Ansar al Sharia’s Overt Support For Foreign Fighters in Iraq

Last night @azelin made an interesting discovery linking Ansar al Sharia in Libya with foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Iraq.  See the post here.  Aaron spotted some Ansar al Sharia propaganda calling for the release of Libyan foreign fighters currently detained in Iraq.

A month ago, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Benghazi (The Supporters of Islamic Law; ASB), on its official Facebook page via its official media outlet al-Rayyah Foundation for Media Production uploaded a poster (see above) promoting a demonstration on Sunday December 16 in Tripoli and Benghazi

Aaron, with the help of Green Mountain, thought to compare the names and pictures of the detained Libyans with the Sinjar records of foreign fighters to Iraq.  Here’s what he found.

Two of the individuals also contained pictures in their Sinjar application for the Islamic State of Iraq. Below, you can see a comparison of the application photo from 2006 on the left and what I am assuming is a relatively recent photo of the same individual in Iraqi custody, which is from the above flier. There are slight differences due to aging and likely poor conditions in Iraqi prisons and the second picture looks closer in similarity to the before and after than the first one. For those reading, what do you think (leave a comment below)?

Check out his post and the pictures and see what you think.  Are these the same people?

Also of note this morning, Asher Berman of Syria Survey said there are other groups in Libya also supporting the release of these Libyan foreign fighters to Iraq.

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So what does all this mean?  Some will say this shows these Libyan groups are al Qaeda. Others will say just that it shows definitive support for global jihad. For me, I’ll wait and see what happens over the next few months.

If interested in looking at the translated foreign fighter records from Sinjar, see this link.  And if you want to just look at the coded names from this data, see this spreadsheet here.


Counterterrorism Across North Africa: Complicated, Messy but Moving Forward

This week, while everyone in the U.S. has been bickering about what happened in Benghazi more than 3 ½ months ago, counterterrorism operations have occurred across North Africa with the apprehension/battling of militants in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.  I’m not even going to get into whether these individuals are in al Qaeda or not, since the definition of “al Qaeda” is completely unclear at this point.  But, what is clear is that North African countries have seemingly made some counterterrorism gains against militants of one type or another.

(Note: Appears for the media and select Congressmen the current definition of al Qaeda is “all angry, armed men in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia that are not already a part of Hezballah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”)

Here’s a quick rundown on the latest developments.


Brandon Darby reports that:

“Tunisian security forces arrested seven men for actively playing a role in the recruitment of Al Qaeda terrorists. The North African government claims to have completely dismantled the cell.”

While Tunisia led the way in the Arab Spring, they’ve always had an al Qaeda recruitment problem.  While most discussion of Iraq foreign fighters has focused on the boys of Darnah, Libya, I’ve always thought the Tunisian foreign fighter supply line to be more interesting. The rate of Tunisian foreign fighters revealed in the Sinjar records was quite high and a main facilitator to Iraq was a Tunisian – “Abu Omar”.  See here for a breakdown of the 2007 records by a) country and b) city.   According to Darby, the arrests in Tunisia were close in proximity to Algeria and related to Benghazi – whether its Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda or both is unclear.


According to, the Algerian government arrested Salah Gasmi, AKA Salah Abou Mohamed near Bouira, Algeria.  Gasmi is allegedly:gasmi

“responsible for the terrorist group’s propaganda and the co-ordination of the various small groups operating in Kabylie. A computer and communications specialist by profession, he is the suspected mastermind of the 2007 suicide bombings in Algiers.”

This arrest follows a string of other alleged interdictions in Algeria in recent months:

“This security operation follows another carried out November 18th on the border between the provinces of Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia (east of Algiers) in which three terrorists were killed. They included the head of AQIM’s military committee, who was also a member of its committee of dignitaries.

This dangerous terrorist, Makhfi Rabah (aka Cheikh Abdenacer), a former member of the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) had been actively sought since 1992.”

So why is Algeria, now, suddenly so mobilized to interdict AQIM?


Lastly, Juan Cole describes an interesting scene in Benghazi – one that resembles the “Old West” cowboy days of the U.S.

Last Saturday, Benghazi security forces loyal to the elected government in Tripoli, captured a man they suspected of being involved with the groups behind the violence. (in Benghazi) And, he appears to have been willing to spill the beans. So let’s call him the Libyan Deep Throat.”

Wow, this would be a major development for the U.S., and yet I haven’t heard a peep about it in the U.S. media.  Cole continues:

“Deep Throat is so knowledgeable about the conspiracies facing the city and so dangerous to those hatching them that the latter immediately attempted to spring him from jail.”

Cole describes a fascinating series of jailbreaks and shootouts in Benghazi and I encourage all those truly interested in Libya to take a read.  While the veracity of the news report Cole cites is unknown, which he points out in his post, the alleged detainee may have spilled some interesting beans on Benghazi’s militant landscape.

“So what is Deep Throat saying? According to local journalist Mohamed Bujenah of the Libyan Herald, a senior figure in the Benghazi police told him that the informant had fingered as many as 7 prominent Muslim fundamentalist leaders in connection with these attacks, of whom the police named 6 explicitly:

1 Sufyan Ben Qumu, from the notoriously radical town of Derna, and a former prisoner at Guantanamo

2. Ahmad Bukatela, leader of the Ubaida Militia

3. Muhammad al-Zahawi, head of the Ansar al-Sharia militia

4. Muhammad al-Gharabi, a leader of the Rafallah al-Sahati Militia

5. Ismail Sallabi, another leader of Rafallah al-Sahati

6. Salim Nabous, head of the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade

It is just a newspaper article. We don’t know if the informant actually named these individuals or if he did so to escape torture, in which case we can’t trust what he said. But if the allegations are true, there is collusion among several hardline militias in the city to create instability in hopes of taking it over”

Only time will tell if these claims are true, but what is certain from this past week, counterterrorism actions across North Africa are in high gear.  So why all the counterterrorism energy and coordination now?  Terrorists have been operating in these countries for years, and this week each of these countries has undertaken significant actions.

Are al Qaeda affiliates getting ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’? Poll results #9

On May 2, 2012, one year after the death of Osama Bin Laden, I asked the following question here at this blog:

Do you think the following al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates have become stronger or weaker over the past year? (Select ‘Stronger’ or ‘Weaker’ for each affiliate)

  • AQIM
  • AQ in East Africa/al Shabaab
  • AQAP in Yemen
  • AQ Central in Pakistan/Afghanistan
  • Emerging AQ affiliate in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia
  • AQ in Iraq
  • AQ in the Caucasus

In total, roughly 175 respondents answered this question between May 2, 2012 and the end of July 2012. The results of this question are really seven-fold as each al Qaeda affiliate was assessed independently. Below are the results of respondents’ collective assessments of each al Qaeda affiliate. I’ve showed an aggregated comparison of all respondent votes below in a chart. This compares the percentage of all votes for each al Qaeda affiliate.

Below this chart, I’ve compiled the votes of respondents into a table showing the break out of votes for each al Qaeda affiliate stratified across different demographic attributes.  During this past summer, respondents clearly rated AQAP in Yemen as ‘stronger’ at higher rates than any other affiliate. However, I wonder how they would rate AQAP in Yemen now, 6 months later?


Here are some points that I found interesting in the deeper examination of respondents’ votes across each al Qaeda affiliate.

  • AQIM

– ‘Government Non-Military’ voters and ‘Private Sector’ voters rated AQIM ‘stronger’ at lower levels then other professional groups.

– Again, those preferring ‘Social Media’ as their primary information source were the most likely to select AQIM as ‘stronger’.

  • AQ in East Africa/al Shabaab

– Again, ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were the least likely to select al Qaeda threats from the Horn of Africa as ‘stronger’. Meanwhile, ‘Private Sector’ voters switched and were more likely than most to select Shabaab as getting ‘stronger’. Is that the effect of lots of television news reports about the Shabaab merger with AQ Central during the February 2012 timeframe?

  • AQAP in Yemen

– During this survey, all groups thought AQAP was ‘stronger’. Students and Academics were most convinced that AQAP was ‘stronger’ while ‘Government Non-Military’ were the most skeptical of AQAP’s strength.

  • AQ Central in Pakistan/Afghanistan

– All groups seemed to think AQ Central was weaker a year after Bin Laden’s death. Academia is particularly down on AQ Central. But here’s where it gets weird, ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were more likely than other voters to believe that AQ Central is ‘stronger’ a year after Bin Laden’s death. The same group that was skeptical about AQIM, AQAP, and Shabaab is less skeptical about AQ Central.

– Television viewers were most likely of from information source to believe that AQ Central was ‘stronger’, although they were still less than 50% in this assessment.

  • Emerging AQ affiliate in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia

–  Voters were most undecided about the strength of al Qaeda in North Africa. 51% thought this emerging affiliate was ‘stronger’ and 49% thought this emerging affiliate was ‘weaker’. I wonder what the vote would be if I ran this in the week after the Benghazi attacks?

– A strange breakdown of this affiliate occurs with regards to information sources. Those preferring intelligence reports and newspapers believe this affiliate is ‘weaker’ but magazine readers were more likely to say ‘stronger’.

  • AQ in Iraq

– Overall, AQ in Iraq was assessed as ‘weaker’, but academics and those with PHD’s were more likely to select AQ in Iraq as ‘stronger’ a year after Bin Laden’s death.

  • AQ in the Caucasus

– The threat of al Qaeda in the Caucasus – does anyone really know anything about this threat – appears to be ‘weaker’ based on all votes, but social media watchers were the group most likely to select ‘stronger’.

Here are the breakdown charts by demographic group for each AQ affiliate assessed by voters.

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An Alternative for Drone Critics? – Rounding Up a Posse in Libya

An interesting and lightly covered issue this week is the new U.S. effort to build a militia in Libya to pursue jihadi militants.  Reuters reports that:

U.S. officials in Libya have begun to look for recruits for a commando force which they plan to train to fight militants, a former commander of Libyan rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi said on Tuesday.

Building, training and advising militias is a long time practice for most all governments that want to counter a far off enemy without deploying significant force.  Sometimes it goes well, as in the Mujahideen in the 1980’s. Other times, it doesn’t go so well, like when elements of the Mujahideen became al Qaeda in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  Proxy forces were used often during the Cold War by both sides with success cases and not-so-successful cases found throughout Asia, Africa and particularly Latin America.

A team of about 10 Americans from the embassy in Tripoli visited a paramilitary base in the eastern city of Benghazi 10 days ago to interview and get to know potential recruits, according to militia commander Fathi al-Obeidi.

the article continues noting…

Obeidi said the interviewers also took note of the types of uniforms the men were wearing and asked about their opinion on security in Libya.

He said that the team of American officials included current U.S. charge d’affaires Laurence Pope and the future head trainer of the Libyan special forces team.

“I’ve been asked to help pick about 400 of these young men between the ages of 19 and 25 to train for this force,” he said. “They could be trained either in Libya or abroad.”

The force may be required to fight jihadi militants like those accused in the September 11 assault on the consulate.

So, drone critics argue that drone targeting of our adversaries is wrong because it forgoes due process (law enforcement approach) and kills innocent people.  I’ve countered noting that all counterterrorism options create civilian casualties and law enforcement approaches are rarely feasible in the places where terrorists hide – weak and failed states of which Libya is one of many such locations.  I’m ok with building militias as long as the U.S. is willing to make a long-run management commitment to achieve its short-run objectives.  Arming and training militias is not a temporary activity.

Is building, arming and training militias acceptable to those that oppose the use of drones? I ask drone critics, if its not drones for engaging militants, then it will be something else – militias for example – that pursue our adversaries.  I’m assuming most drone critics would say we should give foreign aid, promote democracy and don’t back dictators, all noble endeavors, to defeat terrorists.  But do these actions actually deter or dismantle our terrorist adversaries?

I don’t see any evidence to support a buy-the-world-a-coke strategy in the near term.  While freedom and civil liberties correlate with lower levels of terrorism, achieving these principles across all current and potential terrorist safe havens sometime in the next 50 years will not deter terrorists plotting to kill Americans today.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t push for democracy and freedom, I absolutely think we should, but I don’t think for a second that democracy and freedom will do anything to thwart our terrorist adversaries today.

Bakos on Libya Attack – Good Read

Today, the Huffington Post published an article by @nadabakos on the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  Nada’s article, “Attack in Libya Represents Subtle But Meaningful Shift In Threat to American Interests“, provides a needed counterbalance to the hopped up politically charged and flawed al Qaeda analysis proliferating the media after the death of a U.S. Ambassador.

I enjoy Nada’s post and it mirrors in many places my own thoughts (here and here) on how we assess and move forward in a post-al Qaeda world.  In fact, it was a Twitter discussion with Nada that inspired the title of my article from July “What if there is no al Qaeda? Preparing for Future Terrorism.”  Here’s Nada’s conclusion and I encourage all seeking an al Qaeda explanation to all current and future violence in the Middle East and North Africa to take notes.

Going forward, the U.S. needs to embrace a new calculus for assessing and responding to these loosely affiliated networks and militias, and watch to make sure that they do not coalesce into a successor to the threat posed by al Qaeda at its zenith. The tactics used in Benghazi resemble those used by al Qaeda, but, smaller in scope and scale, and mainly threaten our interests and assets overseas. Our diplomatic presence in other countries has always served us well when it’s open and engaging, but, like any other deployment of U.S. national power, incurs a certain degree of necessary risk. Withdrawing from the world is every bit as implausible as treating every militia as if it is al Qaeda.

Ansar al-Sharia: “Know Your Cuts of Al Qaeda Meat”

Aaron Zelin (@azelin) just did a nice roundup of the various Ansar al-Sharia groups around North Africa and the Middle East confusing the “Who is al Qaeda?” question.

Following up on Joas Wagemakers nice Jihadica post “What’s in a name?”, Zelin provides a David Letterman-ish “Know Your Cuts Of Meat” round up of all the groups currently calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia. He also does the needed work of creating three-letter acronyms for each entity – a badge of honor in the CT world.

Here’s a snippet of Zelin’s analysis:

The rise of these Ansar al-Sharia groups points to an end of al Qaeda’s unipolar global jihad of the past decade and a return to a multipolar jihadosphere, similar to the 1990s. One key difference, however is that jihadi groups are now more ideologically homogenous — in the 1990s, jihadis thought locally and acted locally, while many now talk globally and act locally. These newer groups are also more interested in providing services and governance to their fellow Muslims.

Zelin’s article comes immediately after my own speculation about who is responsible for the Consulate attack in Libya.  The weakest analysis I’ve seen thus far has immediately chalked up the violence to an amorphous, undefined “al Qaeda.”  However, I think the past week’s outbreak represents the continued fragmentation of the security environment and an era where militant groups with no, some or lots of links to old “al Qaeda” are “On Your Own” (OYO era – see last post) to find their violent way forward.

Zelin notes:

Distinguishing between these differing groups is crucial for better understanding the new landscape of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the trajectory of new salafi-jihadi groups that are not necessarily beholden to al Qaeda’s strategies or tactics. Although there are no known formal or operational links between these disparate organizations, it is possible they may try to link up in the future based on ideological affinity and similar end goals. For now, though, conflating them would be premature.

I’m with him.  I’m not sure why we can’t analyze these emerging militant groups outside of an “everything is al Qaeda lens”.  Emerging militant groups may try coordinate with global al Qaeda, but they also can and will think for themselves, sometimes to their own detriment.  I’ve also not seen many note that the attack by potentially pseudo-autnomous al Qaeda/Ansar al-Sharia operatives may ultimately lead to their demise.  By conducting an opportunistic attack, a loose group of militants may have ultimately brought the wrath of a newly elected Libyan government that’s been itching to consolidate their power against a radical militant group or two.  The Libya attack also opens the door for the U.S. to justify limited, direct intervention in Libya – a counterattack I imagine none of the new upstart militant groups in Libya is particularly well prepared for.

Lastly, Zelin’s post provides needed background for assessing future extremism emerging throughout North Africa and the Middle East.  Properly identifying our enemies will be of prime importance moving forward.  Of course, this is complicated by the competing incentives for each actor to call or not call a group al Qaeda.  I’ll repost my “Who should we call al Qaeda?” conclusion chart here.

Results of “Who should we call al Qaeda?” Survey

Last week, I posted a question asking readers if they would 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.
  • 97 voters answered this question over a three day period and the vast majority (>80%) said “No”. Here are the results.

    Additionally, 16 people left comments about this question which are compiled here.

    More to follow on this debate in the next couple of posts.