For the Media, “Sunni Militant = Al Qaeda Linked”

I’ve been slow the past few weeks in posts and have a bunch of short notes and quips for the next couple of weeks.  After three weeks of no writing, what sprung me back to write a post, not al Qaeda, but instead mainstream media.
Despite what one might hear on the news, al Qaeda, as of today, consists of many things rather than just one thing.  Cable news shows and major newspapers cling to the hope that all terrorism attacks are the result of al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is a known quantity to viewers/readers and framing news stories as battles between the U.S. vs. al Qaeda makes for better narratives.  The news business is about maximizing readers and viewers to increase views to advertising.  Whether its al Qaeda or some other threat, it pays to consolidate threats rather than muddle them. The most important terrorism related story of last week was the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.  The Abdallah Azzam Brigades took credit for the attack and this is where I start getting worked up.  CNN says:

a Sunni jihadist group linked to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the bombings via Twitter.

Really, this was an al Qaeda attack then? And we know because of Twitter? ugh! This sort of threat conflation can leave the average reader to think “Al Qaeda attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.”  Its a casual linkage but the article then continues on and revisits the Abdallah Azzam Brigade much later citing other attacks they were involved in, but the article leaves me confused. (For a more expansive reading on AAB, see this Lucas Winter report at FMSO) I think this confusion over a relatively unknown group resulted in the story quickly drifting from the headlines despite being quite important. For more than a decade, media outlets have decided for the public without much examination that all Sunni militant groups, large and small, are part of al Qaeda. No doubt, if one looks, Back-To-Bin Laden linkages can be made between all groups. Why should we be concerned by this? I think there are several reasons.

  • If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, it would be a big deal.  Chances are that al Qaeda Central led by Zawahiri are not attacking Iran as Zawahiri recently, publicly told al Qaeda members to put aside local enemies to focus on the far enemy; the West.
  • If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, Al Qaeda would be shifting their targeting from the U.S. to Iran and provoking a major local power to counter them.  This would increase the number of actors and forces countering their actions.  At a time where AQ Central sees lots of opportunities in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, why would they bring more heat on themselves?  Zawahiri has warned al Qaeda in Iraq about this before. If al Qaeda as a whole were attacking Iran instead of the U.S., this could possibly be a good thing for the U.S. depending on where you sit.  But this article’s threat conflation might lead you to think something else.
  • This attack likely signals further fracturing of al Qaeda rather than consolidation of al Qaeda.  If AAB, which does have links to al Qaeda by the way, were attacking the Iranian Embassy, it likely means they are not following Zawahiri’s guidance – another important development.  As I noted a couple years ago, many of these al Qaeda veterans are “On Your Own” pursuing their own objectives first and al Qaeda’s objectives second.
  • This media linkage to al Qaeda also masks what is essentially a shift from global jihad to a multi-country sectarian war.  This is important, but in a very different way than we’ve come to know in the post 9-11 period.
  • This attack may signal a further rise of al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS) who has expanded significantly into Syria, rebuffed Zawahiri and would likely take the fight in a sectarian direction.  I don’t know that AAB is aligned with ISIS and I imagine if it were this would be a partnering rather than hierarchical relationship.  But from this article, again, you would think this is all just “al Qaeda”.

I’ll stop for now as tomorrow’s post will point to an article that I think helps illuminate these nuances and presents a more robust view of the current state of al Qaeda.



Strange “al Qaeda in Iran” supported plot disrupted in Canada

Yesterday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested two men for plotting to attack the VIA rail line between Canada and the U.S. That two men would be plotting an al Qaeda type attack isn’t surprising. Nor is it surprising that the RCMP would arrest them only a week after the Boston Marathon bombing.  I imagine any agency investigating terrorism right now that has any credible threat does not want to be sitting on their hands waiting to see if their subjects will speed up their terrorist planning in copycat style.  No one wants to be part of the counterterrorism investigative element that has an attack occur immediately following the Boston Bombing.  I’d guess we’ll see lots of rapid disruptions after Boston.  To the public, don’t freak out. When you see these arrests and disruptions, its more CYA (Cover Your Ass) than increased threat – the threat is relatively constant over time.

The curious part of the Canadian arrests was the al Qaeda connections were not with any familiar al Qaeda affiliate.

Assistant RCMP Commissioner James Malizia, the officer in charge of federal policing operations, said the plot was supported by “Al Qaeda elements in Iran.”  He also said that Al Qaeda provided “direction and guidance” to the alleged plot….”Current and former US officials said that the group, known to US investigators as the Al Qaeda “Management Council,” was kept more or less under control by the Iranian government, which viewed it with suspicion.”

Iran? Yes! Occasionally, I’ve discussed here at this blog the uncertain nature of al Qaeda’s position and role in Iran. Last summer, I wondered about an al Qaeda wild card in Iran.

“The Iran wild card: For many years, rumors of Iranian involvement and maybe conflict with al-Qaeda have persisted. Some senior al-Qaeda leaders, most notably Saif al-Adel, have allegedly been in a strange state of house arrest or operational support in Iran. Iran has always been a sly state sponsor of terrorist groups, both Sunni and Shia. If tensions were to arise between Iran and Israel or the U.S., would Iran seek to sustain al-Qaeda as a proxy? Analysts deliberating this issue may provide invaluable insights in the near future. “

But then just last month I had posted about the apprehension of Suleiman abu Ghaith, an old al Qaeda member seemingly expelled from Iran this year.  After this apprehension, I was thinking:

Well it seems my Iran wild card fears of summer 2012 may not be worthy of much attention.  If Suleiman was in fact the last al Qaeda member held by the IRGC, then, atleast on the surface, it would appear that Iran is not intending to use al Qaeda, a Sunni extremist group, as a strategic proxy against the West and Israel in the way that it backs other Sunni groups like Hamas.

Today, I’m not sure what to think.  But I do have lots of questions:

  • What was the Iranian State’s involvement in the AQ direction from Iran?  – Iran denies any involvement and I kind of think they probably had no involvement. But, maybe this is an underhanded proxy that Iran has decided to start leveraging.  I have no idea but will be interested to hear what surfaces.
  • What al Qaeda members are still in Iran? – The open source belief has generally been that Ghaith was one of the last al Qaeda guys hiding out in Iran. There are rumors of Saif al-Adel but as I referenced before, Vahid Brown had noted there may have been a prisoner swap some years back.
  • Why did al Qaeda choose to go through Iran to coordinate the attack planning? – My guess is that al Qaeda’s senior leaders in other locations may be too bogged down and monitored to effectively reach out to potential operatives in the West. So, maybe Iran is one of those places where al Qaeda thought they could slip by Western CT and coordinate a plot?  If that was their thinking, I guess they are wrong.
  • What’s with Canada? – In recent months, Canadians have been popping up all over in terrorism related issues.  Two Canadian attackers at the In Amenas attack in Algeria, recruits to al Shabaab in Somalia, now this.  What is the deal Canada? We here in the U.S. enjoy taking your best performing actors and singers, but not your terrorists.


More details on old al Qaeda dudes leaving Iran

For those interested in last week’s post about the recent revelations of Suleiman Abu Ghaith allegedly being the last old al Qaeda guy to leave Iran, Mr. Flaneur (@flaneuresque) provided some perspective on what has been going on with Ghaith in Turkey.  Here is an excerpt of his comment (at this link) and make sure to check it out if you want some different perspective on why Ghaith landed in Turkey.

Abu Ghaith was brought to Turkey with an Iranian national and resided in a hotel in turkish capital, Ankara. Then he was left at the hotel -as far as I remember it was Sheraton Hotel- by the iranian national at the hotel room. After a while, he went out to find a place to eat something. The hotel is in close proximity to the Ankara’s fancy, luxurious neighborhood Tunalı Hilmi Avenue and there he was arrested by Turkish Intelligence Agency after a long surveillance…

What’s with the old al Qaeda guys leaving Iran?

Last summer when writing an assessment of the state of al Qaeda, I concluded with a few thoughts on things to look for in the future.  One of the questions I’ve had for some time is what happened to the old al Qaeda guys that sought refuge in Iran – a wild card scenario I did not want to forget about in 2012:

“The Iran wild card: For many years, rumors of Iranian involvement and maybe conflict with al-Qaeda have persisted. Some senior al-Qaeda leaders, most notably Saif al-Adel, have allegedly been in a strange state of house arrest or operational support in Iran. Iran has always been a sly state sponsor of terrorist groups, both Sunni and Shia. If tensions were to arise between Iran and Israel or the U.S., would Iran seek to sustain al-Qaeda as a proxy? Analysts deliberating this issue may provide invaluable insights in the near future. “

Recently, some movement of al Qaeda folks out of Iran has surfaced in open source media.  The most important figure to allegedly take refuge in Iran was Saif al-Adel – the interim head of al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death and a highly capable, former Egyptian military officer who has been an instrumental military commander for al Qaeda over the years.  Vahid Brown provided an amazing story at Jihadica detailing how Adel was possibly exchanged in a prisoner swap between Iran and al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2009.  If true, the movement of Adel back into Pakistan would be extremely valuable to an al Qaeda in short supply of veteran leadership.

More recently, Asharq al-Awsat reported that Bin Laden’s son-in-law and one time al Qaeda spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, had arrived from Turkey after leaving Iran.  The report notes:

“Sources close to the Bin Laden family informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Suleiman is a Kuwaiti national and the husband of Fatima Bin Laden, who is currently present in Saudi Arabia. The source added that Suleiman had intended to seek political asylum in Turkey…..The source confirmed that Suleiman is the “final remnant” of the branch of the Bin Laden family that was being held under house arrest by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).”

Suleiman was last seen at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan before heading to Iran.MAN IDENTIFIED AS AL QAEDA SPOKESMAN ABU GHAITH APPEARS IN NEWLY RELEASED VIDEO.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith was quoted as saying, “The actions by these young men who destroyed the United States and launched the storm of planes against it have done a good deed. They transferred the battle into the US heartland. Let the United States know that with God’s permission, the battle will continue to be waged on its territory until it leaves our lands, stops its support for the Jews, and lifts the unjust embargo on the Iraqi people who have lost more than one million children.”

Just this past week, the always insightful @abususu tweeted that Suleiman had in fact arrived in Kuwait – according to jihadi forums.

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 10.07.27 PM

So what does all this mean?

  • Well it seems my Iran wild card fears of summer 2012 may not be worthy of much attention.  If Suleiman was in fact the last al Qaeda member held by the IRGC, then, atleast on the surface, it would appear that Iran is not intending to use al Qaeda, a Sunni extremist group, as a strategic proxy against the West and Israel in the way that it backs other Sunni groups like Hamas.
  • I wonder if the release of Suleiman and other al Qaeda members has some connection to the emerging proxy battle brewing between the IRGC and al Qaeda linked al Nusra Front in Syria?  I’m guessing there is no way to know but the recent movement of Suleiman is quite curious.  Stays in Iran for more than a decade and suddenly decides to leave?  What’s up?

“If Iran Did It….” by Knowledge Ninja Ostovar

Today, certified Knowledge Ninja Afshon Ostovar published a highly needed article on Iran, Hezballah and the recent spate of plots and attacks around the globe.  I’ve been hoping @aostovar would publish something and today he delivered with this article at Foreign Policy entitled “If Iran Did It“.  I just finished reading it and I encourage all those trying to get up to speed on a new era of potential Iranian state sponsored terrorism.  Here’s an excerpt:

It’s been a busy 12 months for the Islamic Republic. Together, the foiled assassination plot against a Saudi diplomat in the United States, bombing attempts in Georgia, India, and Thailand, as well as the arrests of Iranians in Kenya, Azerbaijan, and a possible Hezbollah operative in Cyprus, suggest that Iran’s once relatively cautious approach to covert activity may be giving way to a more hot-blooded, aggressive strategy driven by Iran’s hawkish military leaders.

Ostovar provides much needed context as to why Iran has pumped up its recent activity stating:

Terrorism by proxy affords Iran the only retaliatory option that does not necessarily bring it to or past the brink of war. And it’s an area where Iran has plenty of experience, relying on both its successes in Iraq and its handful of well-known previous operations in cultivating the reputation as an effective covert actor outside its borders.

A great read and check it out at this link.

When Should Israel Bomb Iran? Debate Over Pre-empting Iran’s Nuclear Development

One can always tell when its an election year as the rhetoric related to Iran hits a fevered pitch.  Rather than discuss the two wars (Iraq & Afghanistan) the U.S. has been fighting for more than a decade, political debate has recently focused intently on Iran’s development of uranium in the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.  These discussions consistently debate one issue: when should Israel (or even the U.S.) bomb Iran to prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapon?  Rarely do politicians or the media address the validity of the assumptions surrounding this question. Why is it unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon when countries like North Korea have one?  What does the West think would happen if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon?  Why is a nuclear armed Iran considered irrational while a highly volatile and partially unstable Pakistan considered a secure home for nuclear weapons?  I could go on forever, but I won’t.  I’ll instead hope that increasing levels of tough talk will subside as the U.S. Presidential election year passes.

Last night, to my surprise, 60 Minutes broadcast a reasonable interview on the topic from a highly informed Israeli source; ex-Chief of Mossad Meir Dagan. Dagan explains in the interview that a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran would be counterproductive and instead recommends that the international community continue to pursue sanctions. Dagan also suggests the best way to facilitate regime change in Iran is internally – by fomenting revolution via Iran’s next generation – rather than externally through an Israeli or Western invasion. Here’s the video and it’s worth a listen.

Decapitating Revolutionary Leaders via Twitter

During the Arab Spring, several comments countered my skepticism of how much revolution was actually being achieved in places like Egypt.  I had several reasons for my skepticism, one of them being:

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.

So it was with close attention I keyed on the recent NPR report entitled “The Technology Helping Repressive Regimes Spy.  The interview of journalist Ben Elgin and his Bloomberg series “Wired for Repression” explores how countries like Iran and Syria use new technology, largely made in the West, to identify and quell young revolutionaries on social media.  Elgin explains how:

“[One Iranian engineer] became caught up in the protest movements after the election of 2009 and he was arrested. He was beaten and put into prison and interrogated 14 times over 50 days,” Elgin says. “During these interrogations, not only was he presented with [his] text message transcripts; he was presented with a very sophisticated diagram of who he had called, and then who those people had called. And he was interrogated on every connection within his network of contacts.”

The era of social revolutions inspired by Twitter and Facebook (I should say enabled, not inspired) will likely end soon.  As seen in a typical arc of innovation, a technological advantage achieved by a revolutionary adversary is quickly countered by a new technological defense – providing sufficient resources exist by a regime to develop/acquire needed surveillance technology.

In line with my previous thinking on the weakness of Twitter revolts, I find this new information technology (IT) enabled leadership decapitation particularly troubling in several ways.

  • While Twitter uprisings can be rapid, new IT surveillance tools also mean revolutionary leaders with some gravity can be more rapidly identified as well.  A regime used to have to wait and assess the leader’s following and try to pin down where the leader operates, etc.  In the old days, it was challenging to even confirm identity.  Social media makes all of this much easier for repressive regimes.  Not only can you pinpoint virtual rebel leader locations, you can also find one or many photos identifying the upstart.
  • If a revolutionary blogger/Tweeter is captured, tortured and killed for inciting unrest and no one knows about it, did it even happen?  Much like the “tree falls in the woods” conundrum, social media revolutionaries are isolated from others.  While anonymity initially empowered Twitter uprisings, this same isolation now makes virtual leaders ever more vulnerable.  Oppressive regimes can snatch up a blogger/Tweeter and eliminate them without many fellow opposition members even knowing – especially since virtual revolutionaries often don’t know their leaders in person.  Unlike the days of Martin Luther King where he was surrounded by supporters, virtual rebel leaders operate alone and often die that way too.  When regimes physically target revolutionary leaders surrounded by their followers, the backlash can further empower the revolution.  Meanwhile virtual rebel leaders can be eliminated and most times (not all) no one even knows who the virtual leader was or that he/she is gone.  Likewise, it’s difficult to become reinvigorated and fight harder against oppression for a compatriot you’ve never actually met in person. Note, I say harder but not impossible.
  • The last implication is for Western social media users.  In the past year, it’s been quite popular for Western Twitter users to retweet the plight of virtual uprisings amidst the Arab Spring.  However, Westerners empowering the leaders of virtual rebellion should tread cautiously.  Oppressive regimes will look to snuff out all rebel Twitter leaders but the first targeted will likely be those gaining Western attention.  Oppressive dictators quelling uprisings fear Western support of Arab revolutions more than the revolutionaries themselves.  Thus, Westerners re-tweeting Arab Spring Tweets (something I’m guilty of BTW) should ask themselves, “when I retweet the plight of Arab Spring Tweeters, am I helping spread word of their cause or am I more likely to be painting a bullseye on someone’s back.”  I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m fairly sure I’ll keep retweeting. But, I’m starting to wonder if I’m doing more harm than good.