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.