In Syria: Focus on Jabhat al-Nusra First, ISIS Second

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing blog posts and articles with come collaborators.  These Syria related posts tried to characterize the different jihadists groups in Syria and how we should look for new methods to combat them.  My take: “All jihadists groups in Syria are not created equal”.

While the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq has gotten lots of press for their recent battles against other jihadists and for taking ground in Anbar, Iraq, I’m far more concerned about Jabhat al-Nusra whom I believe to be the smarter and more loyal al Qaeda affiliate to al Qaeda Central.  More importantly, I believe Nusra will be the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, more than any other, to pursue external operations outside of Syria against the West and particularly the U.S.  As I wrote three weeks back:

As ISIS wanes, focus on al Nusra – ISIS warnings have filled the headlines recently.  However, as seen by this past weekend’s battles, I’ve always thought that ISIS would bring about its own demise through its sectarianism and extreme violence.  In my opinion, the West should be focusing on Jabhat al-Nusra.  Led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra represents the smarter and stronger connected al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – open to a coalition and governance in the near-term, but likely set on dominating the country and instituting Sharia governance in the long-term. If Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central have any influence in Syria, its with al-Nusra.  Nusra and ISIS fought each other on occasion in Syria and the ISIS push into Syria from Iraq sapped Nusra’s foreign fighter supplies.  With ISIS in retreat, Nusra has pushed forward seizing ISIS strongpoints and reclaiming foreign fighters.  The Daily Star reports:

Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIS fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra Front. Nusra’s commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign and it coordinates with the Islamic Front, but both ISIS and Nusra have their roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

The West should focus now on non-military levers to undermine Nusra such as working vigorously to cutoff Persian Gulf donations to these groups and using information campaigns to communicate that Nusra and ISIS are both al Qaeda groups sharing the same vision for the future. “

Further evidence of Nusra’s dangerous intentions have come from the U.S. government itself this week and news reports from Lebanon.  As for the former, see this report of U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: 

“The Syrian militant group tied to Al Qaida, the Al Nusra Front, wants to attack the United States and is training a growing cadre of fighters from Europe, the Mideast and even the US, the top US intelligence official told Congress on Wednesday…He said “Al Nusra Front, to name one … does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”

For the latter, the latest reports from Lebanon suggest Nusra, much like its competitor ISIS, may be pushing its influence out of Syria.

“The group, named after the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, posted a warning to its Twitter account last week in which it said areas where Hizbullah operates are “legitimate targets”, AFP reported.

The message came three days after four people were killed by a car bombin Haret Hreik – Hizbullah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburb. JAN in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the blast, saying it came in retaliation for what it described as Hizbullah’s crimes in Syria.”

I hope Western counterterrorism efforts are focusing on Nusra more than other al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.  They are al Qaeda Central and Zawahiri’s thread in the Levant.  If there is to be a reconstituted and strong global al Qaeda, Nusra is the vehicle for achieving this ascent.

Don’t Designate Ahrar al-Sham in Syria an FTO – At least not yet!

Today, I had the great honor to publish an article with two people much smarter than I: Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 4.23.44 PMDr. Michael Doran and Dr. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution.  Starting back last weekend, Twitter ignited based on a comment from Will about the need to restrain from designating Ahrar al-Sham, Syria’s most powerful militia in the Islamic Front, a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).  Since then, there’s been a flurry of discussion and in response the three of us teamed up to offer a counter-argument to the notion of designating every group with an al Qaeda link of one form or another a FTO.

In general, I’m a big fan of designating down to the smallest possible level every group that presents a clear threat to the United States via terrorism tactics.  However, the case for Ahrar al-Sham, in my opinion, has not met that threshold yet – although its not unreasonable to believe that it will someday.  What seems to be lost in hyper-political discussions about al Qaeda linkages are the dangers of designating a group an FTO too early – that it minimizes U.S. government counterterrorism options and can actually push groups into al Qaeda’s arms.  Here is the introduction to the article “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham“which is available at this link at Foreign Affairs.

“In his recent interview with The New Yorker, U.S. President Barack Obama drew a striking comparison between the Los Angeles Lakers and al Qaeda. “[I]f a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms,” he said, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Similarly, he went on to explain, there is a “distinction between the capacity and reach of [and Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

Obama’s quip drew harsh criticism from many on the political right, which accused him of trivializing terrorism. “It’s a flippant, arrogant, and ignorant comment,” said Oliver North, the former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. Yet however politically attractive this argument might be, it is false on its face. As Obama hinted, it is a simple fact of life that not all terrorist organizations pose an equal threat to the United States and its allies.

This flap could not have been timelier. The al Qaeda of yesterday is gone. What is left is a collection of many different splinter organizations, some of which have their own — and profoundly local — agendas. The U.S. response to each should be, as Obama put it, “defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.””

 

Has ‘Old Guard’ Al Qaeda Shifted Their Targeting Focus?

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia provided me the platform to discuss something new I’m exploring; a potential shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda targeting towards Israel.  Yesterday brought the announcement of three al Qaeda operatives being interdicted as they developed plans to attack targets in Jerusalem.   Here is the introduction to the article and see the full post and discussion points at this link.

“While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently.   Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others.  But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message.  The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:

“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”

Tech Companies: Don’t Tell Us How to Reform Government Surveillance

Just before the U.S. holiday season, I wrote a post at FPRI entitled “Post-Snowden: The Hypocrisy of Tech Company Calls for Surveillance Reform“.  For some reason, I got the feeling this posting did win over many people.  But, I stand by my argument, that tech companies, the most pervasive electronic surveillance perpetrators in the world, should not be telling the U.S. government how to reform surveillance.   If anyone is going to be scaling back surveillance, I think it should be the American public – who needs to decide how much privacy they are willing to trade off to maintain their national security.

I’ve usually gotten two criticisms of my argument.

First is that tech companies issue terms of service to their customers explaining how their information is being used. Thus its on the customers, if they don’t like their user information being exposed, then they can quit using the service.  For this, my counter is that the majority of users, even if they did read the terms of service, would not even be able to understand them and tech companies by issuing long terms of service filled with technical jargon are being deceptive about their practices.  From what I understand, there is a court ruling (for which I’m searching for, please post if you have it) that says these terms of service are incomprehensible and users can’t be held to closely to them.

The second argument is usually something like “Tech companies can’t through me in jail, but the government can!” For this I counter with show me the evidence of widespread NSA violation of American privacy resulting in jail time.  I know, I know, some will immediately push back on this, which I’ll follow up in a separate post.  But, I’m not aware of mass American imprisonment coming from NSA surveillance.  If that is happening, please explain, as I’m not aware of it from observing or personally dealing with the U.S. government.

My push against tech companies reforming surveillance hinges on several things I discuss in the article.

  • When tech companies call for government surveillance reform, they do this to protect profits, not customers. My experience with NSA personnel has always been that they put the security and privacy of U.S. citizens above all other interests.
  • Tech companies called for government surveillance reform after Snowden’s revelations and in direct response to U.S./NSA actions.  But these same companies have been penetrated aggressively by countries like China and called for no such reform.  When tech companies are targeted by China, Russia or Iran, they run to the U.S. government for help, but don’t call for reform. I call this two-faced.
  • If tech companies didn’t like the surveillance they were complying with before Snowden’s revelations, they could have banded together to say something.  They could have petitioned legislators to change the laws.  But they did no such thing.  Tech companies only care about privacy after Snowden’s revelations because it might impact their profits.
  • Tech companies across the board, as I discuss in the article, are not transparent about how they mine user information.  They should not demand such transparency from the government if they are not willing to clearly explain their data mining.  The more I learn of the electronic surveillance of companies like Google (See the article), the more I’m convinced Google’s “Don’t Do Evil” slogan is the equivalent of the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced”.

Here is the introduction to the article and see the rest of at this link.

The recent call by certain technology corporations to reform government surveillance makes for great public relations, but underneath these calls reek of hypocrisy.  Despite stating the desire for “the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information,” the call clearly comes only after Edward Snowden exposed that these companies were the primary points by which the NSA accessed information for intelligence efforts.  The Snowden revelations shook these companies to their core.  Why? Well, its not about customer privacy, instead its about Internet company business models.”

Drones vs. Other CT Options & The Issue Of Proliferation

This week, I participated in an interview with the radio show The Takeaway discussing the use of drones and why I believe taking them completely out of the counterterrorism menu is a bad idea.  Host John Hockenberry and I traded some opinions on how drones measure up to backing foreign militaries or proxy militias in foreign countries.

Interestingly, this discussion always centers on civilian casualties caused by drones, but when I bring up the issue of civilian casualties from options other than drones, no one seems to have a good handle on what the numbers look like.  Neither is there any discussion of the effectiveness of drones in eliminating al Qaeda leaders.  I’m not advocating civilian casualties nor trying to justify drones, I’m just trying to point out how we came to rely so heavily on drones and how truly evaluating drones requires an examination of multiple counterterrorism options and civilian casualties across all those options.

The interview ended with a discussion about drone proliferation and the possibility of terrorist acquisition of drones. For this, I try to argue there is an extremely large difference between flying a remote control plane, which could be classified a drone, and multi-country or even intercontinental drone operations.  Namely, the scale of intelligence required for targeting and the telecommunications architecture necessary for command and control.  

Listen here if you have five minutes.

 
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FPRI Post on ISIS in Syria being attacked by Islamists & Jihadists

Yesterday, FPRI gave me the opportunity to write a post discussing the recent commotion in Syria.  The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) was attacked on many fronts over the past week, battling the Iraqi government in Fallujah and the Syrian Islamic Coalition, a group of Islamists & jihadists, in Syria.  ISIS tactics and harsh implementation of Sharia law made their eventual demise a near certainty.  But, I think there are several interesting aspects to this jihadists-on-jihadists violence in Syria.  See the full article at FPRI and here is a short excerpt from the post.

“ISIS’s fall raises several points and questions about the future direction of jihadist groups.

  • ISIS foreign fighters were killed by other Muslims including jihadists – For the second time in less than a year, al Qaeda members have been killed by other Muslims; likely including other al Qaeda members.  Last year, internal fractures in al Shabaab in Somalia saw jihadists (al Qaeda members) killing each other (see here and here).  This week, Islamists, Salafists and Jihadists took to killing each other in Syria.   Foreign fighters enmeshed in these groups thought they were arriving in Syria to pursue a jihad fighting Asad.  Instead they are killing fellow foreign fighters that may have come from their old neighborhoods. As I’ve noted in the past, jihadists are more likely to be killed by a fellow jihadist than the West.
  • Temporary but important curb on foreign fighter flow to Syria – Social media discussion already signals that this infighting will have a negative effect on future foreign fighters.  Foreign fighter recruits gaze on these recent events and wonder what group they should join or whether to go to Syria at all.  I imagine foreign fighter flow to Syria might temporarily slow in the near-term which may undermine influence of jihadist groups in Syria.  However, should the fight against Asad continue indefinitely and order emerges amongst Islamist & Jihadist groups, foreign fighter flow will likely resume again over the longer-term.  As long as there is global demand to participate in the Syrian jihad, some group in Syria will ultimately help facilitate newcomers.
  • Another stain on al Qaeda’s global brand, but does it matter? – News stories and opinion pieces about al Qaeda pave a winding, dramatic track.  Al Qaeda is either near defeat or at its greatest height.  Debates hinge on what different prognosticators define as “al Qaeda” with some seeing every Sunni militant group as part of an all-encompassing organization.  Others pursue a more nuanced approach examining each group independently with al Qaeda connections representing one element of their analysis rather than the dominating factor.

For Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central based in Pakistan and co-led by Nasi al-Wuhayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Syria’s infighting and the attacks on ISIS should signify another dark chapter in al Qaeda’s history.  In the West, ISIS losses will likely be perceived as a pseudo victory against al Qaeda.  But, Syria is complex and al Qaeda is no longer one thing.  Off the top of my head, I can count almost a dozen different groups either named or connected to al Qaeda each sporting their own degree of loyalty to the brand.  So will the current ISIS rebuffing truly impact “al Qaeda” globally? I would assume yes, but the effects will unevenly be felt by al Qaeda affiliates and “linked” groups.  Today, jihadists groups have niche audiences and popular support based on country of origin, diaspora connections and relative success.  A stain on “al Qaeda” won’t necessarily transcend negatively to an affiliate or regionally linked group. “

Recent War On The Rocks Discussion on Counterterrorism, Syria & Drones in 2014

Just before I took a holiday break, I got the chance to sit down for a chat with Will McCants, J.M. Berger and Ryan Evans in a segment of the War On The Rocks podcast.  Ryan moderated a fun discussion and it is available here at War On The Rocks.  I wish Ryan had recorded our second hour of discussion as well as the first since I think everyone got more fired up as the debate ensued.

For highlights, check out J.M. and Will’s discussion on Omar Hammami’s relevance and engagement.  Will lays down some knowledge on Syria and the Middle East noting that Syria will be for the non-interventionists what Iraq was for the interventionists.  J.M. explains terrorists use of social media which is always an enlightening discussion for me.  At minute 22:00, I get on a drones rant which I’m sure will fill my inbox with hate email and has led to a series of discussions I’ll wrap up in a separate post. Take a listen if you have the time.

War On The Rocks

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.

FPRI Primer on al Qaeda’s history

In November, I had the good fortune to participate in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Butcher History Institute Conference “The Invention of the Middle East, Post-World War One, and the Reinvention of the Middle East, Post-Arab Spring.  While I’m by no means a Middle East historian, I did have the opportunity to present a consolidated version of al Qaeda’s history. The conference seeks to provide training and resources for select high school teachers around the U.S. This conference had an excellent crowd and I was honored to participate.  Accompanying my presentation I did a primer on al Qaeda which I will provide the introduction to here below.  You can download or read the entire paper here at this link.

Al Qaeda today only slightly resembles the al Qaeda of yesteryear. Al Qaeda operatives or “al Qaeda-like” organizations stretch throughout North Africa, across the Middle East and into South Asia.  This disparate string of organizations hosts a handful of al Qaeda’s original Afghanistan and Pakistan veterans but mostly consist of newcomers inspired by al Qaeda’s message — disenfranchised young men seeking an adventurous fight in the wake of a tumultuous Arab Spring.  Al Qaeda, or more appropriately jihadism pursued under al Qaeda’s banner, has morphed in several waves over the course of more than two decades.

Over twenty years, Al Qaeda has harnessed the collective energy of various conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia and now Africa to perpetuate an enduring conflict against the West and specifically the United States.  Each Muslim country conflict attracted its own set of foreign fighters ensconced in al Qaeda’s ideology and operational umbrella. But each conflict and al Qaeda affiliate varies in shape, size and capability. Evaluating al Qaeda through three incarnations may help us fully understand the group’s evolution into the present day and what it may become in the future. Al Qaeda may be examined in three periods: al Qaeda 1.0 (1988 – 2001), al Qaeda 2.0 (2002 – 2011) and al Qaeda 3.0 (2011 – present).  Note, these periods are not distinct entities. Al Qaeda has transformed slowly through each phase.  Some affiliates carrying al Qaeda’s name have rapidly morphed based on changing local conditions while others have adjusted more pragmatically. However, two significant events, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011 provide natural turning points for tracing al Qaeda’s evolution.

Zubaydah’s Diaries: Insights into al Qaeda pre-9/11

In the years after 9/11, one of the central al Qaeda figures discussed in the open media has been Abu Zubaydah; a man often times referred to as al Qaeda’s #3.  Zubaydah’s fame in the media came first from his spectacular capture in Pakistan and then from his water boarding.  Last week, al Jazeera released an unclassified but leaked diary of Zubaydah’s which detailed bits and pieces of his thoughts in the years prior to and immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Before diving to deep, I remind everyone to take Zubaydah’s diary notes with a grain of salt.  First, by many accounts, Zubaydah apparently is a bit crazy.  In the diary, he writes entries to an alias known as “Hani 2″ which may be his other personality although we don’t know for sure.  Second, Zubaydah seems to be as surprised by the 9/11/2001 attacks as anyone else.  Third, huge time gaps exist in the diary leaving much context to be desired.  We don’t know why he stops or starts writing, what is being left out, what is deliberately being falsified, etc.

The original diary is available somewhere on the Internet and  a good summary article can be found here at al Jazeera America’s website.

From the al Jazeera article here are some interesting things that were discussed.

  • Zubaydah maybe didn’t know he was in al Qaeda until the media informed him? Huh? – According to the diary, Zubaydah may have tried to cover his tracks right before his capture, suggesting he wasn’t part of al Qaeda.  Or maybe he was surprised to find out he was the heir to Bin Laden? Never considering himself part of al Qaeda, but instead the leader of his own team. This is doubtful (BS I think) based on the Ressam investigation. Check out this quote from the article:

Perhaps mindful of the growing danger that his diaries could be seized, he writes in a Feb. 4, 2002, entry, “For five years [the media] has been attempting to connect me to anything, and the matter is growing bigger, until they lately said that I am the heir of Bin Laden for the leadership of the Al-Qaeda Organization. I hope they know that I am not even a member of Al-Qaeda, so how can I become their leader?”… In a later entry he complains, “The Pakistani newspapers are saying that I’m in Peshawar, trying to reorganize Al-Qa’ida Organization, for war against the Americans, and that I am the heir of Bin Ladin, and Time [magazine] is saying that I know the Organization and those collaborating with the Organization more than Bin Ladin himself … I wish they know that I am not with Al-Qa’ida, to begin with, and that I am with them in ideology and body.”…Regardless of whether he had sworn an oath of loyalty to bin Laden — which would make him a member of Al-Qaeda — Abu Zubaydah was clearly a trusted and very senior operative in the broader movement that had Al-Qaeda at the center. He was, as he said, “with them in ideology and body.”

  • Zubaydah’s camp in Peshawar got shutdown by the Taliban in 1999 as part of what appears may have been a Bin Laden consolidation of power.  Al Jazeera notes:

In 1999, Abu Zubaydah was residing at a guesthouse in Peshawar associated with the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, his mujahedeen alma mater, to which he had returned in an administrative capacity….But the following year, the Taliban ordered the camp shut down because its emir had refused to hand it over to bin Laden. Not all the like-minded foreign fighters in Afghanistan before 9/11 were directly answerable to bin Laden, even some of those who shared his broad goals…..His appeals to bin Laden to reopen Khaldan fell on deaf ears. Bin Laden and the Taliban declined to reopen the camp.

  • In many ways, I get the sense from the article that Zubaydah thought of Bin Laden as a bit of a rival, and seemingly dependent at times on Bin Laden for receiving funding.

“It’s different when you’re the one calling the shots than being a wheel that’s moving mechanically with other wheels as part of a specific machine,” he complains in another diary entry written on the same day. At times, he seemed to regard bin Laden more as a competitor than a mentor. Abu Zubaydah writes that more jihad volunteers chose to train at Khaldan than at the full-fledged Al-Qaeda military camps bin Laden operated.”

Zubaydah continues and demonstrates, as Gregory Johnsen noted in his book on AQAP, that what separated Bin Laden from others was his money.  Bin Laden, like any other business, grew al Qaeda in scale because he had the resources to propel them forward.

“The resources are shrinking … We must have a secure financial source, so it will not come to an end (the camp),” he writes on July 14, 1996. About a year later, he writes that bin Laden has stepped in and offered assistance. “Bin Laden re-submitted his offer of unity to us and the brothers inside requested me to deliberate the issue,” he writes in Volume 4 on Aug. 13, 1997.

  •  Amongst al Qaeda’s chaos, was Zubaydah trying to build his own all star team?  See this concluding quote from Zubaydah:

To that end, Abu Zubaydah was building in Pakistan an ark of sorts, assembling the most skilled explosives experts and others in the movement capable of teaching the vital skills necessary to regenerate the movement.

“I took them with me, from the flood, one or two individuals from each military science, just like Noah … two pairs from each … An instructor or two from each military subject, they are the nucleus of my future work, and I am starting from zero … I am preparing a safe location for us, so that we can start.”

zubaydah pics