Insightful new al Qaeda document (Talked about) in Germany

I meant to post on this last week, but for those that might have missed it @abususu has some details on a new al Qaeda document that has been declassified talked about in Germany (Sorry, a modification as of 1200 EST. @abususu says its not publicly available but people have seen it).  The U.S. provided the document to the Germans in support of their prosecution of Abdeladim el-K. Yassin Musharbash always provides excellent analysis of al Qaeda and his post here is one of the most informative things I’ve read in a while.  Great reporting by Yassin – he has been out in front on the story of German prosecutions for several months.

Here are some of the pertinent details Yassin describes (but please check out the original post as it is worth the read):

-The document is a letter by Junis al-Mauretani to Osama Bin Laden, dated March 2010. It is 17 pages in the original Arabic.

-The reason the US shared this particular document with the Germans is that in it, al-Mauretani refers to a Moroccan recruit whose date of birth he gives – and which is the same as the date of birth of one of the defendants in said trial.

-In essence, the letter is a sketch or rather a vision of a comprehensive plot against the West, including maritime, economical and other sensitive targets. There is a certain emphasis on critical infrastructure, as al-Mauretani singles out water dams, underwater gaspipelines, bridges between cities and tunnels connecting countries, as well as internet cables as potential targets.

– He also claims that there is a process in place by which followers would be asked to enter into sensitive jobs, e.g. in the transport business for oil and gas. By this, he suggests, it could become easier to attack targets like airports, love parades (sic!) and highly frequented tunnels.

This document sheds light on the cause for concern in 2010 when there were numerous news reports about a potential attack.  From Yassin’s notes, it would seem that al Qaeda was also a bit afraid to create many civilian casualties.

Here are some of the more fascinating bits Yassin mentions in his analysis:

-There is also an interesting passage in which he claims that AQIM has enough funds to help finance his ideas and that the cadres there trust him personally.

So in 2010, the word on the street was that AQIM, of all affiliates, had the money to finance operations.  Sure, the kidnapping ransoms were significant, but maybe we should be asking where else they were getting their money from in 2010? and now?

 2.- AQ during that time actively recruited Westerners – even from among other Jihadist groups like the IMU. I think this means that they wanted this to be large and comprehensive effort – probably sending all of them back around the same time but not striking immediately but rather asking them to recruit even more people and then lie down until told to act. Al-Mauretani in several cases made sure there would be secure means of communications.

One of the notions I’ve heard repeated in analysis on al Qaeda is the group’s supposed conduct of wide-scale direct recruitment.  I disagree with this notion (as I discussed in 2007).  While al Qaeda does direct recruit specific individuals at times, more routinely they use feeder affiliates and other terror groups to parse out many of their most promising recruits.  This system of minor league terrorist farm teams allows mauretanial Qaeda to keep their distance from new recruits that appear too eager or potentially risky and provides a method for assessing the recruit’s abilities before assigning them a role.  Likewise, it provides al Qaeda a larger set of recruitment options from which to choose better talent. This system flourishes when the group situates securely behind an insurgent safe haven allowing them to pluck key people ideally suited for certain roles from pseudo-terror/definite-insurgent groups like IMU, Shabaaab, Ansar al-Sharia, etc.

Essentially, insurgencies allow for the development of terrorist farm teams where recruits then arrive in al Qaeda’s camp with some training, experience and vetting minimizing al Qaeda’s costs and exposure while maximizing their options.  Two things sustain al Qaeda’s position in this hierarchy as the major league team: ideology & money.  While the West is ill-equipped to erode the ideology of zealots, in the future, the West could work to stifle AQ’s resource allocation – something that proved decisive (but lightly discussed) during al Qaeda’s more recent setbacks in Waziristan.

Lastly, this document points to why the U.S. will always need to maintain an aggressive CT posture despite the recent successes against al Qaeda.  Either al Qaeda, or some group like them, will continue to plot terrorist attacks against the U.S.  The U.S. will be attacked, and we will be attacked less if we maintain a persistent eye on the plethora of threats that might emerge from more than a dozen recruitment portals around the world.

Overall, a great post from Yassin and I hope everyone takes a read.

al-Qaeda Revelations from Germany

With my head down reading about Shabaab’s fractures, I had missed some of the al-Qaeda primary source material emerging from recent trials in Germany.  Yassin Musharbash of AbuSuSu provides an excellent summary of the key insights of alleged internal al-Qaeda documents, which I encourage readers to check out.  @abususu notes:

According to German security services they were written up by high ranking members of core al-Qaeda in 2009 and/or 2008. The documents concern themselves with

  • Lessons learned from past operations
  • Reports on three past operations (7/7 London; 21/7 London; Airliner Plot)
  • a sketch for a terror campaign in the West

He goes on to point out several of the most interesting contents of these documents.

  • One of the documents is of particular interest as it discusses ideas for terrorist activities in the West. Here is a number of ideas that are being floated:
  • More attention should be given to operations designed to free prisoners. One idea is to “hijack a passenger ship” as a mass hostage taking should impress Western public
  • Generally, militant Jihad should also be taken to the Seas: attacking maritime transport would be a good way to hurt Western economic interest.
  • Also generally, a double strategy of regular small scale and rare big scale attacks in the West is advised. The author maintains that both concepts are needed.
  • Foreign fighters from the West should not be kept for too long but rather trained swiftly and sent back a.s.a.p. so as to enhance the capability to attack on a more regular level. Recruits who are considered known to the security services should try and deceive these services so as to relief the actual plotters by distracting attention

Lots to discuss from these four points.  Here are my general thoughts:

  • The AQ authors in these documents lack experience.  AQ has limited resources, operatives and operational space.  The “double strategy” notion would require more than double the amount of planning time as the two foci, “regular small scale and rare big scale attacks” would demand excessive amount of coordination, planning, resources and skill.  For a struggling terrorist organization, maintaining the pace of regular small scale attacks requires efficiency in operation and routine processes unimpeded by CT adversaries.  Research has shown that only high performing terror organizations can maintain the pace of attacks whereas groups of almost any level can pull off the occasional big attack.  See the work of Aaron Clauset and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch.
  • The effect of drone operations and overall intelligence pressure against AQ in their Pakistan safe haven seems clear.  Drones have not only decapitated AQ leaders, but have drastically limited the training time provided to foreign fighters for delivering attacks against the West.  Before 9/11, foreign fighters could train indefinitely for an attack.  From 2001 through 2006, foreign fighters could still gain the necessary training resources and time to prepare for an attack in the West.  Today, foreign fighters to AFPAK have merely days or hours to learn and prepare for their attack on the West – if they can get there at all.

Abu Susu added three other important notes:

  • The documents also contain passages about problems that the terrorists face:
  • They have little money and say that this decreases their operational capabilities
  • The fact that they didn’t manage to perpetrate an attack in the West for such a long time is said to frustrate a lot of cadres — to a degree that some of them allegedly have given up plotting altogether
  • Western intelligence and security services are credited with being effective and very hurtful for them

These three points follow closely with other open source reporting on the region.  For those still believing that terrorism is cheap and AQ operates on almost no money, these documents again show the importance of resources for AQ and reiterates the depleted state of their operations.

Next, AQ’s above quote reinforces my argument related to AQ’s “put up or shut up problem” I noted in January:

While they are just as likely today as much as in the past to execute a mass casualty attack, evidence suggests their pace of attack has slowed dramatically and thus their organization is likely shrinking in size exponentially with each delay in attacks.  For al Qaeda to inspire new recruits and rejuvenate their movement, they need to execute a successful attack.  Likewise, executing successful attacks requires persistent recruitment and talent development through training – two constrained inputs to al Qaeda’s operations in 2012. AQ’s propaganda becomes less effective every year they fail to execute a major attack against the West in the West.  Their rhetoric is talk with no action.

My last point from Abu SuSu’s excellent post – virtual training is no substitute for real in-person physical training.  As he notes:

According to one of the documents, the 21/7 London cell had lost contact to its handler in Pakistan. This is why a) when the attempt took place, the author wasn’t even sure whether it was “their guy”s. He b) also claims that the 21/7 cell may have run into the very same problem in the process of cooking their explosives that the 7/7 cell encountered. But while the 7/7 cell still was in touch with their handler and were able to consult him, the 21/7 cell could not solve their allegedly identical problem.

Al Qaeda’s Foreign Fighter Recruitment – Not Dead, but Dying

In the days when I spent a lot of timing researching foreign fighters (Parts 1,2,3), I began to gauge AQ’s strength by their ability to persistently recruit new members.  AQ’s success arises from its manpower far more than technology.  Their ability to recruit, train and deploy foreign fighters and changes in the rate at which they are recruited provide an excellent bellweather of the terror group’s strength.  Thus foreign fighter recruitment trends provide a singular measure of AQ’s relative strength.  Growth in foreign fighters indicates the resonance of AQ’s ideology, the commitment of resources by benefactors, and the presence of safe havens facilitating operational security.

The tipping point for defeating AQ lies in the elimination of foreign fighters at a rate equal to or greater than the rate at which foreign fighters are recruited.

The recent Guardian article suggests that both sides of this equation are being met.  The U.S. steadily eliminates AQ members in AFPAK and globally.  But more importantly, foreign fighter recruitment appears down.  This dive in recruitment includes a downturn in German recruits who were a particularly troublesome spike in the 2009 time frame.

Continuing from Part 1 and the discussion of The Guardian article, “Al-Qaida leadership almost wiped out in Pakistan, British officials believe“, I noted the quotes about foreign fighter flow into Afghanistan.

The problems for al-Qaida in west Asia have been compounded by a smaller flow of volunteers reaching makeshift bases in Pakistan’s tribal zones. “I think they are really very much weakened,” said the official. “You can’t say they don’t pose a threat – they do – but it’s a much lesser one.”

British and US intelligence sources have told the Guardian they estimate that there are less than 100 “al-Qaida or al-Qaida-affiliated” militants in Afghanistan, of whom only “a handful” were seen to pose a threat internationally to the UK or other western nations.

and this quote;

In Europe, security services say levels of radicalisation have stabilised. Analysis of a list of “recent martyrs” published by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which shares al-Qaida’s ideology and is also based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, appears to show that fewer number of Europeans than feared reached the group, previously been favoured by German-based extremists. Of the near 100 listed, only one was German and most appeared to be local men.

Al Qaeda’s not dead, but they are dying.  Foreign fighter recruits still exist, but they are far fewer in number compared to their peak.  For young men in North Africa and the Middle East, there are too many opportunities at home amongst the Arab revolutions.  AQ is being out paced ideologically, financially and operationally by other competing groups.  More to follow on this, but keep an eye on the foreign fighter flow.  Without it, AQ will become just one of many groups rather than the group.

U.S. Airmen Shootings in Germany

The killing of two U.S. Airmen outside the Frankfurt airport has gotten very little coverage in the U.S. despite it appearing to be a clear act of terrorism on an American target.  As with most things right now, North African uprisings drown out all other media coverage.

Be sure to check out the Internet Haganah’s latest post on the Frankfurt shooters.  He’s done some of his eNinja work and has revealed far more on this attack than anything I’ve read in newspapers.  Great job Internet Haganah!


Recent AQ Foreign Fighter Recruitment, Part 2

Continuing on from my last post reference the Yousafzai and Moreau Newsweek article Inside al Qaeda”, I was particularly interested in the foreign fighters Hanif encountered leading to…..

Key point #2: The distribution of foreign fighter recruits remains diverse but predictable.

In the beginning, it appears Hanif participated openly in the traditional AQ training program of monkey bars, weapons orientation and most importantly-bomb making.  Hanif described the organization in good detail noting:

“The instructors were all Arabs, but the makeup of the class testified to how wide the appeal of Al Qaeda still remains: about 30 students of various nationalities—Chechens, Tajiks, Saudis, Syrians, and Turks, two Frenchmen of Algerian extraction, and three Germans, one of whom was European and the other two of Arabic or Turkish extraction. Hanif was the youngest, and the only Afghan. Most were in their late teens or 20s, a few were in their 30s, and one was a 50-year-old. A handful of the Turks, Uzbeks, and Chechens knew Arabic or Pashto and could translate for their countrymen.”

While only a small sample, this anecdote illustrates a routine pattern of foreign fighter recruits for each jihadi conflict:  a core of Arab trainers with a group of young Arab newbies, a selection of recruits from countries in the region (this case, Pakistan, Tajikistan) and then the random small subset of disgruntled Westerners.  My question for Afghanistan is whether they are drawing the same number of North African foreign fighter recruits as was seen in Iraq?  My unscientific, anecdotal estimate is that North Africans have not flocked to Afghanistan with the same intensity as Iraq.  If this is true, there may be a counterterrorism lesson to be researched and learned with respect to comparative recruitment appeal for young recruits.

My other interest pertains to the Germans.  This echoes recent counterterrorism warnings and again suggests that Germany’s CVE approach, or lack there of, may be noteworthy and useful for determining future CVE do’s and don’t’s.

Busy Week in Counter Terrorism

Counterterrorism efforts around the world hit peak levels this past week. The flurry began with reports last week of potential “Mumbai Style” (not to be confused with “Hunan Style” which would be breaded and deep-fried) terrorist attacks in Britain, France, Germany and maybe the U.S.  The pace thickened with several significant counterterrorism actions.  Here is a quick recap. I may be missing some events so chime in if I left something out.

  1. Background: July 2010: A German citizen of Afghan origin from Hamburg was captured in Afghanistan.  Prior to his capture, Ahmed Sidiqi had traveled to Waziristan and received weapons training.
  2. Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010: German officials believe up to 70 Germans had undergone training in Pakistan and up to 40 fought in Afghanistan.  German nationals have been reported leaving Europe to join the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
  3. Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010: A French citizen of Algerian origin, Ryan Hannouni, was arrested in Italy near the Naples train station allegedly carrying bomb-making materials.
  4. Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010:  Kenyan anti-terrorism units detain a German convert to Islam near Mombasa.  The German, Sascha Alessadro Bottcher, penned a letter to his mother saying he “would never return alive” and allegedly wanted to join al Shabaab in Somalia. Kenyans deported him back to Germany on Tuesday, October 5.  (This one’s probably unrelated but still interesting)
  5. Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010: U.S. State Department issues a travel advisory for Europe warning of potential terror attacks in European cities.
  6. Monday, Oct. 4, 2010:  Between three and eight German Nationals were killed in a drone stike in the town of Mir Ali, FATA, Pakistan. “The militants were said to be members of Jehad al-Islami and their deaths follow reports that a group of jihadists from Hamburg is at the center of an al Qaeda plot for coordinated terrorist attacks in European cities.”
  7. Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010: French police arrest 12 people in two separate raids.  Three are suspected of providing false papers for jihadists returning from Afghanistan, while eight are being held for trafficking firearms and explosives.  The contact information for three of the arrested men came from the cell phone of Ryan Hannouni, caught in Naples on Saturday, Oct. 2.
  8. Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010:  French authorities issue a travel warning to their citizens that the risk of a terrorist attack in Britain is high. (Ohh the French, nothing hurts worse than a retaliatory travel warning, take that Britain.)

Wow, so what do we make of this?  Here are some of my thoughts and questions.

1)    Significantly improved counterterrorism efforts

Yes, I believe recent events illustrate massive improvement in counter terrorism.  I know, I should stay with the “Terrorism Fear Posse” (TFP for short). But, this week’s actions represent a global disruption effort across at least seven or more countries; hitting operational safe havens with drone strikes, rolling up known al Qaeda logisticians, and preemptively arresting those that can facilitate foreign fighter returnees from AFPAK.  This past week, effective information sharing between multiple countries produced rapid action against a decentralized al Qaeda related threat.  Finally, we are getting there.

True, there could still be an attack (in fact, there will ultimately be another attack in the West, we need to accept that). But deliberate, simultaneous CT actions in Pakistan, France, Britain, and Germany will put any terrorist plot that might be in motion into disarray.  I see this recent counter terrorism flurry as a positive sign.  We’re much closer to defeating al Qaeda.  However, one last step remains, the most challenging one; derailing al Qaeda recruitment.

2)    Lessons learned in countering violent extremism

Al Qaeda and affiliated groups will survive as long as they can replenish their recruitment pool.  Countering violent extremism (CVE) and disrupting al Qaeda recruitment remains the biggest challenge. German national villages emerging in Pakistan.  German nationals training and fighting in Afghanistan to then return and attack in Europe.   Big problems!

Why German nationals? Some are radical converts but most are of Turkish descent from what I’ve read.  The UK, Germany and France provide forces to ISAF in Afghanistan.  Does this really radicalize such a large number of European recruits?  If so, why so many Germans; more than Brits and French it seems?

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I do wonder how each country’s approach to CVE has affected their indigenous recruitment to al Qaeda.  From my limited knowledge, it appears each country chose a different CVE strategy post 9/11.  The Brits established relationships, funded organizations, allowed open dialogue and tried to work with Muslim groups to build bridges.  France constructed an organized council of Muslim groups tied directly into the government.  Meanwhile, Germany appears to have rejected any and all dialogue; banning entire Muslim groups from the country and disengaging from vulnerable populations.

I don’t know enough to accurately gauge how Germany’s CVE approach relates to the current surge in German recruitment, but I do believe the U.S. should examine these three countries to identify the risks and rewards of utilizing different CVE techniques in the States.

3)    The government had to issue travel warnings

Stop crying! The media and public bashing of the U.S. government for issuing a European travel warning is ridiculous.  They have to issue a warning.  If they don’t issue the warning and an attack occurs, then the American public would be outraged that the government wasn’t “doing anything” or “wasn’t aware” of the terrorist threat.

“Well, it was too vague, what should I do, wawawawa…”

Look if the U.S. government knew there was a terrorist plot at a specific place, on a specific day, at a specific time, they wouldn’t issue a warning.  They would just go stop the plot.

So, stop crying about the warnings, the government is doing the best they can, and they are getting a lot better at counterterrorism.  So be happy, not angry!