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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.

Is the Spanish government lying about ETA (again)?

1:25 pm in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Governments lying about terrorism? Surely I jest…

Two alleged ETA memberss were arrested last weekend by police in southwest France. The two were apparently driving a stolen car and carrying handguns and false IDs. That was how the story was initially told. Since then there have been some “modifications.”
Today, the Spanish interior minister — after meeting with his French counterpart — announced that the two men were also in possession of material for making explosives. If it is true that the two were carrying explosives material, that would be a serious breach of ETA’s ceasefire commitments. (The handguns are a relative non-issue, since every member of ETA in France carries one so that they’ll automatically be sent to a French prison rather than be handed over to Spanish authorities.)
There’s some reason to be suspicious about the Spanish Minister’s claim. As always.
First, the Spanish Interior Ministers Jorge Fernández Díaz’s story has changed over the last few days. As Gara reports, originally there was no mention made on Sunday of the explosives. Gara also notes that back in January the Interior Ministry made a similar claim about the possession of explosives when three alleged ETA members were arrested in January. In the ensuing months, however, no further mention of these explosives have been made.
Additionally, the Spanish minister on Sunday claimed that one of the men arrested, Oroitz Gurruchaga Gogorza, was the “military chief” of ETA. This apparently came as a surprise to French police who had only known of Gurruchaga for his involvement in low-level street violence, according to Sud Ouest. In his latest statements, Fernández has downplayed Gurruchaga’s position within the group as a “secondary” matter. Given that he’s been already caught stretching the truth, it’s hard to take Fernández at his word about the explosives.
The French Interior Ministry has been apparently mum on the arrests, neither confirming or denying — or even saying anything — about the claims of their Spanish counterparts. Indeed, the French seem to be completely following Spain’s lead dealing with ETA’s end. In the matter of these arrests, French media are quoting only the claims of the Spanish Interior.
But, there’s a much more important reason to suspect the claims of the Spanish Interior Ministry: They have a history of blatantly lying about ETA. And there have been some big lies. Remember the Mardid train bombings in 2004? Then Prime Minister José María Aznar tried to pin the blame for the attacks on ETA and continued to do so after it became clear that jihadists had perpetrated the bombings.
Why would the government lie about these arrests? In essence, the Spanish government has an interest in the continuation of “Basque terrorism,” especially since ETA is no longer cooperating in keeping the narrative going. By claiming that the “military chief” of ETA has been arrested or that rank-and-file militants were in possession of explosives, both Spain and France can look like they’re kicking ass in their little “War on Terror,” even in the total absence of violence. Such arrests and allegations keep “terrorism” in the news and allows for continued inaction on the peace front and for refusing to deal with the political demands of Basque nationalists. As an added bonus, it can distract attention from the little matter of the tanking Spanish economy, at least for a few days.
Again, if the explosives allegation is true then this is a potentially serious breach of ETA’s ceasefire commitments. But, if it’s false…well, it’s not like the Spanish government is subtle about being an obstacle to peace in the Basque Country. In fact, the Rajoy administration is pretty damned proud of this role.
The International Contact Group — the non-governmental body of renowned international figures overseeing ETA’s disengagement – denounced these latest arrests, saying that the Spanish and French government’s actions “refute the desire for peace of the Basque citizenry.”


Originally posted on Bullets and Ballots.

The Decapitation Thesis: Does Killing Insurgent Leaders Work?

1:34 pm in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Osama Bin Laden - Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons.

Osama Bin Laden - Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes a specialized community debates a topic that the general public considers a no-brainer. For example, the “decapitation thesis”: Is the assassination of “terrorist leaders” effective? Does it result in less violence and the demise of insurgent groups? “Duh,” says the man on the street, “Why are my tax dollars funding your research?”

Robin Wilcox, a senior fellow at the London-based Henry Jackson Society weighs in on the decapitation debate in the Los Angeles Times arguing that the assassination of al Qaeda leaders has been a good thing:

Bin Laden is simply not replaceable. The idea that Obama made a strategic misstep by killing a man responsible for the death of thousands of U.S. citizens and committed to killing thousands more is absurd. Rather than making him a martyr, Bin Laden’s killing demonstrated that he was, like the rest of us, mortal. And it warned terrorists everywhere that targeting U.S. citizens will bring retribution.

The killing of Awlaki, an American citizen, further illustrates why targeting certain Al Qaeda leaders is an excellent strategy. Operationally, Awlaki was not a huge loss to Al Qaeda. He had no military reputation to speak of. But he was an eloquent English-speaking lecturer, able to effectively reach out to Western Muslims and urge them to attack their homelands. He provided theological justification for jihad to the failed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and he was in direct email contact with the Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. There is no Awlaki replacement within Al Qaeda’s ranks. His death in September 2011 has, at least for now, limited the group’s ability to get persuasive messages out to Western Muslims.

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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…

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ETA makes a statement…and no one hears it

1:46 pm in Uncategorized by Philippe Duhart

Since it called its ceasefire, ETA has been able to do only two things: refrain from using violence and issue communiqués.
Today the group issued yet another statement and, as expected, no one seems to care. The communiqué contained only one new piece of information: “ETA would like to inform that it has designated a delegation to initiate a direct dialogue with the Governments of Spain and France.” (I don’t envy whoever has been named to this delegation. In 1999 and 2007 the interlocutors between ETA and the Spanish Government ended up getting arrested soon after the talks broke down.)
This announcement will not have any real effect, at least in the short term. In fact, the conservative Spanish Government of Mariano Rajoy quickly rejected the invitation to talks.
There is a very slim possibility that the newly-elected French president Francois Hollande could begin talks with ETA. After all, the group’s base of operations is in France and a number of its members are currently in French prisons. But such talks too seem unlikely. First, ETA has little to offer France but its weapons, which would put the group at a serious disadvantage if it were to eventually enter into talks with the Spanish Government. Second, the French Government has no real incentive to unilaterally talk with ETA. Though Hollande could present himself as a peacemaker, he’d be royally pissing off a neighbor and ally. And, of course, France doesn’t really care about the Basques, especially its own.
So what can be done?
ETA could try to push talks through violence, as the IRA did successfilly in 1996 with their bombing campaign in England. But the likelihood of this working is extremely low. ETA tried to gain leverage through violence when talks with the government stalled in 2006. The bombing of a parking garage at the Madrid Barajas airport – which killed two despite a warning call and evacuations – killed the moribund peace process.
The main reason, however, that the group will not likely engage in some kind of violent action is that its “supporters” – the nonviolent Basque left and its sympathizers – would not excuse or forgive a return to violence. This has been a sentiment that I have heard time and again from such activists.
Indeed, when two ETA members engaged in a shoot-out with French police in 2011, the Basque left, for the first time, publicly criticized what they saw as a breach of the armed group’s ceasefire commitments.
And if I know that the Basque left will reject a return to armed struggle, then so too does Spanish intelligence.
Which is probably why the government won’t budge. Spain could easily move on one of ETA’s principle demands – transferring Basque prisoners to the Basque prisons in accordance with Spanish penal law. But why do that? ETA won’t return to violence and their allies have committed themselves unconditionally to nonviolent politics. Therefore, the Spanish Government is faced with a win-win situation: they don’t have to deal seriously with Basque nationalist demands and they get to reap the benefits of “not talking to terrorists,” which plays well with their conservative base.
ETA could give into the state’s demands and “disarm and disband.” But, from the armed group’s perspective, this isn’t a great option. If they were to do so, there’s no guarantee that the Spanish Government would enter into talks. Rajoy’s Administration would likely play the “insuficientismo” card, claiming that this step is insufficient and that ETA members must now turn themselves into the police and then, maybe, talks with Basque political actors could proceed. But, probably not.
And this is the trouble with “terrorism”: once you’ve been identified as such, you don’t really ever get to quit being one.
Incidentally, the Spanish Government is selling “social reinsertion” – whereby imprisoned ETA members can get reductions of their prison sentences if they publicly disavow the organization and beg forgiveness for their crimes – which was first introduced back in the 1980s as a “new step” in the peace process. Since the policy was established thirty years ago, only a handful of over a thousand ETA prisoners have taken advantage of it. My guess is that the Government knows this, which is why they’re bringing it up again: they get to look like their being proactive but, since it won’t work, they’ll not have to face the criticism of their constituents for going easy on “terrorists.” Win-win-win.