Home > AQ General, AQAP, Attacks and Plots, Commentary > Some thoughts on the printer plot and AQAP

Some thoughts on the printer plot and AQAP

Regular readers of this blog will know that AQAP has been an obsession of mine for years and that  my view of AQAP differs somewhat to conventional wisdom.

In January this year after the undie bomber episode, I had a little rant in which I explained why I find it frustrating that AQAP is viewed as a new and organizationally distinct entity from AQ core and  I stand by this analysis. In fact, since then I’ve found even more things to bolster the case I made there, which I really looking forward to releasing in the thesis, which is creeping ever so much closer to being sent off for examination.

What I wrote in January and what I demonstrate in my thesis is that AQAP is a branch of AQ. It is  not an affiliate, not a franchise, and not a network. Rather it is  an operating branch of AQ, which means that while it may have authority  for attacks in its area of operations (the Arabian Peninsula), it comes under AQ’s strategic command and control for external attacks outside of this area of operation.  And it has always done so, right back to 02.

In other words AQAP cannot launch operations against the US without approval from HQ in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands.  This practice also extends to franchises more generally but it is particularly relevant to AQAP because it is a branch of the organisation rather than a franchise. This means it is held by a tighter set of what you might call operating instructions and requirements.

So, this plot is quite fascinating to me because it gives us the opportunity to look more closely at the nature of how branch and HQ interact and the degree of operational autonomy AQAP has as a branch. In particular, it gives us the opportunity to determine whether blanket approval is provided and then the branch left to its own devices, or whether additional permissions are required when expanding the target sets and tactics used . It also gives us the opportunity to delve into what degree of cooperation occurs, and to what extent is HQ briefed into operations from this branch. So, when I picked up on this snippet of information I was particularly fascinated:

The alert was triggered by intelligence from a unit of GCHQ surveillance experts stationed in Afghanistan, the Sunday Express can reveal. Operating from a converted shipping container in Helmand, the team picked up the words “A wedding gift is being delivered”.

It’s rare to see this type of leak or acknowledgement of the role of what comes across the wires in starting operations, despite this often being the case, and I’m surprised to see that this leak may have originated with the Brits, since they are usually watertight and the unsung heroes of this type of work, particularly in that neck of the woods.

Of course this report could be wrong, but I suspect not, for reasons I’m not inclined to expand upon here. The report is also a little murky, particularly in relation to when and how the Saudis got in the game and via which type of exploitation, which is not surprising for a number of reasons, and which again I’m not inclined to expand upon here.

However, this snippet has me very interested because it suggests there is a greater level of cooperation going on than I had thought between branch and HQ.  It also leads to me ask a number of questions as to whether or not keeping HQ in the loop so to speak is novel to this particular plot or whether it is standard practice.

In the current threat environment and with things reportedly on the boil from HQ in terms of its own external operations believed to be targeted at Europe,  I think it raises a number of important questions and warrants a closer look at external operations planning and coordination, particularly in relation to strategic objectives. On the basis of that I think it is dangerous to view this plot in isolation. I’d also make the same remark in relation to viewing AQAP in isolation  too.

Having said that lumping everything together as one homogeneous whole is also problematic. As is all of the rubbish being spouted about Awlaki in relation to this plot and his status in relation to AQAP more generally (ie the new OBL, ugh what a load of rot)

What that snippet tells me (and with the caveat in place that it could be wrong) is that comms networks between branch and HQ are resilient and also dynamic. The comms channel picked up  appears to have been  new, hence extra assistance was required to contextualise and operationalise the raw intel, which led to the plot being uncovered and disrupted.

This is why historical knowledge is important and why we need to work to fill gaps in our understanding. Clearly there are some contours in the relationship between branch and HQ that we do not fully understand yet, as well as parts of each elements’ operational trajectory.

As I said, this info could be wrong, but even so, on the basis of AQAP’s status as a branch of AQ, I’d argue seeking answers to these questions and further investigation into AQ’s external operations coordination are worthwhile activities, particularly in the current climate.

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  1. Dylan Welch
    11/01/2010 at 3:34 pm

    The idea the Anwar al-Awlaki is far from the centrsal force behind AQAP – and that orders come not from inside Yemen but from Afghanistan/Pakistan – would also explain why the US has thus far failed to get their hands on him, despite having predator drones/CIA assassins with poison umbrella tips ready to roll?

    While he’s not exactly walking Main Street, Sana’a, it’s generally accepted al-Awlaki’s in Yemen, yes? And given the increasingly central role AQAP is playing in global threat, you’d think if AQAP’s leadership was Yemen-based the US would have more assets/resources/big men with guns there than it already has?

  2. Tom
    11/02/2010 at 12:07 am

    On the specific point of British secrecy, one explanation springs to mind. The UK has just had a bruising round of spending cuts. Although the intelligence services apparently we not too badly hit, they may feel the need to justify themselves a little more in the press. On a related note, the head of SIS (MI6) just gave a public speech – the first by someone in his position since the service was founded. This might be part of the same phenomenon.

  3. Anonymous guy
    11/02/2010 at 11:33 am

    It does not lend your argument too much credibility that you are speculating based on information from one of the UKs least credible tabloids.

  4. Rex Brynen
    11/03/2010 at 1:58 pm

    I’m not at all convinced (yet) that Afghan-based SIGINT collection by GCHQ was indeed the critical source of information—particularly with other OS reporting suggesting that the UK was first warned directly or indirectly by the Saudis. Indeed, it is equally possible that the SIGINT referred to something else entirely separate, and is post-facto being connected to the AQAP operation (especially since the SIGINT alone is unlikely to have revealed anything about the attack type or vector, absent other types of collection).

    Which is not to say that you’re wrong about the AQ/AQAP connection.. just that I think the press reporting of the incident is a rather slim reed to hang things on.

    On a separate note, any idea why a SIM card would be used in a device that was presumably intended to be detonated in flight and at altitude on aircraft that are difficult to track (because cargo tracking information provides little information as to specific itineraries)? Almost by definition, a GSM-based system would be least able to detonate the bomb when you would most want to do it.

  5. 11/04/2010 at 10:29 pm

    I’m not sure about this either. However it is evident to me that HQ have a much closer relation with AQAP than with other franchises. I remember a piece in the [can't remember the media name] about AQ leadership moving to Yemen in the last year…

  6. Rex Brynen
    11/05/2010 at 3:11 am

    And the answer on the latter issue: yes phone, no SIM card:

    “Both bombs were wired to circuit boards from mobile phones but did not contain the SIM cards needed to receive calls, US officials have said. This indicates the phones were to be used as timers.” (BBC)

  7. 11/06/2010 at 3:40 am

    Looks like the phone was a power source:

    “The explosive device was deeply concealed in the cartridge of a printer and connected to a hidden power source in sections of a mobile telephone. It could have destroyed the aircraft on which it was being carried, over the UK, over the US or on the ground.” – Theresa May, Brit Home Sec.

    http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/speeches/terrorist-response

  8. 11/12/2010 at 9:20 am

    Given the facts explained in my blog, I’m not certain why I should be any more concerned with terrorism than I am with traffic accidents, cancer, or muggers.

    Perhaps you could help.

  9. Khalid
    11/16/2010 at 2:55 am

    Two words of caution: Daily Express. Not known for its insight into anything, it runs endless stories on the death of the Princess of Wales and little else. Leaks regarding GCHQ are extremely rare and unlikely to emerge in this tabloid…

  1. 11/01/2010 at 4:03 pm
  2. 11/03/2010 at 11:53 pm
  3. 11/05/2010 at 10:04 am

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