From AQIM in the Sahel to Shabaab in the Horn, al Qaeda Affiliates Squabble & Fracture

Well, it seems al Qaeda has found some cracks in its foundation.  For those that believe al Qaeda’s ideology is all powerful, please read below.

The Associated Press released yet another internal document from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  This document dated October 3, 2012 details the break off of Moktar Belmoktar. Yet again, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate crumbling from internal disputes. Just like Omar Hammami’s complaints about Shabaab’s taxation policy with regards to qat, AQIM and Belmoktar quibbled about ransoms and money.  With respect to Belmoktar (aka Abu Abbas in the letter), AQIM’s Shura Council has many sharp words and accusations, noting:
The man, based on the loftiness of his ability, his precedence in jihad and his prowess, remained for more than a decade independent in opinion and autonomous in decisionmaking, linked to the organization’s leadership only by slogan. He paid no mind, gave no consideration, did not abide by and did not adhere to the principle of “hear and obey,” nor did he stick to the directives or work by the orders coming from the emirate….all tho is testimony to the fact that Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone, and that he is satisfied only when followed and obeyed.
Essentially, Belmoktar never really was a team player.  It seems Belmoktar followed the O.Y.O. (On Your Own) way of business I suggested last year.
The organization paid particular attention to this abduction because of the nature of the Canadian captives – one of them was the personal representative of the U.N. Secretary General.  We strove to give htis case an international dimension.  We tried to coordinate with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan – (AQ Central)]. But unfortunately, we met the obstacle of Khaled.  Rather than walking with us in the plan we outlined, he managed the case however he liked, despite our repeated insistence that the case should be under the administration of the organization.  He chose to step outside the organization and reach an agreement in his own way, he did not follow the organization’s instructions.
Moktar Belmoktar

Moktar Belmoktar

So AQIM was trying to coordinate the high level Canadian kidnapping with AQ Central. Not only did Belmohtar blow off AQIM, he ransomed too low in the eyes of the AQIM leadership. After this, AQIM accuses Belmoktar of not pulling off any high visibility attacks.  I think the An Amenas gas plant and now Niger suicide bombings must make up for that.  I guess Belmokhtar got the message and maybe this letter motivated him.

It also seems that Belmokhtar is a “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” kind of guy.

Why do you only turn on your phone with the Emirate when you need it, while your communication with some media is almost never ending!

And Belmokhtar didn’t turn his TPS reports in on time!
We ask you also: How many administrative and financial reports have you sent up to your Emirate?

More importantly, this letter suggests 1) Belmokhtar desired to setup a separate and independent communications channel with AQ Central- Zawahiri and certain al Qaeda web forums (Maybe he did?!) and 2) AQIM struggled to maintain contact and receive guidance from a bottled up AQ Central in AFPAK (Presumably getting droned to death).

Our dear brothers, we find it a strange contradiction in your message, that idea of separating from the leadership of the Islamic Maghreb and instead connecting with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan]. The great obstacles between us and the central leadership are not unknown to you.  They are far greater than any obstacles imaginable with the closer, local leadership that borders you.  For example, since we vowed our allegiance up until this very day, we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan, the two sheikhs, bin Laden (God rest his soul) and Ayman (God preserve him). From time to time, we also received messages from the two sheikhs Attiyat Ullah (Attiyah) and Abu Yahia al-Libi (God rest their souls). All this, despite our multiple letters to them for them to deal with us effectively in managing jihad here.

Last year, I noted that:

Jihadi militant group leaders have now entered the “O.Y.O.” era – On Your Own.  Militant groups are rebuilding, consolidating, finding new bases of support and new financial backers. …An upstart militant group leader .. competing for funding and popular support amongst a sea of militant groups has no reason to wait for a far off al Qaeda leader (Zawahiri for example), whom they likely don’t even know nor receive any funding from, to issue orders about who to attack.

Well, this AQIM letter confirms some of the challenges the group faced during its height noted in the first AP letter published a few months back.

We only bring this up so that our brothers understand that the idea of adhering to the central leadership rather than the local leadership is not realistic.

One more key note, the letter does confirm that there were, at a minimum, some loose connections between AQIM and other militant groups in Libya.

Two others were formed in the Sahara, under the Tareq bin Zayed Brigade.  They were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there.  Their projects are still active to this day.

It seems like Belmokhtar tried to set up his own links in Libya separate from those of AQIM.  Again, I always caution, don’t overstate “links”. It seems both Belhmoktar and AQIM wanted to bring the AQ militant elements in Libya under their influence.  But, maybe the Libyan groups didn’t/don’t want to be subordinate to AQIM? Maybe they, like Belmokhtar, would like to have their own channel to AQ Central? If you are Ansar al-Sharia or some other element in Libya, why fall under the direction of AQIM; a group that is already struggling to stay in touch with AQ central?

Last quote, can’t resist this one.  It seems Belmokhtar didn’t like the restructuring of AQIM in 2006.  But AQIM noted this restructuring was because of:

the lowering number of mujahedeen and the widening territory in the north.

So when you see al Qaeda in more places or spread out geographically, it doesn’t always mean they are growing in strength.  It could mean the opposite.  And this may further illuminate the group’s decision to transform from GSPC and formally join al Qaeda – recruitment was down.

The entire letter is a fascinating primary document and again, like the earlier AP release of an AQIM letter, important for understanding what a post-Bin Laden al Qaeda looks like. The letter brings up several points for evaluating how terrorism may work in the future and what might happen “If there is no al Qaeda“.

  • The value of Bin Laden to al Qaeda:  For the second time in two years, we can see the value Bin Laden provided the Al Qaeda organization up until his death.  Bin Laden was hesitant, for good reasons, in having a formal relationship with Shabaab in Somalia.  After his death, Zawahiri pushed Al Qaeda into a formal alliance with Shabaab in 2012.  Al Qaeda Central now has an embarrassing affiliate with different factions fighting each other in the Horn Africa while also being on the retreat from Allied forces.  Ibrahim al-Afghani published an open plea to Zawahiri on a web page requesting the removal of Shabaab’s leader Godane – Zawahiri must be kicking himself.  Meanwhile, in the Sahara, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate where different leaders compete and quarrel over resources, strategic direction and access to AQ’s senior leader.  A Bin Laden led al Qaeda would not have this kind of public fracturing going on.  Bin Laden would have sent a message to these troubled subordinates – “Enough”.  And the affiliates would have listened because 1) Bin Laden maintained sustained communications up until his death 2) Bin Laden was central to the distribution of resources and 3) Bin Laden was respected for his successes.  This all leads to the next question…..
  • Is there really an al Qaeda Central and is Zawahiri really leading all these different groups?: I don’t doubt that Zawahiri still maintains public respect and that al Qaeda members will say they are loyal to him.  I also think Zawahiri has a command relationship in certain locales where he maintains physical relationships with old al Qaeda members, namely Egypt, possibly Yemen and some in Libya (Longer paper coming out on this in a while). But, if you are a young jihadi commander and, 1) you haven’t had any communication with Zawahiri in months, 2) you don’t receive any resources from AQ Central and you are entirely self-funded and 3) you only get guidance from AQ Central through intermediaries that you believe are incompetent, corrupt or both, why would you continue to wait on al Qaeda?  You probably wouldn’t! And I think that is what we see happening today in both the Sahel and Somalia.  Belmoktar has seized an opportunity to pursue his own “al Qaeda” vision and in Somalia we see Omar Hammami publicly and Ibrahim al-Afghani and Hassan Aweys more politically striking out on their own path.  Omar Hammami represents this confusion best, he wants to support AQ but he hates the local AQ leader (Godane) that he is supposed to follow. Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.07.53 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.11.02 AM
  • Resources can easily undermine ideology: In Africa, there’s more competition for resources and I’m not surprised this is where we see ideology being undermined by resource competition. In Somalia, there’s constant competition for resources, turf and control. Today, in Shabaab, Godane, Robow, Aweys and Afghani each try to morph al Qaeda’s ideology and brand to their advantage.  In the Sahara, we see something slightly different where kidnapping royalties and illicit smuggling revenues controlled by a leader like Belmoktar can increase his power vis-a-vis AQIM’s leadership.
  • Distance and limited communication breed mistrust: As the distance between al Qaeda’s affiliates and AQ’s central leadership increases and communication decreases, mistrust ensues.  Likewise, even the decentralized “Starfish” organization of al Qaeda needs leadership to achieve lasting gains.  Today, Belmoktar has solved al Qaeda’s “put up or shut up” problem.  With each spectacular attack, his influence grows.  Likewise, I would look to Jabhat al-Nusra today.  The most prolific leaders of the Syrian jihad will be the next leaders of Salafi-Jihadi militancy – something that looks “al Qaeda like” at times, but may be called something entirely different.
  • Is a live Zawahiri better than a dead Zawahiri?: Let me be clear, at the first available opportunity, I think the U.S. should kill or capture Zawahiri.  No doubt about it.  However, Zawahiri, despite being respected internationally for being a strategic thinker, might actually be preventing the emergence of the next, more effective version of al Qaeda.  Again, I don’t believe that Zawahiri is keeping a lid on violence, he needs an attack on the West in a big way in order to reassert his authority.  But, his intermittent and erratic communication with affiliates, loss of affiliate control and opportunistic piggy-backing on Jabhat al-Nusra’s success may actually be doing al Qaeda more harm than good.  I would imagine Zawahiri is plotting an attack on the West this minute and building a strategy to re-energize al Qaeda through Syria. But, his persistent involvement may actually be slowing the development of the next wave of Salafi-Jihadi militancy.

Kidnapping: Why Al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms

Yesterday, the Foreign Policy Research Institute provided me another opportunity to post on their blog Geopoliticus.  For this post, I did an extended discussion and update to a series of posts I did with Alex Thurston several years back regarding AQIM’s use of kidnapping in the Sahel.  For the old discussions of AQIM & others’ kidnapping operations see these posts and Alex’s excellent insights at these posts –  #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

In this new post, entitled “Why al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms,” I discuss the trade offs and disadvantages for al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM that are dependent on illicit funding schemes, namely kidnapping, to sustain their operations.  I conclude with the opinion that al Qaeda needs donations more than ransoms if they intend to orchestrate a comeback.  Here’s an excerpt of the post below and for the entire post, visit this link at FPRI.

“On the surface, kidnapping and smuggling appears an ideal financial engine for terror groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates. This assertion, however, ignores the inherent challenges encountered when any organization, whether terrorist group to criminal enterprise, undertakes illicit funding schemes.  Kidnapping and ransom operations introduce significant transaction costs which significantly devalue the gross sum of revenues.  Kidnapping operations create a series of internal costs for terror groups:

  • Networks Of Intermediaries –  Negotiations and payments for kidnapping operations require layers of middlemen with each network extracting a percentage of the overall take.

  • Transaction Time – The time between hostage taking and ransom payments can be significant requiring the terror group to maintain a solid reserve of capital to sustain its operations between transactions.  Essentially, time is money, and in the case of kidnapping operations, a cost to the terror group.

  • Hostage Deaths – The trauma of kidnapping and the harsh environments in which terrorist groups operate often result in the death of hostages.  The death of a hostage hurts the terror group directly in terms of loss revenues. But, even more damage occurs indirectly as the hostage death erodes trust for future ransom negotiations.

  • Infighting – In any business, transactions often lead to conflict.  This is particularly true in illicit industries where trust is constantly being questioned.  Kidnapping negotiations naturally generate friction between intermediaries and when negotiations become protracted parties may turn to open conflict.

  • Declines in Hostage Availability – As groups like AQIM continue to kidnap hostages, the availability of hostages naturally declines requiring the terror group to operate at longer distances to acquire captives.  This distance imposes significant logistical costs.

  • Undermines Terror Group’s Ideology – Inevitably, in illicit schemes and even licit enterprises, business gets messy and the terror group must make choices with regards to sustaining its resource flow.  Often times, these choices result in alienation of a terror group’s local base of popular support or hypocritical conflicts of interest between the terror group’s deeds and its words.  The recent accusations of Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter who has fallen out of favor with al Shabaab, demonstrate how al Shabaab’s turning a blind eye to Qat distribution in Somalia for the purpose of taxation has called into question the group’s committment to al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia law.

  • Opportunity Costs – When al Qaeda is dedicating more time, manpower and resources to illicit fund generation, they are spending less time recruiting and training new operatives, planning operations and executing attacks.”

Also, @el_Grillo1 made a point which I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Another detractor of illicit revenue generation for al Qaeda groups is the scrutiny brought on terrorists by law enforcement and the military when they conduct illegal activities like kidnapping and drug smuggling. An important point that I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Here is a quick chart I put together showing the relative value of illicit funds to donor provided dollars.



Ansar Dine: When jihad goes local for reasons other than ideology

The New York Times released another article this weekend again questioning the ideological commitment of so called “al Qaeda linked” groups in Mali.  The post “Algeria Sowed Seeds Of Hostage Crisis as it Nurtured Warlord” describes how Ansar Dine leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, used religion as a means to reassert himself amongst his secular Tuareg rivals.

In late 2011, scholars say, he made a bid to become head of his Tuareg tribe — a position that would have put him at the forefront of northern Mali’s struggle for autonomy. When he was rebuffed, Mr. Ag Ghali struck out on his own and formed Ansar Dine, branding it as a religiously inspired alternative to the more secular Tuaregs.

A common mantra of Western CT pundits remains the argument that the U.S. will never be safe unless the evil ideology of Bin Laden has been removed from the planet forever.  This briefs well in DC as it makes Americans believe that terrorism can be eliminated if we simply solve one problem – that of bad ideology. However, this article rightly points out how this “hedgehog – one big thing” type thinking quickly falls apart when placed in local contexts.

Chasing a few hundred foreign fighters inspired by religious zeal from the vast, trackless area would be challenge enough. But the forces shaping the conflict are far more complicated than that, driven by personal ambitions, old rivalries, tribal politics, the relationship between militants and states, and even the fight for control of the lucrative drug trade.

Some gather from my blog posts and Twitter sarcasm that I believe ideology has no importance with regards to terrorism.  This is not the case.  I believe al Qaeda’s ideology is important at different levels for each group and individual based on their own context.  The combination of incentives groups and individuals receive from pursuing al Qaeda’s ideology varies considerably based on physical, economic and social contexts.  (See here and here.) I use a labor economics approach when I analyze terrorism because it allows for factors other than ideology to contribute to a recruit’s decision to work as a terrorist.  For Westerners, like Omar, joining al Qaeda groups rests largely on their belief in al Qaeda’s ideology and probably a host of psychological factors.  However, for African groups and individuals (much of what I blog about here), there are many factors contributing to a wavering allegiance to al Qaeda’s ideology (See Chapter 2).  In Africa, survival often trumps ideology resulting in malleable interpretations of al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia. A recent example is Omar Hammami’s complaints over Shabaab’s passive allowance of Qat under Sharia – largely for the purpose of taxing the drug trade for revenue.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 9.54.21 AM

Oh Omar, calling me a “kuffar”.  Thank you, you are too kind.

In conclusion, I do believe ideology matters but I don’t believe it should be overstated.  The importance of al Qaeda’s ideology in Africa, at least for the West, remains the targets it designates.  If AQIM/Ansar Dine/MUJWA, etc. didn’t support an ideology where the West was the primary target, I doubt the West would care much about African conflict in the Sahel.  Genocide has occurred in Darfur for years, yet the West never seriously mobilized to intervene.  However, nine months of perceived “al Qaeda linked” strength in the Sahel brought on a French intervention and Western support.  If militant groups like Ansar Dine didn’t support an ideology directly targeting the West, the West would probably ignore them and their issues – such is one of the motivations for pursuing terrorism according to Dr. Bruce Hoffman.

Last point of interest from this latest article on Algeria and Ansar Dine.  GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS everywhere please listen: 1) when you adversary’s ideology believes that your government should not exist (i.e. al Qaeda, its affiliates) and 2) they offer to negotiate for peace (i.e. Ansar Dine with Algeria, Pakistani Taliban with Pakistan), what the militant group is really saying is, “We want to negotiate with you, government, so that you will not interfere with us while we consolidate our resources and develop a plan to attack you!”

his men were in Algiers negotiating with the government, promising peace and signing agreements. This continued despite ample evidence that Mr. Ag Ghali had become a committed ally of Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb — Algeria’s sworn enemy — receiving arms, weapons, men and other material from the group.

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.


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.

The Sahel Heats Up: AQIM, Algeria, Mali & France

The past few weeks I’ve been focused on the Horn of Africa, but the real story in terrorism has been occurring in the Sahel.  There is way too much to talk about in one blog post. However, I’ll make a few notes here about the current situation in West Africa.

  • Sahel Experts I Listen To – As I noted in a previous post about AQIM and the Sahel, these are the folks I would recommend listening to on this topic. Also, I’ve embedded a clip from @tweetsintheME with Wolf Blitzer on CNN down below.

In general, I turn to @tweetsintheME@themoornextdoorDr. Geoff Porter@tommymiles and @Hannahaniya to keep me informed on the daily fluctuations and insecurity of the Sahel and recommend their blogs and Twitter feeds to all those wanting to stay up to speed.

  •  Most Frustrating Media Analysis Thus Far – A consistent theme in the media thus far has been that the intervention to oust Qaddafi in Libya is the reason why there’s more terrorism coming from the Sahel.  Analysts taking this line imply that the West should not intervene to oust authoritarian dictators because unforeseen events might occur in the future that are bad.  I’m also guessing these same ‘experts’ next week will be bashing administrations for not yet intervening in Syria to help topple a dictator and end a humanitarian crisis.  These flip-flopping analysts love events like this where they can trace backward to past events as causes for current conflict.  However, I don’t remember many analysts saying that the Libya intervention would lead to instability and the rise of terrorism in Mali. Most were focused on the obvious instability that would come amongst Libyan factions after the fall of Qaddafi. In general, I can’t stand analysts that take this course as they can always find a reason not to do something and their ‘Loss Aversion’ leads policymakers to pursue inaction, which also has its second and third order effects as well. Let me think real quick, has there ever been a case where a policy of inaction went awry? Oh yeah, there were those attacks on September 11, 2001.  I could go on about this forever, but I won’t.  Bottom line: Extremist growth in Mali and the Sahel has been going on steadily back to at least 2008 and results from the confluence of many factors rather than just one factor.
  • How about France! – One of the things I’ve been most impressed with is France jumping into the fight executing an intervention in Mali on the same day they attempted a hostage rescue in Somalia.  The French took casualties in both operations, but they have stopped the march of militants southwest into interior Mali. Nice to see other countries taking action against terrorists to protect their own interests.  I’ll be interested to see how long they can hold out.
  • AQIM is the new epicenter of al Qaeda! (Or is it Yemen, Somalia, Syria?) – Media analysis of the situation and Mali and Algeria is absolutely hilarious.  I’ve seen several stories discussing how the Sahara is the new top Al Qaeda threat and shows the resilience of the network and the strength of the terror group.  Amazingly the same media outlets don’t appear to research any of their own reporting.  As has been discussed here, the story of Al Qaeda growth and strength repeats every few months.  Four months ago Libya was the center of attention. Six months before that it was Yemen. And three months before that it was Somalia.  Today, one hardly hears a peep about Somalia where Shabaab’s alliance with Al Qaeda has crumbled under the pressures of clan disputes.  And in Yemen, reporting has died down to merely a trickle.  So I am curious to see how long discussion will stay focused on the Sahara.

Today, the center of attention has moved away from France’s Mali intervention, though, and rests specifically on the hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.  This is a fascinating turn of events and leads me to several things to explore in the coming days.

  • The attack was prepared before the French intervention – I have to believe that Belmokhtar’s attack on the gas facility was prepared a significant amount of time before the French intervention. The interesting fact is that he likely prepared the attack and waited for the appropriate time to launch such that he could gain international attention and use it for his own purposes.  While this attack is significant, the timing of his next attack will be more important.  As noted in some excellent research back in 2011, its the pace of attacks, not the size of any single attack, that are indicative of a terror affiliate’s strength.
  • Mokhtar

  • Is the In Amenas attack as much about internal AQIM power plays than strategically attacking the West? – The focus for the most part has been on how the attack was spectacular and hit Westerners.  However, as was discussed here a few weeks back, maybe this attack by Belhmoktar represents his efforts to reclaim the throne as leader of AQIM.  See this post from a few weeks back.  Did Belhmoktar launch this attack in coordination with AQIM? I don’t know, but if he didn’t coordinate, this attack could be a power play for him to shore up support locally and fighters and resources globally.
  • Could Belhmoktar be the inspiring leader for al Qaeda’s next generation? – Last summer, I noted the following in a report “What if there is no al Qaeda?” –

Where are the most talented al-Qaeda veterans going? Today, analysts should seek to identify what path al-Qaeda’s most talented veterans are choosing to pursue. Al-Qaeda’s limited centralized control has likely encouraged some talented terrorists to move on to new groups. Knowing where these veterans go will be essential for anticipating future threats.

In the winter of 2011, I was deliberating as to the effect of al Qaeda losing its key international recruiters inspiring young people.

Who will lead al Qaeda’s next wave of radicalization? Al Qaeda needs a new inspirational messenger to ramp up its global radicalization and recruitment. Only a select few al Qaeda leaders have actually generated significant audience to radicalize many recruits. Three of al Qaeda’s most effective messengers, Bin Laden, Zarqawi and Awlaki, all blended a unique combination of competence and charisma to radicalize and inspire recruits.

So, is Belhmoktar, AKA Mr. Marlboro, the first new inspiring leader of a new generation of Salafi-Jihadi extremism?  He’s a bit weak on the ideological aspects, but he’s a veteran fighter with charisma and attacks under his belt.  I guess only time will tell.

Here’s the clip of @TweetsintheME on CNN.




Are al Qaeda affiliates getting ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’? Poll results #9

On May 2, 2012, one year after the death of Osama Bin Laden, I asked the following question here at this blog:

Do you think the following al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates have become stronger or weaker over the past year? (Select ‘Stronger’ or ‘Weaker’ for each affiliate)

  • AQIM
  • AQ in East Africa/al Shabaab
  • AQAP in Yemen
  • AQ Central in Pakistan/Afghanistan
  • Emerging AQ affiliate in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia
  • AQ in Iraq
  • AQ in the Caucasus

In total, roughly 175 respondents answered this question between May 2, 2012 and the end of July 2012. The results of this question are really seven-fold as each al Qaeda affiliate was assessed independently. Below are the results of respondents’ collective assessments of each al Qaeda affiliate. I’ve showed an aggregated comparison of all respondent votes below in a chart. This compares the percentage of all votes for each al Qaeda affiliate.

Below this chart, I’ve compiled the votes of respondents into a table showing the break out of votes for each al Qaeda affiliate stratified across different demographic attributes.  During this past summer, respondents clearly rated AQAP in Yemen as ‘stronger’ at higher rates than any other affiliate. However, I wonder how they would rate AQAP in Yemen now, 6 months later?


Here are some points that I found interesting in the deeper examination of respondents’ votes across each al Qaeda affiliate.

  • AQIM

– ‘Government Non-Military’ voters and ‘Private Sector’ voters rated AQIM ‘stronger’ at lower levels then other professional groups.

– Again, those preferring ‘Social Media’ as their primary information source were the most likely to select AQIM as ‘stronger’.

  • AQ in East Africa/al Shabaab

– Again, ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were the least likely to select al Qaeda threats from the Horn of Africa as ‘stronger’. Meanwhile, ‘Private Sector’ voters switched and were more likely than most to select Shabaab as getting ‘stronger’. Is that the effect of lots of television news reports about the Shabaab merger with AQ Central during the February 2012 timeframe?

  • AQAP in Yemen

– During this survey, all groups thought AQAP was ‘stronger’. Students and Academics were most convinced that AQAP was ‘stronger’ while ‘Government Non-Military’ were the most skeptical of AQAP’s strength.

  • AQ Central in Pakistan/Afghanistan

– All groups seemed to think AQ Central was weaker a year after Bin Laden’s death. Academia is particularly down on AQ Central. But here’s where it gets weird, ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were more likely than other voters to believe that AQ Central is ‘stronger’ a year after Bin Laden’s death. The same group that was skeptical about AQIM, AQAP, and Shabaab is less skeptical about AQ Central.

– Television viewers were most likely of from information source to believe that AQ Central was ‘stronger’, although they were still less than 50% in this assessment.

  • Emerging AQ affiliate in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia

–  Voters were most undecided about the strength of al Qaeda in North Africa. 51% thought this emerging affiliate was ‘stronger’ and 49% thought this emerging affiliate was ‘weaker’. I wonder what the vote would be if I ran this in the week after the Benghazi attacks?

– A strange breakdown of this affiliate occurs with regards to information sources. Those preferring intelligence reports and newspapers believe this affiliate is ‘weaker’ but magazine readers were more likely to say ‘stronger’.

  • AQ in Iraq

– Overall, AQ in Iraq was assessed as ‘weaker’, but academics and those with PHD’s were more likely to select AQ in Iraq as ‘stronger’ a year after Bin Laden’s death.

  • AQ in the Caucasus

– The threat of al Qaeda in the Caucasus – does anyone really know anything about this threat – appears to be ‘weaker’ based on all votes, but social media watchers were the group most likely to select ‘stronger’.

Here are the breakdown charts by demographic group for each AQ affiliate assessed by voters.

Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 7.21.20 AM Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 7.21.02 AM Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 7.20.39 AM Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 7.20.17 AM Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 7.20.01 AM Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 7.19.26 AM Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 7.18.08 AM

AQIM Fractures: New Leaders & New Money in the Sahel

For several weeks there has been rumbling of  al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fragmenting in the Sahel.  This morning, All Africa reports:

Former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka “Laaouar”) quit the group to assemble his own band of suicide bombers in northern Mali. …The Algerian terrorist (real name Khaled Abou El Abass) reportedly left AQIM after his demotion as head of the El Moulethemine katibat (“Brigade of the Veiled Ones”)

It appears Belmokhtar wants to create his own terrorist group, which I imagine will compete with AQIM for recruits, turf, weapons and money.

The new terrorist group “is headquartered in the Malian city of Gao, which is under the control of Islamists from the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of AQIM”….Through the creation of the new group, Belmokhtar wants “to help to consolidate Sharia rule in northern Mali, where armed Islamists are enforcing Islamic law very strictly after having driven the Malian army out in the spring,” the French daily added… Belmokhtar will finance his activities “including the purchase of weapons” by “specialising in the kidnapping of Westerners, whom he usually frees in return for large ransoms”.

So why would Mokhtar, a long-time leader of AQIM, break from the group that according to ‘Western analysts’ is becoming so strong?  Much of the recent counterterrorism analysis I have read suggests that ransoms from kidnappings, foreign fighters moving to the Sahel, weapons from Libya’s collapse has all led to unity and strength in AQIM.  But is that the case, the All Africa article suggests something different.

“One of the reasons for this dissent is the disagreement between these leaders over how to share the ransoms paid for the release of Western hostages,” said Abdalahi Ould Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Chouhoud….”As the organisation has grown and incorporated fighters of different origins, conflicts of interests have become increasingly frequent,” he added….Journalist Hamid Fekhart argued that “Droukdel’s decision was motivated by the unruliness of his junior, who is thought to have been gunning for him over the past few months. Security sources say that the supreme leader, who tried in vain to bring Mokhtar Belmokhtar to heel, simply decided to relieve him of his duties as part of a bid to reorganise AQIM.”…Fekhart noted that his successor, thirty-six year old Abou El Hammam, was reportedly “behind the kidnapping of an Italian-Burkina Faso couple in the Sahel in December 2010”.

Well, it looks like more money and fighters has led to more conflict than unity in AQIM.  Analysis suggesting more of any one terror group input (Weapons, money, fighters, etc) will lead directly to a stronger collective whole (AQIM) naively ignores the one thing that is most difficult to quantify and analyze: Human nature.

Concurrent to recent discussions of the rise of Shabaab (February-ish 2012), AQAP in Yemen (May-ish 2012) and then AQIM (Summer-ish 2012) has been the notion that al Qaeda’s ideology continues unabated, stronger than ever, and remains a binding tie that overides petty disputes within the terror group over leadership and resources.  GARBAGE! Ideology and money go hand-in-hand for al Qaeda.  Money without ideology turns AQ affiliates into little more than organized criminal groups.  Ideology without money, over time, renders al Qaeda nothing more than a poorly resourced cult drowned out by better financed Muslim Brotherhood affiliated organizations.  As Gregory Johnsen noted in his book on AQAP, what separated Bin Laden and al Qaeda from other militant groups was that:

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

In June, I argued that the al Qaeda of 9/11/2001 really does not exist today.  One of the reasons I pushed this theory arises from the new state of acquisition and allocation of resources amongst al Qaeda affiliates.  Across al Qaeda’s global footprint, decentralization has led to there being more incentive for affiliates to compete than cooperate.  With Bin Laden’s death, donors spread their funds more diffusely and local affiliate illicit revenue schemes must increase. Ultimately, this change leads to al Qaeda affiliates with waning allegiance to al Qaeda Central.  As I noted in July,

As money transfers shift, influence, authority and strategic direction will drift.

For counterterrorists, Belmokhtar’s defection will hopefully prove to be instructive.  How do we replicate the conditions that led to Belmokhtar’s creation of a competing terror group?  In some cases, infrequent but well calculated drone strikes on key AQ leaders, I believe, can be very effective.  However, I think in the end it might be subtle, indirect actions that help exploit these factors.  What if the French or Germans were to only pay kidnapping ransoms to one leader of AQIM as opposed to another?  Could we use the unfortunate action of having to pay ransoms as a method/opportunity for creating dissension in the ranks of a loosely formed al Qaeda coalition?  Maybe.

Results of “Who should we call al Qaeda?” Survey

Last week, I posted a question asking readers if they would consider the following hypothetical group of armed men to be “al Qaeda?”

  • A group of heavily armed men occupy a remote area in an African/Middle Eastern/South Asian country.
  • 95% or more of the groups’ members are local people from the country where the terror group resides.
  • The group publicly states their intent to institute governance by Sharia law.
  • 2-3% of the group’s members served as foreign fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 fighting in coordination with al Qaeda, the Taliban or al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • The group calls itself “Ansar al (fill in the blank)” or “Lashkar e (fill in the blank)” but don’t mention al Qaeda in their name.
  • Some of the groups’ spokesmen, at some point in the past, have publicly praised Osama Bin Laden.
  • It is completely unclear whether any of the group’s members have publicly declared bay’a (allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
  • The group records videos of its attacks. At times, these videos show up on jihadi web forums. At times, these videos randomly show up on YouTube.
  • The group’s funding streams remain unclear. News reports of unknown reliability claim the group gets some funding from kidnapping & local extortion and some from Persian Gulf donations.
  • 97 voters answered this question over a three day period and the vast majority (>80%) said “No”. Here are the results.

    Additionally, 16 people left comments about this question which are compiled here.

    More to follow on this debate in the next couple of posts.

Chaos in the Sahel: AQIM, Ansar al Dine & Others

I’ve been slow to discuss the fascinating turn of events in the Sahel in recent months.  Mali, considered by some a great hope for democracy in West Africa, has fallen to pieces in a combined resistance effort from the Tuareg rebellion and AQIM affiliated groups heavily-armed by weapons proliferating from the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya.

In general, I turn to @tweetsintheME, @themoornextdoor, Dr. Geoff Porter, @tommymiles and @Hannahaniya to keep me informed on the daily fluctuations and insecurity of the Sahel and recommend their blogs and Twitter feeds to all those wanting to stay up to speed.  However, I’m reading a group of interesting articles and analysis to get a better handle on the situation.  Here are some of my general thoughts and recommended readings linked in each section.

  • Thankfully young AQ upstart/affiliated groups haven’t read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Ansar al Sharia in Yemen and al Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Dine has decided to make a harsh environment, Northern Mali, even harsher by instituting a tyrannical form of Sharia governance.  A refugee quoted in The Washington Post notes:
    “First they ordered women to cover up. Then they ordered us not to enter the market,” said Yatara, a food seller, her voice rising. “ I could not make money to feed my child. This is against our traditions. This is against the Islam we know.” So what’s Ansar al Dine’s endgame, if it is not to win popular support?  Here’s another quote: “There’s no work, no food. And they are restricting our freedoms,” Maiga said. “Why should we stay?”  Strategically, for Ansar al Dine, I can’t understand what is to be gained by seizing and holding Timbuktu only to destroy some Islamic shrines, displace all the residents and stunt the economy – which was likely a source for Ansar al Dine to generate operational funds.  I would hope residents of Northern Mali and competing groups will soon stand up to this group.  We’ll see as the land holds little value for refugees to return to.
  • Geography matters: Ansar al Dine is “out in Timbuktu” after all.  Some have begun speculating about whether Ansar al Dine is building a terrorist safe haven comparable to what is occurring in Yemen.  At this point, I’m skeptical as the center of the Sahara is a harsh geography from which to operate.  Westerners often speak unflatteringly about places difficult to reach as “being way out in Timbuktu”.  This isn’t just a joke!  Timbuktu is a harsh geography; a difficult place to project terrorism, generate revenue, resource operations, and attract recruits.  Sure, terrorist attacks can be generated from here, but it’s not the easiest nor best safe haven for executing global terrorism.
  • Impacts of no detention policy – Two weeks back I discussed the progressive limitations placed on U.S. counterterrorism policy and the implications of these decisions.  Well, again the lack of a detention and extradition policy/program has come to haunt the U.S.  This past weekend, Mauritania, for reasons I can’t grasp, reportedly released Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (alias Abu Hafs al-Mauritani) al Qaeda’s Grand Mufti and one of the remaining AQ senior leaders with some connection back to Zawahiri and AQ Central in Pakistan.  Again, a U.S. counterterrorism “Partner” has released a key prisoner.  Much like we’ve seen in Yemen with prison escapes and AQAP strengthening, I expect al-Mauritani has or soon will join AQIM in the Sahel and strengthen the groups connections with other AQ affiliates, provide some leadership and potentially inspire some recruitment.  Bad news all around, begging the question about how the U.S. works with CT partners moving forward.  If the U.S. can’t detain AQ operatives, U.S. partners can’t detain operatives, and drones are bad, what should the U.S. do?  Train and equip partner armies and militias?  Oh yeah, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative?  Right.
  • Great Info Map of Current Sahel: Lastly, I saw this post at the Arabist, which shows an excellent map from Monde Diplo diagramming current Sahel related activity.  I’ll repost it here.