Yesterday, I had the good fortune to participate in a debate on the state of al Qaeda, their future direction and how the U.S. might work to counter a plethora of jihadi groups around the world. Katie Zimmerman and Mary Habeck of AEI provided a great venue and discussion questions for a lively debate.
Here is the video, jump to the 5:45 mark to start watching the discussion.
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.”
And here is the chart I worked on with much help from J.M. Berger, Aaron Zelin and some friends.
This week I published Part 2 of my series on “Smarter Counterterrorism” at FPRI. The second post, “Treating America’s al Qaeda Addiction,” discusses America’s fixation on al Qaeda – how we got there and what we can do to alleviate this addiction. The discussion focuses on the role of Americans writ large, the media, the counterterrorism industry and politicians in sustaining the focus on al Qaeda. Here is a sample from the post and to read the entire article click here. Here’s my take on the current state of the counterterrorism industry:
“This system progressed fine until the drawdowns in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. As the big theaters closed, this forced analysts to chase the next big threat, rapidly research a new al Qaeda affiliate and region, reassert their relevance and publish prose on al Qaeda’s next rise – all done in an effort to protect our nation from terrorism and our own livelihoods in the process. (Remember, I am a member of this industry.) The reports routinely prescribe one of three patent solutions for defeating al Qaeda: 1) the only way to defeat al Qaeda is to completely wipe the planet of al Qaeda’s ideology 2) we must win the hearts and minds of every disenfranchised community from Africa to South Asia or 3) both of these things. In all three cases, a multi-billion dollar campaign of undetermined length, under-researched methods with fuzzy long-run objectives is required – completely infeasible, utterly unsustainable and not appropriately scoped for the more narrow and severe threat of ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda.
The net result of this system has been a splurge of terrorism and counterterrorism punditry by analysts increasingly removed from the frontlines with al Qaeda, relying on less and less journalist reporting and primary documents, framing thinking based on notions of al Qaeda circa 2001 rather than 2011 and trying to piece together a global al Qaeda strategy from a noisy jihadi social media landscape. Each report, if sufficiently scary, presents another opportunity for funded research or a speaking engagement. Who wants to read a complicated report on the rise of the next serious threat presented by Lashkar-Fill-in-the-Blank or Ansar-Fill-in-the-Blank unless its “tied”, “connected” or “linked” to al Qaeda – and “al Qaeda” means whatever you need it to be. The counterterrorism punditry isn’t doing anything devious or deliberate. They are not members of the top 1% nor trying to lead their country astray. Most are passionate about their profession, genuinely well intentioned and highly competitive with one another. Anyone that’s ever sat in a meeting of terrorism and counterterrorism analysts and academics knows its really a passive aggressive game to see who’s smartest – the equivalent of the TV Show “Survivor” for people that don’t like to go outside, where everyone protects or bluffs about their sources and builds alliances to protect their food (I mean funding). The outcome is al Qaeda threat conflation, an endless game of Back-to-Bin Laden or Zawahiri informed by limited sourcing and perpetuated by competition over relevancy.
The worst part of today’s CT punditry is over the long-run it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: by over-classifying things as al Qaeda, we hunt for more al Qaeda, and we find more al Qaeda. We end up over pursuing, making more mistakes, spreading ourselves thin and in fact creating more al Qaeda than we eliminate. Today’s al Qaeda and the jihadi militants swirling around them are too diffuse, scattered amongst too many cultures and countries and evolving too quickly for any one counterterrorism pundit or TV talking head to maintain a persistent understanding.”
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.
Today, I had the great honor to publish an article with two people much smarter than I: Dr. Michael Doran and Dr. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution. Starting back last weekend, Twitter ignited based on a comment from Will about the need to restrain from designating Ahrar al-Sham, Syria’s most powerful militia in the Islamic Front, a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Since then, there’s been a flurry of discussion and in response the three of us teamed up to offer a counter-argument to the notion of designating every group with an al Qaeda link of one form or another a FTO.
In general, I’m a big fan of designating down to the smallest possible level every group that presents a clear threat to the United States via terrorism tactics. However, the case for Ahrar al-Sham, in my opinion, has not met that threshold yet – although its not unreasonable to believe that it will someday. What seems to be lost in hyper-political discussions about al Qaeda linkages are the dangers of designating a group an FTO too early – that it minimizes U.S. government counterterrorism options and can actually push groups into al Qaeda’s arms. Here is the introduction to the article “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham“which is available at this link at Foreign Affairs.
“In his recent interview with The New Yorker, U.S. President Barack Obama drew a striking comparison between the Los Angeles Lakers and al Qaeda. “[I]f a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms,” he said, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Similarly, he went on to explain, there is a “distinction between the capacity and reach of [and Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
Obama’s quip drew harsh criticism from many on the political right, which accused him of trivializing terrorism. “It’s a flippant, arrogant, and ignorant comment,” said Oliver North, the former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. Yet however politically attractive this argument might be, it is false on its face. As Obama hinted, it is a simple fact of life that not all terrorist organizations pose an equal threat to the United States and its allies.
This flap could not have been timelier. The al Qaeda of yesterday is gone. What is left is a collection of many different splinter organizations, some of which have their own — and profoundly local — agendas. The U.S. response to each should be, as Obama put it, “defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.””
Each year I have the time to read about one book on terrorism. The past two years I have read two winners - J.M. Berger’s Jihad Joe in 2011 and Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge in 2012. Both were excellent books so this year I was hoping to make it three years in a row – I’m positive I’m going to make it.
Last week, I acquired Dr. Jacob Shapiro’s excellent new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations. I’m only about 50-60 pages in and it is fantastic. Years ago, Dr. Shapiro and I were co-authors and co-editors for Al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa which examined some of al Qaeda’s internal documents detailing their foray into Somalia during the early 1990’s. Dr. Shapiro carried the report by not only re-writing and shaping up my third grade writing, but also by illuminating discussion of agency problems found inside al Qaeda – all organizations have internal politics, al Qaeda is no exception. Jake carries on this excellent work with a full book exploring agency problems across many different terrorist organizations over many different time periods. This book clearly outlines many of the concepts I’ve argued at this blog and in posts as recently as last week. (See Internal Factors Influencing al Qaeda)
The book is filled with great quotes and I’ll put some in a larger review that I do after I finish reading. For now, here’s one of my favorites from the introduction (p.11) regarding the assessment of counterterrorism policies:
“The number of attacks or nature of violence being conducted by a group is an ambiguous indicator on this score. Because success for terrorists is measured in terms of political impact, not in terms of numbers killed or attacks conducted, the vast majority of terrorist organizations try to achieve a politically optimal level of violence than what they could manage if they sought only to kill. As such, an observed increase in the rate of attacks can mean the group has become more efficient, or it can mean leaders have been placed under so much pressure that they gave up control and operatives responded by ramping up the rate of attacks”
Based on the recent freaking out about a resurgent al Qaeda, I thought this quote was particularly useful.
I’ve been criticized by some for discounting jihadi ideology at times when evaluating al Qaeda. While I do agree that ideology provides an important binding and guiding function for religious terrorist groups, my experience reading internal documents from al Qaeda always suggests that ideology is malleable to the internal dynamics of the organization. When a new violent tactic needs to be justified or an internal dispute needs to be resolved, ideological justifications for al Qaeda leader actions often conveniently arise to support said leader’s position. The trials and tribulations of Omar Hammami provide abundant material in this regard and the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “Sharia Problems” rebuttal of Ayman al-Zawahiri may be another recent example.
Ideological pronouncements provide what the al Qaeda leader says they want to do. Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s internal documents outline what the group and its leaders actually do. I believe Dr. Shapiro’s book is a must read for those trying to understand how terrorist group’s make decisions and I hope everyone gets a chance to read it. It’s well written and uses a fantastic array of case studies from throughout history and around the globe. And with that, I’m off to read some more.
Well, it’s May, and it seems like every year about this time (2011, 2012, 2013) I end up writing more about drones. I didn’t see this being a heavy week on the discussion of drones, but what else should I do but continue to drone on…..
First, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released one of the more extensive research efforts into the use of armed drones in counterterrorism. The report “Drones: Myths and Realities in Pakistan” provides a comprehensive analysis and lots of references. I’m still reading it now, but I’ve already found many interesting points in “Section IV: Drones and Counterterrorism” starting on page 22. I’ll note some interesting quotes here in this post which mirror discussions I’ve had in previous posts on drones here at this blog.
On page 24, the section entitled “Winning Hearts and Minds or Losing Allies?” starts off with hosts this paragraph.
In debates on the drone issue, the argument is commonly put forward that drones produce more terrorists than they kill: militant groups exploit real and fabricated accounts of civilian deaths to enlist fresh recruits, including the relatives of drone strike victims, for jihad against the U.S. and its allies.133 The actual benefit to extremist groups, including in terms of recruitment, appears, however, minimal. A local analyst who has extensively researched security and governance in FATA notes that while anti-drone rhetoric does draw some converts, “the loss of a Baitullah Mehsud or a Qari Hussain is much more damaging than the recruitment of a few dozen foot soldiers”.134
As I noted in my previous post, the reasons for joining an extremist group vary significantly from place to place and person to person. In all cases, I believe the local socioeconomic dynamics surrounding the recruit play the greatest role. In this report, ICG notes:
Moreover, militant recruitment is a complex process, achieved more often on economic than ideological grounds. The main causes for the spread of militancy in FATA are not drone strikes but domestic factors. These include the absence of the state and insecurity due to the resulting political, legal and economic vacuum; and the military’s support of, provision of sanctuaries to, and peace deals with militant groups.
As noted earlier this week, Christine Fair described the same root causes in 2010. The ICG report goes on to explain why public opinion polling reference drone use in FATA is essentially worthless. In my opinion, the closer one polls to where the drone strike occurs, the less people will like drone strikes. This isn’t rocket science (well, maybe it is a little bit, drones fire rockets). One final quote from the paper comes from a researcher who compares drone strikes to other options:
said a researcher. “You had military operations and militancy on one side, which destroyed towns and villages, and you had drones on the other, which were more precise.”
The article concludes that drones are not the solution or a long-run solution. I think almost everyone agrees on this. The article says the solution is for Pakistan and the West to establish “Rule of Law”. OK, well, Pakistan and other nations have only tried to govern this area for a few centuries, right, so maybe we can tackle this challenge ……uhhh, next fiscal year? Not likely.
Second, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed one of the biggest non-secrets in American history: the U.S. uses drones and these drones have killed Americans.
Holder’s letter offered a detailed justification for the CIA’S killing of Awlaki, who Holder said had “repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives.”
Transparency, I like it. I wish they did this after every drone strike. But then again, would we expect this sort of transparency after every infantry squad engagement? Probably not! And are Americans sufficiently informed to understand what they would even be reading? Would they care? I don’t know, but I guess Holder’s prelude is set up for…..wait for it…..
Third, President Obama will provide an address on his counterterrorism policy on Thursday. Supposedly this address will go over everything: GITMO, drones, disposition matrix kind of stuff maybe. It sounds like the President will be addressing all the CT stuff I was complaining about last year in the post “Counterterrorism 2012: No Drones, No Detention, No Intervention“. The NY Times article “Debate Aside, Number of Drone Strikes Drops Sharply” shows how drone use has decreased ( I posted their table from Long War Journal below). The article notes:
Mr. Obama, who insisted early in his presidency on a personal role in many strike decisions, may also shed light on the declining use of drone strikes. Current and former officials say the reasons include a shrinking list of important Qaeda targets, a result of the success of past strikes, and transient factors ranging from bad weather to diplomatic strains. But more broadly, the decline may reflect a changing calculation of the long-term costs and benefits of targeted killings.
So, after all the complaints the past year about transparency and CT strategy, all the bashing on both political sides about the threat of terrorism and how counterterrorism should be conducted, the President seems to be giving everyone what they want right; information and a strategy. And what will likely happen? Both sides will probably crucify him for it. The President will attempt to do exactly what some of the American public has asked for, and Friday morning on Twitter, there will be nothing but bitching, moaning and sharpshooting. Well, I think we should close GITMO, I think we should keep using drones, and I have a feeling, for the most part, I’ll be happy with most of what the President outlines that the USG is doing in counterterrorism. If anything, I think we could maybe do less in some areas. In retrospect, for me, U.S. counterterrorism makes a lot more sense in 2013 than it did in 2003. In conclusion, for my take on what modifications could be made to the drone program, see this post (Americans: If you don’t want to get killed by a drone avoid these four things!) and this post (After Brennan, Implementing Curbs on Drone Targeting).
Two years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan marking one of the most significant milestones in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Two and a half years ago, I began conducting surveys to assess what the impact might be if Osama Bin Laden ever met his demise. These surveys have since become an annual assessment I generate to gauge public perceptions of the threat of al Qaeda and terrorism in general. While Bin Laden may be gone, terrorism continues and the past year has demonstrated how terrorist attacks might manifest themselves in a variety of ways from Benghazi to the Boston Marathon bombing.
Today, I’m launching the fifth iteration of the al Qaeda Strategy/Post Bin Laden Survey. Thanks to those that have participated in versions #1 – Does Bin Laden Matter – Jan.2, 2011, #2 – AQ Strategy 2011-2012 - April 27. 2011, #3 – Terrorism Post-Bin Laden – May 2, 2011, #4 One Year After Bin Laden- May 2, 2012. You can find the results at this link which hosts the results of past surveys.
This poll is shorter and a bit different than past surveys. Realizing there have been changes in terrorism, I opened the questions up a bit to include new emerging trends. However, I did repeat some questions verbatim so we can see how our collective thinking has changed over time.
Thanks in advance for contributing to the survey. And anyone is welcome to participate – the more votes the better the results. I’ll begin posting the results and comparisons with past data sets in a few weeks. Here is the link to the survey if you would like to open it in a separate window: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2yearsafterBinLaden
And if you would like to just take the survey here, I’ve embedded it in this post. Thanks for taking the survey!
Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.
Today, FPRI in Philadelphia provided me the opportunity to do a guest blog post on the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers of Cambridge, MA. I’ll post the introduction here below and the post summarizes some of my previous articles on radicalization I’ve done with FPRI and how they relate to the recent bombings. These three articles are:
“U.S. Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism: An Assessment” with Will McCants, 2012
Here’s the introduction to the post and you can read the entire thing on FPRI at this link (Update 0800: Sorry, post at FPRI won’t be live until later this morning):
“The investigation into the radicalization of the Boston Marathon bombing’s Tsarnaev brothers has only just begun. While the picture of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers remains incomplete, many have already pointed to what appear to be obvious warning signs of violence. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers, seemingly became a recruit of his older sibling Tamerlan. However, the older brother Tamerlan showed many classic signs of radicalization and a turn to violence. When placed in context, the question shifts from “How was Tamerlan radicalized?” to “Why was Tamerlan’s radicalization not detected?”
Two years ago in the summer of 2011, I used a radicalization model designed by Chris Heffelfinger, author of Radical Islam in America, to outline a potential framework for researching and eventually creating indicators and warnings for law enforcement and the military trying to assess the move of vulnerable individuals down the pathway of violent extremism. In the article, “Major Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Tragedy: Implications for the U.S. Armed Forces,” I tried to use Heffelfinger’s framework to note what indicators might emerge as individuals move through the process of radicalization and recruitment to violence. The four stages of Heffelfinger’s construct are:
- Introduction – Initial contact with the extremist ideology
- Immersion – Immersion in the thinking and mindset of the extremist ideology
- Frustration – Frustration over inaction of other members of the ideology
- Resolve – Resolve to commit violence on behalf of the extremist ideology
Movement along the four phases of this framework varies for every extremist. Some take years to move through the entire process, others only weeks or months. And yet others travel through some of the initial phases and never commit to violent action. The pace and intensity through which those being radicalized move through the process often hinges on one or more emotional triggers – significant life events accelerating the individual’s dive into extremism and increasing the susceptibility of an extremist ideology’s resonance. Four broad categories of emotional triggers are:
- Family- Death of a family member or divorce may leave the service member searching for a coping ideology.
- Professional- Failure to achieve professional goals or adapt to military lifestyle may result in the individual being particularly vulnerable to extremist recruitment.
- Financial- Extremist ideologies often provide comfort to those suffering financial struggles.
- Psychological- Witnessing or participating in a traumatic event may trigger distress leading to the pursuit of extremist ideologies.
Not discussed in the paper but of equal importance to the framework and emotional triggers is the presence of catalysts – people and places that help vulnerable individuals move along the phases of radicalization. Today, these catalysts guiding radicalization are often extremist Internet content, key influencers (often times former foreign fighters, ideologues or family members) and social circles. ”