ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards – Part 4 at FPRI

My latest installment of the “Smarter Counterterrorism” series at FPRI was just released – “ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards“.  It took me a little while longer than I anticipated to get this post together as things have been changing quickly the past month.  Those breaking for ISIS and leaving al Qaeda’s network of affiliates have been significant.  Here is an excerpt of this latest installment where I propose three future scenarios of how jihadi groups might go in the future.

“The outcome from Zawahiri’s retribution has been surprisingly to ISIS advantage.  Rather than punishing ISIS and regaining authority over the global jihad, Zawahiri and al Qaeda may soon become the second largest jihadist organization in the world.  Angered by Zawahiri’s betrayal and admiring of ISIS commitment to pursue an Islamic state, what were once thought to be al Qaeda Central affiliates are openly declaring allegiance to ISIS emir Baghdadi.  As seen in Figure 4, jihadist groups across North Africa and the Middle East have switched allegiances largely along the lines of the Iraq 2003-2009 foreign fighter distribution from Figure 3 in Part 3.  While al Shabaab in Somalia has reaffirmed its support for Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, the majority of contested affiliates have swung to ISIS’s favor. Ansar al Shariah in both Tunisia and Libya appear to be far more in ISIS camp. The younger generation of jihadis in AQAP/Ansar al Sharia in Yemen have sided up with ISIS (See Figure 6) even pushing at times in social media for AQAP’s emir al-Wuhayshi to shift his support from Zawahiri to Baghdadi –  I expected a transition, but this is occurring at a pace far quicker than I anticipated.  Zawahiri’s plan has backfired and his status has never been so diminished. “

An important note with this Part 4 on future jihad scenarios.  I do not believe that the al Qaeda affiliates and upstart jihadi groups are as structured in reality in the way the media and the West might have one believe.  These groups are morphing weekly and are populated with young twenty somethings who are also confused by Syria infighting.  Ultimately, these dopey young men may not always know or agree about what group they are in.  Omar Hammami had similar challenges after breaking with Shabaab.  I don’t think these groups are particularly well defined, are certain about their own membership and at the same time, many of these groups may not even exist in a year.  Old AQ affiliates and new upstarts are very malleable, so we shouldn’t get to hung up on exact organizational structure. Its more a swarm of like-minded subsets right now than well defined jihadi organizations.

Also, if interested in the graphics that were used in the FPRI post, I’ll post the scenarios from Part 4 here with a quick excerpt. Note, this is only part of the article from FPRI and only charts from Part 4.  If you would like to download a copy of these charts, just right click on the chart and it will open in this window or in a separate window so you can download them.

  • Updated Fractures Map – March 2014

First, I updated my fractures map from February and here is my new estimate of the situation amongst global jihad.  The big changes come from allegiances emerging within AQIM and I believe more allegiances between younger jihadis in Yemen.

Figure 4 alternate

  • Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad

The first scenario I offered in the article is ISIS running the table on al Qaeda and securing loyalty from the second generation of jihadis that fought in Iraq (See Part 3 here).  Here is a chart for what that future scenario might look like.

Figure 5 scenario 1

  • Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

Another possibility is that all jihadi groups slowly move away from notions of global al Qaeda resulting in regional nodes which are still connected but with only light connections between all groups.  See Part 4 of the series for a full explanation.

Figure 7 scenario 3

 

Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – Part 3 of Smarter Counterterrorism

My third post in the FPRI series Smarter Counterterrorism just posted.  With the help of some friends, I attempted to define the jihadi environment today and explain in narrative and visually the splits in al Qaeda’s ranks.  If interested, please read the entire article “Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, Team ISIS and The Battle For Jihadi Hearts and Minds” at this link.  Also, because I cannot make the charts that JM Berger and I put together display as larger versions at FPRI, I am posting them here for people to download.  Please click on the graphics below if you would like the larger versions for easier viewing.

Here is the intro to the post:

Today’s Jihadi Landscape: What does two competing jihadi networks and other freelance jihadi groups look like?

I’ve been wondering since Bin Laden’s death what a world without “One Big al Qaeda” might look like–see this for example.  Only now can we start to see the effects of a generational shift amongst jihadis representing two loosely formed larger networks surrounded by some, or maybe even many, loosely tied or unaffiliated jihadi groups with more regional rather than global orientations.

With the environment changing rapidly and no good way to depict today’s jihadi landscape, I, with input from friends, have put together the following visual estimate of what today’s fractured jihadi landscape might look like.  I tried to avoid the vertical, top-down task organization chart models because I don’t believe these relationships represent command and control as much as communication and collaboration.  Today’s global jihadi landscape looks more like a swarm not a corporation: it is fungible, malleable and evolving.  For the purposes of the charts you see below (Figure 1 and Figure 3), I’ve created three categories, which should not be viewed as definitive or exact as I anticipate much shifting of allegiances in the coming weeks and months.  I put forth a discussion here, not an answer, and I’m open to input.  If a group appears left out, it’s likely because I was uncertain how to assess them.  The amount of overlap represents the degree to which I estimate the groups are interlinked in their communication & efforts.”

Jihadi Competition feb 2014

And here is the chart I worked on with much help from J.M. Berger, Aaron Zelin and some friends.

stateofplay8

FPRI Post on Treating America’s al Qaeda Addiction

This week I published Part 2 of my series on “Smarter Counterterrorism” at FPRI.  The second post, “Treating America’s al Qaeda Addiction,” discusses America’s fixation on al Qaeda – how we got there and what we can do to alleviate this addiction.  The discussion focuses on the role of Americans writ large, the media, the counterterrorism industry and politicians in sustaining the focus on al Qaeda.  Here is a sample from the post and to read the entire article click here.  Here’s my take on the current state of the counterterrorism industry:

“This system progressed fine until the drawdowns in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.  As the big theaters closed, this forced analysts to chase the next big threat, rapidly research a new al Qaeda affiliate and region, reassert their relevance and publish prose on al Qaeda’s next rise – all done in an effort to protect our nation from terrorism and our own livelihoods in the process. (Remember, I am a member of this industry.)  The reports routinely prescribe one of three patent solutions for defeating al Qaeda: 1) the only way to defeat al Qaeda is to completely wipe the planet of al Qaeda’s ideology 2) we must win the hearts and minds of every disenfranchised community from Africa to South Asia or 3) both of these things.  In all three cases, a multi-billion dollar campaign of undetermined length, under-researched methods with fuzzy long-run objectives is required – completely infeasible, utterly unsustainable and not appropriately scoped for the more narrow and severe threat of ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda.

The net result of this system has been a splurge of terrorism and counterterrorism punditry by analysts increasingly removed from the frontlines with al Qaeda, relying on less and less journalist reporting and primary documents, framing thinking based on notions of al Qaeda circa 2001 rather than 2011 and trying to piece together a global al Qaeda strategy from a noisy jihadi social media landscape.  Each report, if sufficiently scary, presents another opportunity for funded research or a speaking engagement.  Who wants to read a complicated report on the rise of the next serious threat presented by Lashkar-Fill-in-the-Blank or Ansar-Fill-in-the-Blank unless its “tied”, “connected” or “linked” to al Qaeda – and “al Qaeda” means whatever you need it to be.  The counterterrorism punditry isn’t doing anything devious or deliberate. They are not members of the top 1% nor trying to lead their country astray.  Most are passionate about their profession, genuinely well intentioned and highly competitive with one another.  Anyone that’s ever sat in a meeting of terrorism and counterterrorism analysts and academics knows its really a passive aggressive game to see who’s smartest – the equivalent of the TV Show “Survivor” for people that don’t like to go outside, where everyone protects or bluffs about their sources and builds alliances to protect their food (I mean funding). The outcome is al Qaeda threat conflation, an endless game of Back-to-Bin Laden or Zawahiri informed by limited sourcing and perpetuated by competition over relevancy.

The worst part of today’s CT punditry is over the long-run it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: by over-classifying things as al Qaeda, we hunt for more al Qaeda, and we find more al Qaeda.  We end up over pursuing, making more mistakes, spreading ourselves thin and in fact creating more al Qaeda than we eliminate.  Today’s al Qaeda and the jihadi militants swirling around them are too diffuse, scattered amongst too many cultures and countries and evolving too quickly for any one counterterrorism pundit or TV talking head to maintain a persistent understanding.”

 

Senator Inhofe Has A Scary al Qaeda Map of Africa

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 4.39.54 PM

For those that read my FPRI post “Smarter Counterterrorism in an Era of Competing al Qaedas“, I poked fun of the use of scary maps showing al Qaeda taking over entire countries. Well, the same day I posted, Senator Inhofe of Senate Armed Services Committee brought his own to talk scary with DNI Clapper and LTG Flynn. Produced by the Economist apparently.

Check it out, and then freak out! Anyone know who the staffer is that had to hold it?

Watch him bring it out at the 39:35 minute of this hearing.

American Foreign Fighter Details How al Qaeda’s Nusra Betrayed Him In Syria

One year ago, American foreign fighter Omar Hammami detailed how Shabaab and al Qaeda betrayed and sought to kill him in Somalia (See here). Shabaab did this because Omar suspected Godane was killing off al Qaeda leaders and foreign fighters that had traveled to Somalia. Omar’s prophecy came true when Shabaab killed him in September 2013.

The past month we’ve again seen unprecedented infighting amongst al Qaeda affiliates, this time in Syria.  An extended cat fight between al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over who controls Syria finally resulted in violence with ISIS being attacked by a coalition to include Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda Central’s favored affiliate in Syria) and Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest Islamist dog in Syria’s fight.  The al Qaeda affiliate-on-al Qaeda affiliate violence showed an unprecedented level of bloodshed with foreign fighters being killed by their jihadi brothers like never before.  The result is really two major competing strains of jihadi networks – an era of terrorism competition (See here and here.)

Today, @intelgirl and @ intelwire tipped me off to what is a sequel to last year’s Omar Hammami video: an American foreign fighter who was almost killed by an al Qaeda affiliate he joined, this time in Syria. The tweet took me to a nearly 10 minute YouTube video where a foreign fighter explains how his own terrorist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, tried to kill him.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 8.56.50 PM

In the YouTube video below, Abu Muhammed al-Amriki, a man who lived in the U.S. for 10-11 years, describes how as a member of Jabhat al-Nusra (I think), he was working a checkpoint in Syria when he was told to allow weapons to pass from Turkey into the country to the FSA, a rival of Nusra.  He let the weapons pass through which, if I understand correctly, were facilitated by Ahrar al-Sham. He figures out that the FSA, Nusra and Ahrar al Sham are all working together to attack ISIS. He confronts Nusra about this betrayal of ISIS and support of the FSA (He even mentions Joulani in here I think) and Nusra then tries to kill him. So he left Nusra and is now with ISIS. I think this is roughly what he is saying, but listen for yourself below.

As I always say jihadi wannabes, if you join an al Qaeda group, your more likely to be killed by your fellow al Qaeda members than the West.


 

FPRI Post: Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s

Today, I started the first in a multi-part series of blogposts at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on counterterrorism options and policy as of 2014.  Two weeks ago, Dr. Michael Doran, Dr. Will McCants and I combined for an article at Foreign Affairs entitled “The Good and the Bad of Ahrar al-Sham” trying to illustrate the complicated nature of today’s terrorism threat and how to tread cautiously in managing it.  The issue we addressed was premature designation of groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), but this represents only one strand in an extremely complicated counterterrorism landscape.

To kick off my discussion, I posted a few assumptions on my perspective of today’s terrorist threat and where we in the U.S., and the broader West to a certain extent, currently stand.

For those that see this article as another extension of wonk pontificating, good on you.  You are right! Standby for the next few posts as I’ll get more specific.   Here’s the start of the post and you can read the entire article “Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s” at this link.

This post and several to follow represent my assumptions and opinions on how the U.S. might push forward in counterterrorism against al Qaeda and those jihadist groups emerging from al Qaeda’s wake. (These are my opinions and not necessarily shared by my co-authors Drs. Doran and McCants-–I speak only for myself here.)  The posts are meant to stir discussion and debate; I have no illusions that I have all the answers or am exactly correct in my prescriptions.

For my first post in this series, I have six assumptions and/or principles that shape my opinions to come in future posts.

  •  Al Qaeda is not one big thing

Analysts and pundits should stop focusing on building links between al Qaeda affiliates seeking to present loose networks as one large insurmountable threat.  Billing al Qaeda as “One Big Thing” over the past decade resulted in the U.S. pursuing strategies, such as military occupation and backing corrupt dictators, which galvanize competing al Qaeda adherents and unify disparate affiliate actions. The US should pick its fights wisely and for the greatest counterterrorism return at the lowest cost. Since Bin Laden’s death, we’ve seen unprecedented al Qaeda infighting in Somalia, Syria and the Sahel. Rather than build new fears of an al Qaeda juggernaut, we should instead be employing our vaunted “smart power”–that’s if the U.S. can act smartly rather than in a partisan manner and still has power in a region where it has pursued a campaign of disengagement in recent years.

 

Al Shabaab: The World’s Jihadi Darwinists

In December, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace invited me as a panelist for their conference “The al Shabaab Threat After Westgate”.  I had the great fortune of meeting and speaking with Stig Hansen and Bronwyn Bruton – both top notch Somalia experts that far outpace my skills.

For those interested in al Shabaab, I recommend Stig Hansen’s book al-Shabaab in Somalia Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 4.59.38 PMwhich is the book to read to understand the evolution of al-Shabaab.  I have a couple small things I disagree with in terms of the book’s notion of how al Qaeda integrates with al Shabaab, but overall, its a fantastic read on Shabaab. Stig displays his knowledge well in the audio recording of this session.

If interested, you can listen to the entire broadcast by clicking here at this audio file.

As for me, I discussed the terrorist threat of al Shabaab and how it integrates with al Qaeda, with special emphasis on my pal Omar Hammami, who is now taking a dirt nap courtesy of the terror group he joined and killed on behalf of – al Shabaab.

My discussion rests on a few points:

  • al Shabaab in 2014 – Probably as good as it gets.  I would like to see al Shabaab completely defeated; removed from Somalia’s hinterlands and prevented from disrupting Somalia’s government.  But I’m not naive.  I don’t see any reason why al Shabaab won’t be able to stay alive for the foreseeable future.  As Jeffrey Herbst explains in his book States and Power in Africa, African states have historically had limited ability to project power beyond the capital.  There is no reason to believe the current Somalia government is any different.  Shabaab is not what it was two years ago, but either Shabaab or some jihadi evolution of Shabaab is likely to endure for the next decade similar to how AIAI and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) existed in the past two decades.  So, after two years of fracturing and Somali government rebuilding, I don’t expect to see any significant and enduring progress in securing south central Somalia.
  • Shabaab exists because it can provide security allowing economic stability - While we talk about the ideology in our terrorism and counterterrorism studies, the reason Shabaab flourishes in Somalia is because they provide security and allow for some semblance of economic stability.  This ecomonic-security dynamic is why the ICU came to being and what al Qaeda learned during the early 1990s.
  • Shabaab is Jihadi Darwinism
      – While many in the West focus on ideological analysis (and I too believe it serves an important role), Shabaab more than any extremist group acts out of self-interest more than ideological convention.  Shabaab will make jihadi ideology fit its own agenda.  Whatever Shabaab needs the ideology to be to survive, that is what the ideology will be. Thus, jihadi darwinists.

    To listen to my comments, about 10 minutes worth, you can listen to this clip.


     

    Lastly, the discussion at the end of the session was one of the best that I have participated in. Take a listen to some great questions from the audience in this clip. And if you want to hear me get all worked up about the notion of security contractors and their responsibilities, then jump to the 20:30 mark where I discuss my perspective ” on the nuances between governments and contractors.

     

In Syria: Focus on Jabhat al-Nusra First, ISIS Second

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing blog posts and articles with come collaborators.  These Syria related posts tried to characterize the different jihadists groups in Syria and how we should look for new methods to combat them.  My take: “All jihadists groups in Syria are not created equal”.

While the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq has gotten lots of press for their recent battles against other jihadists and for taking ground in Anbar, Iraq, I’m far more concerned about Jabhat al-Nusra whom I believe to be the smarter and more loyal al Qaeda affiliate to al Qaeda Central.  More importantly, I believe Nusra will be the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, more than any other, to pursue external operations outside of Syria against the West and particularly the U.S.  As I wrote three weeks back:

As ISIS wanes, focus on al Nusra – ISIS warnings have filled the headlines recently.  However, as seen by this past weekend’s battles, I’ve always thought that ISIS would bring about its own demise through its sectarianism and extreme violence.  In my opinion, the West should be focusing on Jabhat al-Nusra.  Led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra represents the smarter and stronger connected al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – open to a coalition and governance in the near-term, but likely set on dominating the country and instituting Sharia governance in the long-term. If Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central have any influence in Syria, its with al-Nusra.  Nusra and ISIS fought each other on occasion in Syria and the ISIS push into Syria from Iraq sapped Nusra’s foreign fighter supplies.  With ISIS in retreat, Nusra has pushed forward seizing ISIS strongpoints and reclaiming foreign fighters.  The Daily Star reports:

Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIS fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra Front. Nusra’s commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign and it coordinates with the Islamic Front, but both ISIS and Nusra have their roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

The West should focus now on non-military levers to undermine Nusra such as working vigorously to cutoff Persian Gulf donations to these groups and using information campaigns to communicate that Nusra and ISIS are both al Qaeda groups sharing the same vision for the future. “

Further evidence of Nusra’s dangerous intentions have come from the U.S. government itself this week and news reports from Lebanon.  As for the former, see this report of U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: 

“The Syrian militant group tied to Al Qaida, the Al Nusra Front, wants to attack the United States and is training a growing cadre of fighters from Europe, the Mideast and even the US, the top US intelligence official told Congress on Wednesday…He said “Al Nusra Front, to name one … does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”

For the latter, the latest reports from Lebanon suggest Nusra, much like its competitor ISIS, may be pushing its influence out of Syria.

“The group, named after the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, posted a warning to its Twitter account last week in which it said areas where Hizbullah operates are “legitimate targets”, AFP reported.

The message came three days after four people were killed by a car bombin Haret Hreik – Hizbullah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburb. JAN in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the blast, saying it came in retaliation for what it described as Hizbullah’s crimes in Syria.”

I hope Western counterterrorism efforts are focusing on Nusra more than other al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.  They are al Qaeda Central and Zawahiri’s thread in the Levant.  If there is to be a reconstituted and strong global al Qaeda, Nusra is the vehicle for achieving this ascent.

Don’t Designate Ahrar al-Sham in Syria an FTO – At least not yet!

Today, I had the great honor to publish an article with two people much smarter than I: Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 4.23.44 PMDr. Michael Doran and Dr. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution.  Starting back last weekend, Twitter ignited based on a comment from Will about the need to restrain from designating Ahrar al-Sham, Syria’s most powerful militia in the Islamic Front, a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).  Since then, there’s been a flurry of discussion and in response the three of us teamed up to offer a counter-argument to the notion of designating every group with an al Qaeda link of one form or another a FTO.

In general, I’m a big fan of designating down to the smallest possible level every group that presents a clear threat to the United States via terrorism tactics.  However, the case for Ahrar al-Sham, in my opinion, has not met that threshold yet – although its not unreasonable to believe that it will someday.  What seems to be lost in hyper-political discussions about al Qaeda linkages are the dangers of designating a group an FTO too early – that it minimizes U.S. government counterterrorism options and can actually push groups into al Qaeda’s arms.  Here is the introduction to the article “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham“which is available at this link at Foreign Affairs.

“In his recent interview with The New Yorker, U.S. President Barack Obama drew a striking comparison between the Los Angeles Lakers and al Qaeda. “[I]f a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms,” he said, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Similarly, he went on to explain, there is a “distinction between the capacity and reach of [and Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

Obama’s quip drew harsh criticism from many on the political right, which accused him of trivializing terrorism. “It’s a flippant, arrogant, and ignorant comment,” said Oliver North, the former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. Yet however politically attractive this argument might be, it is false on its face. As Obama hinted, it is a simple fact of life that not all terrorist organizations pose an equal threat to the United States and its allies.

This flap could not have been timelier. The al Qaeda of yesterday is gone. What is left is a collection of many different splinter organizations, some of which have their own — and profoundly local — agendas. The U.S. response to each should be, as Obama put it, “defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.””

 

Has ‘Old Guard’ Al Qaeda Shifted Their Targeting Focus?

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia provided me the platform to discuss something new I’m exploring; a potential shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda targeting towards Israel.  Yesterday brought the announcement of three al Qaeda operatives being interdicted as they developed plans to attack targets in Jerusalem.   Here is the introduction to the article and see the full post and discussion points at this link.

“While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently.   Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others.  But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message.  The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:

“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”