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.