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.


From AQIM in the Sahel to Shabaab in the Horn, al Qaeda Affiliates Squabble & Fracture

Well, it seems al Qaeda has found some cracks in its foundation.  For those that believe al Qaeda’s ideology is all powerful, please read below.

The Associated Press released yet another internal document from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  This document dated October 3, 2012 details the break off of Moktar Belmoktar. Yet again, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate crumbling from internal disputes. Just like Omar Hammami’s complaints about Shabaab’s taxation policy with regards to qat, AQIM and Belmoktar quibbled about ransoms and money.  With respect to Belmoktar (aka Abu Abbas in the letter), AQIM’s Shura Council has many sharp words and accusations, noting:
The man, based on the loftiness of his ability, his precedence in jihad and his prowess, remained for more than a decade independent in opinion and autonomous in decisionmaking, linked to the organization’s leadership only by slogan. He paid no mind, gave no consideration, did not abide by and did not adhere to the principle of “hear and obey,” nor did he stick to the directives or work by the orders coming from the emirate….all tho is testimony to the fact that Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone, and that he is satisfied only when followed and obeyed.
Essentially, Belmoktar never really was a team player.  It seems Belmoktar followed the O.Y.O. (On Your Own) way of business I suggested last year.
The organization paid particular attention to this abduction because of the nature of the Canadian captives – one of them was the personal representative of the U.N. Secretary General.  We strove to give htis case an international dimension.  We tried to coordinate with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan – (AQ Central)]. But unfortunately, we met the obstacle of Khaled.  Rather than walking with us in the plan we outlined, he managed the case however he liked, despite our repeated insistence that the case should be under the administration of the organization.  He chose to step outside the organization and reach an agreement in his own way, he did not follow the organization’s instructions.
Moktar Belmoktar

Moktar Belmoktar

So AQIM was trying to coordinate the high level Canadian kidnapping with AQ Central. Not only did Belmohtar blow off AQIM, he ransomed too low in the eyes of the AQIM leadership. After this, AQIM accuses Belmoktar of not pulling off any high visibility attacks.  I think the An Amenas gas plant and now Niger suicide bombings must make up for that.  I guess Belmokhtar got the message and maybe this letter motivated him.

It also seems that Belmokhtar is a “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” kind of guy.

Why do you only turn on your phone with the Emirate when you need it, while your communication with some media is almost never ending!

And Belmokhtar didn’t turn his TPS reports in on time!
We ask you also: How many administrative and financial reports have you sent up to your Emirate?

More importantly, this letter suggests 1) Belmokhtar desired to setup a separate and independent communications channel with AQ Central- Zawahiri and certain al Qaeda web forums (Maybe he did?!) and 2) AQIM struggled to maintain contact and receive guidance from a bottled up AQ Central in AFPAK (Presumably getting droned to death).

Our dear brothers, we find it a strange contradiction in your message, that idea of separating from the leadership of the Islamic Maghreb and instead connecting with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan]. The great obstacles between us and the central leadership are not unknown to you.  They are far greater than any obstacles imaginable with the closer, local leadership that borders you.  For example, since we vowed our allegiance up until this very day, we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan, the two sheikhs, bin Laden (God rest his soul) and Ayman (God preserve him). From time to time, we also received messages from the two sheikhs Attiyat Ullah (Attiyah) and Abu Yahia al-Libi (God rest their souls). All this, despite our multiple letters to them for them to deal with us effectively in managing jihad here.

Last year, I noted that:

Jihadi militant group leaders have now entered the “O.Y.O.” era – On Your Own.  Militant groups are rebuilding, consolidating, finding new bases of support and new financial backers. …An upstart militant group leader .. competing for funding and popular support amongst a sea of militant groups has no reason to wait for a far off al Qaeda leader (Zawahiri for example), whom they likely don’t even know nor receive any funding from, to issue orders about who to attack.

Well, this AQIM letter confirms some of the challenges the group faced during its height noted in the first AP letter published a few months back.

We only bring this up so that our brothers understand that the idea of adhering to the central leadership rather than the local leadership is not realistic.

One more key note, the letter does confirm that there were, at a minimum, some loose connections between AQIM and other militant groups in Libya.

Two others were formed in the Sahara, under the Tareq bin Zayed Brigade.  They were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there.  Their projects are still active to this day.

It seems like Belmokhtar tried to set up his own links in Libya separate from those of AQIM.  Again, I always caution, don’t overstate “links”. It seems both Belhmoktar and AQIM wanted to bring the AQ militant elements in Libya under their influence.  But, maybe the Libyan groups didn’t/don’t want to be subordinate to AQIM? Maybe they, like Belmokhtar, would like to have their own channel to AQ Central? If you are Ansar al-Sharia or some other element in Libya, why fall under the direction of AQIM; a group that is already struggling to stay in touch with AQ central?

Last quote, can’t resist this one.  It seems Belmokhtar didn’t like the restructuring of AQIM in 2006.  But AQIM noted this restructuring was because of:

the lowering number of mujahedeen and the widening territory in the north.

So when you see al Qaeda in more places or spread out geographically, it doesn’t always mean they are growing in strength.  It could mean the opposite.  And this may further illuminate the group’s decision to transform from GSPC and formally join al Qaeda – recruitment was down.

The entire letter is a fascinating primary document and again, like the earlier AP release of an AQIM letter, important for understanding what a post-Bin Laden al Qaeda looks like. The letter brings up several points for evaluating how terrorism may work in the future and what might happen “If there is no al Qaeda“.

  • The value of Bin Laden to al Qaeda:  For the second time in two years, we can see the value Bin Laden provided the Al Qaeda organization up until his death.  Bin Laden was hesitant, for good reasons, in having a formal relationship with Shabaab in Somalia.  After his death, Zawahiri pushed Al Qaeda into a formal alliance with Shabaab in 2012.  Al Qaeda Central now has an embarrassing affiliate with different factions fighting each other in the Horn Africa while also being on the retreat from Allied forces.  Ibrahim al-Afghani published an open plea to Zawahiri on a web page requesting the removal of Shabaab’s leader Godane – Zawahiri must be kicking himself.  Meanwhile, in the Sahara, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate where different leaders compete and quarrel over resources, strategic direction and access to AQ’s senior leader.  A Bin Laden led al Qaeda would not have this kind of public fracturing going on.  Bin Laden would have sent a message to these troubled subordinates – “Enough”.  And the affiliates would have listened because 1) Bin Laden maintained sustained communications up until his death 2) Bin Laden was central to the distribution of resources and 3) Bin Laden was respected for his successes.  This all leads to the next question…..
  • Is there really an al Qaeda Central and is Zawahiri really leading all these different groups?: I don’t doubt that Zawahiri still maintains public respect and that al Qaeda members will say they are loyal to him.  I also think Zawahiri has a command relationship in certain locales where he maintains physical relationships with old al Qaeda members, namely Egypt, possibly Yemen and some in Libya (Longer paper coming out on this in a while). But, if you are a young jihadi commander and, 1) you haven’t had any communication with Zawahiri in months, 2) you don’t receive any resources from AQ Central and you are entirely self-funded and 3) you only get guidance from AQ Central through intermediaries that you believe are incompetent, corrupt or both, why would you continue to wait on al Qaeda?  You probably wouldn’t! And I think that is what we see happening today in both the Sahel and Somalia.  Belmoktar has seized an opportunity to pursue his own “al Qaeda” vision and in Somalia we see Omar Hammami publicly and Ibrahim al-Afghani and Hassan Aweys more politically striking out on their own path.  Omar Hammami represents this confusion best, he wants to support AQ but he hates the local AQ leader (Godane) that he is supposed to follow. Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.07.53 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.11.02 AM
  • Resources can easily undermine ideology: In Africa, there’s more competition for resources and I’m not surprised this is where we see ideology being undermined by resource competition. In Somalia, there’s constant competition for resources, turf and control. Today, in Shabaab, Godane, Robow, Aweys and Afghani each try to morph al Qaeda’s ideology and brand to their advantage.  In the Sahara, we see something slightly different where kidnapping royalties and illicit smuggling revenues controlled by a leader like Belmoktar can increase his power vis-a-vis AQIM’s leadership.
  • Distance and limited communication breed mistrust: As the distance between al Qaeda’s affiliates and AQ’s central leadership increases and communication decreases, mistrust ensues.  Likewise, even the decentralized “Starfish” organization of al Qaeda needs leadership to achieve lasting gains.  Today, Belmoktar has solved al Qaeda’s “put up or shut up” problem.  With each spectacular attack, his influence grows.  Likewise, I would look to Jabhat al-Nusra today.  The most prolific leaders of the Syrian jihad will be the next leaders of Salafi-Jihadi militancy – something that looks “al Qaeda like” at times, but may be called something entirely different.
  • Is a live Zawahiri better than a dead Zawahiri?: Let me be clear, at the first available opportunity, I think the U.S. should kill or capture Zawahiri.  No doubt about it.  However, Zawahiri, despite being respected internationally for being a strategic thinker, might actually be preventing the emergence of the next, more effective version of al Qaeda.  Again, I don’t believe that Zawahiri is keeping a lid on violence, he needs an attack on the West in a big way in order to reassert his authority.  But, his intermittent and erratic communication with affiliates, loss of affiliate control and opportunistic piggy-backing on Jabhat al-Nusra’s success may actually be doing al Qaeda more harm than good.  I would imagine Zawahiri is plotting an attack on the West this minute and building a strategy to re-energize al Qaeda through Syria. But, his persistent involvement may actually be slowing the development of the next wave of Salafi-Jihadi militancy.

New Research Series on Africa Security Issues – “Pardon the Pivot”

This week, the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University released a new issue brief entitled “Pardon the Pivot, What about Africa?” designed to focus more attention on the myriad of security threats and development challenges across Africa.  Joseph Clark, Frank Cilluffo and I collaborated to write an overview of the hybrid threats emerging in different regions of Africa and how these security challenges are nested in overlapping, complex regional challenges.  In the coming months, HSPI will be working with Africa regional specialists to do indepth investigations into Africa threat groups and the regions in which they reside.

The paper is available at this link and here’s the introduction to the piece.  More to follow in the coming months.

Islamist fighters, separatist violence, and France’s recent intervention in Mali took much of the news media by surprise.  More than a few journalists were left, like the satirical Stephen Colbert, drawing vague contextual comparisons between Mali and Afghanistan.  Unfortunately the media’s lack of knowledge may mirror a general lack of sustained and focused attention on the part of senior policymakers.

Mali, Algeria, and other troubled areas, have been (and continue to be) tinder boxes for the outbreak of conflict and spread of terrorism.  In March 2012, Mali suffered a coup sparked by military frustration with the civilian leadership’s prosecution of the Tuareg rebellion.  Despite the installation of interim civilian government in April 2012, the coup unleashed a series of destabilizing events that eventually allowed Islamist forces to charge south seizing territory this past January.  These events led to France’s  intervention — which the militants responded to by attacking a much softer target in Algeria.  The attack against the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria was the deadliest terrorist attack on an oil and gas installation in the industry’s one-hundred and fifty year history.

Recent events in these two countries, and in other African nation-states, illustrate how quickly and easily certain parts of Africa may shift from potential to actual hotspots.  Furthermore, the presence of longterm concerns and trends at the continental level illuminate the critical need for continued emphasis on the security environment in Africa.

See more at: http://www.gwumc.edu/hspi/policy/HSPI%20Issue%20Brief%2017%20-%20What%20About%20Africa.pdf

Al Qaeda (AQIM) Doesn’t Follow Its Own Lessons Learned

The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) published a short blog post I wrote on revelations from internal al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) documents showing how they integrated into the Tuareg insurgency in Mali.  Here’s the introduction to the post and I’ll link to the full discussion here at this link.

At FPRI’s Geopoliticus:

“Don’t feel bad U.S. military, you are not the only force struggling to make better decisions from your lessons learned.  Al Qaeda and particularly their Sahel affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), struggle to improve their operations based on analyses of past failures as evidence in the Associated Press’s (AP) recent publication of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel’s confidential letter to his fighters in Mali.  While an incomplete manuscript, three chapters of AQIM guidance discovered in Timbuktu provide some clarity to al Qaeda’s strategic thinking in a post-Bin Laden era.

Overall, the document echoes many of the recommendations discussed by Bin Laden in the Abbottabad documents and outlined in a previous post “Are today’s al Qaeda offshoots following Bin Laden’s vision?”.  Droukdel, like Bin Laden, stresses several important principles to his followers at some point after the June 2012.

  • Patience – Droukdel realizes that AQIM’s gains in Northern Mali were fragile and that pushing the implementation of Sharia aggressively amongst a resistant population could short circuit their future Islamic state.
  • Integrate with local movements – Droukdel encourages his followers to, “extend bridges to the various sectors and part of Azawad society – Arab, Tuareg, and Zingiya – to end the situation of political, social, and intellectual separation.” Droukdel’s narrative is strikingly similar to that of Bin Laden’s “winning hearts and minds” guidance.
  • Learn from mistakes – In Chapter 1 page 3, Droukdel discusses mistakes made by their proxies in implementing Sharia requesting that they avoid the “destruction of shrines” and harsh application of religious punishments.  Droukdel, like Bin Laden, does not want to see his troops continuing to make the same mistakes.

In addition to the points of similarity with Bin Laden’s vision, Droukdel provides some rather interesting analysis of AQIM’s situation and future. ….

See the rest of the discussion at FPRI at this link: http://www.fpri.org/geopoliticus/2013/03/al-qaeda-doesnt-follow-its-own-lessons-learned

Kidnapping: Why Al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms

Yesterday, the Foreign Policy Research Institute provided me another opportunity to post on their blog Geopoliticus.  For this post, I did an extended discussion and update to a series of posts I did with Alex Thurston several years back regarding AQIM’s use of kidnapping in the Sahel.  For the old discussions of AQIM & others’ kidnapping operations see these posts and Alex’s excellent insights at these posts –  #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

In this new post, entitled “Why al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms,” I discuss the trade offs and disadvantages for al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM that are dependent on illicit funding schemes, namely kidnapping, to sustain their operations.  I conclude with the opinion that al Qaeda needs donations more than ransoms if they intend to orchestrate a comeback.  Here’s an excerpt of the post below and for the entire post, visit this link at FPRI.

“On the surface, kidnapping and smuggling appears an ideal financial engine for terror groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates. This assertion, however, ignores the inherent challenges encountered when any organization, whether terrorist group to criminal enterprise, undertakes illicit funding schemes.  Kidnapping and ransom operations introduce significant transaction costs which significantly devalue the gross sum of revenues.  Kidnapping operations create a series of internal costs for terror groups:

  • Networks Of Intermediaries –  Negotiations and payments for kidnapping operations require layers of middlemen with each network extracting a percentage of the overall take.

  • Transaction Time – The time between hostage taking and ransom payments can be significant requiring the terror group to maintain a solid reserve of capital to sustain its operations between transactions.  Essentially, time is money, and in the case of kidnapping operations, a cost to the terror group.

  • Hostage Deaths – The trauma of kidnapping and the harsh environments in which terrorist groups operate often result in the death of hostages.  The death of a hostage hurts the terror group directly in terms of loss revenues. But, even more damage occurs indirectly as the hostage death erodes trust for future ransom negotiations.

  • Infighting – In any business, transactions often lead to conflict.  This is particularly true in illicit industries where trust is constantly being questioned.  Kidnapping negotiations naturally generate friction between intermediaries and when negotiations become protracted parties may turn to open conflict.

  • Declines in Hostage Availability – As groups like AQIM continue to kidnap hostages, the availability of hostages naturally declines requiring the terror group to operate at longer distances to acquire captives.  This distance imposes significant logistical costs.

  • Undermines Terror Group’s Ideology – Inevitably, in illicit schemes and even licit enterprises, business gets messy and the terror group must make choices with regards to sustaining its resource flow.  Often times, these choices result in alienation of a terror group’s local base of popular support or hypocritical conflicts of interest between the terror group’s deeds and its words.  The recent accusations of Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter who has fallen out of favor with al Shabaab, demonstrate how al Shabaab’s turning a blind eye to Qat distribution in Somalia for the purpose of taxation has called into question the group’s committment to al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia law.

  • Opportunity Costs – When al Qaeda is dedicating more time, manpower and resources to illicit fund generation, they are spending less time recruiting and training new operatives, planning operations and executing attacks.”

Also, @el_Grillo1 made a point which I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Another detractor of illicit revenue generation for al Qaeda groups is the scrutiny brought on terrorists by law enforcement and the military when they conduct illegal activities like kidnapping and drug smuggling. An important point that I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Here is a quick chart I put together showing the relative value of illicit funds to donor provided dollars.



Ansar Dine: When jihad goes local for reasons other than ideology

The New York Times released another article this weekend again questioning the ideological commitment of so called “al Qaeda linked” groups in Mali.  The post “Algeria Sowed Seeds Of Hostage Crisis as it Nurtured Warlord” describes how Ansar Dine leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, used religion as a means to reassert himself amongst his secular Tuareg rivals.

In late 2011, scholars say, he made a bid to become head of his Tuareg tribe — a position that would have put him at the forefront of northern Mali’s struggle for autonomy. When he was rebuffed, Mr. Ag Ghali struck out on his own and formed Ansar Dine, branding it as a religiously inspired alternative to the more secular Tuaregs.

A common mantra of Western CT pundits remains the argument that the U.S. will never be safe unless the evil ideology of Bin Laden has been removed from the planet forever.  This briefs well in DC as it makes Americans believe that terrorism can be eliminated if we simply solve one problem – that of bad ideology. However, this article rightly points out how this “hedgehog – one big thing” type thinking quickly falls apart when placed in local contexts.

Chasing a few hundred foreign fighters inspired by religious zeal from the vast, trackless area would be challenge enough. But the forces shaping the conflict are far more complicated than that, driven by personal ambitions, old rivalries, tribal politics, the relationship between militants and states, and even the fight for control of the lucrative drug trade.

Some gather from my blog posts and Twitter sarcasm that I believe ideology has no importance with regards to terrorism.  This is not the case.  I believe al Qaeda’s ideology is important at different levels for each group and individual based on their own context.  The combination of incentives groups and individuals receive from pursuing al Qaeda’s ideology varies considerably based on physical, economic and social contexts.  (See here and here.) I use a labor economics approach when I analyze terrorism because it allows for factors other than ideology to contribute to a recruit’s decision to work as a terrorist.  For Westerners, like Omar, joining al Qaeda groups rests largely on their belief in al Qaeda’s ideology and probably a host of psychological factors.  However, for African groups and individuals (much of what I blog about here), there are many factors contributing to a wavering allegiance to al Qaeda’s ideology (See Chapter 2).  In Africa, survival often trumps ideology resulting in malleable interpretations of al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia. A recent example is Omar Hammami’s complaints over Shabaab’s passive allowance of Qat under Sharia – largely for the purpose of taxing the drug trade for revenue.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 9.54.21 AM

Oh Omar, calling me a “kuffar”.  Thank you, you are too kind.

In conclusion, I do believe ideology matters but I don’t believe it should be overstated.  The importance of al Qaeda’s ideology in Africa, at least for the West, remains the targets it designates.  If AQIM/Ansar Dine/MUJWA, etc. didn’t support an ideology where the West was the primary target, I doubt the West would care much about African conflict in the Sahel.  Genocide has occurred in Darfur for years, yet the West never seriously mobilized to intervene.  However, nine months of perceived “al Qaeda linked” strength in the Sahel brought on a French intervention and Western support.  If militant groups like Ansar Dine didn’t support an ideology directly targeting the West, the West would probably ignore them and their issues – such is one of the motivations for pursuing terrorism according to Dr. Bruce Hoffman.

Last point of interest from this latest article on Algeria and Ansar Dine.  GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS everywhere please listen: 1) when you adversary’s ideology believes that your government should not exist (i.e. al Qaeda, its affiliates) and 2) they offer to negotiate for peace (i.e. Ansar Dine with Algeria, Pakistani Taliban with Pakistan), what the militant group is really saying is, “We want to negotiate with you, government, so that you will not interfere with us while we consolidate our resources and develop a plan to attack you!”

his men were in Algiers negotiating with the government, promising peace and signing agreements. This continued despite ample evidence that Mr. Ag Ghali had become a committed ally of Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb — Algeria’s sworn enemy — receiving arms, weapons, men and other material from the group.

Not-so-Ideological, al Qaeda-linked, Islamist Narco-terrorists on the run in Mali

The French intervention into Mali has forced the media to try and dissect the numerous militant groups operating in the Sahel.  Newscasters have no idea what to call the groups controlling parts of Mali.  Pundits and many news readers prefer to just call them “al Qaeda” as that’s a known brand quickly associated with the 9/11 attacks.

The straight labeling of all violence in the Sahel as al Qaeda gets really tricky, really quickly.  Some northern Mali militant groups don’t necessarily believe themselves to be al Qaeda.  However, this hasn’t stopped many an ‘expert’ from using Mali as another reason to call for once again “defeating the virulent, ideology of al Qaeda that continues to spread around the world, only then can we stop terrorism.” However, many of the so-called al Qaeda linked groups pontificated on by pundits appear less committed ideologically than one might expect. This past weekend’s New York Times article “French Capture Strategic Airport To Retake North Mali” describes how local Malians were none to impressed by the religious commitment of their visiting jihadis.

Boubacar Diallo, a local political leader, said that only a few rebel fighters came at first. Later, hundreds more joined them, overwhelming the Malian soldiers based here. He said he never saw them pray and scoffed at their assertion that they would teach the Muslim population a purer form of Islam.

“They say they are Muslims, but I don’t know any Muslim who does not pray,” Mr. Diallo said.

The article noted earlier that the backgrounds of the foreign fighters varied considerably amongst the AQIM splinter group – Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).  (By the way, Andrew Lebovich has done an excellent breakdown of the groups in Mali at Jihadica see: AQIM, old GIA/GSPC, Blood Signers, MUJWA, Ansar al-Din.)

The rebels spoke many languages, the residents said. Some were light-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs, a nomadic people, while others were dark-skinned people who spoke the local languages of Niger, Nigeria and Mali.

Some analysts have been parsing the statements of these AQIM splinter groups in the Sahel looking for the smoking gun and direct ideological links that clearly reveal each of the militants in Mali as part of a global al Qaeda nexus. However, the labels placed on the fighters/militants rampaging through the Sahel change from daily. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, one man’s terrorist is another man’s mercenary, another man’s mercenary is another man’s patriot, another man’s patriot is ……..I think you get the picture.

In my opinion, when it comes to the Sahel, focus on resources rather than ideology if one wants to know the direction of militant groups. As I discussed a year ago, the play for al Qaeda to conduct long-run recruitment in sub-Saharan Africa has come from buying local support through resource distribution in the near-term as a pathway to cementing ideological commitment to al Qaeda over the long-term.  Here’s a hypothetical diagram I posted last year of what I estimate the initial recruitment cost might be to gain an adherent in Africa; represented as a combination of tangible and intangible benefits.


Here are some additional reasons why I believe AQIM and its splinter groups will have trouble sustaining their momentum over the long run.

  • RacismWhen I was doing research of al Qaeda’s initial forays into Somalia in the early 1990’s, it was interesting to see how condescending and elitist the Arab members of al Qaeda were to their African members.  In the Sahel, my impression is that the African clan/tribal groups, at least to this point, seem content to let Arab foreign fighters and folks from Algeria direct their operations.  However, in Somalia, as Omar Hammami can attest, the local clans have persistently been less than receptive to being bossed around by foreign al Qaeda leaders. In Sudan, Bin Laden paid Arab volunteers at a higher rate than he did African members and this wage discrepancy later led to Jamal al-Fadl embezzling from al Qaeda and betraying them as a witness for the Embassy Bombings trial.  It’s also important to note that when Zawahiri called in 2007 for international volunteers to support the jihad in Somalia, only a few answered the call and most were ethnic Somalis or Kenyans accompanied by only a trickle of Westerners and Arabs.  As Omar Hammami can tell you, answering that call turned out to be a bad decision as he has been expelled mostly for being a foreigner challenging local leaders. (Right Omar?) Today, I’m guessing most jihadi recruits are still more excited to join an Arab dominated jihad in Syria over a campaign in West Africa. So in the long-run, how long will local African tribes adhere to the guidance of their foreign masters while under pressure from the French?  I’m guessing not very long.  
  • Excessive violence alienates local populations – As of my writing this post, I’ve started to see reports of retaliatory violence by Malians against those who stayed in Timbuktu and became subservient to AQIM. I’m guessing this aggressive behavior likely comes in part as a reaction to the severe form of Sharia instituted by AQIM in North Mali. As noted above, the ideological commitment of these al Qaeda linked splinters (MUJWA, Ansar al Dine) appears low so the violence dished out on locals equivocates “Sharia” to “lopping off the hands of anyone that challenges the group or does something the group doesn’t like.”  Essentially, Sharia for locals in Mali feels a lot like the extortion of organized criminals, not enlightened ideologues.
  • Reliance on illicit revenues – While Belmohktar’s bold attack in Algeria likely generated needed attention and maybe appealed to a couple fanatical donors, AQIM and its splinters still really heavy on illicit financing to sustain their operations.  The Sahel is a difficult place to attract Gulf donor support and an even more difficult place to transfer donor funds.  Lacking a strong donor base and more restricted in their ability to conduct illicit financing after the French intervention, I suspect AQIM’s influence and ability to project will contract in the coming months.  This does not mean they won’t be able to conduct an operation, but I believe the pace of their efforts will have to scale down.

The Sahel Heats Up: AQIM, Algeria, Mali & France

The past few weeks I’ve been focused on the Horn of Africa, but the real story in terrorism has been occurring in the Sahel.  There is way too much to talk about in one blog post. However, I’ll make a few notes here about the current situation in West Africa.

  • Sahel Experts I Listen To – As I noted in a previous post about AQIM and the Sahel, these are the folks I would recommend listening to on this topic. Also, I’ve embedded a clip from @tweetsintheME with Wolf Blitzer on CNN down below.

In general, I turn to @tweetsintheME@themoornextdoorDr. Geoff Porter@tommymiles and @Hannahaniya to keep me informed on the daily fluctuations and insecurity of the Sahel and recommend their blogs and Twitter feeds to all those wanting to stay up to speed.

  •  Most Frustrating Media Analysis Thus Far – A consistent theme in the media thus far has been that the intervention to oust Qaddafi in Libya is the reason why there’s more terrorism coming from the Sahel.  Analysts taking this line imply that the West should not intervene to oust authoritarian dictators because unforeseen events might occur in the future that are bad.  I’m also guessing these same ‘experts’ next week will be bashing administrations for not yet intervening in Syria to help topple a dictator and end a humanitarian crisis.  These flip-flopping analysts love events like this where they can trace backward to past events as causes for current conflict.  However, I don’t remember many analysts saying that the Libya intervention would lead to instability and the rise of terrorism in Mali. Most were focused on the obvious instability that would come amongst Libyan factions after the fall of Qaddafi. In general, I can’t stand analysts that take this course as they can always find a reason not to do something and their ‘Loss Aversion’ leads policymakers to pursue inaction, which also has its second and third order effects as well. Let me think real quick, has there ever been a case where a policy of inaction went awry? Oh yeah, there were those attacks on September 11, 2001.  I could go on about this forever, but I won’t.  Bottom line: Extremist growth in Mali and the Sahel has been going on steadily back to at least 2008 and results from the confluence of many factors rather than just one factor.
  • How about France! – One of the things I’ve been most impressed with is France jumping into the fight executing an intervention in Mali on the same day they attempted a hostage rescue in Somalia.  The French took casualties in both operations, but they have stopped the march of militants southwest into interior Mali. Nice to see other countries taking action against terrorists to protect their own interests.  I’ll be interested to see how long they can hold out.
  • AQIM is the new epicenter of al Qaeda! (Or is it Yemen, Somalia, Syria?) – Media analysis of the situation and Mali and Algeria is absolutely hilarious.  I’ve seen several stories discussing how the Sahara is the new top Al Qaeda threat and shows the resilience of the network and the strength of the terror group.  Amazingly the same media outlets don’t appear to research any of their own reporting.  As has been discussed here, the story of Al Qaeda growth and strength repeats every few months.  Four months ago Libya was the center of attention. Six months before that it was Yemen. And three months before that it was Somalia.  Today, one hardly hears a peep about Somalia where Shabaab’s alliance with Al Qaeda has crumbled under the pressures of clan disputes.  And in Yemen, reporting has died down to merely a trickle.  So I am curious to see how long discussion will stay focused on the Sahara.

Today, the center of attention has moved away from France’s Mali intervention, though, and rests specifically on the hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.  This is a fascinating turn of events and leads me to several things to explore in the coming days.

  • The attack was prepared before the French intervention – I have to believe that Belmokhtar’s attack on the gas facility was prepared a significant amount of time before the French intervention. The interesting fact is that he likely prepared the attack and waited for the appropriate time to launch such that he could gain international attention and use it for his own purposes.  While this attack is significant, the timing of his next attack will be more important.  As noted in some excellent research back in 2011, its the pace of attacks, not the size of any single attack, that are indicative of a terror affiliate’s strength.
  • Mokhtar

  • Is the In Amenas attack as much about internal AQIM power plays than strategically attacking the West? – The focus for the most part has been on how the attack was spectacular and hit Westerners.  However, as was discussed here a few weeks back, maybe this attack by Belhmoktar represents his efforts to reclaim the throne as leader of AQIM.  See this post from a few weeks back.  Did Belhmoktar launch this attack in coordination with AQIM? I don’t know, but if he didn’t coordinate, this attack could be a power play for him to shore up support locally and fighters and resources globally.
  • Could Belhmoktar be the inspiring leader for al Qaeda’s next generation? – Last summer, I noted the following in a report “What if there is no al Qaeda?” –

Where are the most talented al-Qaeda veterans going? Today, analysts should seek to identify what path al-Qaeda’s most talented veterans are choosing to pursue. Al-Qaeda’s limited centralized control has likely encouraged some talented terrorists to move on to new groups. Knowing where these veterans go will be essential for anticipating future threats.

In the winter of 2011, I was deliberating as to the effect of al Qaeda losing its key international recruiters inspiring young people.

Who will lead al Qaeda’s next wave of radicalization? Al Qaeda needs a new inspirational messenger to ramp up its global radicalization and recruitment. Only a select few al Qaeda leaders have actually generated significant audience to radicalize many recruits. Three of al Qaeda’s most effective messengers, Bin Laden, Zarqawi and Awlaki, all blended a unique combination of competence and charisma to radicalize and inspire recruits.

So, is Belhmoktar, AKA Mr. Marlboro, the first new inspiring leader of a new generation of Salafi-Jihadi extremism?  He’s a bit weak on the ideological aspects, but he’s a veteran fighter with charisma and attacks under his belt.  I guess only time will tell.

Here’s the clip of @TweetsintheME on CNN.




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


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 AllAfrica.com, 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.