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.

stateofplay8

More Benghazi: Was it al Qaeda or not? Who do you believe?

Fifteen months of relentless investigation into the death of U.S. Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 has turned up no discernible answer as to what happened that night.  One story was the attack occurred as a result of a protest over an insulting video that turned into an all out assault.  The other story claimed al Qaeda must have master-minded an intricate attack on the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Most Americans chose their story of choice long ago and waited on their respective media outlets to piece together the necessary facts to support specified political agendas. After Lara Logan broadcast a completely erroneous “al Qaeda did Bengahazi” story, I had hoped this whole episode would just go away.  But no, The New York Times  just published the results of their 15-month investigation and concluded:

“Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”

So, the NYTimes says that the attack in Benghazi was basically what was briefed by the Obama administration right after the attack occurred?  What? I don’t think we will ever really know all the details about what happened nor ever have a complete handle on who and or what was responsible for the attack.  More importantly, who should we believe?  But here is a quote from the article that really stuck with me:

“The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests……The fixation on Al Qaeda might have distracted experts from more imminent threats. Those now look like intelligence failures.”

Whether you like the NYTimes or hate the NYTimes, this article is an excellent read and the layout is well worth checking out.  Wow, Lara Logan, you outta check out how they do journalism.

  • Again, What is al Qaeda? – As I have pushed since the beginning of the post-Bin Laden era, we in the United States and in particular our members in Congress have no real sense of what al Qaeda is.  I wrote What if there is no al Qaeda? specifically for this reason noted in the NYTimes story.  There are lots of militant groups around the world which host members that fought in Iraq or Afghanistan or support jihadi ideology.  But that doesn’t mean they are all part of al Qaeda -

“But the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with Al Qaeda’s international terrorist network. The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of Al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.”

I had discussed this as a possibility here in September 2012 immediately following the Benghazi attack, “Pundits Seeking al Qaeda Connection To Libya Violence”.  Here were my reasons on September 21, 2012 for why I didn’t think the Benghazi attack was an al Qaeda attack:

Here are my reasons for why I don’t believe this is a global al Qaeda plot nor a sign of a “rising al Qaeda”. Instead, I feel the attack in Libya represents the problems with a weak Libya security environment, the availability of soft American targets and the emergence of a new threat environment the U.S. has not properly assessed.  If this were a real al Qaeda plot typical of past events, I would have expected:

  • …a very public media announcement from al Qaeda coinciding with the attack.  If really planned far in advance, I’d expect all jihadi media outlets would have received a prepared announcement of considerable scale timed for release shortly after the attack.  The videos and announcements I’ve seen thus far and the alleged reprisal for the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi all seem haphazardly put together at the last minute trying to exploit the unexpected success of a meeting engagement.  Preparing and distributing these messages take weeks in preparation.  I imagine there will be AQ propaganda in the coming weeks taking credit for this.  If Zawahiri publishes a video in two weeks taking credit for the Consulate attack, you’ll know he wasn’t even in on it – he’s just reacting.  In fact, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is trying to distance itself from the attacks.  It doesn’t mean they are innocent, but its not very like al Qaeda.

  • …the group would have tried to take the Ambassador alive, taken the body or staged a public execution.  I’m not convinced they even knew the Ambassador was there or that he had died.  It’s possible they did, but I’m not convinced yet. Hopefully the investigation will yield more clarity on this.  The kidnapping of a U.S. Ambassador would have been far more devastating to the U.S.  Sadly, this attack suggests that had they planned a kidnapping, they might have been able to pull it off.

  • …the attack to be quite a bit more sophisticated.  The reports I’ve read make it seem fairly straight forward – a rapid attack on known locations following a diversion.  Bigger, planned AQ attacks tend to hit public targets in high profile ways exploiting the media potential of the event.  While this was an unfortunate success for the perpetrators, I think a well planned AQ attack would have actually been much more successful from AQ’s perspective and more devastating to the West.

  • …they would have filmed the attack.  AQ attacks are often filmed by AQ members for their media value and then quickly posted online.  I’m sure this attack was filmed in parts but not in a pre-planned way to exploit it for media value.

Overall, we’ve really learned very little from Benghazi, because even today, we are approaching every threat abroad as if it is 9/11/2001 version of al Qaeda.  Things have changed.  A separate article today from CNN says the U.S. is sending drones and missiles to fight al Qaeda in Iraq.  But this is misleading, as al Qaeda in Iraq is now also known as ISIS and their leader al-Baghdadi has publicly rebutted al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Does that really make ISIS just “al Qaeda”?  What a mess?  How can we defeat our enemies when we don’t really know who we are fighting?  I’m sure some in government understand the distinction, but the general public is being misled.

  • al Qaeda is one of many jihadi threats, not the only jihadi threat – al Qaeda retains strength in certain locales around the world.  But these strong ties come from personal connections with their core foreign fighter leadership.  As I’ve discussed in other posts, there are “Old Guard” al Qaeda members and new upstarts and they don’t all get along.  Al Qaeda, despite what the U.S. media will try to convince you, is not all powerful, nor is it only one thing. Al Qaeda has struggled to corral the plurality of jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq and as noted in the NYT piece has struggled in Libya as well.

“Al Qaeda was having its own problems penetrating the Libyan chaos. Three weeks after the attack, on Oct. 3, 2012, leaders of the group’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, sent a letter to a lieutenant about efforts to crack the new territory. The leaders said they had sent four teams to try to establish footholds in Libya. But of the four, only two in the southern Sahara “were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there,” the letter said.”

  • I still think we are missing something –  The NYTimes reporting is impressive, but I have a feeling we are missing something, probably at higher levels of classification and investigation. So when will the next rounds of leaks start – I assume the Republicans and “al Qaeda did Benghazi” folks are desperately scrambling around to get someone to leak some details supporting their side.  So in a few days, maybe we’ll know more.  But even when we get it, will we be able to believe it?  And will there just be more come out supporting the opposing argument later?

On September 13, 2012, I posted this survey question as a scenario of what might have been the threat that attacked the compound in Benghazi.  If interested, take the survey and see how your opinion compares to others.  Is this al Qaeda?

“In the hypothetical scenario described below, would you call the following group “al Qaeda” or an “al Qaeda affiliate”?  A simple yes or no answer.  After you vote, you’ll see the results of everyone that chimed in.
Would you consider the following hypothetical group of armed men to be “al Qaeda?”

  • A group of heavily armed men occupy a remote area in an African/Middle Eastern/South Asian country.
  • 95% or more of the groups’ members are local people from the country where the terror group resides.
  • The group publicly states their intent to institute governance by Sharia law.
  • 2-3% of the group’s members served as foreign fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 fighting in coordination with al Qaeda, the Taliban or al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • The group calls itself “Ansar al (fill in the blank)” or “Lashkar e (fill in the blank)” but don’t mention al Qaeda in their name.
  • Some of the groups’ spokesmen, at some point in the past, have publicly praised Osama Bin Laden.
  • It is completely unclear whether any of the group’s members have publicly declared bay’a (allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
  • The group records videos of its attacks.  At times, these videos show up on jihadi web forums.  At times, these videos randomly show up on YouTube.
  • The group’s funding streams remain unclear.  News reports of unknown reliability claim the group gets some funding from kidnapping & local extortion and some from Persian Gulf donations.

 

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

From AQIM in the Sahel to Shabaab in the Horn, al Qaeda Affiliates Squabble & Fracture

Well, it seems al Qaeda has found some cracks in its foundation.  For those that believe al Qaeda’s ideology is all powerful, please read below.

The Associated Press released yet another internal document from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  This document dated October 3, 2012 details the break off of Moktar Belmoktar. Yet again, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate crumbling from internal disputes. Just like Omar Hammami’s complaints about Shabaab’s taxation policy with regards to qat, AQIM and Belmoktar quibbled about ransoms and money.  With respect to Belmoktar (aka Abu Abbas in the letter), AQIM’s Shura Council has many sharp words and accusations, noting:
The man, based on the loftiness of his ability, his precedence in jihad and his prowess, remained for more than a decade independent in opinion and autonomous in decisionmaking, linked to the organization’s leadership only by slogan. He paid no mind, gave no consideration, did not abide by and did not adhere to the principle of “hear and obey,” nor did he stick to the directives or work by the orders coming from the emirate….all tho is testimony to the fact that Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone, and that he is satisfied only when followed and obeyed.
Essentially, Belmoktar never really was a team player.  It seems Belmoktar followed the O.Y.O. (On Your Own) way of business I suggested last year.
The organization paid particular attention to this abduction because of the nature of the Canadian captives – one of them was the personal representative of the U.N. Secretary General.  We strove to give htis case an international dimension.  We tried to coordinate with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan - (AQ Central)]. But unfortunately, we met the obstacle of Khaled.  Rather than walking with us in the plan we outlined, he managed the case however he liked, despite our repeated insistence that the case should be under the administration of the organization.  He chose to step outside the organization and reach an agreement in his own way, he did not follow the organization’s instructions.
Moktar Belmoktar

Moktar Belmoktar

So AQIM was trying to coordinate the high level Canadian kidnapping with AQ Central. Not only did Belmohtar blow off AQIM, he ransomed too low in the eyes of the AQIM leadership. After this, AQIM accuses Belmoktar of not pulling off any high visibility attacks.  I think the An Amenas gas plant and now Niger suicide bombings must make up for that.  I guess Belmokhtar got the message and maybe this letter motivated him.

It also seems that Belmokhtar is a “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” kind of guy.

Why do you only turn on your phone with the Emirate when you need it, while your communication with some media is almost never ending!

And Belmokhtar didn’t turn his TPS reports in on time!
We ask you also: How many administrative and financial reports have you sent up to your Emirate?

More importantly, this letter suggests 1) Belmokhtar desired to setup a separate and independent communications channel with AQ Central- Zawahiri and certain al Qaeda web forums (Maybe he did?!) and 2) AQIM struggled to maintain contact and receive guidance from a bottled up AQ Central in AFPAK (Presumably getting droned to death).

Our dear brothers, we find it a strange contradiction in your message, that idea of separating from the leadership of the Islamic Maghreb and instead connecting with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan]. The great obstacles between us and the central leadership are not unknown to you.  They are far greater than any obstacles imaginable with the closer, local leadership that borders you.  For example, since we vowed our allegiance up until this very day, we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan, the two sheikhs, bin Laden (God rest his soul) and Ayman (God preserve him). From time to time, we also received messages from the two sheikhs Attiyat Ullah (Attiyah) and Abu Yahia al-Libi (God rest their souls). All this, despite our multiple letters to them for them to deal with us effectively in managing jihad here.

Last year, I noted that:

Jihadi militant group leaders have now entered the “O.Y.O.” era – On Your Own.  Militant groups are rebuilding, consolidating, finding new bases of support and new financial backers. …An upstart militant group leader .. competing for funding and popular support amongst a sea of militant groups has no reason to wait for a far off al Qaeda leader (Zawahiri for example), whom they likely don’t even know nor receive any funding from, to issue orders about who to attack.

Well, this AQIM letter confirms some of the challenges the group faced during its height noted in the first AP letter published a few months back.

We only bring this up so that our brothers understand that the idea of adhering to the central leadership rather than the local leadership is not realistic.

One more key note, the letter does confirm that there were, at a minimum, some loose connections between AQIM and other militant groups in Libya.

Two others were formed in the Sahara, under the Tareq bin Zayed Brigade.  They were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there.  Their projects are still active to this day.

It seems like Belmokhtar tried to set up his own links in Libya separate from those of AQIM.  Again, I always caution, don’t overstate “links”. It seems both Belhmoktar and AQIM wanted to bring the AQ militant elements in Libya under their influence.  But, maybe the Libyan groups didn’t/don’t want to be subordinate to AQIM? Maybe they, like Belmokhtar, would like to have their own channel to AQ Central? If you are Ansar al-Sharia or some other element in Libya, why fall under the direction of AQIM; a group that is already struggling to stay in touch with AQ central?

Last quote, can’t resist this one.  It seems Belmokhtar didn’t like the restructuring of AQIM in 2006.  But AQIM noted this restructuring was because of:

the lowering number of mujahedeen and the widening territory in the north.

So when you see al Qaeda in more places or spread out geographically, it doesn’t always mean they are growing in strength.  It could mean the opposite.  And this may further illuminate the group’s decision to transform from GSPC and formally join al Qaeda – recruitment was down.

The entire letter is a fascinating primary document and again, like the earlier AP release of an AQIM letter, important for understanding what a post-Bin Laden al Qaeda looks like. The letter brings up several points for evaluating how terrorism may work in the future and what might happen “If there is no al Qaeda“.

  • The value of Bin Laden to al Qaeda:  For the second time in two years, we can see the value Bin Laden provided the Al Qaeda organization up until his death.  Bin Laden was hesitant, for good reasons, in having a formal relationship with Shabaab in Somalia.  After his death, Zawahiri pushed Al Qaeda into a formal alliance with Shabaab in 2012.  Al Qaeda Central now has an embarrassing affiliate with different factions fighting each other in the Horn Africa while also being on the retreat from Allied forces.  Ibrahim al-Afghani published an open plea to Zawahiri on a web page requesting the removal of Shabaab’s leader Godane – Zawahiri must be kicking himself.  Meanwhile, in the Sahara, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate where different leaders compete and quarrel over resources, strategic direction and access to AQ’s senior leader.  A Bin Laden led al Qaeda would not have this kind of public fracturing going on.  Bin Laden would have sent a message to these troubled subordinates – “Enough”.  And the affiliates would have listened because 1) Bin Laden maintained sustained communications up until his death 2) Bin Laden was central to the distribution of resources and 3) Bin Laden was respected for his successes.  This all leads to the next question…..
  • Is there really an al Qaeda Central and is Zawahiri really leading all these different groups?: I don’t doubt that Zawahiri still maintains public respect and that al Qaeda members will say they are loyal to him.  I also think Zawahiri has a command relationship in certain locales where he maintains physical relationships with old al Qaeda members, namely Egypt, possibly Yemen and some in Libya (Longer paper coming out on this in a while). But, if you are a young jihadi commander and, 1) you haven’t had any communication with Zawahiri in months, 2) you don’t receive any resources from AQ Central and you are entirely self-funded and 3) you only get guidance from AQ Central through intermediaries that you believe are incompetent, corrupt or both, why would you continue to wait on al Qaeda?  You probably wouldn’t! And I think that is what we see happening today in both the Sahel and Somalia.  Belmoktar has seized an opportunity to pursue his own “al Qaeda” vision and in Somalia we see Omar Hammami publicly and Ibrahim al-Afghani and Hassan Aweys more politically striking out on their own path.  Omar Hammami represents this confusion best, he wants to support AQ but he hates the local AQ leader (Godane) that he is supposed to follow. Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.07.53 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.11.02 AM
  • Resources can easily undermine ideology: In Africa, there’s more competition for resources and I’m not surprised this is where we see ideology being undermined by resource competition. In Somalia, there’s constant competition for resources, turf and control. Today, in Shabaab, Godane, Robow, Aweys and Afghani each try to morph al Qaeda’s ideology and brand to their advantage.  In the Sahara, we see something slightly different where kidnapping royalties and illicit smuggling revenues controlled by a leader like Belmoktar can increase his power vis-a-vis AQIM’s leadership.
  • Distance and limited communication breed mistrust: As the distance between al Qaeda’s affiliates and AQ’s central leadership increases and communication decreases, mistrust ensues.  Likewise, even the decentralized “Starfish” organization of al Qaeda needs leadership to achieve lasting gains.  Today, Belmoktar has solved al Qaeda’s “put up or shut up” problem.  With each spectacular attack, his influence grows.  Likewise, I would look to Jabhat al-Nusra today.  The most prolific leaders of the Syrian jihad will be the next leaders of Salafi-Jihadi militancy – something that looks “al Qaeda like” at times, but may be called something entirely different.
  • Is a live Zawahiri better than a dead Zawahiri?: Let me be clear, at the first available opportunity, I think the U.S. should kill or capture Zawahiri.  No doubt about it.  However, Zawahiri, despite being respected internationally for being a strategic thinker, might actually be preventing the emergence of the next, more effective version of al Qaeda.  Again, I don’t believe that Zawahiri is keeping a lid on violence, he needs an attack on the West in a big way in order to reassert his authority.  But, his intermittent and erratic communication with affiliates, loss of affiliate control and opportunistic piggy-backing on Jabhat al-Nusra’s success may actually be doing al Qaeda more harm than good.  I would imagine Zawahiri is plotting an attack on the West this minute and building a strategy to re-energize al Qaeda through Syria. But, his persistent involvement may actually be slowing the development of the next wave of Salafi-Jihadi militancy.

Ansar al Sharia’s Overt Support For Foreign Fighters in Iraq

Last night @azelin made an interesting discovery linking Ansar al Sharia in Libya with foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq.  See the post here.  Aaron spotted some Ansar al Sharia propaganda calling for the release of Libyan foreign fighters currently detained in Iraq.

A month ago, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Benghazi (The Supporters of Islamic Law; ASB), on its official Facebook page via its official media outlet al-Rayyah Foundation for Media Production uploaded a poster (see above) promoting a demonstration on Sunday December 16 in Tripoli and Benghazi

Aaron, with the help of Green Mountain, thought to compare the names and pictures of the detained Libyans with the Sinjar records of foreign fighters to Iraq.  Here’s what he found.

Two of the individuals also contained pictures in their Sinjar application for the Islamic State of Iraq. Below, you can see a comparison of the application photo from 2006 on the left and what I am assuming is a relatively recent photo of the same individual in Iraqi custody, which is from the above flier. There are slight differences due to aging and likely poor conditions in Iraqi prisons and the second picture looks closer in similarity to the before and after than the first one. For those reading, what do you think (leave a comment below)?

Check out his post and the pictures and see what you think.  Are these the same people?

Also of note this morning, Asher Berman of Syria Survey said there are other groups in Libya also supporting the release of these Libyan foreign fighters to Iraq.

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 8.35.39 AM

So what does all this mean?  Some will say this shows these Libyan groups are al Qaeda. Others will say just that it shows definitive support for global jihad. For me, I’ll wait and see what happens over the next few months.

If interested in looking at the translated foreign fighter records from Sinjar, see this link.  And if you want to just look at the coded names from this data, see this spreadsheet here.

 

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.

Are al Qaeda affiliates getting ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’? Poll results #9

On May 2, 2012, one year after the death of Osama Bin Laden, I asked the following question here at this blog:

Do you think the following al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates have become stronger or weaker over the past year? (Select ‘Stronger’ or ‘Weaker’ for each affiliate)

  • AQIM
  • AQ in East Africa/al Shabaab
  • AQAP in Yemen
  • AQ Central in Pakistan/Afghanistan
  • Emerging AQ affiliate in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia
  • AQ in Iraq
  • AQ in the Caucasus

In total, roughly 175 respondents answered this question between May 2, 2012 and the end of July 2012. The results of this question are really seven-fold as each al Qaeda affiliate was assessed independently. Below are the results of respondents’ collective assessments of each al Qaeda affiliate. I’ve showed an aggregated comparison of all respondent votes below in a chart. This compares the percentage of all votes for each al Qaeda affiliate.

Below this chart, I’ve compiled the votes of respondents into a table showing the break out of votes for each al Qaeda affiliate stratified across different demographic attributes.  During this past summer, respondents clearly rated AQAP in Yemen as ‘stronger’ at higher rates than any other affiliate. However, I wonder how they would rate AQAP in Yemen now, 6 months later?

AQAffiliates121612

Here are some points that I found interesting in the deeper examination of respondents’ votes across each al Qaeda affiliate.

  • AQIM

- ‘Government Non-Military’ voters and ‘Private Sector’ voters rated AQIM ‘stronger’ at lower levels then other professional groups.

- Again, those preferring ‘Social Media’ as their primary information source were the most likely to select AQIM as ‘stronger’.

  • AQ in East Africa/al Shabaab

- Again, ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were the least likely to select al Qaeda threats from the Horn of Africa as ‘stronger’. Meanwhile, ‘Private Sector’ voters switched and were more likely than most to select Shabaab as getting ‘stronger’. Is that the effect of lots of television news reports about the Shabaab merger with AQ Central during the February 2012 timeframe?

  • AQAP in Yemen

- During this survey, all groups thought AQAP was ‘stronger’. Students and Academics were most convinced that AQAP was ‘stronger’ while ‘Government Non-Military’ were the most skeptical of AQAP’s strength.

  • AQ Central in Pakistan/Afghanistan

- All groups seemed to think AQ Central was weaker a year after Bin Laden’s death. Academia is particularly down on AQ Central. But here’s where it gets weird, ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were more likely than other voters to believe that AQ Central is ‘stronger’ a year after Bin Laden’s death. The same group that was skeptical about AQIM, AQAP, and Shabaab is less skeptical about AQ Central.

- Television viewers were most likely of from information source to believe that AQ Central was ‘stronger’, although they were still less than 50% in this assessment.

  • Emerging AQ affiliate in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia

-  Voters were most undecided about the strength of al Qaeda in North Africa. 51% thought this emerging affiliate was ‘stronger’ and 49% thought this emerging affiliate was ‘weaker’. I wonder what the vote would be if I ran this in the week after the Benghazi attacks?

- A strange breakdown of this affiliate occurs with regards to information sources. Those preferring intelligence reports and newspapers believe this affiliate is ‘weaker’ but magazine readers were more likely to say ‘stronger’.

  • AQ in Iraq

- Overall, AQ in Iraq was assessed as ‘weaker’, but academics and those with PHD’s were more likely to select AQ in Iraq as ‘stronger’ a year after Bin Laden’s death.

  • AQ in the Caucasus

- The threat of al Qaeda in the Caucasus – does anyone really know anything about this threat – appears to be ‘weaker’ based on all votes, but social media watchers were the group most likely to select ‘stronger’.

Here are the breakdown charts by demographic group for each AQ affiliate assessed by voters.

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An Alternative for Drone Critics? – Rounding Up a Posse in Libya

An interesting and lightly covered issue this week is the new U.S. effort to build a militia in Libya to pursue jihadi militants.  Reuters reports that:

U.S. officials in Libya have begun to look for recruits for a commando force which they plan to train to fight militants, a former commander of Libyan rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi said on Tuesday.

Building, training and advising militias is a long time practice for most all governments that want to counter a far off enemy without deploying significant force.  Sometimes it goes well, as in the Mujahideen in the 1980′s. Other times, it doesn’t go so well, like when elements of the Mujahideen became al Qaeda in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s.  Proxy forces were used often during the Cold War by both sides with success cases and not-so-successful cases found throughout Asia, Africa and particularly Latin America.

A team of about 10 Americans from the embassy in Tripoli visited a paramilitary base in the eastern city of Benghazi 10 days ago to interview and get to know potential recruits, according to militia commander Fathi al-Obeidi.

the article continues noting…

Obeidi said the interviewers also took note of the types of uniforms the men were wearing and asked about their opinion on security in Libya.

He said that the team of American officials included current U.S. charge d’affaires Laurence Pope and the future head trainer of the Libyan special forces team.

“I’ve been asked to help pick about 400 of these young men between the ages of 19 and 25 to train for this force,” he said. “They could be trained either in Libya or abroad.”

The force may be required to fight jihadi militants like those accused in the September 11 assault on the consulate.

So, drone critics argue that drone targeting of our adversaries is wrong because it forgoes due process (law enforcement approach) and kills innocent people.  I’ve countered noting that all counterterrorism options create civilian casualties and law enforcement approaches are rarely feasible in the places where terrorists hide – weak and failed states of which Libya is one of many such locations.  I’m ok with building militias as long as the U.S. is willing to make a long-run management commitment to achieve its short-run objectives.  Arming and training militias is not a temporary activity.

Is building, arming and training militias acceptable to those that oppose the use of drones? I ask drone critics, if its not drones for engaging militants, then it will be something else – militias for example – that pursue our adversaries.  I’m assuming most drone critics would say we should give foreign aid, promote democracy and don’t back dictators, all noble endeavors, to defeat terrorists.  But do these actions actually deter or dismantle our terrorist adversaries?

I don’t see any evidence to support a buy-the-world-a-coke strategy in the near term.  While freedom and civil liberties correlate with lower levels of terrorism, achieving these principles across all current and potential terrorist safe havens sometime in the next 50 years will not deter terrorists plotting to kill Americans today.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t push for democracy and freedom, I absolutely think we should, but I don’t think for a second that democracy and freedom will do anything to thwart our terrorist adversaries today.

Bakos on Libya Attack – Good Read

Today, the Huffington Post published an article by @nadabakos on the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  Nada’s article, “Attack in Libya Represents Subtle But Meaningful Shift In Threat to American Interests“, provides a needed counterbalance to the hopped up politically charged and flawed al Qaeda analysis proliferating the media after the death of a U.S. Ambassador.

I enjoy Nada’s post and it mirrors in many places my own thoughts (here and here) on how we assess and move forward in a post-al Qaeda world.  In fact, it was a Twitter discussion with Nada that inspired the title of my article from July “What if there is no al Qaeda? Preparing for Future Terrorism.”  Here’s Nada’s conclusion and I encourage all seeking an al Qaeda explanation to all current and future violence in the Middle East and North Africa to take notes.

Going forward, the U.S. needs to embrace a new calculus for assessing and responding to these loosely affiliated networks and militias, and watch to make sure that they do not coalesce into a successor to the threat posed by al Qaeda at its zenith. The tactics used in Benghazi resemble those used by al Qaeda, but, smaller in scope and scale, and mainly threaten our interests and assets overseas. Our diplomatic presence in other countries has always served us well when it’s open and engaging, but, like any other deployment of U.S. national power, incurs a certain degree of necessary risk. Withdrawing from the world is every bit as implausible as treating every militia as if it is al Qaeda.

Ansar al-Sharia: “Know Your Cuts of Al Qaeda Meat”

Aaron Zelin (@azelin) just did a nice roundup of the various Ansar al-Sharia groups around North Africa and the Middle East confusing the “Who is al Qaeda?” question.

Following up on Joas Wagemakers nice Jihadica post “What’s in a name?”, Zelin provides a David Letterman-ish “Know Your Cuts Of Meat” round up of all the groups currently calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia. He also does the needed work of creating three-letter acronyms for each entity – a badge of honor in the CT world.

Here’s a snippet of Zelin’s analysis:

The rise of these Ansar al-Sharia groups points to an end of al Qaeda’s unipolar global jihad of the past decade and a return to a multipolar jihadosphere, similar to the 1990s. One key difference, however is that jihadi groups are now more ideologically homogenous — in the 1990s, jihadis thought locally and acted locally, while many now talk globally and act locally. These newer groups are also more interested in providing services and governance to their fellow Muslims.

Zelin’s article comes immediately after my own speculation about who is responsible for the Consulate attack in Libya.  The weakest analysis I’ve seen thus far has immediately chalked up the violence to an amorphous, undefined “al Qaeda.”  However, I think the past week’s outbreak represents the continued fragmentation of the security environment and an era where militant groups with no, some or lots of links to old “al Qaeda” are “On Your Own” (OYO era – see last post) to find their violent way forward.

Zelin notes:

Distinguishing between these differing groups is crucial for better understanding the new landscape of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the trajectory of new salafi-jihadi groups that are not necessarily beholden to al Qaeda’s strategies or tactics. Although there are no known formal or operational links between these disparate organizations, it is possible they may try to link up in the future based on ideological affinity and similar end goals. For now, though, conflating them would be premature.

I’m with him.  I’m not sure why we can’t analyze these emerging militant groups outside of an “everything is al Qaeda lens”.  Emerging militant groups may try coordinate with global al Qaeda, but they also can and will think for themselves, sometimes to their own detriment.  I’ve also not seen many note that the attack by potentially pseudo-autnomous al Qaeda/Ansar al-Sharia operatives may ultimately lead to their demise.  By conducting an opportunistic attack, a loose group of militants may have ultimately brought the wrath of a newly elected Libyan government that’s been itching to consolidate their power against a radical militant group or two.  The Libya attack also opens the door for the U.S. to justify limited, direct intervention in Libya – a counterattack I imagine none of the new upstart militant groups in Libya is particularly well prepared for.

Lastly, Zelin’s post provides needed background for assessing future extremism emerging throughout North Africa and the Middle East.  Properly identifying our enemies will be of prime importance moving forward.  Of course, this is complicated by the competing incentives for each actor to call or not call a group al Qaeda.  I’ll repost my “Who should we call al Qaeda?” conclusion chart here.

Pundits Seeking Al Qaeda Connection To Libya Violence

The distressing news of the U.S Consulate attack in Libya and the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens continues to confound pundits and news outlets in the U.S. desperately searching for a global al Qaeda conspiracy to explain the recent wave of violence.

The latest NPR story, “U.S., Libyan Versions of Consulate Attack Diverge”, seems to have appropriately balanced the debate.  My estimate of the attack goes as follows:

Here are my reasons for why I don’t believe this is a global al Qaeda plot nor a sign of a “rising al Qaeda”. Instead, I feel the attack in Libya represents the problems with a weak Libya security environment, the availability of soft American targets and the emergence of a new threat environment the U.S. has not properly assessed.  If this were a real al Qaeda plot typical of past events, I would have expected:

  • …a very public media announcement from al Qaeda coinciding with the attack.  If really planned far in advance, I’d expect all jihadi media outlets would have received a prepared announcement of considerable scale timed for release shortly after the attack.  The videos and announcements I’ve seen thus far and the alleged reprisal for the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi all seem haphazardly put together at the last minute trying to exploit the unexpected success of a meeting engagement.  Preparing and distributing these messages take weeks in preparation.  I imagine there will be AQ propaganda in the coming weeks taking credit for this.  If Zawahiri publishes a video in two weeks taking credit for the Consulate attack, you’ll know he wasn’t even in on it – he’s just reacting.  In fact, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is trying to distance itself from the attacks.  It doesn’t mean they are innocent, but its not very like al Qaeda.
  • …the group would have tried to take the Ambassador alive, taken the body or staged a public execution.  I’m not convinced they even knew the Ambassador was there or that he had died.  It’s possible they did, but I’m not convinced yet. Hopefully the investigation will yield more clarity on this.  The kidnapping of a U.S. Ambassador would have been far more devastating to the U.S.  Sadly, this attack suggests that had they planned a kidnapping, they might have been able to pull it off.
  • …the attack to be quite a bit more sophisticated.  The reports I’ve read make it seem fairly straight forward – a rapid attack on known locations following a diversion.  Bigger, planned AQ attacks tend to hit public targets in high profile ways exploiting the media potential of the event.  While this was an unfortunate success for the perpetrators, I think a well planned AQ attack would have actually been much more successful from AQ’s perspective and more devastating to the West.
  • …they would have filmed the attack.  AQ attacks are often filmed by AQ members for their media value and then quickly posted online.  I’m sure this attack was filmed in parts but not in a pre-planned way to exploit it for media value.

The compulsion of media and pundits to position this as an “al Qaeda is rising again” chapter in a never-ending saga of good versus evil is frustrating.  There is no al Qaeda.  To call someone al Qaeda today literally means almost nothing as we have no collective understanding in the U.S. as to what constitutes al Qaeda.

Just last month, I posted a question asking readers “Who should we call al Qaeda?” based on a hypothetical small band of jihadi militants operating in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia calling themselves “Ansar al-something”. More than 80% said “No”. See graph below.

Senators Lieberman and Collins appear to be doubling down on their amorphous “al Qaeda is everywhere” philosophy, but I bet if you asked them what constitutes “al Qaeda” they would probably struggle to explain it:

“I have come to the opposite conclusion and agree with the president of Libya that this was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the anniversary of 9/11,” she said, adding that classified briefings she had seen supported her conclusion. “I just don’t think that people come to protests equipped with RPG and other heavy weapons. I think the report from the president of Libya is more likely the correct one.”

Lieberman quickly sided with her, saying, “My own inclination is to agree with Sen. Collins, as I usually do, but I will await the investigation.”

Of course, Senators Lieberman and Collins strongly prefer the “one equals many” theory of al Qaeda.

The West and particularly the U.S. is doing itself a great disservice viewing the current threat environment via an “al Qaeda only” lens.  What we are seeing is a new post-al Qaeda security environment where a host of militant groups on more than three continents purportedly follow the al Qaeda ideology but ultimately choose their own violent path forward.  An upstart militant group leader (like one in Libya) competing for funding and popular support amongst a sea of militant groups has no reason to wait for a far off al Qaeda leader (Zawahiri for example), whom they likely don’t even know nor receive any funding from, to issue orders about who to attack.

Jihadi militant group leaders have now entered the “O.Y.O.” era – On Your Own.  Militant groups are rebuilding, consolidating, finding new bases of support and new financial backers.  I again return to my stance from this past July hoping smart analysts and pundits will learn and move on from al Qaeda exploring each group as its own entity. In so doing, the U.S. should develop new policies, strategies and tactics which prevent us from over-reacting, allow us to expand our thinking on counterterrorism and adequately mitigate threats without building every attack into a global conspiracy.  The “al Qaeda Only” lens gives too much credit to al Qaeda and needlessly frightens a confused American public.

For those that perpetrated the attacks in Libya, capture them if you can, try them if possible and if this can’t be done feasibly then kill them without creating civilian casualties.  Our interests in these countries is quite limited so go directly after the threat without falling into the trap of trying to do nation-building.

I’ll close with my recap from July and re-up the results of the “Who is al Qaeda?” survey:

Counterterrorism analysts now face a similar challenge to those studying the Soviet Union in 1991—what do we do now? Analysts of al-Qaeda and its affiliates still have plenty to do. Instead of approaching al-Qaeda as central to global terrorism, counterterrorism analysts will be best served by opening the aperture to see al-Qaeda as one of many potential forms of future terrorism. Rather than seeking linkages between Zawahiri and every terrorist group, analyses should explore several questions, some old and some new, that break from al-Qaeda constructs seen in 2001 rather than 2012. Here are several areas of future terrorism analysis needing exploration:

  • Competition versus Cooperation: Absent an al-Qaeda governing body, will al-Qaeda affiliates, al-Qaeda upstart groups, and other militant Islamist groups in the Arab Spring compete or cooperate? Today, in comparison to ten years ago, more extremist groups occupy the global landscape. Effective counterterrorism analysis should identify when these terror groups compete and when they cooperate. Knowing when terror groups compete will help the West construct an environment around threat groups replicating the conditions most prone for destructive interference. In contrast, understanding when disparate terror groups cooperate will help analysts detect the emergence of larger groups able to execute global terror attacks on a routine basis.
  • Focus on national and regional forces rather than al-Qaeda’s global strategy: Al-Qaeda analysts in recent years have invested great effort attempting to forecast the group’s global strategy. Absent some form of centralized or decentralized governing body, sufficient financing and new crops of operatives, an al-Qaeda grand strategy appears nothing more than misplaced optimism for the terror group. For the few remaining core al-Qaeda leaders, survival and reconstitution likely weigh heavy on their minds. Despite global al-Qaeda’s decline, those with language skills and regional experience should concentrate their analysis on national and regional militant groups emerging throughout Africa, the Levant and South Asia examining the linkages between al-Qaeda and these new upstarts as a peripheral rather than primary factor of their emergence. In short, counterterrorism analysts’ regional expertise, cultural knowledge, and language skills will trump knowledge of al-Qaeda’s 2001 organizational chart and Bin Laden’s fatwas.
  • Follow the money; track the pace of attacks: Future extremist group growth will depend heavily on financing. Bin Laden ran the most popular terrorism operation on the planet and personally provided the seed capital to get his group going. Emerging groups in North Africa will depend on wealthy benefactors and illicit operations. Emerging groups seeking funding will generate attacks to raise their credibility, and as they grow in size, they’ll produce attacks at a quicker pace. Analysts of terrorism finance and attack trends may prove particularly valuable in detecting the next generation of global terrorism.
  • Syria – al-Qaeda’s last great hope: While most eyes have shifted to study AQAP in Yemen, Syria’s protracted civil war may breathe some life into al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda cites lessons learned from the failure of past fighting against the Syrian regime.12 Al-Qaeda has an established operational safe haven in Western Iraq through which to funnel fighters and ally with Sunni tribesmen in sectarian battles against the Shia majority government in Baghdad. Additionally, Syria’s proximate location to Israel provides a parallel jihadi cause for which al-Qaeda can pursue an enduring agenda beyond the Assad regime. However, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed parallel resistance force might likely outpace a Syrian Al-Qaeda front. Only time and good analysis will provide clarity on a poorly understood Syrian rebel landscape.
  • The Iran wild card: For many years, rumors of Iranian involvement and maybe conflict with al-Qaeda have persisted.8 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.
  • Where are the most talented al-Qaeda veterans going? Today, analysts should seek to identify what path al-Qaeda’s most talented veterans are choosing to pursue. Al-Qaeda’s limited centralized control has likely encouraged some talented terrorists to move on to new groups. Knowing where these veterans go will be essential for anticipating future threats.
  • In between conflicts, the U.S. is prone to prepare for, train for, and want to refight the last battle (al-Qaeda 2001) rather than the next battle (al-Qaeda and other terror groups in 2012). While the battle with al-Qaeda is not entirely over, the U.S. and its allies should begin imagining how the remnants of the old al-Qaeda threat will re-emerge as a new manifestation among regional and transnational extremist upstarts. The West should work vigorously to identify what this new frontier in terrorism will look like.

The results of the “Who should we call al Qaeda?” poll: