FPRI Post: Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s

Today, I started the first in a multi-part series of blogposts at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on counterterrorism options and policy as of 2014.  Two weeks ago, Dr. Michael Doran, Dr. Will McCants and I combined for an article at Foreign Affairs entitled “The Good and the Bad of Ahrar al-Sham” trying to illustrate the complicated nature of today’s terrorism threat and how to tread cautiously in managing it.  The issue we addressed was premature designation of groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), but this represents only one strand in an extremely complicated counterterrorism landscape.

To kick off my discussion, I posted a few assumptions on my perspective of today’s terrorist threat and where we in the U.S., and the broader West to a certain extent, currently stand.

For those that see this article as another extension of wonk pontificating, good on you.  You are right! Standby for the next few posts as I’ll get more specific.   Here’s the start of the post and you can read the entire article “Smarter Counterterrorism in the Age of Competing al Qaeda’s” at this link.

This post and several to follow represent my assumptions and opinions on how the U.S. might push forward in counterterrorism against al Qaeda and those jihadist groups emerging from al Qaeda’s wake. (These are my opinions and not necessarily shared by my co-authors Drs. Doran and McCants-–I speak only for myself here.)  The posts are meant to stir discussion and debate; I have no illusions that I have all the answers or am exactly correct in my prescriptions.

For my first post in this series, I have six assumptions and/or principles that shape my opinions to come in future posts.

  •  Al Qaeda is not one big thing

Analysts and pundits should stop focusing on building links between al Qaeda affiliates seeking to present loose networks as one large insurmountable threat.  Billing al Qaeda as “One Big Thing” over the past decade resulted in the U.S. pursuing strategies, such as military occupation and backing corrupt dictators, which galvanize competing al Qaeda adherents and unify disparate affiliate actions. The US should pick its fights wisely and for the greatest counterterrorism return at the lowest cost. Since Bin Laden’s death, we’ve seen unprecedented al Qaeda infighting in Somalia, Syria and the Sahel. Rather than build new fears of an al Qaeda juggernaut, we should instead be employing our vaunted “smart power”–that’s if the U.S. can act smartly rather than in a partisan manner and still has power in a region where it has pursued a campaign of disengagement in recent years.


What is the state of al Qaeda & terrorism two years after Bin Laden? Vote Now!

Two years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan marking one of the most significant milestones in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Two and a half years ago, I began conducting surveys to assess what the impact might be if Osama Bin Laden ever met his demise.  These surveys have since become an annual assessment I generate to gauge public perceptions of the threat of al Qaeda and terrorism in general.  While Bin Laden may be gone, terrorism continues and the past year has demonstrated how terrorist attacks might manifest themselves in a variety of ways from Benghazi to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Today, I’m launching the fifth iteration of the al Qaeda Strategy/Post Bin Laden Survey.  Thanks to those that have participated in versions #1 – Does Bin Laden Matter – Jan.2, 2011, #2 – AQ Strategy 2011-2012 – April 27. 2011, #3 – Terrorism Post-Bin Laden – May 2, 2011, #4 One Year After Bin Laden– May 2, 2012. You can find the results at this link which hosts the results of past surveys.

This poll is shorter and a bit different than past surveys.  Realizing there have been changes in terrorism, I opened the questions up a bit to include new emerging trends.  However, I did repeat some questions verbatim so we can see how our collective thinking has changed over time.

Thanks in advance for contributing to the survey. And anyone is welcome to participate – the more votes the better the results. I’ll begin posting the results and comparisons with past data sets in a few weeks.  Here is the link to the survey if you would like to open it in a separate window: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2yearsafterBinLaden

And if you would like to just take the survey here, I’ve embedded it in this post.  Thanks for taking the survey!

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.



For al Qaeda: More ‘Unity’ or ‘Conflict’ One Year After Bin Laden? – Results #8

On May 2, 2012, the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey asked the following question:

Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, has there been more …?

  • Conflict and competition between al Qaeda leaders and affiliates over strategic direction, or
  • Unity between al Qaeda leaders and affiliates seeking to exploit recent uprisings

I found this question particularly interesting in light of the recent debate over the Benghazi attacks.  Some have asserted the attacks were the work of “al Qaeda”.  Other reports suggest the death of U.S. Ambassador Stevens as the work of an “al Qaeda affiliate”.  Yet others say the Consulate attack came from an emerging local militant group “Ansar al Sharia“.

If one were to believe the attack were the work of a centrally directed al Qaeda, then I would assume there would be more unity between al Qaeda leaders than conflict.  Likewise, a sense of unity in terms of central direction may mesh with an AQIM link to the Benghazi Consulate attack.  However, the notion of unity appears undermined by the recent revelations that Ansar al Din maybe breaking with AQIM, while the MNLA also takes its own course in the Sahel.  Meanwhile, General Ham, the U.S. AFRICOM commander, has noted that AQIM has become a central node for coordination with Boko Haram in Nigeria. It appears there are linkages between AQAP and al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.  But for AQAP in Yemen, seen by many as being the strongest AQ affiliate, are they really coordinating their operations with AQIM, AQ in Iraq or jihadi groups amongst the Syrian uprising?  Probably not. And what about Zawahiri? It appears the crowd doesn’t believe he is in charge of al Qaeda globally the way Bin Laden was.  So which is it, more “Unity” or  “Conflict” amongst AQ members after the death of Bin Laden?

In total, 197 respondents cast their opinions on this question and the vast majority believe al Qaeda’s members are more in conflict (77%) than in unity (23%) after the death of their founder.  The below graph shows the breakout of raw votes by professional group.  Most all professional groups voted in roughly the same proportions as the total.  However, military voters were more likely than other large sample size groups to believe AQ was showing ‘unity’ after Bin Laden’s death.  Meanwhile, ‘Private Sector’ voters were the least likely to believe AQ is cohesive – across most all questions ‘Private Sector’ voters appear to believe AQ is in a state of disarray.

The below table shows a breakdown of the votes based on different characteristics.  I highlighted in green those results reflecting a larger than average selection of ‘Conflict’ while highlighting in yellow those demographic breakdowns that chose ‘Unity’ at a higher rate than other groups.  Overall,

  • ‘Private Sector’ and ‘Government – Non Military’ selected ‘Conflict’ at higher rates.
  • All information sources appear to reflect a proportion similar to the overall average.  There was no apparent lean by ‘Social Media’ voters for this question.
  • Those ‘Residing Outside the U.S.’ were the group most likely to select AQ has had more ‘unity’.  While still only at a rate of 33%, it is interesting that those outside the U.S. may believe AQ is more organized.

Lastly, if you are confused by the term “al Qaeda” or what “al Qaeda linkages mean”, you are not alone.  The media and your Congressmen don’t know either.  For a good laugh and to enjoy the confusion, watch this clip between Anderson Cooper and Congressman Rohrabacher. Absolutely baffling! Another one of my favorite terms – “Radical Islamic Threat” – is in here.

AQAP’s Transition From Turf Taking to Sleeper Cells in Yemen

@will_mccants pointed me to an excellent article on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), their parallel insurgent organization Ansar al-Sharia and their relinquishing of turf previously won amidst Yemen’s government mess last spring.  Reuters Andrew Hammond’s article, “al Qaeda goes underground in Yemen against U.S.-driven crackdown“, provides a contrasting picture to reports just a few months ago which proclaimed AQAP/Ansar al-Sharia on the march taking, holding and governing large swathes of Yemen.  As Ghaith Abdul-Ahad so adeptly covered in the May 2012 Frontline documentary, AQ was developing a new safe haven outside of Pakistan.  And last week, Hammond reported:

A U.S.-backed military onslaught may have driven Islamist militants from towns in Yemen they seized last year, but many have regrouped into “sleeper cells” threatening anew the areas they vacated, security officials and analysts say.

The resilience of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), despite increased U.S. drone strikes to eliminate militants, is worrying for top oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door and the security of major shipping lanes in the seas off Yemen.

Despite being a really good article, it still does a little bit of threat hyping as I’m assuming it must do to keep audience attention.  Somehow in April/May, AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia were stronger than ever, and now, despite being pushed out of their hard-won sanctuary, they are seemingly stronger by being pushed into the hills and forming sleeper cells….I guess I’m still not sure when an AQ affiliate gets weaker. No matter what the circumstances, news feeds tell me year after year that al Qaeda is on the march.

What I found particularly important was the role that local militias were taking in standing up to AQAP.  When locals begin standing up to al Qaeda, the terror group finds itself in a particularly bad place.

Residents fear some militants could have infiltrated the committees, noting that the Ansar al-Sharia “emirate” in Jaar managed to negotiate a deal with the military that allowed many gunmen to leave unscathed.

Mohammed Sukain al-Jaadani, former head of a popular committee in Shuqra that helped organize tribes against the militants last year, is now trying to dissuade the region’s youth from being tempted by jihadist ideology.

“After Jaar and Zinjibar, al Qaeda turned into sleeper cells. It’s a danger for society, they are in many places. They threaten tribes and citizens,” said Jaadani.

He has set up a Tribal Social Alliance in his home region in Hadramaut province bordering Saudi Arabia.

“We did good work with tribes, and we are still doing work to save our regions from al Qaeda and unknown people to reject destructive, terrorist ideas. They created a culture of violence and extremism. We’re trying to help the authorities come back.”

Arguments in April/May centered on drones making AQAP stronger in Yemen.  The debate shifted course with Christopher Swift’s article this past summer. Now, this article provides more anecdotes about drone effects.

Nasser al-Noba, a former army officer who helped relaunch the southern separatist movement, says militants have hunkered down in the Mahfad, Marakisha and Hatat mountains, inland from the flat coastal areas of Jaar, Zinjibar and Shuqra.

“They sometimes appear in the streets, they suddenly appear and disappear as if by remote control. They go around in landcruisers, with the stickers of al Qaeda on the doors. But since Saleh’s fall, the drones have started to have an effect.”

In conclusion, Bin Laden’s caution with AQAP in Yemen appears correct.  As noted in the Harmony documents released on the first anniversary of his death, Bin Laden thought Yemen would be helpful as a safe haven in the future, but he didn’t see the necessary conditions for a formal push in Yemen.  In a letter to Atiyah, Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000019, Bin Laden wrote:

“I reviewed your opinions   regarding the issue of establishing an Islamic state before the elements of success have been completed and the issue of escalation in Yemen. I wanted to share with you my opinion on these two matters in order to establish a fruitful and constructive discussion, God willing. However, the matter is complex…To begin I would say that Yemen is the Arab country most ready for the establishment of an Islamic state, but this does not mean that the necessary fundamental elements for success for such a project have yet been realized.”

Bin Laden cautioned, as noted in this piece by Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, that AQAP should not jump too quickly to form an Islamic state. But, I guess with Bin Laden dead and Saleh in retreat, the temptation became too great – see pg. 28.

“Not declaring a truce does not mean that we escalate against the government in the south and enter into an immediate fight against the military, as it would not bring the desired outcome. This is because the sons of the northern tribes will be targeted in the fight [i.e., tribesmen who are members of the Yemeni military would inevitably go to fight in the south and would be attacked by AQAP]. Some of these tribesmen do not realize that the military are apostates. So the tribes will think that we increased the bloodshed, and people will talk among the tribes saying that al-Qa`ida kills a lot. This would distance many people from us and might lead to a tribal uprising to fight against us in revenge for their sons. This also means that we do not jump to establish an Islamic state in the south at the first chance of the government losing control in the south. The reason for this is what we mentioned earlier, that we are not yet ready to cover the people with the umbrella of Islamic rule.”

So, many argued Bin Laden was not really important for al Qaeda’s direction at the time of his death. However, Bin Laden knew not to jump into a formal alliance with Shabaab in Somalia (unlike Zawahiri, see here and here) and felt an Islamic state in Yemen should wait.  Now both of these blunders might be realized in only the first year after his death…..so did Bin Laden matter, I think so!

U.S. Decision On Syria Intervention Likely 30 to 120 Days Away

The news from Syria this past week has consistently returned the same general themes.  Here are some media reports I’ve been reading and I’ll highlight what I think are some key points with some commentary.

The New York Times article, “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria” notes:

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

Clarissa Ward of 60 Minutes (new Lara Logan I guess) provided a rather unremarkable post from her trip inside the Syrian resistance. A brave journey but the report doesn’t really reveal much that has not already been covered.  She does interview a jihadi leader in Syria but this was no PBS Frontline Ghaith Abdul-Ahad documentary.

The best article come from the The Guardian in their post “Syria dispatch: Rebel fighters fear the growing influence of their ‘Bin Laden’ faction.” If you are going to read one article on the Syrian resistance and its issues, I recommend this one. First, the article notes the FSA has had enough of the jihadists.

“Libyans”, muttered the rebel Free Syria Army leader under his breath, shooting the men a dirty look. “We don’t want these extremist people here. Look at them; we didn’t have this style in Syria – who is this? Bin Laden?”

Second, here’s the real danger – jihadists are uniting more than the FSA.

After more than a month of secret meetings, leaders of Islamist fighters – including the heavyweight Farouq Brigade that operates mainly in Homs province and influential Sukour al-Sham brigade of Idlib – have formed the “Front to Liberate Syria”.
“We are proud of our Islamism and we are Islamists. We do not want to show it in a slogan because we might not live up to the responsibility of Islam,” said the leader of the Front, Abu Eissa. “But we want a state with Islamic reference and we are calling for it.”

Interesting, so they don’t want to be called Islamists, Salafists or jihadists? They instead want to focus on local issues and institution of Sharia governance. Sound familiar?

Third, moderate secularists in Syria are worried about jihadists in Syria.

The Sunday Telegraph accompanied the head of the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council, General Mustafa al-Sheikh as he moved the FSA’s command centre from Turkey to inside Syria. They travelled nervously through Idlib’s countryside, in cars with blacked out windows, heavily armed, and with their rifles locked and loaded.
“It’s not because of the regime that we are carrying weapons. It’s because we are afraid of being attacked by the jihadists,” an FSA rebel later admitted.

Fourth, foreign fighters bring the cash.

Resistance groups that adopt a more overtly Islamist hue are finding it easier to attract financial support from abroad. Religious fighting groups are the prime beneficiaries of money and weapons donated by the government of Qatar, as well by wealthy businessmen and religious leaders in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign fighters from the Gulf brought lots of cash to Iraq. For a breakdown of foreign fighter donations upon arrival in Iraq, see this chart from my past research. The columns show what foreign fighters from each country contributed as a donation (first 2 columns), total cash on hand (second 2 columns) and what they had on hand in Syria (last 2 columns). The money data is confusing so read here, here, and here if you want more explanation of the Iraq foreign fighter records.  Bottom Line: If you want cash, get a Saudi recruit.

Here are my thoughts:

  • The Syrian resistance is not making significant gains against the Syrian regime.  After an initial flurry of success, the fight in many places appears to be at a stalemate.  This pseudo stalemate has resulted in….
  • An increase in foreign fighters, most of whom are jihadists.  These fighters come from both the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and provide needed manpower, weapons and …..
  • Money.  Not only are foreign fighters bringing resources with them, but wealthy donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the jihadists resulting in them expanding their influence in certain sectors and in many ways outpacing the Free Syria Army (FSA).
  • The FSA needs the support of the foreign fighters and the Gulf – weapons, manpower, and experience – but fractures continue to emerge.  FSA elements are now as worried about fighting the emerging jihadists in the country as they are about fighting the Assad regime.  This will distract the FSA from overthrowing the government, extend the revolution and result in even more foreign fighters being inspired and migrating to Syria.
  • Lastly, while the FSA can control certain sectors of cities like Aleppo, they still lack heavy weapons and remain completely vulnerable from the sky.

The U.S. remains largely on the sidelines. Reports suggest the U.S. is providing non-military aid to the Syrian resistance.  However, the U.S. fears providing much needed heavy weapons to Syria’s rebels as these weapons might have the potential of falling into the hands of terrorists operating in Syria.  So the U.S. and the West remain largely on the sidelines while donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back jihadist groups that continue to grow in Syria.  Essentially the fear that something might go wrong in the future (Terrorists getting U.S. weapons) results in the U.S. not playing a role in Syria and surrendering influence in a post-Assad Syria to those with the biggest wallets (The Gulf), while ignoring the other awful future scenario – an uncontested jihadi enclave in Syria threatening Israel to the west, undermining Iraqi stability to the east, and operating a safe haven projecting violence against the West globally.

The U.S. election continues to put the decision to further support to the Syrian resistance in delay.  The Obama administration, once criticized for intervening in Libya, likely fears getting involved in another unruly conflict (Syria) before an election and after the death of an Ambassador in Libya.  If the Obama administration wins a second term, will they begin dedicating more support to the overthrow of Assad? If so, the decision and support could come in as little as 30 days potentially.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has gone all in on backing the Syrian resistance despite being part of the party that only a year ago criticized U.S. intervention in Libya.  If Romney wins, his administration wouldn’t take office or likely make any substantive move before February.  If they did decide to intervene in February, would the FSA be able to hold out?  Would the FSA be completely eclipsed by the emerging jihadists in that four month period? Maybe so.

Regardless of which campaign wins, it seems to me the most useful action the U.S. could support, engineer, participate in is the institution of a No Fly Zone.  This would help put the resistance on level footing (closer) with the Assad regime and plays to the strengths of the U.S. and West as a whole.

So, the question is up to you, what do you think – cast your vote here and the final results will be published early next week. Thanks to all those that have already voted.

al Qaeda’s Stronger Again Today – Unstoppable In Fact – AQIM, AQAP

Special thanks to Bloomberg and James Walcott for their misleading article title, “Al Qaeda Affiliates Getting Stronger, Says U.S. Official.”  Walcott goes on in the article to explain that David Cohen, U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, attended a London conference at Chatham House (where they apparently didn’t follow Chatham House rules) discussing the fundraising of al Qaeda affiliates.  Thank you James Walcott for the alarming title with little details.

Perfect timing for this blog as the article arose the same time I was compiling the results of the “One Year After Bin Laden” question which asked voters which al Qaeda affiliate would get al Qaeda’s donor support after Bin Laden’s death.  David Cohen said:

“The U.S. government estimates that terrorist organizations have collected approximately $120 million in ransom payments over the past eight years,”

To me, this isn’t that much money.  This equates to $15 million per year spread across numerous al Qaeda affilaites.  As I argued in January this year and a couple years back with regards to AQIM’s kidnapping schemes (and here), this illicit funding comes with all sorts of challenges.  Additionally, the “terrorism is cheap” argument propagated after 9/11 focused solely on the costs of executing a single al Qaeda attack while ignoring al Qaeda’s significant fixed and operational costs on a year-on-year basis.  While the article addresses how these ransoms are used for daily operations, the account doesn’t address how difficult and costly it is to operate in the middle of the Sahel (AQIM) or actually provide governance in rural Yemen (AQAP).  Both are costly enterprises I noted in January.

The misleading article goes on a confusing spiral guaranteed to scare and confuse a reader.

“Al-Qaeda’s core is not in the position to provide generous funding to its affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, ‘AQIM,’ operating in the Sahel, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ‘AQAP,’ operating primarily in Yemen,” Cohen said. “Instead, these al-Qaeda offshoots are self-sufficient, raising their own funds and themselves providing support to the next generation of violent groups.”

“AQIM, the al-Qaeda affiliate that has likely profited most from kidnapping for ransom, has collected tens of millions of dollars through KFR operations since 2008,” he said. “It raised significant funds from kidnapping for ransom operations in early 2012, and was holding nine hostages as of the middle of last month.”

So al Qaeda’s affiliates are stronger because they don’t get donor funding from AQ’s core?  That doesn’t make sense. Being self-sufficient may make an al Qaeda affiliate independent in its operations and target selection, but self-sufficiency doesn’t necessarily make a group stronger; especially if a group, like AQIM gets involved with a fringe AQ upstart that kills a U.S. Ambassador without having sufficient local popular support.  This sort of self-sufficiency may actually represent weakness depending on the U.S. response.  Time will tell.

Additionally, this article mirrors the argument made by the AFRICOM commander General Ham earlier this year where he noted that AQIM remains the best financed al Qaeda affiliate.

In conclusion, if you read mainstream media accounts of al Qaeda, I believe you’ll be persistently confused.  In February, a casual reader would have thought al Shabaab, having officially joined al Qaeda, was on the brink of taking over the Horn of Africa and leading al Qaeda into a new era.  Today, al Shabaab defectors leave by the hour and the group’s safe haven continues to shrink as they move from conventional operations to more limited-resource guerilla tactics.

In May, news reports anointed AQAP as the new al Qaeda Central as they held territory and governed parts of Yemen. Today, the Yemeni government continues to push back AQAP and drone strikes from the U.S. engage and eliminate more and more key AQAP leaders.

So now in October, a month after the Benghazi tragedy, we are reading new hype about AQIM being the next “Getting Stronger” al Qaeda threat to challenge the U.S.  Really?  Are we in the counterterrorism punditry and media just looking for a new enemy?  Was anyone really tracking AQIM’s revenues in 2008 when they were doing kidnappings and likely receiving donations from AQ Central?  They may in fact have less resources if we could actually gain enough data to properly evaluate this question. But that story doesn’t sell advertising.  So yesterday, today and tomorrow, we’ll see that al Qaeda is “getting stronger” as we wildly pivot from one alleged al Qaeda affiliate to another.  Despite the fact we can’t even agree on what al Qaeda is or who is in the organization.  Terrorism and counterterrorism: two industries trying to find their way ten years after the attacks of 9/11/2001.

For those that continue to charge there is an al Qaeda and it continues to get stronger by the day, I ask but one question: “Under what conditions would you declare al Qaeda defeated?”  If you can’t describe those conditions when al Qaeda is defeated, then why should we listen to your analysis that al Qaeda is stronger?

My take is we should stop seeking a link between all violence in the Middle East and the subsequent labeling of it as “al Qaeda”. Again this week, @gregorydjohnsen and I were discussing the random al Qaeda linking occurring in the news between an AQAP attack on a Yemeni security official at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a and the Benghazi attacks.  Garbage!  Continuing on this path will lead the U.S. to over-reach in its response and improperly assess threats – at a time when cyberattacks from state adversaries and criminals, not al Qaeda, may actually be the greatest threat to our national security. Analyze each attack or threat as its own entity instead of forcing everything into a dated understanding of al Qaeda 2001.


AQAP in Yemen Getting the Money After UBL – 1 Year After Bin Laden – Poll Results #4

In my opinion, one of the most critical questions after the death of Osama Bin Laden was where would donor funding to al Qaeda go after the death of the group’s leader?  Last year, after Bin Laden’s death, voters (40%) forecasted that Gulf donor funds would shift to AQAP in Yemen.  However, an interesting contrast occurred with ‘Private Sector’ voters, who using their experience with business and money, noted that it may instead be “Emerging Islamist Groups in North Africa amongst the Arab Spring” that receive a boost in funding.  Another interesting finding from the spring of 2011 was from the week prior to Bin Laden’s death where voters believed funding would remain focused on supporting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The implication of these two forecasts appeared clear: Bin Laden was central to drawing donor support from the Gulf.  For the full results of last year’s forecast, see this link.

A year later, on May 2, 2012, I asked the following question:

Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, the largest portion of Gulf donor contributions to extremism have gone to:

  • al Shabaab in Somalia to create an alternate safe haven for AQ
  • AQ in Iraq to counter Iraq’s Shia dominated government
  • AQ in Pakistan & the Taliban in Afghanistan/Pakistan to sustain AQ Central
  • AQAP in Yemen as a more viable group proximate to the Gulf
  • AQIM to help them exploit North African insecurity
  • Islamist groups vying for power amongst North African uprisings
  • Other

Overall, ‘AQAP in Yemen’ received the most votes across the board (40%) and the majority of every professional group.  After AQAP in Yemen, just under 20% of voters voters selected ‘AQ in Afghanistan and Pakistan’ and ‘Emerging Islamist Groups in North Africa’ –  an interesting result that concurs with the forecasts of the ‘Private Sector’ voters last year.  Essentially, voters thought the investment in an emerging al Qaeda affiliate was of equal value to backing the old original leaders of al Qaeda in Pakistan.  Here are the results for each professional category across all groups surveyed.  I went with raw vote totals for this graph and the vote totals and percentages for all demographics is below in a table.

In the following table, I’ve totaled the votes of each demographic for each terror affiliate and percentage of votes from each demographic breakdown selecting each terror affiliate.  In green I’ve highlighted a couple demographic breakdowns where the voting pattern is slightly different and higher with regards to ‘AQAP in Yemen’.

  • ‘Academia’ was more likely than the average and more likely than other professional groups to select ‘AQAP in Yemen’. ‘Academia’ was also less enthralled with ‘Emerging Islamist Groups’ than other professional groups.
  • Likewise, those that chose ‘Newspapers’ as their primary information source also selected ‘AQAP in Yemen’ at a slightly higher rate than the average.  This also makes me wonder if newspapers have been reporting on AQAP in Yemen more than other threats.  Don’t know, just a theory.

Highlighted in yellow are lines where votes were lower than average for AQAP.

  • Military voters selected ‘AQAP in Yemen’ less than any other group.  In fact, ‘Military’ voters selected ‘AQAP in Yemen’, ‘AQIM in Sahel’ and ‘AQ in AFPAK’ at roughly the same rate.  Maybe they know something the rest of us don’t know.


Bakos on Libya Attack – Good Read

Today, the Huffington Post published an article by @nadabakos on the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  Nada’s article, “Attack in Libya Represents Subtle But Meaningful Shift In Threat to American Interests“, provides a needed counterbalance to the hopped up politically charged and flawed al Qaeda analysis proliferating the media after the death of a U.S. Ambassador.

I enjoy Nada’s post and it mirrors in many places my own thoughts (here and here) on how we assess and move forward in a post-al Qaeda world.  In fact, it was a Twitter discussion with Nada that inspired the title of my article from July “What if there is no al Qaeda? Preparing for Future Terrorism.”  Here’s Nada’s conclusion and I encourage all seeking an al Qaeda explanation to all current and future violence in the Middle East and North Africa to take notes.

Going forward, the U.S. needs to embrace a new calculus for assessing and responding to these loosely affiliated networks and militias, and watch to make sure that they do not coalesce into a successor to the threat posed by al Qaeda at its zenith. The tactics used in Benghazi resemble those used by al Qaeda, but, smaller in scope and scale, and mainly threaten our interests and assets overseas. Our diplomatic presence in other countries has always served us well when it’s open and engaging, but, like any other deployment of U.S. national power, incurs a certain degree of necessary risk. Withdrawing from the world is every bit as implausible as treating every militia as if it is al Qaeda.

AQ Fundraising Decreased – 1 Year After Bin Laden Poll – Results #3

On the day of Bin Laden’s death, May 2, 2011, two of the options provided to survey respondents of the question “What will be the chief consequence of Osama Bin Laden’s death?” related to al Qaeda’s financing.  Essentially, would the terror group’s funding rise or decline with the loss of its key leader and chief financier.  Here were the results of the two options in the days immediately following Bin Laden’s death:

  •  “al Qaeda fundraising increases substantially” – only 1 ‘Government’ voter from a total of 152 responses selected this as the chief consequence.

For the full results of this question from 2011, see this post.

A year after Bin Laden’s death, (May 2, 2012) 209 respondents answered this question:

“Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, has al Qaeda fundraising increased of decreased?”

Overall, almost 80% of respondents said al Qaeda’s financing had decreased in the year since Bin Laden’s death while the remaining 20% believed al Qaeda’s financing had increased in the year since Bin Laden’s death.  In comparison, voters, on average, were more likely to believe al Qaeda’s funding had decreased (80%) than al Qaeda’s attacks had decreased (70%).  But according to the crowd, both have declined.

The following chart shows the breakdown of votes by percentage of each professional group. Again, a note of caution, some professional groups had only a small number of respondents so the percentages may appear artificially large.  Below the chart is a table which breaks out the raw vote totals by demographic group.  Here’s what I found interesting about the professional groups:

  • ‘Government Contractors’ were more likely than ‘Military’ voters to select “fundraising increased”.
  • Those that did not declare their professional background and ‘Academia’ were most likely to say that al Qaeda’s funding had decreased since Bin Laden’s death.

After examining the professional groups, I broke down the responses of each group by education level, preferred information source and residency.  In the last set of results (#2), the preferred information source of respondents appeared to correlate with respondents’ interpretation of an increase or decrease in al Qaeda attacks.  In these results (#3), I found the following vote breakdown to be of the most interest.

  • For education level, those with Doctoral degrees were more inclined than other education levels to believe that al Qaeda funding had increased since Bin Laden’s death.
  • The comparison of residency provided the most interesting results for comparison.  Those ‘born outside the U.S.’ or currently ‘residing outside the U.S.’ were the most likely to believe al Qaeda’s funding has decreased since Bin Laden’s death.  Meanwhile, those individuals that have lived cumulatively outside the U.S. and E.U. for two years or more were slightly more likely than average and twice as likely as those currently residing outside the U.S. to believe al Qaeda’s fundraising has increased in the year since Bin Laden’s death.  A strange paradox that I need to spend a little more time researching, but interesting nonetheless.

Here’s the full breakdown in a table.  In yellow are lines that I marked as interesting for being higher than average and in green are lines I marked as interesting for being lower than average.

1Year After Bin Laden Poll – AQ Plots Decreased – Results #2

In this second published result of the “1 Year After Bin Laden” Poll, I decided to focus on a question that is somewhat relevant to the current debate in the media following recent events in Libya.

On May 2, 2011, several hundred respondents answered a question with regards to what would be the “Chief Consequence of Bin Laden’s death?”. 

Two of the potential responses provided for what might happen in the wake of Bin Laden’s death were:

To examine the efficacy of the crowdsourcing prediction generated on May 2, 2011, I did an assessment with the “1 Year Post Bin Laden” poll executed on May 2, 2012 asking:

“Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, have al Qaeda Central directed plots against the U.S. and its allies increased or decreased?”

In total, 206 people answered this question and the majority of respondents (71%) stated that al Qaeda Central plots against the U.S. had decreased over the past year.

Here are the results in a chart broken down by professional groups.  Below this chart is the breakdown of votes per demographic group and percentage of each.  Note, each professional group depicted in the first chart has a different number of total votes.  For example, there were 30 ‘Private Sector’ voters but only 4 ‘Media and Journalism’ voters so the percentages in the chart will fluctuate greatly with each vote in those professional groups with low cell counts.

For professional groups, here’s what I found to be interesting results:

  • ‘Government-Contractors’ and ‘Government – Non-Military’ were more likely than average to think that plots increased over the past year while ‘Government-Military’ were more likely than average to think that plots had decreased over the past year.
  • ‘Private Sector’ voters were less likely than average to think that plots increased over the past year, yet ‘Private Sector’ voters immediately following Bin Laden’s death were the most likely to select that ‘AQ plots will increase’.

After building the professional group charts, I went through and tabulated the raw vote and percentages for all demographic factors to include professional group, education level, preferred information source and residency.  This produced the most interesting results.  Below is a chart and I highlighted particular lines of interest in different colors.  Those lines in green represent groups that were less likely than average to believe that AQ plots had increased over the past year.  Those lines in yellow represent groups that were more likely than average to believe that AQ plots had increased.  Overall, here is what I found interesting and I’d like to hear what readers think about these results.

  • Those that prefer getting their information on al Qaeda from ‘Social Media’ and ‘Television’ were far more likely to believe AQ Central plots against the U.S. had increased since Bin Laden’s death.  Meanwhile, those reading ‘Academic Publications’ and ‘Newspapers’ were less likely than average to believe AQ plots had increased after Bin Laden’s death.  Assuming the crowd vote of 70% against is correct, this may suggest that social media and television create an amplification effect making every individual attack seem like many attacks.  A common argument about the 9/11 attacks and cable TV news was that the constant replaying of the 9/11 attacks resulted in the public believing terrorism was more pervasive than it actually was. Viewers watching endless replays of the attacks began to subconsciously believe there were more threats than there actually were.  I personally feel this same effect from social media where Twitter, Blogs and newsfeeds create circular, redundant reporting that makes it difficult to determine the severity and frequency of attacks and true strength of threats.  We’ve also seen this with domestic extremism in the States.  Essentially, if one looks for and reads about terror attacks all day, they’ll find a lot of threats – aka “Threat Myopia”. Likewise, I wonder if in depth research findings from academic publications and the broader perspective of newspapers has the reverse effect on the information consumer. All just theories but an interesting result form the survey data.
  • Strangely, those with at least 2 years living outside the U.S. and E.U. were slightly more likely to believe that AQ plots had increased.  I would have expected the reverse, but the difference is very slight and only slightly above the average of all voters.