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.


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. “

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.

al Qaeda in Iraq’s Prison Break – Not Good!

This past week, al Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a the Islamic State of Iraq – ISI) sprung several hundred of its members and probably a large handful of associated criminals from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The prison break occurred simultaneously with another attempted prison break in Taji and an attack in Mosul.

Reuters reports:

Monday’s attacks came exactly a year after the leader of al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, launched a “Breaking the Walls” campaign that made freeing its imprisoned members a top priority, the group said in a statement.

Well, at least we didn’t see this coming.

So this is bad in a lot of different ways.

  • The planning and coordination conducted for a series of attacks over such a large area really speaks to the freedom of movement AQI has in the Sunni areas. This seems to signal that the central government doesn’t really have much control over

The official added that the level of coordination of the prison raids suggested former military officers had been involved in planning, if not executing them.

  • Collusion – I saw other articles that suggested that Abu Ghraib prison had an internal riot kick off at the same time as the prison attack. Not surprising, but troubling.
  • AQI’s/ISI’s rise is apparent – The number and pace of their attacks have increased rapidly over the past 6 months. With Baghdadi’s announcement of the merger of al Nusra and AQI to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, I’ll be interested to know what role the alleged new rush of foreign fighters played in the prison raid.
  • But is AQI really focused on the U.S.?  – The Islamic State of Iraq (AQI) is really focused on sectarian conflict against the Iraqi government. I’m sure they are also against the U.S. and the West. But in general, should the U.S. worry excessively about a threat that isn’t really targeting the U.S. at this point? I understand the U.S. can’t let the threat of a resurgent AQI go entirely. A threat unaddressed today is often a strong threat over the long term. However, I do worry about overreach in counterterrorism. How long can the U.S. afford to chase every potential “Al Qaeda” named threat especially when their motives appear to be fairly Iraq centric and sectarian focus? I’m undecided. Western papers tend to call this group “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, but going back to 2006 the group tried to emphasize its Iraqi focus by rebranding as the “Islamic State of Iraq”. We should restrain the fear induced by media use of the convenient term of “al Qaeda” when the organization has tried very hard to be the Islamic State of Iraq and has gone so far as to publicly rebut al Qaeda Central’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  We should analyze this closely and really determine whether we are facing a global terror affiliate pursuing al Qaeda’s agenda or a local sectarian insurgent group that we conveniently label with an “al Qaeda” moniker.  This distinction is important.  If anything, I think we are seeing a two-front sectarian conflict with the ISI fighting the Shia and Kurd dominated government in Iraq and absorbing al Nusra to fight an Assad backed by Shia Iran & Hezballah in Syria. This looks very different from the global al Qaeda of 2001.
  • Prisons as incubators – Across the counterterrorism community, there has been a decade of discussion on how prisons provide a venue for indoctrination and recruitment to al Qaeda. Gregory Johnsen noted the critical role of prisons in propelling AQAP in Yemen. It was a prison break there that proved a seminal event in the reformation of AQAP after many years of being dormant. Will we see this same phenomena in Iraq?
  • Detention as a component of counterterrorism strategy – The bigger strategic issue rests with whether we should rely on our CT partners and their detention centers as a critical component of U.S. counterterrorism. The U.S. wants to close Guantanamo, the American public doesn’t want to use drones nor have terrorists tried and detained in the U.S., but there is no detention option aside from foreign partners – and this doesn’t seem to be working so well. As I discussed a year ago, “No Drones, No Detention, No Rendition”, what should we do if all our options are not good. If we can’t detain people at home, they are constantly freed from partner prisons and we choose not to use drones, how much capacity does the U.S. really have to interdict terror groups?

Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central out of the loop in Iraq & Syria

Last week, documents from the Sahel revealed the infighting inside al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Will McCants at Jihadica then discussed similar problems of dystfunction between al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.  Yesterday, al Jazeera confirmed McCant’s discussion by releasing more internal AQ documents showing the messy bickering inside al Qaeda by posting a letter from al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, aka AQ in Iraq) and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria annulling AQ in Iraq’s annexation of al-Nusra in Syria.  Zawahiri was not in the loop at all with regards to what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (AQ in Iraq/ISI) was up to in his attempts to consolidate more power in the Levant.

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 8.21.33 AM

This doesn’t appear to be the first time that AQ in Iraq (ISI) have been on their own with regards to taking orders from AQ Central.  Zarqawi was scolded years ago for being off the reservation targeting Shia in Iraq. The gradual ‘Iraqification’ of the ISI has likely led to a more insular and self-directed AQ in Iraq.  The Abbottabad documents from the Bin Laden raid suggest that AQ in Iraq may have been the most distant AQ affiliate at the time of Bin Laden’s death.  As seen here in this quote from Bin Laden’s note to Attiya in April 2011:

SOCOM-2012-0000010-HT – Regarding the communications with the brothers in Iraq, please inform us on its progress and the reason for its scarcity.

So why would Baghdadi want to annex al-Nusra? Straight up, power & money. I assume Baghdadi recognized the rise of Nusra as a threat to his regional dominance in AQ ranks.  Likewise, forcing Nusra under AQ in Iraq’s wing would bring the best resourced AQ affiliate garnering the most international attention under his control.  I imagine far fewer Gulf donors want to pump money and weapons into Iraq as compared to Syria. Baghdadi was thinking about keeping his stake in a post-Zawahiri world. According to al Jazeera, Baghdadi’s preemptive power grab harmed Nusra in Syria.

 after Baghdadi released a video in April declaring the formation of the ISIL, many of al-Nusra’s fighters, especially non-Syrians, left to join the new umbrella group. “This was the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad,” an al-Nusra source inside Syria told Al Jazeera on Saturday. One al-Nusra fighter estimated that 70 percent of the group’s members left for the ISIL in Idlib province, with even higher defection rates in the Syria’s eastern regions. Aleppo, the bastion of al-Nusra, saw the least defections from its ranks, fighters said. But even then the city suffered from the divisions within the group.

So we now see Zawahiri scolding his regional Emirs.

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 8.07.19 AM

I’m guessing a Nusra dude must have passed this along to Al Jazeera to get word out to everyone that the two groups are separate, just in case Baghdadi doesn’t want to comply.  Poor Ayman, why won’t ISI (AQ in Iraq) listen to you? Why are they not consulting you?  I’m guessing several reasons.

  • AQ in Iraq has always been “On Your Own” (O.Y.O.) with respect to Zawahiri.  AQ Central has always been critical of the group’s conduct (See Attiya letter & Abbottabad doc SOCOM-2012-0000017) , so why listen to the grump if all he wants to do is play arm chair quarterback from Pakistan?
  • AQ in Iraq probably has its own resource pipeline:  Having fought for years in Iraq, they have cemented their own weapons and money pipelines from the Gulf years ago and sustain their own illicit mechanisms in country.  What does AQ Central provide them at this point?
  • Zawahiri doesn’t have good mechanisms to communicate with AQ in Iraq and the ISI.  The Abbottabad documents suggest there were many intermediaries trying to reach them.  Here again we see the regional affiliates not having routine contact with Zawahiri.

Another really interesting aspect of this is the naivety of al Qaeda foreign fighters.  Just a few months back, Omar Hammami was talking about the glory and just path of jihad in Syria where things are resolved appropriately.Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 10.15.41 AM

Yet, we now see that al-Baghdadi with AQ in Iraq (ISI) is pulling the same stunt as Hammami’s Shabaab nemesis Ahmed Godane – trying to seize more power by controlling a command relationship with Zawahiri and AQ Central.  Ahh Omar, it appears jihad is the same everywhere, this is what happens when you approach age 30, whether its jihad or office work you figure out its all – “same shit, different day.”  Even though al Qaeda doesn’t support Omar, at least his parents still do.

From a counterterrorism perspective, I see both some concerns and some opportunities.  If anything, I would imagine now more than maybe anytime since Bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri is desperately trying to plot his strategy and an attack to re-establish his prominence, authority and control over al Qaeda.  Zawahiri still has control in places I’m sure, but without a “quick win” where he can regain some clout his relevance to AQ affiliates will continue to wane.  Likewise, for the West, this internal al Qaeda fracturing is helpful as it prevents the groups from advancing forward productively.  However, it requires analysts to independently evaluate every aspect of many different groups.  Used to an established AQ playbook the past decade, analysts have likely gotten comfortable with how AQ would operate.  Now, the landscape is quite dynamic and much harder to anticipate as the regional and local aspects influencing each group vary so much – a significant challenge for the West.

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.

Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 8.35.39 AM

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.


What is the primary affiliate of al Qaeda a year after Bin Laden’s death? Poll Results #10

From May 2, 2012 through July 2012, I asked a related question with respect to the relative strength of al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates.  After asking each respondent whether al Qaeda affiliates were ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ (see the results here), I asked respondents:

Which affiliate is the primary node of al Qaeda globally?

In total, 165 respondents selected a primary node of al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was the clear favorite on the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.  This seems unsurprising as AQAP was discussed profusely in the U.S. media during the May/June 2012 timeframe.

Here’s a chart showing the selections of voters this past summer.

primary node

Again, consistent with my break down of previous questions, I have shown the votes based on different demographic categories.  Here are some that caught my eye.

  •  ‘Government Non-Military’ voters were less likely to select AQAP and appear to believe AQ Central in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the central node of al Qaeda.
  • Those selecting ‘Television’ as their primary source (note – a small group of voters), were more likely than any other demographic to select an ‘Emerging AQ in North Africa’ as the primary node.
  • Travel played an interesting dynamic in this vote.  Those who have traveled outside the U.S./EU more than 2 years were evenly split between AQAP and AQ Central being the primary node of AQ.  However, those that have traveled less than 2 years outside the U.S./EU selected AQAP at the same rate as the majority but were more diffuse in their selections beyond AQAP including the selection of al Shabaab at a rate of almost 10%.

Here are the results of all voters broken down by demographic group.

Screen Shot 2012-12-19 at 8.28.19 AM


Syria Support and ‘Loss Aversion’ – How do we think about foreign intervention? – 1 Year Post UBL – Results #5

Beginning on May 2, 2012, I wanted to find out two things with regards to one question.

  1. How supportive were voters to a Western intervention in Syria similar to the support provided to the Libyan resistance to overthrow Qaddafi?
  2. How susceptible were voters to the bias of loss aversion?  Much of the debate surrounding a Syrian intervention centers on the fear of military weapons and aid falling into the hands of al Qaeda affiliated individuals and groups.  Dan Ariely describes in his books, The Upside of Irrationality and Predictably Irrational, how fear of losses can loom larger than gains thus influencing our decisions with regards to risk. Having backed militias in Afghanistan that later provided the seeds for al Qaeda, the U.S. national debate with regards to backing the Libyan rebellion and now the Syrian uprising continually echoes with fears of “What if terrorists get our weapons?” – a justifiable fear.

To test these two things with one question, I’ve conducted a several month long experiment here at this blog via the “1 Year After Bin Laden” poll beginning on May 2, 2012 and a series of blog posts (#1,#2,#3,#4,#5,#6) during the months of August through October.  These blog posts used a variety of framing techniques designed to skew voting results with regards to ‘loss aversion’ testing (BTW – only @jeremyscahill – a journalist of course – called me out on my ridiculous framing of some of the questions).  The experiment and results come in two parts.

Experiment iteration #1 – Last question of the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey – May 2, 2012 through July 16, 2012

Beginning on May 2, 2012, I distributed the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey in a variety of venues.  However, there were two versions of this survey. Some respondents (90 in total) answered this question with regards to supporting Syria.

With regards to the current uprising in Syria, should the U.S. and European nations provide weapons, training and funding to the rebellion against the Assad regime if they can guarantee that 95% of all support will be gained by resistance fighters with no demonstrated connection to or ideological affinity for al Qaeda?

Some respondents (106 in total) answered this question with regards to supporting Syria – a question designed to frame the issue in terms of losses.  The hypothesis being those who receive the question referencing ‘loss of support to al Qaeda’ would select the choice to “not support the Syrian rebellion” at a higher rate.  Here’s the alternate question.

With regards to the current uprising in Syria, should the U.S. and European nations provide weapons, training and funding to the rebellion against the Assad regime even if 5% of all support provided would be lost to resistance fighters with a demonstrated connection and ideological affinity for al Qaeda?

Results Experiment #1: In this first experiment, I detected no sense of loss aversion skewing respondent choices with regards to supporting the Syrian resistance.  It didn’t matter which question voters received, they selected “Yes” or “No” in roughly the same distribution regardless of question context.  The overall balance of votes was 39% saying “Yes, we should support the rebels” and 61% saying “No, we should not support the rebels.”   In fact, those that received the loss aversion question were slightly more likely to select “Yes, we should support the rebels.”  I’ll have more analysis of these results below, but here is the breakdown chart of professional group votes for the Syria support question during the months of May through July.   Interesting points were:

  • ‘Academia’ voters were most likely to reject the notion of supporting the Syrian resistance.
  • ‘Military’ voters were more inclined to support the Syrian resistance even if some support were lost to people affiliated with al Qaeda.


Experiment iteration #2 – Single question posted at “Selected Wisdom” – August 27, 2012 through October 18, 2012

After analyzing the results from the “1 Year After Bin Laden” poll, I wondered if question wording, structure or placement made the bias of loss aversion not emerge.  Starting at the end of August, I decided to run this experiment again to look for 1) whether loss aversion was present with respondent choices and 2) if overall support for a Syrian intervention had changed since media coverage of Syria fighting became more profuse in recent months.
Through a series of blog posts on Syria and distribution of links on Twitter, several respondents (42 in total) answered this question with regards to supporting the Syrian resistance.

Should the U.S. and European nations back and resource the rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria if 95% of all support will be gained by resistance fighters with no connection to or affinity for al Qaeda?

Alternatively, some blog posts and Twitter links received answers to a different question (40 in total) with regards to their support for backing the Syrian resistance – again the hypothesis being those who receive the question referencing ‘loss of support to al Qaeda’ would select the choice to “not” support the Syrian rebellion at a higher rate.

Should the U.S. and European nations back and resource the rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria if 5% of all support will be lost to fighters connected to or aligned with al Qaeda?

Results Experiment #2: In the second experiment, despite significant changes in the intensity of the Syrian conflict, elapse of time, question framing, etc., I received almost the exact same results as in experiment #1.  I detected no ‘loss aversion’ bias.  Again, the overall balance of votes was 39% saying “Yes, we should support the rebels” and 61% saying “No, we should not support the rebels.”  A quick caveat, some of the voters to the second experiment were assuredly the same as those that voted in the first experiment. However, a significant amount were different as I used different and more dissemination platforms in the second experiment to gather an alternative sample.  I’ll post more cumulative analysis below, but here is a chart showing the results of experiment #2 from August 27, 2012 through October 18, 2012.

So, what does this all mean? I have lots of theories but a definitive answer would require more experimentation. Here are some of my initial thoughts:

  1. The crowd showed no real bias towards ‘loss aversion‘.  Looking at the table below, across the board respondents of all demographic breakdowns were generally split at a rate of 40% for intervention (‘Yes’ -Votes) and 60% against intervention (‘No’- Votes) with one notable exception in yellow.
  2. I believe the resistance to ‘loss aversion’, assuming I properly crafted the questions, results from a highly educated audience that knows a considerable bit about counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and national security in general.  Respondent knowledge of the topic helps them offset against question framing and arrive at decisions more analytically in this context.  This doesn’t mean that if you asked the same audience ‘loss aversion’ questions about the stock market, for example, that they would be equally resistant.  My guess would be I along with many of the respondents would be much more prone to a ‘loss aversion’ bias if queried on subjects for which we have limited knowledge and less data from which to offset the fear of losses.
  3. The ‘loss aversion’ question in the context of a Syrian intervention may not have worked because many I have talked to, and several respondents noted below, have a definitive ideological stance about foreign intervention of any kind.  Essentially, many I talk to reference getting involved in Syria quickly retort with “we should never get involved in these foreign interventions, look what happened in Libya (Iraq, Afghanistan, fill in the blank).”  Others will quickly respond with, “we intervened in Libya, so why shouldn’t we help out the Syrians?”  I believe individual respondent stance on foreign intervention in general overrides any bias detection injected by me through question structure.  Whether its Syria or any country, respondents have a pre-determined position on interventions.
  4. The recent U.S. support to Libya likely plays heavy on the minds of respondents and, depending on political preferences, can shape the responses to the Syria question.  The debate on Syria currently rests in a bizarre twist as I noted in a post this week.  The GOP appeared against a Libyan intervention under the Obama administration last year, but now has gone all in for supporting a Syrian intervention.  Meanwhile, the Democratic Obama administration backed the Arab Spring uprising in Libya but seems particularly reluctant to get involved in Syria before the upcoming election.  I’m curious how this will shake out in next week’s Presidential debate, and I have no idea how this shapes respondent choices to the Syria question during Experiment #1 or Experiment #2.

I’ll conclude with some last points related to the results breakout in the table below. The table shows the results by demographic attribute in Experiment #1 across both question types -“gain” and “loss”.  The results for Experiment #2 are at the bottom.  In green, I’ve highlighted lines I found particularly interesting and in yellow I’ve highlighted the most fascinating result.  Here are some final points:

  • Those identifying ‘Social Media’ as their primary information source were more against intervention on average.  Meanwhile, those that prefer ‘Newspapers’ seemed more balanced in their support for or against an intervention in Syria.
  • Those preferring ‘Television’ as their primary information source (a small sample) were ironically more supportive of intervention in Syria.  Is this because television portrayals provide more sympathy to the opposition and relate atrocities to the viewer in a different way?  No idea, but interesting.
  • The most interesting result is in yellow and relates to whether respondents live in and around the Washington DC metropolitan area.  Those residing around the nation’s capital were 20% more likely to be against a Syrian intervention than those that are currently living outside the beltway.  How about that?  What do folks in DC believe that the rest of the U.S. and world perceives differently?
  • In Experiment #2, I thought support for a Syrian intervention might go down after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  However, the incident didn’t seem to change voting patterns.  In fact, the small sample of voters just before the attack were more against a U.S. intervention than those that voted after the Benghazi tragedy.

Here’s the full table, thanks to those that have voted and below the table are the additional comments provided by respondents to support their vote – some really insightful comments that define the key factors needing analysis as the U.S. sets its policy in Syria moving forward.


Here are the open comments submitted during experiment #1 from May through June 2012.

Here are the open comments provided during experiment #2 from the end of August through mid-October.