Check out Stout’s Interview with an al Qaeda Insider, Morten Storm

Recently someone pointed me to an interview by Mark Stout at the Spy Museum with Morten Storm, the agent that infiltrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Based on his account of events, he gained the confidence of Anwar al-Awlaki. Readers of this blog may remember my references to Morten Storm in the context of the justification for targeting Awlaki. Previously,  I had read some summaries of the Storm coverage and it didn’t always make sense.  However, Mark Stout does a masterful job interviewing Storm and in less than an hour the Morten Storm saga is explained – and its well worth a listen.

Here is a quick summary of some of the interview but definitely check it out for yourself.

  • The beginning of the interview discusses Storm’s radicalization.  While its bizarre that he went from being in a motorcycle gang to being a jihadist adherent in only months, this is a similar pattern for converts to Islam that end up attracted to al Qaeda. Western recruits travel bizarre paths into al Qaeda’s arms.  My general rule for Western al Qaeda members, the whiter the al Qaeda recruit, the weirder the story – Gadahn, Lewthwaite, John Walker Lindh – its never what you expect.  Looking at Morten Storm, I’d swear he was in the crowd at the Packers-Lions game on Thanksgiving.
  • Al Qaeda wants Western recruits so badly that they routinely seem to open themselves up to problems.  I imagine in Storm they saw an ideal candidate for delivering attacks in the West.  For Omar Hammami, they enjoyed his propaganda and the fact he was an American.  But in both recent cases. the Westerner recruits have created a series of problems for al Qaeda.  I bet Adam Gadahn is a real pain in the ass in Pakistan as well.
  • I learned in this interview that Storm seems to be more of an asset for infiltrating al Qaeda operations in Somalia. Morten Storm Storm talks about helping facilitate fighters from Europe and purchasing/providing gear, setting up a business in the Horn of Africa.  In particular, Storm discusses the connections between AQAP and al Qaeda operations in Somalia.  Storm mentions Warsame and American Jehad Mostafa as being connections between the two al Qaeda affiliates. Take a listen around the 30 minute mark.  Storm provides some fascinating linkages that have been long sought in open source.
  • Lastly, I had gotten the impression from new stories that Storm had been betrayed by the CIA or had a falling out with the U.S.  According to this interview, I get a very different impression.  It seems his disagreements and betrayal rest more with the Danish government rather than the U.S. – but I guess that story doesn’t sell as well in mainstream press.
  • Hats off to Mark Stout for a great podcast.  He gets Storm’s entire story out in a concise fashion.  Take a listen.

FPRI Follow up: External Drivers of AQ Plots & AQAP R&D Timelines

In follow up to the internal competition hypothesis I posted on Monday, I wrote another post at FPRI that went on to describe the many external forces that may be accelerating a Zawahiri-led al Qaeda to plot a global attack.  I didn’t want readers to get the impression that the motives for a plot were limited to just internal politics, there are many external forces likely driving al Qaeda action as well.  The post is here at this link at FPRI.

One of the points from this is AQAP and their talented bombmaker Asiri have had quite a while to develop a new and more sophisticated explosive device.  Here’s a quick snippet from that part of the FPRI post and a graphic I put together to illustrate what may be Asiri’s development pace.  Essentially, without drones and CT efforts, his pace of development may be considerably quicker than when there is overt Western and Arab counterterrorism pressure.  However, in both scenarios, no pressure and lots of pressure, if Asiri is still alive he’s likely to keep making more sophisticated devices and creating innovative plots.

“Pace of attacks, R&D and planning time – al-Qaeda affiliates have varying abilities to conduct attacks on the West and varying access to Western targets.  AQAP in Yemen has been the primary affiliate for attacking the West in recent years and a key component of this capability is Ibrahim Asiri – AQAP’s talented bombmaker.  Some news stories this week allege that Asiri and his band of bombmaking partners have developed the ability to make undetectable explosive clothing from a new liquid drying process.  As long as he’s alive, Asiri is likely to continue creating more sophisticated devices.  Drones and other counterterrorism actions may be able to slow down the pace of development but ultimately if Asiri and AQAP have even a small handful of operatives planning attacks on the West, there will eventually be more sophisticated plots arising. See the chart below (Figure A) for my crude estimate of Asiri and AQAP’s planning and development timeline since Dec. 2009 measured alongside the pace of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen (New America Foundation data).”


Guest Post at FPRI: al Qaeda Plots and the Era of Terrorism Competition

Today, I rather lately got around to a post on this past weekend’s embassy closures in response to an allegedly imminent al Qaeda plot to attack Western interests in the Middle East and North Africa. The goal of the post was to discuss some of the internal forces that might be driving al Qaeda Central to attack.  I then look at what how competition internally might be driving al Qaeda to act on plans for a large scale coordinated plot.

Here’s a snapshot of the article and a graphic I put together on one of my theories of how al Qaeda affiliated might be communicating.  For the whole post, visit this link here at FPRI.

“This latest threat to American and Western targets overseas is not surprising but is instead interesting because of what I perceive to be the many internal motivations of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda to plot a spectacular attack now.  Increasingly, al-Qaeda Central and what I would now call al-Qaeda Central Forward–al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen-–face stiff competition with one of its own affiliates, al-Qaeda in Iraq and their recent absorbtion Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.”

Competing AQ Hypothesis

Will there be “blowback” from U.S. drone use?

After a few weeks of quiet, the drone debate has surfaced again in the U.S.

The past week has seen at least two drone strikes in Yemen.  One reportedly killed the Ansar al-Sharia leader of Abyan province and the Long War Journal claims the latest attack , launched missiles at,

“two fighters “as they left a farm on a motorbike” in the Khobza area of Baydah province”

A year ago, all the talk of terrorism, counterterrorism and drones centered on Yemen.  The media has lost interest in Yemen over the past year and while the pace of drone strikes appears to have decreased; their use has not gone away.

More interesting, an article from the Huffington Post I read yesterday that was published in 2010 entitled “Drones over Pakistan: Menace or Best Viable Option?”. This article is a must read.  Dr. C. Christine Fair had spent months in Pakistan researching the drone issue and, similar to Christopher Swift’s take on Yemen last year, found a very different perspective on the drone debate inside Pakistan.  She spoke with a senior Pakistani officer and:

This senior officer himself attested to Pakistan’s own inability to eliminate key threats and the necessity of the drones to eliminate terrorists in a way that most effectively minimizes the loss of innocent lives.

As for those stories that recount the psychological damage placed on populations by the buzz of drones, Fair contrasts with this anecdote:

“Another interlocutor explained that when children hear the buzz of the drones, they go their roofs to watch the spectacle of precision rather than cowering in fear of random “death from above.”

While I’m sure there have been mistakes in the use of drones in Pakistan, Fair says in Pakistan,

This antipathy towards the program is due in large measure to the collaboration of Pakistan’s media to sustain tenacious criticism of the program by spreading suspect civilian casualty reports planted by the militants themselves or various “agencies.”

Well, what should we think? As readers of this blog, you likely know my stance, “Go Drone With Some Modifications” (See here and here). However, the debate often centers around one’s perception of innocence and a which is more noble: means or ends. This is where it all gets really tricky.

COIN proponents like the notion of winning “hearts and minds” and this sells well to the public as the means ‘feel’ just. But in actuality, COIN in Pakistan means Pakistani army and militia invasion, which creates immeasurable casualties over time.  Drones, on the other hand, ‘feel’ evil, but I believe kill more precisely than any other tool and if I had to choose between a drone strike or sending in a tribal militia – I’ll go drone every time. (Did you see above, we just hit two dudes on a motorbike! it doesn’t get much more precise than that.) Again, both parties, drone critics and drone advocates, will swing the number of civilian casualties in their favor because there is no clear definition of the enemy and the U.S. isn’t overly clear about its use of the tool.  Would Osama Bin Laden’s wife be considered a militant or a civilian? Were the people in an AQAP member’s house hit by a drone strike militants or civilians? What about the house across the street from where the missile strikes, militants or civilians?

Drone critics have made some progress, I believe, in curbing the use of drones.  The pace of attacks has decreased overall it seems.  I assume this is either due to public pressure or that the U.S. may be running out of targets.  However, critics of drones are unlikely to make much more progress in reducing drone use unless they can provide a viable counterterrorism alternative to drones – America’s most effective and Slide1efficient counterterrorism tool.  While critics protested publicly during the hearings, I’ve heard little from them since Brennan’s confirmation. If drone critics remain concerned about their use, they must sustain a real campaign against their use and provide plausible alternatives.  The truth is: both political parties and most Americans are big fans of drones as long as they aren’t aimed at them.

The mantra I’ve seen repeated amongst drone critics has been that the U.S. use of drones will result in “blowback” against the U.S. While I agree this is conceivable, this repeated “you just wait, this is going to come back to haunt you” argument needs to come with some specific predictions if it is to be treated seriously.  I’ve listened to this argument against drone use for more than two years now.  (See here and here) If there is going to be “blowback” for the U.S. use of drones, when will there be “blowback” and where will there be “blowback”?  Be specific. To say there will be a terrorist attack from Yemen again, or from Pakistan again, will surely be correct, but these attacks may have only some or no relation to U.S. drone use.

Conversely, the option “to not use drones” over the past several years must be discussed by those that criticize drone use.  For example, I believe if the U.S. had not developed and implemented the use of drones in Pakistan, al Qaeda would be stronger today than it currently is, the U.S. would be further engaged in Afghanistan providing more troops for a longer period, and the TTP and al Qaeda would maintain a strong foothold in Pakistan’s frontier that would further destabilize Pakistan and yield more terrorist attacks against the West. Likewise, I also believe the success of drones in Pakistan has sent al Qaeda to seek alternative safe havens – one of which is Yemen.  In Yemen, without the use of drones, I believe the U.S. would be committed to a larger ground presence and further entanglement with dubious allies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Additionally, I believe the U.S. would have suffered more attacks from an AQAP whose external operations, led by Awlaki, would have continued, increased and improved with time.  While my assessment, due to the course of history, cannot be proven right or wrong, I can see the logic for why the U.S. chose to pursue drone strikes and I believe it outweighs the arguments for not using drones.  For drone critics, they must qualify their prophecy about the long-run effects of drone use.  I’ve heard the drone “blowback” argument for at least three consecutive years now and, while I respect it, I’m not convinced.


Hammami’s Latest Call Reveals Deceit, Dissension and Death in Shabaab & al Qaeda

Yesterday, I posted about a Twitter account I believed to be that of Omar Hammami or his close associate (here and here). Well, Hammami didn’t disappoint and returned this morning with some tweets and this afternoon with all the real dirt about the al Shabaab fractures and al Qaeda merger/fiasco. Omar, thanks for sending all the details on al Qaeda and al Shabaab’s infighting and how you got pushed out by Godane (Abu Zubayr). You confirmed many of my suspicions from last winter. @Aynte was also thinking along the same lines as well. And for those that were claiming there was no evidence of splits in al-Shabaab, stop being foolish.
Here’s where the morning started off.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 10.20.38 PMFirst, a tweet from Omar. I’m not sure how Omar’s mission in Somalia relates to Martin Luther King.  Last time I checked, Martin Luther King was about non-violence and Omar and the Somalia jihad is very much about violence.  I believe MLK had a dream and Omar is having a nightmare.

But, then came this tweet.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 10.23.10 PM

Now we are talking.  Omar seems to think the splits and fractures he is experiencing with al Shabaab are occurring with al Qaeda as well.  Omar, we’d all love to know more so please expand.  I realize you don’t want to put yourself in jeopardy, but I think you’ve already shot one of your feet, so no need to hold back.

Things were quiet for most of the day and then @azelin sent out the links to a new Hammami video showing a tired and gaunt Hammami (See below).  This video link at his YouTube channel was accompanied with two documents in Arabic (Here’s #1 and #2).  Previously, Omar had posted his biography, in english, which was ignored by the e-jihadi crowd.  This time he wrote two Arabic documents, which detail his trials and tribulations in Somalia. I’m assuming he chose Arabic to make sure word got out in the jihadi crowd. While I don’t read Arabic, I’ve gone through the Google translate and talked to a knowledgeable scholar, Dr. Will McCants, about what I think are key passages.

Omar names “names” and illustrates in great detail conflict between different factions in al Shabaab, conflict between al Qaeda and al Shabaab, and even disagreements between different al Qaeda elements in Somalia. Great stuff all around and for those that believe al Qaeda is unified and operates in lock step based on the rules of an all powerful ideology – you need to stop what you are doing and read Omar’s notes.

Again, I’m not an Arabic speaker, but I’ll do some quick paraphrasing here of what I interpreted (could be some mistakes) and the implications.  For Arabic speakers out there, if you do an english translation of these documents, please post and send me the link and I’ll do a post on them here.

  • Connections between al Shabaab and al Qaeda in Yemen – In one section, Omar describes how members of al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP) showed up in Somalia and were the communication conduit with al Qaeda Central in Afghanistan/Pakistan.  The AQAP members were trying to coordinate the official merger of al Shabaab with al Qaeda.  At the time, Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubayr) was against the merger as he thought the conditions in Somalia were not right yet.  It seems at the point of the AQAP visit, Shabaab thought local public support for an Islamic state was sufficient but that the local populace would reject an alliance with al Qaeda.  However, the foreign fighters present, in principle, did agree to be affiliated with al Qaeda.  (My question: Did Godane balk at unity with al Qaeda at this point because he did not have firm control of al Shabaab and wanted to shore up loose ends before a formal merger?)
  • Desire to conduct external operations in Kenya – Throughout the second document, Hammami consistently discusses the desire by many within al Shabaab and particularly al Qaeda elements to begin conducting foreign operations and a deliberate campaign in Kenya.  However, it appears certain leaders within Shabaab, particularly Godane I think, wanted to keep a lid on the foreign fighters and keep them focused on internal fighting in Somalia.  (My question: Does the recent uptick in al Shabaab activity in Kenya represent a loss of control by Godane over Shabaab?  I would assume with Shabaab’s losses and Godane likely fleeing north to Galgala, his control on those wanting to operate in Kenya is limited.)
  • Fazul’s return to Somalia, his conflict with Godane and resulting death – Omar describes in one section that legendary al Qaeda operative Harun Fazul returned with trainers to Somalia with the intent of establishing an external operations capability to project al Qaeda attacks from Somalia.  Fazul told one of the commanders of foreign fighters, going by the name of A’sar Yusr, that he wanted to establish a training camp in the mountains of Puntland (probably Galgala). From what I understand, A’sar Yusr let Fazul’s plans slip to Godane (Abu Zubayr).  Godane apparently didn’t like Fazul’s plan because 1)  Godane, being from Hargeisa, didn’t want Fazul playing on his turf in Puntland (probably Galgala) and 2) Godane believed Fazul to be aligned with Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur) – Godane’s Southern Somalia rival for control of al Shabaab. As I understand it, this led Godane to plot Fazul’s demise setting Fazul up to approach a checkpoint in Mogadishu that was awaiting his arrival and prepared to kill him.  (My note: This passage confirms Nelly Lahoud’s theory that Fazul was betrayed. This section also describes al Qaeda’s intent to conduct external operations from Somalia and matches the reporting of Michelle Shepard where she details how Fazul had plans for attacking London when he was killed.)
  • Conflicts between local Somali clan fighters (Ansar) and foreign fighters (Muhajir)– Hammami describes how many of the trainers that came with Fazul left Somalia.  When they departed, many foreign fighters to Somalia left the country with the trainers to join al Qaeda’s ranks outside of Somalia.  Hammami says the foreign fighters were frustrated because the fighting in Somalia was not a real jihad.  Omar suggests foreign fighters were treated poorly in a variety of ways. As mentioned in his biography, he notes that there were constant tensions about how foreign fighters desired to be separated into their own cadres similar to how its done with Taliban/al Qaeda in Pakistan. There are also some comparisons to how foreign fighters are used in Iraq but I didn’t understand all of this. (My note: Omar, this is an exact replay of al Qaeda’s experience in Somalia from 1992-1994.  The clans didn’t like being bossed around by outsiders and they always wanted to focus on local battles over global issues.)
  • Hammami overstepped with Godane and got punished – In one passage, Hammami describes his rift with Godane and how this has likely put him in his current predicament.  Hammami had pledged at some point to stay out of Shabaab politics.  Godane, at some point, wants to know why the foreign fighters are leaving Somalia.  Hammami volunteers to explain the circumstances under which foreign fighters are frustrated over the local focus of clan fighters. Hammami suggests that a way to alleviate this frustration is for Godane to step aside and let Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur) take a bigger leadership role in Shabaab as he is well respected by the local Shabaab fighters and also has good rapport with the foreign fighters.  Godane sees this as a challenge to his leadership and believes Hammami is partaking in politics again (breaking his promise to abstain) and joining the side of his rival Robow.  This overstep later leads to Godane having angst with Hammami. (My notes: Omar needs a class in how to win friends and influence people.  Sounds like he directly questioned Godane’s leadership and it wasn’t received well.)
  • Disastrous merger between al Shabaab and al Qaeda – My interpretation is that Godane calls a meeting for all of al Shabaab’s shura.  Once everyone arrives, Godane announces that al Shabaab is going to officially join al Qaeda. Those in attendance, I believe, were caught a little off guard but were amenable.  Then, Godane’s deputy (Guessing this might be Ibrahim al-Afghani) compels everyone to swear bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda and Godane.  Those at the meeting think they have been fooled because there is no immediate formal recognition of this merger by al Qaeda Central and Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Those that swore allegiance have a bad taste in their mouth about how this meeting went down as they have been told before they were going to be officially part of al Qaeda only to find out later that this was not true. Instead they would usually find out that a Somali leader had used the claim only as a political ploy to consolidate power.  Also, Robow (Abu Mansur) is not at the meeting, which makes people nervous, and it is weeks (if I remember correctly) before Zawahiri formally and publicly recognizes the merger. (My note: It appears that Godane is a total Machiavelli in Somalia.  Over many months, he systematically kills or pushes out those al Qaeda operatives in the country with connection to al Qaeda global, particularly after Bin Laden’s death.  Once all connections to al Qaeda Central are removed, he uses his remaining connection to al Qaeda to push the merger forward and secure loyalty of other Shabaab leaders and establish sole communication and control with al Qaeda, which I imagine included resources.  Total Game of Thrones going on with Godane, he sounds like a real dick! An additional note for all those that believe an oath to al Qaeda’s is a rigid everlasting and binding agreement that cements loyalty of al Qaeda members forever, please read this section.  This totally undermines such a notion.)
  • Omar asserts that Godane killed off al Qaeda members and foreign fighters such as abu Talha, Fazul, Sudani and detained other foreign fighters – After the al Qaeda merger, Godane gave Hammami a figurehead position on a Shura but ultimately Hammami pushed back on the strategic direction of Shabaab landing him in his current predicament.  Essentially, Godane used his linkage with al Qaeda to take firm control over foreign fighters in Somalia, focus all efforts on local power plays and suppress dissent. (My note: Bin Laden would not go with a Shabaab merger because he knew better and he had his aides in Somalia – Fazul.  Zawahiri fell for the alliance with Godane, and in doing so is now aligned with a leader, Godane, and an affiliate, Shabaab, that killed off core members of al Qaeda. While I don’t think Zawahiri called for the killing of old al Qaeda vets like Fazul, he is negligent for not doing better intel in preparation for the merger.)

There are many other things in these documents and I just haven’t had time to go through it.

Other small things I picked up on:

  • Omar used his own money at some point to hire his own security and car to protect himself against Godane- Shabaab.  (My note: this is when I would have broken with the group probably, like when they are trying to kill me.)
  • Omar explains how Shabaab deliberately discussed shifting back to Phase 1 guerilla warfare once Ethiopia and Kenya had fully invaded.

I’ll stop for now. And Omar, thanks for the information and feel free to send more.  It appears you have resigned yourself to Shabaab and what appears to be a confrontation that will likely lead to your death.  You don’t have to go that way.  You’ve been betrayed by the group you joined.  You could always turn yourself in and encourage those that might be considering a similar path to rethink their choice to join a terrorist group.


What is the primary affiliate of al Qaeda a year after Bin Laden’s death? Poll Results #10

From May 2, 2012 through July 2012, I asked a related question with respect to the relative strength of al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates.  After asking each respondent whether al Qaeda affiliates were ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ (see the results here), I asked respondents:

Which affiliate is the primary node of al Qaeda globally?

In total, 165 respondents selected a primary node of al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was the clear favorite on the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.  This seems unsurprising as AQAP was discussed profusely in the U.S. media during the May/June 2012 timeframe.

Here’s a chart showing the selections of voters this past summer.

primary node

Again, consistent with my break down of previous questions, I have shown the votes based on different demographic categories.  Here are some that caught my eye.

  •  ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were less likely to select AQAP and appear to believe AQ Central in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the central node of al Qaeda.
  • Those selecting ‘Television’ as their primary source (note – a small group of voters), were more likely than any other demographic to select an ‘Emerging AQ in North Africa’ as the primary node.
  • Travel played an interesting dynamic in this vote.  Those who have traveled outside the U.S./EU more than 2 years were evenly split between AQAP and AQ Central being the primary node of AQ.  However, those that have traveled less than 2 years outside the U.S./EU selected AQAP at the same rate as the majority but were more diffuse in their selections beyond AQAP including the selection of al Shabaab at a rate of almost 10%.

Here are the results of all voters broken down by demographic group.

Screen Shot 2012-12-19 at 8.28.19 AM


“Rock and a Hard Place” – How does the U.S. manage the use of drones?

In the months leading up to the U.S. Presidential Election in November 2012, I was surprised by the amount of detail released in the media on how the U.S. employs drones to pursue its terrorist enemies.  While many on the left have called for increased transparency and accountability with regards to the use of drones, I on the other hand wondered what else the public needed to know about how drones operate and how targets are selected.  This New York Times article,”Secret Kill List“, pretty much described everything one would reasonably need to know about drone targeting decisions.  Does the public really need to review every targeting package (revealing intelligence sources and methods) before a terrorist target can be engaged?  I don’t think that’s a good idea.  That being said, I understand concerns about judicial oversight and have made several recommendations in past posts on how I think the drone process can be improved.

Some have criticized the recent story describing the administration’s development of a new “Disposition Matrix”, which attempts to match different counterterrorism options with terrorist threats.  Essentially, when slippery al Qaeda operatives move from safe haven to safe haven, what counterterrorism options can be pursued to disrupt the threat, whether it be law enforcement options on one end all the way to drone targeting on another.  Many have criticized this approach in the media and in particular criticized National Security Advisor John Brennan for his attempts to codify this process.  Gregory Johnsen, who has recently written an excellent book on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, took aim at Brennan this past week in a New York Times Op-Ed stating that Brennan should not be considered for the position of CIA Director:

Rather than promote the author of a failing strategy, we need a C.I.A. director who will halt the agency’s creeping militarization and restore it to what it does best: collecting human intelligence.

First, moving from National Security Advisor to CIA Director isn’t necessarily a promotion. Brennan currently guides all counterterrorism strategy across government of which the CIA is only one of many parts Brennan guides.  Second, Brennan as an old CIA hat, I would guess, would be more likely to move the agency away from paramilitary operations and back to its core collection mission, which Johnsen calls for in his Op-Ed.  Overall, Johnsen seems to be fixated on Yemen as a counterterrorism failure and the use of drones as inappropriate if there ever is an instance where things go wrong.

As I noted during my review of Greg’s book and through several rounds of debate (#1#2#3#4#5#6#7), I arrive at very opposite conclusions when assessing the counterterrorism strategy and relative effectiveness under Brennan’s reign.  Having lived through the post-9/11 follies of pre-emptive war, regime change, forced democratization of the Middle East and large scale, multi-trillion dollar counterinsurgency, I am satisfied with the more nimble, measured and thoughtful current approach to engaging a terrorist group spread around the globe. Especially as the removal of counterterrorism options has continued, the National Security Advisor increasingly has fewer options for going after committed terrorism enemies.  When I read about the “Disposition Matrix“, I see not a reckless policy of engagement but instead an administration trying to fight an asymmetric terrorist threat with new effective capabilities in the construct of an antiquated Cold War legal construct.  Brennan is trying to build a functional, accountable and adaptive counterterrorism approach for the 21st Century, not the 20th Century.  While Johnsen and others have rallied against drones in Yemen and elsewhere, I continue to respond with, “If not drones, then what should we do?”

Ironically, immediately following Johnsen’s non-vote for a CIA Director Brennan, the New York Times published a post entitled “Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy” noting that in the counterterrorism architecture, it is Brennan that curbs the use of drone strikes.

Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.

If true, would Johnsen not be arguing against an individual, Brennan, who in fact is a check on a tactic that Johnsen wants reduced?  The Presidential debates didn’t even address the use of drones and Brennan, rather than being an aggressive advocate for drone use, may be the most reasonable and best person to have codifying a new way forward in counterterrorism.

Strongly Recommend Johnsen’s Book “The Last Refuge” on AQAP in Yemen

This week, Gregory Johnsen’s new book The Last Refuge arrives in bookstores detailing the rise, fall and reemergence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.  It is clearly the best book available on AQAP in Yemen.

Having spent the past decade in, out and around the U.S. government and academia in a variety of counterterrorism roles, I’ve read endless reams of paper on al Qaeda and their tribulations – so I consider myself a tough critic of al Qaeda works.  But, I was given an advance copy of Gregory’s book, The Last Refuge, and it is undoubtedly one of the best books on al Qaeda I’ve read.  I strongly encourage anyone interested in al Qaeda, terrorism and Yemen to give this text a read as the manuscript provides a much needed update to al Qaeda’s manifestations in the ten years since the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Also, for those lucky enough to be in the New York City area today, November 12, you can see Greg present his work at the Overseas Press Club of America at 6 p.m. at 40 West 45th Street, Club Quarters, NYC.

Regular readers of this blog might be surprised that I would provide such a strong endorsement of Greg’s book as he and I have been quite the rivals on the use of drones in Yemen. (See here, here, here and pretty much anywhere on Twitter.) However, I have relied on Greg’s research on Yemen for years as he provides me needed perspective on a country I’ve never visited and with regards to a language I don’t speak (Arabic).  His book continues in this vein instructing me further on the nuances of the Yemeni culture and the tribulations of America’s intermittent engagement with a country critical to its counterterrorism fight.  Where Greg and I usually diverge is on our interpretation of how al Qaeda has come to roost in Yemen and, even further, what the U.S. should do to uproot the most threatening al Qaeda affiliate to the U.S. homeland.  Here’s what I’ve learned from The Last Refuge.

  • Gregory Johnsen is a fantastic writer!The Last Refuge is the best-written book on al Qaeda I’ve read since Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.  The vast majority of al Qaeda books I’ve read are academically written extensions of PhD dissertations where my eyes struggle to stay focused on highly linear theoretical writing.  Not so with The Last Refuge!  Gregory paints a fascinating picture of al Qaeda’s journey in Yemen intertwining an updated history of al Qaeda’s global battles since 9/11 with new details of U.S. involvement in what was a peripheral counterterrorism fight up until 2009.  I’m jealous that Gregory is so much better at writing than I am and I hope he continues to write books after this installment.
  •  Persistent commitment of young Yemeni’s to jihad – My favorite sections of the book were the initial chapters.  I’ve read many accounts of young foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and even the U.S., but Gregory recounts the recruitment of young men from Yemen to the Afghan jihad which I truly value as a reference for my research on foreign fighters.
  • Centralized decision making, decentralized execution – Greg adequately notes an important distinction with regards to al Qaeda’s affiliates that seems to have been lost in recent discussions about the terror group.  When outlining al Qaeda’s early operations in Yemen, Greg notes (on Page 30), “Already bin Laden knew the dangers of micromanaging his men, preferring what he would later call a philosophy of ‘centralization of decision and decentralization of execution.’ Bin Laden ordered the attack, but the details were up to the operatives on the ground.”  For bin Laden, this approach worked well when he personally knew the operatives under his command.  Bin Laden’s close associates implicitly knew his intent having known the man.  Yet years later, we see this approach backfiring on al Qaeda.  As al Qaeda’s central leadership became more isolated in Pakistan and membership in al Qaeda became more fluid, centralized decision-making occurred, often delayed significantly at times, but execution post-decision routinely went awry.  This drift resulted in the likes of al–Zarqawi aggressively attacking Shia in Iraq and isolating his base of support, foolish self-recruits to al Qaeda around the globe executed bumbling attacks of dubious significance and new emerging militant groups like Ansar al-Sharia striking a U.S. Consulate before laying the needed ground work to secure popular support.  Greg’s narrative describes how Nasir al-Wihayshi, while still remaining loyal to bin Laden, helped regenerate AQAP by taking on a leadership role in decision-making and execution at a time when al Qaeda needed leaders to rejuvenate the force.  How did he take on this role?  Al-Wihayshi was previously bin Laden’s personal secretary, understood al Qaeda’s intent and could execute a strategy in line with al Qaeda’s objectives.  This is one reason why today AQAP remains the most serious organized threat to the U.S. homeland.
  • The First Drone Strike – With regards to drones, Greg and I routinely debate the merits of such a counterterrorism tactic in Yemen.  I’m relatively pro-drone (with caveats) and Greg relatively against (with caveats). But, I found Chapter 9 quite interesting as he notes the first openly reported drone strike (that I’m familiar with) occurred on November 3, 2002 in Yemen  – not Afghanistan or Pakistan – eliminating Abu Ali al-Harithi, head of AQAP as of 2002.  Greg notes this single drone strike truly decimated al Qaeda’s first installment in Yemen.  His subsequent discussion of U.S. Ambassador Hull’s actions to quell AQAP are instructive as Hull artfully used a blend of policy and counterterrorism options to eliminate AQAP’s safe haven.  Yet, when I arrive at the end of this section, I wonder how any of these solutions might be implemented to counter Yemen’s current wave of AQAP?  I’m not too optimistic, though the section is well worth reading for those seeking alternatives to drones and military occupation.
  • Rehab – Chapter 10 provided me some particularly valuable background on Yemen’s once touted al Qaeda rehabilitation program.  I’d heard for many years tales of reformed terrorists being deprogrammed in Yemen.  Greg’s account confirms my suspicions from years’ past.  Yemen’s rehab process was never likely to work on a large scale and was completely unviable for ensuring al Qaeda operatives would not revert.  Thus, as President Obama begins another term pledging to close Guantanamo Bay, what do we do with those remaining detainees?  Rehabilitation?
  • Prisons as incubators – I found the most value in Greg’s discussion of the galvanizing effect of Yemen’s PSO prisons.  For AQAP, these PSO prisons on the outskirts of Sana’a essentially assumed the place of Peshawar’s Services Bureau during the Afghan jihad.  Al-Wihayshi and Fawaz al-Rabi’i “recreated with scraps of paper and imagination what bin laden and Zawahiri had built with books and computers in Afghanistan.”  An excellent chapter 12 illustrates how prisons regenerated AQAP.

Greg’s new book provides the best available account of AQAP in Yemen.  However, recent years have been particularly tough for researching AQAP as access and continued conflict have made reporting tough.  For this, the book’s details prove thin in the final chapters detailing AQAP from 2009 on.  Some of the sections I looked most forward to reading, those discussing U.S. drone use and Anwar al-Awlaki, were more brief than I expected.  He does discuss AQAP’s decision to push for governance in Jaar – a particularly interesting move by AQAP.  Unfortunately for Greg’s first book, events in Yemen have unfolded rapidly in recent months and many of AQAP’s gains have been reduced.  I’m hoping for a second installment from Greg in the coming years that flushes out AQAP’s more recent trajectory.

My critiques of the book are more differences in opinion than debates over reporting.  I completely respect Greg’s presentation of the AQAP in Yemen story and have no doubt it is the most accurate account of the terror group available today. But as he and I have debated before, I arrive at very different conclusions based on his presentation of the evidence describing AQAP’s recent rise.  Here are a few points I’d add.

  • Yemen is not the center of al Qaeda’s universe – For those not particularly familiar with al Qaeda, Greg’s book might convince one that Yemen has always been the center of al Qaeda’s thinking.  Greg doesn’t portray it that way necessarily, but his excellent writing and consistent blending of AQAP’s tribulations with the gyrations of global al Qaeda may convince those just coming onto the topic that Yemen is the center of gravity for al Qaeda.  AQAP and Yemen are clearly an important affiliate, but they are not what Afghanistan and Pakistan have always been for al Qaeda – the epicenter for global jihad.
  • The Saudi influx, not drones, has brought about AQAP’s resurgence – Going into this book, I expected to be convinced that drones were more central to AQAP’s rise.  However, having read the manuscript, I actually am more confident in my assessment from this past summer that it is a combination of external and internal factors that have led to AQAP’s regeneration with the most important enabler being the Saudi purge of AQ members in 2006-2007.  Greg does discuss this Saudi purge in the book and I believe it is critical to understanding where and when AQ grows and ebbs.  Young Saudi foreign fighters have been the largest portions of recruits and leaders for years supplying one jihad after another.  With the decline of Iraq, Saudi foreign fighters flowed into Yemen and today I imagine AQAP in Yemen is now competing with Syria for the collection of fresh recruits.  Having read Greg’s book, I see the influx of Saudi foreign fighters, the failures of rehabilitation programs and repeated prison escapes as the driving factors in AQAP’s recent heights.  Drones didn’t generate AQAP’s growth, drones responded to AQAP’s growth.
  • Beyond al Qaeda, Yemen is not a national security interest for the U.S. – Greg’s book notes Ambassador Hull’s multi-layered development approach for combating AQAP and Yemen’s ills.  I once would have agreed that the U.S. should focus on development to undermine support for AQ.  However, time has shown this a costly and ineffective endeavor where the U.S. rewards countries for hosting people with bad behavior. Without AQAP, Yemen doesn’t really hold much strategic interest for the U.S. So how many resources should the U.S. devote to Yemen?  I’m not entirely sure, but I’m more inclined to support large-scale support and development to countries where the U.S. has a more enduring national interest beyond a regional terrorist group.

I thank Greg for writing an excellent book that has helped me learn more about Yemen than anything I had read to date.  I look forward to reading his next installment and hope he continues to write.

Favorite quote from the book – p.17  –

“Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.”


AQAP’s Transition From Turf Taking to Sleeper Cells in Yemen

@will_mccants pointed me to an excellent article on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), their parallel insurgent organization Ansar al-Sharia and their relinquishing of turf previously won amidst Yemen’s government mess last spring.  Reuters Andrew Hammond’s article, “al Qaeda goes underground in Yemen against U.S.-driven crackdown“, provides a contrasting picture to reports just a few months ago which proclaimed AQAP/Ansar al-Sharia on the march taking, holding and governing large swathes of Yemen.  As Ghaith Abdul-Ahad so adeptly covered in the May 2012 Frontline documentary, AQ was developing a new safe haven outside of Pakistan.  And last week, Hammond reported:

A U.S.-backed military onslaught may have driven Islamist militants from towns in Yemen they seized last year, but many have regrouped into “sleeper cells” threatening anew the areas they vacated, security officials and analysts say.

The resilience of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), despite increased U.S. drone strikes to eliminate militants, is worrying for top oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door and the security of major shipping lanes in the seas off Yemen.

Despite being a really good article, it still does a little bit of threat hyping as I’m assuming it must do to keep audience attention.  Somehow in April/May, AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia were stronger than ever, and now, despite being pushed out of their hard-won sanctuary, they are seemingly stronger by being pushed into the hills and forming sleeper cells….I guess I’m still not sure when an AQ affiliate gets weaker. No matter what the circumstances, news feeds tell me year after year that al Qaeda is on the march.

What I found particularly important was the role that local militias were taking in standing up to AQAP.  When locals begin standing up to al Qaeda, the terror group finds itself in a particularly bad place.

Residents fear some militants could have infiltrated the committees, noting that the Ansar al-Sharia “emirate” in Jaar managed to negotiate a deal with the military that allowed many gunmen to leave unscathed.

Mohammed Sukain al-Jaadani, former head of a popular committee in Shuqra that helped organize tribes against the militants last year, is now trying to dissuade the region’s youth from being tempted by jihadist ideology.

“After Jaar and Zinjibar, al Qaeda turned into sleeper cells. It’s a danger for society, they are in many places. They threaten tribes and citizens,” said Jaadani.

He has set up a Tribal Social Alliance in his home region in Hadramaut province bordering Saudi Arabia.

“We did good work with tribes, and we are still doing work to save our regions from al Qaeda and unknown people to reject destructive, terrorist ideas. They created a culture of violence and extremism. We’re trying to help the authorities come back.”

Arguments in April/May centered on drones making AQAP stronger in Yemen.  The debate shifted course with Christopher Swift’s article this past summer. Now, this article provides more anecdotes about drone effects.

Nasser al-Noba, a former army officer who helped relaunch the southern separatist movement, says militants have hunkered down in the Mahfad, Marakisha and Hatat mountains, inland from the flat coastal areas of Jaar, Zinjibar and Shuqra.

“They sometimes appear in the streets, they suddenly appear and disappear as if by remote control. They go around in landcruisers, with the stickers of al Qaeda on the doors. But since Saleh’s fall, the drones have started to have an effect.”

In conclusion, Bin Laden’s caution with AQAP in Yemen appears correct.  As noted in the Harmony documents released on the first anniversary of his death, Bin Laden thought Yemen would be helpful as a safe haven in the future, but he didn’t see the necessary conditions for a formal push in Yemen.  In a letter to Atiyah, Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000019, Bin Laden wrote:

“I reviewed your opinions   regarding the issue of establishing an Islamic state before the elements of success have been completed and the issue of escalation in Yemen. I wanted to share with you my opinion on these two matters in order to establish a fruitful and constructive discussion, God willing. However, the matter is complex…To begin I would say that Yemen is the Arab country most ready for the establishment of an Islamic state, but this does not mean that the necessary fundamental elements for success for such a project have yet been realized.”

Bin Laden cautioned, as noted in this piece by Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, that AQAP should not jump too quickly to form an Islamic state. But, I guess with Bin Laden dead and Saleh in retreat, the temptation became too great – see pg. 28.

“Not declaring a truce does not mean that we escalate against the government in the south and enter into an immediate fight against the military, as it would not bring the desired outcome. This is because the sons of the northern tribes will be targeted in the fight [i.e., tribesmen who are members of the Yemeni military would inevitably go to fight in the south and would be attacked by AQAP]. Some of these tribesmen do not realize that the military are apostates. So the tribes will think that we increased the bloodshed, and people will talk among the tribes saying that al-Qa`ida kills a lot. This would distance many people from us and might lead to a tribal uprising to fight against us in revenge for their sons. This also means that we do not jump to establish an Islamic state in the south at the first chance of the government losing control in the south. The reason for this is what we mentioned earlier, that we are not yet ready to cover the people with the umbrella of Islamic rule.”

So, many argued Bin Laden was not really important for al Qaeda’s direction at the time of his death. However, Bin Laden knew not to jump into a formal alliance with Shabaab in Somalia (unlike Zawahiri, see here and here) and felt an Islamic state in Yemen should wait.  Now both of these blunders might be realized in only the first year after his death… did Bin Laden matter, I think so!

Seeking Virtue in Drones

The spike in drone reporting shifted again this past week but in a different direction with two articles noting the relatively low numbers of civilian casualties from drones.  First, Peter Bergen’s opinion piece “Civilian casualties plummet from drone strikes” provides a flurry of figures from the New America Foundation to support the argument that U.S. drone targeting has dramatically improved.  Bergen notes:

“According to the data generated by averaging the high and low casualty estimates of militant and civilian deaths published in a wide range of those outlets, the estimated civilian death rate in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically since 2008, when it was at its peak of almost 50%.  Today, for the first time, the estimated civilian death rate is at or close to zero.”

he continues…

“Over the life of the drone program in Pakistan, which began with a relatively small number of strikes between 2004 and 2007, the estimated civilian death rate is 16%”

To many, a civilian casualty rate of 16% may seem high, but that is where the New York Times picks up the debate just a couple of days later with their story, “The Moral Case for Drones.”  Bradley Strawser, a former Air Force officer studying the issue at Naval Post Graduate School, concludes that:

“using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.  “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.”

The article does a good job comparing research and arrives at a similar conclusion that I’ve argued at different times with regards to drones – drones are the least bad option.

“But one rough comparison has found that even if the highest estimates of collateral deaths are accurate, the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare. But even the high-end count of 20 percent was considerably lower than the rate in other settings, he found. When the Pakistani Army went after militants in the tribal area on the ground, civilians were 46 percent of those killed. In Israel’s targeted killings of militants from Hamas and other groups, using a range of weapons from bombs to missile strikes, the collateral death rate was 41 percent, according to an Israeli human rights group.  In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.”

Some have commented to me in person that my stance on drones is ignorant of the civilian death toll.  However, my argument has always been focused on relative rather than absolute terms. Guided by the assumption that some action against AQ terrorists hiding in remote safe havens must occur, I’m under the belief that:

Large scale military intervention (i.e. regime change), broad-based counterinsurgency, backing of the Yemeni military, arming of militias – all of these counterterrorism options are far more likely to produce civilian casualties.

I particularly like drones over other military options for two other reasons not addressed or lightly covered in these articles.

  1. Effort to protect civilian lives –  Ambassador Henry Crumpton notes in the New York Times article how far we’ve come in protecting civilians in our targeting processes.  We’ve gone from fire-bombing Dresden to Presidential-level involvement in the engagement of singular targets.  While I’m not certain the current targeting system is the best or perfect option (see p. 10 here), I do like the effort being taken to protect innocent lives – an unprecedented level of effort in world history.
  2. Responsibility – I also like drones because it demonstrates responsibility for U.S. actions.  In the past, the U.S. and many other nations have chosen to fight proxy battles via proxy forces engaging far off enemies holed up in remote safe havens.  In doing so, the U.S. must back a wild card force relinquishing control of conflict to an unknown or distant ally with unclear or sometimes dubious intentions.  Having abdicated control, the U.S. cannot influence the conduct of the conflict resulting in atrocities and reprisals undermining our nation’s values creating calls of hypocrisy where we would ideally like to inspire hope.  Drones are never a singularly pursued CT option. But at least in choosing their application, we take responsibility for our actions.

However, here’s something I’m worried about with Yemen.  After having watched the PBS documentary on “Drones in Yemen”, I have heard in interviews from field reporting and have seen in articles that nearly all explosions in Yemen are attributed to drones.  I would assume that many Yemeni military airstrikes are perceived on the ground as U.S. drone strikes.  This perception gap undermines U.S. efforts and points to the need for a complementary information campaign with any drone effort.