You are browsing the archive for al Qaeda.

Ironic Collaboration between al Qaeda and Western Counterterrorists

12:31 am in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

I have been referring quite a bit lately to al Qaedaization as a rhetorical devise among Western counterterrorists. However, Salafist and Islamist militants and ideologues are also in on the game. Ironically, the two sides collaborate in creating a “reality” of global jihad that exists to a large degree in discourse.

Mohamed al-Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian militant and brother of al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, provides an example of how al Qaeda seeks to inflate its image, in an interview withCNN’s Security Clearance blog:

If you read American literature, now they have understood that the strength of Al Qaeda is not in its leaders but in its ideology. Any person obtains power when his work matches his principles. Those who reached martyrdom have won life on earth and Allah’s heaven. Those who were killed by the US have shown us the light and proven that they have committed to their cause and spread the ideology.

Though I often treat such claims as utter bullshit, there is some deal of truth contained within al-Zawahiri’s statement. It reflects an development that Marc Sageman has identified as “leaderless jihad“:

In the post-September 11 world, Al Qaeda is no longer the central organizing force that aids or authorizes terrorist attacks or recruits terrorists. Rather, it serves as an inspiration for individuals and other groups who have branded themselves with the Al Qaeda name.

According to this theory, individuals, rather than organizations such as al Qaeda, drive global jihad. To commit an act of violence one doesn’t need a great deal of resources and know-how. An aspiring martyr no longer needs to travel to Pakistan for training. An internet connection, access to cheap explosives, and the willingness to kill is often sufficient to engage in jihad, as the Madrid M-11 attackers demonstrated.

While I do believe this theory has a good deal of purchase and can explain many individual acts of political violence, I also think it has been a bit overblown and far too widely applied. For the most part, political violence remains the work of organizations, more or less as decentralized and as “networked” as insurgent groups have always been. Additionally, there have been far fewer “lone wolf” attacks than the proponents of this theory predicted would occur. And, despite a few high-profile terrorist incidents, most forms of Islamist/Salafist political violence take place within the context of local conflicts by (relatively) organized insurgent groups.

The “leaderless/network/ideology/movement” theory of global jihad may, furthermore, have been a product of a specific historical moment, i.e. the period immediately following 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. My own sense is that things have changed and that Islamist insurgents, perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring, are increasingly focusing on the “near enemy” — Muslim and Arab regimes — rather than the American/Western “far enemy.” This does not mean that we will not see individual attacks by disaffected immigrants or radicalized citizens within Western countries. But, the vast majority of political violence remains local, as Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca and Luis de la Calle argue.

Of course, the “leaderless jihad” theory is just too damn good to be cast aside. It justifies increased expenditures for security agencies and the continued expansion of executive power, not to mention serving as a cover for other, more base strategic Western interests. For al Qaeda itself, it provides them with a measure of relevance and a way to keep their names in the paper despite their organizational decline and plummeting popularity. Such discursive collaboration between enemies is one of the most ironic outcomes of the War on Terror.

The al Qaedaization of Africa Continues

12:41 am in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Last week, the head of AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, issued a dire warning about increased cooperation between various African jidadi groups, particularly Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s al Shabaab, Mali’s Ansar Dine, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb:

“Each of those three organisations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat,” Ham told an African Centre for Strategic Studies seminar in Washington. “What really concerns me is the indications that the three organisations are seeking to co-ordinate and synchronise their efforts – in other words, to establish a co-operative effort amongst the three most violent organisations … And I think that’s a real problem for us and for African security in general.”…

“Most notably I would say that the linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials.”

The General, predictably, did not back up these warnings with any concrete evidence, but rather spoke merely of “indications” that these groups were coordinating efforts.

What does this mean for Western countries and the United States in particular? Someexpress caution in reading too much into this supposed threat:

While the coordination among terrorist groups in Africa is a concern, there’s little evidence so far that such groups are targeting the U.S. homeland, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a counter-terrorism specialist and former Navy helicopter pilot who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Right now, these groups are not threatening the U.S. homeland in any way comparable to what al-Qaeda was doing three or four or five years ago,” before drone strikes weakened the militant group’s core, Nelson said.

The specter of al Qaeda opening a new front in Africa has is nothing new. (I have written about the al Qaedaization of Africa before herehere, and here.) Bin Laden’s al Qaeda, of course, operated in African during the late ’90s, bombing the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But, since 2002 al Qaeda proper has not mounted a single attack on the African continent.

Counterterrorist officials and experts have been warning of al Qaeda’s expansion since the middle part of the last decade, particularly in North Africa. In the ensuing years, however, these threats did not materialize due to a combination of police work, international cooperation, and internal group dynamics. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did not become the successor to bin Laden’s organization; rather it imploded as the result of factional conflictand ultimately has descended into pure criminality. Tunisia, once seen as an emerging hotspot of jihad, became instead the model for popular revolution in the Arab world.

Now, it seems, the counterterrorists’ attention has turned southward. This is in large part due to the emergence in recent years of jihadi groups and increased violence in sub-Saharan Africa over the last few years. However, this narrative cannot be completely separated from American strategic interests in Africa and the inexorable logic of counterterrorism.

General Ham’s warnings must be understood within this context. We should not automatically assume that he is lying or purposely overstating the threat. From the perspective of officials charged with “protecting the homeland,” being overly vigilant is an occupational necessity. To not attend to even the slightest of threats is to shirk one’s duties and, potentially, to allow attacks to come to fruition. Furthermore, lawless and weak states have historically provided fertile ground for jihadi groups with global ambitions — e.g. Afghanistan — so officials have good reason to worry about growing instability in already unstable African countries.

But, we should uncritically believe the predictions or heed the warnings of counterterrorist and military officials. The American military, despite high levels of public trust in it, has tallied up quite a number of deliberate untruths, from the story behind Pat Tilman’s death to a relatively insignificant Taliban attack last month. This does not mean that General Ham is lying. But it does suggest that skepticism is warranted.

There are some who might argue that the General probably has access to “secret information” that is too sensitive to be released, and thus we should take him at his view. Similar arguments were made during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. But, this argument was belied by the fact that the Bush Administration either publicly paraded or privately leaked every available piece of intelligence at their disposal to bolster their case for war, with little concern for protecting sources or intelligence operations.

The Obama Administration has continued this practice. They’ve leaked information about the infiltration into the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda by a Saudi intelligence agent, they’ve leaked details about kill lists and drone strikes, they’ve leaked information about cyberattacks against Iran. They’re even providing Hollywood’s favorite militarist with inside information for a film about the raid that killed Osama bin Ladin.

So, assuming that the threat of al Qaeda’s African “affiliates” is based on actual intelligence, why wouldn’t the Administration release the information? Why not show the public satellite photos, tapes of satellite phone conversations, transcripts of informants’ statements, whatever they have? Why the reliance of vague “indications”?

My suspicion is that there is no hard intelligence, only an assumption that these groups must be working together because that’s what terrorists do. From the anarchists of the nineteenth century, to the leftwing militants of the seventies and eighties — to the jihadis of today — the idea of an organized, transnational conspiracy is a favored narrative of counterterrorists and politicians. There can be no local phenomena, all violence must be linked by some nefarious invisible hand.

The al Qaeda numbers game in Yemen

2:11 am in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Last month I wrote about the counterterrorism community’s penchant for over-counting the number of al Qaeda militants in the world, by taking too seriously the supposed “links” and “mergers” between al Qaeda and local insurgencies, particularly in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali. (This game was perfected during the Iraq War.)

Two soldiers in Yemen, one standing, one squatting with a gun.

Soldiers in Yemen. Photo by Franco Pecchio.

This game is bound up with a pressing issue in the War on Terror: Is the U.S. creating more terrorists through heavy-handed counterterrorist measures? Answering this question brings us to a problem of counting.

Micha Zenka examines this issue in relation to drone attacks in Yemen.He notes that prior to the escalation of the drone campaign, the Administration’s counterterrorism tzar John Brennan argued that there were “several hundred” al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Since then, this number has apparently grown to “more than a thousand,” according to Mr. Brennan. Judging by these statements, Zenka (somewhat ironically) argues that the drone strategy has clearly backfired.

There’s always a problem with government attempts to count al Qaeda. Simply put, no one outside of the “organization” (to whatever extent it even exists as an organization) knows how many members are out there, especially in Yemen. According to The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill, this extends to those actually fighting militants in Yemen:

Moreover, just who exactly these militants were who overtook Zinjibar is a matter of some dispute. According to the Yemeni government, they were operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group Washington has identified as the single most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States. But the militants who took the city did not claim to be from AQAP. Instead, they announced themselves as a new group, Ansar al Sharia, or Supporters of Sharia. Senior Yemeni officials told me that Ansar al Sharia is simply a front for Al Qaeda. They point out that the first known public reference to the group was made a month before the attack on Zinjibar by AQAP’s top cleric, Adil al-Abab. “The name Ansar al Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah,” he said, adding that the new name was intended to put the focus on the message of the group so as to avoid being bogged down with the baggage of the Al Qaeda brand. Whether Ansar al Sharia had more independent origins or it’s merely a product of AQAP’s crude rebranding campaign, as Abab claims, the group’s significance would soon extend well beyond Al Qaeda’s historically limited spheres of influence in Yemen while simultaneously popularizing some of AQAP’s core tenets…

Read the rest of this entry →