Two pieces on al Qaeda and Yemen you should read
For those interested in AQAP goings on and US strategy may I suggest reading Gregory Johnsen’s thoughts here, as submitted for Frontline’s Q&A as part of its AQAP documentary. Following on from this is an excerpt from an interesting piece by Sarah Phillips of the University of Sydney.
The war against AQAP can never be won if it is framed as the US against AQAP in Yemen.
This is much more than a framing issue, but that is where it has to start. The US has to realize when it can be a force for positive change in Yemen and when it needs to take a step back and allow local clerics and preachers the space to confront AQAP.
In Yemen, al Qaeda is not only a network of ruthless militants but an accusation that can be leveled, with varying degrees of credibility, against members of the regime who have facilitated it. In this sense, al Qaeda is more than just a terrorist organisation; it is so often evoked as a domestic political pejorative that it has become enmeshed in mythologies about how national power functions. In becoming part of the narrative that sustains the squabbles of Sana’a’s elites, al Qaeda is also viewed as a symbol of the regime’s detachment from ordinary Yemenis. That the presence of al Qaeda has brought American drone attacks, air strikes, civilian casualties and the destruction of property only sharpens the symbolic connection between the carrying on in Sana’a and the violence that is either experienced or feared by Yemen’s citizens.
While the US is being careful to emphasise that it is only conducting counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, not a broader counter-insurgency, it is wading into something much more complex than simply ‘jihadis versus the state’. The problem of al Qaeda in Yemen is deeply political, which is why fighting it with drone strikes (that can now target people on the basis of suspicious activity) or with ‘Special Operations Forces who are as comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound’ is likely to fail.
This picture caught my interest for rather obvious reasons, unless I’m seeing things.
The picture is from the newest issue of Inspire Magazine. For those overseas, it is of the Sydney Opera House and Inspire Magazine is a publication linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula–although it’s not formally sanctioned & recognised product. It’s also run by some folks who very much like to see their own name in lights and feed off the hype the magazine creates, which really isn’t very jihadi-like, but I digress.
I didn’t blog on this yesterday when I saw it, lest I contribute to the hype. So, I’m just noting it this morning as something of interest because I haven’t seen that much from these circles about Australia– at least recently. I have, however, been out of the loop so may have missed it.
I don’t think it is any sort of hidden message or marker; although not being privy to intel on the extent and scope of links I would never fully rule it out. I do, however, think it is probably more a case that the picture was put there to see what type of reaction it generated. Or maybe just because it looked pretty.
Anyway, I found it interesting.
Thanks to Chris for sending me a heads up the mag was out. Much appreciated (-:
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.
My Jane’s article on Al Qaeda command and control is now available
One caveat… I wrote this in September/October last year so it is a little dated in terms of drone attacks etc. However, I still stand by the arguments I made in this piece.
Feedback, as always is welcome. But please bear with me if you’d like a response. I’m drowning with the dissertation at the moment, but I will try to answer any follow up questions.
Many thanks to Tim at Jane’s whose efforts to get me this pdf I really appreciate.
The reference information for those requiring it is JANE’S INTELLIGENCE REVIEW, 21 (12) November 2009, p 16-20
Saudi Gazette – Terrorist No. 10 captured in Yanbu
Sources told Okaz that Al-Hidhli was captured at a tent on Yanbu Corniche shortly before Friday prayers last week after a tip-off alerted authorities to his presence. Al-Hidhli had only just arrived in the region, they said, and offered no resistance upon his arrest.
A U.S. Intelligence Breakthrough in the Persian Gulf? Newsweek.com
Perhaps our new wannabe hero (said with much derisive sarcasm) who is disrupting jihadi sites should read this and realise his/her efforts are #obstructinginvestigations.
Exclusive: A U.S. Intelligence Breakthrough in the Persian Gulf? – Declassified Blog – Newsweek.com.
Some observations from the forums
I am treating myself to a small procrastination break to relax the brain for a little while before kicking into the next section of the pesky chapter. So I have taken a little wander through the forums. Anyway, I haven’t done a post on that for a while so I’m just going to list a few things that struck me as I read.
First, the new AQAP audio from Al Shehri, which seems to have generated the usual breathless media coverage.
Al Shehri has for the most part reiterated what AQAP *already said* in an earlier statement. And this includes the threats against the US and the naval issues, which I blogged about earlier– when numpties on the forums started taking it seriously enough to form their own little intel gathering groups on US naval capacities. As I noted then the material they are gathering is fairly rudimentary. But herein lies one of the main mistakes made when analysing this type of information. People pay attention to the rudimentary nature of the materials being collected instead of the group formation taking place. These groups do have some form of contact and that is where the danger lies. Again and again you see this happening. But back to that audio.
To my mind the potential significance of this audio is that it contains public messages for bin Laden. Again, however, this is not necessarily new. We saw a lot of this in earlier campaigns. To some extent it needs to be treated with a grain of salt and what it means is up for question. I’ll have to make some time to consider this in a little more depth. But generally speaking AQ has a history of communicating and receiving op orders in this way (here I mean between core and franchise) so it shouldn’t necessarily be discounted as a propaganda rant. Between franchise and cells or groups that it has authority over (the degree of which can vary depending on which region these cells are operating in) these types of orders and communications have, in the past, been communicated via the Q&A section of magazine publications or on forums as well as via more covert means, depending on what is being discussed. Obviously not all the details end up on forums or Q&A sections of magz but there has been, in the past, enough to get the gist of what is going on if you know who’s who. However, this is a historical example and I haven’t had the time to scour through current AQAP mags to see if this is again occurring. Having said that I mention it because it is a well established modus operandi.
Keeping with the theme of AQAP,next up we have Karim al Mejjati, his son Adam and Karim’s widow.
Karim, and Adam died in a shootout with Saudi authorities in 05 I think it was, or maybe 06. I forget. Karim was a senior AQAP figure. Anyway, there has been another little spike in stuff about him across several forums. The last one I saw was in November last year. Anyway, a small video montage has been made and offered up as tribute to Karim’s widow.
What has me interested is that she is a member of and regular poster (via her intermediary) to the Al Falluja forum. And she commands a great deal of respect and attention. She’s been active again in response to the montage and other tributes. So I find this quite interesting.I’m entirely too lazy to post to all these links but if you want them let me know.
Although she doesn’t quite have the authority of Malika El Aroud whose first husband was one of the two men who killed Masoud on 9 Sept 01 and second husband reportedly took the Belgian-French group they recruited to train with AQ in Waziristan in 08. However, she does command a great deal of respect.
Which brings me to Abu Dujana al Khorasani’s widow
She’s actually triggered a few anxious posts by a couple of jihadis. Again too lazy to post all of them, but the gist is that they wanted to know whether they can view her, because she wasn’t fully veiled in the interview she gave, which is doing the rounds of the forums. They were also wondering why she didn’t observe the four months and ten days they thought a widow should lock herself away from the world after losing her husband before she came out and gave media interviews.
But anyway, she seems well on her way to assuming a position along with these other two. I haven’t bothered to check but I bet somewhere out there she’s on one of the forums, so it will be interesting to see if she too starts becoming more active after losing her husband.
This brings me to a point in general about women on the forums.
I have found it fascinating to watch. When I first starting lurking about in 01 there were very few of them in the forums (at least who would acknowledge they were women). This has changed significantly over the years. And they are now welcomed and included on an equal level in discussions on these forums. The impact of social media I think has been quite significant in terms of pushing the role of women in jihad forward. It offers a forum where interaction is permissible whereas out say in Afghanistan the men and women could not meet and discuss these things. Of course that’s a very quick summation and the reality is a little more nuanced that this, but it is really striking that the militant salafist forums have become quite an open and accepting platform for female supporters of the jihad to join in.
Speaking of platforms and accessibility this brings me to my last observation for the day the uptake of new digital media formats
As I’ve been out and about downloading files I’ve noticed that files are no longer just uploaded in pdf, word, chm or even SWF/Flash formats. Now things are uploaded with support for universal ebook formats like EPUB, Kindle (yes I kid you not), and this is the most fascinating one to me, Daisy. Daisy format is for talking books.
Now I haven’t tried out any of these because I learnt my lesson messing with new formats last year… But nonetheless the uptake of new technology on the forums continues. So too does the pirating of software–especially adobe related products. I tweeted earlier today I was tempted to join in one of forums’ tutorials. They’re not bad.
So there you have it.
Obviously a lot more going on, but this is what interested me in tonight’s internet wanderings.
Ok back to thesis for me. Cheers.