Countering the threat posed by AQAP: Embrace, don’t chase Yemen’s chaos

Last week, Gregory Johnsen of Waq-al-Waq crafted a thoughtful response to our article “Yemen & Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Exploiting a Window of Counterterrorism Opportunity.” Below is our response to further what we believe to be a particularly important debate.  We will begin by addressing Johnsen’s conclusion and then discuss each of his points individually.  For each point of debate, we attributed original quotes from the article as Cilluffo and Watts and quotes from Gregory’s post at Waq al Waq as Johnsen.

Johnsen- “I think this is what happens when smart people tackle a complex problem in an environment they don’t know particularly well. “

While we respect Johnsen’s knowledge of Yemen, we likewise believe his criticisms reflect what happens when smart regional experts encounter a complex enemy they don’t know particularly well.

Ten years of American counterterrorism efforts demonstrate that the best way to defeat al Qaeda is to go directly after al Qaeda.  Bin Laden’s personal notes articulate that building schools in Afghanistan didn’t slow down al Qaeda but drone strikes halted many of their operations.  Johnsen’s title “The Allure of Simple Solutions” suggests the only way to deter AQAP in the near term is via a complex solution instituted through a failed Saleh regime or its successor.  Pursuing such a solution will fail to stop AQAP’s immediate threat to the United States and is not feasible in light of the current situation in Yemen.

As we noted in our original article, we believe our recommendation is neither comprehensive nor simple, but instead the best option for achieving immediate U.S. national security interests with regards to AQAP.  If we’ve learned anything from the past ten years, it is ‘yes’ sometimes simple (as distinguished from simplistic) strategies with clear goals and objectives work far better in achieving our near term interests than costly, complex strategies spread across convoluted bureaucracies.  Increased use of drone and SOF forces, when executed as designed, can help eliminate the immediate threat of AQAP and improve U.S. options for pursuing a long-run Yemen strategy less encumbered by counterterrorism concerns.

We respect Johnsen’s opinions and rely on his analysis of Yemen to improve our perspective.  However, we have yet to see any other feasible near or long-term U.S. strategy for mitigating the threat of AQAP.  We welcome any feasible alternative solution put forth.  However, until that time, the U.S. must protect its citizens and interests.  The AQAP threat remains acute and inaction is not an option.

We thank Gregory Johnsen for his thoughtful analysis and look forward to his policy recommendations with regards to Yemen.  We’ll quickly respond to each of his individual points below with short rebuttals.

Assumption 1: AQAP suddenly stronger this month

Ciluffo and Watts- “This week’s escape of 63 suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters from a Yemeni prison exemplifies how President Saleh’s departure to Saudi Arabia and Yemeni instability embolden this lethal al Qaeda affiliate.“

Johnsen- “I’m pretty sure that AQAP was emboldened prior to Salih’s departure, the group has been incredibly active in Yemen recently and I would argue that largely as a result of US air strikes between December 2009 and May 2010, the organization is actually stronger now in terms of recruits than it was when it dispatched the so-called underwear bomber who tried to bring down the airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.”

In short, AQAP, after the fall of the Saleh regime, took advantage of the chaos to expand its safe haven in south Yemen.  Today, (even more than last month) it has greater maneuverability to plan, train and execute terrorist attacks at an even greater level than it has in the past.  So, yes, until additional pressure is applied to deny them of their safe haven, AQAP will continue to grow stronger and hence more dangerous.

Johnsen argues that AQAP is more emboldened, “largely as a result of US air strikes between December 2009 and May 2010.”  The airstrikes equal radicalization argument is popular amongst critics of drones.  However, in the case of Yemen, the populace has never been particularly pro-U.S.  The 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing, the recruitment of John Walker Lindh, the droves of AQ foreign fighters of Yemeni descent, and countless other historical indicators demonstrate more than a decade of Yemeni-based extremism against the U.S.  Prior to the airstrikes noted by Johnsen, AQAP situated in Yemen in part because of its natural base of Yemeni popular support.  Yemeni “hearts and minds” were not lost in recent American airstrikes and will not be immediately lost if limited drone operations hunt key AQAP leaders.  Yemeni popular support for the U.S. was lost long ago.

Assumption 2: Huthis and Southern Movement are responsible

Cilluffo & Watts- “In recent weeks, the writ of government in Yemen has evaporated under the twin strains of the Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen and the Secessionist movement in southern Yemen.”

Johnsen- “This is simply untrue – the writ of Yemen’s government has evaporated under popular protests.  The Huthi rebellion has been ongoing since 2004 and the Southern movement since 2007 – neither of these are new, and neither of these are the cause of the recent collapse.”

We were not arguing about why the Saleh regime fell and the cause is rather irrelevant to our discussion on the use of drones and Special Forces operations. We find it hard to believe these two insurgencies, along with the popular uprisings, didn’t contribute to Saleh’s demise.   Our issue focuses on the Saleh regime collapse and the ensuing counterterrorism vacuum that immediately strengthens AQAP.  However, we also believe this vacuum offers the U.S. an opportunity to pursue its national security interests, disruption of AQAP, without being limited by the Saleh regime.

Assumption 3: The Foreign Operations Unit

Johnsen-“We also know that Asiri’s fingerprint was on one of the 2010 parcel bombs, but – and here is the kicker – the major players involved in this attack are also actively involved in domestic operations in Yemen.  It would also stretch the imagination to believe that al-Raymi, AQAP’s head military commander, would be taking orders from Anwar al-Awlaqi, who Hegghammer regards as the head of the Foreign Operations Unit…..A closer reading of the available sources suggests that the AQAP brain trust is active – as they claim to be – on the domestic, regional, and international fronts….Thomas may very well be right about the Foreign Operations Unit  – he is after all a very smart guy.  But the evidence we have suggests otherwise.”

AQAP is a hybrid organization pursuing both domestic and international objectives.  Nothing says talented members cannot assist in operations both at home and abroad.  However, AQAP’s use of a Foreign Operations Unit as outlined by Hegghammer remains particularly important and correct in light of AQ’s historical operations.  AQAP’s Foreign Operations Unit focuses on international attacks to build the organization’s global prestige–leading to further media attention bringing in additional recruits, money and popular support.  Sure, certain members will cross over to domestic tasks as needed, but key individuals like Awlaki and Raymi will focus predominantly on international attacks key to AQAP’s long-run prominence.

The AQAP organizational structure outlined by Dr. Hegghammer mirrors a relatively standard structure used by AQ for twenty years.  AQ, going back to their earliest interventions in Somalia, assigned different personnel to organizational divisions based on their specialties.  AQ further separated the divisions geographically as needed to prevent the demise of key nodes.  Raymi serves as the military commander and likely focuses on more conventional fighting, training and support with respect to AQAP’s insurgent operations in Yemen and regionally.  Examples of this position from AQ history are Abu Hafs al Masri and Saif al-Adel.

The Foreign Operations Unit identified by Dr. Hegghammer may in fact report to AQAP’s military commander Raymi or may sit separate reporting directly to AQAP’s deputy leader Shihri or AQAP’s leader Wahayshi.  Regardless of the chain-of-command, this unit focuses on external operations targeting the west.  Awlaki leads this unit for several reasons.

First, Awlaki holds unique knowledge from his U.S. upbringing making him particularly adept at targeting the West.  Second, his bilingual proselytizing and ideological credibility allow him to recruit from the West.  Third, Awlaki’s membership in AQAP may be recent, but his ties to AQ are longstanding and extend his credibility in the organization.  Contrary to Johnsen’s notion that Awlaki is new to AQ, Awlaki had contact with the 9/11 hijackers and AQ operatives in San Diego, Washington, D.C. and other locales.  Fourth, evidence recovered from the UBL raid reveals Awlaki’s significance to both AQAP and AQ globally.  AQAP’s leader offered to step down and promote Awlaki as his replacement to capitalize on Awlaki’s popularity.  Bin Laden rebuffed this offer and denied Awlaki’s ascension.  However, this fact, more than any other may illustrate Awlaki’s unique role and reporting process with AQAP’s leadership.  Examples of external operations leaders from AQ history are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and more recently maybe Adnan Shukrijumah.

Assumption 4: AQAP and al-Shabab

Cilluffo & Watts- “Moreover, AQAP acts as a critical conduit for regional AQ activities linking al Shabab and other East Africa-based AQ operatives with sustained resources and foreign fighters- some of whom were recruited from Europe and North America.

Al Shabab’s consolidation of power, leadership, homicide/suicide bombing tactics and targets are likely indicative of AQAP’s regional influence.  Perhaps most troubling is Al Shabab’s growing international ambitions as evidenced by recent attacks in Kenya and Uganda and complete alignment of their goals with those of Al Qaeda’s.”

Johnsen- The links between AQAP and al-Shabab are not well documented – there is a lot more that we don’t know than there is that we know.  I’m uncomfortable at how seamlessly the report jumps from AQAP to al-Shabab, dangerously conflating the two as closely allied groups – I haven’t seen evidence to support this reading.

Substantial links between AQAP and al Shabab exist.  According to recent media reports, “the CIA now believes the Somali-based al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab is increasing its links to al Qaeda in neighboring Yemen. There are increased messages and partnership arrangements between the two groups, the official said.”  Subsequent to the release of our original issue brief, the U.S. formally charged Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame for providing material support to both AQAP and al-Shabab.  Warsame received training and explosives from AQAP and in return likely provided AQAP with weaponry.  Additionally, Warsame had direct contacts with Awlaki suggesting Shabab members could easily be used as proxies for implementing AQAP’s Foreign Operations Bureau plots internationally.  Recent drone attacks in Somalia directly targeted individuals in contact with Awlaki and AQAP.  Foreign fighters to Somalia have routinely transited through Yemeni facilitators (and vice versa) to integrate into Shabab and the Somali jihad.  Bin Laden publicly called for foreign fighters to join the Somali jihad in 2007 and it seems inconceivable that AQ operatives strategically located in Yemen would not help facilitate this effort.

Assumption 5: It Is the Terrorists We Know

Johnsen- “The idea that we can kill these leaders and they won’t be replaced is a tempting one, but not one that history supports.  The US killed Harithi in 2002 and the organization crumbled – it has learned since, which is why the regional leaders the US killed last year have all been replaced.”

Of all the counterterrorism approaches attempted in recent years, no strategy has been more effective at disrupting AQ than targeted leadership decapitation, largely accomplished through drone and SOF operations.   Bin Laden himself noted that AQ’s ability was extremely limited and persistently disrupted by the repeated elimination of his lieutenants by drone attacks.  While they might be quickly replaced, replacements are usually less capable and charismatic than their predecessors.  AQAP’s bombmaker, al Asiri, created three increasingly innovative bombs for recent AQAP terrorist plots and reports this week indicate he is aggressively pursuing a fourth generation device embedded in suicide bombers.  Shabab’s Warsame likely sought out AQAP for bomb training from Asiri.  Awlaki is an American-born cleric with global appeal and an in-depth understanding of the U.S.  Eliminating AQAP’s key leaders such as Awlaki and Asiri will immediately reduce AQAP’s operational capability and AQAP will not readily be able to replace these two individuals.  The strategy we advocated was limited, focused on the near term, and not designed to eliminate AQAP’s existence.  Drones and SOF are for reducing AQAP’s immediate threat.

Assumption 6: Limited Consequence to Bombing

Cilluffo & Watts -“For the first time, the U.S. can pursue AQAP targets in Yemen without being embroiled in Yemeni government politics and trapped in Yemen’s dual insurgencies.“

Johnsen- “The idea that the US can drop bombs on a country and not become involved in its internal politics is, I believe, a dangerously mistaken idea.  There will be consequences to US actions, particularly when the US misses – and it will miss.”

We in no way advocated the wanton firing of missiles.  To the contrary, what we suggested is very discriminate intelligence-led operations on a small number of high-value targets- a process improved greatly over the past several years.  Inevitably, there will be some collateral damage and civilian casualties in war.  However, drones are the most surgical option and least likely to create massive blowback.  Johnsen seems to suggest that other options will not create blowback.  We’ve already witnessed significant blowback from the Yemeni people as we pursued counterterrorism objectives through the Saleh regime.  That regime’s military pursuit of AQAP created far more blowback to the U.S. than small-scale air strikes.

Assumption 7: It is the US v. al-Qaeda

Johnsen- “In dismissing several possible policy options Cilluffo and Watts fall into a common trap.  Namely, that it is the US against AQAP.  This is the conventional wisdom and just the way AQAP would like to frame the conflict.  As long as it is the US against AQAP, the US will never win this war.  It has to be Yemen against AQAP.”

Of course in an ideal situation it would be ‘Yemen against AQAP’.  After all, if the Yemeni’s took charge and implemented the necessary steps to effectively combat AQAP, we wouldn’t be having this debate.  Thus far nobody has demonstrated the capacity, wherewithal, or political will to act in a way commensurate to the threat.  And since the U.S. is clearly in AQAP’s cross hairs we can’t simply wait and ought to pursue any and all pathways to counter the threat.  These same basic conditions exist in Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan as well. And given our recent successes in killing Usama Bin Laden, Ilyas Kashmiri and many other high-value targets, we were right not to wait for Pakistan to act.

Johnsen’s argument centers on the notion that Yemen is critical to our strategic interests.  The truth is that our strategic interest in Yemen for more than 10 years has been with regards to al Qaeda.  Aside from AQ, we likely would have limited national security interests in Yemen.

Assumption 8: Things will go Great

Johnsen- “I agree with Cilluffo and Watts that when drone strikes or Special Ops go right – like they did with bin Laden – they are excellent.  But what happens when they go wrong?  And they go wrong a lot in Yemen.”

Things will go wrong.  We should expect that.  But we cannot allow the possibility that something might go wrong prevent any action to address an immediate threat.

As for Gregory’s assumption 9, we do not feel we substantially disagree with his post. We thank Gregory for his response and hope this important debate continues.

13 comments

  1. Both positions do not even mention the significance of Yemen in Islamic prophecy, which thus ends up being of significance to those, including the US, affected by AQ acting in light of such prophecy (such as we see with the whole Khurasan significance re: Af/Pak). Knowledge of the prophecy must proceed to understanding and wisdom of how to then apply it.

    • Thanks for an interesting point. I had not heard that before. Can you elaborate further or is there a discussion or reference you can refer me to?

  2. Sorry if this ends up a duplicate post, I had my NoScript on… For starters, the late Saleem Shahzad in his own voice, and through the characters in his book, repeatedly mentions the significance of Khurasan & Islamic prophecy to AQ strategy as well as US failures due to not understanding it. For the Yemen prophecy, the best short-form explanation I’ve seen of it is on the Islamist website kavkazcenter in their late May article entitled “Role of Yemen in present-day events in light of hadiths of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).” But where I really got a feel for all of this is from back in the days I was on YouTube, by following the videos and comment threads of the videos of the violent AQ/TTP as well as the non-violent Hizb-ut-Tahrir. If a believer thinks they’ve got a 1000 years or so before the End, it stands to reason he’s gonna be more concerned about his private, local and national circles, there are enough battles there, but once he buys into the-End-is-now, join the vanguard b/c it’s now, all of the other, even the nationalistic struggles, pale as trivia — and it’s that awareness (from their perspective) that’s the mobilizer from everything I’ve seen.

  3. clarification on my last comment — it’s not that non-violent Islamist A believe any less than violent Islamist B in the Last Day — not the what that’s the difference, but the when. So there is an argument that fighting in the exact places, in the exact sequence suggested by Islamic prophecy will be a mobilizer. (There are also counterarguments, largely due to new realities on the ground — like us being stuck in Khurasan already.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>