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.

Young Tribesman from Splinter Faction Attack Tribal Elders

For the second time in as many months, young men from a splinter faction of a conservative rural tribe attacked clan elders.  On the first occasion, five young men pulled a tribal elder from his home in Mesopotamia and forcibly cut the man’s beard.  On the second occasion, a young clansmen invited his father, a religious leader in the community, into his home.  After discussions broke down, the young son attacked his father and forcibly cut his beard – an embarrassment as:

“to cut their beard is an assault on not only their personal identity but also on their religious identity and their religious faith as married men are expected to let their beards grow.”

The son, a member of the Bergholz region breakaway faction and son-in-law of the rebel leader Mullet, initiated the attack in response to perceived unfair rulings by tribal elders enforcing tribal law. Breakaway leader Mullet says tribal elders:

“changed the rulings … and they’re trying to force their way down our throat, make us do like they want us to do, and we’re not going to do that,” 

Analysts note that while:

“it’s uncommon … to take disputes public and enlist authorities, there is no central authority to decide so it usually falls to the … leaders or those involved.”

Mullet’s breakaway faction in Bergholz, Ohio ….. OH YEAH, BREAK…did I forget to mention that I’m talking about the Amish.  I hope I didn’t confuse anyone that this might be an Afghanistan-Pakistan discussion about the Neo-Taliban. All of this is happening in Ohio.

NPR, and of course only NPR, brought to light the story of the Neo-Amish faction of Johnny Mullet in rural Ohio. While rogue Amish are less violent than an Occupy Oakland protest, I found the narrative fascinatingly similar to counterinsurgency discussions over the years. 
Younger, self-appointed cleric with no religious training begins challenging the old tribal guard through the use of force atypical of the culture
.  Older generation leaders struggle to ward off the aggression of young upstarts seeking to change cultural decision-making processes.  I’m waiting to hear if we should dispatch advisers to quell the insurgency.  We’ve seen this sort of breakaway Amish radicalism before in the movie Kingpin and we all know where it leads (I think no where but it’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie). Turns out the first attack was around Mesopotamia, Ohio and not Mesopotamia between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

It is still unknown if either side will enlist the support of foreign fighters from Pennsylvania Amish country.  The Pennsylvania Amish could potentially provide either side a decisive edge as everyone recognizes the training provided them by Harrison Ford in the movie Witness.  They were instrumental in defeating a rogue Danny Glover.

Despite my bad movie references, I value both articles as an alternative, less violent U.S. version of the cultural dynamics the U.S. has encountered during overseas COIN operations in recent years.  As I’ve told friends in the past, “there’s a little Taliban in all of us” … even the Amish!

Intelwire: “What is al Qaeda?”, Part 2

Last week, Intelwire posted the results of the first question from his “What is al Qaeda?” survey.  This week, he posts the results from the second question in his survey:

Identify whether you believe the organization or people described are part of al Qaeda?

Intelwire’s results appear quite interesting.  Overall, about half of respondents believed the Afghan Taliban to be part of al Qaeda and far fewer identified al Shabab as al Qaeda.  While the survey was conducted several weeks ago, recent reporting suggests significant links between al Shabab, AQAP and AQ Central.

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?

“Does Bin Laden Matter?” Poll Results; Part #1

I selected the 2011 Bin Laden prediction for two reasons: 1) a really smart person I know brought it up a couple years back and I found no one had a good answer to what would happen post-Bin Laden and 2) there remains a certain undertone within US policy that the Afghanistan conflict’s ultimate goal is getting Bin Laden and subsequently eliminating AQ Central’s AF/PAK safe haven.

The Afghanistan invasion originally pursued one central objective: destroy al Qaeda and its leader Usama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s escape to Pakistan resulted in the Afghanistan campaign morphing into a perennial low intensity battle with countryside tribesmen and a nation-building quagmire in Kabul.  Almost ten years later, these two drifting sub-objectives have distracted the U.S. from its original ambitions resulting in my question embedded in a prophecy: does Bin Laden really matter anymore?  The answer to this question, I believe, informs current U.S. policy decisions on the future direction of counterterrorism.

To answer the “does Bin Laden matter?” issue, I posed three questions in two different polls.  The poll placed with the initial “Does Bin Laden Matter?” post queried readers of this blog to provide their opinions (open poll).  I then posed the same questions to a select group of terrorism/counterterrorism experts I know and respect to gauge their reactions to the same set of three questions (internal poll).  The following several posts will recap the results of these two polls and provide further discussion for dissecting the appropriate direction of future U.S. policy in AF/PAK and globally with regard to terrorism.

Today’s post shows the open poll (placed on this website, 32 voters) and compares it with the internal poll (CT experts I queried, 20 voters).  Here is the side by side comparison of these two groups for question #1 from the “Does Bin Laden Matter?” post.  Of the fourteen options offered respondents, only seven options were chosen in either poll.   Note, there is likely duplication of the respondents at times as some that responded to my internal poll also responded to the open poll.

In both polls, a large number of respondents believe Bin Laden’s death will have no significant impact on AQ and the larger jihadi movement.  Meanwhile, the two groups of respondents disagreed considerably over Zawahiri’s future.  A large portion of the readers on this blog (open poll) believed Zawahiri would replace Bin Laden.  The internal poll (expert group) saw Zawahiri as far less significant instead believing a new AF/PAK based member of AQ will emerge as the leader.  For the internal poll, both Bin Laden and Zawahiri appear to be irrelevant for the future of AQ.  Yet, our strategy against AQ focuses considerably on capturing or killing these two individuals.  I’ll return to this key point after I publish the results of the next two poll questions.

I also wanted to examine the expert group and see if experts from different points of view see the Bin Laden question differently.  I coded the experts surveyed based on their current job responsibilities in government, military, academia, law enforcement or the private sector.  Many have served in one or more of these sectors so I coded them based solely on their current responsibilities.  It’s not perfect, but here are the results.  Overall, the results appear fairly even across all sectors surveyed.

Recent AQ Foreign Fighter Recruitment, Part 3

Continuing from posts #1 and #2 reference the Newsweek article “Inside Al Qaeda”, this article demonstrates how drones have disrupted AQ operations in Pakistan.  Hanif, the young Pakistani AQ recruit, explains in detail how the increasing intensity of the drone program disrupted their training and planning.

“The sound of the drones in the sky is so incessant you stop noticing it, like the buzzing of insects, Hanif says. “You don’t see or hear anything before the missile’s impact.” He says the aftermath of a drone attack can be particularly hard.”

The article later continues noting…

“in the past year, he estimates, drones have killed some 80 Qaeda members, many of them senior commanders.  (That figure sounds compatible with the number offered by a Pakistani intelligence source, who tells Newsweek he believes some 120 Qaeda militants have been eliminated by drones in the past two years.) Now the fighters have grown more careful even when visiting the bazaars in Miran Shah, the war-battered capital of North Waziristan.”

Hanif notes later that,

“Our leaders are afraid of spies,” Hanif says. A year ago the militants became convinced that CIA proxies were tagging their cars with magnetic locator devices, to guide Hellfire missiles to their target.”

Hanif’s account shows that the U.S. has made significant advances in counterterrorism.  The drone program has achieved far more against AQ (and Taliban) operations in Pakistan than any counterinsurgency effort on either side of the AFPAK border.  Drones have:

  1. Disrupted AQ’s strategic planning by eliminating AQ leaders or isolating them in protective positions.
  2. Caused AQ to exhaust additional resources to maintain operational security.
  3. Largely eliminated large-scale conventional training venues.  Hanif used to train formally at camps, but now he and his fellow recruits are confined to rooms in shacks.
  4. Forced AQ to use less experienced and poorly trained individuals.  These new recruits are less likely to be successful operationally and will also be unlikely to carry out terrorism for future generations.

I return to this article and the drone discussion as we once again reevaluate our Afghanistan strategy and our overall counterterrorism strategy.  Despite the fears of COIN advocates, the drone program has disrupted AQ operations and not caused the massive civilian populace backlash they forewarned.  The drone program unfortunately causes some civilian casualties during its operations.  However, I estimate the scale of civilian casualties from drones is likely equal to or less than the number of civilian casualties created through our COIN approach.

Atran’s Taliban Argument

I’m surprised I’ve not heard more about Dr. Scott Atran’s well done NY Times Op-ed “Turning the Taliban Against Al Qaeda.”  Atran argues that the Taliban can be negotiated with due to long-standing tribal affiliations between the Haqqani’s and other Pashtun groups such as Karzai’s Popalzai tribe.  Atran identifies at least one impediment to negotiation: the emergence of young Taliban commanders to replace those killed in battle.  Atran says these young, rogue Taliban:

“are removed from the dense networks of tribal kinship and patronage, or qawm, and especially of friendship born of common experiences, or andiwali, that bind together the top figures in the established insurgent groups like the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network.”

Atran’s analysis is exemplary and I encourage all interested in developing a long-run strategy for Afghanistan to read the results of what outstanding field research looks like.  However, I’m not sure Atran’s conclusion, or my perception of it, should be quite so pessimistic.

Rising violence from young Taliban commanders will not necessarily correlate with endless rounds of more violence.  The phenomenon discussed by Atran occurs quite regularly on American streets as new, upstart gangs try to stake out a piece of turf amidst other well-established gangs. New gangs conduct more violence than established gangs for several reasons:

  1. Violence is needed to create operational space for expanding the new gang’s turf.
  2. Violence increases credibility leading to further recruitment.
  3. Low opportunity costs- for new gangs, there is relatively little to lose as they have yet to develop an illicit economy (drugs, prostitution, etc.) which will be adversely affected by increased law enforcement scrutiny or group competition.

I imagine these upstart Taliban packs are unlikely to last for long and will probably suffer the fate of many upstart American gangs.  If they continue to escalate violence, the young, Taliban upstarts will likely suffer one of the following fates:

  1. Be eliminated by competing Taliban groups. For any given upstart Taliban commander, there is likely to be a competing newcomer that may try to eliminate them.  If not, it’s quite likely that veteran Taliban tribes will destroy them.
  2. Be co-opted into the traditional system. Many of these young Taliban groups will come to realize that they need resources to survive.  Like their predecessors, these young Taliban will develop some form of illicit revenue stream to support themselves.  Once this occurs, the young Taliban will become like old Taliban- dependent on their base of resources and will subsequently alter their pattern of violence to defend their resources.
  3. Be eliminated by NATO forces.  If they proceed on a particularly violent tear, the Taliban upstart group will stick out above all other Taliban groups and thus be elevated in targeting priority.
  4. Be suffocated by their inability to govern.  If the young groups decide to hold ground and create a mini-caliphate, they will slowly lose popular support as their repressive tactics will fail to provide for the population which will defect or revolt.

I believe the young upstart Taliban may be a useful strategic tool for NATO forces.  As young, splinter Taliban groups antagonize traditional Taliban tribes, the U.S. may find more common ground with the old Taliban like the Haqqani.  Both parties might enjoy the elimination of young upstarts and a return to a more predictable order. ——The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t!