FPRI Post: Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s

Today, I started the first in a multi-part series of blogposts at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on counterterrorism options and policy as of 2014.  Two weeks ago, Dr. Michael Doran, Dr. Will McCants and I combined for an article at Foreign Affairs entitled “The Good and the Bad of Ahrar al-Sham” trying to illustrate the complicated nature of today’s terrorism threat and how to tread cautiously in managing it.  The issue we addressed was premature designation of groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), but this represents only one strand in an extremely complicated counterterrorism landscape.

To kick off my discussion, I posted a few assumptions on my perspective of today’s terrorist threat and where we in the U.S., and the broader West to a certain extent, currently stand.

For those that see this article as another extension of wonk pontificating, good on you.  You are right! Standby for the next few posts as I’ll get more specific.   Here’s the start of the post and you can read the entire article “Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s” at this link.

This post and several to follow represent my assumptions and opinions on how the U.S. might push forward in counterterrorism against al Qaeda and those jihadist groups emerging from al Qaeda’s wake. (These are my opinions and not necessarily shared by my co-authors Drs. Doran and McCants-–I speak only for myself here.)  The posts are meant to stir discussion and debate; I have no illusions that I have all the answers or am exactly correct in my prescriptions.

For my first post in this series, I have six assumptions and/or principles that shape my opinions to come in future posts.

  •  Al Qaeda is not one big thing

Analysts and pundits should stop focusing on building links between al Qaeda affiliates seeking to present loose networks as one large insurmountable threat.  Billing al Qaeda as “One Big Thing” over the past decade resulted in the U.S. pursuing strategies, such as military occupation and backing corrupt dictators, which galvanize competing al Qaeda adherents and unify disparate affiliate actions. The US should pick its fights wisely and for the greatest counterterrorism return at the lowest cost. Since Bin Laden’s death, we’ve seen unprecedented al Qaeda infighting in Somalia, Syria and the Sahel. Rather than build new fears of an al Qaeda juggernaut, we should instead be employing our vaunted “smart power”–that’s if the U.S. can act smartly rather than in a partisan manner and still has power in a region where it has pursued a campaign of disengagement in recent years.


The Terrorist’s Dilemma – Managing Security and Control Tradeoffs

Each year I have the time to read about one book on terrorism.  The past two years I have read two winners – J.M. Berger’s Jihad Joe in 2011 and Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge in 2012.  Both were excellent books so this year I was hoping to make it three years in a row – I’m positive I’m going to make it.

Last week, I acquired Dr. Jacob Shapiro’s excellent new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations. I’m only about 50-60 pages in and it is fantastic.  Years ago, Dr. Shapiro and I were co-authors and co-editors for Al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa which examined some of al Qaeda’s internal documents detailing their foray into Somalia during the early 1990’s.  Terrorists DilemmaDr. Shapiro carried the report by not only re-writing and shaping up my third grade writing, but also by illuminating discussion of agency problems found inside al Qaeda – all organizations have internal politics, al Qaeda is no exception.  Jake carries on this excellent work with a full book exploring agency problems across many different terrorist organizations over many different time periods.  This book clearly outlines many of the concepts I’ve argued at this blog and in posts as recently as last week. (See Internal Factors Influencing al Qaeda)

The book is filled with great quotes and I’ll put some in a larger review that I do after I finish reading.  For now, here’s one of my favorites from the introduction (p.11) regarding the assessment of counterterrorism policies:

“The number of attacks or nature of violence being conducted by a group is an ambiguous indicator on this score. Because success for terrorists is measured in terms of political impact, not in terms of numbers killed or attacks conducted, the vast majority of terrorist organizations try to achieve a politically optimal level of violence than what they could manage if they sought only to kill.  As such, an observed increase in the rate of attacks can mean the group has become more efficient, or it can mean leaders have been placed under so much pressure that they gave up control and operatives responded by ramping up the rate of attacks”

Based on the recent freaking out about a resurgent al Qaeda, I thought this quote was particularly useful.

I’ve been criticized by some for discounting jihadi ideology at times when evaluating al Qaeda.  While I do agree that ideology provides an important binding and guiding function for religious terrorist groups, my experience reading internal documents from al Qaeda always suggests that ideology is malleable to the internal dynamics of the organization.  When a new violent tactic needs to be justified or an internal dispute needs to be resolved, ideological justifications for al Qaeda leader actions often conveniently arise to support said leader’s position.  The trials and tribulations of Omar Hammami provide abundant material in this regard and the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “Sharia Problems” rebuttal of Ayman al-Zawahiri may be another recent example.

Ideological pronouncements provide what the al Qaeda leader says they want to do.  Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s internal documents outline what the group and its leaders actually do.  I believe Dr. Shapiro’s book is a must read for those trying to understand how terrorist group’s make decisions and I hope everyone gets a chance to read it.  It’s well written and uses a fantastic array of case studies from throughout history and around the globe.  And with that, I’m off to read some more.


What is the state of al Qaeda & terrorism two years after Bin Laden? Vote Now!

Two years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan marking one of the most significant milestones in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Two and a half years ago, I began conducting surveys to assess what the impact might be if Osama Bin Laden ever met his demise.  These surveys have since become an annual assessment I generate to gauge public perceptions of the threat of al Qaeda and terrorism in general.  While Bin Laden may be gone, terrorism continues and the past year has demonstrated how terrorist attacks might manifest themselves in a variety of ways from Benghazi to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Today, I’m launching the fifth iteration of the al Qaeda Strategy/Post Bin Laden Survey.  Thanks to those that have participated in versions #1 – Does Bin Laden Matter – Jan.2, 2011, #2 – AQ Strategy 2011-2012 – April 27. 2011, #3 – Terrorism Post-Bin Laden – May 2, 2011, #4 One Year After Bin Laden– May 2, 2012. You can find the results at this link which hosts the results of past surveys.

This poll is shorter and a bit different than past surveys.  Realizing there have been changes in terrorism, I opened the questions up a bit to include new emerging trends.  However, I did repeat some questions verbatim so we can see how our collective thinking has changed over time.

Thanks in advance for contributing to the survey. And anyone is welcome to participate – the more votes the better the results. I’ll begin posting the results and comparisons with past data sets in a few weeks.  Here is the link to the survey if you would like to open it in a separate window: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2yearsafterBinLaden

And if you would like to just take the survey here, I’ve embedded it in this post.  Thanks for taking the survey!

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.



Shabaab in Somalia publicly fractures & pressures al Qaeda

Well, I’ve been waiting for a year to see the outcome of Shabaab’s “Game of Thrones” and today a surprising public fracture emerged on the aljihad.com website.  Ibrahim al-Afghani, a once senior leader of al Shabaab, close associate of Ahmed Godane and fellow member of Godane’s Isaaq clan, posted a public and direct call to Ayman al-Zawahiri asking him to intervene in Somalia and remove Godane as leader of al Shabaab.

Ibrahim al-Afghani’s public posting finally discloses the fractures I’ve been discussing for the past year.  Omar Hammami, the American public relations arm for Team Robow (maybe should be renamed Task Force Robow/Aweys/Afghani), has provided ten reasons for Afghani’s public denouncement of Godane – a major development in Somalia.  These are quotes from Omar’s tweets so if you don’t like the language, complain to Omar on Twitter.

  1.  “Dr. Ayman has to act fast and decisively b4 the jihad is destroyed and enters a deep dark tunnel”
  2. “2 scholars are being threatened.”
  3. “Muhajirs are being expelled and misused/mistreated.”
  4. “Secret jails are off limits to observers.”
  5. “Scholars and leaders can’t check on claims of torture.”
  6. “Opportunities to open new outside fronts are purposefully neglected.”
  7. “The wealth of islam is squandered by the amir.”
  8. “There is no real shura and all the real actors are kept from benifitting the jihad.”
  9. “kids w/good intentions are put in charge of op.s that go wrong and have negative fall out, &they are in charge of policing elders”
  10. “the leader is responsible for the recent defeats and the loss of the previously unprecedented public/tribal support”

Interesting that Omar wrote these tweets in English.  Why not Arabic?  I’m guessing its to get word out to the West, but the solution he is seeking is not likely to come from the West.   I love it that he calls some of the Shabaab members “kids”. Oh wise twenty-something Omar who joined terrorist group that betrayed him. Omar continued immediately after the above posts to assert why everyone should listen to Ibrahim al-Afghani:

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 5.20.17 PMScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 5.20.06 PM


Essentially, Omar explains why it must be Afghani and potentially not Robow that engages Zawahiri and brings the injustices of Godane to Zawahiri’s attention. Afghani was a Godane ally at one time, fought in Afghanistan, and comes from the same clan as Godane.  Also of note, there were rumors of Afghani once replacing Godane as Emir of Shabaab.  See this Critical Threats article for a longer but still short description about Afghani.

When reviewing my scenarios from last year, Scenario #1 appears to have flushed out as most accurate:

Scenario #1: Godane kills off old AQ members & Robow affiliated foreign fighters”

Also of note are the two forces over the past year that signaled which scenario would prove most accurate:

  1. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys who showed movement towards scenario #1 last summer , and
  2. Ibrahim al-Afghani who showed his hand today.

Here is an update to my crazy Powerpoint chart from last year. I haven’t been tracking Raage so don’t know his status or position.  I’ve put “X’s” over the scenarios that no longer make sense from last year and noted the migration of Afghani to the Aweys and Robow side.  In yellow is what I anticipate as the coalition against Godane as of today.


Here are some thoughts for today and I’ll have another update in the next day or so:

  • What does Task Force Robow-Aweys-Godane want Zawahiri to do?  – Usually these things occur behind the scenes but this is a public call to Zawahiri.  Omar has suggested that communications with al Qaeda have been going through AQAP and that AQAP has gone cold on them in recent months or communicated intermittently with Godane.  This puts Zawahiri in an awkward spot.  Zawahiri went for a merger with Shabaab that Bin Laden would not pursue.  The main hope for al Qaeda now is in Syria and Somalia is a distraction.  If Zawahiri leaves Godane in, he confirms his negligence in not dealing with the Hammami situation the past year and demonstrates his naivety about formally merging with Shabaab in the first place. Dr. Z must be scratching his turbin.  
  • A public plea at this time isn’t such a brave move –  If this public call from Afghani had come last summer, it would have been a brave move.  But the Afghani call coming now, after Shabaab has gotten their ass kicked incessantly since the merger, isn’t particularly brave.  Shabaab lost its most important city of Kismayo, which Afghani once commanded, and I imagine he and many others have little to command under Godane at this point.  Loss of turf has also likely brought folks like Afghani, Hammami, and Robow closer together as they get squeezed into Bay & Bakool.  Bottom line: If Shabaab were winning, how Godane governs would not matter.
  • Source in Somalia again prove suspect – A year ago, several sources said that Ibrahim al-Afghani was chasing Omar around and trying to kill him in Somalia.  This now seems unlikely.  Again open sources from Somalia prove not credible.  No surprise.
  • The revelations of Omar Hammami – A year ago, when Omar Hammami posted his plea video, many thought it was an anomaly amongst Shabaab’s alleged rise after aligning with al Qaeda.  However, his persistent presence on Twitter has brought him supporters, probably kept him alive and turned him from goat to glamor jihadi again.  However, over the long run, Omar’s postings are a double edged sword for the jihad in Somalia and foreign fighter recruitment globally.  If a Westerner is considering joining Shabaab or any AQ affiliate and witnesses the absolute mess that is going on publicly, they must be crazy to join – and unfortunately jihadi foreign fighters usually are crazy.
  • Discussions of money – As I have mentioned in previous posts about jihad in Africa, resources and money play an important role and as Omar outlined on Twitter, how money is handed out matters a lot to these guys.  While Omar and these Shabaab splinters blanket themselves in ideological cover, underneath they are really concerned about their personal power and control of resources.  Jihad in Somalia – “Show me the money!”

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.

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

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

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

But, then came this tweet.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 10.23.10 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other small things I picked up on:

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

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


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.

For al Qaeda: More ‘Unity’ or ‘Conflict’ One Year After Bin Laden? – Results #8

On May 2, 2012, the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey asked the following question:

Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, has there been more …?

  • Conflict and competition between al Qaeda leaders and affiliates over strategic direction, or
  • Unity between al Qaeda leaders and affiliates seeking to exploit recent uprisings

I found this question particularly interesting in light of the recent debate over the Benghazi attacks.  Some have asserted the attacks were the work of “al Qaeda”.  Other reports suggest the death of U.S. Ambassador Stevens as the work of an “al Qaeda affiliate”.  Yet others say the Consulate attack came from an emerging local militant group “Ansar al Sharia“.

If one were to believe the attack were the work of a centrally directed al Qaeda, then I would assume there would be more unity between al Qaeda leaders than conflict.  Likewise, a sense of unity in terms of central direction may mesh with an AQIM link to the Benghazi Consulate attack.  However, the notion of unity appears undermined by the recent revelations that Ansar al Din maybe breaking with AQIM, while the MNLA also takes its own course in the Sahel.  Meanwhile, General Ham, the U.S. AFRICOM commander, has noted that AQIM has become a central node for coordination with Boko Haram in Nigeria. It appears there are linkages between AQAP and al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.  But for AQAP in Yemen, seen by many as being the strongest AQ affiliate, are they really coordinating their operations with AQIM, AQ in Iraq or jihadi groups amongst the Syrian uprising?  Probably not. And what about Zawahiri? It appears the crowd doesn’t believe he is in charge of al Qaeda globally the way Bin Laden was.  So which is it, more “Unity” or  “Conflict” amongst AQ members after the death of Bin Laden?

In total, 197 respondents cast their opinions on this question and the vast majority believe al Qaeda’s members are more in conflict (77%) than in unity (23%) after the death of their founder.  The below graph shows the breakout of raw votes by professional group.  Most all professional groups voted in roughly the same proportions as the total.  However, military voters were more likely than other large sample size groups to believe AQ was showing ‘unity’ after Bin Laden’s death.  Meanwhile, ‘Private Sector’ voters were the least likely to believe AQ is cohesive – across most all questions ‘Private Sector’ voters appear to believe AQ is in a state of disarray.

The below table shows a breakdown of the votes based on different characteristics.  I highlighted in green those results reflecting a larger than average selection of ‘Conflict’ while highlighting in yellow those demographic breakdowns that chose ‘Unity’ at a higher rate than other groups.  Overall,

  • ‘Private Sector’ and ‘Government – Non Military’ selected ‘Conflict’ at higher rates.
  • All information sources appear to reflect a proportion similar to the overall average.  There was no apparent lean by ‘Social Media’ voters for this question.
  • Those ‘Residing Outside the U.S.’ were the group most likely to select AQ has had more ‘unity’.  While still only at a rate of 33%, it is interesting that those outside the U.S. may believe AQ is more organized.

Lastly, if you are confused by the term “al Qaeda” or what “al Qaeda linkages mean”, you are not alone.  The media and your Congressmen don’t know either.  For a good laugh and to enjoy the confusion, watch this clip between Anderson Cooper and Congressman Rohrabacher. Absolutely baffling! Another one of my favorite terms – “Radical Islamic Threat” – is in here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Decision On Syria Intervention Likely 30 to 120 Days Away

The news from Syria this past week has consistently returned the same general themes.  Here are some media reports I’ve been reading and I’ll highlight what I think are some key points with some commentary.

The New York Times article, “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria” notes:

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

Clarissa Ward of 60 Minutes (new Lara Logan I guess) provided a rather unremarkable post from her trip inside the Syrian resistance. A brave journey but the report doesn’t really reveal much that has not already been covered.  She does interview a jihadi leader in Syria but this was no PBS Frontline Ghaith Abdul-Ahad documentary.

The best article come from the The Guardian in their post “Syria dispatch: Rebel fighters fear the growing influence of their ‘Bin Laden’ faction.” If you are going to read one article on the Syrian resistance and its issues, I recommend this one. First, the article notes the FSA has had enough of the jihadists.

“Libyans”, muttered the rebel Free Syria Army leader under his breath, shooting the men a dirty look. “We don’t want these extremist people here. Look at them; we didn’t have this style in Syria – who is this? Bin Laden?”

Second, here’s the real danger – jihadists are uniting more than the FSA.

After more than a month of secret meetings, leaders of Islamist fighters – including the heavyweight Farouq Brigade that operates mainly in Homs province and influential Sukour al-Sham brigade of Idlib – have formed the “Front to Liberate Syria”.
“We are proud of our Islamism and we are Islamists. We do not want to show it in a slogan because we might not live up to the responsibility of Islam,” said the leader of the Front, Abu Eissa. “But we want a state with Islamic reference and we are calling for it.”

Interesting, so they don’t want to be called Islamists, Salafists or jihadists? They instead want to focus on local issues and institution of Sharia governance. Sound familiar?

Third, moderate secularists in Syria are worried about jihadists in Syria.

The Sunday Telegraph accompanied the head of the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council, General Mustafa al-Sheikh as he moved the FSA’s command centre from Turkey to inside Syria. They travelled nervously through Idlib’s countryside, in cars with blacked out windows, heavily armed, and with their rifles locked and loaded.
“It’s not because of the regime that we are carrying weapons. It’s because we are afraid of being attacked by the jihadists,” an FSA rebel later admitted.

Fourth, foreign fighters bring the cash.

Resistance groups that adopt a more overtly Islamist hue are finding it easier to attract financial support from abroad. Religious fighting groups are the prime beneficiaries of money and weapons donated by the government of Qatar, as well by wealthy businessmen and religious leaders in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign fighters from the Gulf brought lots of cash to Iraq. For a breakdown of foreign fighter donations upon arrival in Iraq, see this chart from my past research. The columns show what foreign fighters from each country contributed as a donation (first 2 columns), total cash on hand (second 2 columns) and what they had on hand in Syria (last 2 columns). The money data is confusing so read here, here, and here if you want more explanation of the Iraq foreign fighter records.  Bottom Line: If you want cash, get a Saudi recruit.

Here are my thoughts:

  • The Syrian resistance is not making significant gains against the Syrian regime.  After an initial flurry of success, the fight in many places appears to be at a stalemate.  This pseudo stalemate has resulted in….
  • An increase in foreign fighters, most of whom are jihadists.  These fighters come from both the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and provide needed manpower, weapons and …..
  • Money.  Not only are foreign fighters bringing resources with them, but wealthy donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the jihadists resulting in them expanding their influence in certain sectors and in many ways outpacing the Free Syria Army (FSA).
  • The FSA needs the support of the foreign fighters and the Gulf – weapons, manpower, and experience – but fractures continue to emerge.  FSA elements are now as worried about fighting the emerging jihadists in the country as they are about fighting the Assad regime.  This will distract the FSA from overthrowing the government, extend the revolution and result in even more foreign fighters being inspired and migrating to Syria.
  • Lastly, while the FSA can control certain sectors of cities like Aleppo, they still lack heavy weapons and remain completely vulnerable from the sky.

The U.S. remains largely on the sidelines. Reports suggest the U.S. is providing non-military aid to the Syrian resistance.  However, the U.S. fears providing much needed heavy weapons to Syria’s rebels as these weapons might have the potential of falling into the hands of terrorists operating in Syria.  So the U.S. and the West remain largely on the sidelines while donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back jihadist groups that continue to grow in Syria.  Essentially the fear that something might go wrong in the future (Terrorists getting U.S. weapons) results in the U.S. not playing a role in Syria and surrendering influence in a post-Assad Syria to those with the biggest wallets (The Gulf), while ignoring the other awful future scenario – an uncontested jihadi enclave in Syria threatening Israel to the west, undermining Iraqi stability to the east, and operating a safe haven projecting violence against the West globally.

The U.S. election continues to put the decision to further support to the Syrian resistance in delay.  The Obama administration, once criticized for intervening in Libya, likely fears getting involved in another unruly conflict (Syria) before an election and after the death of an Ambassador in Libya.  If the Obama administration wins a second term, will they begin dedicating more support to the overthrow of Assad? If so, the decision and support could come in as little as 30 days potentially.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has gone all in on backing the Syrian resistance despite being part of the party that only a year ago criticized U.S. intervention in Libya.  If Romney wins, his administration wouldn’t take office or likely make any substantive move before February.  If they did decide to intervene in February, would the FSA be able to hold out?  Would the FSA be completely eclipsed by the emerging jihadists in that four month period? Maybe so.

Regardless of which campaign wins, it seems to me the most useful action the U.S. could support, engineer, participate in is the institution of a No Fly Zone.  This would help put the resistance on level footing (closer) with the Assad regime and plays to the strengths of the U.S. and West as a whole.

So, the question is up to you, what do you think – cast your vote here and the final results will be published early next week. Thanks to all those that have already voted.