FPRI Primer on al Qaeda’s history

In November, I had the good fortune to participate in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Butcher History Institute Conference “The Invention of the Middle East, Post-World War One, and the Reinvention of the Middle East, Post-Arab Spring.  While I’m by no means a Middle East historian, I did have the opportunity to present a consolidated version of al Qaeda’s history. The conference seeks to provide training and resources for select high school teachers around the U.S. This conference had an excellent crowd and I was honored to participate.  Accompanying my presentation I did a primer on al Qaeda which I will provide the introduction to here below.  You can download or read the entire paper here at this link.

Al Qaeda today only slightly resembles the al Qaeda of yesteryear. Al Qaeda operatives or “al Qaeda-like” organizations stretch throughout North Africa, across the Middle East and into South Asia.  This disparate string of organizations hosts a handful of al Qaeda’s original Afghanistan and Pakistan veterans but mostly consist of newcomers inspired by al Qaeda’s message — disenfranchised young men seeking an adventurous fight in the wake of a tumultuous Arab Spring.  Al Qaeda, or more appropriately jihadism pursued under al Qaeda’s banner, has morphed in several waves over the course of more than two decades.

Over twenty years, Al Qaeda has harnessed the collective energy of various conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia and now Africa to perpetuate an enduring conflict against the West and specifically the United States.  Each Muslim country conflict attracted its own set of foreign fighters ensconced in al Qaeda’s ideology and operational umbrella. But each conflict and al Qaeda affiliate varies in shape, size and capability. Evaluating al Qaeda through three incarnations may help us fully understand the group’s evolution into the present day and what it may become in the future. Al Qaeda may be examined in three periods: al Qaeda 1.0 (1988 – 2001), al Qaeda 2.0 (2002 – 2011) and al Qaeda 3.0 (2011 – present).  Note, these periods are not distinct entities. Al Qaeda has transformed slowly through each phase.  Some affiliates carrying al Qaeda’s name have rapidly morphed based on changing local conditions while others have adjusted more pragmatically. However, two significant events, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011 provide natural turning points for tracing al Qaeda’s evolution.

Video Broadcast of the FPRI Foreign Fighters in Syria Panel

Last week, the Foreign Policy Research Institute hosted a panel entitled “Foreign Fighters in Syria and Beyond”.  I had the honor of sitting on the panel with @will_mccants and @barakmendelsohn.  The discussion was quite good and I felt the questions and commentary spanned many of the key contentious points we currently face in counterterrorism.  You will also note that I get quite feisty about the lack of U.S. detention policy; something I’ve droned on about at this blog on several occasions.

You can listen to the full broadcast at this link.  And if you are wondering about the Antelope vs. Lion vs. Crocodile YouTube video I reference in my talk, I’ve posted it down below.  This is what I think Syria is like right now for foreign fighters – confusing, violent and chaotic.

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

Foreign Fighters in Syria panel

FPRI conference on Global Foreign Fighter Flow

Today I’m speaking at the FPRI Foreign Fighter conference in Washington, DC.  The panel includes @will_mccants and Barak Mendelson.  I’m looking forward to the discussion and if you are interested you can sign up for the broadcast and listen from your desk – which is always the best way to deal with me, at a great distance.

In preparation, I will begin my discussion from this post I did in June 2013 which shows my model from 2007-2009 for foreign fighter flow.  Looking forward to today and I hope you zing me with a great online question.  More to follow after the closing of the event and a recap of key points.

Here’s the post from June with key points of my foreign fighter assessment from January 2009.

“Two weeks ago, I did a short post at FPRI on “Syria: Suffering the effects of the 2nd Foreign Fighter Glut“.  The crux of the discussion centered on how Syria has become the next epicenter for a routine pattern of foreign fighter mobilization and integration into jihadi conflicts.  I used the diagrams from a 2009 paper (Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut) to illustrate how this cycle perpetuates itself (See Figure 1 below) and why Syria will be the catalyst for a decade of conflict.

The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.

Analysis of foreign fighters to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 signaled how al Qaeda affiliates would regenerate in the future.  Slide2Here is an excerpt Countering Terrorism From The Second Foreign Fighter Glut written in 2008 and published in 2009 discussing the implications of former foreign fighters returning to their home countries as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and what we’ve seen the past couple of years.

2009 – Policy Implication: Fight the next terrorist threat, not the last one. 

Western CT efforts should avoid the tendency to protect against the last terrorist attack rather than preventing the next one. While protecting mass transit systems and thwarting WMD proliferation remains important, the more probable next generation of attacks will be against Westerners in MENA and South Asia. Former foreign fighters from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will lead future attacks, and they may maintain only minimal connections to core AQ. As targets and access diminish in Iraq and Afghanistan, former foreign fighters will continue to recruit locally in flashpoint cities and then create their own safe havens regionally. The end result will be upstart regional groups that share some of AQ’s ideology, try to pull from larger AQ resources, and then use former foreign fighter knowledge to spearhead attacks closer to home. With limited operational space, resources and size, the scope of terrorist operations will temporarily decrease. Instead of massive, high tech, large-scale 9/11 operations, one may expect smaller scale, conventional attacks perpetrated by smaller Jihadi groups. These smaller Jihadi elements will begin with attacks on local Western targets and MENA governments in an attempt to build their popular support, gain resources and grow their capacity to execute more spectacular attacks in Europe and the United States.

Analysts might consider altering their focus to concentrate on regional nodes rather than working to link all actions back to core AQ. The North African node may be led by former foreign fighters from Algeria, recruiting from North African flashpoint cities in Tunisia and new militant enclaves in Mauritania, seeking safe haven in the trans-Sahara (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya) and conducting attacks on Westerners in Tunis, Casablanca or Niamey. The Middle Eastern node might consist of new cells led by Yemeni and Saudi former foreign fighters finding operational space in Yemen and Palestinian camps in Lebanon and attacking Western and Israeli economic and diplomatic targets. South Asia (not supported by data in this study but extremely significant) would likely see a host of Pakistani and Central Asian militant groups, holed up in tribal areas and Central Asian safe havens and conducting attacks throughout Asia.

Today, we know that Syria, much like Iraq a few years back, will be the center of gravity for future Salafi-jihadi foreign fighter violence. This is occurring for several reasons:

  1. It’s gone on way too long - The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters there will be mobilized to the battlefield.
  2. The West won’t do anything to stop fighting in Syria - Foreign fighter recruits may be a bit crazy but they are not stupid.  One of the bigger deterrents of joining an al Qaeda affiliate or an emerging militant group is whether the recruit thinks the fight they are joining has a chance to succeed.  Despite all their macho bravado, no foreign fighter wants to join a fight where al Qaeda is getting its ass kicked.  That’s why foreign fighter flows to Iraq decreased around 2008 and will slow to places like Mali where the French have intervened.  BLUF: Foreign fighters are fickle, and aside from the occasional oddball, they want to play for a winner.  For example, Omar Hammami in Somalia was whining about moving to Syria from Somalia months ago.  For a jihadi, going to fight in Syria is the equivalent of buying a Miami Heat jersey if your an NBA fan or a Yankees jersey if you are baseball fan: you don’t know if you’ll win the championship, but you’ve got a much better chance of winning if you support that team.
  3. Lots of money and weapons - Unlike other conflicts, the Syrian civil war has received substantial and sustained resources from the Gulf and now the West as well as resources from Russia and Iran on the Assad regime side.  There is plenty of fuel to keep this thing going.
  4.  Recruitment pipelines - The fighting in Syria is occurring in the exact location of foreign fighter pipelines to Iraq circa 2006-2007.  These foreign fighter recruitment networks have been easily reactivated and there is far less for recruits to resolve logistically to make their way to the battlefield in Syria.

Aaron Zelin published an excellent set of data this week on foreign fighters to Syria.  From martyr biographies found on social media, Aaron found that Libyans and Tunisians dominated the ranks.  Remember when everyone was freaking out about al Qaeda building a stronghold in Libya?  I’m sure there is an al Qaeda or al Qaeda like presence in Libya, but if hundreds of fighters from Libya are heading to Syria, we shouldn’t worry so much about an al Qaeda being resurgent in Libya.  More important for me is Tunisia.  The high numbers of Tunisians, I imagine, comes as much from the historical recruitment networks identified in the Sinjar records as much as anything going on currently.  The best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter, and Tunisia had a solid network for getting people to Iraq a few years back. To figure out the pattern of recruitment to Syria and to anticipate the implications of the 3rd generation of foreign fighters coming out of Syria, I’m going to start looking at several things below with regards to Syria’s foreign fighters.  I’m working on a couple concepts I’ll share here in the coming weeks which I think might help with some of these research issues.

  • Need more data - Aaron on his own has captured an excellent data set that is approaching 300.  But, its not nearly enough to understand the dynamics of recruitment to the Syrian conflict.  Just yesterday there were reports of 200 Islamists from Russia in Syria.  There are now thousands of foreign fighters in Syria speaking a variety of languages and communicating on a host of media.  To properly understand the foreign fighter flow to Syria, there needs to be a team of researchers speaking many different languages looking at data online and on the ground.  This is a big challenge that comes at a time when resources and interest in studying terrorism are on the decline; not an insurmountable challenge but one that will require some alternative solutions.  Additionally, if we only capture martyrdom biographies, we may be getting a snapshot of the least effective fighters or those with more of an inclination towards martyrdom.  What country’s fighters are the most talented and more inclined to stay alive and later come back home?
  • Need to know the hometowns of recruits - Most news stories I read on foreign fighters speak only to countries. “FOREIGN FIGHTERS TO AL QAEDA ARE FROM SAUDI ARABIA/LIBYA/ETC.!”  This is meaningless.  It’s the equivalent of saying people from the East Coast are rude, the West Coast is lazy or the South is racist (All are 100% true by the way-did I get everybody angry this morning?).  Foreign fighter recruitment is a very local phenomena. To understand the dynamics that produce recruits and what can be done to mitigate recruitment requires much more micro-level data.  We need to know the hometowns of recruits, not their countries of origin.  Just looking at Aaron’s data, I’m guessing there are some important local dynamics at play in the recruitment numbers – see my circles below on Aaron’s table.  While these records report deaths, fighters from the same places often stick together, and in Syria probably die together.
  • Who is heading back home? - It appears that many of the fighters to Syria are getting killed.  But, which ones will return home? This is probably the more important point for understanding where this goes in the future.  Maybe they’ll stay in Syria, who knows, but we need to figure it out.
  • Are they joining “al Qaeda” or something “al Qaeda-like”? -  What the U.S. media is calling “al Qaeda” is a broad term that likely misses the essence of what is going on in Syria.  What if we are entering a post al-Qaeda age where things are similar at times to al Qaeda but in reality are turning into something new?  While Ayman al-Zawahiri has rightly tried to jump on the success of jihadis in Syria, Aaron’s data shows there are many jihadi groups receiving fighters and Will McCants discussed in his “Office Space” post that there are fractures in the Syrian jihadi groups similar to what has been seen with AQIM.  In the aftermath of Afghanistan 1980s, the mujahideen manifested into a threat called “al Qaeda”.  But after Syria, will we talking about a threat called “al Qaeda”? Or will it instead be morphing into a new threat known as “al-Nusra” with some of al Qaeda’s ideological goals plus some new ones? If al-Nusra focuses on fighting Hezballah after the Assad regime falls, we might not care too much.  But if al-Nusra turns its sites on Israel, well, I think there is a huge mess on the horizon.”

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Shabaab’s Attack in Kenya: Indicators of a resurgence or a last ditch effort?

Foreign Policy helped me post an article today which provides a brief, high level discussion of my initial impressions from al Shabaab’s four day siege at the Westgate mall.  Thanks to Foreign Policy for the opportunity and help with my prose. I also did an interview with CBS Philly linked here for those interested in hearing me drone on about Somalia.

Now, in my more typical style, I do have a few notes with regards to what I’m reading in the media.  There have been people trumpeting the return of al Shabaab and how this shows al Qaeda resilience.  We’ve heard this before.  In 2011, when Shabaab merged with al Qaeda there were vigorous warnings that Shabaab in Somalia was potentially the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate.  Yet, this merger actually became the tipping point for Shabaab’s decline. We’ve also heard similar claims in recent years about AQAP in Yemen, AQIM in the Sahel, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, and now AQ in the Sinai and Nusra/ISIS in Syria. These affiliates are not likely to all be the most dangerous threat (there can be only one) nor on the rise at the same time. So what are we to believe?  I always try to remember that counterterrorism is an industry as much as it is a discipline, without terror attacks and hype, we’d all have to start talking about Russia or climate change (boring). Back to Kenya…here are my thoughts in addition to what I posted at Foreign Policy.

shabaab westgate

  • The Westgate Mall attack is not surprising, it’s more surprising this didn’t happen sooner – In 2007, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Jacob Shapiro, Vahid Brown and a team of researchers on al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa looking at how al Qaeda historically operated in the region.  After doing our analysis, we became increasingly more concerned about Kenya and its vulnerability as a target for terrorism.  See chapters 5 for some conclusions of this report and chapter 2 and 4 for some Kenya discussion.  Al Qaeda and now al Shabaab operatives have been moving through and attacking in Kenya for two decades.  Al Shabaab has been attributed with 50-100 incidents in Kenya this last year alone.  There have been concerns about an attack for years, its disappointing that this concern did not translate into a disruption of this attack.
  • Uhh, seems like media forgot Shabaab has been killing its own – As those who read this blog probably know, al Shabaab and its emir Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubeyr) have been leading a vicious campaign to kill off its own members in recent months.  Godane killed off his former deputy Ibrahim al-Afghani, pushed Sheikh Aweys into the hands of the Somali government and has been fighting against Shabaab elements loyal to Sheikh Muktar Robow.  Terror groups usually aren’t considered ‘strong’ or ‘resilient’ if they spend as much time killing their own people as they do their adversaries.  This infighting doesn’t seem to be getting much play in the media.
  • Uhh, Anyone remember that Shabaab killed its most celebrated American foreign fighter, Omar Hammami, just last week – This also seems to be overlooked in the discussion of resilience.  Omar Hammami was killed by Shabaab just last week; a public relations nightmare for the terror group.  Godane and Shabaab may have conducted this Nairobi attack because they needed a success to reset the agenda about their infighting and killing off of foreign fighters.
  • Shabaab isn’t dead, and it will never entirely go away – As described by Dr. Jeffrey Herbst in his book States and Power in Africa, African governments can rarely extend their authority beyond the capital. The Somalia Federal Government is no exception. Shabaab will retain their southern Somalia safe haven for some time which enables them to conduct attacks like the one we see in Nairobi.  Even if this area is cleared, Shabaab will just morph into another group with similar objectives and ideology, much in the way Shabaab came from AIAI and the Islamic Courts Union.
  • Godane is crazy, and maybe this attack is just about appealing to al Qaeda to get back into their good graces – As @AllthinngsHLS pointed out last night, Godane may just want to get back on al Qaeda’s radar.  This is something I failed to bring up in my interview and should be noted.  It also sits well with the hypothesis from last year that the Shabaab-AQ merger was nothing more than an exit strategy for Shabaab’s emir Godane who comes from the Isaaq clan and lacks significant clan support to endure in Somalia.  As Omar Hammami and Shabaab’s defectors noted, Godane likes violence, so maybe this is just about killing.
  • If notorious foreign fighters are the attackers, does this mean a resilient Shabaab or taking one last gamble? – Some claims of unknown reliability have said the attackers were Westerners and one may in fact be a woman, the infamous “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite.  If Shabaab used these foreign fighters, it could mean they were really focused on drawing international attention, or it could mean, that’s all they have left.  Either way they may have preferred these foreign fighter for their ability to cross into Kenya with less scrutiny.  If the “White Widow” was such an attractive recruitment tool, why would Shabaab use her for an attack?  Maybe she is a die hard and wanted martyrdom, who knows, we’ll probably not know the logic anytime soon.

To say Shabaab is resurgent or dying is premature since the attack isn’t complete and there is much we don’t know.  But here are the questions I’ll be looking at over the coming days, weeks and months to make this assessment.

  1. How quickly will al Shabaab follow up with another attack in Kenya?  Through its Twitter feed, al Shabaab claimed that this was the first of many attacks to come in Kenya. However, in July 2010, Shabaab executed a suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda.  Some saw this as the start of Shabaab’s external operations in the Horn of Africa, but up to now there has been no strategic campaign for the region. If Shabaab quickly executes follow up attacks in Kenya in the coming days and weeks, this would suggest resurgence on Shabaab’s part. However, if Shabaab fails to generate another attack over the next six months, the Westgate attack may represent a last desperate attempt by a group to generate popular support, resources and personnel.
  2. Can Kenya control its reaction to the Westgate attacks? As seen by the 2007-2008 Presidential election violence, Kenya is prone to uncontrollable violence between ethnic groups, clans and tribes. Al Shabaab certainly intended for the Westgate attack to provoke Kenyans to overreact and commit large-scale violence against Muslims both in Kenya and in Somalia. If Kenya falls into this trap, they could hand al Shabaab the victory they desperately seek.
  3. How will Kenyan Muslims react to the Westgate mall attack? Kenyan Muslims have for years felt repressed by the Kenyan central government and the beginning of the “War on Terror” only exasperated this tension.  However, the 1998 Embassy bombing and the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing killed or harmed Kenyan Muslims more than it did other Kenyans and Westerners.  In the Westgate attack, the attackers went to great lengths to target non-Muslims. Analysts should watch closely in the coming days to see the reaction of Kenyan Muslims from Mombasa up the Kenyan coast to Somalia.  If Kenyan Muslims reject the Westgate violence, then Shabaab will fall short in rallying Kenyan Muslims against the government.  If on the other hand, Kenyan Muslims appear indifferent or even condone Westgate violence, this could suggest deeper popular support for Shabaab throughout Kenya.
  4. Will the Westgate Mall attackers turn out to be of Somali, Kenyan, Western foreign fighters or a mix of all three? If the attackers turn out to be Kenyan Muslims or Somalis that have resided in Kenya for some time, this would be a troublesome sign for Kenya.  It may mean the attack was planned, prepared and executed locally – a troubling sign for Kenya. However, if the attack were executed strictly by foreign fighters, it may suggest that Shabaab used its Western passport holders to gain access to softer targets – also a troubling sign for the West who’ve been concerned for years about Western foreign fighters to Shabaab returning back home.
  5. Will the Global Somali Diaspora be inspired or appalled? – I assume a motive for the attack was for Shabaab to regenerate their support in resources and manpower from the Somali Diaspora.  Will this work?

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FPRI Post – Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies

Alright, alright, alright, it’s time to get back to blogging after a bit of vacation.  And what did I spend my break thinking about? Foreign fighters of course.

I jumped back into writing today by leading off with a guest post at FPRI entitled “Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies.”  It’s an updated discussion of how I think Ant Colony Optimization modeling can be used to analyze the emergence of foreign fighter recruitment and facilitation routes to places like Syria.  Here below is a short introduction to the post and you can read the entire entry hosted at FPRI at this link.

“Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies

Swarm intelligence has proven particularly useful over the past two decades in identifying more efficient methods for computer engineering, machine learning and describing social media phenomena.  Several years ago at a FPRI conference on al Qaeda foreign fighters I noted that I thought Ant Colony Optimization, an efficiency method by which ants find their food, might be an effective modeling system for analyzing, understanding and ultimately disrupting foreign fighter recruitment pipelines to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Today, I believe it is time to re-examine the utility of this methodology to help analyze and potentially mitigate the largest foreign fighter mobilization since the original Afghan jihadduring the 1980s -– the Syrian revolution.

Ant Colony Optimization, often referred to as ACO, explains the method by which ants efficiently find their food.  Mauricio Perretto and Hector Silverio Lopes in their article “Reconstruction of phylogenetic trees using the ant colony optimization paradigm” explain:

“Real ants, when searching for food, can find such resources without visual feedback (they are practically blind), and they can adapt to changes in the environment, optimizing the path between the nest and the food source. This fact is the result of stigmergy, which involves positive feedback, given by the continuous deposit of a chemical substance, known as pheromone.”

Read the rest of the post here.

Syria’s Foreign Fighters: Dissecting The Next Decade of Conflict

Two weeks ago, I did a short post at FPRI on “Syria: Suffering the effects of the 2nd Foreign Fighter Glut“.  The crux of the discussion centered on how Syria has become the next epicenter for a routine pattern of foreign fighter mobilization and integration into jihadi conflicts.  I used the diagrams from a 2009 paper (Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut) to illustrate how this cycle perpetuates itself (See Figure 1 below) and why Syria will be the catalyst for a decade of conflict.

The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.

Analysis of foreign fighters to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 signaled how al Qaeda affiliates would regenerate in the future.  Slide2Here is an excerpt Countering Terrorism From The Second Foreign Fighter Glut written in 2008 and published in 2009 discussing the implications of former foreign fighters returning to their home countries as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and what we’ve seen the past couple of years.

2009 – Policy Implication: Fight the next terrorist threat, not the last one. 

Western CT efforts should avoid the tendency to protect against the last terrorist attack rather than preventing the next one. While protecting mass transit systems and thwarting WMD proliferation remains important, the more probable next generation of attacks will be against Westerners in MENA and South Asia. Former foreign fighters from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will lead future attacks, and they may maintain only minimal connections to core AQ. As targets and access diminish in Iraq and Afghanistan, former foreign fighters will continue to recruit locally in flashpoint cities and then create their own safe havens regionally. The end result will be upstart regional groups that share some of AQ’s ideology, try to pull from larger AQ resources, and then use former foreign fighter knowledge to spearhead attacks closer to home. With limited operational space, resources and size, the scope of terrorist operations will temporarily decrease. Instead of massive, high tech, large-scale 9/11 operations, one may expect smaller scale, conventional attacks perpetrated by smaller Jihadi groups. These smaller Jihadi elements will begin with attacks on local Western targets and MENA governments in an attempt to build their popular support, gain resources and grow their capacity to execute more spectacular attacks in Europe and the United States.

Analysts might consider altering their focus to concentrate on regional nodes rather than working to link all actions back to core AQ. The North African node may be led by former foreign fighters from Algeria, recruiting from North African flashpoint cities in Tunisia and new militant enclaves in Mauritania, seeking safe haven in the trans-Sahara (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya) and conducting attacks on Westerners in Tunis, Casablanca or Niamey. The Middle Eastern node might consist of new cells led by Yemeni and Saudi former foreign fighters finding operational space in Yemen and Palestinian camps in Lebanon and attacking Western and Israeli economic and diplomatic targets. South Asia (not supported by data in this study but extremely significant) would likely see a host of Pakistani and Central Asian militant groups, holed up in tribal areas and Central Asian safe havens and conducting attacks throughout Asia.

Today, we know that Syria, much like Iraq a few years back, will be the center of gravity for future Salafi-jihadi foreign fighter violence. This is occurring for several reasons:

  1. It’s gone on way too long – The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters there will be mobilized to the battlefield.
  2. The West won’t do anything to stop fighting in Syria – Foreign fighter recruits may be a bit crazy but they are not stupid.  One of the bigger deterrents of joining an al Qaeda affiliate or an emerging militant group is whether the recruit thinks the fight they are joining has a chance to succeed.  Despite all their macho bravado, no foreign fighter wants to join a fight where al Qaeda is getting its ass kicked.  That’s why foreign fighter flows to Iraq decreased around 2008 and will slow to places like Mali where the French have intervened.  BLUF: Foreign fighters are fickle, and aside from the occasional oddball, they want to play for a winner.  For example, Omar Hammami in Somalia was whining about moving to Syria from Somalia months ago.  For a jihadi, going to fight in Syria is the equivalent of buying a Miami Heat jersey if your an NBA fan or a Yankees jersey if you are baseball fan: you don’t know if you’ll win the championship, but you’ve got a much better chance of winning if you support that team.
  3. Lots of money and weapons - Unlike other conflicts, the Syrian civil war has received substantial and sustained resources from the Gulf and now the West as well as resources from Russia and Iran on the Assad regime side.  There is plenty of fuel to keep this thing going.
  4.  Recruitment pipelines – The fighting in Syria is occurring in the exact location of foreign fighter pipelines to Iraq circa 2006-2007.  These foreign fighter recruitment networks have been easily reactivated and there is far less for recruits to resolve logistically to make their way to the battlefield in Syria.

Aaron Zelin published an excellent set of data this week on foreign fighters to Syria.  From martyr biographies found on social media, Aaron found that Libyans and Tunisians dominated the ranks.  Remember when everyone was freaking out about al Qaeda building a stronghold in Libya?  I’m sure there is an al Qaeda or al Qaeda like presence in Libya, but if hundreds of fighters from Libya are heading to Syria, we shouldn’t worry so much about an al Qaeda being resurgent in Libya.  More important for me is Tunisia.  The high numbers of Tunisians, I imagine, comes as much from the historical recruitment networks identified in the Sinjar records as much as anything going on currently.  The best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter, and Tunisia had a solid network for getting people to Iraq a few years back. To figure out the pattern of recruitment to Syria and to anticipate the implications of the 3rd generation of foreign fighters coming out of Syria, I’m going to start looking at several things below with regards to Syria’s foreign fighters.  I’m working on a couple concepts I’ll share here in the coming weeks which I think might help with some of these research issues.

  • Need more data - Aaron on his own has captured an excellent data set that is approaching 300.  But, its not nearly enough to understand the dynamics of recruitment to the Syrian conflict.  Just yesterday there were reports of 200 Islamists from Russia in Syria.  There are now thousands of foreign fighters in Syria speaking a variety of languages and communicating on a host of media.  To properly understand the foreign fighter flow to Syria, there needs to be a team of researchers speaking many different languages looking at data online and on the ground.  This is a big challenge that comes at a time when resources and interest in studying terrorism are on the decline; not an insurmountable challenge but one that will require some alternative solutions.  Additionally, if we only capture martyrdom biographies, we may be getting a snapshot of the least effective fighters or those with more of an inclination towards martyrdom.  What country’s fighters are the most talented and more inclined to stay alive and later come back home? 
  • Need to know the hometowns of recruits – Most news stories I read on foreign fighters speak only to countries. “FOREIGN FIGHTERS TO AL QAEDA ARE FROM SAUDI ARABIA/LIBYA/ETC.!”  This is meaningless.  It’s the equivalent of saying people from the East Coast are rude, the West Coast is lazy or the South is racist (All are 100% true by the way-did I get everybody angry this morning?).  Foreign fighter recruitment is a very local phenomena. To understand the dynamics that produce recruits and what can be done to mitigate recruitment requires much more micro-level data.  We need to know the hometowns of recruits, not their countries of origin.  Just looking at Aaron’s data, I’m guessing there are some important local dynamics at play in the recruitment numbers – see my circles below on Aaron’s table.  While these records report deaths, fighters from the same places often stick together, and in Syria probably die together.
  • Who is heading back home? – It appears that many of the fighters to Syria are getting killed.  But, which ones will return home? This is probably the more important point for understanding where this goes in the future.  Maybe they’ll stay in Syria, who knows, but we need to figure it out.
  • Are they joining “al Qaeda” or something “al Qaeda-like”? –  What the U.S. media is calling “al Qaeda” is a broad term that likely misses the essence of what is going on in Syria.  What if we are entering a post al-Qaeda age where things are similar at times to al Qaeda but in reality are turning into something new?  While Ayman al-Zawahiri has rightly tried to jump on the success of jihadis in Syria, Aaron’s data shows there are many jihadi groups receiving fighters and Will McCants discussed in his “Office Space” post that there are fractures in the Syrian jihadi groups similar to what has been seen with AQIM.  In the aftermath of Afghanistan 1980s, the mujahideen manifested into a threat called “al Qaeda”.  But after Syria, will we talking about a threat called “al Qaeda”? Or will it instead be morphing into a new threat known as “al-Nusra” with some of al Qaeda’s ideological goals plus some new ones? If al-Nusra focuses on fighting Hezballah after the Assad regime falls, we might not care too much.  But if al-Nusra turns its sites on Israel, well, I think there is a huge mess on the horizon.

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Shabaab’s betrayal of Omar Hammami – In English this time!

After being frustrated by the Arab world ignoring his revelations about the bad behavior of Shabaab in Somalia, Omar Hammami posted an English version of his demise via a Twitter link today.  In January, I suffered through some miserable Arabic translation nightmares to write the post “Hammami Reveals Deceit, Dissension and Death in Shabaab and al Qaeda!“, but now all can read of his demise and betrayal by al Shabaab in the English version at this link.

Back in January, Omar hoped to reach the Muslim world and maybe al Qaeda by publishing his latest troubles in Arabic hoping to appeal to that audience – since his previous YouTube calls for help broadcast in a mix of English and Arabic fell on deaf ears in the Arab World.  Again, it appears Omar’s Arabic revelations from January didn’t find much audience amongst al Qaeda’s mainstream.  However, Omar’s American audience, despite this being Omar’s home country which he despises, has read and paid attention to Omar’s plight.  In January, Omar didn’t seem thrilled about myself and others in the West reading his Arabic pronouncements.

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But today, it appears Omar has changed his tune, reaching out in English this time.  Omar so desperately wants an Arab audience, but maybe he’s realized his biggest audience is in his native country.  Here’s some clips from Omar’s English version of the document.

On Godane (Abu Zubayr):

As for Abu Zubayr’s entrance into the whole affair, well, his background is a bit unclear because he was in Pakistan during the days of the Russian occupation and no one knows with certainty if he really participated in the Jihaad or if he just sat in Peshawar.

On Somalis and their distrust of al Qaeda:

history has proven that the Somalis generally do not want any influence from al-Qaa’idah or foreigners in their internal affairs.

On al Qaeda fomenting fractures with Shabaab as much as Shabaab creating fractures between local Somali (Ansar) vs. Foreign Fighters (Muhajirs)

It is here that I blame the brother s from al-Qaa’idah to some degree (and I mean Abu Talhah as-Sudaani, Abu ‘Abdallaah, Fazul, and an-Nabhaan) because, despite have pure intentions (as we see it, but Allaah is their Reckoner), there developed a sense of competition between them and the brothers of the Salaah ad-Diin camp.

Al Qaeda’s shift to focus on Kenya as anticipated in this document here in 2007:

Eventually, and probably because of such divisiveness, the brothers from al-Qaa’idah went to Ras Chiamboni to focus on training Kenyan Somalis to do outside operations.

On al Qaeda’s lack of strategy in Somalia:

Here I don’t know what to say about the actions of the brothers from al-Qaa’idah. They split up amongst themselves without executing any real strategy.

and on this one, I have nothing to add.  See the closing of the document….

And it seems I was duped by the slogans and the pretty words, and I hadn’t yet learned the realities,

Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?

Tonight I was invited to participate in 16 x 9′s live blog for their upcoming news program “Why North Americans Are Joining Terrorist Organizations?”  I believe the documentary will be online Sunday night.  While the live blog was fun, it was difficult to summarize my thoughts on al Qaeda recruitment processes, which I believe vary considerably between Western countries and the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.  So for those interested in some discussion on foreign fighter recruitment processes, here’s some analysis I did in 2008 entitled “Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?”  You can get the entire pdf at this link and here’s a brief summary from the conclusion:

Certainly, official AQ members at times directly initiate recruitment in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Occasionally, individuals self-radicalize and independently seek out the greater jihad, possibly using the Internet for ideological indoctrination and communication with facilitators. However, both of these scenarios represent only a portion of foreign fighter recruitment. Most North African and Middle Eastern foreign fighters are instead recruited through social, family and religious networks empowered by former foreign fighters who catalyze the radicalization process. These local networks are efficient, built for the community and adaptable to local conditions. Such networks are difficult to create in either a hierarchical AQ Central (top-down) or a self-selecting (bottom-up) system.

An alternative foreign fighter recruitment model might reflect all three patterns described above. My hypothesis for future research estimates that global foreign fighter flow consists of roughly the following:

–Self-selecting (bottom-up) recruitment accounts for 10 -15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. These self-recruits consist largely of second and third generation Muslims and converts to Jihadi doctrine based in Western countries, the majority of which reside in the EU. Their increased Internet access and propensity for militancy help radicalize them locally before moving through select intermediaries to more formal networks. These individuals are inexperienced, untrained and often a liability to the larger AQ movement as their conduct may stray from AQ’s global message, and their operational and security mishaps endanger the group. However, their access to Western targets and their propaganda value remain a coveted prize for AQ and a worthwhile risk.

–AQ hierarchical (top-down) recruitment accounts for an additional 10 – 15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. AQ, under intense pressure from Western military and intelligence, expends effort to specifically recruit individuals that maintain valuable skills in weaponry, media, operational planning, finance and logistics. These recruits pose the greatest threat globally as their knowledge, skills, and experience create hallmark AQ attacks and maintain organizational coherence. While self-recruits are dangerous due to their access, these direct recruits are dangerous due to their ability.

–Former foreign fighters embedded in family, religious and social networks in flashpoint North African and Middle Eastern cities produce between 60 and 80 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. Jihadi veterans and their networks are the center of gravity not only for al-Qa’ida but also for decades of Jihadi militancy. These communities are motivated not only by militant ideology but by their perceived oppression from the West economically and politically, frustration over Palestinean-Israeli conflict, and the influence of Western values on their culture. High foreign fighter producing communities sustained the Afghan jihad during the 1980’s, provide for current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be the thread for future militant efforts at the close of current conflicts.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Frontline reporting on foreign fighters in Syria

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who has done two amazing documentaries on AQAP in Yemen and the revolution in Syria, recently published a piece in The Guardian describing the foreign fighters infiltrating the fighting in Syria.  Having spent many years researching why people travel from one country to join the fighting of an unknown group in another conflict (See here, here, and here), I found this article enlightening and consistent with other foreign fighter accounts.

Ghaith’s article is excellent and I encourage all those interested in the debate over whether al Qaeda is infiltrating the Syrian rebellion to check out his article.  Here’s some of the quotes I focused on:

Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit. One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor. Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.

  • Jihadi veterans are invaluable.  Ghaith notes the presence of one former fighter from Iraq, Abu Salam al Faluji, who had some harsh words for his comrades in arms.

One Syrian, breathing hard, said that he had fired three times at the tank and the RPG didn’t go off.

“Don’t say it didn’t go off,” Abu Salam admonished him. “Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?

“Our work has to focus on IEDs and snipers,” he told the gathering. “All these roofs need fighters on top and IEDs on the ground. You hunt them in the alleyways and then use machine-guns and RPGs around corners.

“The problem is not ammunition, it’s experience,” he told me out of earshot of the rebels. “If we were fighting Americans we would all have been killed by now. They would have killed us with their drone without even needing to send a tank.

“The rebels are brave but they don’t even know the difference between a Kalashnikov bullet and a sniper bullet. That weakens the morale of the men.”

  • Casualties are mounting in Syria and especially for foreign fighters.  While its not unusual for foreign fighters to expire, they usually stick around long enough to make a significant impact.  However, a band of Chechens led by Abu Omar have already taken 25% casualties in merely two days.

But Abu Omar was angry. There had been 40 muhajiroun few days earlier but by the end of fighting that day they were down to 30. They had lost 10 men in two days.

  • Not all foreign fighters are welcome in Syria.  While Ghaith’s NPR interview noted that while there is a common enemy, the Assad Regime, the FSA is inclined to work with jihadi types.  However, the seeds of a post Assad battle between foreign fighters and the FSA already appear to be planted.

I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade, a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara’a called Abdulah Abu Zaid. “I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology,” he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. “Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam.”

The jihadis, he said, had looted and stolen from the local people and demanded protection money from local businesses in order not to steal their merchandise. “I managed to stop them,” he said, “and I won’t let them spread here.”

Later that day he issued an ultimatum to their commander, a Syrian called Abu Mohamad al Abssi, to leave the area with his foreign jihadis or he would be killed.