Has ‘Old Guard’ Al Qaeda Shifted Their Targeting Focus?

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia provided me the platform to discuss something new I’m exploring; a potential shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda targeting towards Israel.  Yesterday brought the announcement of three al Qaeda operatives being interdicted as they developed plans to attack targets in Jerusalem.   Here is the introduction to the article and see the full post and discussion points at this link.

“While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently.   Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others.  But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message.  The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:

“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”

FPRI Post: Do al Qaeda affiliates have a plan?

Today, I got the opportunity to post a discussion piece on whether al Qaeda affiliates actually follow a plan in light of the many opportunities and competing interests at play.  Recently, there has been renewed discussion about “the Next Bin Laden”.  I’m not a big fan of these kinds of posts. But I did think it was worth discussing whether these al Qaeda affiliates actually have any sort of plan and if so, do they follow any of the lauded al Qaeda strategy documents put out by their theorists?

Here’s an introduction to the post and you can read the rest at FPRI:

The rise of many jihadi affiliates around the Africa and the Middle East has renewed the American mediaquest to anoint “The Next Bin Laden”. Lacking any real information or expertise on emerging leaders some analyses has settled on older known quantities; namely Abu Musab al-Suri. (I wonder if someone just changed the date on this article from 2005 to 2013, Lawrence Wright does a better breakdown of Suri at this link from September 11, 2006.) While I’ve always been a critic of Suri, the article does raise an interesting question: do the mish-mash of “al Qaeda-in-name” affiliates actually have a plan for their actions?  Most importantly, what is the plan for Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (aka ISIS/AQ in Iraq) as they move forward in Syria?

If al Qaeda affiliates were to actually build a plan from their own lessons learned, I would assume they might reference three jihadi planners of note and several other lesser-known jihadi veterans old and new.  For the “Big Three” and their relevant works I would pick:

  1. Abu Musab al-Suri and his lengthy 1600 page The Call to Global Islamic Resistance released in 2005
  2. Bin Laden’s final strategic thoughts from Abbottabad
  3. Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 upload The Management of Savagery

I’ll discuss some of my general notions about these three influences and my opinion on whether any of these three actually make much of an impression on current jihadi conflicts.

FPRI Post – Zawahiri’s Latest Message: Please Listen To Me!

Today, I posted my latest thoughts at FPRI on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s public guidelines for all jihadis.  In my discussion, I talk about the agency problems Zawahiri appears to be having with his affiliates; most notably al-Badgdadi of al Qaeda in Iraq/ISI/ISIS or whatever they are calling themselves this week.  Syria has for some time been the great hope for al Qaeda to be resurgent.  Yet, al Qaeda globally seems to be in a fight for control over this jihadi prize.  Here’s a snippet from the article and you can read the entire post at this link.

First, let’s explore why Zawahiri would issue public rather than private guidance to the global jihadi community. Normally, al Qaeda might broadcast strategic vision publicly, but reserve directives and corrective guidance via secure communications.  The most famous intercept of these private communications comes from Zawahiri’s 2006 scolding of abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi for counterproductive violence against Shia in Iraq.  In addition, the Harmony documents provide countless other examples of al Qaeda’s internal directives and squabbles.  More recently some private communications to jihadi groups in Syria have allegedly surfaced showing dissatisfaction between Zawahiri and al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Al Qaeda, like most any terrorist organization, normally delivers these messages in private for several reasons:

  1. Airing internal squabbles publicly hurts the organization’s popular support and certain leader’s authority,
  2. Public messaging can reveal strategy and orders to adversaries (counterterrorists) enabling their efforts to defeat the terrorist organization, and
  3. Such messaging can, at times, severely reduce the security and success of al Qaeda affiliates.

In short, this message went public because Zawahiri’s guidance isn’t being followed. Al Qaeda Central messages and directives either can’t get to affiliates or they are being ignored.  Both scenarios are problematic for the terror group.

FPRI Follow up: External Drivers of AQ Plots & AQAP R&D Timelines

In follow up to the internal competition hypothesis I posted on Monday, I wrote another post at FPRI that went on to describe the many external forces that may be accelerating a Zawahiri-led al Qaeda to plot a global attack.  I didn’t want readers to get the impression that the motives for a plot were limited to just internal politics, there are many external forces likely driving al Qaeda action as well.  The post is here at this link at FPRI.

One of the points from this is AQAP and their talented bombmaker Asiri have had quite a while to develop a new and more sophisticated explosive device.  Here’s a quick snippet from that part of the FPRI post and a graphic I put together to illustrate what may be Asiri’s development pace.  Essentially, without drones and CT efforts, his pace of development may be considerably quicker than when there is overt Western and Arab counterterrorism pressure.  However, in both scenarios, no pressure and lots of pressure, if Asiri is still alive he’s likely to keep making more sophisticated devices and creating innovative plots.

“Pace of attacks, R&D and planning time – al-Qaeda affiliates have varying abilities to conduct attacks on the West and varying access to Western targets.  AQAP in Yemen has been the primary affiliate for attacking the West in recent years and a key component of this capability is Ibrahim Asiri – AQAP’s talented bombmaker.  Some news stories this week allege that Asiri and his band of bombmaking partners have developed the ability to make undetectable explosive clothing from a new liquid drying process.  As long as he’s alive, Asiri is likely to continue creating more sophisticated devices.  Drones and other counterterrorism actions may be able to slow down the pace of development but ultimately if Asiri and AQAP have even a small handful of operatives planning attacks on the West, there will eventually be more sophisticated plots arising. See the chart below (Figure A) for my crude estimate of Asiri and AQAP’s planning and development timeline since Dec. 2009 measured alongside the pace of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen (New America Foundation data).”

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Guest Post at FPRI: al Qaeda Plots and the Era of Terrorism Competition

Today, I rather lately got around to a post on this past weekend’s embassy closures in response to an allegedly imminent al Qaeda plot to attack Western interests in the Middle East and North Africa. The goal of the post was to discuss some of the internal forces that might be driving al Qaeda Central to attack.  I then look at what how competition internally might be driving al Qaeda to act on plans for a large scale coordinated plot.

Here’s a snapshot of the article and a graphic I put together on one of my theories of how al Qaeda affiliated might be communicating.  For the whole post, visit this link here at FPRI.

“This latest threat to American and Western targets overseas is not surprising but is instead interesting because of what I perceive to be the many internal motivations of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda to plot a spectacular attack now.  Increasingly, al-Qaeda Central and what I would now call al-Qaeda Central Forward–al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen-–face stiff competition with one of its own affiliates, al-Qaeda in Iraq and their recent absorbtion Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.”

Competing AQ Hypothesis

FPRI post on al Qaeda in Iraq’s rebuttal of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) provided me the opportunity to write a follow up to my post from last week on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s problems trying to manage al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Levant.  Two weeks back, Zawahiri tried to dissolve the union of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Jabhat al-Nusra and return each group back to its own space in Iraq and Syria respectively.  Well, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the ISI, decided not to comply with Zawahiri’s request publicly (allegedly) noting “Sharia Problems” with Zawahiri’s orders.

I wrote an extended follow up to this update at FPRI noting some of the things I find fascinating about this public disagreement.  If interested, here is the link to the FPRI post and here’s a short quote from the post’s conclusion.

Lastly, while al Qaeda may be degrading globally, the West should not mistakenly believe that jihadi violence will necessarily decrease.  On the contrary, competing al Qaeda affiliates may actually increase their attack tempo in an effort to assert themselves as the new leader post-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central.  More successful attacks will likely lead to more media attention, more recruits and more resources. As I noted last year in “What if there is no al Qaeda?”, the U.S. may now be encountering many different regional terror groups. Some will require direct engagement and elimination. Some indirect engagement and disruption. And others may only require monitoring and little to no engagement.  Ultimately, in a post-al Qaeda-era (much like the post-Soviet-era), analysis, planning and decision-making will in many ways become more difficult rather than less difficult.

Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central out of the loop in Iraq & Syria

Last week, documents from the Sahel revealed the infighting inside al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Will McCants at Jihadica then discussed similar problems of dystfunction between al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.  Yesterday, al Jazeera confirmed McCant’s discussion by releasing more internal AQ documents showing the messy bickering inside al Qaeda by posting a letter from al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, aka AQ in Iraq) and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria annulling AQ in Iraq’s annexation of al-Nusra in Syria.  Zawahiri was not in the loop at all with regards to what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (AQ in Iraq/ISI) was up to in his attempts to consolidate more power in the Levant.

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This doesn’t appear to be the first time that AQ in Iraq (ISI) have been on their own with regards to taking orders from AQ Central.  Zarqawi was scolded years ago for being off the reservation targeting Shia in Iraq. The gradual ‘Iraqification’ of the ISI has likely led to a more insular and self-directed AQ in Iraq.  The Abbottabad documents from the Bin Laden raid suggest that AQ in Iraq may have been the most distant AQ affiliate at the time of Bin Laden’s death.  As seen here in this quote from Bin Laden’s note to Attiya in April 2011:

SOCOM-2012-0000010-HT - Regarding the communications with the brothers in Iraq, please inform us on its progress and the reason for its scarcity.

So why would Baghdadi want to annex al-Nusra? Straight up, power & money. I assume Baghdadi recognized the rise of Nusra as a threat to his regional dominance in AQ ranks.  Likewise, forcing Nusra under AQ in Iraq’s wing would bring the best resourced AQ affiliate garnering the most international attention under his control.  I imagine far fewer Gulf donors want to pump money and weapons into Iraq as compared to Syria. Baghdadi was thinking about keeping his stake in a post-Zawahiri world. According to al Jazeera, Baghdadi’s preemptive power grab harmed Nusra in Syria.

 after Baghdadi released a video in April declaring the formation of the ISIL, many of al-Nusra’s fighters, especially non-Syrians, left to join the new umbrella group. “This was the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad,” an al-Nusra source inside Syria told Al Jazeera on Saturday. One al-Nusra fighter estimated that 70 percent of the group’s members left for the ISIL in Idlib province, with even higher defection rates in the Syria’s eastern regions. Aleppo, the bastion of al-Nusra, saw the least defections from its ranks, fighters said. But even then the city suffered from the divisions within the group.

So we now see Zawahiri scolding his regional Emirs.

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I’m guessing a Nusra dude must have passed this along to Al Jazeera to get word out to everyone that the two groups are separate, just in case Baghdadi doesn’t want to comply.  Poor Ayman, why won’t ISI (AQ in Iraq) listen to you? Why are they not consulting you?  I’m guessing several reasons.

  • AQ in Iraq has always been “On Your Own” (O.Y.O.) with respect to Zawahiri.  AQ Central has always been critical of the group’s conduct (See Attiya letter & Abbottabad doc SOCOM-2012-0000017) , so why listen to the grump if all he wants to do is play arm chair quarterback from Pakistan?
  • AQ in Iraq probably has its own resource pipeline:  Having fought for years in Iraq, they have cemented their own weapons and money pipelines from the Gulf years ago and sustain their own illicit mechanisms in country.  What does AQ Central provide them at this point?
  • Zawahiri doesn’t have good mechanisms to communicate with AQ in Iraq and the ISI.  The Abbottabad documents suggest there were many intermediaries trying to reach them.  Here again we see the regional affiliates not having routine contact with Zawahiri.

Another really interesting aspect of this is the naivety of al Qaeda foreign fighters.  Just a few months back, Omar Hammami was talking about the glory and just path of jihad in Syria where things are resolved appropriately.Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 10.15.41 AM

Yet, we now see that al-Baghdadi with AQ in Iraq (ISI) is pulling the same stunt as Hammami’s Shabaab nemesis Ahmed Godane – trying to seize more power by controlling a command relationship with Zawahiri and AQ Central.  Ahh Omar, it appears jihad is the same everywhere, this is what happens when you approach age 30, whether its jihad or office work you figure out its all – “same shit, different day.”  Even though al Qaeda doesn’t support Omar, at least his parents still do.

From a counterterrorism perspective, I see both some concerns and some opportunities.  If anything, I would imagine now more than maybe anytime since Bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri is desperately trying to plot his strategy and an attack to re-establish his prominence, authority and control over al Qaeda.  Zawahiri still has control in places I’m sure, but without a “quick win” where he can regain some clout his relevance to AQ affiliates will continue to wane.  Likewise, for the West, this internal al Qaeda fracturing is helpful as it prevents the groups from advancing forward productively.  However, it requires analysts to independently evaluate every aspect of many different groups.  Used to an established AQ playbook the past decade, analysts have likely gotten comfortable with how AQ would operate.  Now, the landscape is quite dynamic and much harder to anticipate as the regional and local aspects influencing each group vary so much – a significant challenge for the West.

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.

 

 

Shabaab in Somalia publicly fractures & pressures al Qaeda

Well, I’ve been waiting for a year to see the outcome of Shabaab’s “Game of Thrones” and today a surprising public fracture emerged on the aljihad.com website.  Ibrahim al-Afghani, a once senior leader of al Shabaab, close associate of Ahmed Godane and fellow member of Godane’s Isaaq clan, posted a public and direct call to Ayman al-Zawahiri asking him to intervene in Somalia and remove Godane as leader of al Shabaab.

Ibrahim al-Afghani’s public posting finally discloses the fractures I’ve been discussing for the past year.  Omar Hammami, the American public relations arm for Team Robow (maybe should be renamed Task Force Robow/Aweys/Afghani), has provided ten reasons for Afghani’s public denouncement of Godane – a major development in Somalia.  These are quotes from Omar’s tweets so if you don’t like the language, complain to Omar on Twitter.

  1.  “Dr. Ayman has to act fast and decisively b4 the jihad is destroyed and enters a deep dark tunnel”
  2. “2 scholars are being threatened.”
  3. “Muhajirs are being expelled and misused/mistreated.”
  4. “Secret jails are off limits to observers.”
  5. “Scholars and leaders can’t check on claims of torture.”
  6. “Opportunities to open new outside fronts are purposefully neglected.”
  7. “The wealth of islam is squandered by the amir.”
  8. “There is no real shura and all the real actors are kept from benifitting the jihad.”
  9. “kids w/good intentions are put in charge of op.s that go wrong and have negative fall out, &they are in charge of policing elders”
  10. “the leader is responsible for the recent defeats and the loss of the previously unprecedented public/tribal support”

Interesting that Omar wrote these tweets in English.  Why not Arabic?  I’m guessing its to get word out to the West, but the solution he is seeking is not likely to come from the West.   I love it that he calls some of the Shabaab members “kids”. Oh wise twenty-something Omar who joined terrorist group that betrayed him. Omar continued immediately after the above posts to assert why everyone should listen to Ibrahim al-Afghani:

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 5.20.17 PMScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 5.20.06 PM

 

Essentially, Omar explains why it must be Afghani and potentially not Robow that engages Zawahiri and brings the injustices of Godane to Zawahiri’s attention. Afghani was a Godane ally at one time, fought in Afghanistan, and comes from the same clan as Godane.  Also of note, there were rumors of Afghani once replacing Godane as Emir of Shabaab.  See this Critical Threats article for a longer but still short description about Afghani.

When reviewing my scenarios from last year, Scenario #1 appears to have flushed out as most accurate:

Scenario #1: Godane kills off old AQ members & Robow affiliated foreign fighters”

Also of note are the two forces over the past year that signaled which scenario would prove most accurate:

  1. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys who showed movement towards scenario #1 last summer , and
  2. Ibrahim al-Afghani who showed his hand today.

Here is an update to my crazy Powerpoint chart from last year. I haven’t been tracking Raage so don’t know his status or position.  I’ve put “X’s” over the scenarios that no longer make sense from last year and noted the migration of Afghani to the Aweys and Robow side.  In yellow is what I anticipate as the coalition against Godane as of today.

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Here are some thoughts for today and I’ll have another update in the next day or so:

  • What does Task Force Robow-Aweys-Godane want Zawahiri to do?  - Usually these things occur behind the scenes but this is a public call to Zawahiri.  Omar has suggested that communications with al Qaeda have been going through AQAP and that AQAP has gone cold on them in recent months or communicated intermittently with Godane.  This puts Zawahiri in an awkward spot.  Zawahiri went for a merger with Shabaab that Bin Laden would not pursue.  The main hope for al Qaeda now is in Syria and Somalia is a distraction.  If Zawahiri leaves Godane in, he confirms his negligence in not dealing with the Hammami situation the past year and demonstrates his naivety about formally merging with Shabaab in the first place. Dr. Z must be scratching his turbin.  
  • A public plea at this time isn’t such a brave move -  If this public call from Afghani had come last summer, it would have been a brave move.  But the Afghani call coming now, after Shabaab has gotten their ass kicked incessantly since the merger, isn’t particularly brave.  Shabaab lost its most important city of Kismayo, which Afghani once commanded, and I imagine he and many others have little to command under Godane at this point.  Loss of turf has also likely brought folks like Afghani, Hammami, and Robow closer together as they get squeezed into Bay & Bakool.  Bottom line: If Shabaab were winning, how Godane governs would not matter.
  • Source in Somalia again prove suspect – A year ago, several sources said that Ibrahim al-Afghani was chasing Omar around and trying to kill him in Somalia.  This now seems unlikely.  Again open sources from Somalia prove not credible.  No surprise.
  • The revelations of Omar Hammami – A year ago, when Omar Hammami posted his plea video, many thought it was an anomaly amongst Shabaab’s alleged rise after aligning with al Qaeda.  However, his persistent presence on Twitter has brought him supporters, probably kept him alive and turned him from goat to glamor jihadi again.  However, over the long run, Omar’s postings are a double edged sword for the jihad in Somalia and foreign fighter recruitment globally.  If a Westerner is considering joining Shabaab or any AQ affiliate and witnesses the absolute mess that is going on publicly, they must be crazy to join – and unfortunately jihadi foreign fighters usually are crazy.
  • Discussions of money - As I have mentioned in previous posts about jihad in Africa, resources and money play an important role and as Omar outlined on Twitter, how money is handed out matters a lot to these guys.  While Omar and these Shabaab splinters blanket themselves in ideological cover, underneath they are really concerned about their personal power and control of resources.  Jihad in Somalia – “Show me the money!”

Is Zawahiri still in control of al Qaeda? – 1 Year Post UBL Poll – Results #7

On May 2, 2012, I was curious as to what people’s perceptions were of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership since Bin Laden’s death.  In total, 197 people responded to the following question:

Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, has Ayman al-Zawahiri truly taken control of al Qaeda globally – i.e. exhibiting a level of command and control equal to or greater than that of his predecessor Usama Bin Laden?

Here are the results:

  • 44 of 197 respondents (22%) selected “Yes” Zawahiri has truly taken control of al Qaeda.
  • 153 of 197 respondents (78%) selected “No” Zawahiri has not truly taken control.

Of all the questions analyzed thus far from the “1 Year Post Bin Laden Survey“, respondents across all demographic breakdowns voted in roughly the same pattern with around 20% generally selecting “Yes” Zawahiri is really in charge and roughly 80% consistently selecting “No” Zawahiri is not in charge.

Below is a chart showing the breakdown of votes by raw total across each professional category.  Only two categories appeared to be different from the rest.

  • 40% of ‘Government Contractors’ selected “Yes” Zawahiri is in control – by far the highest percentage of any professional group.
  • 100% of ‘Law Enforcement’ voters (7 total) selected “No” Zawahiri is not in control.  Despite being a small sample, cops apparently don’t think Zawahiri is all that.

The below chart shows the breakdown of votes across all demographic categories.  Again, an amazing consistency across all breakdowns.  Even ‘Social Media’ users were not very bullish on Zawahiri.

In my opinion, I believe Zawahiri doesn’t command al Qaeda to the same level as Bin Laden did.  His ability to motivate young men to al Qaeda’s cause and garner donations for al Qaeda operations is limited compared to that of Bin Laden.  However, I don’t think Zawahiri should be counted out entirely.  I believe those in al Qaeda that once had a true relationship with Zawahiri, having fought with him in Pakistan or worked with him in Egypt, still maintain close ties to the leader and remain loyal to his strategic directives.  If I had to guess, these would be the veteran al Qaeda members that came with Zawahiri to Afghanistan, his followers from Egypt and a slice of former LIFG members from the late 1990′s. Essentially, I’d estimate his influence and command resides more in North Africa than in the Arabian Peninsula. I’m working on a way to try and crowdsource where Zawahiri’s influence might still reign within al Qaeda.  Stay tuned…