Thoughts on the transcript of the interrogation of AQAP figure Ibrahim al-Banna
For anyone interested in better understanding AQAP’s history these Ibrahim al-Banna interrogation transcripts are required reading. While I’m often inclined to treat info from a Kuwait daily, as firmly in the often dodgy category, these transcripts do look legitimate, hence required reading status.
Hopefully too, they will finally put to rest ideas that AQAP is a ‘new’ organisationally distinct franchise and show what I have been kicking and screaming about for some time–that AQ core (in this instance al-Zawahiri in particular) exercises strategic command and control.
I must confess I’m a little sulky because it cuts into some of my thesis stash, particularly the nexus with EIJ, but silver lining is that it makes what I have already collected and presented even more robust.
A lot of this information is historical, but this more than clearly shows why historical knowledge, even dating back to the first Afghan war and the early 1990’s is so critically important to understanding AQ today. Without it, there is a danger in seeing everything as new. Of course the converse could be said too; that historical knowledge can lead to a degree of complacency and a tendency to see everything as old and thus become a little lazy in terms of identifying change.
Analysis is an imprecise business at the best of times, but having good foundational knowledge is crucial, especially to ensuring information and intelligence is properly contextualized. Without context, your analysis is done in a great big black hole. It’s one of the major problems with intelligence analysis and it also seeps into academia as well. And it’s why agencies are forever swapping between the regional desk model, the group model, the international and the domestic model and any mix of all the above mentioned all mixed in with delineations between tactical, ops and strategic intel analysis, and then of course threat coordination centres. Fun fun fun.
Why this type of information is important, analytically speaking, is that it gives you something against which to juxtapose current goings on. It’s vital for establishing precedent. And it helps you to see both continuity and change. It other words it helps you build the strategic picture. And that in turn helps you evaluate the veracity of other information. It gives you something against which to juxtapose additional information. But more than that, it helps you to build a picture where you can extend your analysis to look at not only what might happen or what is possibly going on, but what a group is not doing, and thus opens pathways for looking at why it is not doing something and why. Often this is just as important for analysis, but tends to get overlooked because there is usually always a spot fire to put out.
Anyway, what this transcript highlights to me is the inadequacy of both the localized-viewed-in-isolation-franchise-model and the AQ-as-ubiquitous-bad-guy-pulling-the-strings-of-everything-everywhere-model. Add to that the dominance of what I somewhat sarcastically call “the Church of the New” within punditry and you get a big fat analytical mess.
To my mind AQAP and its relationship to AQ HQ is the quintessential case study of how this has taken hold in the discourse. While the church-of-the-new-AQ-is-everywhere approach bothers me, what really concerns me is the converse tendency to view things in isolation and outside of the bigger strategic picture of how AQ operates, its history and also current and past counteraction efforts against it.
That’s not to say that intense singular analytical focus on AQAP is a bad thing. It’s not. But it is one part of the picture, and without the broader context, any solution that focuses just on AQAP, or even just Yemen is going to fall on its arse. To ignore history and consequently the command and control links (and thus the bigger picture) is like blindfolding yourself and then trying to fight.
I’m not dismissing the local character of the organisation on the ground. On the contrary. This interrogation report highlights how truly vital that knowledge is. There’s some local information in these reports the veracity of which only a country area specialist could determine.
So, come to think of it, the way in which this interrogation report would need to be analysed (in an ideal world) serves as a microcosm of how you approach dealing with AQ. To fully unpack this interrogation report you need people with the intense local focus and people with a broader focus. You need people with historical knowledge and new knowledge. And then you need to contextualize it in the bigger picture of AQ’s organizational dynamic, particularly when you are looking at full spectrum counteraction strategies.
That’s my long winded way of saying that assuming novelty in the instance of AQAP has very real policy and operational implications. It all comes back to foundational knowledge.
So, after that little rant, below are some points of interest to me from the interrogation. While interrogation reports often need to be taken with a grain of salt, much of what al-Banna says here checks out–at least according to my areas of interest. Although I would note he has what I’ll politely refer to as jihadi peacock syndrome, where there is a tendency to strut. So, this needs to be viewed with the assumption at least some of what he said is exaggerated.
Also, as I said earlier there’s stuff in here the veracity of which only a local or regional specialist could determine so I’m not going to touch on any of that. Rather, I’m just going to highlight the things that stand out to me, and which in my assessment, check out or are of interest to me. As always, the caveat I could be wrong, and am happy to eat a rather large plate of humble pie for dinner if this is the case. I won’t deal with the history of the branch in too much detail, because, well, I’m over it. Instead, I’m just going to point out the other things that jump out to me, some of which have policy implications, I think.
- Arms smuggling from Sudan, which according to the interrogation reports is ongoing.
Obviously not new, but this is important, particularly given recent reports the US is considering changing Sudan’s terror list status.
- Around 150 mujahideen recruited every month. This figure is for internal and external recruits. The list of countries includes Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia, Ghana and Rwanda.
While I’m a little skeptical of these figures and even some of these countries, this is none the less very interesting. It points to AQAP being a regional hub of sorts, and also attracting people who might have otherwise gone to Afghanistan or elsewhere. We’ve seen quite a few reports of AQ figures or others saying they can’t accommodate a great number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan/Pakistan; in other words they’ve reached sufficiency. What it boils down to is that HQ is the recruitment house for external operations. AQAP is the AQ front of choice.
- Facilitation networks for the travel of these people are based out of Sudan and Jordan. Sudan is the channel for recruits from Africa; Jordan for North Africa/Levant countries.
Sudan is a no-brainer, but Jordan, well that is fascinating. I’m inclined to think that what’s happening there is a merging of legacy networks from AQ in Iraq too, particularly given the close nexus in leadership between AQAP and AQ in Iraq, when al-Masri was in charge of the latter. Then of course we have what has been happening on the forums, in terms of facilitation and contacts. Again, here it is important to note the merging of legacy networks and the interplay between franchises, core, and also some entrepreneurs. Here I am thinking of at least one Jordanian in particular, who’s active on the forums and has an impeccable pedigree, not to mention extensive contacts.
- Al-Banna claims he (and presumably AQAP) was only in contact with HQ and Iraq.
This may be because of the way the question is worded. Actually, as an aside looking at the questions asked, it’s good to see tradecraft being followed, at least some of the time. Reading intelligence questioning shits me no end. I know it’s a different approach and it has its own merits, but I was bled on LEA and so I can’t help but think well you’ve just squandered any chance of that being admissible. Anyway, my point… Here is a good example of what I was rambling on about earlier. How this type of information helps you to understand what is not taking place and opens pathways for looking at why it is not taking place. With the caveat in place that the question focused specifically on AQ’s cells, this response is interesting. It shows where there was not contact. AQIM for starters. This opens a range of questions up for analysis. The wording of the question is a little problematic, because it was specifically directed at AQ cells, thus negating for example a response that may have otherwise indicated contact with Somalia. And there was no follow up. So while it was great not to see double barreled questions, the lack of follow up is problematic. But still, this type of question and answer opens up a range of questions about contact between franchises, what is and isn’t taking place, and why things are NOT taking place, or appear to not be taking place. There’s some pretty interesting implications in asking questions along these lines, particularly in terms of building a strategic picture of communications and command and control between franchises and HQ. As an aside, he claims there is no formal presence in Egypt. This is slightly problematic in terms of the switch between EIJ and AQ, but nonetheless, interesting.
- The planning to execution trajectory of AQAP operations. This follows the trajectory of target selection; information collection; formation of operational timetable; selection of personnel, tactics, sourcing of equipment for the operation; Target date; and then implementation.
No surprises here. Stock standard operational planning.
- Training activities. Five groups and five levels of training. Each around 40 days.
Again, no surprises here. Although, I do note it is slightly longer than AQ’s training in Afghanistan during its heyday. One thing of note here is that the first training is spiritual. It seems AQAP has got its act together more so than AQ core. Not many people know that AQ was really sub-par on this aspect of training during its hey day despite it being critically important for radicalisation and the prevention of attrition. Speaking of which, random thought here, but what would be a *fascinating* thing to analyse is the respective levels of attrition. I suspect they are higher for HQ than for AQAP. Just a hunch (-: Incidentally he also mentions AQAP has been training women and children since 2000. I think, however, the numbers are inflated.
- A robust intelligence wing and capacity for both AQ HQ and AQAP
I think he’s being a little bit of a jihadi peacock here, feathers out having a bit of a boast. But still, this is all very interesting.
- The role of Ayman al-Zawahiri
This one is a bit of a no-brainer too; but it does reinforce that AZ is the man to watch in terms of operational control. And of course it reinforces that command and control does exist between this branch and AQ HQ. I’ve already gone into detail on this before and I’m a bit over it. But I will say this. AZ is a chronic micro-manager. Chronic. Which is good for those doing the watching… Of note here too, is al-Banna’s admission that AQAP did “mercy” killings of injured mujahideen, to “prevent their suffering” Translation: avoid compromise. They did so on the orders/permissions of al-Zawahiri. [Because al-Zawahiri is sooooo qualified to issue a fatwa on this. Not.] So there you have it folks, that’s what stood out to me. Now back to my seemingly futile efforts to cut word length from the thesis.