Senator Inhofe Has A Scary al Qaeda Map of Africa

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 4.39.54 PM

For those that read my FPRI post “Smarter Counterterrorism in an Era of Competing al Qaedas“, I poked fun of the use of scary maps showing al Qaeda taking over entire countries. Well, the same day I posted, Senator Inhofe of Senate Armed Services Committee brought his own to talk scary with DNI Clapper and LTG Flynn. Produced by the Economist apparently.

Check it out, and then freak out! Anyone know who the staffer is that had to hold it?

Watch him bring it out at the 39:35 minute of this hearing.

American Foreign Fighter Details How al Qaeda’s Nusra Betrayed Him In Syria

One year ago, American foreign fighter Omar Hammami detailed how Shabaab and al Qaeda betrayed and sought to kill him in Somalia (See here). Shabaab did this because Omar suspected Godane was killing off al Qaeda leaders and foreign fighters that had traveled to Somalia. Omar’s prophecy came true when Shabaab killed him in September 2013.

The past month we’ve again seen unprecedented infighting amongst al Qaeda affiliates, this time in Syria.  An extended cat fight between al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over who controls Syria finally resulted in violence with ISIS being attacked by a coalition to include Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda Central’s favored affiliate in Syria) and Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest Islamist dog in Syria’s fight.  The al Qaeda affiliate-on-al Qaeda affiliate violence showed an unprecedented level of bloodshed with foreign fighters being killed by their jihadi brothers like never before.  The result is really two major competing strains of jihadi networks – an era of terrorism competition (See here and here.)

Today, @intelgirl and @ intelwire tipped me off to what is a sequel to last year’s Omar Hammami video: an American foreign fighter who was almost killed by an al Qaeda affiliate he joined, this time in Syria. The tweet took me to a nearly 10 minute YouTube video where a foreign fighter explains how his own terrorist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, tried to kill him.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 8.56.50 PM

In the YouTube video below, Abu Muhammed al-Amriki, a man who lived in the U.S. for 10-11 years, describes how as a member of Jabhat al-Nusra (I think), he was working a checkpoint in Syria when he was told to allow weapons to pass from Turkey into the country to the FSA, a rival of Nusra.  He let the weapons pass through which, if I understand correctly, were facilitated by Ahrar al-Sham. He figures out that the FSA, Nusra and Ahrar al Sham are all working together to attack ISIS. He confronts Nusra about this betrayal of ISIS and support of the FSA (He even mentions Joulani in here I think) and Nusra then tries to kill him. So he left Nusra and is now with ISIS. I think this is roughly what he is saying, but listen for yourself below.

As I always say jihadi wannabes, if you join an al Qaeda group, your more likely to be killed by your fellow al Qaeda members than the West.


 

FPRI Post: Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s

Today, I started the first in a multi-part series of blogposts at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on counterterrorism options and policy as of 2014.  Two weeks ago, Dr. Michael Doran, Dr. Will McCants and I combined for an article at Foreign Affairs entitled “The Good and the Bad of Ahrar al-Sham” trying to illustrate the complicated nature of today’s terrorism threat and how to tread cautiously in managing it.  The issue we addressed was premature designation of groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), but this represents only one strand in an extremely complicated counterterrorism landscape.

To kick off my discussion, I posted a few assumptions on my perspective of today’s terrorist threat and where we in the U.S., and the broader West to a certain extent, currently stand.

For those that see this article as another extension of wonk pontificating, good on you.  You are right! Standby for the next few posts as I’ll get more specific.   Here’s the start of the post and you can read the entire article “Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s” at this link.

This post and several to follow represent my assumptions and opinions on how the U.S. might push forward in counterterrorism against al Qaeda and those jihadist groups emerging from al Qaeda’s wake. (These are my opinions and not necessarily shared by my co-authors Drs. Doran and McCants-–I speak only for myself here.)  The posts are meant to stir discussion and debate; I have no illusions that I have all the answers or am exactly correct in my prescriptions.

For my first post in this series, I have six assumptions and/or principles that shape my opinions to come in future posts.

  •  Al Qaeda is not one big thing

Analysts and pundits should stop focusing on building links between al Qaeda affiliates seeking to present loose networks as one large insurmountable threat.  Billing al Qaeda as “One Big Thing” over the past decade resulted in the U.S. pursuing strategies, such as military occupation and backing corrupt dictators, which galvanize competing al Qaeda adherents and unify disparate affiliate actions. The US should pick its fights wisely and for the greatest counterterrorism return at the lowest cost. Since Bin Laden’s death, we’ve seen unprecedented al Qaeda infighting in Somalia, Syria and the Sahel. Rather than build new fears of an al Qaeda juggernaut, we should instead be employing our vaunted “smart power”–that’s if the U.S. can act smartly rather than in a partisan manner and still has power in a region where it has pursued a campaign of disengagement in recent years.

 

Al Shabaab: The World’s Jihadi Darwinists

In December, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace invited me as a panelist for their conference “The al Shabaab Threat After Westgate”.  I had the great fortune of meeting and speaking with Stig Hansen and Bronwyn Bruton – both top notch Somalia experts that far outpace my skills.

For those interested in al Shabaab, I recommend Stig Hansen’s book al-Shabaab in Somalia Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 4.59.38 PMwhich is the book to read to understand the evolution of al-Shabaab.  I have a couple small things I disagree with in terms of the book’s notion of how al Qaeda integrates with al Shabaab, but overall, its a fantastic read on Shabaab. Stig displays his knowledge well in the audio recording of this session.

If interested, you can listen to the entire broadcast by clicking here at this audio file.

As for me, I discussed the terrorist threat of al Shabaab and how it integrates with al Qaeda, with special emphasis on my pal Omar Hammami, who is now taking a dirt nap courtesy of the terror group he joined and killed on behalf of – al Shabaab.

My discussion rests on a few points:

  • al Shabaab in 2014 – Probably as good as it gets.  I would like to see al Shabaab completely defeated; removed from Somalia’s hinterlands and prevented from disrupting Somalia’s government.  But I’m not naive.  I don’t see any reason why al Shabaab won’t be able to stay alive for the foreseeable future.  As Jeffrey Herbst explains in his book States and Power in Africa, African states have historically had limited ability to project power beyond the capital.  There is no reason to believe the current Somalia government is any different.  Shabaab is not what it was two years ago, but either Shabaab or some jihadi evolution of Shabaab is likely to endure for the next decade similar to how AIAI and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) existed in the past two decades.  So, after two years of fracturing and Somali government rebuilding, I don’t expect to see any significant and enduring progress in securing south central Somalia.
  • Shabaab exists because it can provide security allowing economic stability – While we talk about the ideology in our terrorism and counterterrorism studies, the reason Shabaab flourishes in Somalia is because they provide security and allow for some semblance of economic stability.  This ecomonic-security dynamic is why the ICU came to being and what al Qaeda learned during the early 1990s.
  • Shabaab is Jihadi Darwinism
      – While many in the West focus on ideological analysis (and I too believe it serves an important role), Shabaab more than any extremist group acts out of self-interest more than ideological convention.  Shabaab will make jihadi ideology fit its own agenda.  Whatever Shabaab needs the ideology to be to survive, that is what the ideology will be. Thus, jihadi darwinists.

    To listen to my comments, about 10 minutes worth, you can listen to this clip.


     

    Lastly, the discussion at the end of the session was one of the best that I have participated in. Take a listen to some great questions from the audience in this clip. And if you want to hear me get all worked up about the notion of security contractors and their responsibilities, then jump to the 20:30 mark where I discuss my perspective ” on the nuances between governments and contractors.

     

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.

 
Slide1

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. “