initially taken the city in June of 2014 as part of a major offensive in the north of the country.

Increasing the presence of government in both the minds and day-to-day lives of Iraqis is one of the new administration’s primary objectives. Iraq’s last president, Nouri Al-Maliki, who left office only after threatening what looked like a coup, garnered a reputation for exploiting sectarian rifts within the country and diminishing public services.

Creating a unified perception of government will require international cooperation, Al-Abadi said. This week he meets with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to secure development loans that will fund a host of different economic and security initiatives, including investment in petrochemicals, agriculture and police.

This evening the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will host the prime minister at a reception as he attempts to woo the American business community.

He also addressed questions surrounding his critical comments about Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against Houthi insurgents in Yemen, which prompted a harsh rejoinder from a top Saudi official and astonishment in the press.

“We are very sensitive to wars,” Al-Abadi said in a tone that was markedly more conciliatory. “The end to this war must be soon.”

Iraqi official: Decentralization key to nation’s survival

With smoke still clearing from Iraq’s victory over the Islamic State group in Tikrit, Iraq’s prime minister is busy selling his post-conflict vision of his nation.

“If we don’t decentralize, the country will disintegrate,” Haider al-Abadi bluntly declared in a speech Wednesday to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“To me, there are no limitations to decentralization.”

Al-Abadi’s comments came at the end of his first visit to Washington since his appointment as prime minister last summer. He is seeking to secure sustained American support in the struggle against the Islamic State and beyond.

On Tuesday, President Obama pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid for Iraqis displaced by fighting with the Islamic State.

Only eight months in office, al-Abadi is keen to distance himself from his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose preferential sectarian policies, many believe, helped precipitate the current crisis with the Islamic State.

“This is not a Shiite government, it just happens to have a Shiite prime minister,” al-Abadi told the audience at the Washington think tank.

Reconciliation of fractious ethnic and sectarian divisions is key to rebuilding Iraq, reviving economic growth and attracting long-term investment, he said.

This can be achieved only by decentralizing power to the local level and transitioning from a state-dominated economy to a mixed economy, according to al-Abadi.

Al-Abadi wants to create a more federal political system, granting greater autonomy to provincial governments, in order to reverse al-Maliki’s centralization of power in Baghdad.

“We must not only win the war, but win the peace,” al-Abadi said. “Our goal is not only to liberate but also to restore a level of civilization worthy of all our people.”

The Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and pro-Iranian militias have been battling the Islamic State, also called ISIS, since June, when its fighters swept through parts of Iraq with the assistance of local tribes disaffected with Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit was recaptured by Iraqi forces March 31.

“Al-Abadi has to be a cosmetic surgeon now to put the parts back together,” former Iraqi Brig. Gen. Ismael Alsodani told Medill News Service. “He has a long road ahead.”

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ISIS beheading videos used as clickbait to draw ‘frustrated achievers’ to its ranks

Medill Professor Josh Meyer (left), moderates a discussion between Richard Andres (center) and Omer Taspinar, both professors at the National War College in Washington D.C. (Mary Cirincione/MEDILL)

Medill Professor Josh Meyer (left), moderates a discussion between Richard Andres (center) and Omer Taspinar, both professors at the National War College in Washington D.C. (Mary Cirincione/MEDILL)

Gap between aspirations and expectations leaves Western Muslim youth open to radicalization

WASHINGTON—The global reach of ISIS has left an indelible mark on the media worldwide, providing cautionary tales on the susceptibility of western Muslim youth as some young people leave their homes to join terrorist ranks abroad. Drawn by a savvy use of social media and digital propaganda, their shared story is becoming more common.

“Social media has spread radicalism globally to people who normally wouldn’t be exposed to it,” according to Richard Andres, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College. The ease of access made possible by 140-character tweets, messages and videos has created a new playing field, he said, enabling terrorist organizations to penetrate groups of dissatisfied people in mass.

Authorities picked up three Denver teens en route to Syria last fall, while another three fled East London in February. All six were active online, maintaining Facebook and Twitter accounts where they interacted with extremist points of view.

“Social media click-washes you over time,” something Andres likens to brainwashing. This process pulls readers and viewers “further and further toward the extreme” with every click, he said.

Speaking at a National Press Club event Monday sponsored by the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, Andres said those initial clicks are fueled by innate prejudices: “We’re attracted to things that confirm our biases.” It’s a slippery slope from there as social media users access more content aligned with a single view point, he said. “Like a cult, it will isolate you … making you more and more extreme.”

That’s all part of its strategic approach, he said. Those brutal beheading and execution videos regularly released by ISIS were never part of the endgame. They’re clickbait.

“We like sensation. Human beings are attracted by sensation and so people tend to click on the more sensational link,” Andres said. Once they do that, ISIS can further its primary mission by “linking those social media users with major headlines and gain legitimacy.” That means linking to real stories describing the group’s presence, violence and aims.

According to a study released late January by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, one-fifth of all foreign fighters joining ISIS are westerners. Of an estimated 20,000 worldwide, more than 4,000 recruits have come from Europe, while 100 have come from the U.S. Young Internet users appear to account for the majority.

Speaking at the same event, Brookings fellow Omer Taspinar described a crisis of identity, as some young Western Muslims appear integrated into their communities, but in reality suffer degrees of alienation. “They don’t feel that they belong to their immigrant groups,’ or their parents’ generation … They have an identity problem and in that sense they feel uprooted, that they don’t belong anywhere.”

At that point it becomes an issue of relative deprivation, Taspinar explained. These radical teens aren’t uneducated or down-trodden. Most are bilingual, even trilingual. “The evidence that we have from profiling terrorist groups is that most of the time, masterminds [and] people who are successful terrorists … are not really poor. They’re middle class and they’re educated,” Taspinar said.

But their grievances are real and they’re wildly discontented, he added. Many are either unemployed or underemployed, leaving them vulnerable to clickbait propaganda. “There’s a growing gap between expectations and opportunities,” Taspinar said. Increasing rates of education in Europe coupled with unemployment problems have resulted in broad dissatisfaction.

“So they’re looking for something bigger than themselves. [They’re] looking for a cause to attach themselves to.” And that cause is the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Taspinar said, as youths embrace the rise of a caliphate as their reason for being.

Understanding the Islamic State: National War College professors break down its roots and rise

  • Panelist Dr. Omer Taspinar speaks during the Understanding the Islamic State Panel at the National Press Club in Washington on April 6, 2015. (Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory/MEDILL NSJI)
    Panelist Dr. Omer Taspinar speaks during the Understanding the Islamic State Panel at the National Press Club in Washington on April 6, 2015. (Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON – Two prominent National War College professors of Strategy and Policy gave reporters a detailed look at how Islamic State terrorist group recruits and operates during an April 6 National Press Club panel.

The event, cosponsored by the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative (NSJI) and the National War College, and moderated by NSJI Director of Education and Outreach Josh Meyer, sought to increase the media’s knowledge of the Islamic State.

The analysis by Dr. Omer Taspinar and Dr. Richard B. Andres broke down into two sections: the relationship between radicalization and the Islamic State’s rise to power, and the role of social media in radicalization.

Radicalization and the Islamic State

Taspinar said that the creation of the Islamic State is, at its core, a result of Sunni Muslims’ oppression by a Shiite majority within Iraq.

According to Taspinar, de-Baathification in Iraq – or the breakup of the Saddam Hussein-led Baath Party – led to the rise of a Shiite majority within the country, a backlash against Sunni Muslims and the birthing “a sense of Sunni resentment.”

“It’s very hard for the Sunni minority of Iraq to come to terms with the fact that Shiites now are running the country,” he said, noting that Sunnis had historically possessed control of the country from its initial founding until the Baathist fall.

Taspinar also teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and serves as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution focusing on foreign policy and working with the organization’s Center on the United States and Europe.

He went onto explain that former Baathist leaders became delegated to a lower class and “felt persecuted.” The resulting anger, he said, fueled radicalization. According to Taspinar, in the wake of the Shiite rise to power, Sunnis suffered from collapses in security, capacity and legitimacy (or the descrecration of their former socioeconomic and political status).

“All this contributed to the rise of ISIS, which captured basically the most radical elements within the Sunni groups … starting in Syria,” he said.

Iraqis who sympathized with the radical parties in Syria started crossing the border to join ISIS, he continued.

“ISIS did something that no other radical Salafist jihadist organization managed to do: It established a state — it declared a state,” Taspinar said.

The idea of a caliphate with sovereign government and territory that came with the promise of a return to prophet-era morals and living (and in which Sunnis could return to a once-held state of glory) appealed to disenfranchised Sunnis and drove recruitment, he said.

“You have to understand that, for people in the Islamic world, especially the disenfranchised radicalized youth, there’s this strong sense of nostalgia for the golden age of Islam – the days when Islam was able to actually create a great civilization which surpassed the West in terms of its scientific, architectural, artistic, military achievements,” he said.

The idea of citizenship in such a state – as opposed to membership in a terrorist group like al-Qaeda had long promised – appealed to Muslims in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Joining ISIS’ “Islamic utopia” was made even easier by geography, Taspinar explained, since all one had to do was cross the Syrian border to arrive.

Taspinar attributes the recent spark in the Islamic State’s recruitment of middle-class, educated individuals from Europe to “relative deprivation.”

He explained this concept as the process by youth become disheartened with the lack of employment avenues despite their education and a “sense of perceived racism” that makes them believe their upward socioeconomic mobility is limited by their Muslim identity. According to Taspinar, the dismal outlook breeds “frustrated achievers.”

In this sense, he explained, there’s more to the Islamic State recruitment than just religious ideology.

According to Taspinar, its early days, the Islamic State was largely unconcerned with the West, more focused on preserving the integrity of its self-declared state in terms of governmental and territorial control.

However, according to Taspinar, its dedication to maintaining caliphatic sovereignty meant that it felt compelled to respond to threats made upon it by outside forces – such as the United States government. This, in turn, sparked the group’s evolution into a more violent form that we, as Westerners, are more familiar with seeing stream across our TVs and occupy our headlines.

How Social Media Radicalizes

Richard B. Andres, who has 16 years of teaching experience and serves as the Energy and Environment Security Policy Chair at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, took a different approach to radicalization.

Rather than examining it in the context of geopolitics, he tackled it in the key of cyber, contextualizing the roots of social media’s capacity to radicalize its users and how that capacity has been used by the Islamic State.

“There’s two particular psychological things politically that social media takes advantage of,” Andres explained.

The first is that, since “human beings are attracted by sensation,” we are literally wired to fall for clickbait. The second is that people are psychologically more likely to click on things that backup our preexisting opinions.

“That’s why Republicans watch Fox News and Democrats watch MSNBC,” Andres explained.

According to Andres, social algorithms serve up social content that plays to preexisting biases, beginning with more mainstream, subtle pieces and eventually building up to obviously radical ones. That helps push people, especially young and impressionable males – toward radicalization, he said.

“Social media will inadvertently… push you more and more like a cult to the point where you’re isolating [sic] from friends, you’re isolating from ideas, all the way to the extreme,” he said.

However, he says traditional media is necessary to fuel the fire, since it supplies content to feed the effect. Content distributed through social channels needs to come from somewhere (since Facebook and Twitter aren’t news organizations), so, like it or not, the inherent biases present in news coverage contribute to the cult effect.

Levels of susceptibility differ, he said, but people who come from “autocratic” countries whose governments keep citizens distanced “from non-biased information” are more likely to fall for the effect, which Andres called “clickwashing.” He says that is because their experience with strongly biased media makes more moderate mainstream coverage seem less trustworthy.

But social media’s radicalizing tendencies don’t stop at creating lone wolves. In fact, Andres noted, its other radicalizing strength does quite the opposite.

“Social media allows people to coordinate their behavior,” he said. “The main defense that autocracies have against dissidents and rebels is they prevent people from coordinating.”

Andres said that the uniting nature of social media helps to counteract suspicions of surveillance that radicals might have, helps you find people who will – much like the aforementioned content – reinforce your extreme biases, and plan tangible gatherings.

ISIS has capitalized on these characteristics of social media to “groom” potential terrorists via clickbait, he said.

It accomplishes this in a five-step manner, Andres explained.

First, he said, ISIS makes “sensationalist images” of graphic violence and other click-inducing things. He noted that Islamic State social followers generally don’t stay engaged by this kind of content, but that it is effective in making first cyber contact via clicks.

Next, he said, they designed those images to link to actual news stories about ISIS’ impact around the world in order to make themselves appear more legitimate.

Third, he said, they “flood Twitter” with identical, radicalizing stories to the point where potential recruits have no choice but to be pulled in due to the psychological pull discussed earlier.

Fourth, he said, they reach out to potential recruits in covert ways, such as through the use of onion routing (such as Tor) to mentor them and to arrange fund transfers associated with joining up.

Finally, he explained, they use social as a way to arrange travel to an ISIS location.

From there, Andres said, the Islamic State uses “the wisdom of the Marine Corps” to pull people with privilege in.

“What the Marine Corps does, it says: ‘This is a cause that’s worth dying for; come fight with us. You’re gonna live in the mud, we’re gonna kick your butt and call you names. It’s gonna be really, really hard, but you’re gonna do something important. You’re gonna suffer and you’re gonna fight.’”

“That message resonates with young people very strongly,” he explained.

According to Andres, this is evidence that the Islamic State has figured out a key factor in the human psyche: People are also wired to want to make a difference in the world – “not just to live well.”

Understanding the Islamic State: A Medill NSJI Event

WASHINGTON – The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative will host “Understanding the Islamic State,” a lunch and panel discussion featuring National War College Professors of Strategy & Policy Dr. Omer Taspinar and Dr. Richard B. Andres, at the National Press Club on Monday, April 6 at 12:15 p.m.

The event is aimed at increasing the media’s knowledge of the Islamic State terrorist group. Taspinar is a leading expert on Islamic radicalization and the author of two books: “Political Islam and Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey” and “Fighting Radicalism with Human Development: Education, Employment, and Freedom in the Islamic World.” Andres is a former Defense Department official who specialized in defense planning, especially related to Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Andres is also a leading thinker on the role of cyber across the national security realm.

The February story of four teenage girls leaving Britain to join the Islamic State in Syria caught the world unaware but they were not unique. Young men and women have been joining ISIS, apparently after significant exposure to its message on social media. Andres and Taspinar are experts who will help the audience understand how this is developing. They will focus on how the Islamic radical movement in 2015 is using technology to appeal to youth to uproot themselves from relatively secure environments to join a radical movement in a distant land full of conflict.

Lunch will be served, but reservations are required.

The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, begun in January 2009 with the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, offers a sequence of courses that equip graduate and
undergraduate journalism students with the knowledge and skills to report on national security issues, undertakes an annual student investigative project with a media partner and sponsors an annual conference for journalists featuring briefings on the most pressing national security issues. It also provides training and background materials on nationalsecurityzone.org as well as webinars for working reporters around the country.

The National War College, founded in 1946, educates future leaders of the armed forces, State Department and other civilian agencies for high-level policy, command and staff responsibilities. The national security policy curriculum emphasizes the joint, interagency, and the multinational perspectives. NWC is located on Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.


Judge delays detention hearing in Islamic State case

Mohammed Hamzah Khan detention Hearing

Defense attorney Thomas Durkin said Mohammed Hamzah Khan’s parents, who were standing behind him, ask the public to be patient and not judge them based on their attire. “They are Americans,” he said. Beth Lawrence/MEDILL

A Chicago federal judge delayed ruling on whether a 19-year-old Bolingbrook man accused of attempting to join Islamic militants in Syria should be jailed pending a trial. But the effect of her decision was that Mohammed Hamzah Khan will remain in jail until at least Oct. 21.

Magistrate Judge Susan Cox put off her decision to allow more time to consider the prosecution’s request to keep parts of Khan’s case closed to the public because minors are involved. She did not disclose how minors were part of the case.

Cox said she did not receive enough information to make an informed decision by Thursday. She does not like making decisions “on the fly,” Cox added.

Most of the hearing was conducted in the judge’s chambers, out of hearing by reporters. After returning to the courtroom, the judge announced the delay.

Khan’s defense attorney, Thomas Durkin, said he was concerned that any move to close the courtroom during Khan’s trial would set a “dangerous precedent.” He also said his client was more concerned with his rights and the public’s right to view the trial than about going home Thursday.

After the hearing Durkin described Khan as a sincere and dedicated person “who takes his faith very, very seriously.” Durkin said he does not believe the group calling itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is a threat to the United States. “So I don’t see how he could be,” he said referring to his client who was picked up Saturday at O’Hare International Airport trying to board a plane to Turkey. A search of his home turned up a three-page letter laying out his intent to join Syrian militants.

Durkin said he did not believe his client had a fighting chance because the case involves terrorism. There is a “two-tiered justice system regarding terrorism,” Durkin said.

Khan is charged with attempting to provide material support to foreign terrorist organizations, a violation of the Patriot Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks.

If convicted, Khan could face up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Rouhani: Fewer nuclear sanctions would strengthen Iran in fight against Islamic State

NEW YORK — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said this week in his first public speech before he went to the United Nations that he opposed Western intervention in Mideast violence and touted Iran’s potential to be a regional diplomatic leader.

The talk Wednesday was part of a New America Foundation event that featured a keynote address by Rouhani and a subsequent conversation between him and journalist Fareed Zakaria. The event was billed as Rouhani’s first public speaking engagement before his Thursday United Nations General Assembly address. It came on the heels of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s announcement that the Iranian government would not align itself with the United States in its war on the Islamic State.

Asserting that extra-regional Mideast involvement “feeds and strengthens terrorism,” Rouhani said lifting nuclear sanctions would let Iran truly step up to the diplomatic plate.

“If the Islamic Republic of Iran could reach a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program and leave sanctions behind, it will be able to assume a more active role in the process of intra-regional dialogue in the Islamic world,” he said during his speech.

Rouhani said Iran is the regional nation capable of battling the Islamic State in Iraq, citing its defense of Irbil and provision of military advisers to assist the Iraqis and Kurds as examples of efforts it has undertaken.

He insisted that the past 12 months’ worth of nuclear-adherence efforts by Iran were proof of goodwill and a willingness to build international trust in Iran’s nuclear program.

Protesters at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's talk in New York City in September 2014.

Protesters at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s talk in New York City in September 2014.

“The precise measures implemented by us during the past year were geared towards showing the serious and firm commitment at the highest levels, meaning that under no conditions we will try to build, stockpile or use any type of nuclear weapons,” Rouhani said.

Though Rouhani said timely action against the Islamic State was needed, he called it “nothing more than a terrorist group” that “typifies a violent extremism.” He said the 2003 American attack on Iraq and subsequent invasions birthed terrorist groups and suggested the unrest following the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan “nurtured” the extremism.
But he was careful to note that this sentiment wasn’t meant as an attack on the U.S.

“My intent here is not to assign blame or to rehash history,” Rouhani said. “I only seek to show that the imposition of one’s will on societies and other nations with the use of violent and extremist methods is not possible, is not successful, nor is it useful.”

“Even though it may yield the desired results over the short term, over the long term, it will only create tragedies,” he explained.

In the same vein, during his conversation with Zakaria, Rouhani expressed fears that American training of Free Syrian Army fighters to fight the Islamic State in Syria could inadvertently lead to the creation of a new terrorist group. He also said he supports the empowerment of Syria to make its own decisions.
National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi said Rouhani’s pushback against extra-regional Mideast intervention was consistent with an Iranian desire for the presence of “major foreign powers” in the Mideast to be greatly limited.

“That’s a longstanding Iranian position that precedes this regime because at the end of the day, it leads to a scenario in which Iran winds up becoming one of the key players in the region,” Parsi said in an interview.

Parsi also said that American interventions in Syria that could be perceived as being aimed at displacing Assad – whether or not that is the government’s actual intent – could make Iran dubious of American involvement in the fight against ISIS because it “affects the context” of U.S.-Iran negotiations.

“It’s not necessarily affecting the negotiation variables, but that context does impact the negotiations.”

New America Foundation Senior Fellow and Iran Initiative Director Suzanne DiMaggio, who delivered the event’s welcoming remarks, said that it was intended to try and bridge the communication gap between the U.S. and Iran in the midst of a 35-year halt in official diplomatic relations.

“Here at New America, we’re really dedicated to generating ideas [about] how to solve problems, and the only way you can do that is through dialogue and through debate,” DiMaggio said.

However, she warned that “a sobering approach” was needed to improving U.S.-Iranian relations due to “profound differences” between the two nations.

“I think what we’re seeing is maybe not the normalization of relations, but maybe we’re getting to a point where Americans and Iranian officials can sit down together on a regular basis and talk about issues,” she said.