Counterterrorism Across North Africa: Complicated, Messy but Moving Forward

This week, while everyone in the U.S. has been bickering about what happened in Benghazi more than 3 ½ months ago, counterterrorism operations have occurred across North Africa with the apprehension/battling of militants in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.  I’m not even going to get into whether these individuals are in al Qaeda or not, since the definition of “al Qaeda” is completely unclear at this point.  But, what is clear is that North African countries have seemingly made some counterterrorism gains against militants of one type or another.

(Note: Appears for the media and select Congressmen the current definition of al Qaeda is “all angry, armed men in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia that are not already a part of Hezballah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”)

Here’s a quick rundown on the latest developments.

Tunisia:

Brandon Darby reports that:

“Tunisian security forces arrested seven men for actively playing a role in the recruitment of Al Qaeda terrorists. The North African government claims to have completely dismantled the cell.”

While Tunisia led the way in the Arab Spring, they’ve always had an al Qaeda recruitment problem.  While most discussion of Iraq foreign fighters has focused on the boys of Darnah, Libya, I’ve always thought the Tunisian foreign fighter supply line to be more interesting. The rate of Tunisian foreign fighters revealed in the Sinjar records was quite high and a main facilitator to Iraq was a Tunisian – “Abu Omar”.  See here for a breakdown of the 2007 records by a) country and b) city.   According to Darby, the arrests in Tunisia were close in proximity to Algeria and related to Benghazi – whether its Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda or both is unclear.

Algeria:

According to AllAfrica.com, the Algerian government arrested Salah Gasmi, AKA Salah Abou Mohamed near Bouira, Algeria.  Gasmi is allegedly:gasmi

“responsible for the terrorist group’s propaganda and the co-ordination of the various small groups operating in Kabylie. A computer and communications specialist by profession, he is the suspected mastermind of the 2007 suicide bombings in Algiers.”

This arrest follows a string of other alleged interdictions in Algeria in recent months:

“This security operation follows another carried out November 18th on the border between the provinces of Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia (east of Algiers) in which three terrorists were killed. They included the head of AQIM’s military committee, who was also a member of its committee of dignitaries.

This dangerous terrorist, Makhfi Rabah (aka Cheikh Abdenacer), a former member of the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) had been actively sought since 1992.”

So why is Algeria, now, suddenly so mobilized to interdict AQIM?

Libya:

Lastly, Juan Cole describes an interesting scene in Benghazi – one that resembles the “Old West” cowboy days of the U.S.

Last Saturday, Benghazi security forces loyal to the elected government in Tripoli, captured a man they suspected of being involved with the groups behind the violence. (in Benghazi) And, he appears to have been willing to spill the beans. So let’s call him the Libyan Deep Throat.”

Wow, this would be a major development for the U.S., and yet I haven’t heard a peep about it in the U.S. media.  Cole continues:

“Deep Throat is so knowledgeable about the conspiracies facing the city and so dangerous to those hatching them that the latter immediately attempted to spring him from jail.”

Cole describes a fascinating series of jailbreaks and shootouts in Benghazi and I encourage all those truly interested in Libya to take a read.  While the veracity of the news report Cole cites is unknown, which he points out in his post, the alleged detainee may have spilled some interesting beans on Benghazi’s militant landscape.

“So what is Deep Throat saying? According to local journalist Mohamed Bujenah of the Libyan Herald, a senior figure in the Benghazi police told him that the informant had fingered as many as 7 prominent Muslim fundamentalist leaders in connection with these attacks, of whom the police named 6 explicitly:

1 Sufyan Ben Qumu, from the notoriously radical town of Derna, and a former prisoner at Guantanamo

2. Ahmad Bukatela, leader of the Ubaida Militia

3. Muhammad al-Zahawi, head of the Ansar al-Sharia militia

4. Muhammad al-Gharabi, a leader of the Rafallah al-Sahati Militia

5. Ismail Sallabi, another leader of Rafallah al-Sahati

6. Salim Nabous, head of the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade

It is just a newspaper article. We don’t know if the informant actually named these individuals or if he did so to escape torture, in which case we can’t trust what he said. But if the allegations are true, there is collusion among several hardline militias in the city to create instability in hopes of taking it over”

Only time will tell if these claims are true, but what is certain from this past week, counterterrorism actions across North Africa are in high gear.  So why all the counterterrorism energy and coordination now?  Terrorists have been operating in these countries for years, and this week each of these countries has undertaken significant actions.

Poll Results: Democracy in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia

A little over a month ago, I posted a quick poll asking readers’ opinions on the prospects for democracy in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.  I tallied the results and aggregated them based on:

  1. Current profession- Academic, Private Sector, Government
  2. Experience in North Africa- for those who have resided in these countries for 30 or more consecutive days

Here are the results broken down into these two aggregations for each country.

All voters appear overwhelmingly certain of future democracy in Tunisia.  I hardly even hear about Tunisia in light of all the Libya, Yemen and Egypt coverage.

Surprisingly, voters appeared less certain about future Egyptian democracy.  I also have my doubts about Egypt at times and will write more extensively on this later.

Libya polling results were the most interesting.  I posted the poll mid-March (pre-NFZ) and voters were extremely pessimistic.  However, I monitored the votes as they came in and the institution of an NFZ prompted an almost immediate switch in favor of more democracy. I imagine if some voted today, they would again be pessimistic.

Overall, I think Tunisia shows significant promise.  However, I think it’s too early to tell for Egypt and Libya.

Gladwell, Social Media & Revolution

The Gladwell “Does Social Media Matter” debate rolls on.  This week Giovanni Rodriguez weighs in on why Gladwell continues to defend his assertion that social media does not bring about revolutions.  Rodriguez does an excellent analysis of Gladwell’s shortcomings in the area of social media analysis explaining why Gladwell has taken “the people matter” argument over “social media is changing the world” story.  Rodriguez notes Gladwell’s argument:

the absence of a tool does not prevent people from getting together to do things, a line of argument that Gladwell repeated in his spot on CNN.  He then goes on to show that two of the then-most talked about social media-assisted movements — the uprisings in Moldova and Iran — had little to do with social media at all. That’s a tougher argument — that social media, so far, has not played a big role in social movements.

I’ve written about this debate before concerning my skepticism of the popular argument that large numbers of terrorists are recruited via social media.  I also noted my skepticism about the long-run effectiveness of “Twitter Revolts” as a mechanisms for change. I’m still doing some thinking and writing but I wanted to do a quick post with these two stories and links.

And leave with a question, was the American Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War primarily the result of increased media coverage transmitted via television?

I imagine many thought this at the time, and I remember during college reading about the increased use of television coverage and its effect on support for the Vietnam War.  However, today, I rarely if ever hear anyone say that television, another form of media, brought about a revolution in America.  My gut tells me that in time, the story of social media bringing about current revolts in North Africa and the Middle East will fade as researchers begin examining and identifying other stronger correlates for today’s uprisings.  More to come……

Continuing Cascade: Libya, Yemen, Syria

The cascading calls for revolution continue.  Waq al Waq noted the third consecutive day of major resignations of Yemeni political and military officials shifting support to the opposition.   Syria aggressively quashed protests today.

Yemen and Syria appear to be a natural evolution of events initiated in Tunisia.  However, most specialists of Syria and Yemen suggest that these revolutions, while inspired by previous North African uprisings, have progressed in parallel based on their own unique path.

I posit an alternative hypothesis.  Protests continue spreading as a result of positive momentum and key tipping points achieved in each successful uprising thus far.

For Tunisia, protests began from a young vendor setting himself on fire and spread locally during the first few days.  The tipping point occurred when news of this vendor’s plight spread via social media inspiring many Tunisians to revolt.

For Egypt, protests carried on for days with the Egyptian military swaying in the balance.  Mubarak’s initial defiance to remain in power dealt a huge blow to opposition protesters.  However, a key tipping point occurred when the Egyptian government released the Google dude who then gave a passionate television interview and public speech.  The next day protesters returned to the streets in mass and with vigor.

For Libya, protests have led to violent conflict.  Rebel groups initially shocked the ruling regime only to be squelched when Gaddafi doubled down with air power and mercenaries.  On the brink of collapse, the West institutes and enforces a No Fly Zone stopping the Libyan military march on the outside of Benghazi allowing opposition rebels to regroup.  Will this be the tipping point that leads to Gaddafi’s fall and yet another wave of upstart protests?

Absent a No Fly Zone in Libya, one would assume the absolute defeat of the rebels within days.  Bahrain’s opposition appears to have been crushed.  So, while I respect that events in Yemen and Syria maintain their own unique dynamics, I do wonder if the Western implementation of a No Fly Zone didn’t guarantee another round of revolution for which the West must now negotiate.  If uprisings in Libya and Bahrain failed, would we see such vigorous protesting in Yemen and Syria today?

Policy makers must wonder if every time they support a democratic uprising they are only inspiring additional rapid uprisings requiring attention.  Eventually, the West and especially the U.S. will get uprising fatigue (and BTW, there is Japanese Earthquake, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, economic stimulus, all going on at the same time).  So a quick poll for those interested:

[poll id="10"]

[poll id="11"]

Poll: The Future of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia

The waves of democratic euphoria sweeping North Africa and the Middle East appear to have peaked. Protests continue in many places but most have settled into a general state of mild uncertainty.

Tunisia’s uprising shows signs of true revolutionary change, but there is still a long way to go. (The 60 Minutes clip shows a protester taking a post in the new Tunisian government and finding some stiff challenges)

Egypt seems like it could go either way.  I hear the talk of elections. But, will those elections only bring another oppressive regime or a military coup?

Libya seems to be the least certain.  Gaddafi’s forces continue to advance east led by unchecked air power.  However, the Libyan opposition appears more organized than other movements (at least militarily); challenging Gaddafi forces initially before being overwhelmed by air power.

I have some opinions, but I thought I’d throw this out as a poll to see what people think about the future of democracy in North Africa.

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

Protests & Foreign Fighter Records

I’ve written in the past about foreign fighters and their choice to be either a ‘Martyr’ or ‘Fighter’ upon arrival in Iraq.  I’ve argued that ‘Fighter’ recruits have a higher tendency to return to their source country while ‘Martyr’ (suicide bombers) recruits do not intend to return home for obvious reasons. My theory is that ‘Fighter’ recruits come from cities and neighborhoods with a history of local rebellion and a culture of resistance.  I glanced at Figure 4 (below) and noticed that the largely ‘Fighter’ countries were Algeria, Yemen, and Tunisia.  Interesting that these three countries have had significant protests recently.  Meanwhile, the largely ‘Martyr’ countries (Saudi Arabia, Libya, Morocco, Syria) have seen little to no protests.

I don’t think the protests have anything to do with foreign fighters.  Instead, I think the protests once again illustrate those countries with an internal propensity for rebellion (‘Fighter’ countries) and those countries with particularly oppressive security environments (‘Martyr’ countries).

The good news-protests have begun to change the political landscape in North Africa. The bad news- countries experiencing protests likely have experienced foreign fighters from Iraq poised to derail democratic efforts.

The Weakness of Twitter Revolts

Recent protests in Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen demonstrate the remarkable power of social media to spread messages, create transparency and incite protest. Satellite TV news, Internet access, and social media applications like Facebook and Twitter swiftly empowered weak movements into mass demonstrations.

Building protests in more than five countries and two regions in less than a week was impossible twenty years ago. From the 1960s through the 1980s, limited information access and haphazard distribution meant political and social movements moved slowly, but deliberately. Building and sustaining a revolutionary social movement took time and leadership.  (The American Civil Rights Movement is one example).

Today, instantaneous transmission of injustices inspires protest at light speed empowering everyone with a cell phone or Internet connection into the streets and onto rallies challenging unjust governments. While the speed and proliferation of these “Twitter Revolts” are impressive, I believe the old, slow-build grass roots efforts will ultimately achieve more revolutionary change than today’s social media phenomenon.

I’m hopeful that these protest increase freedom, political rights and civil liberties in these countries. But, I’m a little nervous when I watch what is happening. I’m not part of these revolutions and rely on others (AlwaysJudgedGuilty, WaqalWaq, Sahelblog, MoorNextDoor) for explanation of country specific events. Here’s why I’m worried about “Twitter Revolts”:

1- Advantages of vertical versus horizontal organizing
Twitter revolts are great.  A large-scale, rapid presence in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Tehran looks amazing on cable news and illustrates mass unrest. These protests can result in the resignation of leaders in the most successful case (Tunisia). But usually, Twitter and social media is shut down; stopping the mob’s gains. Unable to organize and lacking central leadership, the uprising slows and eventually dies (Iran). The Twitter Revolt is great at achieving the immediate objective of getting people to protest, but it falls far short of the ultimate objective of political change. Because there is no clear vertical organization underneath the “Twitter Revolt”, the movement loses steam as no one is quite sure what the next step is.

Even if the oppressive leader resigns, what is the next step for the Twitter Revolt? Who’s in charge? What is the agenda? How is progress made? How do we work together to advance civil liberties? How do we hold together an already fragile economy?  In a horizontal Twitter movement, there is no direction and thus uprisings fail to achieve revolutionary change.

But what about President Obama’s campaign in 2008?
Yes, social media successfully elevated the Obama message and inspired others into action. But, an organized, political campaign machine complimented this social media movement resulting in increased fervor via the web achieving intermediate and long-term goals outlined by the structure. Today’s “Twitter Revolts” appear to lack that synergy.

2-Importance of commitment above participation
I’m impressed by the “Twitter Revolt” ability to gain participation from a wide swath of people. However, I estimate that a “Twitter Revolt” has no more than a week to begin achieving clear, initial objectives before the crowd begins to fade. It’s challenging to stay motivated and continue protesting much more than a week if it only leads to chaos, insecurity, and economic deprivation. That’s when vertical, physical organizations rise above “Twitter Revolts”. Friendships built from common suffering and commitment to defined goals can compel protesters to remain in the streets after the Internet momentum is gone. In Egypt for example, should the government collapse, I would guess the Muslim Brotherhood would be the victors, not because they led the “Twitter Revolt”, but because they were organized and committed.

3- Social media provides a platform for the oppressed to speak out and the government to identify resistance.

Social media is great for expressing one’s opinions. However, Iran demonstrated to the world that Internet postings and Tweets also mark dissidents. Middle East and North African governments monitor the Internet and use it as a tool for rapidly identifying and snuffing out resistance. In the end, social media brings the rapid rise and possibly the rapid fall of potential new leaders.