al Qaeda’s Stronger Again Today – Unstoppable In Fact – AQIM, AQAP

Special thanks to Bloomberg and James Walcott for their misleading article title, “Al Qaeda Affiliates Getting Stronger, Says U.S. Official.”  Walcott goes on in the article to explain that David Cohen, U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, attended a London conference at Chatham House (where they apparently didn’t follow Chatham House rules) discussing the fundraising of al Qaeda affiliates.  Thank you James Walcott for the alarming title with little details.

Perfect timing for this blog as the article arose the same time I was compiling the results of the “One Year After Bin Laden” question which asked voters which al Qaeda affiliate would get al Qaeda’s donor support after Bin Laden’s death.  David Cohen said:

“The U.S. government estimates that terrorist organizations have collected approximately $120 million in ransom payments over the past eight years,”

To me, this isn’t that much money.  This equates to $15 million per year spread across numerous al Qaeda affilaites.  As I argued in January this year and a couple years back with regards to AQIM’s kidnapping schemes (and here), this illicit funding comes with all sorts of challenges.  Additionally, the “terrorism is cheap” argument propagated after 9/11 focused solely on the costs of executing a single al Qaeda attack while ignoring al Qaeda’s significant fixed and operational costs on a year-on-year basis.  While the article addresses how these ransoms are used for daily operations, the account doesn’t address how difficult and costly it is to operate in the middle of the Sahel (AQIM) or actually provide governance in rural Yemen (AQAP).  Both are costly enterprises I noted in January.

The misleading article goes on a confusing spiral guaranteed to scare and confuse a reader.

“Al-Qaeda’s core is not in the position to provide generous funding to its affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, ‘AQIM,’ operating in the Sahel, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ‘AQAP,’ operating primarily in Yemen,” Cohen said. “Instead, these al-Qaeda offshoots are self-sufficient, raising their own funds and themselves providing support to the next generation of violent groups.”

“AQIM, the al-Qaeda affiliate that has likely profited most from kidnapping for ransom, has collected tens of millions of dollars through KFR operations since 2008,” he said. “It raised significant funds from kidnapping for ransom operations in early 2012, and was holding nine hostages as of the middle of last month.”

So al Qaeda’s affiliates are stronger because they don’t get donor funding from AQ’s core?  That doesn’t make sense. Being self-sufficient may make an al Qaeda affiliate independent in its operations and target selection, but self-sufficiency doesn’t necessarily make a group stronger; especially if a group, like AQIM gets involved with a fringe AQ upstart that kills a U.S. Ambassador without having sufficient local popular support.  This sort of self-sufficiency may actually represent weakness depending on the U.S. response.  Time will tell.

Additionally, this article mirrors the argument made by the AFRICOM commander General Ham earlier this year where he noted that AQIM remains the best financed al Qaeda affiliate.

In conclusion, if you read mainstream media accounts of al Qaeda, I believe you’ll be persistently confused.  In February, a casual reader would have thought al Shabaab, having officially joined al Qaeda, was on the brink of taking over the Horn of Africa and leading al Qaeda into a new era.  Today, al Shabaab defectors leave by the hour and the group’s safe haven continues to shrink as they move from conventional operations to more limited-resource guerilla tactics.

In May, news reports anointed AQAP as the new al Qaeda Central as they held territory and governed parts of Yemen. Today, the Yemeni government continues to push back AQAP and drone strikes from the U.S. engage and eliminate more and more key AQAP leaders.

So now in October, a month after the Benghazi tragedy, we are reading new hype about AQIM being the next “Getting Stronger” al Qaeda threat to challenge the U.S.  Really?  Are we in the counterterrorism punditry and media just looking for a new enemy?  Was anyone really tracking AQIM’s revenues in 2008 when they were doing kidnappings and likely receiving donations from AQ Central?  They may in fact have less resources if we could actually gain enough data to properly evaluate this question. But that story doesn’t sell advertising.  So yesterday, today and tomorrow, we’ll see that al Qaeda is “getting stronger” as we wildly pivot from one alleged al Qaeda affiliate to another.  Despite the fact we can’t even agree on what al Qaeda is or who is in the organization.  Terrorism and counterterrorism: two industries trying to find their way ten years after the attacks of 9/11/2001.

For those that continue to charge there is an al Qaeda and it continues to get stronger by the day, I ask but one question: “Under what conditions would you declare al Qaeda defeated?”  If you can’t describe those conditions when al Qaeda is defeated, then why should we listen to your analysis that al Qaeda is stronger?

My take is we should stop seeking a link between all violence in the Middle East and the subsequent labeling of it as “al Qaeda”. Again this week, @gregorydjohnsen and I were discussing the random al Qaeda linking occurring in the news between an AQAP attack on a Yemeni security official at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a and the Benghazi attacks.  Garbage!  Continuing on this path will lead the U.S. to over-reach in its response and improperly assess threats – at a time when cyberattacks from state adversaries and criminals, not al Qaeda, may actually be the greatest threat to our national security. Analyze each attack or threat as its own entity instead of forcing everything into a dated understanding of al Qaeda 2001.



  1. This article is so full of fallacious arguments that it warrants the “Selected Wisdom” moniker.

    From my understanding of financing of extremist groups, you must look further than just ransom payments. There can be taxes, illicit activities (drugs, diamond, weapons smuggling, etc), donations from wealth Gulf Sheikhs, local donations funneled through charities, and–I suspect–contributions from some nation states. You only have to look at the brand new vehicles that Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi had to wonder where they got the money. . I would not base any argument on a single funding source alone.

    Extremist groups have the benefit of having fighters willing to fund their own travel, pay for their own weapons, and endure extreme hardships. It can indeed be a very low cost operation. While millions of dollars may sound minimal if fielding a western force, millions of dollars in the environments extremists work in is a lot of money. In my opinion, money is much more of a limiting factor for Western forces and local regimes than it is for extremist groups.

    Is AQ-driven Salafist-Jihadist ideology on the decline or is it ascending? Usama bin-Ladin gave his direct guidance for how to respond to the Arab Spring (captured correspondence): Their main effort is to expand teaching and ideology; to expand ideological targeting of youth; to allow AQ members to return to their home countries to help steer radicalization activities. What have we seen happen? The emergence of dozens of Salafist-Jihadist groups in Arab Spring countries.

    In Somalia, al-Shabab is under extreme pressure, but has reverted to more terrorist tactics. It has expanded targeting into Kenya. IAW extremist doctrine, terrorist groups can revert back to phase one of an insurgency which means dispersing and resorting to more asymmetric attacks. Lets welcome the success against al-Shabaab–but lets also look at the rest of the extremist phenomenon:

    In my view 2011-2012 is the largest growth of extremism ever witnessed:
    1) Emergence of violent extremist groups in Mali and Nigeria.
    2) Establishment of multiple jihadist groups in Libya.
    3) Establishment of multiple jihadist groups in Gaza, Sinai, and the West Bank.
    4) Establishment of Salafi-Jihadist groups in Egypt.
    5) Rising boldness in extremist groups in Sudan, where they threatened the regime.
    6) The establishment of a new jihadist front in Syria where at least six groups are operating. Foreign fighters are joining the fight every day, and history tells us that these fighters will likely create long-term problems in their own countries or elsewhere.
    7) The emergence of new extremist violence in Tatarstan (Russia).
    8) The emergence of a new extremist group in Kazakhstan.
    9) The emergence of Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen (as well as Libya).

    Many of these events have been facilitated by the removal of regimes, the release of extremists from prison, increased access to weapons (captured in Libya, Mali and Syria), and virtual freedom of maneuver. This is coupled with increased use of social media and expanding influence on the internet, reaching greater numbers of people in greater numbers of languages.

    So, you ask, “For those that continue to charge there is an al Qaeda and it continues to get stronger by the day, I ask but one question: “Under what conditions would you declare al Qaeda defeated?” If you can’t describe those conditions when al Qaeda is defeated, then why should we listen to your analysis that al Qaeda is stronger?”

    Really?? What kind of logic is this? From a critical thinking perspective, I would call this kind of argument simply nonsense. That said, I think nearly everybody is missing the point when they fail to recognize that AQ is first and foremost an ideological organization and has ideological goals. AQ can disappear now but its ideology will remain, and many people will be surprised. I cannot ague cause & effect between UBL’s direction and the massive increase in extremist groups. However, it is fascinating to observe how, time and again, AQ continues to progress in its strategic plan from 2007.

    This we can agree on “Continuing on this path will lead the U.S. to over-reach in its response and improperly assess threats”, in that I believe we are destined for more pain with interventions in Yemen, Mali, and support of rebel forces in Syria. Until we understand that we confront an ideology, for which AQ was the Vanguard, we will remain without an effective strategy.

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