Zubaydah’s Diaries: Insights into al Qaeda pre-9/11

In the years after 9/11, one of the central al Qaeda figures discussed in the open media has been Abu Zubaydah; a man often times referred to as al Qaeda’s #3.  Zubaydah’s fame in the media came first from his spectacular capture in Pakistan and then from his water boarding.  Last week, al Jazeera released an unclassified but leaked diary of Zubaydah’s which detailed bits and pieces of his thoughts in the years prior to and immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Before diving to deep, I remind everyone to take Zubaydah’s diary notes with a grain of salt.  First, by many accounts, Zubaydah apparently is a bit crazy.  In the diary, he writes entries to an alias known as “Hani 2” which may be his other personality although we don’t know for sure.  Second, Zubaydah seems to be as surprised by the 9/11/2001 attacks as anyone else.  Third, huge time gaps exist in the diary leaving much context to be desired.  We don’t know why he stops or starts writing, what is being left out, what is deliberately being falsified, etc.

The original diary is available somewhere on the Internet and  a good summary article can be found here at al Jazeera America’s website.

From the al Jazeera article here are some interesting things that were discussed.

  • Zubaydah maybe didn’t know he was in al Qaeda until the media informed him? Huh? – According to the diary, Zubaydah may have tried to cover his tracks right before his capture, suggesting he wasn’t part of al Qaeda.  Or maybe he was surprised to find out he was the heir to Bin Laden? Never considering himself part of al Qaeda, but instead the leader of his own team. This is doubtful (BS I think) based on the Ressam investigation. Check out this quote from the article:

Perhaps mindful of the growing danger that his diaries could be seized, he writes in a Feb. 4, 2002, entry, “For five years [the media] has been attempting to connect me to anything, and the matter is growing bigger, until they lately said that I am the heir of Bin Laden for the leadership of the Al-Qaeda Organization. I hope they know that I am not even a member of Al-Qaeda, so how can I become their leader?”… In a later entry he complains, “The Pakistani newspapers are saying that I’m in Peshawar, trying to reorganize Al-Qa’ida Organization, for war against the Americans, and that I am the heir of Bin Ladin, and Time [magazine] is saying that I know the Organization and those collaborating with the Organization more than Bin Ladin himself … I wish they know that I am not with Al-Qa’ida, to begin with, and that I am with them in ideology and body.”…Regardless of whether he had sworn an oath of loyalty to bin Laden — which would make him a member of Al-Qaeda — Abu Zubaydah was clearly a trusted and very senior operative in the broader movement that had Al-Qaeda at the center. He was, as he said, “with them in ideology and body.”

  • Zubaydah’s camp in Peshawar got shutdown by the Taliban in 1999 as part of what appears may have been a Bin Laden consolidation of power.  Al Jazeera notes:

In 1999, Abu Zubaydah was residing at a guesthouse in Peshawar associated with the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, his mujahedeen alma mater, to which he had returned in an administrative capacity….But the following year, the Taliban ordered the camp shut down because its emir had refused to hand it over to bin Laden. Not all the like-minded foreign fighters in Afghanistan before 9/11 were directly answerable to bin Laden, even some of those who shared his broad goals…..His appeals to bin Laden to reopen Khaldan fell on deaf ears. Bin Laden and the Taliban declined to reopen the camp.

  • In many ways, I get the sense from the article that Zubaydah thought of Bin Laden as a bit of a rival, and seemingly dependent at times on Bin Laden for receiving funding.

“It’s different when you’re the one calling the shots than being a wheel that’s moving mechanically with other wheels as part of a specific machine,” he complains in another diary entry written on the same day. At times, he seemed to regard bin Laden more as a competitor than a mentor. Abu Zubaydah writes that more jihad volunteers chose to train at Khaldan than at the full-fledged Al-Qaeda military camps bin Laden operated.”

Zubaydah continues and demonstrates, as Gregory Johnsen noted in his book on AQAP, that what separated Bin Laden from others was his money.  Bin Laden, like any other business, grew al Qaeda in scale because he had the resources to propel them forward.

“The resources are shrinking … We must have a secure financial source, so it will not come to an end (the camp),” he writes on July 14, 1996. About a year later, he writes that bin Laden has stepped in and offered assistance. “Bin Laden re-submitted his offer of unity to us and the brothers inside requested me to deliberate the issue,” he writes in Volume 4 on Aug. 13, 1997.

  •  Amongst al Qaeda’s chaos, was Zubaydah trying to build his own all star team?  See this concluding quote from Zubaydah:

To that end, Abu Zubaydah was building in Pakistan an ark of sorts, assembling the most skilled explosives experts and others in the movement capable of teaching the vital skills necessary to regenerate the movement.

“I took them with me, from the flood, one or two individuals from each military science, just like Noah … two pairs from each … An instructor or two from each military subject, they are the nucleus of my future work, and I am starting from zero … I am preparing a safe location for us, so that we can start.”

zubaydah pics

Will there be “blowback” from U.S. drone use?

After a few weeks of quiet, the drone debate has surfaced again in the U.S.

The past week has seen at least two drone strikes in Yemen.  One reportedly killed the Ansar al-Sharia leader of Abyan province and the Long War Journal claims the latest attack , launched missiles at,

“two fighters “as they left a farm on a motorbike” in the Khobza area of Baydah province”

A year ago, all the talk of terrorism, counterterrorism and drones centered on Yemen.  The media has lost interest in Yemen over the past year and while the pace of drone strikes appears to have decreased; their use has not gone away.

More interesting, an article from the Huffington Post I read yesterday that was published in 2010 entitled “Drones over Pakistan: Menace or Best Viable Option?”. This article is a must read.  Dr. C. Christine Fair had spent months in Pakistan researching the drone issue and, similar to Christopher Swift’s take on Yemen last year, found a very different perspective on the drone debate inside Pakistan.  She spoke with a senior Pakistani officer and:

This senior officer himself attested to Pakistan’s own inability to eliminate key threats and the necessity of the drones to eliminate terrorists in a way that most effectively minimizes the loss of innocent lives.

As for those stories that recount the psychological damage placed on populations by the buzz of drones, Fair contrasts with this anecdote:

“Another interlocutor explained that when children hear the buzz of the drones, they go their roofs to watch the spectacle of precision rather than cowering in fear of random “death from above.”

While I’m sure there have been mistakes in the use of drones in Pakistan, Fair says in Pakistan,

This antipathy towards the program is due in large measure to the collaboration of Pakistan’s media to sustain tenacious criticism of the program by spreading suspect civilian casualty reports planted by the militants themselves or various “agencies.”

Well, what should we think? As readers of this blog, you likely know my stance, “Go Drone With Some Modifications” (See here and here). However, the debate often centers around one’s perception of innocence and a which is more noble: means or ends. This is where it all gets really tricky.

COIN proponents like the notion of winning “hearts and minds” and this sells well to the public as the means ‘feel’ just. But in actuality, COIN in Pakistan means Pakistani army and militia invasion, which creates immeasurable casualties over time.  Drones, on the other hand, ‘feel’ evil, but I believe kill more precisely than any other tool and if I had to choose between a drone strike or sending in a tribal militia – I’ll go drone every time. (Did you see above, we just hit two dudes on a motorbike! it doesn’t get much more precise than that.) Again, both parties, drone critics and drone advocates, will swing the number of civilian casualties in their favor because there is no clear definition of the enemy and the U.S. isn’t overly clear about its use of the tool.  Would Osama Bin Laden’s wife be considered a militant or a civilian? Were the people in an AQAP member’s house hit by a drone strike militants or civilians? What about the house across the street from where the missile strikes, militants or civilians?

Drone critics have made some progress, I believe, in curbing the use of drones.  The pace of attacks has decreased overall it seems.  I assume this is either due to public pressure or that the U.S. may be running out of targets.  However, critics of drones are unlikely to make much more progress in reducing drone use unless they can provide a viable counterterrorism alternative to drones – America’s most effective and Slide1efficient counterterrorism tool.  While critics protested publicly during the hearings, I’ve heard little from them since Brennan’s confirmation. If drone critics remain concerned about their use, they must sustain a real campaign against their use and provide plausible alternatives.  The truth is: both political parties and most Americans are big fans of drones as long as they aren’t aimed at them.

The mantra I’ve seen repeated amongst drone critics has been that the U.S. use of drones will result in “blowback” against the U.S. While I agree this is conceivable, this repeated “you just wait, this is going to come back to haunt you” argument needs to come with some specific predictions if it is to be treated seriously.  I’ve listened to this argument against drone use for more than two years now.  (See here and here) If there is going to be “blowback” for the U.S. use of drones, when will there be “blowback” and where will there be “blowback”?  Be specific. To say there will be a terrorist attack from Yemen again, or from Pakistan again, will surely be correct, but these attacks may have only some or no relation to U.S. drone use.

Conversely, the option “to not use drones” over the past several years must be discussed by those that criticize drone use.  For example, I believe if the U.S. had not developed and implemented the use of drones in Pakistan, al Qaeda would be stronger today than it currently is, the U.S. would be further engaged in Afghanistan providing more troops for a longer period, and the TTP and al Qaeda would maintain a strong foothold in Pakistan’s frontier that would further destabilize Pakistan and yield more terrorist attacks against the West. Likewise, I also believe the success of drones in Pakistan has sent al Qaeda to seek alternative safe havens – one of which is Yemen.  In Yemen, without the use of drones, I believe the U.S. would be committed to a larger ground presence and further entanglement with dubious allies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Additionally, I believe the U.S. would have suffered more attacks from an AQAP whose external operations, led by Awlaki, would have continued, increased and improved with time.  While my assessment, due to the course of history, cannot be proven right or wrong, I can see the logic for why the U.S. chose to pursue drone strikes and I believe it outweighs the arguments for not using drones.  For drone critics, they must qualify their prophecy about the long-run effects of drone use.  I’ve heard the drone “blowback” argument for at least three consecutive years now and, while I respect it, I’m not convinced.


Pakistan’s Internal Drone Debate

The International Tribune ran an interesting story lately entitled “Are drones the sticking point?”.  @myraemacdonald alerted me to the article on Twitter and helped me understand that Pakistan’s internal media and newspapers were debating the efficacy of drones and their use in comparison to Pakistan military intervention into the tribal areas.  For those familiar with my arguments on drones (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7), this has been one of my central points for the past two years.  If one is against drones, then one must be for military intervention or arming of tribal militias.

In my opinion, I believe most local populations would prefer none of the three. But assuming some action must be taken against al Qaeda, I believe local populations would choose drones over the other two as they are the least invasive and least casualty producing.  The collateral damage of drones doesn’t even come close to that of military intervention and arming of militias.  Again I return to my post from July, “No Drones, No Detention, No Intervention”, where I ask the U.S. media if it’s not drones, then what options should we pursue?  I’m surprised that Pakistan may actually be having a more sensible debate on drones than we are in the U.S. If anyone is an Urdu speaker that can track down and provide analysis of the Urdu language debate on this topic, please let me know what is being said in Pakistan.  I’d definitely be interested to hear their take on why they are for or against drones and if they are against, what options they provide for going after al Qaeda, the Taliban or any other militant group for that matter.  This is an important question as our U.S. media simultaneously calls for justice over the killing of a U.S. Ambassador in Libya while also shouting the woes of U.S. drone use – ridiculous.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Pakistan is ‘linguistically’ divided over drones. But there is a rare glimpse of realist commentary in some Urdu writings. An article in a major Urdu-language newspaper on August 28 asked whether it was wise on the part of the army to invade North Waziristan, while earlier operations in Swat, Bajaur and Orakzai had produced mixed results. Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad were not safe as a result of these inconclusive operations. The fact was that the Taliban and al Qaeda were not hurt by the army but by the drones, which took a heavy toll on them. The fact was also that al Qaeda’s commanders were killed by drones and Taliban leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain fell to drones.

Seeking Virtue in Drones

The spike in drone reporting shifted again this past week but in a different direction with two articles noting the relatively low numbers of civilian casualties from drones.  First, Peter Bergen’s opinion piece “Civilian casualties plummet from drone strikes” provides a flurry of figures from the New America Foundation to support the argument that U.S. drone targeting has dramatically improved.  Bergen notes:

“According to the data generated by averaging the high and low casualty estimates of militant and civilian deaths published in a wide range of those outlets, the estimated civilian death rate in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically since 2008, when it was at its peak of almost 50%.  Today, for the first time, the estimated civilian death rate is at or close to zero.”

he continues…

“Over the life of the drone program in Pakistan, which began with a relatively small number of strikes between 2004 and 2007, the estimated civilian death rate is 16%”

To many, a civilian casualty rate of 16% may seem high, but that is where the New York Times picks up the debate just a couple of days later with their story, “The Moral Case for Drones.”  Bradley Strawser, a former Air Force officer studying the issue at Naval Post Graduate School, concludes that:

“using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.  “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.”

The article does a good job comparing research and arrives at a similar conclusion that I’ve argued at different times with regards to drones – drones are the least bad option.

“But one rough comparison has found that even if the highest estimates of collateral deaths are accurate, the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare. But even the high-end count of 20 percent was considerably lower than the rate in other settings, he found. When the Pakistani Army went after militants in the tribal area on the ground, civilians were 46 percent of those killed. In Israel’s targeted killings of militants from Hamas and other groups, using a range of weapons from bombs to missile strikes, the collateral death rate was 41 percent, according to an Israeli human rights group.  In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.”

Some have commented to me in person that my stance on drones is ignorant of the civilian death toll.  However, my argument has always been focused on relative rather than absolute terms. Guided by the assumption that some action against AQ terrorists hiding in remote safe havens must occur, I’m under the belief that:

Large scale military intervention (i.e. regime change), broad-based counterinsurgency, backing of the Yemeni military, arming of militias – all of these counterterrorism options are far more likely to produce civilian casualties.

I particularly like drones over other military options for two other reasons not addressed or lightly covered in these articles.

  1. Effort to protect civilian lives –  Ambassador Henry Crumpton notes in the New York Times article how far we’ve come in protecting civilians in our targeting processes.  We’ve gone from fire-bombing Dresden to Presidential-level involvement in the engagement of singular targets.  While I’m not certain the current targeting system is the best or perfect option (see p. 10 here), I do like the effort being taken to protect innocent lives – an unprecedented level of effort in world history.
  2. Responsibility – I also like drones because it demonstrates responsibility for U.S. actions.  In the past, the U.S. and many other nations have chosen to fight proxy battles via proxy forces engaging far off enemies holed up in remote safe havens.  In doing so, the U.S. must back a wild card force relinquishing control of conflict to an unknown or distant ally with unclear or sometimes dubious intentions.  Having abdicated control, the U.S. cannot influence the conduct of the conflict resulting in atrocities and reprisals undermining our nation’s values creating calls of hypocrisy where we would ideally like to inspire hope.  Drones are never a singularly pursued CT option. But at least in choosing their application, we take responsibility for our actions.

However, here’s something I’m worried about with Yemen.  After having watched the PBS documentary on “Drones in Yemen”, I have heard in interviews from field reporting and have seen in articles that nearly all explosions in Yemen are attributed to drones.  I would assume that many Yemeni military airstrikes are perceived on the ground as U.S. drone strikes.  This perception gap undermines U.S. efforts and points to the need for a complementary information campaign with any drone effort.

It’s OK to Kill Senior al Qaeda Members in Pakistan

This week’s CT Twitter debate shifted from whether we should be using drones to counter AQAP in Yemen to whether we should kill al Qaeda Central’s leaders at all.  @zackbeauchamp kicked it off by posing to the Twitter crowd their opinions on @allthingsCT’s argument that the U.S. should not have killed Abu Yahya al-Libi (AQ’s most recently deceased #2) this past week because he was a moderating force against young upstart AQ members wanting to really get their violent jihad going.  Read Leah’s argument here for the full text and here is a short quote from the post.

 I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally) have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu….. What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions.  Attacks  have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.

Leah advocates a criminal justice approach as the solution to stop the upcoming violence of young AQ boys and describes the culling of elephants in the South Africa for her approach.

 A culling program was implemented to kill off all the older generation elephants owing to overcrowding. Juveniles were spared. However, without the presence of the older elephants they then proceeded to go on rampages, killing other animals and causing such havoc that the rangers thought they’d have to cull them too.

Will McCants already discussed why al-Libi was not a moderate and Will, @brianfishman and Daveed Garstein-Ross noted how al Qaeda in Iraq counters the notion that senior AQ can actually moderate the violence of young upstarts, especially that of affiliates. I’m not trying to pile on Leah, but I was queried to weigh in on the debate and here are some of my issues with this argument. I’ve decided to leave out some others as this post has gotten a bit long:

  • Don’t make global CT tougher than it is: I gather from Leah’s argument that the U.S. should stratify its capturing/killing of AQ leaders by age and affinity for violence.  Global counterterrorism against AQ has been hard enough over the past decade.  We’ve wasted incredible resources trying to indirectly influence AQ through convoluted methods only to find out a decade later the best way to defeat al Qaeda is to just go kill al Qaeda members. I believe the idea of precisely timing the killing/capturing of AQ leaders to optimally control a terror groups’ violence levels is far beyond reach. How about this framework instead:

1- Try to capture AQ guys. If you can’t capture AQ guys then,

2- Kill AQ guys, and in the process make all efforts,

a- Not to kill innocent civilians, and

b- Undermine your nation’s values.

  • An idealistic counterterrorism approach (criminal justice only) for a non-existent terrorism environment – I am with Leah that in an ideal world, it would be great to capture, convict and imprison terrorists. This approach only works when there are effective criminal justice methods for implementing it.  AQ leaders intentionally operate in safe havens that make this idealist approach infeasible.  No Pakistani authorities exist to accomplish a criminal justice approach for the U.S. and when we’ve tried to do it on our own (renditions, GITMO, trying in U.S. courts, tribunals) it’s been a disaster.  If we can capture someone like al-Libi great, but in reality we can’t.  In the meantime, we shouldn’t hesitate in killing AQ leaders plotting and executing attacks against the U.S.
  • Al Qaeda terrorists may be animals but they’re not elephants.  The wildlife examples can be helpful at times but this one is wrongly applied.  I’m a fan of some biological analysis applications in CT such as Ant Colony Optimization models for understanding foreign fighter recruitment, but this elephant example doesn’t work for me.  In South Africa, they were not trying to rid themselves of all elephants.  The U.S. is trying to rid the world of all terrorists. While this ultimate objective may not be achievable, it is entirely different from thinning herds.
  • Al-Libi didn’t moderate the Khorasan Unit – Leah argues that al-Libi would be a moderating force against more violent young AQ members.  However, U.S. drone strikes brought the Taliban and Haqqani Network to create Lashgar-e-Khorasan (aka Khorasan Unit) in North Waziristan to hunt down spies believed to be spotting for U.S. drones.  The Khorasan Unit used extreme violence and tactics on local villagers further alienating their local base of popular support; ultimately playing into the hands of the Pakistani government and indirectly the U.S.  So where was Libi the moderator?  If he had such a powerful control on AQ and their closest allies, TTP and the Haqqani’s, why didn’t he help hold back the violence occurring right under his nose?
  • So we should allow Libi to moderate young guy violence in preparation for a larger, strategic attack?: This may be my biggest complaint.  While young AQ violence is also not good, AQ upstarts tend to execute poorly conceived plots that undermine the organization’s popular support.  By keeping Libi around to contain this wild violence, we are helping AQ build strategic plots of more devastating consequence.  So why should we give Libi time to coach the young AQ guys?
  • Libi and AQ Central have limited to no control over AQ locally or globally – My suspicion, and what is not noted in Leah’s argument, is that Libi’s influence was confined to AQ’s relative level of influence and more specifically to Bin Laden himself.  AQ has influence when it has clout.  When does AQ have clout; when Bin Laden and company are: 1) executing spectacular attacks on the West, 2) when they are respected for their actions, 3) when they dish out resources and 4) when they have sustained communications with their operatives and affiliates.  Since 2005 (1-Attack pace), AQ Central produced no attacks on the West and was being outpaced in their violence by affiliates (AQ in Iraq, AQAP, Shabaab).  With each year, their influence declined as new members were more inspired by affiliate action than old dog inaction.  Next (2-Respect), affiliates linked to AQ began committing atrocities against civilians which steadily reduced the local and global support for AQ Central. With each passing year and increasing drone strikes (4-Communication), OBL and AQ Central retained less control on AQ operatives and affiliates as their communication lines became what I refer to as a “Digital Pony Express” where couriers carry thumb drives relaying messages at a turnaround pace of about 2-3 weeks.  This slow commo loop lead AQ operatives and affiliates to begin operating more independently – ignoring or forgetting folks like Libi making pronouncements at a distance.  Finally (3-Resources), OBL was killed and Libi’s authority diminished over night.  Many operatives that once received resources and support from AQ Central and in turn followed OBL’s rules, no longer cared to listen to underlings like Libi.  With a dying AQ in Pakistan, Libi’s influence probably stretched not much further than the walls of the hut he was hiding in and I strongly doubt he would have been able to moderate much of anything in the future, especially outside of Pakistan.  See here for some more perspective.
  • Different Means, Often Same Outcome – The criminal justice approach suggested by Leah often creates the same phenomena she cautions against in the drone-targeting scenario.  Law enforcement cases routinely use Enterprise Investigative approaches to dismantle criminal herds (gangs, narcotics rings, organized crime groups) through RICO statues, which allow for elimination of whole criminal enterprises from top leader to low level soldier.  The vacuum created by these arrests routinely results in spikes of violence as competing and rising criminal groups compete for new turf and operational space.   For fans of The Wire (like me), you’ll note this scenario from the rise of Marlo in the absence of Avon (Season 3). The point: criminal justice approaches often result in the same negative side effects of leadership decapitation by drones.
  • Moderating violent AQ behavior takes more than religious notes.  Lastly, I’m not convinced that AQ members and affiliates particularly like Libi and without OBL around, I think they might definitely quit listening to Libi.  See this brief interlude from what is believed to be some North African AQ member writing back to AQ Central in early 2007 (SOCOM-2012-0000011); when Libi likely still had some clout.  Appears they needed Libi to write some rules/religious justifications.  My interpretation: they’ll listen to Libi because they have to, but they like Ahmad much better.  So do we really think they are listening to Libi a year after OBL’s death?  Is AQAP in southern Yemen listening? Shabaab listening to Libi?  AQIM in the Sahel listening to Libi?  I doubt it.

[have] al-Libi, senior LIFG religious scholar and member of al-Qa’ida’s Shari’ah Committee) write to the brothers, and he should never tire of writing and pressuring them; also have Ahmad ((‘Abd-al-‘Azim)) write, as he is very influential with them and they admire him a lot.

Countering the Violent Extremism of Fickled Fighters

Today, I wanted to follow up with respect to my post a few days back on terrorist motivation and recruitment and relate it to my earlier discussion of Hanif, the AQ foreign fighter from Pakistan, who recently relayed news of al Qaeda’s struggles in Pakistan.  I closed the last post stating:

Before choosing a CVE approach, a community/government/nation must first determine which type of extremist they want to counter.  If this assessment isn’t done, one will find a CVE approach, for example, where a government seeks to counter the the extremist narrative in an attempt to deter young people from joining al Qaeda, only later to find out that recruits weren’t particularly knowledgeable of AQ’s ideology, joined for the adventure, and enjoy group membership more than radical sermons.

I’ve often heard that the U.S. should place top priority on countering AQ’s message in order to prevent young boys from being radicalized and recruited overseas.  While this may be important in certain cases, I’d like to return to the case of Hanif, the source for Newsweek’s article “Al Qaeda on the Ropes: One Fighter’s Inside Story”.  Hanif, lacking an al Qaeda cell to join, recently decided to join the Haqqani Network:

Hanif says he spent the next five months with the Haqqanis and took part in several cross-border raids into Afghanistan—“picnics,” his fellow fighters called them. “We’d cross the border on operations of one, two, or three days; make short, sharp attacks; and then return,” he says. “Crossing into Afghanistan is easier than ever. There’s no one to stop us.” When Haqqani fighters run into Pakistani troops, they just keep going, Hanif says; they’re never challenged. “I think there’s an understanding,” he says.

Hanif compares his time with AQ and the Haqqani Network where he says:

the network’s fighters are brave, but they’re not as disciplined and pious as al Qaeda fighters were. “Fifty percent of these young mujahedin are looking for something to do,” Hanif says. “They’re not really fighting for Islam.” Even so, he likes their fighting spirit. “They may be careless and not religiously motivated, but they are good jihadis.”

Hanif does note that his religious beliefs are important but not decisive in his terrorist participation.

He isn’t sure what he’ll do next. At present he’s taking time off from the war, staying with relatives in Afghanistan. He says he’s still determined to rid Afghanistan of Americans and foreign influence and to reestablish Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Islamic Emirate, although he’s disappointed that al Qaeda can no longer help him achieve those goals. He stays in touch with his parents by phone, and they keep urging him to return home to Karachi, get married, and perhaps go into business. Hanif hates the idea. To do so, he says, would be a betrayal of his political and religious beliefs. Still, he says, he’s thinking of going home—just for a little while.

So, how does the U.S. do CVE to disrupt the violence of Hanif and his comrades?  Counter al Qaeda’s narrative?

It seems like his ideological justifications for fighting in Afghanistan change frequently while his violence remains constant.

What about community engagement with elders and parents? 

His parents only appear to have a minor influence on his decision.

I don’t have an answer for what the right CVE package is for young Pakistani recruits but I do wonder what combination of CVE actions will be most fruitful for keeping young boys from seeking adventure in Pakistan’s frontier.

Al Qaeda: Where’s the money? – Not Dead, but Dying, Part 2

Newsweek recently published an update from their al Qaeda source, Hafiz Hanif, an intermittent al Qaeda cell member who recently tried to rejoin his group North Waziristan.  The article entitled, “Al Qaeda on the Ropes, One Fighter’s Inside Story” is a followup to a previous 2010 interview with Hanif entitled “Inside al Qaeda“.  A great read for those interested in AQ’s demise.  There’s so much in this article that I could write about but today I’m just going to focus on one thing – MONEY.

Many perpetuated the notion immediately after 9/11 that terrorism and al Qaeda’s brand in particular costs very little.  Common analysis peddled via TV news based this measure on the fact that the 9/11 attacks cost only a few hundred thousand dollars to execute yet caused such tremendous damage.  The mistake of this argument arises from analysts confusing the production costs of one attack (9/11/2001) representing the total cost of all al Qaeda operations.  Not so! While the individual attack appears cost effective on a case-by-case basis, operating al Qaeda’s global infrastructure requires millions of dollars every year.  Al Qaeda, throughout their history, has struggled at times to maintain financial support and distribute funding equitably (See Harmony & Disharmony and AQ’s (Mis)Adventures for examples).

No one likes having a friend/guest sleep on your couch and eat all your food for ten years without chipping in on the bill – especially when your friend brings drone missile attacks on your house.  Al Qaeda has likely spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade maintaining its safe haven and routinely shifts large amounts of resources to Taliban groups for protection.  These funds came predominately from wealthy Gulf donors and hinged largely on the connections, image and reputation of Bin Laden – a leader from the Arabian Peninsula.

The recent Newsweek article paints a sad picture of al Qaeda Central’s state in Pakistan and more importantly their financial state.  Here’s an updated report from Hanif related to al Qaeda’s financial situation:

New recruits have stopped coming, Hanif says. “When new people came they brought new blood, enthusiasm, and money. All that has been lost.” The money may be a bigger problem than the manpower, he (Hanif) says. Al Qaeda used to receive millions of dollars a year from Arabian Gulf contributors, but Hanif’s uncle says his contacts tell him the donations have dried up. Instead, he believes, the money is going to the more productive and generally nonviolent Arab Spring movements in North Africa, Syria, and Yemen. “I think Arab people now think the fight should be political at home and not terrorism aimed at the West,” says the uncle. “The peaceful struggle on Arab streets has accomplished more than bin Laden and Zawahiri ever have.”


Hanif recalls how al Qaeda logistics operatives used to visit his unit to ask what the men needed in terms of weapons, medicine, food, and money. And he used to love making supply runs to the bazaar in North Waziristan’s capital, Miran Shah, with pockets full of cash for sweets and tea and to use the Internet. The town is still thronged with Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, shopping side by side with Pakistani soldiers, but now the Arabs have mostly vanished, and the shops specializing in olive oil, Arabian dates, and other Arab favorites are deserted or closed. Fighters subsist on minimal rations—if they aren’t left to fend for them-selves. That’s not easy, since al Qaeda has few friends in the area. Villagers fear that bin Laden’s men could bring drone strikes and the danger of civilian casualties, and al Qaeda has nothing left to offer local militants. The group is broke, and most of its best explosives and technical specialists have either died or left the vicinity. There aren’t even enough fighters left to act as reinforcements

During the AQ Strategy poll and Post-UBL poll in April/May 2011, I asked where will Gulf donor contributions go after UBL’s death.  Most thought donor support to AQ Central in AFPAK would be sustained.  However, ‘Private Sector’ respondents indicated that Islamist groups amongst the Arab uprisings would be the new investment priority.  It appears the ‘Private Sector’ voters may have been the most accurate in their prediction and suggests that if you want to know who will invest and where – ask the private sector as their success or failure hinges on picking winners.

As for me, for now, I’m sticking with my assessment from almost one year ago today – January 16, 2011 – entitled “Thoughts against Zawahiri’s ascension”:

1) Resources

However, UBL’s greatest strength in AQ (since its inception) is distributing money and providing an architecture (The Base) from which to pursue global jihad.  I refer back to page 197 of The Looming Tower where Larry Wright discusses how, “the camaraderie that sustained the men of al-Qaeda rested on the financial security that bin Laden provided,”  In the beginning, UBL used his own wealth to support AQ.  Today, UBL’s presence in AQ brings donations from the Gulf, fund transfers from affiliates like AQIM who divert kidnapping revenues (seen reports to this but can’t confirm it), and the benevolence of the Haqqani network.  We should also remember that Zawahiri came to UBL because of his resources.  When UBL dies, Zawahiri may take control but he will not be able to secure these three resource pipelines.

Here’s a re-post of the graph from the Gulf donor support question the week prior to Bin Laden’s death (AQ Strategy Poll):


And here’s a graph from the same Gulf donor question the week after Bin Laden’s death (Post UBL Poll):


Al Qaeda’s Foreign Fighter Recruitment – Not Dead, but Dying

In the days when I spent a lot of timing researching foreign fighters (Parts 1,2,3), I began to gauge AQ’s strength by their ability to persistently recruit new members.  AQ’s success arises from its manpower far more than technology.  Their ability to recruit, train and deploy foreign fighters and changes in the rate at which they are recruited provide an excellent bellweather of the terror group’s strength.  Thus foreign fighter recruitment trends provide a singular measure of AQ’s relative strength.  Growth in foreign fighters indicates the resonance of AQ’s ideology, the commitment of resources by benefactors, and the presence of safe havens facilitating operational security.

The tipping point for defeating AQ lies in the elimination of foreign fighters at a rate equal to or greater than the rate at which foreign fighters are recruited.

The recent Guardian article suggests that both sides of this equation are being met.  The U.S. steadily eliminates AQ members in AFPAK and globally.  But more importantly, foreign fighter recruitment appears down.  This dive in recruitment includes a downturn in German recruits who were a particularly troublesome spike in the 2009 time frame.

Continuing from Part 1 and the discussion of The Guardian article, “Al-Qaida leadership almost wiped out in Pakistan, British officials believe“, I noted the quotes about foreign fighter flow into Afghanistan.

The problems for al-Qaida in west Asia have been compounded by a smaller flow of volunteers reaching makeshift bases in Pakistan’s tribal zones. “I think they are really very much weakened,” said the official. “You can’t say they don’t pose a threat – they do – but it’s a much lesser one.”

British and US intelligence sources have told the Guardian they estimate that there are less than 100 “al-Qaida or al-Qaida-affiliated” militants in Afghanistan, of whom only “a handful” were seen to pose a threat internationally to the UK or other western nations.

and this quote;

In Europe, security services say levels of radicalisation have stabilised. Analysis of a list of “recent martyrs” published by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which shares al-Qaida’s ideology and is also based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, appears to show that fewer number of Europeans than feared reached the group, previously been favoured by German-based extremists. Of the near 100 listed, only one was German and most appeared to be local men.

Al Qaeda’s not dead, but they are dying.  Foreign fighter recruits still exist, but they are far fewer in number compared to their peak.  For young men in North Africa and the Middle East, there are too many opportunities at home amongst the Arab revolutions.  AQ is being out paced ideologically, financially and operationally by other competing groups.  More to follow on this, but keep an eye on the foreign fighter flow.  Without it, AQ will become just one of many groups rather than the group.

Is a Zawahiri-led AQ losing support in Pakistan?

During the Post UBL polls #1 and #2, voters were asked “What will be the chief consequence of Usama Bin Laden’s death?”. One of the options was “AQ Central loses its chief sponsor; the Haqqani Network”; an option chosen by only a few.

Well today, the Deccan Herald reported that Fazal Haqqani broke with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and formed Tehrik-e-Taliban Islami.

Fazal Saeed Haqqani, a commander in the Kurram tribal region, separated from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and formed the Tehrik-e-Taliban Islami, Geo News channel reported. Haqqani told the media that he had taken this step to protest suicide attacks on mosques and civilians.

The channel quoted its sources as saying that Haqqani earlier led TTP fighters in Kurram Agency and had step up training centres in several areas. In the past, Haqqani’s associates kidnapped people and kept them in their training centres.
They would then kill their captives or release them after being paid ransom, the channel reported.

Observers said the move by Haqqani could be part of efforts by the government and security forces to engineer a split in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is led by Hakimullah Mehsud.

Several months back, my guess was the Haqqani’s would not continue to protect an AQ Central after Bin Laden’s death. And last month’s Zawahiri demise prediction is predicated on shift’s in the Haqqani support of AQ Central:

The Haqqani network suffered tremendously from drone operations and must decide whether harboring AQ post-UBL is worth the costs.  I’m guessing the Haqqani network will provide support for at least 6 more weeks before changing their position with regards to Zawahiri.

I’m starting to doubt my prediction date for other reasons, but that’s a separate post.

Many questions and I would like to get your thoughts:

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Financial Impact on AQ post Bin Laden

During January’s first run of the AQ after Bin Laden poll, I selected “AQ loses its chief sponsor, the Haqqani network” as the chief consequence of UBL’s death.  I calculated and still believe that the loss of Haqqani network support will result in AQ losing its Pakistani safe haven.  I predicated my assumption on the belief that the Haqqani’s will not support a Zawahiri-led AQ. (Another follow up poll I ran) But, many disagreed with my interpretation and it appears unclear who will ultimately become AQ’s leader.  (In my January 15, 2011 analysis, I used causal flow diagramming to pick the Haqqani support decision as my chief consequence and to initiate the Zawahiri discussion, see here for my initial calculation.)

Since January, I’ve changed my choice on the “Chief consequence of UBL’s death” question to account for recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.  My selection in the May iteration of the Post UBL Poll is “AQ fundraising decreases”.  Surprisingly, I agree with the ‘Private Sector’ respondents to this question.  The media’s portrayal of AQ terrorism as an inexpensive undertaking are greatly exaggerated.  “Jihad doesn’t run on free”. While individual attacks, like AQAP’s “Printer Cartridge” plot, may only cost a few thousand dollars in supplies, annual AQ operational costs require millions of dollars.  For AQ Central hiding in Pakistan, there are significant expenses in paying group members and supporting their families (see AQ’s employment contract), arming and outfitting terrorists, securing communications and safe havens and then conducting operations.

Here’s my logic for why I think a ‘decrease in AQ fundraising’ will be the chief consequence:

  • AQ’s financial support arrives in three forms: donor support from the Gulf, illicit revenue from criminal enterprises, and sometimes earnings from legal businesses.
  • UBL’s ability to secure donor revenue, more than any other reason, allowed him to initiate, propel and sustain AQ.  Many other terrorist leaders have professed an extremist ideology and planned attacks on the U.S.  However, no other terrorist brought in resources like UBL.
  • AQ Central led by UBL relied heavily on donor support from the Gulf to sustain a Pakistani safe haven.  While a common ideology helped bind AQ and certain tribes, money was critical to cementing a comprehensive alliance with the Taliban.  Without Gulf donations being passed on to Taliban protectors, I believe the ideological bounds between AQ and the Taliban will erode.
  • Donor support is infinitely better for terrorist groups than illicit financing.  Illicit financing is time consuming; requiring terrorist groups to divide their efforts between securing resources and terror plot planning/recruiting/training.  Additionally, the bartering and bickering involved with illicit financing usually results in ideological compromises that undermine AQ’s foundation.  (AQIM is a good example.)  Lastly, pursuit of illicit funding streams weakens AQ’s operational security creating vulnerabilities more easily exploited by Western CT efforts.
  • Securing future donor support for AQ Central will require a capable AQ leader with roots in the Arabian peninsula.  I’m uncertain Zawahiri and the North African AQ members will receive equal donor commitment.  Thus, AQ Central in Pakistan will either 1) move to a more junior Saudi/Yemeni leader that can secure Gulf donor support, 2) fracture into an AQ affiliate led by a Pakistani/Afghan leader more able to secure resources via Taliban groups & illicit financing (this will likely lead to AQ Central shifting focus to guerrilla warfare in South & Central Asia) or 3) remain in the hands of AQ’s old guard (Zawahiri) and eventually be starved into irrelevance.
  • In the future, Gulf donors supporting Islamist/Salafist causes will have to decide where best to invest their money.
  1. Continue supporting AQ Central in Pakistan–  Donors must wonder if AQ Central is worth the investment. With UBL dead, the Pakistani government under pressure to produce, and AQ on the run, what can a donation ultimately achieve?
  2. Shift their donation to AQAP in Yemen– AQAP has steadily increased its recruitment, capability and attacks on the West.  Led by Saudis and Yemenis, embedded in a Yemeni safe haven and close to the Gulf, why would a donor continue supporting an AQ Central on the decline rather than an AQAP on the rise?
  3. Move their donations to Islamist groups competing for political power amongst current uprisings- One of AQ’s long time ideological goals was the overthrow of apostate regimes (near enemy).  AQ never achieved this, but many other Islamist groups currently compete for national power in the wake of Middle Eastern and North African uprisings.  Why donate to an AQ affiliate on the run, when a dollar donated to an Islamist group might result in an Arab regime more in line with Islamist principles?

I’ll post the results of the Post UBL Poll question on donor support in a couple of days.  In the meantime, what are some other dynamics to AQ donor support that I have overlooked?