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

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

Here is the intro to the post:

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

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

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

Jihadi Competition feb 2014

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

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FPRI Primer on al Qaeda’s history

In November, I had the good fortune to participate in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Butcher History Institute Conference “The Invention of the Middle East, Post-World War One, and the Reinvention of the Middle East, Post-Arab Spring.  While I’m by no means a Middle East historian, I did have the opportunity to present a consolidated version of al Qaeda’s history. The conference seeks to provide training and resources for select high school teachers around the U.S. This conference had an excellent crowd and I was honored to participate.  Accompanying my presentation I did a primer on al Qaeda which I will provide the introduction to here below.  You can download or read the entire paper here at this link.

Al Qaeda today only slightly resembles the al Qaeda of yesteryear. Al Qaeda operatives or “al Qaeda-like” organizations stretch throughout North Africa, across the Middle East and into South Asia.  This disparate string of organizations hosts a handful of al Qaeda’s original Afghanistan and Pakistan veterans but mostly consist of newcomers inspired by al Qaeda’s message — disenfranchised young men seeking an adventurous fight in the wake of a tumultuous Arab Spring.  Al Qaeda, or more appropriately jihadism pursued under al Qaeda’s banner, has morphed in several waves over the course of more than two decades.

Over twenty years, Al Qaeda has harnessed the collective energy of various conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia and now Africa to perpetuate an enduring conflict against the West and specifically the United States.  Each Muslim country conflict attracted its own set of foreign fighters ensconced in al Qaeda’s ideology and operational umbrella. But each conflict and al Qaeda affiliate varies in shape, size and capability. Evaluating al Qaeda through three incarnations may help us fully understand the group’s evolution into the present day and what it may become in the future. Al Qaeda may be examined in three periods: al Qaeda 1.0 (1988 – 2001), al Qaeda 2.0 (2002 – 2011) and al Qaeda 3.0 (2011 – present).  Note, these periods are not distinct entities. Al Qaeda has transformed slowly through each phase.  Some affiliates carrying al Qaeda’s name have rapidly morphed based on changing local conditions while others have adjusted more pragmatically. However, two significant events, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011 provide natural turning points for tracing al Qaeda’s evolution.

Video Broadcast of the FPRI Foreign Fighters in Syria Panel

Last week, the Foreign Policy Research Institute hosted a panel entitled “Foreign Fighters in Syria and Beyond”.  I had the honor of sitting on the panel with @will_mccants and @barakmendelsohn.  The discussion was quite good and I felt the questions and commentary spanned many of the key contentious points we currently face in counterterrorism.  You will also note that I get quite feisty about the lack of U.S. detention policy; something I’ve droned on about at this blog on several occasions.

You can listen to the full broadcast at this link.  And if you are wondering about the Antelope vs. Lion vs. Crocodile YouTube video I reference in my talk, I’ve posted it down below.  This is what I think Syria is like right now for foreign fighters – confusing, violent and chaotic.

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

FPRI conference on Global Foreign Fighter Flow

Today I’m speaking at the FPRI Foreign Fighter conference in Washington, DC.  The panel includes @will_mccants and Barak Mendelson.  I’m looking forward to the discussion and if you are interested you can sign up for the broadcast and listen from your desk – which is always the best way to deal with me, at a great distance.

In preparation, I will begin my discussion from this post I did in June 2013 which shows my model from 2007-2009 for foreign fighter flow.  Looking forward to today and I hope you zing me with a great online question.  More to follow after the closing of the event and a recap of key points.

Here’s the post from June with key points of my foreign fighter assessment from January 2009.

“Two weeks ago, I did a short post at FPRI on “Syria: Suffering the effects of the 2nd Foreign Fighter Glut“.  The crux of the discussion centered on how Syria has become the next epicenter for a routine pattern of foreign fighter mobilization and integration into jihadi conflicts.  I used the diagrams from a 2009 paper (Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut) to illustrate how this cycle perpetuates itself (See Figure 1 below) and why Syria will be the catalyst for a decade of conflict.

The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.

Analysis of foreign fighters to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 signaled how al Qaeda affiliates would regenerate in the future.  Slide2Here is an excerpt Countering Terrorism From The Second Foreign Fighter Glut written in 2008 and published in 2009 discussing the implications of former foreign fighters returning to their home countries as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and what we’ve seen the past couple of years.

2009 – Policy Implication: Fight the next terrorist threat, not the last one. 

Western CT efforts should avoid the tendency to protect against the last terrorist attack rather than preventing the next one. While protecting mass transit systems and thwarting WMD proliferation remains important, the more probable next generation of attacks will be against Westerners in MENA and South Asia. Former foreign fighters from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will lead future attacks, and they may maintain only minimal connections to core AQ. As targets and access diminish in Iraq and Afghanistan, former foreign fighters will continue to recruit locally in flashpoint cities and then create their own safe havens regionally. The end result will be upstart regional groups that share some of AQ’s ideology, try to pull from larger AQ resources, and then use former foreign fighter knowledge to spearhead attacks closer to home. With limited operational space, resources and size, the scope of terrorist operations will temporarily decrease. Instead of massive, high tech, large-scale 9/11 operations, one may expect smaller scale, conventional attacks perpetrated by smaller Jihadi groups. These smaller Jihadi elements will begin with attacks on local Western targets and MENA governments in an attempt to build their popular support, gain resources and grow their capacity to execute more spectacular attacks in Europe and the United States.

Analysts might consider altering their focus to concentrate on regional nodes rather than working to link all actions back to core AQ. The North African node may be led by former foreign fighters from Algeria, recruiting from North African flashpoint cities in Tunisia and new militant enclaves in Mauritania, seeking safe haven in the trans-Sahara (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya) and conducting attacks on Westerners in Tunis, Casablanca or Niamey. The Middle Eastern node might consist of new cells led by Yemeni and Saudi former foreign fighters finding operational space in Yemen and Palestinian camps in Lebanon and attacking Western and Israeli economic and diplomatic targets. South Asia (not supported by data in this study but extremely significant) would likely see a host of Pakistani and Central Asian militant groups, holed up in tribal areas and Central Asian safe havens and conducting attacks throughout Asia.

Today, we know that Syria, much like Iraq a few years back, will be the center of gravity for future Salafi-jihadi foreign fighter violence. This is occurring for several reasons:

  1. It’s gone on way too long - The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters there will be mobilized to the battlefield.
  2. The West won’t do anything to stop fighting in Syria - Foreign fighter recruits may be a bit crazy but they are not stupid.  One of the bigger deterrents of joining an al Qaeda affiliate or an emerging militant group is whether the recruit thinks the fight they are joining has a chance to succeed.  Despite all their macho bravado, no foreign fighter wants to join a fight where al Qaeda is getting its ass kicked.  That’s why foreign fighter flows to Iraq decreased around 2008 and will slow to places like Mali where the French have intervened.  BLUF: Foreign fighters are fickle, and aside from the occasional oddball, they want to play for a winner.  For example, Omar Hammami in Somalia was whining about moving to Syria from Somalia months ago.  For a jihadi, going to fight in Syria is the equivalent of buying a Miami Heat jersey if your an NBA fan or a Yankees jersey if you are baseball fan: you don’t know if you’ll win the championship, but you’ve got a much better chance of winning if you support that team.
  3. Lots of money and weapons - Unlike other conflicts, the Syrian civil war has received substantial and sustained resources from the Gulf and now the West as well as resources from Russia and Iran on the Assad regime side.  There is plenty of fuel to keep this thing going.
  4.  Recruitment pipelines - The fighting in Syria is occurring in the exact location of foreign fighter pipelines to Iraq circa 2006-2007.  These foreign fighter recruitment networks have been easily reactivated and there is far less for recruits to resolve logistically to make their way to the battlefield in Syria.

Aaron Zelin published an excellent set of data this week on foreign fighters to Syria.  From martyr biographies found on social media, Aaron found that Libyans and Tunisians dominated the ranks.  Remember when everyone was freaking out about al Qaeda building a stronghold in Libya?  I’m sure there is an al Qaeda or al Qaeda like presence in Libya, but if hundreds of fighters from Libya are heading to Syria, we shouldn’t worry so much about an al Qaeda being resurgent in Libya.  More important for me is Tunisia.  The high numbers of Tunisians, I imagine, comes as much from the historical recruitment networks identified in the Sinjar records as much as anything going on currently.  The best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter, and Tunisia had a solid network for getting people to Iraq a few years back. To figure out the pattern of recruitment to Syria and to anticipate the implications of the 3rd generation of foreign fighters coming out of Syria, I’m going to start looking at several things below with regards to Syria’s foreign fighters.  I’m working on a couple concepts I’ll share here in the coming weeks which I think might help with some of these research issues.

  • Need more data - Aaron on his own has captured an excellent data set that is approaching 300.  But, its not nearly enough to understand the dynamics of recruitment to the Syrian conflict.  Just yesterday there were reports of 200 Islamists from Russia in Syria.  There are now thousands of foreign fighters in Syria speaking a variety of languages and communicating on a host of media.  To properly understand the foreign fighter flow to Syria, there needs to be a team of researchers speaking many different languages looking at data online and on the ground.  This is a big challenge that comes at a time when resources and interest in studying terrorism are on the decline; not an insurmountable challenge but one that will require some alternative solutions.  Additionally, if we only capture martyrdom biographies, we may be getting a snapshot of the least effective fighters or those with more of an inclination towards martyrdom.  What country’s fighters are the most talented and more inclined to stay alive and later come back home?
  • Need to know the hometowns of recruits - Most news stories I read on foreign fighters speak only to countries. “FOREIGN FIGHTERS TO AL QAEDA ARE FROM SAUDI ARABIA/LIBYA/ETC.!”  This is meaningless.  It’s the equivalent of saying people from the East Coast are rude, the West Coast is lazy or the South is racist (All are 100% true by the way-did I get everybody angry this morning?).  Foreign fighter recruitment is a very local phenomena. To understand the dynamics that produce recruits and what can be done to mitigate recruitment requires much more micro-level data.  We need to know the hometowns of recruits, not their countries of origin.  Just looking at Aaron’s data, I’m guessing there are some important local dynamics at play in the recruitment numbers – see my circles below on Aaron’s table.  While these records report deaths, fighters from the same places often stick together, and in Syria probably die together.
  • Who is heading back home? - It appears that many of the fighters to Syria are getting killed.  But, which ones will return home? This is probably the more important point for understanding where this goes in the future.  Maybe they’ll stay in Syria, who knows, but we need to figure it out.
  • Are they joining “al Qaeda” or something “al Qaeda-like”? -  What the U.S. media is calling “al Qaeda” is a broad term that likely misses the essence of what is going on in Syria.  What if we are entering a post al-Qaeda age where things are similar at times to al Qaeda but in reality are turning into something new?  While Ayman al-Zawahiri has rightly tried to jump on the success of jihadis in Syria, Aaron’s data shows there are many jihadi groups receiving fighters and Will McCants discussed in his “Office Space” post that there are fractures in the Syrian jihadi groups similar to what has been seen with AQIM.  In the aftermath of Afghanistan 1980s, the mujahideen manifested into a threat called “al Qaeda”.  But after Syria, will we talking about a threat called “al Qaeda”? Or will it instead be morphing into a new threat known as “al-Nusra” with some of al Qaeda’s ideological goals plus some new ones? If al-Nusra focuses on fighting Hezballah after the Assad regime falls, we might not care too much.  But if al-Nusra turns its sites on Israel, well, I think there is a huge mess on the horizon.”

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Was Kenya Westgate Attack More AQAP/AQ Central Than Shabaab?

This weekend brought a slew of counterterrorism news.  First, Abu Anas al-Libi was caught in Libya 15 years after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam for which he was indicted.  Second, and more interestingly, U.S. Navy Seals conducted a raid on the coastal Somali town of Barawe in an attempt to kill or capture the leader of Shabaab’s foreign fighters; a person named Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, aka Ikrima.  (By the way, this story finally cleared after two days of the worst national security reporting I’ve ever seen. Almost every piece of this story was initially reported incorrectly.)  This latest development is the most interesting so far and suggests analysis of the Westgate Mall Attack should be widened a bit.

Immediately after the attack, I like most assumed the attack was the work of al Shabaab as they’ve been threatening attacks in Kenya for years, have sufficient motive to conduct an attack and Shabaab’s emir, Ahmad Godane is a bit of a madman having just killed off many of his internal rivals and American jihadi Omar Hammami (known hereafter as Omar).  But, as more information comes to the surface, the more I’m inclined to believe that this attack may be more the work of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or al Qaeda Central (AQC) (which are effectively one and the same now, I believe, with the official announcement of Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s #2).  Here are some things I think should be considered in this alternative hypothesis that AQAP/AQC was more responsible for the Westgate attacks.

  • I think Ikrima is probably not a Godane man – My guess is that Ikrima seems to be an old al Qaeda hand loyal to the Nabhan-Fazul-Berjawi-Sakr.  If Omar was correct that there was a rift between foreign fighters and Godane, I’m inclined to think Ikrima might be doing AQAP/AQC’s work in Somalia rather than Godane’s. The Kenyan intelligence report uncovered by NPR says that Ikrima was a known al Qaeda connection back to Pakistan.

A leaked Kenyan intelligence report confirms that Ikrima was plotting “multiple attacks” inside Kenya, “sanctioned by al-Qaida” in Pakistan, and “involving financial and logistical support from South African operatives.” The report continues:

“By December 2011, the planners had acquired safe houses in Nairobi & Mombasa, trained the executors, received explosives from Somalia and commenced assembly of and concealment of explosives.”

According to the report, Ikrima’s small “terror cell” included two British nationals: an explosives expert named Jermaine John Grant and the infamous White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite. (Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had confirmed that a “British woman” may have been among the fighters in Westgate Mall.)

  • Most accounts put Godane in Dinsoor area, not Barawe - The raid was mistakenly reported a  number of different ways and 24 hours ago most news outlets said the raid was targeting Godane.  But most recent accounts about Godane have put him more central to Shabaab’s strongest holds in and around Dinsoor in Bay province.  Barawe is on the coast and I’ve always assumed that the foreign fighters stayed closer to the water to maintain easy access to sea routes to Yemen (See Warsame case) and down into Kenya for attacks and egress (Fazul, Nabhan, Paradise Hotel, etc.).

Slide5

  • Omar used to always cite Barawe as a hub for dissenters – Omar used to tweet about cleric opinions supporting his position that were coming from Barawe.  Omar always gave me the sense that not only were clerics voicing opposition to Godane from Barawe but that other dissenters of Godane may be based there.  This makes sense that Omar would appeal for their support, as he often did trying to get Ibrahim al-Afghani’s backing.  Afghani once commanded the Kismayo area for Shabaab (just down the coast) and having fought in Afghanistan was one of the few Shabaab members that probably had his own connections with al Qaeda.  Note, Afghani issued a public plea to al Qaeda for the removal of his old comrade Godane.  Afghani’s plea resulted in Godane killing Afghani.
  • Omar’s ghost was one of the first to ask why everyone thought it was Shabaab that did the attack – After Omar’s death, someone took over his @abumamerican twitter account and was one of the only contrarians that was excited about the attack but not believing it was al Shabaab and Godane.  I don’t get the feeling Omar’s ghost has any real idea what happened with Westgate based on his other comments, so I would take this with a large grain of salt.

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  • Two of the named attackers likely have al Qaeda connections - The Kenyan government on Saturday named four individuals in connection with the attack.  The leader appears to be from Sudan and the Kenyan government claimed he was trained by al Qaeda.  Another may potentially be related to Nabhan, al Qaeda’s leader in Somalia up until he was killed by Navy Seals in Barawe in 2009 – sound familiar.

Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and Umayr, names that were first broadcast by a local Kenyan television station. Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said via email that al-Kene and Umayr are known members of al-Hijra, the Kenyan arm of al-Shabab.

  • Was this the big attack that was discussed in the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call? - So remember just a couple months ago there was this al Qaeda conference call where supposedly Wuhayshi of AQAP said that they had a large attack ready to go and Zawahiri said “ok, get on with it.”  After the revelation of this call there was a string of drone attacks in Yemen, but maybe this Westgate attack was the attack described in the conference call.  Total speculation but it would kind of make sense and by all accounts this Westgate attack has been in the works for a year or more making it plausible that Wuhayshi would mention it.  And whether its Ikrima or Godane, both seemingly have contact with AQAP.  I don’t know anything to confirm this scenario, but I would not be surprised.
  • Really Five Shabaab groups at play - What’s been completely lost in the media is that Shabaab has been fighting internally for almost a year.  Godane has killed off key leaders of Shabaab, foreign fighters and this has resulted in there being up to five different sub-groups of Shabaab that could be involved or not involved in the Westgate attack.  So when you hear “Shabaab Attack” in the news, it could really mean many things.
  1. Shabaab Central Commanded By Godane – This is the Shabaab commanded by Godane and still what most people would think of when they hear Shabaab in the media.
  2. Foreign Fighters in Somalia With AQAP/AQC links -These are the foreign fighters around Barawe that have links to AQAP/AQC and may include Shabaab members left over from Ibrahim al-Afghani’s ranks.
  3. Robow’s militias – These would be Shabaab members loyal to Muktar Robow, Godane’s main living rival in Shabaab circles and they seem to be in and around Bakool region and more north of Diinsoor and far interior from the coast.
  4. Muslim Youth Center – The Kenyan support element to Shabaab and maybe hosting the White Widow, but I’m getting the sense this is all overblown.
  5. al-Hijra – Shabaab’s arm in Kenya that I would assume at a minimum played a support role in the attack and apparently Ikrima was a member of this group.

So after all this discussion, I’m sure I still left something out but I think we should be cosndiering several scenarios with the Westgate attack.

  1. Scenario: Shabaab did the Westgate attack on their own.- This was the most logical explanation at the time. Shabaab has the capacity to pull this off and they have executed many attacks like this in Mogadishu.  Maybe Godane used this as a diversion from the fact he has been killing off his rivals and foreign fighters.  But with more details, I’m starting to think this is less likely.
  2. Scenario: Shabaab Dissenters working with AQ foreign fighters and planners conduct the attack to upstage Godane and Shabaab - Still operating and having their own connections to al Qaeda, wanting to prove themselves to AQAP/AQC and embarass Godane, the Shabaab dissenters combine with the al Qaeda external operations guys to pull off the Westgate attack.  Wow, this would be interesting.
  3. Scenario: Shabaab under Godane and the foreign fighters are all in on it and use al-Hijra/MYC for local Kenyan support - I think this one is also highly likely.  While the infighting has been problematic, maybe the AQ cell in Barawe has been in constant synchronization with Godane and there is no rift between the two elements.  THis would support the non-stop Shabaab tweeting during the attacks and would not be as confusing for al-Hijra and MYC in Kenya as they’ve probably watched the Somalia infighting with some confusion about who they should support.

Anyways, lots to talk about in the Horn of Africa and I look forward to anyone’s thought on the latest developments.

FPRI Post – Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies

Alright, alright, alright, it’s time to get back to blogging after a bit of vacation.  And what did I spend my break thinking about? Foreign fighters of course.

I jumped back into writing today by leading off with a guest post at FPRI entitled “Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies.”  It’s an updated discussion of how I think Ant Colony Optimization modeling can be used to analyze the emergence of foreign fighter recruitment and facilitation routes to places like Syria.  Here below is a short introduction to the post and you can read the entire entry hosted at FPRI at this link.

“Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies

Swarm intelligence has proven particularly useful over the past two decades in identifying more efficient methods for computer engineering, machine learning and describing social media phenomena.  Several years ago at a FPRI conference on al Qaeda foreign fighters I noted that I thought Ant Colony Optimization, an efficiency method by which ants find their food, might be an effective modeling system for analyzing, understanding and ultimately disrupting foreign fighter recruitment pipelines to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Today, I believe it is time to re-examine the utility of this methodology to help analyze and potentially mitigate the largest foreign fighter mobilization since the original Afghan jihadduring the 1980s -– the Syrian revolution.

Ant Colony Optimization, often referred to as ACO, explains the method by which ants efficiently find their food.  Mauricio Perretto and Hector Silverio Lopes in their article “Reconstruction of phylogenetic trees using the ant colony optimization paradigm” explain:

“Real ants, when searching for food, can find such resources without visual feedback (they are practically blind), and they can adapt to changes in the environment, optimizing the path between the nest and the food source. This fact is the result of stigmergy, which involves positive feedback, given by the continuous deposit of a chemical substance, known as pheromone.”

Read the rest of the post here.

Syria’s Foreign Fighters: Dissecting The Next Decade of Conflict

Two weeks ago, I did a short post at FPRI on “Syria: Suffering the effects of the 2nd Foreign Fighter Glut“.  The crux of the discussion centered on how Syria has become the next epicenter for a routine pattern of foreign fighter mobilization and integration into jihadi conflicts.  I used the diagrams from a 2009 paper (Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut) to illustrate how this cycle perpetuates itself (See Figure 1 below) and why Syria will be the catalyst for a decade of conflict.

The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.

Analysis of foreign fighters to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 signaled how al Qaeda affiliates would regenerate in the future.  Slide2Here is an excerpt Countering Terrorism From The Second Foreign Fighter Glut written in 2008 and published in 2009 discussing the implications of former foreign fighters returning to their home countries as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and what we’ve seen the past couple of years.

2009 – Policy Implication: Fight the next terrorist threat, not the last one. 

Western CT efforts should avoid the tendency to protect against the last terrorist attack rather than preventing the next one. While protecting mass transit systems and thwarting WMD proliferation remains important, the more probable next generation of attacks will be against Westerners in MENA and South Asia. Former foreign fighters from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will lead future attacks, and they may maintain only minimal connections to core AQ. As targets and access diminish in Iraq and Afghanistan, former foreign fighters will continue to recruit locally in flashpoint cities and then create their own safe havens regionally. The end result will be upstart regional groups that share some of AQ’s ideology, try to pull from larger AQ resources, and then use former foreign fighter knowledge to spearhead attacks closer to home. With limited operational space, resources and size, the scope of terrorist operations will temporarily decrease. Instead of massive, high tech, large-scale 9/11 operations, one may expect smaller scale, conventional attacks perpetrated by smaller Jihadi groups. These smaller Jihadi elements will begin with attacks on local Western targets and MENA governments in an attempt to build their popular support, gain resources and grow their capacity to execute more spectacular attacks in Europe and the United States.

Analysts might consider altering their focus to concentrate on regional nodes rather than working to link all actions back to core AQ. The North African node may be led by former foreign fighters from Algeria, recruiting from North African flashpoint cities in Tunisia and new militant enclaves in Mauritania, seeking safe haven in the trans-Sahara (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya) and conducting attacks on Westerners in Tunis, Casablanca or Niamey. The Middle Eastern node might consist of new cells led by Yemeni and Saudi former foreign fighters finding operational space in Yemen and Palestinian camps in Lebanon and attacking Western and Israeli economic and diplomatic targets. South Asia (not supported by data in this study but extremely significant) would likely see a host of Pakistani and Central Asian militant groups, holed up in tribal areas and Central Asian safe havens and conducting attacks throughout Asia.

Today, we know that Syria, much like Iraq a few years back, will be the center of gravity for future Salafi-jihadi foreign fighter violence. This is occurring for several reasons:

  1. It’s gone on way too long – The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters there will be mobilized to the battlefield.
  2. The West won’t do anything to stop fighting in Syria – Foreign fighter recruits may be a bit crazy but they are not stupid.  One of the bigger deterrents of joining an al Qaeda affiliate or an emerging militant group is whether the recruit thinks the fight they are joining has a chance to succeed.  Despite all their macho bravado, no foreign fighter wants to join a fight where al Qaeda is getting its ass kicked.  That’s why foreign fighter flows to Iraq decreased around 2008 and will slow to places like Mali where the French have intervened.  BLUF: Foreign fighters are fickle, and aside from the occasional oddball, they want to play for a winner.  For example, Omar Hammami in Somalia was whining about moving to Syria from Somalia months ago.  For a jihadi, going to fight in Syria is the equivalent of buying a Miami Heat jersey if your an NBA fan or a Yankees jersey if you are baseball fan: you don’t know if you’ll win the championship, but you’ve got a much better chance of winning if you support that team.
  3. Lots of money and weapons - Unlike other conflicts, the Syrian civil war has received substantial and sustained resources from the Gulf and now the West as well as resources from Russia and Iran on the Assad regime side.  There is plenty of fuel to keep this thing going.
  4.  Recruitment pipelines – The fighting in Syria is occurring in the exact location of foreign fighter pipelines to Iraq circa 2006-2007.  These foreign fighter recruitment networks have been easily reactivated and there is far less for recruits to resolve logistically to make their way to the battlefield in Syria.

Aaron Zelin published an excellent set of data this week on foreign fighters to Syria.  From martyr biographies found on social media, Aaron found that Libyans and Tunisians dominated the ranks.  Remember when everyone was freaking out about al Qaeda building a stronghold in Libya?  I’m sure there is an al Qaeda or al Qaeda like presence in Libya, but if hundreds of fighters from Libya are heading to Syria, we shouldn’t worry so much about an al Qaeda being resurgent in Libya.  More important for me is Tunisia.  The high numbers of Tunisians, I imagine, comes as much from the historical recruitment networks identified in the Sinjar records as much as anything going on currently.  The best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter, and Tunisia had a solid network for getting people to Iraq a few years back. To figure out the pattern of recruitment to Syria and to anticipate the implications of the 3rd generation of foreign fighters coming out of Syria, I’m going to start looking at several things below with regards to Syria’s foreign fighters.  I’m working on a couple concepts I’ll share here in the coming weeks which I think might help with some of these research issues.

  • Need more data - Aaron on his own has captured an excellent data set that is approaching 300.  But, its not nearly enough to understand the dynamics of recruitment to the Syrian conflict.  Just yesterday there were reports of 200 Islamists from Russia in Syria.  There are now thousands of foreign fighters in Syria speaking a variety of languages and communicating on a host of media.  To properly understand the foreign fighter flow to Syria, there needs to be a team of researchers speaking many different languages looking at data online and on the ground.  This is a big challenge that comes at a time when resources and interest in studying terrorism are on the decline; not an insurmountable challenge but one that will require some alternative solutions.  Additionally, if we only capture martyrdom biographies, we may be getting a snapshot of the least effective fighters or those with more of an inclination towards martyrdom.  What country’s fighters are the most talented and more inclined to stay alive and later come back home? 
  • Need to know the hometowns of recruits – Most news stories I read on foreign fighters speak only to countries. “FOREIGN FIGHTERS TO AL QAEDA ARE FROM SAUDI ARABIA/LIBYA/ETC.!”  This is meaningless.  It’s the equivalent of saying people from the East Coast are rude, the West Coast is lazy or the South is racist (All are 100% true by the way-did I get everybody angry this morning?).  Foreign fighter recruitment is a very local phenomena. To understand the dynamics that produce recruits and what can be done to mitigate recruitment requires much more micro-level data.  We need to know the hometowns of recruits, not their countries of origin.  Just looking at Aaron’s data, I’m guessing there are some important local dynamics at play in the recruitment numbers – see my circles below on Aaron’s table.  While these records report deaths, fighters from the same places often stick together, and in Syria probably die together.
  • Who is heading back home? – It appears that many of the fighters to Syria are getting killed.  But, which ones will return home? This is probably the more important point for understanding where this goes in the future.  Maybe they’ll stay in Syria, who knows, but we need to figure it out.
  • Are they joining “al Qaeda” or something “al Qaeda-like”? –  What the U.S. media is calling “al Qaeda” is a broad term that likely misses the essence of what is going on in Syria.  What if we are entering a post al-Qaeda age where things are similar at times to al Qaeda but in reality are turning into something new?  While Ayman al-Zawahiri has rightly tried to jump on the success of jihadis in Syria, Aaron’s data shows there are many jihadi groups receiving fighters and Will McCants discussed in his “Office Space” post that there are fractures in the Syrian jihadi groups similar to what has been seen with AQIM.  In the aftermath of Afghanistan 1980s, the mujahideen manifested into a threat called “al Qaeda”.  But after Syria, will we talking about a threat called “al Qaeda”? Or will it instead be morphing into a new threat known as “al-Nusra” with some of al Qaeda’s ideological goals plus some new ones? If al-Nusra focuses on fighting Hezballah after the Assad regime falls, we might not care too much.  But if al-Nusra turns its sites on Israel, well, I think there is a huge mess on the horizon.

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Shabaab’s betrayal of Omar Hammami – In English this time!

After being frustrated by the Arab world ignoring his revelations about the bad behavior of Shabaab in Somalia, Omar Hammami posted an English version of his demise via a Twitter link today.  In January, I suffered through some miserable Arabic translation nightmares to write the post “Hammami Reveals Deceit, Dissension and Death in Shabaab and al Qaeda!“, but now all can read of his demise and betrayal by al Shabaab in the English version at this link.

Back in January, Omar hoped to reach the Muslim world and maybe al Qaeda by publishing his latest troubles in Arabic hoping to appeal to that audience – since his previous YouTube calls for help broadcast in a mix of English and Arabic fell on deaf ears in the Arab World.  Again, it appears Omar’s Arabic revelations from January didn’t find much audience amongst al Qaeda’s mainstream.  However, Omar’s American audience, despite this being Omar’s home country which he despises, has read and paid attention to Omar’s plight.  In January, Omar didn’t seem thrilled about myself and others in the West reading his Arabic pronouncements.

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But today, it appears Omar has changed his tune, reaching out in English this time.  Omar so desperately wants an Arab audience, but maybe he’s realized his biggest audience is in his native country.  Here’s some clips from Omar’s English version of the document.

On Godane (Abu Zubayr):

As for Abu Zubayr’s entrance into the whole affair, well, his background is a bit unclear because he was in Pakistan during the days of the Russian occupation and no one knows with certainty if he really participated in the Jihaad or if he just sat in Peshawar.

On Somalis and their distrust of al Qaeda:

history has proven that the Somalis generally do not want any influence from al-Qaa’idah or foreigners in their internal affairs.

On al Qaeda fomenting fractures with Shabaab as much as Shabaab creating fractures between local Somali (Ansar) vs. Foreign Fighters (Muhajirs)

It is here that I blame the brother s from al-Qaa’idah to some degree (and I mean Abu Talhah as-Sudaani, Abu ‘Abdallaah, Fazul, and an-Nabhaan) because, despite have pure intentions (as we see it, but Allaah is their Reckoner), there developed a sense of competition between them and the brothers of the Salaah ad-Diin camp.

Al Qaeda’s shift to focus on Kenya as anticipated in this document here in 2007:

Eventually, and probably because of such divisiveness, the brothers from al-Qaa’idah went to Ras Chiamboni to focus on training Kenyan Somalis to do outside operations.

On al Qaeda’s lack of strategy in Somalia:

Here I don’t know what to say about the actions of the brothers from al-Qaa’idah. They split up amongst themselves without executing any real strategy.

and on this one, I have nothing to add.  See the closing of the document….

And it seems I was duped by the slogans and the pretty words, and I hadn’t yet learned the realities,

Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?

Tonight I was invited to participate in 16 x 9′s live blog for their upcoming news program “Why North Americans Are Joining Terrorist Organizations?”  I believe the documentary will be online Sunday night.  While the live blog was fun, it was difficult to summarize my thoughts on al Qaeda recruitment processes, which I believe vary considerably between Western countries and the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.  So for those interested in some discussion on foreign fighter recruitment processes, here’s some analysis I did in 2008 entitled “Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?”  You can get the entire pdf at this link and here’s a brief summary from the conclusion:

Certainly, official AQ members at times directly initiate recruitment in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Occasionally, individuals self-radicalize and independently seek out the greater jihad, possibly using the Internet for ideological indoctrination and communication with facilitators. However, both of these scenarios represent only a portion of foreign fighter recruitment. Most North African and Middle Eastern foreign fighters are instead recruited through social, family and religious networks empowered by former foreign fighters who catalyze the radicalization process. These local networks are efficient, built for the community and adaptable to local conditions. Such networks are difficult to create in either a hierarchical AQ Central (top-down) or a self-selecting (bottom-up) system.

An alternative foreign fighter recruitment model might reflect all three patterns described above. My hypothesis for future research estimates that global foreign fighter flow consists of roughly the following:

–Self-selecting (bottom-up) recruitment accounts for 10 -15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. These self-recruits consist largely of second and third generation Muslims and converts to Jihadi doctrine based in Western countries, the majority of which reside in the EU. Their increased Internet access and propensity for militancy help radicalize them locally before moving through select intermediaries to more formal networks. These individuals are inexperienced, untrained and often a liability to the larger AQ movement as their conduct may stray from AQ’s global message, and their operational and security mishaps endanger the group. However, their access to Western targets and their propaganda value remain a coveted prize for AQ and a worthwhile risk.

–AQ hierarchical (top-down) recruitment accounts for an additional 10 – 15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. AQ, under intense pressure from Western military and intelligence, expends effort to specifically recruit individuals that maintain valuable skills in weaponry, media, operational planning, finance and logistics. These recruits pose the greatest threat globally as their knowledge, skills, and experience create hallmark AQ attacks and maintain organizational coherence. While self-recruits are dangerous due to their access, these direct recruits are dangerous due to their ability.

–Former foreign fighters embedded in family, religious and social networks in flashpoint North African and Middle Eastern cities produce between 60 and 80 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. Jihadi veterans and their networks are the center of gravity not only for al-Qa’ida but also for decades of Jihadi militancy. These communities are motivated not only by militant ideology but by their perceived oppression from the West economically and politically, frustration over Palestinean-Israeli conflict, and the influence of Western values on their culture. High foreign fighter producing communities sustained the Afghan jihad during the 1980’s, provide for current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be the thread for future militant efforts at the close of current conflicts.

 

Not-so-Ideological, al Qaeda-linked, Islamist Narco-terrorists on the run in Mali

The French intervention into Mali has forced the media to try and dissect the numerous militant groups operating in the Sahel.  Newscasters have no idea what to call the groups controlling parts of Mali.  Pundits and many news readers prefer to just call them “al Qaeda” as that’s a known brand quickly associated with the 9/11 attacks.

The straight labeling of all violence in the Sahel as al Qaeda gets really tricky, really quickly.  Some northern Mali militant groups don’t necessarily believe themselves to be al Qaeda.  However, this hasn’t stopped many an ‘expert’ from using Mali as another reason to call for once again “defeating the virulent, ideology of al Qaeda that continues to spread around the world, only then can we stop terrorism.” However, many of the so-called al Qaeda linked groups pontificated on by pundits appear less committed ideologically than one might expect. This past weekend’s New York Times article “French Capture Strategic Airport To Retake North Mali” describes how local Malians were none to impressed by the religious commitment of their visiting jihadis.

Boubacar Diallo, a local political leader, said that only a few rebel fighters came at first. Later, hundreds more joined them, overwhelming the Malian soldiers based here. He said he never saw them pray and scoffed at their assertion that they would teach the Muslim population a purer form of Islam.

“They say they are Muslims, but I don’t know any Muslim who does not pray,” Mr. Diallo said.

The article noted earlier that the backgrounds of the foreign fighters varied considerably amongst the AQIM splinter group – Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).  (By the way, Andrew Lebovich has done an excellent breakdown of the groups in Mali at Jihadica see: AQIM, old GIA/GSPC, Blood Signers, MUJWA, Ansar al-Din.)

The rebels spoke many languages, the residents said. Some were light-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs, a nomadic people, while others were dark-skinned people who spoke the local languages of Niger, Nigeria and Mali.

Some analysts have been parsing the statements of these AQIM splinter groups in the Sahel looking for the smoking gun and direct ideological links that clearly reveal each of the militants in Mali as part of a global al Qaeda nexus. However, the labels placed on the fighters/militants rampaging through the Sahel change from daily. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, one man’s terrorist is another man’s mercenary, another man’s mercenary is another man’s patriot, another man’s patriot is ……..I think you get the picture.

In my opinion, when it comes to the Sahel, focus on resources rather than ideology if one wants to know the direction of militant groups. As I discussed a year ago, the play for al Qaeda to conduct long-run recruitment in sub-Saharan Africa has come from buying local support through resource distribution in the near-term as a pathway to cementing ideological commitment to al Qaeda over the long-term.  Here’s a hypothetical diagram I posted last year of what I estimate the initial recruitment cost might be to gain an adherent in Africa; represented as a combination of tangible and intangible benefits.

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Here are some additional reasons why I believe AQIM and its splinter groups will have trouble sustaining their momentum over the long run.

  • RacismWhen I was doing research of al Qaeda’s initial forays into Somalia in the early 1990′s, it was interesting to see how condescending and elitist the Arab members of al Qaeda were to their African members.  In the Sahel, my impression is that the African clan/tribal groups, at least to this point, seem content to let Arab foreign fighters and folks from Algeria direct their operations.  However, in Somalia, as Omar Hammami can attest, the local clans have persistently been less than receptive to being bossed around by foreign al Qaeda leaders. In Sudan, Bin Laden paid Arab volunteers at a higher rate than he did African members and this wage discrepancy later led to Jamal al-Fadl embezzling from al Qaeda and betraying them as a witness for the Embassy Bombings trial.  It’s also important to note that when Zawahiri called in 2007 for international volunteers to support the jihad in Somalia, only a few answered the call and most were ethnic Somalis or Kenyans accompanied by only a trickle of Westerners and Arabs.  As Omar Hammami can tell you, answering that call turned out to be a bad decision as he has been expelled mostly for being a foreigner challenging local leaders. (Right Omar?) Today, I’m guessing most jihadi recruits are still more excited to join an Arab dominated jihad in Syria over a campaign in West Africa. So in the long-run, how long will local African tribes adhere to the guidance of their foreign masters while under pressure from the French?  I’m guessing not very long.  
  • Excessive violence alienates local populations – As of my writing this post, I’ve started to see reports of retaliatory violence by Malians against those who stayed in Timbuktu and became subservient to AQIM. I’m guessing this aggressive behavior likely comes in part as a reaction to the severe form of Sharia instituted by AQIM in North Mali. As noted above, the ideological commitment of these al Qaeda linked splinters (MUJWA, Ansar al Dine) appears low so the violence dished out on locals equivocates “Sharia” to “lopping off the hands of anyone that challenges the group or does something the group doesn’t like.”  Essentially, Sharia for locals in Mali feels a lot like the extortion of organized criminals, not enlightened ideologues.
  • Reliance on illicit revenues – While Belmohktar’s bold attack in Algeria likely generated needed attention and maybe appealed to a couple fanatical donors, AQIM and its splinters still really heavy on illicit financing to sustain their operations.  The Sahel is a difficult place to attract Gulf donor support and an even more difficult place to transfer donor funds.  Lacking a strong donor base and more restricted in their ability to conduct illicit financing after the French intervention, I suspect AQIM’s influence and ability to project will contract in the coming months.  This does not mean they won’t be able to conduct an operation, but I believe the pace of their efforts will have to scale down.