Recent War On The Rocks Discussion on Counterterrorism, Syria & Drones in 2014

Just before I took a holiday break, I got the chance to sit down for a chat with Will McCants, J.M. Berger and Ryan Evans in a segment of the War On The Rocks podcast.  Ryan moderated a fun discussion and it is available here at War On The Rocks.  I wish Ryan had recorded our second hour of discussion as well as the first since I think everyone got more fired up as the debate ensued.

For highlights, check out J.M. and Will’s discussion on Omar Hammami’s relevance and engagement.  Will lays down some knowledge on Syria and the Middle East noting that Syria will be for the non-interventionists what Iraq was for the interventionists.  J.M. explains terrorists use of social media which is always an enlightening discussion for me.  At minute 22:00, I get on a drones rant which I’m sure will fill my inbox with hate email and has led to a series of discussions I’ll wrap up in a separate post. Take a listen if you have the time.

War On The Rocks

Omar Hammami’s Ghost Tweets On Westgate, Kenya & Shabaab

Well, the events in the Horn of Africa are never dull.  One of the theories behind the timing of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi was that al Shabaab did it to distract from its internal problems and their killing of popular foreign fighter Omar Hammami.  This morning, it appears Omar Hammami started tweeting from the grave.  The Twitter handle @abumamerican, allegedly that of Omar Hammami, unleashed a torrent against al Shabaab’s emir Ahmed Godane for killing Omar. The account went on to make some interesting suggestions about the Westgate attacks.

Who is making these tweets?  Who knows? I’ve discussed here that Omar might actually be a zombie, but the account says that Omar did actually die.  Whomever it is, they are clearly fans of Omar and haters of Godane and al Shabaab.  Here are some of the interesting tweets I’ve seen so far.

  • al Shabaab is still in close contact with AQAP – The account states AQAP is still in close contact with Godane and Shabaab.  So was there an al Qaeda connection to this Westgate Mall attack?  I think Shabaab could probably execute this attack on their own. But, why would this account and the person behind it know if AQAP and Shabaab were still collaborating? Remember, Omar alluded to the links between AQAP and Shabaab a long while ago.

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  • How do we know al Shabaab was behind the attacks? – This account suggests that there is no proof of al Shabaab being behind the attacks.  Essentially saying that Shabaab may be taking credit for something that someone else did.  But, they don’t offer any opposing theories and the account states it was not Shabaab dissenters that pulled off the attack.  Hmmm, the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) twitter account has been strangely silent since the attack.  Was this a Shabaab affiliate operation?  No way to know who is really responsible at this point I guess, but an interesting take by the Omar account.

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  • The account has one thing in common with the Tea Party; they don’t like taxes – The account picks up where Omar left off in discussion of taxes and how Shabaab uses qat to fund its operations.  I guess they think this argument has resonance with the locals.

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  • The account also has something in common with the Occupy Movement; they are the 99% – The second strange argument is the alluding to Godane being a high-minded elite that doesn’t share with the people.  I guess this is also a “rally the locals” approach against Godane.

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  • The last straw: Shabaab took away the Hammami family phone charger – OK, if you didn’t think it was already bad enough that Shabaab led by Godane has killed Somalis in southern Somalia, likely attacked the Westgate mall and has killed Omar Hammami, they have done what all of us know is the last unspeakable thing – Taken the phone charger from Omar’s family.  This is something us in the West can totally relate to and get behind.  Screw taxes and the 99%, a phone charger, for Shabaab dissenters it turns out, is quite important; especially when you try to rally support via social media.

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Check out the arguments for yourself, it’s interesting to say the least.  If Omar Hammami shows up again, we’ll know this is the start of the zombie apocalypse: Wolrd War Z – conveniently available on DVD right now.

Interview on Westgate, Kenya, Somalia, Shabaab & Hammami on Loopcast

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk with @rejectionking on @theLoopcast about the recent Shabaab attacks on the Westgate mall and what the implications are for Kenya and Somalia.  This led to a more lengthy discussion on counterterrorism policy/strategy in the Horn which I sort of hijacked and took into a broader discussion – one many people may not care for. BLUF: I don’t think we can nor should try to solve all the world’s problems just to stop a few terrorists.

We concluded with some thoughts on Omar Hammami and his recent killing by al-Shabaab.

So with that, you can visit the Loopcast at this link if you are interested in listening or you can listen below on this embed.


 

Omar Hammami’s last interview before his (alleged) death – via VOA-Somalia

@Harunmaruf of Voice of America-Somalia has just posted his interview with Omar Hammami from last week.  We’ve heard Omar on social media and prepared YouTube videos.  But, we haven’t really heard much unscripted, unedited discussion from Omar.  

This interview from VOA-Somalia, done very well by Harun who asks very good questions, is fascinating to listen to – at times you can still hear a bit of Southern U.S. accent in Omar’s speech and he still uses some American jargon calling Godane (Abu Zubeyr) a “Control Freak”.

And Omar reinforces the idea that he was a terrorist Army-of-One and still committed to the end to his views of Islam and jihadi doctrine despite being shunned by both al Shabaab and al Qaeda.  Committed to the end, but yet, I’m not entirely sure to what.  Omar says at the end of the interview, he’s not coming back “unless its in a bodybag”.

Omar says that Robow is hiding in the forest as well, and that he does not have contact with Robow directly. Omar notes that there were five of them hiding together in the forest. Reports noted that Omar was killed along with a Osama al-Britani, a Somali and that Khatab al-Masri was captured. So who was #5? And did he quit or was he captured?

Take a listen:

 

 

Reports: Omar Hammami Killed by al Shabaab in Somalia

Less than a week after popping back up briefly on Twitter, Omar Hammami has allegedly been killed by al Shabaab in Somalia.  This claim has been made before and turned out to be untrue.  However, the tweets supporting this claim seem credible.  The story has already been picked up by the BBC and the details surrounding Hammami’s death add credibility to the claims.

  • Shabaab had been closing in on Omar for a while, had captured his wivesLast week’s reports noted that Omar’s wives had been detained by Shabaab and that a guard protecting Omar’s wives had been killed.  This seemingly brought Omar back out into the media.
  • Omar was executed alongside two others according to these tweets from HOA. Omar al-Britani, whom I believe might be the man to the left of Omar in the picture below from January 11, 2013, and a Somali, whom I wonder might be the guy in the mask to the far right and Omar’s Somali language coach on Twitter and YouTube, were both allegedly killed along with Omar.  The BBC reports that Omar’s Egyptian friend, whom I wonder may be the man on the right of the below picture and Omar’s Arabic coach, was captured by al Shabaab.

Another of their allies, Khadap al-Masari, from Egypt, surrendered, the fighter said.

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  • The alleged location of the shootout also makes sense. (UPDATE: as of 1000 am EST, 12 September 2013)  Harun Maruf of VOA-Somalia, and I would guess the person that got the interview with Omar last week, says the incident happened near RamaAddey(Caday).  This would be relatively close, I think, to where Shabaab tried to assassinate Omar a few months back.  I’ll add that map from this past spring below Harun’s tweet. A new update from Harun Maruf.  So I’ve included his new tweet and an updated map with my estimate of where the shootout took place.  For me, that he was in Gedo calls into question how much support he had from Robow after all.

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  • Omar was one of the last one’s standing, Shabaab could consolidate on him – In previous months, Shabaab has eliminated many of its opponents killing off al-Afghani and pushing Aweys into capture.  With each dissenter eliminated, Shabaab has more force at its disposal to chase Omar.  Now I wonder, where is Robow?  He would be the last major dissenter that could stand in Godane’s way.
  • What will al Qaeda say? – Omar Hammami’s plight amongst Shabaab’s oppression of foreign fighters has been ignored by al Qaeda.  They’ve turned a blind eye to the disasterous merger with Shabaab and Somalia and instead smartly focusing on opportunities in Syria and Egypt.  My guess is al Qaeda doesn’t much care about Omar or his death.  Where a year or two ago, al Qaeda desperately needed Western foreign fighters, today, the Syrian jihad provides an ample pipeline of manpower to try and tap into.  So Omar’s pleas and his plight, well they have probably soured recruitment pipelines from the West into Somalia, but not really achieved much else.

In conclusion, Omar did ultimately die at the hands of al Shabaab which he basically predicted with his public discussion.  I imagine today is a tough day for his family and I feel for them.  Omar plunged into Somalia looking for a pure ideology and committed violence in pursuit of this vision.  Only in the end, Omar found out that in Somalia as in other campaigns, jihad is really just about violence, and nothing else.

Omar Hammami Is Back and the Media Tour Resumes

Yesterday, there were reports of VOA-Somalia interviewing Omar Hammami and today, sure enough, Omar may be back online.

First, this morning, what I initially thought was a middle school computer science project appeared on YouTube – a tribute to Omar Hammami with some sort of Somali language behind old Omar footage.  At first I didn’t get it, but then I got to wondering if this audio was some new announcement by Omar in Somali – which I unfortunately can’t speak so don’t have a clue what is being said. But I think its Omar babbling about something in Somali.

 

Second, the YouTube video label points to a media outlet I’ve never really heard of, Rasminews.com, which had some sort of article this morning about Omar Hammami and seems to be relatively new.
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What’s been strange about the recent spike in Omar activity is that its been in Somali language.  Omar started his media campaign in Arabic trying to reach out to al Qaeda supporters and the Arab world.  He didn’t get much of a response.  So then, he started tweeting in English and gained quite a following from CT pundits and Westerners along with some serious pushback from Shabaab supporters. However, getting the word out in English and in the West doesn’t do you much good when you are in Somalia.  The interview with VOA-Somalia, the Rasminews website and Omar’s bad Somali dubbing suggest now he’s not trying to win over the Arab world, al Qaeda supporters or Westerners.  No, I think he’s focused 100% on winning over local Somalis – those that have got his back and unlike al Qaeda may be willing to go after and topple Godane.

Now, after three more months on the run, Omar Hammami again survives and uses another of his nine lives.  Just a little while ago the Twitter account of Omar Hammami (@abumamerican) sent out this call.

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So, what’s the deal Omar? How’s your neck? When are you going to get back at Godane?

Omar Hammami – “Terrorist Army of One” – Revokes Shabaab & al Qaeda in Interview

Just when I thought we might not hear from Omar Hammami again, the guy allegedly surfaces yesterday in an interview with VOA – Somalia.  Of course, remember this is media reporting coming from Somalia and “phone interviews” often turn out to be false.  However, the anti-Shabaab Twittersphere lit up over the weekend suggesting that this VOA Somalia interview with Omar may be true.

The VOA Somalia post (I think) has been duplicated in English at Kismaayo.com and states:

Omar Hammami, an Alabama native who traveled to Somalia in 2006 to join Al-Shabaab militant group, has on Tuesday announced to have defected from the group and Al-Qaeda as well, though he still sees himself as a terrorist.

I thought it was pretty clear from the past couple years that Omar was not supporting Shabaab and this past spring Omar had stated that the world was in a post – al Qaeda period noting that Syria was the place to be to wage jihad.  But, Omar still sees himself a terrorist?  Interesting, I guess he is on a solo mission now – “A Terrorist Army of One” – prepared to fight the West, Shabaab and al Qaeda if he can only get out of interior Somalia.  Getting out of Somalia appears to be further complicated by the fact that Godane and Shabaab may have just apprehended his wives (according to news reports).

He accused Ahmed Godane’s faction of killing a person who ‘offered shelter’ to two of his wives in Dinsor district, Bay region.

Twitter conversations suggest that Godane abducted Hammami’s two wives.  I’m not entirely sure this is correct, but if it is, this would presumably be a ploy by Godane and Shabaab to draw Hammami back out into the open.  Hammami is one of the last dissenters and I’ve not seen much reporting of Robow lately – not sure what he’s up to or if he is supporting Hammami.

I assume it was only a matter of time before Godane went after Hammami’s family.  As Hammami noted from his tweets back in January, he thought of himself as a family man and even posted a family photo (a very American style one I might add – see below) on his Twitter account.  Unless he was bluffing, one would assume that his family matters to him.

So what will it be? Will Omar emerge from the forests to strike revenge on Godane and rescue his wives and family?  Or will he stay in the shadows to rebuild another force to counter Shabaab?  This story gets more Hollywood everyday.

 

Hammami family photo

 

Shabaab in Somalia Getting Left Out of Al Qaeda’s Party

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of articles touting a resurgent al Qaeda.  I have lots of grumblings about this notion, which I’ll post separately in the coming days – namely that al Qaeda has actually done nothing as of the writing of this post to achieve its so called resurgence.

The nexus of recent U.S. embassy closures and increased drone attacks allegedly came from an intelligence intercept of an al Qaeda conference call – or as we’ve now learned was probably not a conference call at all but instead some sort of an online chat where people that may or may not have involved high level leaders of al Qaeda affiliates or atleast some dudes that might know important people in al Qaeda affiliates.  (We really don’t know anything essentially) What was interesting about the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call was who did not participate.  Check out this list of participants from the Daily Beast:

Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official.

Who is missing? uuhhh, al Shabaab right?

Maybe the source just forgot al Shabaab, but I think chances are that Shabaab wasn’t invited to participate in the call.  Shabaab isn’t out in Somalia, but they most certainly are a mess.  It was less than two years ago that Shabaab’s merger with al Qaeda was seen by many as a sign of that group’s growing strength with some in 2010 declaring Shabaab as al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate.  Having recruited the largest number of Western foreign fighters of any al Qaeda affiliate at the time, Zawahiri probably thought a merger might be a good opportunity during a time of relative decline in al Qaeda.

Instead he got involved in a distant and distracting quagmire in a country that has always been a problem for al Qaeda: Somalia. Since the beginning of 2013, Shabaab under Godane’s leadership has splintered.  Ibrahim al-Afghani publicly called for Zawahiri to replace Godane as head of Shabaab at a time when Godane was hunting the rebellious and disgruntled American jihadi Omar Hammami.  Later Godane would attempt to kill Hammami and then actually kill al-Afghani and others who called for his ouster.  Now, Shabaab appears to be fighting everyone; the Kenyans, Ethiopians, TFG/SNA/AMISOM and their former comrades that have aligned with Mukhtar Robow.

Hammami

 

So what for Zawahiri and al Qaeda?  Egypt is an opportunity and Syria remains the center of gravity for foreign fighters.  But we should use caution when overstating Zawahiri’s ability to control al Qaeda affiliates in these ripe battlefields.  It was only a few months ago that al Qaeda went silent and turned a blind eye on its dysfunctional affiliate in Somalia.  Zawahiri ignored Afghani, Aweys and Hammami; passively letting his affiliate leader Godane kill al Qaeda members loyal to AQ Central.  Why should we be certain from a conference call that probably wasn’t a conference call that Zawahiri and al Qaeda are in control of a global insurgency in many countries?  While I do think al Qaeda has probably only delayed the attack that prompted the embassy closures, I don’t think the West should heap so much credit on an al Qaeda that just a few months ago couldn’t silence one of its most celebrated foreign fighters (Hammami) or remove its most divisive emir (Godane).

Shabaab Destroys Itself in Somalia – Where is Hammami?

Last year, American Shabaab member Omar Hammami began a very public campaign to rebut al Shabaab and its emir Ahmed Godane.  Throughout 2012, this campaign appeared to be only the misgivings of a disgruntled foreign fighter on the outs with Shabaab’s leader.  In January, this campaign gained momentum though as Hammami, feeling threatened, turned up the public pressure on Godane and spilled all the beans on Shabaab’s rifts.  Omar’s twitter bashing of Godane gained momentum with each day he remained alive. Meanwhile other key members of Shabaab (not necessarily because of Omar Hammami but along with him) began publicly revealing their misgivings about Godane and Shabaab’s direction.  Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys gave speeches of discontent and Godane’s former buddy, Ibrahim al-Afghani, publicly called on al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al- Zawahiri, to replace Godane as Shabaab’s leader.  More recently, Godane attempted to assassinate Omar Hammami which provoked many Shabaab leaders to issue a fatwa to protect Hammami.

So as of a couple weeks ago, it appeared Omar may have been a key element in a Shabaab revolution where Robow, Afghani, Aweys and others take back Shabaab from Godane and change the group’s direction.

Well, turns out Godane and his Shabaab loyalists still have some juice in Somalia.  In the past two weeks, Godane has gone on the offensive.  In addition to conducting an assault against the UNDP compound in Mogadishu, Godane has run his adversaries to ground.  Godane killed his former pal Ibrahim al-Afghani.  Sheikh Hassan Aweys is now imprisoned by the Somali government and some tweets I saw said Robow was on the run, potentially defecting to the government or possibly even wounded.  The best roundup I’ve read on the latest Somalia & Shabaab details comes from Hassan M. AbuBakr at African Arguments.  Check out this post and here is his conclusion.

Godane’s coup, while in essence a movement that is eating its own children, may, indeed, pave the way for the fragmentation of the militant group along clan lines. The nagging question then will be to what extent Godane, a northerner operating in the deep south of Somalia, is able to remain head of what is generally a southern jihadi phenomenon? Moreover, the influx of foreign jihadists into Somalia has, for all practical purposes, decreased and further eroded the place of that country in the annals of global jihad.

Even more interesting now is “Where is Omar Hammami?”  After helping foment and being an early advocate for an uprising against Godane, what is the American to do now?  On the outs with Shabaab and finding himself with fewer big name supporters everyday, one must wonder how long can Omar continue?  Of course, Omar has been on the run for almost a year and a half now so survival has become his expertise.  Some have said that he might be dead, and I’m sure this is possible. But I would think with all of Shabaab’s chest thumping over the killing of Afghani, they would surely use Omar’s death as another promotional sign of victory.

Here is my updated estimate of whether Omar Hammami is dead or alive:

  • 75% chance he’s still alive – I’m sticking with this.  I think Shabaab would be bragging if they killed him.
  • 33% chance he’s detained – I don’t think this is likely, but maybe Godane or someone else in Somalia has detained Hammami, and is trying to find a way to get that $5 million reward.  This might explain why he’s been so quiet, other than the obvious fact he’s being hunted by Godane and protected by some friends who don’t want him to be blabbering too much.  (Note: this event does not have to be mutually exclusive of him being alive – translation= the sum of my percentages here will not equal 100)
  • 15% chance he’s dead – I don’t think this is the case yet. I really think we would hear about it from Shabaab if he were dead.
  • 10% chance Omar is and always has been part of a Zombie vanguard operating in Somalia. As I noted a couple months back, it is inconceivable how Omar keeps surviving while big name guys like Afghani get sacked.  So I’ve upped my estimate of “Omar Hammami’s World War Z” being the impetus behind his survival and Shabaab’s chaos.

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Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central out of the loop in Iraq & Syria

Last week, documents from the Sahel revealed the infighting inside al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Will McCants at Jihadica then discussed similar problems of dystfunction between al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.  Yesterday, al Jazeera confirmed McCant’s discussion by releasing more internal AQ documents showing the messy bickering inside al Qaeda by posting a letter from al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, aka AQ in Iraq) and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria annulling AQ in Iraq’s annexation of al-Nusra in Syria.  Zawahiri was not in the loop at all with regards to what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (AQ in Iraq/ISI) was up to in his attempts to consolidate more power in the Levant.

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This doesn’t appear to be the first time that AQ in Iraq (ISI) have been on their own with regards to taking orders from AQ Central.  Zarqawi was scolded years ago for being off the reservation targeting Shia in Iraq. The gradual ‘Iraqification’ of the ISI has likely led to a more insular and self-directed AQ in Iraq.  The Abbottabad documents from the Bin Laden raid suggest that AQ in Iraq may have been the most distant AQ affiliate at the time of Bin Laden’s death.  As seen here in this quote from Bin Laden’s note to Attiya in April 2011:

SOCOM-2012-0000010-HT – Regarding the communications with the brothers in Iraq, please inform us on its progress and the reason for its scarcity.

So why would Baghdadi want to annex al-Nusra? Straight up, power & money. I assume Baghdadi recognized the rise of Nusra as a threat to his regional dominance in AQ ranks.  Likewise, forcing Nusra under AQ in Iraq’s wing would bring the best resourced AQ affiliate garnering the most international attention under his control.  I imagine far fewer Gulf donors want to pump money and weapons into Iraq as compared to Syria. Baghdadi was thinking about keeping his stake in a post-Zawahiri world. According to al Jazeera, Baghdadi’s preemptive power grab harmed Nusra in Syria.

 after Baghdadi released a video in April declaring the formation of the ISIL, many of al-Nusra’s fighters, especially non-Syrians, left to join the new umbrella group. “This was the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad,” an al-Nusra source inside Syria told Al Jazeera on Saturday. One al-Nusra fighter estimated that 70 percent of the group’s members left for the ISIL in Idlib province, with even higher defection rates in the Syria’s eastern regions. Aleppo, the bastion of al-Nusra, saw the least defections from its ranks, fighters said. But even then the city suffered from the divisions within the group.

So we now see Zawahiri scolding his regional Emirs.

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I’m guessing a Nusra dude must have passed this along to Al Jazeera to get word out to everyone that the two groups are separate, just in case Baghdadi doesn’t want to comply.  Poor Ayman, why won’t ISI (AQ in Iraq) listen to you? Why are they not consulting you?  I’m guessing several reasons.

  • AQ in Iraq has always been “On Your Own” (O.Y.O.) with respect to Zawahiri.  AQ Central has always been critical of the group’s conduct (See Attiya letter & Abbottabad doc SOCOM-2012-0000017) , so why listen to the grump if all he wants to do is play arm chair quarterback from Pakistan?
  • AQ in Iraq probably has its own resource pipeline:  Having fought for years in Iraq, they have cemented their own weapons and money pipelines from the Gulf years ago and sustain their own illicit mechanisms in country.  What does AQ Central provide them at this point?
  • Zawahiri doesn’t have good mechanisms to communicate with AQ in Iraq and the ISI.  The Abbottabad documents suggest there were many intermediaries trying to reach them.  Here again we see the regional affiliates not having routine contact with Zawahiri.

Another really interesting aspect of this is the naivety of al Qaeda foreign fighters.  Just a few months back, Omar Hammami was talking about the glory and just path of jihad in Syria where things are resolved appropriately.Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 10.15.41 AM

Yet, we now see that al-Baghdadi with AQ in Iraq (ISI) is pulling the same stunt as Hammami’s Shabaab nemesis Ahmed Godane – trying to seize more power by controlling a command relationship with Zawahiri and AQ Central.  Ahh Omar, it appears jihad is the same everywhere, this is what happens when you approach age 30, whether its jihad or office work you figure out its all – “same shit, different day.”  Even though al Qaeda doesn’t support Omar, at least his parents still do.

From a counterterrorism perspective, I see both some concerns and some opportunities.  If anything, I would imagine now more than maybe anytime since Bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri is desperately trying to plot his strategy and an attack to re-establish his prominence, authority and control over al Qaeda.  Zawahiri still has control in places I’m sure, but without a “quick win” where he can regain some clout his relevance to AQ affiliates will continue to wane.  Likewise, for the West, this internal al Qaeda fracturing is helpful as it prevents the groups from advancing forward productively.  However, it requires analysts to independently evaluate every aspect of many different groups.  Used to an established AQ playbook the past decade, analysts have likely gotten comfortable with how AQ would operate.  Now, the landscape is quite dynamic and much harder to anticipate as the regional and local aspects influencing each group vary so much – a significant challenge for the West.