ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards – Part 4 at FPRI

My latest installment of the “Smarter Counterterrorism” series at FPRI was just released – “ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards“.  It took me a little while longer than I anticipated to get this post together as things have been changing quickly the past month.  Those breaking for ISIS and leaving al Qaeda’s network of affiliates have been significant.  Here is an excerpt of this latest installment where I propose three future scenarios of how jihadi groups might go in the future.

“The outcome from Zawahiri’s retribution has been surprisingly to ISIS advantage.  Rather than punishing ISIS and regaining authority over the global jihad, Zawahiri and al Qaeda may soon become the second largest jihadist organization in the world.  Angered by Zawahiri’s betrayal and admiring of ISIS commitment to pursue an Islamic state, what were once thought to be al Qaeda Central affiliates are openly declaring allegiance to ISIS emir Baghdadi.  As seen in Figure 4, jihadist groups across North Africa and the Middle East have switched allegiances largely along the lines of the Iraq 2003-2009 foreign fighter distribution from Figure 3 in Part 3.  While al Shabaab in Somalia has reaffirmed its support for Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, the majority of contested affiliates have swung to ISIS’s favor. Ansar al Shariah in both Tunisia and Libya appear to be far more in ISIS camp. The younger generation of jihadis in AQAP/Ansar al Sharia in Yemen have sided up with ISIS (See Figure 6) even pushing at times in social media for AQAP’s emir al-Wuhayshi to shift his support from Zawahiri to Baghdadi –  I expected a transition, but this is occurring at a pace far quicker than I anticipated.  Zawahiri’s plan has backfired and his status has never been so diminished. “

An important note with this Part 4 on future jihad scenarios.  I do not believe that the al Qaeda affiliates and upstart jihadi groups are as structured in reality in the way the media and the West might have one believe.  These groups are morphing weekly and are populated with young twenty somethings who are also confused by Syria infighting.  Ultimately, these dopey young men may not always know or agree about what group they are in.  Omar Hammami had similar challenges after breaking with Shabaab.  I don’t think these groups are particularly well defined, are certain about their own membership and at the same time, many of these groups may not even exist in a year.  Old AQ affiliates and new upstarts are very malleable, so we shouldn’t get to hung up on exact organizational structure. Its more a swarm of like-minded subsets right now than well defined jihadi organizations.

Also, if interested in the graphics that were used in the FPRI post, I’ll post the scenarios from Part 4 here with a quick excerpt. Note, this is only part of the article from FPRI and only charts from Part 4.  If you would like to download a copy of these charts, just right click on the chart and it will open in this window or in a separate window so you can download them.

  • Updated Fractures Map – March 2014

First, I updated my fractures map from February and here is my new estimate of the situation amongst global jihad.  The big changes come from allegiances emerging within AQIM and I believe more allegiances between younger jihadis in Yemen.

Figure 4 alternate

  • Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad

The first scenario I offered in the article is ISIS running the table on al Qaeda and securing loyalty from the second generation of jihadis that fought in Iraq (See Part 3 here).  Here is a chart for what that future scenario might look like.

Figure 5 scenario 1

  • Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

Another possibility is that all jihadi groups slowly move away from notions of global al Qaeda resulting in regional nodes which are still connected but with only light connections between all groups.  See Part 4 of the series for a full explanation.

Figure 7 scenario 3

 

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

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

Here is the intro to the post:

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

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

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

Jihadi Competition feb 2014

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

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Check out Stout’s Interview with an al Qaeda Insider, Morten Storm

Recently someone pointed me to an interview by Mark Stout at the Spy Museum with Morten Storm, the agent that infiltrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Based on his account of events, he gained the confidence of Anwar al-Awlaki. Readers of this blog may remember my references to Morten Storm in the context of the justification for targeting Awlaki. Previously,  I had read some summaries of the Storm coverage and it didn’t always make sense.  However, Mark Stout does a masterful job interviewing Storm and in less than an hour the Morten Storm saga is explained – and its well worth a listen.

Here is a quick summary of some of the interview but definitely check it out for yourself.

  • The beginning of the interview discusses Storm’s radicalization.  While its bizarre that he went from being in a motorcycle gang to being a jihadist adherent in only months, this is a similar pattern for converts to Islam that end up attracted to al Qaeda. Western recruits travel bizarre paths into al Qaeda’s arms.  My general rule for Western al Qaeda members, the whiter the al Qaeda recruit, the weirder the story – Gadahn, Lewthwaite, John Walker Lindh – its never what you expect.  Looking at Morten Storm, I’d swear he was in the crowd at the Packers-Lions game on Thanksgiving.
  • Al Qaeda wants Western recruits so badly that they routinely seem to open themselves up to problems.  I imagine in Storm they saw an ideal candidate for delivering attacks in the West.  For Omar Hammami, they enjoyed his propaganda and the fact he was an American.  But in both recent cases. the Westerner recruits have created a series of problems for al Qaeda.  I bet Adam Gadahn is a real pain in the ass in Pakistan as well.
  • I learned in this interview that Storm seems to be more of an asset for infiltrating al Qaeda operations in Somalia. Morten Storm Storm talks about helping facilitate fighters from Europe and purchasing/providing gear, setting up a business in the Horn of Africa.  In particular, Storm discusses the connections between AQAP and al Qaeda operations in Somalia.  Storm mentions Warsame and American Jehad Mostafa as being connections between the two al Qaeda affiliates. Take a listen around the 30 minute mark.  Storm provides some fascinating linkages that have been long sought in open source.
  • Lastly, I had gotten the impression from new stories that Storm had been betrayed by the CIA or had a falling out with the U.S.  According to this interview, I get a very different impression.  It seems his disagreements and betrayal rest more with the Danish government rather than the U.S. – but I guess that story doesn’t sell as well in mainstream press.
  • Hats off to Mark Stout for a great podcast.  He gets Storm’s entire story out in a concise fashion.  Take a listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FPRI Follow up: External Drivers of AQ Plots & AQAP R&D Timelines

In follow up to the internal competition hypothesis I posted on Monday, I wrote another post at FPRI that went on to describe the many external forces that may be accelerating a Zawahiri-led al Qaeda to plot a global attack.  I didn’t want readers to get the impression that the motives for a plot were limited to just internal politics, there are many external forces likely driving al Qaeda action as well.  The post is here at this link at FPRI.

One of the points from this is AQAP and their talented bombmaker Asiri have had quite a while to develop a new and more sophisticated explosive device.  Here’s a quick snippet from that part of the FPRI post and a graphic I put together to illustrate what may be Asiri’s development pace.  Essentially, without drones and CT efforts, his pace of development may be considerably quicker than when there is overt Western and Arab counterterrorism pressure.  However, in both scenarios, no pressure and lots of pressure, if Asiri is still alive he’s likely to keep making more sophisticated devices and creating innovative plots.

“Pace of attacks, R&D and planning time – al-Qaeda affiliates have varying abilities to conduct attacks on the West and varying access to Western targets.  AQAP in Yemen has been the primary affiliate for attacking the West in recent years and a key component of this capability is Ibrahim Asiri – AQAP’s talented bombmaker.  Some news stories this week allege that Asiri and his band of bombmaking partners have developed the ability to make undetectable explosive clothing from a new liquid drying process.  As long as he’s alive, Asiri is likely to continue creating more sophisticated devices.  Drones and other counterterrorism actions may be able to slow down the pace of development but ultimately if Asiri and AQAP have even a small handful of operatives planning attacks on the West, there will eventually be more sophisticated plots arising. See the chart below (Figure A) for my crude estimate of Asiri and AQAP’s planning and development timeline since Dec. 2009 measured alongside the pace of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen (New America Foundation data).”

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Guest Post at FPRI: al Qaeda Plots and the Era of Terrorism Competition

Today, I rather lately got around to a post on this past weekend’s embassy closures in response to an allegedly imminent al Qaeda plot to attack Western interests in the Middle East and North Africa. The goal of the post was to discuss some of the internal forces that might be driving al Qaeda Central to attack.  I then look at what how competition internally might be driving al Qaeda to act on plans for a large scale coordinated plot.

Here’s a snapshot of the article and a graphic I put together on one of my theories of how al Qaeda affiliated might be communicating.  For the whole post, visit this link here at FPRI.

“This latest threat to American and Western targets overseas is not surprising but is instead interesting because of what I perceive to be the many internal motivations of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda to plot a spectacular attack now.  Increasingly, al-Qaeda Central and what I would now call al-Qaeda Central Forward–al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen-–face stiff competition with one of its own affiliates, al-Qaeda in Iraq and their recent absorbtion Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.”

Competing AQ Hypothesis

Will there be “blowback” from U.S. drone use?

After a few weeks of quiet, the drone debate has surfaced again in the U.S.

The past week has seen at least two drone strikes in Yemen.  One reportedly killed the Ansar al-Sharia leader of Abyan province and the Long War Journal claims the latest attack , launched missiles at,

“two fighters “as they left a farm on a motorbike” in the Khobza area of Baydah province”

A year ago, all the talk of terrorism, counterterrorism and drones centered on Yemen.  The media has lost interest in Yemen over the past year and while the pace of drone strikes appears to have decreased; their use has not gone away.

More interesting, an article from the Huffington Post I read yesterday that was published in 2010 entitled “Drones over Pakistan: Menace or Best Viable Option?”. This article is a must read.  Dr. C. Christine Fair had spent months in Pakistan researching the drone issue and, similar to Christopher Swift’s take on Yemen last year, found a very different perspective on the drone debate inside Pakistan.  She spoke with a senior Pakistani officer and:

This senior officer himself attested to Pakistan’s own inability to eliminate key threats and the necessity of the drones to eliminate terrorists in a way that most effectively minimizes the loss of innocent lives.

As for those stories that recount the psychological damage placed on populations by the buzz of drones, Fair contrasts with this anecdote:

“Another interlocutor explained that when children hear the buzz of the drones, they go their roofs to watch the spectacle of precision rather than cowering in fear of random “death from above.”

While I’m sure there have been mistakes in the use of drones in Pakistan, Fair says in Pakistan,

This antipathy towards the program is due in large measure to the collaboration of Pakistan’s media to sustain tenacious criticism of the program by spreading suspect civilian casualty reports planted by the militants themselves or various “agencies.”

Well, what should we think? As readers of this blog, you likely know my stance, “Go Drone With Some Modifications” (See here and here). However, the debate often centers around one’s perception of innocence and a which is more noble: means or ends. This is where it all gets really tricky.

COIN proponents like the notion of winning “hearts and minds” and this sells well to the public as the means ‘feel’ just. But in actuality, COIN in Pakistan means Pakistani army and militia invasion, which creates immeasurable casualties over time.  Drones, on the other hand, ‘feel’ evil, but I believe kill more precisely than any other tool and if I had to choose between a drone strike or sending in a tribal militia – I’ll go drone every time. (Did you see above, we just hit two dudes on a motorbike! it doesn’t get much more precise than that.) Again, both parties, drone critics and drone advocates, will swing the number of civilian casualties in their favor because there is no clear definition of the enemy and the U.S. isn’t overly clear about its use of the tool.  Would Osama Bin Laden’s wife be considered a militant or a civilian? Were the people in an AQAP member’s house hit by a drone strike militants or civilians? What about the house across the street from where the missile strikes, militants or civilians?

Drone critics have made some progress, I believe, in curbing the use of drones.  The pace of attacks has decreased overall it seems.  I assume this is either due to public pressure or that the U.S. may be running out of targets.  However, critics of drones are unlikely to make much more progress in reducing drone use unless they can provide a viable counterterrorism alternative to drones – America’s most effective and Slide1efficient counterterrorism tool.  While critics protested publicly during the hearings, I’ve heard little from them since Brennan’s confirmation. If drone critics remain concerned about their use, they must sustain a real campaign against their use and provide plausible alternatives.  The truth is: both political parties and most Americans are big fans of drones as long as they aren’t aimed at them.

The mantra I’ve seen repeated amongst drone critics has been that the U.S. use of drones will result in “blowback” against the U.S. While I agree this is conceivable, this repeated “you just wait, this is going to come back to haunt you” argument needs to come with some specific predictions if it is to be treated seriously.  I’ve listened to this argument against drone use for more than two years now.  (See here and here) If there is going to be “blowback” for the U.S. use of drones, when will there be “blowback” and where will there be “blowback”?  Be specific. To say there will be a terrorist attack from Yemen again, or from Pakistan again, will surely be correct, but these attacks may have only some or no relation to U.S. drone use.

Conversely, the option “to not use drones” over the past several years must be discussed by those that criticize drone use.  For example, I believe if the U.S. had not developed and implemented the use of drones in Pakistan, al Qaeda would be stronger today than it currently is, the U.S. would be further engaged in Afghanistan providing more troops for a longer period, and the TTP and al Qaeda would maintain a strong foothold in Pakistan’s frontier that would further destabilize Pakistan and yield more terrorist attacks against the West. Likewise, I also believe the success of drones in Pakistan has sent al Qaeda to seek alternative safe havens – one of which is Yemen.  In Yemen, without the use of drones, I believe the U.S. would be committed to a larger ground presence and further entanglement with dubious allies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Additionally, I believe the U.S. would have suffered more attacks from an AQAP whose external operations, led by Awlaki, would have continued, increased and improved with time.  While my assessment, due to the course of history, cannot be proven right or wrong, I can see the logic for why the U.S. chose to pursue drone strikes and I believe it outweighs the arguments for not using drones.  For drone critics, they must qualify their prophecy about the long-run effects of drone use.  I’ve heard the drone “blowback” argument for at least three consecutive years now and, while I respect it, I’m not convinced.

 

New Season of Shabaab’s Game of Thrones in Somalia: Hammami’s re-ascension?

A little over a year ago, Andrew Lebovich and I published a short article detailing the plight of Omar Hammami amongst al Shabaab’s Game of Thrones in Somalia.  In this March 2012 piece Lebovich and I made several hypotheses:

  1. Hammami’s plea reflected serious divisions inside Shabaab with Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubeyr) on one side and Mukhtar Robow on the other, likely supported by Sheikh Hassan Aweys.
  2. AQAP was an important conduit to Shabaab.
  3. Shabaab’s leader Godane killed off old Al Qaeda members, namely Fazul, in his attempts to consolidate power in Somalia and become the single conduit with al Qaeda.
  4. Zawahiri overreached officially aligning with Shabaab and entangled al Qaeda with an ally plagued with internal dissension.

Thanks to the revelations published by Omar Hammami, these hypotheses all seem to have some merit, although some evidence is suspect or unconfirmed.

Beginning last May, Omar Hammami began a public campaign to keep himself alive in Somalia.  Unable to leave Somalia and suppressed by Godane, Omar’s long-winded initial English biography revealed his belief that Godane’s Shabaab leaders were killing off dissenters in the ranks and in particular foreign fighters supporting Shabaab.

However, Omar’s initial biography left out some key details and only when he resurfaced via his Twitter account (@abumamerican) did we learn from his Arabic biography how Godane adeptly played the game of Somalia’s “Game of Thrones” securing his leadership position by killing off foreign fighters and excluding Robow from key meetings such as the oath of allegiance to al Qaeda.  In January’s Arabic supplement, Omar dropped all the dirty details of the rift between local fighters and foreign fighters and the pseudo-imprisonment of he and his band of banished foreign fighters.  Omar hit the Twittersphere again in January to both bash Godane’s Shabaab and sustain his public presence making it more difficult for Godane to rub out Hammami – a messy situation for a Shabaab in decline and an al Qaeda that has overreached.

Shabaab initially tried to ignore Hammami’s chatter.  When Omar continued the public bashing, Shabaab took to discrediting him via a glossy product. This only emboldened Omar and finally opened the flood gates for Shabaab haters and Shabaab supporters to go full force into battle on Twitter ending and subverting the censorship imposed on al Qaeda forums when Omar defected a year ago.  Two months ago, Omar appeared alone and isolated in his fight against Shabaab’s stalwart supporters.  However, Shabaab dissenters have grown publicly in recent weeks and Omar appears to be fully engaged in a four-language Twitter battle against Shabaab (English, Swahili, Arabic, Somali).

Here’s my quick recap of recent proceedings.  This is a quick and dirty breakdown, not all encompassing.

Team Omar’s Position:

  • Omar claims to be living with the Rahanweyn clan and living somewhere in Bay & Bakool provinces.
  • Omar and his allies on Twitter chief complaints with Godane and Shabaab are:
    • Godane has taken Shabaab off the path of true jihad and created divisions between the local Shabaab (Ansar) and the foreign fighters (mujahidin).
    • Permitting of qat usage and sale are against the tenets of Sharia; Shabaab apparently does this for the purpose of taxation and revenue generation.
    • Godane forces taxation on people that should be exempt.
    • Godane mismanages Shabaab politically, militarily and economically and is responsible for the group’s retreat.
    • Godane doesn’t take the input of other key Somali jihadi leaders like Robow and Aweys into account when he governs.
    • Godane imprisons those that challenge his decisions (often times foreign fighters) and those with money that potentially could challenge Godane’s authority.
    • Godane has a henchmen, maybe named Dahir, who does Godane’s dirty work acting as the internal policeman snuffing Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 11.22.04 AMout dissent.
    • Omar uses the reasons cited on Twitter to justify pausing his violent jihad. Omar cites Koranic and historical justifications for quitting jihad when its not pursued justly.  Team Omar claims that Robow and Aweys would share this view – although this may not be evident publicly.
    • Omar has gained support from others on Twitter, enough that he is taking questions for debate on a second tier jihadi forum aljihad.com.  Two months ago this would seem inconceivable, but in some weird way, Omar’s banter has rallied some that share his feelings.
    • In conclusion, Omar insists that there will soon be a revolution underway internally and that the right leadership will come back to take control of the situation in Somalia and return Shabaab to prominence – or something like this.  This seems to be more bravado and wishful thinking than concrete plan but we’ll see.

On the Team Godane/al Shabaab side, they continue to attack Omar and his disciples.  Their chief lines of attack and allies are:

  • Omar is a narcissist that cannot stay in line because of his own glory seeking.
  • Omar exaggerates his battle prowess, importance in Shabaab, skills as a military tactician and took credit for a rap he did not write (the last one Omar admits to) – see this post here for summary.
  • Omar and anyone that uses Twitter is a CIA or MI-6 spy and should be imprisoned or killed.
  • Shabaab’s key allies on Twitter seem to be fellow members of Godane’s Isaaq clan, the Muslim Youth Center (MYC) in Kenya and a handful of ethnic Somali foreign fighters from abroad.
  • When Shabaab can’t get traction attacking Omar on his points about jihad, they go after his Americanism and family – yeah that’s right, they go with “Yo Mama” jokes, a key tactic of hardcore terrorists – I guess.

Omar has been boasting about an impending revolution in Somalia where the Mujahidin take back control of jihad from Godane’s influence.  And today, Omar posted this:

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 11.19.22 AM

Does this tweet represent more bolstering and bragging or an actual coup in Shabaab’s ranks?  One of the reasons Omar’s support as grown is that Shabaab under Godane has been in retreat.  If Shabaab were ascending rather than descending, Omar would likely be alone in his complaints.

I’ve also wondered some other things:

  • Did al Qaeda, either Central or in Yemen, intervene to quell this divide?  After a year of disaster in their relationship with Shabaab, maybe some key AQ folks stepped in to mend this public dispute.
  • Has Robow re-established his own communications channel back into al Qaeda?  A communication sufficient to gain their support for overtaking Godane?
  • Is Hammami really just the public spokesman for a Robow coup in Shabaab?   This is a “Game of Thrones” after all.  Maybe Hammami is just the public mouthpiece eroding Godane’s credibility in return for protection provided by the Rahanweyn clan?

Stay tuned for the next season in Shabaab’s “Game of Thrones”.

Counterterrorism Policy (Drones) And Hot Dogs: Don’t tell us how they are made!

Last week saw Rand Paul of Kentucky perform a 13 or so hour filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to the position of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Paul’s filibuster surprised many because he actually advocated for a cause he believed in while also bizarrely focusing on domestic drone targeting above all other aspects of the program.  After Paul’s filibuster theater, the nomination cleared Congress last week and Brennan has assumed his role as Director – a good thing in my opinion.  So after all the emotion, has anything really been accomplished in the drone debate?  Will any changes in policy arise?

Drone policy changes can occur in a few ways.  First, Congress could make laws limiting their use.  I doubt this will happen because the greatest irony of the Paul filibuster is that he comes from the political party that is naturally more supportive of drone use. Second, the executive branch could self-regulate and it appears they have been trying to do this over the years.  The latest New York Times article “How a U.S. citizen came to be in America’s cross hairs” provides even more details and clarity on the lengths the Obama administration went to find legal justification for their use of drones to pursue Anwar al-Awlaki.  As I noted in months past, the DOJ memo, in my opinion, didn’t provide endless powers to the President but instead developed specific authorities for the pursuit of Awlaki – a policy built on a unique case. This may or may not be a good idea.

The article provides the chronology for why the U.S. became so alarmed by Awlaki.

By 2008, said Philip Mudd, then a top F.B.I. counterterrorism official, Mr. Awlaki “was cropping up as a radicalizer — not in just a few investigations, but in what seemed to be every investigation.”

However, this evidence represented protected First Amendment speech so did not justify lethal action.  It wasn’t until the Abdulmutallab interrogation that the Obama administration changed course.

“He had been on the radar all along, but it was Abdulmutallab’s testimony that really sealed it in my mind that this guy was dangerous and that we needed to go after him,” said Dennis C. Blair, then director of national intelligence.

and then more attacks emerged….

Meanwhile, attacks linked in various ways to Mr. Awlaki continued to mount, including the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen who had reached out to the preacher on the Internet, and the attempted bombing by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of cargo planes bound for the United States that October.

I recommend that everyone check out the New York Times article as it provides real depth in reporting. The article also briefly mentions the revelations from Morten Storm – an alleged Danish agent that supposedly helped track Awlaki in Yemen.  I’m not so sure I buy into the whole Morten Storm story, but here is one interesting note from The Daily Beast that caught my eye. Storm claims Awlaki:

“He [Awlaki] wanted to attack the big shopping centers in the West … by using biological weapons. But I said that I didn’t want to take part in killing civilians—I could only agree to attacking military targets,” Storm says. “Of course I wouldn’t have helped him carry out any kind of terrorist actions. But I had to let him think that I was on his side.”

Well, if true, I’m sure the idea of a ‘biological weapons attack in a shopping mall’ certainly got the administration’s attention and hurried along the justification.

So will the executive branch continue to check itself? I think so, but will it be enough.  The debates may have at least sent a message to the administration.  Unfortunately, it will be entirely up to the Obama administration to check itself as I doubt Congress has the ability to do much of anything. BTW, did anyone catch that John Brennan was sworn in on an original draft of the Constitution? I assume he hears everyone’s concerns, good for him.

In conclusion, Americans continue to struggle with how best to conduct counterterrorism more than ten years after the 9/11 attacks.  For the most part, Americans want their counterterrorism strategy to be like hot dogs – it should taste good but don’t tell them how its made.  As time passes from the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, the American stomach for killing terrorists lessens – when the hot dogs get cold, no one wants to eat them.  Thus by advocating only one solution (law enforcement only – no drones), Americans would be choosing 1) either inaction and eventual attack or 2) counterterrorism by proxy where Americans temporarily enjoy a “Hear No Evil, See No Evil” approach likely to render long term negative consequences such as the backing of corrupt dictators, repression of freedom and the empowering of future non-state threats (like al Qaeda).  On the flip side, the Obama administration will continue to be able to use drone strikes until innocent people are killed again by an errant shot based on poor intelligence – a roughly 100% chance this will happen.

For many opposed to targeted killing by drone, they would prefer all enemies in a new asymmetric world be adapted such they can be mitigated through legal processes created in a more than 200 year old document. They like their threats to be either criminals or enemy nations; not a blend of the two.  Unfortunately, America’s adversaries have adapted as threats as a direct result of the U.S. system.  As America is successful in law enforcement and military operations, enemies morph straddling the lines of sovereignty, exploiting weak states, using disruptive technology, riding ideologies that rally the disenfranchised and hitting seams between bureaucracies and nations.  Protecting America’s values and effectively deterring terrorists and other threat actors (like cyber) requires new laws and new processes.  Barring another major attack, the momentum to make change appears too weak – status quo will likely reign.

As for Awlaki, from my perspective, there’s only two differences between him and Bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s attacks 1) succeeded and 2) were of a far greater magnitude than Awlaki’s.  Bin Laden, like Awlaki, never personally executed attacks on the U.S. – he advocated them, approved of them and helped finance them, but he didn’t personally execute the attacks. Likewise, both Bin Laden and Awlaki were only partially involved in the design of actual attacks (KSM largely played that role for UBL and presumably Asiri for Awlaki). Yet, no one thought twice about the elimination of Bin Laden which was seen as an act of warfare more than law enforcement action.  If the biological attacks on a shopping mall threats were true, one might even argue that Awlaki was more personally involved in attacking the U.S. than Bin Laden. If Abdulmutallab had detonated his device over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, I doubt many Americans would be too squeamish about Awlaki getting smacked by a drone.  I realize Bin Laden was indicted in a U.S. court, but that still wasn’t sufficient for two different administrations to aggressively pursue him through a targeted killing.  It was debated, but only committed to post-9/11.

So should the U.S. kill Awlaki before a plane blows up over Detroit or before a biological attack hits a mall? Or should the U.S. wait until after an attack and engage in a ten year war to root out an amorphous enemy and spend a fortune to rebuild a failed state?  Without new laws and new processes, the U.S. will always be in limbo riding a pendulum swinging back and forth between inaction and overextension.