With my head down reading about Shabaab’s fractures, I had missed some of the al-Qaeda primary source material emerging from recent trials in Germany. Yassin Musharbash of AbuSuSu provides an excellent summary of the key insights of alleged internal al-Qaeda documents, which I encourage readers to check out. @abususu notes:
According to German security services they were written up by high ranking members of core al-Qaeda in 2009 and/or 2008. The documents concern themselves with
- Lessons learned from past operations
- Reports on three past operations (7/7 London; 21/7 London; Airliner Plot)
- a sketch for a terror campaign in the West
He goes on to point out several of the most interesting contents of these documents.
- One of the documents is of particular interest as it discusses ideas for terrorist activities in the West. Here is a number of ideas that are being floated:
- More attention should be given to operations designed to free prisoners. One idea is to “hijack a passenger ship” as a mass hostage taking should impress Western public
- Generally, militant Jihad should also be taken to the Seas: attacking maritime transport would be a good way to hurt Western economic interest.
- Also generally, a double strategy of regular small scale and rare big scale attacks in the West is advised. The author maintains that both concepts are needed.
- Foreign fighters from the West should not be kept for too long but rather trained swiftly and sent back a.s.a.p. so as to enhance the capability to attack on a more regular level. Recruits who are considered known to the security services should try and deceive these services so as to relief the actual plotters by distracting attention
Lots to discuss from these four points. Here are my general thoughts:
- The AQ authors in these documents lack experience. AQ has limited resources, operatives and operational space. The “double strategy” notion would require more than double the amount of planning time as the two foci, “regular small scale and rare big scale attacks” would demand excessive amount of coordination, planning, resources and skill. For a struggling terrorist organization, maintaining the pace of regular small scale attacks requires efficiency in operation and routine processes unimpeded by CT adversaries. Research has shown that only high performing terror organizations can maintain the pace of attacks whereas groups of almost any level can pull off the occasional big attack. See the work of Aaron Clauset and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch.
- The effect of drone operations and overall intelligence pressure against AQ in their Pakistan safe haven seems clear. Drones have not only decapitated AQ leaders, but have drastically limited the training time provided to foreign fighters for delivering attacks against the West. Before 9/11, foreign fighters could train indefinitely for an attack. From 2001 through 2006, foreign fighters could still gain the necessary training resources and time to prepare for an attack in the West. Today, foreign fighters to AFPAK have merely days or hours to learn and prepare for their attack on the West – if they can get there at all.
Abu Susu added three other important notes:
- The documents also contain passages about problems that the terrorists face:
- They have little money and say that this decreases their operational capabilities
- The fact that they didn’t manage to perpetrate an attack in the West for such a long time is said to frustrate a lot of cadres — to a degree that some of them allegedly have given up plotting altogether
- Western intelligence and security services are credited with being effective and very hurtful for them
These three points follow closely with other open source reporting on the region. For those still believing that terrorism is cheap and AQ operates on almost no money, these documents again show the importance of resources for AQ and reiterates the depleted state of their operations.
Next, AQ’s above quote reinforces my argument related to AQ’s “put up or shut up problem” I noted in January:
While they are just as likely today as much as in the past to execute a mass casualty attack, evidence suggests their pace of attack has slowed dramatically and thus their organization is likely shrinking in size exponentially with each delay in attacks. For al Qaeda to inspire new recruits and rejuvenate their movement, they need to execute a successful attack. Likewise, executing successful attacks requires persistent recruitment and talent development through training – two constrained inputs to al Qaeda’s operations in 2012. AQ’s propaganda becomes less effective every year they fail to execute a major attack against the West in the West. Their rhetoric is talk with no action.
My last point from Abu SuSu’s excellent post – virtual training is no substitute for real in-person physical training. As he notes:
According to one of the documents, the 21/7 London cell had lost contact to its handler in Pakistan. This is why a) when the attempt took place, the author wasn’t even sure whether it was “their guy”s. He b) also claims that the 21/7 cell may have run into the very same problem in the process of cooking their explosives that the 7/7 cell encountered. But while the 7/7 cell still was in touch with their handler and were able to consult him, the 21/7 cell could not solve their allegedly identical problem.