Home > AQ General, AQAP, Attacks and Plots, Commentary > Can we stop the hysteria about AQAP please?

Can we stop the hysteria about AQAP please?

Greetings everyone. Allthingsct is officially back on deck for 2010.

Tonight’s cynical Friday task is some myth busting in relation to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, especially since the Xmas Day plots have spawned a good deal of misinformation as to the nature of AQAP, its capacity and the *new* threat it poses.

I wrote back in September that I thought AQAP had reached a position similar to what it had in 2003, and as such it would seek a broader operational ambit and permission for external  attacks against N America, as it did in early 03. All the indicators were there.

How did I know that? Well for starters I watched AQAP congeal online in early 02  and I have their founding documents, their guidelines, objectives and rules of conduct and lists of what detachments they formed–right down to the oath recruits were to take. I’ve watched them ever since because I find the group fascinating and so its history is the last section of my PhD.  Because I’ve watched them since then, I know that this is not the first time AQAP has tried to attack in N America. It’s not even the second time.  Both of these earlier plots are mini case studies for the last section of my thesis.

And with al Qaeda what is old inevitably becomes new again.

By the way, both of the earlier plots would have been much much bigger than this–had they come to fruition. What this shows is that AQAP has still not reached the capacity it had in its earlier campaign, when it was allowed by its HQ to launch external attacks. But it is fundamentally the same organisation, with many of the same key players still active. They’re just not the ones fronting the media end of things. It’s not back up to the same size yet, but with AQ now sending operatives back to the Peninsula from Af-Pak it could conceivably reach those numbers again.

It’s also not the first time AQAP has recruited an operative from the UK or another western location. I saw them recruit from the UK in 02 and people in other locations over the following years and they’ve never stopped.

What often gets missed in analysis of AQAP is that the organisation was not decimated by the campaign against it in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It did get damaged, but was also told by its HQ to cool it, lay low and/or redeploy. So it was also a case of squeezing the balloon. Now, the balloon is being squeezed in Af-Pak against AQ core, as it was in late 01/early 02, and AQAP, as it did then, again rises to fill the space.

And it’s only just starting. Of course there is the question of capacity this time around and whether they are allowed to pursue further attacks.  We already know some of what they are looking at because this operational guidance went out recently. It’s the usual. Buses and trains in the west (along with a few other target classes) are right up there on the list. *As they were last time*.

Bottom line: There is very little that is new here. AQAP has always had an external attack capacity and sought to use it. It has always recruited internationally.

The only *new* thing here is the type of device used and reaction to the plot. But even in terms of  IED’s, AQAP has always been on the sharp end of the stick when it comes to innovation. That’s because it has a great core of IED engineers who cycle in and out of the organisation. But that’s not new either. That core was developed in 02-06.

My bug bear is that that there’s an awful lot of people covering AQAP now (especially after the Xmas Day plot) and offering advice to government without a grounding in what this organisation is, where it came from, what it has done previously, how it has changed since its earlier campaign, what it is now  and how it fits into the bigger picture of AQ.  The problem is that without historical background people see change instead of continuity, they see a new threat instead of an extension of an existing one or they miss things all together.

And when this type of commentary influences decision makers and also creeps beyond AQAP into the issue of Yemen more generally it is extremely concerning, especially when it essentially calls for opening another front in Yemen and escalating US involvement.  The lesson of Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan has not been learnt, and it is rapidly becoming the greatest failure of the war on terror: the failure to learn that lionizing al Qaeda only further empowers it. Add this to calls for greater US involvement, especially in a country like Yemen and with the sensitivities this entails, and you have the perfect propaganda recruitment recipe for al Qaeda.

Up next when I can dredge up my full archives is a post on Abu Dujana al Khorasani…whose history, according to my archives, suggests he was  a little more  AQ involved than being a web administrator.

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  1. Carl
    01/08/2010 at 10:53 pm

    The best way to quell hysteria is the careful disclosion of relevant information from a reliable, trusted source – as in your post above. Being curious though, where can I access more trusted information about AQAP that doesn’t run into your current bug bear, the people arguing in change and new threats?

  2. Matt
    01/09/2010 at 12:53 am

    Do you really think the US is going to open another Iraq/Afghan style war in Yemen? Given what this NYT story reports, it seems the US is taking a much lighter approach than full on Iraq style invasion: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/28/world/middleeast/28yemen.html?_r=1&scp=6&sq=yemen+CIA+special%20forces&st=cse

    What else would you recommend be done?

  3. Wladimir
    01/09/2010 at 2:37 am

    You didn’t even talk about the rumours of AQ linking up with Yemen’s separatists.

  4. 01/09/2010 at 4:18 am

    “the greatest failure of the war on terror: the failure to learn that lionizing al Qaeda only further empowers it” – brilliant advice. Sadly, Washington cannot accept this advice. A superpower on an empire-building binge that claims to be more pure than the rest of the world needs an evil enemy; it needs to personalize everything; and it needs to get the population, drugged out on TV or roaming the mall, excited.

    I certainly agree that this is a crucial unlearned lesson of the last decade. An equally important lesson, however, is the prevailing Washington attitude that one must either choose to reform or to fight jihadis. This seems to me a false choice conveniently designed to “justify” aggression in the name of Zionism or stealing other people’s oil.

    Yemen is a case in point in my opinion, but I am no expert on Yemen, so I’d like to hear your opinion:

    Which is the better U.S. strategy to defeat jihadis – encouraging better governance and more inclusion of Houthi and southern rebels in the political process as a long-term way of marginalizing violent extremists or making a commitment to the regime in return for regime promises that it will root out jihadis?

  5. namhenderson
    01/09/2010 at 6:13 am

    I was looking forward to your return to get your much more informed and rational take on this subject than most of the commentary so far.
    Thanks for this.

  6. SNLII
    01/09/2010 at 7:35 am

    I don’t know, L.

    The type of device isn’t exactly new because a suspected al-Shabaab jahosh with the same sort of diaper bomb had been caught earlier. And the rectal bomb used to lightly scuff the mitts of Prince Muhammed in KSA was configured of PETN, too, only that time inserted, uhhhh, a bit north of the diaper.

    The reaction is easy to understand because we know that AQAP will get more publicity even with a failed attack in the US (I’m calling it Propaganda without a Deed) than they would with a successful attack against a US target overseas, such as outside our embassy.

    Some thoughts I’ve been considering:

    1. What the failed attack might show is greater sharing of information, recruitment and weaponry than we previously saw between the various franchises. If it’s true what Yemen says, that Mutallab got the PETN in Lagos, not Yemen, then we’re probably looking at AQIM or a splinter from Boko Haram or a sleeper cell in Nigeria, which isn’t exactly a country or culture conducive to that sort of suicide bombing. Did AQ in NW Pakistan greenlight the operation? As you know, formal and far-enemy AQ has long cultural and familial ties to Yemen, so their links to AQAP are expected. But AQIM?

    2. It seems obvious now that Yemen is right and that Mutallab was radicalized while in Togo but recruited in London by agents of AQAP, following an interest he expressed online. This shows far greater reach in the UK than everyone previously assumed.

    3. We need to learn more about how Mutallab might resonate within the disaffected populations of Northern Nigeria. Will he be a hero? Or did his suicide bombing violate social norms that disgust the normally tolerant Sunnis? He likely will get out in about 20 years, too, making him young enough to still matter there. How will they receive him?

    4. How much did Mutallab’s mother, the second wife of a polygamous father, play in his decision to go to Yemen to learn Arabic? SHe’s of Yemeni descent.

    5. Far-enemy AQ in Pakistan long has been pretty racist. Did obtaining the Nigerian change their views of sub-Saharan Africa? Does this suggest something about the ongoing dance they’re doing with al-Shabaab?

    6. It’s the unsexy stuff of bureaucracies, but if AQIM is tied to this, are we doing enough to aid the 10 allied nations in OEF-TQ? We give them about $80 million or so annually, and that goes a long way in N Africa, but should we not start looking harder about how we can do more to understand the nature of the threats and better reconcile ourselves to the vast lands of Islam — military aid when necessary, but also a need to better understand these many different complex cultures, empathetically listen to what they’re telling us, and seek to address the causative forces that create the rage in the first place.

    Just my two rials.

    SNLII

  7. 01/10/2010 at 12:17 am

    Glad to see you back, and hope you had a good break! I’d be interested to hear more about the 2002 British recruit – which exactly are you referring to? Thanks! R

  1. 01/09/2010 at 8:01 am
  2. 01/27/2010 at 5:06 am
  3. 12/12/2010 at 5:39 am

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