Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – Part 3 of Smarter Counterterrorism

My third post in the FPRI series Smarter Counterterrorism just posted.  With the help of some friends, I attempted to define the jihadi environment today and explain in narrative and visually the splits in al Qaeda’s ranks.  If interested, please read the entire article “Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, Team ISIS and The Battle For Jihadi Hearts and Minds” at this link.  Also, because I cannot make the charts that JM Berger and I put together display as larger versions at FPRI, I am posting them here for people to download.  Please click on the graphics below if you would like the larger versions for easier viewing.

Here is the intro to the post:

Today’s Jihadi Landscape: What does two competing jihadi networks and other freelance jihadi groups look like?

I’ve been wondering since Bin Laden’s death what a world without “One Big al Qaeda” might look like–see this for example.  Only now can we start to see the effects of a generational shift amongst jihadis representing two loosely formed larger networks surrounded by some, or maybe even many, loosely tied or unaffiliated jihadi groups with more regional rather than global orientations.

With the environment changing rapidly and no good way to depict today’s jihadi landscape, I, with input from friends, have put together the following visual estimate of what today’s fractured jihadi landscape might look like.  I tried to avoid the vertical, top-down task organization chart models because I don’t believe these relationships represent command and control as much as communication and collaboration.  Today’s global jihadi landscape looks more like a swarm not a corporation: it is fungible, malleable and evolving.  For the purposes of the charts you see below (Figure 1 and Figure 3), I’ve created three categories, which should not be viewed as definitive or exact as I anticipate much shifting of allegiances in the coming weeks and months.  I put forth a discussion here, not an answer, and I’m open to input.  If a group appears left out, it’s likely because I was uncertain how to assess them.  The amount of overlap represents the degree to which I estimate the groups are interlinked in their communication & efforts.”

Jihadi Competition feb 2014

And here is the chart I worked on with much help from J.M. Berger, Aaron Zelin and some friends.

stateofplay8

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.

 

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.”

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

FPRI Post: Do al Qaeda affiliates have a plan?

Today, I got the opportunity to post a discussion piece on whether al Qaeda affiliates actually follow a plan in light of the many opportunities and competing interests at play.  Recently, there has been renewed discussion about “the Next Bin Laden”.  I’m not a big fan of these kinds of posts. But I did think it was worth discussing whether these al Qaeda affiliates actually have any sort of plan and if so, do they follow any of the lauded al Qaeda strategy documents put out by their theorists?

Here’s an introduction to the post and you can read the rest at FPRI:

The rise of many jihadi affiliates around the Africa and the Middle East has renewed the American mediaquest to anoint “The Next Bin Laden”. Lacking any real information or expertise on emerging leaders some analyses has settled on older known quantities; namely Abu Musab al-Suri. (I wonder if someone just changed the date on this article from 2005 to 2013, Lawrence Wright does a better breakdown of Suri at this link from September 11, 2006.) While I’ve always been a critic of Suri, the article does raise an interesting question: do the mish-mash of “al Qaeda-in-name” affiliates actually have a plan for their actions?  Most importantly, what is the plan for Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (aka ISIS/AQ in Iraq) as they move forward in Syria?

If al Qaeda affiliates were to actually build a plan from their own lessons learned, I would assume they might reference three jihadi planners of note and several other lesser-known jihadi veterans old and new.  For the “Big Three” and their relevant works I would pick:

  1. Abu Musab al-Suri and his lengthy 1600 page The Call to Global Islamic Resistance released in 2005
  2. Bin Laden’s final strategic thoughts from Abbottabad
  3. Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 upload The Management of Savagery

I’ll discuss some of my general notions about these three influences and my opinion on whether any of these three actually make much of an impression on current jihadi conflicts.

Zawahiri commands only some of the world’s “al Qaeda’s”

Despite gaining ground in some countries and encountering opportunities for revitalization in Syria and Egypt, al Qaeda, as a single entity, continues to fracture.  For al Qaeda’s second global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, much of this has been his own doing.  After the death of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, like many new bosses, tried to assert control by pushing forward via many affiliates and in many regions.  Zawahiri had always been a bit more aggressive than Bin Laden who was more pragmatic and cautious in undertaking new endeavors learning from the group’s early 1990s follies in Sudan and Somalia.Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 3.12.59 PM

@will_mccants this past week excellently captured Zawahiri’s dilemma  in his Foreign Affairs article, “How Zawahiri Lost Control of al Qaeda.”  As I bitterly noted yesterday in my rant on media depictions of an all powerful and cohesive al Qaeda, we now see many “al Qaeda-like” things on the global stage only some of which truly follow al Qaeda Central’s guidance.  As McCants notes,

Paradoxically, one major reason that al Qaeda affiliates are not getting along is the great many opportunities before them. The turmoil in the Arab world has created security vacuums that Zawahiri has sought to exploit by calling on his local affiliates to set up shop. As they move in, they often disagree about who should be in charge.

Ahh, so who is boss?  Many believed al Qaeda was a fluid and thriving terror group because petty personal squabbles were put aside by these extremely devout al Qaeda members who always put jihadi ideology over their own interests.  As detailed in Jacob Shapiro’s new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma and frequently seen amongst the new affiliates, personal interests routinely trump al Qaeda’s global agenda.  So what is Zawahiri to do asks McCants:

Zawahiri could still pare back his organization. He could amicably part company with al Shabaab in Somalia and sever ties with AQI. The open defiance of the latter would certainly merit such a response. But al Qaeda’s leadership has historically preferred to admonish wayward affiliates rather than cut them loose. During the Iraq war, Zarqawi severely damaged al Qaeda’s global reputation by mismanaging his organization. Yet al Qaeda’s leadership preferred to privately scold him rather than cut him loose. Better to have an affiliate behaving badly, al Qaeda central figured, than to have no affiliate at all.

Zawahiri faces a different challenge than Bin Laden: a lack of levers to rein in disobedient affiliates.  As seen from the Abottabad documents, affiliates of all shapes and sizes still wanted to please Bin Laden.  Additionally, Bin Laden, as Gregory Johnsen notably pointed out, had what other al Qaeda leaders didn’t have: money. The respect earned from the Afghan mujahideen years, the success of the 9/11 attacks, his money and personal network, as well as steady communication all resulted in Bin Laden holding a series of levers with which to admonish wayward leaders and affiliates.  Today, Zawahiri does not host these attributes nor enjoy these levers and thus has little ability to punish those out of step with his wishes.  The next year will certainly be critical for seeing what shape al Qaeda takes in the future, and whether it will have much of any resemblance of the al Qaeda of old.

 

 

For the Media, “Sunni Militant = Al Qaeda Linked”

I’ve been slow the past few weeks in posts and have a bunch of short notes and quips for the next couple of weeks.  After three weeks of no writing, what sprung me back to write a post, not al Qaeda, but instead mainstream media.
Despite what one might hear on the news, al Qaeda, as of today, consists of many things rather than just one thing.  Cable news shows and major newspapers cling to the hope that all terrorism attacks are the result of al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is a known quantity to viewers/readers and framing news stories as battles between the U.S. vs. al Qaeda makes for better narratives.  The news business is about maximizing readers and viewers to increase views to advertising.  Whether its al Qaeda or some other threat, it pays to consolidate threats rather than muddle them. The most important terrorism related story of last week was the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.  The Abdallah Azzam Brigades took credit for the attack and this is where I start getting worked up.  CNN says:

a Sunni jihadist group linked to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the bombings via Twitter.

Really, this was an al Qaeda attack then? And we know because of Twitter? ugh! This sort of threat conflation can leave the average reader to think “Al Qaeda attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.”  Its a casual linkage but the article then continues on and revisits the Abdallah Azzam Brigade much later citing other attacks they were involved in, but the article leaves me confused. (For a more expansive reading on AAB, see this Lucas Winter report at FMSO) I think this confusion over a relatively unknown group resulted in the story quickly drifting from the headlines despite being quite important. For more than a decade, media outlets have decided for the public without much examination that all Sunni militant groups, large and small, are part of al Qaeda. No doubt, if one looks, Back-To-Bin Laden linkages can be made between all groups. Why should we be concerned by this? I think there are several reasons.

  • If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, it would be a big deal.  Chances are that al Qaeda Central led by Zawahiri are not attacking Iran as Zawahiri recently, publicly told al Qaeda members to put aside local enemies to focus on the far enemy; the West.
  • If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, Al Qaeda would be shifting their targeting from the U.S. to Iran and provoking a major local power to counter them.  This would increase the number of actors and forces countering their actions.  At a time where AQ Central sees lots of opportunities in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, why would they bring more heat on themselves?  Zawahiri has warned al Qaeda in Iraq about this before. If al Qaeda as a whole were attacking Iran instead of the U.S., this could possibly be a good thing for the U.S. depending on where you sit.  But this article’s threat conflation might lead you to think something else.
  • This attack likely signals further fracturing of al Qaeda rather than consolidation of al Qaeda.  If AAB, which does have links to al Qaeda by the way, were attacking the Iranian Embassy, it likely means they are not following Zawahiri’s guidance – another important development.  As I noted a couple years ago, many of these al Qaeda veterans are “On Your Own” pursuing their own objectives first and al Qaeda’s objectives second.
  • This media linkage to al Qaeda also masks what is essentially a shift from global jihad to a multi-country sectarian war.  This is important, but in a very different way than we’ve come to know in the post 9-11 period.
  • This attack may signal a further rise of al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS) who has expanded significantly into Syria, rebuffed Zawahiri and would likely take the fight in a sectarian direction.  I don’t know that AAB is aligned with ISIS and I imagine if it were this would be a partnering rather than hierarchical relationship.  But from this article, again, you would think this is all just “al Qaeda”.

I’ll stop for now as tomorrow’s post will point to an article that I think helps illuminate these nuances and presents a more robust view of the current state of al Qaeda.


 

 

FPRI Post – Zawahiri’s Latest Message: Please Listen To Me!

Today, I posted my latest thoughts at FPRI on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s public guidelines for all jihadis.  In my discussion, I talk about the agency problems Zawahiri appears to be having with his affiliates; most notably al-Badgdadi of al Qaeda in Iraq/ISI/ISIS or whatever they are calling themselves this week.  Syria has for some time been the great hope for al Qaeda to be resurgent.  Yet, al Qaeda globally seems to be in a fight for control over this jihadi prize.  Here’s a snippet from the article and you can read the entire post at this link.

First, let’s explore why Zawahiri would issue public rather than private guidance to the global jihadi community. Normally, al Qaeda might broadcast strategic vision publicly, but reserve directives and corrective guidance via secure communications.  The most famous intercept of these private communications comes from Zawahiri’s 2006 scolding of abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi for counterproductive violence against Shia in Iraq.  In addition, the Harmony documents provide countless other examples of al Qaeda’s internal directives and squabbles.  More recently some private communications to jihadi groups in Syria have allegedly surfaced showing dissatisfaction between Zawahiri and al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Al Qaeda, like most any terrorist organization, normally delivers these messages in private for several reasons:

  1. Airing internal squabbles publicly hurts the organization’s popular support and certain leader’s authority,
  2. Public messaging can reveal strategy and orders to adversaries (counterterrorists) enabling their efforts to defeat the terrorist organization, and
  3. Such messaging can, at times, severely reduce the security and success of al Qaeda affiliates.

In short, this message went public because Zawahiri’s guidance isn’t being followed. Al Qaeda Central messages and directives either can’t get to affiliates or they are being ignored.  Both scenarios are problematic for the terror group.

Was Kenya Westgate Attack More AQAP/AQ Central Than Shabaab?

This weekend brought a slew of counterterrorism news.  First, Abu Anas al-Libi was caught in Libya 15 years after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam for which he was indicted.  Second, and more interestingly, U.S. Navy Seals conducted a raid on the coastal Somali town of Barawe in an attempt to kill or capture the leader of Shabaab’s foreign fighters; a person named Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, aka Ikrima.  (By the way, this story finally cleared after two days of the worst national security reporting I’ve ever seen. Almost every piece of this story was initially reported incorrectly.)  This latest development is the most interesting so far and suggests analysis of the Westgate Mall Attack should be widened a bit.

Immediately after the attack, I like most assumed the attack was the work of al Shabaab as they’ve been threatening attacks in Kenya for years, have sufficient motive to conduct an attack and Shabaab’s emir, Ahmad Godane is a bit of a madman having just killed off many of his internal rivals and American jihadi Omar Hammami (known hereafter as Omar).  But, as more information comes to the surface, the more I’m inclined to believe that this attack may be more the work of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or al Qaeda Central (AQC) (which are effectively one and the same now, I believe, with the official announcement of Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s #2).  Here are some things I think should be considered in this alternative hypothesis that AQAP/AQC was more responsible for the Westgate attacks.

  • I think Ikrima is probably not a Godane man – My guess is that Ikrima seems to be an old al Qaeda hand loyal to the Nabhan-Fazul-Berjawi-Sakr.  If Omar was correct that there was a rift between foreign fighters and Godane, I’m inclined to think Ikrima might be doing AQAP/AQC’s work in Somalia rather than Godane’s. The Kenyan intelligence report uncovered by NPR says that Ikrima was a known al Qaeda connection back to Pakistan.

A leaked Kenyan intelligence report confirms that Ikrima was plotting “multiple attacks” inside Kenya, “sanctioned by al-Qaida” in Pakistan, and “involving financial and logistical support from South African operatives.” The report continues:

“By December 2011, the planners had acquired safe houses in Nairobi & Mombasa, trained the executors, received explosives from Somalia and commenced assembly of and concealment of explosives.”

According to the report, Ikrima’s small “terror cell” included two British nationals: an explosives expert named Jermaine John Grant and the infamous White Widow, Samantha Lewthwaite. (Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta had confirmed that a “British woman” may have been among the fighters in Westgate Mall.)

  • Most accounts put Godane in Dinsoor area, not Barawe - The raid was mistakenly reported a  number of different ways and 24 hours ago most news outlets said the raid was targeting Godane.  But most recent accounts about Godane have put him more central to Shabaab’s strongest holds in and around Dinsoor in Bay province.  Barawe is on the coast and I’ve always assumed that the foreign fighters stayed closer to the water to maintain easy access to sea routes to Yemen (See Warsame case) and down into Kenya for attacks and egress (Fazul, Nabhan, Paradise Hotel, etc.).

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  • Omar used to always cite Barawe as a hub for dissenters – Omar used to tweet about cleric opinions supporting his position that were coming from Barawe.  Omar always gave me the sense that not only were clerics voicing opposition to Godane from Barawe but that other dissenters of Godane may be based there.  This makes sense that Omar would appeal for their support, as he often did trying to get Ibrahim al-Afghani’s backing.  Afghani once commanded the Kismayo area for Shabaab (just down the coast) and having fought in Afghanistan was one of the few Shabaab members that probably had his own connections with al Qaeda.  Note, Afghani issued a public plea to al Qaeda for the removal of his old comrade Godane.  Afghani’s plea resulted in Godane killing Afghani.
  • Omar’s ghost was one of the first to ask why everyone thought it was Shabaab that did the attack – After Omar’s death, someone took over his @abumamerican twitter account and was one of the only contrarians that was excited about the attack but not believing it was al Shabaab and Godane.  I don’t get the feeling Omar’s ghost has any real idea what happened with Westgate based on his other comments, so I would take this with a large grain of salt.

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  • Two of the named attackers likely have al Qaeda connections - The Kenyan government on Saturday named four individuals in connection with the attack.  The leader appears to be from Sudan and the Kenyan government claimed he was trained by al Qaeda.  Another may potentially be related to Nabhan, al Qaeda’s leader in Somalia up until he was killed by Navy Seals in Barawe in 2009 – sound familiar.

Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and Umayr, names that were first broadcast by a local Kenyan television station. Matt Bryden, the former head of the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said via email that al-Kene and Umayr are known members of al-Hijra, the Kenyan arm of al-Shabab.

  • Was this the big attack that was discussed in the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call? - So remember just a couple months ago there was this al Qaeda conference call where supposedly Wuhayshi of AQAP said that they had a large attack ready to go and Zawahiri said “ok, get on with it.”  After the revelation of this call there was a string of drone attacks in Yemen, but maybe this Westgate attack was the attack described in the conference call.  Total speculation but it would kind of make sense and by all accounts this Westgate attack has been in the works for a year or more making it plausible that Wuhayshi would mention it.  And whether its Ikrima or Godane, both seemingly have contact with AQAP.  I don’t know anything to confirm this scenario, but I would not be surprised.
  • Really Five Shabaab groups at play - What’s been completely lost in the media is that Shabaab has been fighting internally for almost a year.  Godane has killed off key leaders of Shabaab, foreign fighters and this has resulted in there being up to five different sub-groups of Shabaab that could be involved or not involved in the Westgate attack.  So when you hear “Shabaab Attack” in the news, it could really mean many things.
  1. Shabaab Central Commanded By Godane – This is the Shabaab commanded by Godane and still what most people would think of when they hear Shabaab in the media.
  2. Foreign Fighters in Somalia With AQAP/AQC links -These are the foreign fighters around Barawe that have links to AQAP/AQC and may include Shabaab members left over from Ibrahim al-Afghani’s ranks.
  3. Robow’s militias – These would be Shabaab members loyal to Muktar Robow, Godane’s main living rival in Shabaab circles and they seem to be in and around Bakool region and more north of Diinsoor and far interior from the coast.
  4. Muslim Youth Center – The Kenyan support element to Shabaab and maybe hosting the White Widow, but I’m getting the sense this is all overblown.
  5. al-Hijra – Shabaab’s arm in Kenya that I would assume at a minimum played a support role in the attack and apparently Ikrima was a member of this group.

So after all this discussion, I’m sure I still left something out but I think we should be cosndiering several scenarios with the Westgate attack.

  1. Scenario: Shabaab did the Westgate attack on their own.- This was the most logical explanation at the time. Shabaab has the capacity to pull this off and they have executed many attacks like this in Mogadishu.  Maybe Godane used this as a diversion from the fact he has been killing off his rivals and foreign fighters.  But with more details, I’m starting to think this is less likely.
  2. Scenario: Shabaab Dissenters working with AQ foreign fighters and planners conduct the attack to upstage Godane and Shabaab - Still operating and having their own connections to al Qaeda, wanting to prove themselves to AQAP/AQC and embarass Godane, the Shabaab dissenters combine with the al Qaeda external operations guys to pull off the Westgate attack.  Wow, this would be interesting.
  3. Scenario: Shabaab under Godane and the foreign fighters are all in on it and use al-Hijra/MYC for local Kenyan support - I think this one is also highly likely.  While the infighting has been problematic, maybe the AQ cell in Barawe has been in constant synchronization with Godane and there is no rift between the two elements.  THis would support the non-stop Shabaab tweeting during the attacks and would not be as confusing for al-Hijra and MYC in Kenya as they’ve probably watched the Somalia infighting with some confusion about who they should support.

Anyways, lots to talk about in the Horn of Africa and I look forward to anyone’s thought on the latest developments.