Americans: If you join Shabaab/AQ in Somalia, you’ll probably go to jail…Shabaab jail that is!

Young American aficionados of al Shabaab and al Qaeda (Europeans too): Listen up! You probably thought that if you joined Shabaab/al Qaeda you might eventually get thrown in jail.  That’s a good bet.  However, you probably also thought when you got thrown in jail it would be a U.S. jail or even worse a foreign jail of a U.S. counterterrorism partner.  But, you would be wrong.  The two most likely results of joining al Shabaab are:

  1. Shabaab will eventually betray you and kill you.
  2. Shabaab will throw you in Shabaab jail…(Even worse than being in a U.S. or foreign partner prison.)

Shabaab thought Omar Hammami was being a showboat narcissist refuting them on Twitter and YouTube.  But, it increasingly seems like Omar is not the only foreign fighter to be disavowed and imprisoned by Shabaab.  Omar’s talk of a rift between local Shabaab members and the foreign fighter (“Muj”) seems more and more genuine each day.  And, Omar is not the only foreign fighter or even American being imprisoned by Shabaab.  Today, Omar revealed that the other American foreign fighter imprisoned by Shabaab may be Said Fidhin – an American from Seattle, Washington who was an essential conduit for the recruitment of Americans to Shabaab and from the Isaaq clan. Here’s a note on Fidhin from the Star Tribune:

Those who worked on the receiving end of the pipeline in Somalia, according to witnesses, are: Abshir’s uncle, Said Fidhin, a former resident of the Seattle area known as “Samatar” or “Adair,” and a taxi driver in Somalia known as “Uncle Barre.”

Here’s Omar’s update on Twitter:

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So there you go foreign fighters!  Head off to Somalia, join the call for Shabaab’s jihad.  If the environment, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Somali government, or the West don’t kill you, Shabaab may, and if they don’t kill you they’ll at least throw you in jail.  Wow, jihad sounds so appealing.  You might go to a meeting in Barowe, find out its a set up and get thrown in Shabaab jail.  As I mentioned in a previous post on Omar and the movie The Godfatherif Shabaab calls you to a private meeting, don’t show up!

Also note above that Shabaab now says that, “anyone who writes on twitter is a spy.”  Too funny, Shabaab, once heralded for being groundbreaking in their use of new media, now just as scared as Western governments about leaks and trying to do information control.  Shabaab claims to be boasting a pure form of Islam right?  What is there to hide Shabaab – your tweets make it seem like everything is wonderful?

What do the Hammami tweets reveal about al Shabaab fractures in Somalia?

Several months back @tweetsintheME and I wrote an article on Omar Hammami’s YouTube plea as he was turned on by al Shabaab in Somalia.  A central part of the article was the debate over what Hammami’s plight meant for potential fractures in al Shabaab.  Well, Omar Hammami’s latest tweets (caveat – or someone acting on behalf of Hammami or pretending to have deep insights into Shabaab, the account may not be him) suggest that the threat of Hammami getting to close to Mukhtar Robow is what brought the wrath of Shabaab upon him.

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So if this is true, let’s return to the Shabaab fracture scenarios from last winter - “Deciphering Hammami Scenarios & Shabaab Splits”. For those that enjoy my bad Powerpoint pics, here’s a return of an old graphic with a new picture for al-Shabaab leader Godane (Turns out old photo of Godane used by most media outlets was not Godane.)

GameofThrones2In the graphic above, three scenarios were outlined.  These scenarios attempted to explain why Hammami was on the outs with al Shabaab.  Here’s the list of four scenarios with brief summaries and check out this post for a more expansive description of each.

  1. Scenario #1: Godane kills off old AQ members & Robow affiliated foreign fighters (Represented in Red #1 above)
  2. Scenario #2: Robow kills off AQ fighters and dumps Hammami over Shabaab’s focus (Represented in Blue #2 above)
  3. Scenario #3: There is no split in al-Shabaab, Godane & Robow jointly decided to push out Hammami (Represented above in Green #3)
  4. An outlier notion- alternate scenario #4: The AQ-Shabaab merger was nothing more than an exit strategy for Shabaab from Somalia. (Not depicted)

If the tweet above is actually from Hammami and it’s accurate, it would seem “Scenario #1 Godane kills off old AQ members & Robow affiliated foreign fighters”  is what actually occurred in 2012 resulting in Hammami being on the outs.  I’m sure Hammami’s allegations that Shabaab was killing off foreign fighters also didn’t sit well. Scenario #2 (Robow outs Hammami) and Scenario #3 (No Split) are unlikely if this tweet is accurate.  Here’s a summary from March of what I thought Scenario #1 might be.

This scenario mirrors the arguments put forth by @Aynte and Lebovich and I last week.  Godane (Ahmed Abdi Godane, aka Mukhtar Abu Zabair), in an effort to consolidate his power in al-Shabaab and to quell old AQ member resistance to a merger, facilitates the removal of Fazul, Bilal al-Barjawi, and Barjawi’s deputy. Godane accomplishes this with a primary ally, Ibrahim al-Afghani (a fellow Ishaaq clan member). Godane proceeds to eliminate other foreign fighters (including Hammami) aligned under Robow (Sheikh Muktar Robow, AKA Abu Mansur). Godane undermines Robow because 1) Robow is from a competing clan focused on local Somali issues and is less interested in global AQ objectives and, 2) Robow is more interested in continuing a military campaign against the TFG rather than pursuing Godane’s guerilla warfare strategy.

Also of note is Hammami’s focus on the Raxanwayn clan providing the manpower for Shabaab but not having any of the leadership positions.  Seems ideology doesn’t unify all clan differences in Somalia.

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This perceived slight against the Raxanwayn would also tangentially support Scenario #1 as the push for more Raxanwayn (Rahanwejn) would support Mukhtar Robow who is from the Raxanwayn clan and holds Bay and Baidoa regions.  While this doesn’t mean necessarily Hammami is in Robow’s camp, Hammami is still advocating for Robow’s troopss.

Aweys:

What about Sheikh Hasan Dahir Aweys? Hammami actually speaks of him.  I’ve argued for a long time that Aweys, as the last prominent leader forced into al Shabaab, would be the first to defect…….

2. Allies taken by force are the first to defect.

Aweys may be the world’s greatest clan chess player.  Aweys cavorted with AQ in the early 90’s, maintained control of his clan for almost twenty years, and led the Islamic Courts Union.  Aweys may submit to Shabab for now, but allies born from force usually defect or undermine the conqueror in time.  Aweys won’t like being “Number 2” for long.  He’s a smooth warlord.

…..and Aweys has been one of the more vocal critics of al Shabaab in recent months.

“No one can limit Jihad to himself. It is better to have many Islamic groups and then unite later. This is how we have been carrying out for the last two decades,” Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who merged his Hizbul rebel group with al Shabaab in 2010, told Radio Shabelle late on Saturday.

“We are in al Shabaab but its operation is very wrong, we should correct it… al Shabaab and al Qaeda do not represent the Muslim world, they are only part of it.”

Well it seems that Hammami, after fondly noting encounters with Aweys in his autobiography, fancies himself in the same camp as Aweys today – on the outs with Shabaab but still right for Somalia.

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Is this a desperate call for help by Hammami to Aweys?  I don’t know, but I doubt Aweys, who is just about the oldest dude in “The Youth” (Shabaab), probably is not watching for Hammami on Twitter.

Fazul:

Hammami also posted some updates on Fazul which might also confirm Scenario #1.  Hammami suggests that Fazul was out of the al Qaeda game, drug back in and then set up to be killed for moving closer to Robow.

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 The Global E-Jihad:

One of the most interesting points of Hammami’s latest tweets has been his disdain for e-jihadi’s around the world.  He has apparently been reaching out to the global digital ummah and not getting much love.  Hammami seems to think the Internet jihad crowd is a fraud.

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Also of interest is that Hammami apparently tried to reach out to larger al Qaeda for refuge/guidance/assistance but al Qaeda gave him no love.  Ahh, boo hoo, Hammami answers al Qaeda’s call for jihad, but when Hammami tries to help al Qaeda gives him the no respect. I’d love to get Hammami and Adam Gadahn in the same room together.  I bet they are both so jealous of each other.

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Frontline reporting on foreign fighters in Syria

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who has done two amazing documentaries on AQAP in Yemen and the revolution in Syria, recently published a piece in The Guardian describing the foreign fighters infiltrating the fighting in Syria.  Having spent many years researching why people travel from one country to join the fighting of an unknown group in another conflict (See here, here, and here), I found this article enlightening and consistent with other foreign fighter accounts.

Ghaith’s article is excellent and I encourage all those interested in the debate over whether al Qaeda is infiltrating the Syrian rebellion to check out his article.  Here’s some of the quotes I focused on:

Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit. One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor. Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.

  • Jihadi veterans are invaluable.  Ghaith notes the presence of one former fighter from Iraq, Abu Salam al Faluji, who had some harsh words for his comrades in arms.

One Syrian, breathing hard, said that he had fired three times at the tank and the RPG didn’t go off.

“Don’t say it didn’t go off,” Abu Salam admonished him. “Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?

“Our work has to focus on IEDs and snipers,” he told the gathering. “All these roofs need fighters on top and IEDs on the ground. You hunt them in the alleyways and then use machine-guns and RPGs around corners.

“The problem is not ammunition, it’s experience,” he told me out of earshot of the rebels. “If we were fighting Americans we would all have been killed by now. They would have killed us with their drone without even needing to send a tank.

“The rebels are brave but they don’t even know the difference between a Kalashnikov bullet and a sniper bullet. That weakens the morale of the men.”

  • Casualties are mounting in Syria and especially for foreign fighters.  While its not unusual for foreign fighters to expire, they usually stick around long enough to make a significant impact.  However, a band of Chechens led by Abu Omar have already taken 25% casualties in merely two days.

But Abu Omar was angry. There had been 40 muhajiroun few days earlier but by the end of fighting that day they were down to 30. They had lost 10 men in two days.

  • Not all foreign fighters are welcome in Syria.  While Ghaith’s NPR interview noted that while there is a common enemy, the Assad Regime, the FSA is inclined to work with jihadi types.  However, the seeds of a post Assad battle between foreign fighters and the FSA already appear to be planted.

I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade, a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara’a called Abdulah Abu Zaid. “I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology,” he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. “Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam.”

The jihadis, he said, had looted and stolen from the local people and demanded protection money from local businesses in order not to steal their merchandise. “I managed to stop them,” he said, “and I won’t let them spread here.”

Later that day he issued an ultimatum to their commander, a Syrian called Abu Mohamad al Abssi, to leave the area with his foreign jihadis or he would be killed.

 

Shout Out – Top Gun on Smart Policing

I’ve been overly focused on terrorism posts the past few months and have completely neglected nominations to my “Expert List”.  After many months, I need to give a shout out or two to those I’ve overlooked thus far. Additionally, I’ve only delved into criminal justice and law enforcement discussions on rare occasions thus far on Selected Wisdom.  Seeing as how I spend quite a bit of time working on law enforcement issues, I’ve decided its time to also start blogging more about criminal justice and law enforcement issues and will catalog these posts on their own page in the coming months.

Today, I give my first shout out in the the law enforcement arena to Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe of Temple University.  Jerry is both an academic and practitioner of criminal justice.  As a former member of the Metropolitan Police in London, Jerry has spent time on the street resulting in his research being particularly effective at putting theory into practice.  Jerry was one of the first to explore the application of intelligence processes in law enforcement jurisdictions leading to his seminal book Intelligence-Led PolicingUnfortunately, revelations of the NYPD’s intelligence operations have ruined the term intelligence-led policing.  Jerry’s research does not advocate spying but instead provides a business management approach to increase the use of informants and surveillance empowering analysis that targets prolific offenders – an approach better described under the more current moniker of “smart policing”.  Jerry’s research successes with the Philadelphia Police department are noteworthy. Highly trained in Geographic Information Systems, Jerry’s work with mapping crime hotspots is outstanding.

I highly recommend Jerry’s website where he provides top notch, free resources.  Lastly, Jerry’s one of the best instructors around keeping the audience engaged and providing real world examples for all of his proposed techniques

So to kick off my law enforcement posts, I highly recommend Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe for those seeking the best in law enforcement education and research.

When Should Israel Bomb Iran? Debate Over Pre-empting Iran’s Nuclear Development

One can always tell when its an election year as the rhetoric related to Iran hits a fevered pitch.  Rather than discuss the two wars (Iraq & Afghanistan) the U.S. has been fighting for more than a decade, political debate has recently focused intently on Iran’s development of uranium in the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.  These discussions consistently debate one issue: when should Israel (or even the U.S.) bomb Iran to prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapon?  Rarely do politicians or the media address the validity of the assumptions surrounding this question. Why is it unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon when countries like North Korea have one?  What does the West think would happen if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon?  Why is a nuclear armed Iran considered irrational while a highly volatile and partially unstable Pakistan considered a secure home for nuclear weapons?  I could go on forever, but I won’t.  I’ll instead hope that increasing levels of tough talk will subside as the U.S. Presidential election year passes.

Last night, to my surprise, 60 Minutes broadcast a reasonable interview on the topic from a highly informed Israeli source; ex-Chief of Mossad Meir Dagan. Dagan explains in the interview that a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran would be counterproductive and instead recommends that the international community continue to pursue sanctions. Dagan also suggests the best way to facilitate regime change in Iran is internally – by fomenting revolution via Iran’s next generation – rather than externally through an Israeli or Western invasion. Here’s the video and it’s worth a listen.

Should We End The ‘War On Terror’?

Scrolling through old NPR shows, I stumbled onto an excellent debate from around the time of the September 11 anniversary.  The debate question was “Is it time to end the War on Terror?”.  This Oxford style debate featured two sides.  (Note: Oxford style debates are conducted in collared, button down shirts with Khaki pants where as Bermuda style are conducted in long shorts.)

For ending the ‘War on Terror’ were Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation and Juliette Kayyem of Harvard University’s Kennedy school.  Bergen led the charge asserting the U.S. has achieved victory in this conflict killing the majority of AQ’s senior leadership and preventing any major AQ attack for several years.  While he noted AQ members or AQ affiliates could attack again, the wind is out of AQ and by perpetuating the ‘War on Terror’ mantra we are only further scaring the U.S. population and spending unnecessary resources to placate this fear.

Against ending the ‘War on Terror’ were former CIA/NSA director General Michael Hayden and Deputy NYPD commissioner/White House Dep. Homeland Security Advisor Richard Falkenwrath.  Both Hayden and Falkenwrath focused on the legal implications of ending the ‘War on Terror’.  As they importantly noted, declaring victory and ending the war would also end the legal authorities which allow the U.S. to pursue al Qaeda and its affiliate anywhere they might be in the world.  Hayden and Falkenwrath believe this reduction in authority could allow AQ to reemerge.

I found myself on both sides of this debate.  Earlier this summer, J.M. Berger brought up the important point about there being no clear definition of “Al Qaeda”.  Thus, it’s difficult to know if we’ve won since we can’t clearly define what we are fighting.

Meanwhile, Bergen provided an excellent challenge to Hayden and Falkenwrath noting that if the current state of AQ doesn’t represent a defeated organization and a U.S. victory then what will be the conditions in which the U.S. can declare victory.   Hayden and Falkenwrath couldn’t define those conditions. Hayden provided a particularly weak answer stating something to the effect (not an exact quote), “I think we’ll know what victory is when we get there/we’ll know it when we see it.” Hayden was strong at many points in the debate but particularly weak here.

Kayyem seemed to agree with both sides of the argument at times.  She noted that she thought the U.S. has won the ‘War on Terror’.  Kayyem thought we should scale down the resources dedicated to fight AQ while also protecting the legal authorities to continue pursuing terrorist threat.

Ultimately, I believe we need to end the ‘War on Terror’ while still pursuing any and all terror groups and their members wherever they may reside.  Ending the ‘War on Terror’ is important.  Pursuing a never-ending campaign against an undefined enemy ultimately hurts the U.S. financially and psychologically. Unfortunately, as mentioned in the debate, no politician will declare the end to terrorism as it is political suicide.  Politicians gain much more from building fear than allaying fear.

The crux of this debate ultimately hinges on the antiquated legal structure the U.S. uses to pursue its enemies.  The U.S. can’t end the ‘War on Terror’ without tying its hands.  Solving this problem requires the U.S. to update its laws to enable rather than disable the nation’s ability to pursue non-state asymmetric threats.  The U.S. appears far more likely to face terrorists than nation-states in the near term.  The challenges presented by cyber threats push the boundaries of warfare even further in the direction of asymmetry.

So what should the U.S. do?  Try to fight it’s enemies through guidelines constructed for a world we no longer live in? Or develop a more nimble approach cognizant of the asymmetric battlefields enabling our enemies? I’m guessing the U.S. will pursue the first option as the Executive and particularly the Legislative Branches appear incapable of accomplishing anything.  I hope the folks a Lawfare do a post sometime soon (or maybe a comprehensive book) describing how the law of war might be re-written.  They’ve had some good reviews lately.

Below is the audio for the debate and I think it’s well worth listening to and well moderated.

Keys to AQ’s Survival & Resurgence; Poll Results #9

What is al Qa’ida going to do?  The AQ Strategy 2011-2012 poll sought to answer this question.  The survey process assumed that if respondents could accurately forecast the future direction of AQ’s strategic planning then counterterrorism strategy could be appropriately and effectively applied to disrupt AQ’s critical tasks. The week prior to Bin Laden’s death 266 survey respondents answered the following query:

Which of the following will be most critical to AQ’s survival and resurgence over the next five years?  (You can only pick one)

This question produced the most uncertainty across all available responses and all professional groups.  Six of the eleven choices presented to respondents received 30 or more votes with no single choice receiving more than 46.  Additionally, the voting distribution across all professional groups appears to be remarkably similar.  No one response seems to have drawn significantly more preference from any particular professional group.  Here are some results I found interesting:

  • Prior to UBL’s death, the top response was “Infiltrating Arab Revolutions” -receiving 46 of 266 votes.
  • Five responses received between 31 and 36 votes each – “Transition Current Leadership to Younger Generation”, “Sustaining Gulf Donor & Illicit Funding”, “Sustaining Global Foreign Fighter Flow”, “Ideological Inspiration from New Generation”, and “Executing a Spectacular Attack on the U.S.”
  • Even prior to UBL’s death, the lowest vote receiving option was “Ideological Inspiration from Senior AQ figures”.  “AQ Central strategic planning” and “Capitalizing on experience of veterans” also received few votes.
  • The only professional group preference of significance appears to be ‘Private Sector’ respondents selection of “Infiltrating the Arab Revolutions”.  They chose this response 27% of the time-significantly more than any other group.
  • Lastly, the week prior to UBL’s death, only 4 of 266 people thought ideological inspiration from AQ’s senior leaders (Bin Laden for example) would be key to AQ’s future success.  Respondents signaled that AQ senior leaders were not especially important to sustaining the organization.

Overall, I find the results of this survey question intriguing.  For a decade, I’ve heard ‘experts’ tout AQ’s intelligent, strategic planning and retell the inspirational significance of AQ senior leaders.  But, these were the least selected options by the crowd. I wonder if I had asked this question the week after UBL’s death if the results would have been significantly different?

In conclusion, I’d estimate, in this case, the crowd doesn’t collectively know what will be key to AQ’s survival and resurgence.  Drone strikes on AQ Central and continued Arab revolutions sustain this question as the most difficult to anticipate.  Thus the challenge remains, how can we accurately develop a strategy for countering AQ if we aren’t really sure what they intend to do?

Below are the raw vote results for each of the 11 responses to this question and then a second chart illustrating the preferences of professional groups (in %) for each of the eleven responses.  Note, there were less than eight ‘Media’ respondents so the results of ‘Media’ in the second chart appear more volatile than other professional groups.

 

Importance of Confidence: In Conflicts and Markets

From about 2005-2007, military briefings pushed me to the edge of a coma with endless banter about how counterinsurgency victory depends on the “will of the people to outlast the insurgents”.  The briefer would then show a chart depicting the average length of insurgencies and how popular support for the counterinsurgents determined the outcome of the conflict.  Essentially, if the population supporting the counterinsurgency were confident that victory could be achieved and the cause worthwhile, then the fight could be sustained and victory attained.  (There was a little more to it than confidence, but I’ll summarize to save you the pain.)

Recently, I listened to an interesting NPR broadcast on the shaken confidence of young investors entering the financial market – “How Recession Rewires Your Tolerance for Risk”.  Essentially, young workers do not share the confidence of their 1990′s predecessors who believed that investing in stocks and mutual funds would provide guaranteed payments during retirement.  The large scale of American worker investment contributions in mutual funds, 401K’s, and stocks helped propel U.S. market growth from the 1990′s through 2008.  What will happen to the markets if the next generation of American workers chooses not to pursue this investment approach while retirees begin pulling their retirement payments out in mass?

In both cases, conflicts and markets, the tipping point for victory or growth may rest on confidence more than anything.  In Iraq, American confidence helped lead to what is perceived by most as a victory of sorts.  In Afghanistan, American confidence appears quelled and victory still uncertain.  In the markets, I wonder when will investor confidence return and what will make it return?  And when comparing conflicts and markets, I wonder which is easier, building American confidence in support of counterinsurgency or restoring American confidence in investing.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S. – Part 3 of 7

In Part #1 and Part #2 of CVE online in the U.S., I discussed the challenges of removing extremist content from U.S. ISP’s and then addressed the consequences of shutting down this content.  Both of these posts focused on the supply of extremist content. In Part #3, I’ll move into a separate question I noted in Part #1 and an even more tricky area- “What is extreme content?”

3)     Who would be responsible for identifying and tagging extremist content in the USG? (Essentially, what is extremist content and who will decide what is extremist content?)

This may be the toughest CVE related question of them all.  Determining what is extremist will be a huge challenge.  We can say “advocating violence” but that can get twisted in a lot of different directions depending on the definition of “extremist” and who is in power to craft and enforce policy.  We are all responsible adults and I imagine we could establish some good guidelines.  However, over time, threats will change and the reins of power will shift.

How might a definition of “extremist content” be used in the future for other purposes?  I recently heard a media pundit and on another occasion a political figure call NPR and PBS “Extremist”.  I like to think this is a silly example, but our country has a history of massaging policies depending on who is in charge, the intensity of threats, and the ambiguity of terms (like extremist).   Balancing freedom of speech with the need to protect American citizens has always been a challenge and the incarnation of extremist content via the Internet appears to be the next complicated chapter in this saga.  Even if we could determine what is extremist content, what element in the government would enforce this?  I’m assuming DHS would get tagged with the responsibility.  Are they the best fit for enforcing such a policy?

When I look back at this past decade, there have been repeated deliberations over policies that when originally crafted probably seemed clear to the policy’s creators; Patriot Act, electronic surveillance, detainee rights, Miranda rights for terror suspects- I could go on for a while.  Each of these policies were good in some respects but encountered problems over time.  Are we sure we can draft a definition of “extremist content” that will be enduring and definitive?  I am not sure we can.  Not saying I wouldn’t try, but it would be a huge hurdle.  Any thoughts from the crowd on what might be a good and enforceable definition of “extremist content”? ad who would enforce it?

What do we do about AQAP in Yemen?

Yemen’s descent into revolution may be the most troubling of all the current revolutions.  I’m far more concerned about AQAP developing an expanded safe haven in Yemen than AQ infiltrating other locales such as Libya.

The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) hosted a good panel this past Thursday in response to some insightful polling conducted by Glevum Associates and discussed by Dr. Christopher Swift.  Overall an excellent discussion and the audio is posted at FPRI.  In the meantime, the Glevum poll results for Yemen can be found at the FPRI website.

Here are some of my thoughts after listening to Dr. Swift and the Glevum folks.

  • Yemeni’s aren’t entirely sure why they are angry-  As Andrew Garfield notes in his discussion of the data, Yemeni’s in the provinces polled routinely picked “Other Economic Issues” or “Other Political Issues” as their top grievance (See slide 14).  They aren’t sure why they’re aggravated so the U.S. should hesitate before developing any strategy to alleviate their grievances until a more coherent picture of the problem can be surmised.
  • Awlaki isn’t that popular in Yemen-  While American’s and especially terrorism pundits make such a big fuss about Awlaki, Yemeni’s aren’t decidedly in his camp.  Thus, the U.S. might be able to find allies against Awlaki inside Yemen.
  • Don’t back Saleh- Yemeni’s dislike the U.S. and Saleh.  The U.S. should not get behind Saleh and the wrong side of history.
  • Perceptions of the U.S. are poor, but so what?-  I understand the concern that rural, rebellious Yemeni’s dislike the U.S.  They’ve probably had limited contact with Westerners and there would be no reason for them to be overtly supportive of the U.S.   Likewise, if one polled rural American citizens between West Virginia and Kansas and asked them “What are your perceptions of Yemen?”  do we think those Americans polled would have a positive outlook on Yemeni’s?  Of course not, so my question is, why do we care if they hate us? Are these populations tacitly supporting terrorism against the U.S.? Yes. Are they even aware that AQAP’s foreign operations unit lives among them (maybe a couple dozen guys tops)? Maybe.  I hope U.S. policy doesn’t fixate on making every Yemeni like us.  It’s not critical to eliminating AQAP.

Ultimately, the question is what does the U.S. do in Yemen to continue their pursuit of AQAP?  Multiple rebellions, a civil war, a crumbling dictator, an AQ terrorist group all mixed with economic and environmental issues. Options seem to be generally confined to:

  • Conduct military operations to eliminate AQAP- Persistent presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, limited intervention in Libya and a half dozen other Arab uprisings suggest the U.S. has limited capacity to execute this.  The anti-drone crowd also believes this will only further alienate a rural population that already dislikes the U.S.
  • Sustain the Saleh regime- This seems like a bad idea.  The U.S. works to eliminate Gaddafi and then sustains Saleh.  No way.  Going after AQAP through the Saleh regime limits U.S. options and strengthens AQAP recruitment.
  • Engage rural tribes with soft power- Some have advocated a tribal engagement approach reminiscent of Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.  I don’t think this will work for several reasons: 1) I’m not convinced this approach has truly achieved U.S. objectives in other theaters. 2) Unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, the U.S. does not dominate the area militarily.  Thus, those conducting key leader engagements would be flying into hostile territory on a repeated basis.  The first time one of these field diplomats gets kidnapped; it’s over. 3) Who would the U.S. send to execute this engagement strategy?  I imagine there are less than a dozen Americans qualified to travel to rural areas and engage with locals successfully. They wouldn’t be able to do this for more than a year without needing to rotate. 4) How long would this approach take?  These engagement campaigns take years to make progress.  I’m not sure AQAP will give us years nor do I think the U.S. could sustain a prolonged, rural engagement program in Yemen for years.

I instead think the U.S. should pursue a fourth strategy.  Wait, let the Saleh situation develop and then work through partners to eliminate AQAP.  Currently, Yemen’s situation is too chaotic to appropriately identify a successful soft power program or focused military action.  Utilize drones as a safe haven deterrent, but focus on Saudi Arabia to help find an AQAP solution.  The Saudi’s have an equal or greater incentive to destroy AQAP.  Additionally, the Glevum polling data suggests Yemeni’s are more amenable to Saudi or Arab League intervention than an American intervention.