Category Archives: Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership

With recent events in Mali and Algeria, there is a notable uptick in interest in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One question commentators are asking is what the relationship is between AQIM and al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) in Pakistan, under Ayman al Zawahiri. The word I’ve seen employed most frequently to describe the links between the two is “murky.”

I agree with the characterization that the relationship between AQIM and AQSL is murky; but when it is translated into popular discourse, murkiness is often inaccurately understood as “we don’t know if there are ties between the two.” For example, Max Fisher writes at the Washington Post, “It’s tough to know the exact connection between leaders in the Algeria-based AQIM and those in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan…. It’s entirely possible that AQIM’s links to al-Qaeda already are, are becoming, or will become closer to al-Qaeda than we think.” The clear implication is that there may be some connections between AQIM and AQSL, but that it is impossible to know whether they exist, and if so, to what extent. Likewise, Jason Burke writes in The Guardian, “The ties binding AQIM to the leadership of al-Qaida far away in south-west Asia have always been tenuous. The difficulties in communication, let alone travel, precluded any tight co-operation.”

But the documents captured from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad do reveal communications between AQIM and AQSL that extend over the span of four years, and include discussion of strategic and operational issues. While it is possible that after bin Laden’s death, when Ayman al Zawahiri became AQSL’s emir, these communications were crippled or otherwise ceased, there’s no reason that this should be our a priori assumption. This entry is designed to add granularity to the discussion of AQIM and AQSL through a look at the Abbottabad documents. It concludes by agreeing that the AQIM/AQSL relationship is murky, but explaining that commentators can do a better job of representing the ambiguities.

The Abbottabad Documents on AQSL and AQIM

Four of the released Abbottabad documents make referfence to the AQSL/AQIM relationship. I examine these documents in the chronological order in which they were written:

Document 11, circa early 2007. The author states that he is in in contact with members of AQIM, who are doing fine. He includes an upbeat message from AQIM (“the brothers in Algeria”) saying that “things are steadily improving: morale is rising, support is growing, and military activity has been improving recently. Every week there is a bombing, an encounter or ambushes.” The message from AQIM says that “the enemy,” presumably the Algerian military, was “thrown off by the recent strikes and have responded with continuous random shelling of the mountains. This has been very good for the brothers, as much of the ammunition has not detonated and the brothers are using it.” AQIM records five casualties within the week preceding their message.

There are tactical notes from AQIM regarding the fight against the Algerians. They state their concern “about the Russian Cobra helicopters (MI-34) with laser-guided missiles; they are impacting on the four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are indispensible in the Sahara Desert. Underlying that is the problem of badly needed money for good-quality weapons to counter these menacing helicopters; the mujahedin don’t have single one of them, nor a single missile.” The Algerians’ infrared sensors are singled out as being of particular concern.

The correspondence records that the “commander of the east” informed AQIM that they received four Libyan recruits in the past week, following a group of thirty the week before that. (Note that this precedes al Qaeda’s formal merger with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group by around a year, indicating that Libyans were already joining AQIM before the merger occurred.) The Libyan recruits were being trained at Tabsa, which is about 600 kilometers east of Algiers, and featured in late 2006 AQIM/GSPC propaganda.

Document 19, circa May/June 2010. This letter, from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, requests (p. 26) that messages be sent to the leadership of AQIM and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) asking them to coordinate with Yunis al Mauritani (“Shaykh Yunis”) in “whatever he asks of him.” In particular, bin Laden asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should provide al Mauritani with “financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros.” Bin Laden specifies that al Mauritani should be given a name that doesn’t divulge his nationality, and asks ‘Atiyya to set up “a secure method of communications and coordination” between al Mauritani and both AQIM and AQAP. Bin Laden stresses the need for “the utmost secrecy” regarding al Mauritani’s doings, and says that knowledge of his operations should be restricted to AQIM and AQAP’s leadership.

Document 15, October 21, 2010. In this letter from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, Abu Yahya al Libi is appointed as ‘Atiyya’s first deputy, and a big part of his mission is providing religious guidance (“sharia research”) to both AQIM and Somalia’s al Shabaab. With respect to AQIM, bin Laden writes (p. 5): “The brothers in the Islamic Maghreb might experience divisions. To avoid this, the research that you said that you are going to prepare on dealing with the apostates should be sent to them. It should be complete and comprehensive and it should include the opinions of the scholars.”

Bin Laden also sends a messages to Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud (the head of AQIM) through ‘Atiyya, stating that ‘Atiyya should add an attached file “to the files of brother ‘Abd-al-Wadud or you can send it to them [i.e. AQIM] as part of your correspondence to them.”

Further, bin Laden advises AQIM (p. 11) that “planting trees helps al mujahedin and gives them cover” from satellites and spy planes. He notes that trees “would give al mujahedin the freedom to move around especially if the enemy sends spying aircraft to the area.” He suggests that they get trees from plantations, “or they can even create their own plantation.”

Document 10, April 26, 2011. In this letter to ‘Atiyya, Bin Laden writes about French hostages being kept by AQIM. At the time, France was involved in military operations against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Bin Laden warns that because the French are involved in this way, French hostages should not be killed because “the atmosphere after the French standing towards the Libyan people does not condone killing the French, due to what will follow of negative reflections, after it became evident that most of the common people are supporting Sarkozy.”

Bin Laden advises AQIM to keep the hostages until after the 2012 French elections; and if this isn’t possible, he wants to exchange half of them, and keep the other half (“the higher ranking and the more important ones”). He does not want the negotiations between AQIM and the French government to be public, but he does want the hostage issue to remain a political liability for Sarkozy. AQIM appears to have largely handled the hostages in a manner consistent with bin Laden’s directives, though obviously it is difficult to ascribe causality to bin Laden’s letter.


Only a fraction of the Abbottabad documents that U.S. forces captured have been released publicly. However, the limited released material indicates ongoing communication between AQSL and AQIM that goes beyond current implications in the public discourse that we do not know if they were in touch. This communication extended over several years — 2007 through 2011 — and survived changes in AQIM’s leadership and also attrition within AQSL’s ranks.

There are most definitely ambiguities within this evidence due to the fact that we’re only seeing a shadow of the overall relationship. For example, we are only seeing one side of the correspondence: in every instance, we do not know the response prompted by the letters that were sent. It is worth noting, though, that nowhere in these documents do we see indications that bin Laden thought AQIM had been unresponsive to him, nor that the length of time it took to communicate precluded effective contact or some form of cooperation between AQIM and AQSL.

Al Qaeda and its various branches and affiliates did not operate as a perfectly hierarchical organization even before bin Laden’s death. An article that I continue to recommend detailing the relationship the senior leadership had with other entities is Leah Farrall’s “How Al Qaeda Works,” which was published in Foreign Affairs in early 2011. Farrall wrote, “Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises. For their part, al Qaeda’s core members focus on exercising strategic command and control to ensure the centralization of the organization’s actions and message, rather than directly managing its branch and franchises.”

The Abbottabad correspondence fits well with Farrall’s framework. One may adopt a minimalist or maximalist interpretation of what the Abbottabad documents mean. On the maximalist side:

  • AQIM was sending situation reports back to AQSL, which may indicate that they sought its strategic guidance or even approval.
  • Bin Laden was providing significant guidance into how AQIM should fit into al Qaeda’s plans in other theaters. Al Mauritani, for whom bin Laden was trying to ensure both AQIM and AQAP’s cooperation, was at the time preparing a terrorist plot for Europe, news of which would break later that year.
  • The religious guidance that bin Laden wanted provided to AQIM in Document 15 suggests that he sees AQSL as influential enough to heal potential rifts within the group.
  • One can argue that the fact the French hostages whom bin Laden wrote about in April 2011 were handled consistent with his advice may indicate his influence over AQIM.
  • One can argue that Document 11 indicates that communication between AQIM and AQSL may have been relatively fast. The correspondence refers to events that were happening during the past week, which may indicate that AQIM thought AQSL would receive the missive while it was still timely.

On the minimalist side:

  • One can point to the language bin Laden used to suggest that he did not consider himself to have a great deal of control over AQIM. For example, in Document 19, rather than just ordering AQIM to provide Mauritani with financial support, he asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should do so.
  • One can argue that the path of the correspondence indicates that it was likely slow. Bin Laden was communicating with ‘Atiyya rather than communicating directly with AQIM, and ‘Atiyya may have in turn needed to pass the message through another intermediary.
  • Further, the indirect nature of the communication may have diminished the sway bin Laden could have over AQIM through the force of his personality.

Of course, when you are seeing only a fraction of a relationship, there will be a great deal of questions about the whole. But the Abbottabad documents are indicative of long-running communication between AQIM and AQSL preceding bin Laden’s death that goes beyond the public commentary suggesting that we don’t even know if there are “ties” between them. This does not mean the AQIM/AQSL relationship isn’t murky — it is — but our discussion of that murkiness should certainly take note of the data points that are available to us.

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Ayman al Zawahiri’s New Video Messages

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri released a new two-part installment of his video series focusing on Egypt, which was posted on Oct. 24. It seems there was a delay in releasing this installment, as Zawahiri apologizes for the delay of the release, and blames “the vicious war” that has been waged by “the Crusader alliance in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the mujahedin.” Thus far these messages have not generated much reaction on jihadi web forums.

In this entry, I analyze the first part of Zawahiri’s new installment, which seems to have been recorded in the run-up to Egypt’s presidential election. It features not only Zawahiri’s speech, but is also spliced with footage of other figures. The italicized texts below are either excerpts from Zawahiri’s characteristically long speech (based on a translation I obtained) or else descriptions of footage of other figures. If Zawahiri is speaking, rather than the italicized portion being a description of other footage, I enclose his words in quotations. My commentary follows each excerpt.

The video features footage of the son of the recently deceased extremist scholar Shaykh Rifa’i Surur speaking on his father’s position regarding the Egyptian elections. He states that Surur “saw the invalidity of democracy,” as democracy ceded the right of legislation to humanity rather than God. Any results from such a foundation would inevitably “not be respected and not be the result of good.”

Within the first year of salafi jihadi reactions to the events of the “Arab Spring,” there still wasn’t a clearly delineated position throughout the movement’s major organs on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of elections. The position being expressed by Rifa’i Surur’s son, and attributed to Surur, is representative of traditional salafi jihadi position. However, as Will McCants has noted, Islamist parliamentarians pose challenges to both the salafi jihadi outlook, and also al Qaeda’s outlook specifically.

“I urge Muslims everywhere, and especially those in countries neighboring Syria, to rise up to support their Syrian brethren in every way possible. I urge them not to deprive these Syrians of anything which they might have to offer, should it help rid the Syrians of this criminal and cancerous regime which has safeguarded Israel’s borders for nearly forty years.”

Syria is a frequent theme in jihadi propaganda. In this release, Zawahiri is particularly interested in the impact of regime change on Israel, arguing that “Cairo and Damascus are the two gates to Jerusalem.” I recently conducted a review of salafi jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring in the first year of the revolutionary events that will be published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism in November, and not surprisingly found that harm to Israel was a recurring theme. Due to the longstanding Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, jihadis perceived the fall of Hosni Mubarak as a significant strategic setback for the Jewish state (as Zawahiri noted, Cairo is seen as one of the gates to Jerusalem).

Malcolm X makes three appearances in the video, and is identified on-screen as “The martyred preacher, as we consider him, Haj Malik al Shabazz (Malcolm X), may God have mercy on him.”

Malcolm X has previously been featured in Zawahiri’s releases. This indicates that al Qaeda likely thinks that African-Americans are a promising demographic for recruitment. One interesting question is whether the idea to use Malcolm X has been promoted by a particular Zawahiri media adviser (my guess), or whether it was done on Zawahiri’s own initiative. If it was pushed by a media adviser, that decision could well reflect the particular interests and outlook of the adviser.

“I am seizing this opportunity to repeat and affirm our support for our people in Syria and their sons, the lions of the Levant and Islam, who have thrown themselves into Islam’s battle against the forces of secularism, corruption, and injustice in the Levant of the frontline and jihad.”

Zawahiri and other salafi jihadi ideologues have a particular way of framing revolutionary events in the region. When explaining what the people are rebelling against, secularism is always at the top of their list. Indeed, in the fourth episode of his ongoing series on Egypt (posted on March 4, 2011), Zawahiri explained at length that the Egyptian people have “repeatedly demanded that the Islamic sharia be the source for laws and legislation.” Secularism, Zawahiri argues, was forcibly imposed: the Egyptian people themselves never chose it. (It goes without saying that if you were to compile the major grievances that Syrians had against the Assad regime, secularism would not be their top problem.)

“I think that our father and shaykh, Shaykh Hafiz Salamah, learned from me of the maneuvers that were being undertaken so that sharia would not be established in Egypt. Among the examples of these maneuvers were the games played by the Military Council in the presidential elections. Guided by the Military Council, the committee overseeing the presidential elections brought about the disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il, despite a ruling from the judges in his favor, while they affirmed Ahmad Shafiq, despite a judicial ruling against him. The disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il is a lesson for every Muslim who thinks that sharia can be established in Egypt by way of secular constitutions that give sovereignty to the people, whereas in Islam, this right goes to God alone.”

A significant portion of Zawahiri’s speech focuses on how Egypt’s implementation of sharia will be watered down. He speaks, for example, of the inadequacy of constitutional provisions stating that sharia is the principle source of legislation, saying that “resorting to texts like these, so full of holes, will not achieve sharia rule.” Among other things, the inadequacy of Egypt’s sharia provides an ongoing justification for opposing the Egyptian state.

The video also features footage of several Egyptian jihadi clerics whom Zawahiri endorses. These include Ahmad Ashush and Abd al Hakim Hassan (a.k.a. Mujran Salim).

Ashush is one of several salafi jihadi figures who have given interviews to Arab television stations over the past few months; Muhammad al Zawahiri is another. When he appeared on Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr (Al Jazeera Egypt Live) in July, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that it was “the first time I have been allowed — not me as a person but we as a trend — to speak about ourselves.” He continued, “We were the only trend prevented from airing our views. The media always paint us in a false and brutal light, so that America’s aims of tarnishing the image of Islamic jihadist trend are achieved.” Though Muhammad al Zawahiri’s appearance did not go particularly well, it will be worth watching the long-term impact of having salafi jihadi figures represent their movement on television, if it continues.

In the footage of Ahmad Ashush featured on Ayman al Zawahiri’s new release, he also adopts an anti-election posture, warning his audience against being drawn into “the political process,” such that the elections would become “the alternative to the revolution.”

“The battle in Egypt is crystal clear… It is a battle between the secular minority that is allied with the Church and is supported by the junta — the product of Mubarak and the Americans, and supported by America and the West — and between the Muslim ummah in Egypt that is striving to implement sharia, liberate itself from subordination, liberate Palestine and the lands of Muslims, achieve social justice, and fight financial and moral corruption. This is the reality of the battle, and the enemies of Islam possess the military might, the security apparatuses, the corrupt judicial system, and the money that corrupts politics and media.”

This is also a common jihadi framing: that the overarching conflict is between Islam and secularism. Note that if the post-Mubarak Egyptian government is anything less than perfect — and surely it will be — Zawahiri’s framing blames secularism for corruption, social injustice, etc. In this regard, Zawahiri’s speech has much in common with other utopian ideologies that hold the change they advocate will sweep away all that is wrong with the world.

There is footage of Ahmad Ashush sitting with other men in Tahrir Square. He criticizes the constitutional court that issued rulings legalizing “fornication, alcohol, sodomy, and gambling,” and calls for changing the “security, judicial, and cultural institutions” built on “secularism.”

This footage is used by Zawahiri to point to the constitutional court as “an idol that is imposed on us.” Its rulings on these social issues, to Zawahiri, demonstrate how it is subordinating Islamic law and allowing immorality. I am currently working on a larger project about how academics understand religion in the context of the salafi jihadi movement. A number of prominent commentators have held that religious ideas are essentially irrelevant to this movement, but instead it is motivated almost exclusively by politics — a position that was always difficult to sustain, but is becoming increasingly so. In that regard, Ashush’s listing of these constitutional court rulings, and the fact that they made their way into an al Qaeda video, is a data point worth noting. To Zawahiri, the constitutional court “is a secular court whose religion is secularism,” and its only legitimacy “is the legitimacy of wolves and thieves.”

“The battle has not ended, but it has started, and it is incumbent upon Shaykh Hazim, his supporters, and all the sincere people in Egypt to wage a popular campaign of incitement and dawa to complete the revolution that has been aborted, and whose gains have been compromised. They must do that to realize the aspirations of sharia implementation, as well as honor, justice, freedom, and dignity for the mujahid, Muslim, and steadfast people of Egypt, and to compel the corrupt forces in Egypt to submit to the demands of the people through the popular, revolutionary work of incitement and dawa.”

Note that Ayman al Zawahiri’s immediate call is not to violence, but rather to “incitement and dawa.” As noted earlier, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that his television appearance represented the first time that the jihadi current was allowed to speak for itself. Beyond that, some of the changes in the new Middle East — regardless of whether this process of opening up is on the whole good for these societies — provide jihadis with the opportunity to undertake more intense dawa efforts than they have before, in an effort to draw others toward their understanding of Islam. This advocacy of undertaking dawa in the wake of the revolutions is widespread among jihadi observers, including Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam, Abu al Mundhir al Shinqiti, and Ayman al Zawahiri himself. One should not conclude, however, that intensified dawa efforts mean a repudiation of violence. Thinkers such as Ayman al Zawahiri see the salafi jihadi response to the “Arab Spring” as moving in stages, and a current dawa strategy will in Zawahiri’s view give way to a stage of jihad. Bassam has argued that dawa efforts need to eventually produce “real and open existence for jihad,” which will in his view produce a true implementation of sharia. Without violence, Bassam asserted, the efforts of Islamists will have no results “other than gathering and dispersion,” because a number of different “intellectual trends” will be competing for power.

“The second condolence goes to the enduring and steadfast shaykh of the mujahedin, the revered Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God release him from captivity, and his son Muhammad, better known as the lion, and to his honorable family, for the martyrdom of their son Ahmad Bin-Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God have mercy on him, in an American bombardment in the pure land of Khorasan [Afghanistan]. May God grant expansive mercy upon him and accept him and the jihad he waged and the emigration he undertook. May He provide for this noble family that has remained steadfast and patient for God despite afflictions. Let me emphasize to our noble shaykh, Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, to his sons, and all the other Muslim prisoners and their families, that we will spare no effort, with the aid and support of God, until we liberate every prisoner in infidel hands, or we will die trying.”

Zawahiri is of course referring to the “Blind Sheikh,” imprisoned in the U.S., whom Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has also said he would work to free.

There is an excerpt of a video interview with Julian Assange with Arabic subtitles, in which he explains his views on the “military-intelligence complex,” Guantanamo, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Al-Zawahiri continues: “This is what America fears about al Qaeda. It knows that this message and that call portends its demise and destruction, God permitting. Therefore, America and its allies and rabble seek to eliminate the leadership of al Qaeda both morally and materially. But by the grace and power of God, this shall never, ever happen.”

Individuals have little control over whether organizations like al Qaeda use their words and ideas for propaganda purposes, but it is interesting to see Assange used as a propaganda piece in this video.

There is footage of Malcolm X predicting worldwide revolution against “the international power structure” set against signs from the Egyptian revolution. Zawahiri continues: “What is encouraging is that these regimes began to collapse and crumble before the American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet-supported regimes of the Warsaw Pact did not begin to collapse until after the Russians left Afghanistan. This indicates that America is in a state of profound weakness that may surpass that of the Soviet Union in its final days, and that the coming change will be even greater, God permitting.”

Two aspects of this are worth noting. One is that a continual feature of bin Laden’s rhetoric was the idea that he and other Arab mujahedin had caused the Soviet Union to collapse — and that by bleeding the U.S. economically, al Qaeda was doing the same to America. (Bin Laden’s October 2004 speech is most prominent in this regard, but he made similar claims in other addresses, such as a September 2007 video.) Zawahiri is hitting the same theme in this speech. Among other things, this framing places al Qaeda as a key cause behind the Arab Spring through the damage it did to America, even though it played little role in the actual revolutions. The second thing worth noting is the way the Malcolm X clip is being used. Malcolm X wasn’t predicting an Islamist or jihadi revolution, but rather a more widespread revolution against the “power structure.” Throughout this tape, Zawahiri positions al Qaeda as a kind of ecumenical organization that can fulfill the revolutionary aspirations of many disparate groups.

“Obama should admit that he was defeated in Iraq and that he withdrew from it, and that he is being defeated in Afghanistan and has decided to withdraw from it. He was defeated in Tunisia when he lost Zine El Abidine, and defeated in Egypt when he lost Mubarak. He was defeated in Libya when he lost Al-Qadhafi, who handed him his nuclear program and cooperated with him in the torture of the detainees in the war on Islam under the pretext of terrorism.”

The claim that Obama was defeated in Libya when he lost Qaddafi is a bit difficult to sustain, isn’t it?

There is a still image of Malcolm X with Arabic subtitles of his statement: “The slave master took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education. A little education. Gave him a long coat, and a top hat, and made all the other slaves look up to him. They used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today by the same white man. He take a negro or so-called negro and make him prominent. Build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity, and then he becomes a spokesman for negro, and a negro leader.” Zawahiri continues by saying that Obama “was brought in as the progeny of a Muslim father and from African origins to continue the system of aggression against Muslims and the vulnerable others, which exploits and robs them.”

This is not the first time that Zawahiri has referred to Obama as a “house negro” or an “Uncle Tom.” He has in the past also relied on Malcolm X to make this claim. Zawahiri’s new tape similarly uses footage of Cynthia McKinney as a propaganda piece for this racialized claim, in which McKinney says that “these wars are being carried out in black face.”

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LIFG and Al Qaeda: A Response to Zelin

On Friday, I had a post at G&L questioning the field’s conventional wisdom that a) there is currently no relationship between the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and al Qaeda, and b) LIFG is almost entirely nationalist in orientation, or else regionally focused, rather than embracing an ideology of global jihad. My contention is not that there is more likely than not a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda at present, nor that there are more likely than not large parts of LIFG that embrace an ideology of global jihad, but rather that I am unpersuaded by the assertion that neither of these are true. Aaron Zelin took issue with my post on Twitter, and Will McCants also disagreed for the same reasons that Zelin provided. I respect both Zelin and McCants enormously, but I think they are both over-interpreting the available evidence while giving insufficient weight to contradictory data — which was my critique of the field’s understanding of this issue in the first place. This entry will be devoted to answering Zelin’s objections.

But first, I would like to say a word or two about what I mean by “LIFG.” As noted in my last post, there is a serious question of what LIFG is today, and whether it even exists. Jihadi groups go in and out of existence, or adopt new names, frequently. A good example of a group that was significantly disrupted, and became defunct in name, but wasn’t truly gone, is Somalia’s Al Ittihad al Islamiya (AIAI). The noted Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus explains in his 2004 volume Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism that after Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, AIAI attempted to seize “targets of opportunity” throughout the country. The only location it held for a sustained period was the town of Luuq, near the border with Ethiopia and Kenya. From there, AIAI carried out a string of attacks into Ethiopia, including assassinations and bombings from 1996-97 that reached Addis Ababa. In response, Ethiopian forces intervened and smashed AIAI. Soon, Menkhaus writes, AIAI was regarded as ”a spent force, marginal if not defunct as an organization.” But, it would have been wrong to simply hold that AIAI no longer existed at that point, had become irrelevant. Indeed, the old leadership of AIAI would resurface as a critical part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), such that analysts correctly note a continuity between those two groups. The question “what is AIAI up to today?” would have been highly relevant in 2004, and indeed could have helped analysts to anticipate significant developments in 2006, such as the ICU’s seizure of Mogadishu.

Another jihadi group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has used different names and different banners in an effort to confuse its foes. As V.S. Subrahmanian and his co-authors write in an interesting new study about LeT, the group used this strategy just before Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf banned it in January 2002. Subrahmanian et al. note that “weeks before on December 24, 2001, LeT leader Hafez Saeed declared that LeT and MDI [the Markaz al-Dawa Irshad] were now separated and that he no longer had any affiliation with LeT. Further, MDI reverted to the name Jamaat ud-Dawa (Society for Preaching–JuD).” This was an organizational split in name only, as LeT continued to use JuD offices as its own.

So when I speak of what LIFG is doing today and what it believes, I am not referring to what an entity that calls itself LIFG is doing. Nor am I asking what a few stragglers from the organization are doing. Rather, I am interested in critical leaders from LIFG, and their followers, and LIFG’s militant apparatus. And for my money, we don’t know enough about them to say they are definitely, or even overwhelmingly likely to be, unconnected to al Qaeda and an ideology of global jihad. While one could object to my entire question on definitional grounds, and claim that there is no longer a LIFG so the question is irrelevant, the implication of this argument should be clear: if there is no longer a LIFG, there is also no longer a group that would feel itself bound by LIFG’s 2009 revisions.

So, turning to Zelin’s specific objections:

Zelin’s first objection: Ex-LIFG members that joined AQC [al Qaeda core] did so in an individual capacity. The so-called “merger” was rejected by LIFG leadership.

This response is overly focused on a single event, the merger that Abu Layth al Libi and Ayman al Zawahiri announced of LIFG and al Qaeda in 2007, and that was later repudiated by the organization’s imprisoned leadership when it issued revisions in 2009. But a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda preceded the revisions by about two decades, as this report that Evan Kohlmann wrote for the NEFA Foundation in 2007 makes clear. To highlight a few (though by no means all) of his data points:

  • LIFG members were present in Afghanistan shortly after al Qaeda was founded in 1988, and were considered an early affiliate (pp. 3-4).
  • LIFG was present in Sudan from 1992-95 during Osama bin Laden’s time in that country, and about twenty LIFG members were part of the Islamic Army Shura that bin Laden formed (p. 5). This was not always a warm and friendly relationship; as is often the case within jihadi circles, it included its share of arguments and tensions.
  • After bin Laden was forced from Sudan and returned to Afghanistan, LIFG began to view that country, by 1998, as “the preferred venue for LIFG recruits seeking extremist indoctrination and military training.” During this time, “LIFG leaders managed to put aside some of their past frustrations with al Qaeda.” John Negroponte noted, during his time as the U.S.’s director of national intelligence, that during this period LIFG “expanded its goals to include anti-Western jihad alongside Al Qaeda.”
  • LIFG fought beside al Qaeda in Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded. Illustrating this, Kohlmann writes, “In 2002, Khalden training camp manager Abu Zubaydah was captured by security forces in a residence in Faisalabad, Pakistan alongside at least three LIFG operatives and a fourth individual also ‘known to have ties to the LIFG.’ Other LIFG members were captured by U.S. forces on the battlefield in Afghanistan and subsequently transferred to the U.S. prisoner camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
  • LIFG’s alleged involvement in 2003 terrorist attacks in Morocco illustrate that at that time, ambitions outside of Libya and also a general anti-West orientation may have been prevalent within the group. Kohlmann writes, “In May 2003, senior LIFG leaders based in Europe allegedly conspired with their North African allies in the GICM to help plan and facilitate a wave of suicide bombing attacks on targets in the Moroccan city of Casablanca that killed over 40 people and caused more than 100 injuries. The attacks focused on Western and ‘Jewish’ interests, including community centers, a restaurant, and a hotel. British-based LIFG Shura Council member Abdelrahman al-Faqih—who ‘has a history of GICM-related activity’ and has served as a key liaison between the LIFG and the GICM—was convicted in absentia by the Rabat Criminal Court of Appeals in Morocco for his alleged involvement in the Casablanca bombings.”
  • LIFG commanders, including Abu Layth al Libi and Abu Yahya al Libi, held prominent positions within al Qaeda prior to the 2007 merger.
  • LIFG also strongly supported the jihad in Iraq. Kohlmann writes, ”Eager to continue its war against the West as the battlefield shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the ‘LIFG has called on Muslims everywhere to fight the U.S. in Iraq,’ according to U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. In October 2004, al Qaeda supporters in Libya posted an open request on Arabic-language Internet chat forums to the chief of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s media wing regarding Libyan national Khalid al-Zaidi—who allegedly survived combat with U.S. forces in Iraq only to be subsequently killed back home in Libya. According to the message, ‘we think you have heard about [his martyrdom]… the most important thing we want from you, the Tawheed wal-Jihad Movement, is to name one of your upcoming operations in his name in order to show support for your brothers in the land of Libya.’”

Focusing only on Abu Layth al Libi’s merger of LIFG into al Qaeda in 2007, and its subsequent repudiation by another wing of LIFG, ignores the fact that a relationship had long existed between the two groups prior to the merger. This relationship was sometimes tense, but generally cooperative. Since a cooperative relationship had existed for such a long time, it is not impossible, nor even particularly unlikely, that it would continue in a real way even after one LIFG wing issued its revisions.

Further, neither Abu Layth al Libi nor other LIFG leaders who became part of al Qaeda can be written off as low-level individuals. They were prominent within LIFG, and when they joined al Qaeda, they brought their followers along. Nor is the fact that it took the imprisoned LIFG leadership two years to reject al Libi’s attempted merger with al Qaeda wholly irrelevant: Abu Layth al Libi purported to speak for all of LIFG in his merger announcement, so if this merger were completely out of character, and seen as outrageous by others within LIFG, shouldn’t the repudiation have come much earlier? Available evidence suggests that there might be significant LIFG factions who were both dedicated to the ideology of global jihad and also desired a working relationship with al Qaeda, even if other LIFG factions did not. It is not clear to me (though not necessarily wrong) that the imprisoned leadership that issued the revisions in 2009 should be held up as the “real” LIFG while Abu Layth al Libi’s faction is written off as marginal.

Zelin’s second objection (combining two tweets): The former LIFG leader first changed the name of the group in spring ’11 to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change. Since then former LIFG members split into two political parties al-Watan and al-Ummah led by Belhaj and Sa’adi, respectively.

The Libyan Islamic Movement for Change was a shift adopted by LIFG’s European expatriate and historic Libya-based leadership, the same ones who supported the earlier revisions. They claimed to speak for the whole of LIFG — but then again, so did Abu Layth al Libi and his followers during the 2007 merger. It isn’t clear that the former should be given preeminence over the latter, other than the fact that the former was trending in a direction that the U.S. wanted it to — particularly given that Abu Layth al Libi’s contingent definitely had access to significant amount of resources and personnel. The question of who has a greater claim to legitimacy isn’t trivial, particularly given the salafist attacks that have erupted across Libya.

This wave of attacks on sufi shrines is unprecedented in Libya’s recent history, and suggests that whomever is carrying it out embraces an extreme for of takfirism. Who is responsible for the attacks is an open question, but it’s certain that they’re dangerous enough that the state is hesitant to openly confront them. The New York Times recently quoted Libya’s interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Aal: “If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons. We can’t be blind to this. These groups are large in power and number in Libya. I can’t enter a losing battle, to kill people over a grave.” This is a remarkable quote: Libya’s interior minister feels powerless to stop the destruction of sufi shrines and sites, in large part because these groups are “large in power and number,” and also well armed. Did the groups carrying out these attacks derive their organizational structure or leadership from LIFG? To be sure, we don’t know the answer, but can we say that it’s more likely than not that they didn’t?

Zelin references the emergence of al Watan (Hizb al Watan) and al Ummah (al Ummah al Wasat) as political parties. This splintering raises the question of whether or not there is still a coherent group. If not, as I asked before, should LIFG’s revisions still be considered operative? (Surely some in the group would still likely adhere to them, but could we consider them binding on all the factions that existed within LIFG?) But moreover, in Libya engaging in the political process is not inconsistent with maintaining a militia capable of undertaking violent actions outside of it. Abdal Hakim Bilhaj is a good example, as he continues to head the Tripoli Military Council (TMC) despite his official resignation on May 15, 2012. According to open source reports, the TMC, one of Libya’s most powerful militias, has a large number of former LIFG members. Estimates of its total size range from 5,000 to 25,000 members.

Zelin’s third objectionIndeed, there are former LIFG elements around Libya that didn’t buy into politics, see al-Qumu, but it’s not under the LIFG banner.

It is true that they aren’t operating under the LIFG banner at this point, but I assess that as less important than Zelin thinks it is. The fact is that in Libya:

  • There are a large amount of takfiri attacks being carried out against sufi targets, and we don’t know to whom those attacks should be attributed.
  • There are credible reports of an al Qaeda presence inside Libya (as detailed in my previous post), and we don’t have a great deal of granular knowledge about it.
  • We don’t have a good idea of what became of a large portion of the fighters within LIFG (although some are accounted for, such as those who are now in the TMC).

There is, in essence, a lot that we don’t know, and hence the need for a great deal of analytic humility about what might be happening. I think the banner that a group operates under is less relevant than where its structure and members came from. If I wrote a post about Somalia in 2004 arguing that AIAI might be trying to consolidate power, one could reasonably object that they weren’t doing so under the banner of AIAI. That would be true enough, but also somewhat beside the point: for practical purposes, AIAI was trying to consolidate power then, but we didn’t really know what to call them. Asking about AIAI in 2004 would not only not be wrong, but would in fact be the exact right question to ask if you wanted to understand Somalia’s future. Until we can name the specific factions that have emerged from LIFG, I think it is fair to ask what LIFG is up to now, and also to question whether its revisions in fact represent the overwhelmingly dominant view among LIFG members/former LIFG members.

So, to highlight my points of difference with Zelin:

  • I believe that focusing only on Abu Layth al Libi’s attempted merger with al Qaeda and the subsequent 2009 revisions ignores a history between LIFG and al Qaeda that covers about two decades. There is much more to the connection between the two organizations than just the attempted merger.
  • I don’t think it’s self-evident that we should find that legitimacy lies only with the imprisoned leaders who issued revisions in 2009, and not with Abu Layth al Libi’s faction that also claimed to act in the name of LIFG when it merged with al Qaeda. I think it is reasonable to say that it seems LIFG has been somewhat fluid, possessing more than a single faction, and that both nationalist and also global jihad-oriented factions have existed within the group. Given the dearth of information we have about Libya, I don’t see how we can conclude that the overwhelming majority of LIFG members endorse the positions expressed in the revisions.
  • Further, in my previous entry, I noted that other aspects of LIFG’s revisions, such as the pledge not to fight Qaddafi’s regime, were abandoned. This calls into question, at least in a small way, how binding the totality of the revisions will be.
  • The best objection to my argument (which Zelin seems to hint at) is that LIFG simply does not exist at this point. (This entry makes clear that the question what is LIFG? does not have a straightforward answer.) But this argument begs the question: what do we call armed groups whose structure and leadership is inherited from LIFG, if we don’t have another name for them at this point? And should their history within LIFG be seen as irrelevant to their current form, function, and logic?
  • Further, to the extent that one argues that LIFG does not exist, that undermines the importance of LIFG’s revisions. If there is no LIFG, there’s also no longer a group that has endorsed the revisions.
  • I believe that the banner a group is operating under is relevant, but we cannot view it as absolutely determinative. If a group’s leadership and structure derives from a previous organization (i.e. LIFG), then that group can sometimes be functionally seen as a continuation of the previous organization rather than a wholly new thing.

The bottom line is that there is a hell of a lot that analysts don’t know about violent non-state actors operating in Libya. And the more we don’t know, the more we should be open to possibilities that defy the conventional wisdom. That is particularly the case for LIFG and al Qaeda: the two groups’ fairly long relationship should make it difficult to say with confidence that any working relationship is only a thing of the past.

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The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Al Qaeda, and Epistemology

Yesterday I was quoted in a Spencer Ackerman article over at Wired, saying, “We don’t know whether there is a current relationship between LIFG [the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group] and al Qaeda.” I wanted to expand upon that quote here, because I feel that it represents a minority opinion within my field: I believe that most analysts with an opinion on the matter would argue that we do know whether there is a current relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda, and that the correct answer is that there is none.

The argument for the lack of relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda is pretty straightforward. I also believe that it is wrong: not that the opposite is true, but that analysts are drawing too strong a conclusion based on the available evidence. First, let me outline the case for LIFG and al Qaeda having no relationship as clearly as possible. The case is rooted in a series of revisions that LIFG published in September 2009, which Paul Cruickshank discusses in this CTC Sentinel article. Among other things, the revisions contained a repudiation of al Qaeda’s ideology. Cruickshank argues that the revisions constitute “the most significant critique of al Qaeda that has yet emerged from jihadist circles.” He provides a number of reasons that observers should be optimistic about the impact that these revisions might have. One reason is that, while “LIFG never joined al Qaeda nor shared its ideology of global jihad, the close personal ties between its leaders meant that al Qaeda still considered the LIFG’s leaders brothers in arms.” Another reason is that LIFG’s critique of al Qaeda still came from a jihadi perspective, which in Cruickshank’s view meant that it was more likely to resonate with the target audience (those who might otherwise be receptive to al Qaeda’s message). Those arguing that there is no relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda point to the rejection of al Qaeda contained in the revisions, and conclude that it precludes a relationship between the two groups.

Fair enough. Now, in approaching questions like whether there is a relationship between al Qaeda and LIFG, definitional questions loom large. There are various debates about what al Qaeda means, but let us stipulate an answer that I believe analysts who think there is no LIFG/al Qaeda relationship would agree with: that in saying there is no LIFG/al Qaeda relationship, they are saying a) that LIFG does not have links to al Qaeda’s core leadership, and b) that it is now a regionally focused or nationalist group rather than one with global ambitions. (The revisions explicitly reject al Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad.)

The definitional questions become more difficult, though, when we ask what LIFG is today. Does it even exist? Fox News noted this summer that LIFG is “purportedly moribund,” which is accurate, but that doesn’t mean that no organization that we could describe as LIFG exists. There is a long tradition of jihadi groups shedding old names and adopting new ones (Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates provide a great example of this practice): if an organization remains that is comprised of high-profile members of the old LIFG, it would be fair to see it as a continuation of LIFG even if it goes by a new name. If LIFG or a successor organization currently exists, who is its emir? What does its organizational structure look like? Does it make decisions in a centralized or decentralized manner? Abdal Hakim Bilhaj is frequently described as LIFG’s “former emir.” Does that mean he can still be considered a LIFG leader? The answers one can discern from open-source information are less than clear. Thus, one reason it is difficult to answer the question of a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda should be apparent: what LIFG means in this context is far less clear than the sometimes perplexing question of what we mean by al Qaeda.

Let’s sidestep this question entirely without diminishing its importance, and turn to a more basic problem with the argument that the revisions preclude a relationship between LIFG and al Qaeda: I think it is, in fact, rather apparent that they do not. The revisions, after all, did not just contain a repudiation of al Qaeda: they also contained, as Cruickshank notes, a pledge to end LIFG’s campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Yet when the opportunity arose, LIFG leaders — quite prominent among them its former emir, Bilhaj — joined the fight against the regime. Is the repudiation of al Qaeda more fundamental than the promise not to fight Qaddafi’s regime, such that key LIFG leaders would turn back to fighting the regime when the opportunity arose, yet are sure to keep their distance from al Qaeda and global jihadism? Based on where analysts fall on the issue, I think most would answer yes, but I don’t see that as self-evident.

And thus we have the point that I wanted to make about epistemology. Much of what happens in the world of violent non-state actors occurs in the shadows, such that analysts have to be very modest about what they know, and what they do not. This is even truer in the case of LIFG, for whom there are very real questions about whether it even exists, and if it does, what its leadership and organizational structure look like. I find that areas where I most frequently disagree with others in the field — and where the field often gets its answers wrong — are those where relatively broad conclusions are drawn based on only a few data points. I believe that analysts often overreach in their conclusions because they like to be able to provide answers: not knowing is a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. Thus, when most available data points suggest a certain conclusion, they will put forward the conclusion that the data points suggest they should.

That is fair, I suppose, except for one problem: when an analyst is dealing with an extremely limited set of available data points, and he knows that there is a lot more to answering the question that he simply cannot see, he should be aware that the limited data points he possesses may well have pushed him to the wrong conclusion. I recently had a similar critique of the report that West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) produced about the documents recovered from the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden: CTC reached broad conclusions that go far beyond what the documents actually demonstrate. Sometimes all you can say is that you have some suggestive data points, but that the data points do not answer the question. And I think this is the case here: that the conclusion that LIFG has no globally-oriented faction, and no relationship with al Qaeda, does not follow from the fact that the revisions exist. The revisions are not irrelevant, but neither do they provide a definitive answer to the question.

That is the epistemological point that I wanted to make before inundating readers with my own evidence. If you were more interested in the broad argument, you can stop reading. But if you’re actually interested in LIFG, global jihadism, and al Qaeda, the following data points will be relevant:

  • There appears to still be a pro-al Qaeda faction within what can currently be described as LIFG. Old leaders such as Abu Layth al Libi, Abdal Ghaffar al Libi, Abdullah Sa’id al Libi, Urwah (Abu Malik al Libi), and Abu Yahya al Libi are dead, but a review of open source information reveals that such figures as Anas al Libi, Abu Shahin al Darnawi, Abu Raghad al Libi, Abu Ishaq Hamzah al Libi, Abu Hafs al Darnawi, and Sufyan bin Qumu remain active in Libya.
  • Those figures within LIFG who publicly sided with al Qaeda after LIFG’s revisions were never expelled from the group. Overlapping membership does not mean LIFG was cooperating with al Qaeda, but it suggests that the distinction many analysts now draw — that within LIFG there is only a regional focus — is too sharp.
  • The aforementioned Urwah, a senior LIFG commander, was killed in April 2011 while fighting to retake Al Burayqah. His background prior to returning to Libya is suggestive of al Qaeda connections. He had been detained in Iran in 2004, and was released from Iranian custody in late 2010. A large number of al Qaeda figures were held in Iran during this time period, and released around the time Urwah was released.
  • There have been multiple reports of an al Qaeda presence in Libya. Within the Algerian press, sources making this claim include El Fadjr Online (Aug. 3, 2011, describing al Qaeda’s presence in eastern Libya), El Khabar Online (Sept. 3, 2011; Sept. 12, 2011); and Echourouk El Youmi Online (Oct. 2o, 2011). Lest one think this is nothing more than Algerian propaganda, Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, has noted that “the terrorist threat has become more complex with some changes in the region, particularly in Libya.” If there is in fact an increasing al Qaeda presence in Libya (something that these reports do not prove with absolute certainty), where is it coming from? It’s unlikely that the increasing al Qaeda presence would come entirely from foreigners who migrated there; and if you’re looking at Libyan groups containing factions that might lean toward al Qaeda, LIFG would at the top of your list of suspects.
  • Further underscoring this point, Algeria’s Echourouk El Youmi reported on Aug. 29, 2011, that AQIM was attempting to find new allies among Libyan rebels, “particularly since among them there are some old elements who were active in the so-called the Libyan Combat Group.”
  • According to an October 2011 post on the jihadi web forum Ansar al Mujahedin (that was subsequently removed) the former head of the jihadi media group Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), Ahmad al Wathiq Billah, was serving as Bilhaj’s media adviser. Billah was freed from a Libyan prison earlier in 2011.
  • Writing in London’s Al Hayah in June 2012, Kamil al Tawil noted that there are likely three types of jihadis in Libya. The first is the “old guard” — and he includes Bilhaj in this category — who “seem to have adopted an explicit decision to abandon the armed action.” The second type is “second generation” jihadis who feel no loyalty to LIFG, and objected to the dialogue with the Qaddafi regime that produced the group’s revisions. Tawil writes that this group “is extremely enthusiastic to join what it considers to be ‘jihad,’” and that this is the type of jihadi who would gravitate toward the Syrian conflict. (A number of Libyan fighters have gone to the Syrian front.) And the third type of jihadi is former LIFG members “who now consider themselves as part of al Qaeda, whether through its central command at the Afghan-Pakistani borders, or through its branch in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb. These jihadis could be considered as a part of the branch of the Islamic Fighting Group, which joined al Qaeda in 2007, and which was led by the late Abu Layth al Libi in Afghanistan.”

None of this constitutes a smoking gun proving there is a global jihadi faction within LIFG or a LIFG-al Qaeda relationship. However, I consider these data points suggestive, enough that they make me skeptical of the definitive answer that many analysts have adopted based upon a single data point.

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Reflections on Byman’s “Breaking the Bonds”

The incisive Daniel Byman recently published a new study with the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy entitled Breaking the Bonds between al Qaeda and Its Affiliate Organizations. This is a critical topic for the contemporary study of al Qaeda driven and inspired terrorism, in large part because how we judge al Qaeda’s strength in late 2012 comes down to the question of how to assess gains made by the affiliates against losses inflicted on the core. Debates on this issue are often crude, with strong assertions made about affiliates’ connection, or lack thereof, to al Qaeda’s core without factual or theoretical substantiation. It seems that a significant amount (but by no means all) of the commentary about the relationship between core and affiliates is outcome-determined, based on whether the commentator in question wants to find a strong or weak al Qaeda.

Byman’s study can significantly sharpen this debate by providing a sound framework for such discussions. In it, he elucidates various degrees of connection between affiliates and the core; motivations for linkage from both the affiliates’ and core’s perspective; the reasons that other salafi jihadi groups have chosen not to affiliate; and possible strains in the affiliate-core relationship. Byman concludes with policy prescriptions about how the U.S. can magnify tensions between al Qaeda’s core and affiliates, and thus minimize cooperation between them. A careful reading of Byman’s report makes clear that it doesn’t try to answer the question of how tightly bound al Qaeda’s core and affiliates truly are today — which is almost certainly a wise decision, given our limited visibility into that issue based on available open source information. He does, however, provide a great deal of sound historical information that can improve our consideration of the core-affiliate relationship.

Byman provides seven different motivations that might cause a regional jihadi group to join up with al Qaeda, mustering historical examples of how each of them operated in the past. One reason is failure, when a salafi jihadi group’s inability to make progress in its fight against a local regime produces an internal crisis. Second, there are monetary considerations, with both al Qaeda’s core and also certain powerful affiliates (such as al Qaeda in Iraq during its heyday) being able to influence other groups due to their prosperity, at least by jihadi standards. Third, a safe haven from which to operate has proven to be a strong motivator for linkage in the past. Fourth, Byman notes that training, recruiting, publicity, and military experience have all been assets of the al Qaeda core; it has been able to bolster regional groups’ capabilities in all of these ways. Fifth, there is the issue of a common defense. Byman writes, “A number of individuals or cohorts within groups that loosely cooperated or operated in proximity to al Qaeda have chosen to affiliate as a result of being subjected to counterterrorism measures.” Sixth, there have been branding benefits to affiliates, in terms of recruits and funders. Earlier I mentioned monetary considerations; yet it is unlikely that al Qaeda’s currently diminished core will be able to channel money to regional affiliates as it once did. However, despite the core’s relative weakness, al Qaeda’s brand may help these groups to raise money from al Qaeda’s donor base (such as certain individuals and foundations in the Gulf Arab states). Seventh, there is the importance of personal networks. “Once a connection among jihadists has been forged,” Byman writes, “it is very challenging for an outside party to break it, so much that because of the prevalence and breadth of personal networks, it is difficult to truly destroy jihadist organizations.”

Byman also outlines five reasons why al Qaeda’s core may want to join with new affiliates. One reason is mission fulfillment, seeking affiliates in areas where Islam is perceived to be under attack, and in turn pushing the affiliates to adopt more global agendas. Second, relevance: al Qaeda has been on the defensive ever since the 9/11 attacks unleashed U.S. and international counterterrorism efforts against the organization. Byman notes that “some of the most notorious ‘al Qaeda’ attacks since 9/11 have in fact been carried out by affiliate groups.” Third, al Qaeda’s reach will grow due to its relationship with new affiliates. Fourth, affiliates can offer logistical advantages to al Qaeda, including “access to their media resources, recruiters, and other core parts of their organization.” Fifth, al Qaeda has often been able to gain new experienced members through its relationship with affiliates.

Yet despite the advantages that both regional jihadi organizations and also al Qaeda’s core can gain through affiliation, many groups have decided not to affiliate with al Qaeda when the opportunity presented itself. One reason is ideological differences, something illustrated by the decision of Egypt’s Gama’a al Islamiyya (GI) not to affiliate with al Qaeda due to the latter’s prioritization of “jihad over other forms of Islamicization.” One GI leader, Najih Ibrahim, told the Arabic-language London daily Al Sharq Al Awsat that GI decided not to join al Qaeda “because their goal is jihad, whereas our goal is Islam.” Other reasons that Byman provides include the question of takfir (declaring other Muslims to have apostatized themselves from Islam), the targeting of civilians, local agendas that predominate over the global, the fear of taking on new enemies, limited contact or interaction between the prospective affiliate and the core, and personal rivalries. In addition to this, Byman also outlines strains that may exist in the core-affiliate relationship even where both entities have chosen to take on an explicit affiliation.

Overall, Byman’s study makes a tremendous contribution to our thinking about the relationship between al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates, and analysts trying to assess this relationship would do well to use it as a basis for thinking about this question. Byman concludes by illustrating the complexity of acting (or not) on a developing core-affiliate relationship in a way that is often not reflected in popular debates about the subject:

There are no simple choices when confronting al Qaeda affiliates. On the one hand, ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode and vulnerable to a surprise attack. On the other hand, too aggressive an approach can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al Qaeda and other jihadist groups by validating the al Qaeda narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement.

For any study of this kind, I will have quibbles, find evidentiary points with which I disagree, and the like. Byman’s study is no exception. Yet the overall contribution that Byman’s study makes on this important issue renders my quibbles and minor disagreements almost beside the point. This is one of the five most relevant studies about terrorism published this year, and I encourage all readers interested in the issue to give it a careful read.

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The Strategy of Targeting al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership

Leadership decapitation is one means of combating violent non-state actors. However, the fact that the leader of a terrorist or insurgent organization being fought can be killed doesn’t mean that he should be. One obvious example is when a group’s leader is incompetent. In such a situation, it may make sense to target his deputies, but leave him in place to continue blundering. Other situations may also arise where targeting a group’s leadership does not make sense. Is the case of Abu Yahya al Libi (who is reportedly dead, but whose demise remains unconfirmed) one such situation?

Australian analyst Leah Farrall strongly answered yes in a provocative blog entry that has garnered much attention. Her argument is summarized well in the following passage:

I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally)  have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu. And yes, given his teachings I do note a certain irony in this, but sadly, it’s true. What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks  have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately.

Farrall’s entry touched off a days-long debate on Twitter, primarily between her and American analyst Will McCants, over whether al Libi should be seen as a moderating force in al Qaeda in a way that matters. Before I turn to my own thoughts on the debate, let me say that I think it was an excellent model of argument within this sphere. Competitive analysis is important, and it is generally best when conducted in the open, as this has been. Further, the exchange has been respectful and collegial, something that is atypical for today’s debates. That being said, I rather decisively come down in McCants’s corner.

It is important to note what this debate is not about. It is not about the drones program writ large. I have serious reservations about drones as strategy for reasons similar to those articulated by Bill Roggio in a recent Threat Matrix entry. Judging from McCants’s Twitter feed, he also appears to have problems with the U.S.’s over-reliance on drones. Farrall’s argument is more specific than a general critique of the U.S.’s drones policy: she argues that al Libi’s death will make the world more dangerous because he will be lost as a “moderating force within a far more virulent current.”

The first problem I have with Farrall’s argument is that it means we have an enemy whom we cannot fight because eliminating him from the battlefield is too dangerous. If you follow the logic of her argument, it is not only too dangerous to kill al Libi (or someone similarly situated) but even to arrest him. After all, if al Libi were imprisoned, he would still be eliminated from al Qaeda’s ranks and hence unable to serve as a moderating force.

The second problem is that, contrary to Farrall’s argument, a strategic opponent actually seems far more dangerous than an indiscriminate opponent. Note that in her quote above, she poses these as two ends of the spectrum: “Attacks  have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately.” I think this is an accurate assessment of two means that al Qaeda could employ in its fight against the U.S. and others. One of McCants’s major objections to Farrall’s argument is that al Libi’s ends weren’t limited. Farrall doesn’t dispute the point that al Libi would continue to threaten the U.S., but argues that we’ll be worse off if al Qaeda slips from its current strategic posture to one that is more indiscriminate (i.e. with less limited means).

Let’s leave aside McCants’s various arguments that al Libi was not actually a moderating force, and assume for the sake of this argument that he did in fact serve as one in the way that Farrall claims. When your opponent is a violent non-state actor, and thus an opponent of necessarily limited resources, its ability to act strategically is precisely what makes it dangerous. One overarching argument I made in Bin Laden’s Legacy is that one of the reasons our approach to combating al Qaeda has often been lacking is the assumption that the jihadi group is not a strategic actor. A strategic actor is able to spread its brand into new theaters. A strategic actor is able to garner public sympathy. A strategic actor is able to coordinate its actions in a way that will drive up its opponent’s expenses.

An indiscriminate actor will be less effective than a strategic one in the medium to long term, though it may cause horrifying damage in the short term. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is one example of an actor who allowed its own excesses and bloodthirstiness to get the better of it. Though it was seen as the “dominant organization of influence” in the Anbar province in August 2006, AQI overplayed its hand. The well known–and hugely successful–Anbar Awakening was a response to an actor that employed largely indiscriminate violence. Beyond the context of Iraq, one of al Qaeda’s biggest weaknesses, which has lost it a good deal of popular support, has been the large amount of Muslim blood that it shed. Indeed, we know from the Abbottabad documents that Osama bin Laden recognized this weakness. He wanted to address it in part because doing so would make his organization more efficient at killing Americans.

One can, and should, have numerous questions about our current counterterrorism strategies. And as I stated at the outset, in some cases it will be more strategic to leave a violent non-state actor’s leadership in place when fighting it. But al Libi does not appear to be that case; and al Qaeda appears to be more rather than less dangerous when it operates strategically rather than indiscriminately.

Posted in Al Qaeda | 12 Comments

Did Adam Gadahn Play a Significant Role in bin Laden’s al Qaeda?

Brian Dodwell has an article in the new CTC Sentinel entitled “The Quiet Ascent of Adam Gadahn.” The piece includes some genuinely interesting insights about Gadahn’s evolution as a thinker. It also includes repeated assertions about “the significant role Gadahn played in bin Laden’s al Qaeda.” While analysts recognize Gadahn as a media adviser for the jihadi group, Dodwell argues that the newly-released Abbottabad documents–or, more specifically, one document in particular–demonstrate Gadahn’s “role beyond that of media adviser within the organization.” The bottom line is that Dodwell’s conclusion about Gadahn’s significant role in al Qaeda is not justified by the available evidence.

The document that Dodwell relies on in concluding that Gadahn played a more significant role in al Qaeda than previously believed is a 21-page letter written by Gadahn himself. Part of that letter, as Dodwell recounts, is a response to a request from bin Laden, who asked that Gadahn translate an article by Robert Fisk and provide input on which U.S. media to engage with for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Gadahn completed both of these assigned tasks, but Dodwell notes that he also “went a step further and provided an additional 15 pages of commentary and advice on various ideological and strategic issues.” Gadahn’s advice on ideological and strategic issues was genuinely interesting, and certainly provides us with insight into Gadahn’s thinking. But does it provide us with insight into the role he played in bin Laden’s al Qaeda?

Dodwell argues that the answer is yes, based on Gadahn’s apparent confidence and comfort in providing the advice. “[T]he fact that he felt empowered to raise the substantive issues addressed in his letter demonstrates an evolution beyond just media tasks,” Dodwell writes. He makes the same point a couple of other times:

  • “Gadahn appears to have carefully crafted a role for himself in the organization, and through competent performance has presumably garnered the respect necessary to expand that role.”
  • “One may debate the precision of his critiques (although it appears they were in line with many of Bin Ladin’s concerns), but the point here is that Gadahn’s willingness to provide them and his superiors’ willingness to allow him to contribute to such internal debates suggests a more substantive role for Gadahn in al-Qaeda than has been previously acknowledged.”

To be frank, when removed from the context of al Qaeda, we can rather clearly see that such analysis, based on the confidence with which Gadahn provided advice and suggestions to bin Laden, does not hold up:

  • “The fact that Rev. Jeremiah Wright felt empowered to write a letter raising substantive political issues with President Obama demonstrates that he evolved beyond just being Obama’s preacher, and was in fact a significant policy adviser.”
  • “The fact that Charlie Sheen felt empowered to submit a six-and-a-half minute video to President Obama on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks demonstrates his evolution from actor to high-level national security adviser.”

Okay, both of these are obvious reductio ad absurdum examples; and further, unlike Gadahn in al Qaeda, neither Rev. Wright nor Charlie Sheen have played any substantive role in the Obama administration. But the point stands that one cannot determine the influence an individual has on an organization, whether a government or a militant group, based solely on the letters that he writes to that organization. To Dodwell, Gadahn’s letter makes it appear that Gadahn had “carefully crafted a role for himself in the organization, and through competent performance … garnered the respect necessary to expand that role.” Another plausible interpretation, based on the same letter, would be the exact opposite: that Gadahn crafted a role for himself in al Qaeda as a media adviser, but though he wrote 15 pages of substantive advice to bin Laden in an attempt to expand that role, his substantive advice was completely ignored. Yet another plausible interpretation is a middle ground between the two: that Gadahn crafted a role for himself in al Qaeda as a media adviser, and wrote 15 pages of substantive advice to bin Laden in an attempt to expand that role, but bin Laden was killed before deciding whether to allow Gadahn to do so. Basically, there is no reason to believe that the likeliest interpretation from Gadahn’s own letter is that he played a significant role within al Qaeda beyond that of media adviser.

Further, when Dodwell writes that Gadahn’s superiors showed a “willingness to allow him to contribute to … internal debates,” this is also something we do not know. Gadahn wrote a letter attempting to contribute to al Qaeda’s internal debates. Even within a group like al Qaeda, writing such a letter did not require the ascent of his superiors. Whether they took it seriously in any way is the real question–and one that we cannot answer, based on the evidence before us.

Dodwell makes one further argument about how Gadahn’s advice to bin Laden (some of which concerned al Qaeda’s taking of innocent Muslim lives) may have been received:

Gadahn’s proposed declaration was never released, although bin Laden died only three months after this letter was written so it is impossible to know how he reacted. Bin Laden’s own thoughts on this topic, however, are instructive. His concern about the killing of Muslims is well documented, but he also appeared to concur with Gadahn’s suggestion to both publicly denounce such acts and publicly take responsibility when mistakes are made. He asked `Atiyya to send guidance to “every amir in the regions” to exercise control over their military actions and not conduct operations that unnecessarily risk Muslim lives. If such an event does occur, he asked “for the brothers in all the regions to apologize and be held responsible for what happened,” and if they do not, “we [al Qaeda] should then assume the responsibility and apologize for what happened.” Based on this document, one would presume that Gadahn’s proposal reached a sympathetic ear.

In other words, Dodwell argues that the possible influence that Gadahn’s letter may have had is bolstered by the fact that bin Laden, prior to receiving Gadahn’s letter, expressed similar concern about al Qaeda’s killing of Muslims. This may indeed have made bin Laden more receptive to Gadahn’s letter; or bin Laden may have had a low opinion of Gadahn beyond his assigned role as media adviser, and thus may have decided to ignore the American’s advice despite his expressed sympathies for the concerns that Gadahn raised.

The CTC Sentinel is a respected publication, and often analysis that appears in such places will echo throughout much of the Western literature on terrorism. I expect to see Gadahn’s “significant role” in al Qaeda mentioned either frequently or at least occasionally in articles, reports, and the academic literature. But really, it shouldn’t. The idea that Gadahn had gone on to a significant role in al Qaeda beyond that of media adviser amounts to nothing more than supposition based on a single document that Gadahn himself authored.

Posted in Al Qaeda | 1 Comment

Tortured Logic

Jose Rodriguez is the former head of CIA’s Clandestine Services, the organization responsible for conducting the interrogations of several key al Qaeda figures. He has recently published a new book, Hard Measures, in which he discusses how he fought for authority and latitude to use the now infamous ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’

As part of the book promotion, Rodriguez has given a series of interviews, the most notorious of which was with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. My purpose in linking that interview here isn’t to go back and rehash every aspect of the debate around EIT, but focus on a few aspects of the interview and the logic that Jose Rodriguez uses to justify the actions that he and his team took.  Also, just to get this out-of-the-way up front, my personal belief is that, strategically, the use of EIT has been a net loss for US interests.

As a caveat, I have not yet read ‘Hard Measures.’ I also fully acknowledge that 60 Minutes has the ability to shape the ‘tone’ of interviews during the editing process, but I have no idea to what extent that may have happened in this case.

I would recommend that you watch the videos in their entirety, but no matter what you need to jump to 6:45 in Video 1 so that you can see the ‘Big Boy Pants’ reference.

Video 1

Video 2

<embedding these videos has proved…troublesome.  If we can figure it out we will add them in later.  Regardless, I promise they are worth watching>

A couple of things to note. First, Leslie Stahl does not come across as an unbiased journalist seeking to understand the motivations of Rodriguez. There are several places where she uses a specific type of language and question to frame the interview.  She often appears more like a lawyer conducting a cross-examination. Stahl asks a question using specific unflattering language and then Rodriguez responds by offering a rationalization but also adopting the unflattering language and repeating it in his response. [bold emphasis added to transcript]

Lesley Stahl: You had no qualms? We used to consider some of them war crimes.
Jose Rodriguez: We made some al Qaeda terrorists with American blood on their hands uncomfortable for a few days. But we did the right thing for the right reason. And the right reason was to protect the homeland and to protect American lives. So yes, I had no qualms. [...]

Lesley Stahl: So you were getting pressure from Congress and the White House to take the gloves off. Did you go to the dark side?
Jose Rodriguez: Well, the dark side, that’s what we do.
Lesley Stahl: You are the dark side.
Jose Rodriguez: We are the dark side. [...]

Lesley Stahl: So sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation. I mean, this is Orwellian stuff. The United States doesn’t do that.
Jose Rodriguez: Well, we do.

It was disturbing to see that the man who was in charge of eliciting intelligence from America’s worst enemies did not realize that he was being manipulated into making statements that were against his own best interest.

Secondly, there are several places where Rodriguez appears to contradict himself over the course of the same interview.

Jose Rodriguez: We were flooded with intelligence about an imminent attack. That al Qaeda had an anthrax program, and that they were planning to use it against us. And that they were seeking nuclear materials to use in some type of nuclear weapon. So we were facing a ticking, time bomb situation and we were very concerned. [...]
Jose Rodriguez: You know, he had speculated that within 30 days we would probably be able to get the information that we wanted, yes.

The imagery most people associate with a “ticking, time bomb situation” is not something that allows you to wait 30 days for intelligence.  When you have a ticking time bomb, Jack Bauer shoots the terrorist in the kneecap and you find out what you need to know.  When Rodriguez uses this kind of language he is playing to ’24′ fantasy that is still, unfortunately held by large tracts of the American population, some even within the intelligence community.

Jose Rodriguez: The reason why we taped Abu Zubaydah was because we– he was very wounded when he was captured. And we feared that he was gonna die in captivity. So we wanted to show the world that we actually had nothing to do with his death. That you know, he died on his own.
Lesley Stahl: Well, that’s ironic. You wanted to have a video record that he was being well treated, but in the end they became– a video record that he had been subjected to these harsh techniques.
Jose Rodriguez: Yeah, we weren’t hiding anything.
Lesley Stahl: But you then ordered these tapes destroyed.
Jose Rodriguez: Correct. Ninety-two tapes.
Lesley Stahl: Ninety-two tapes. Why did you order that they be destroyed?
Jose Rodriguez: To protect the people who worked for me and who were at those black sites and whose faces were shown on the tape
Lesley Stahl: Protect them from what?
Jose Rodriguez: Protect them from al Qaeda ever getting their hands on these tapes and using them to go after them and their families. 
Voice-over: He was also worried about the very survival of the CIA’s dark side, the Clandestine Service because of the so-called Abu Ghraib effect.
Jose Rodriguez: I was concerned that the distinction between a legally-authorized program as our enhanced interrogation program was, and illegal activity by a bunch of psychopaths would not be made.

Make no mistake, these tapes were primarily a CYA maneuver by Rodriguez to assure there could be no accusation that his team was crossing the line of what they were authorized to do.  There is actually nothing unusual about this.  On the contrary, if you are engaging in activities “at the border of legality” it is wise to document that you are not actually crossing that ‘border’.  Law enforcement organizations routinely video interviews and interrogations to provide video evidence that verbal statements were made and that they were not obtained unlawfully (acknowledging the different standards of legality that exist between these situations). The part that demonstrates Rodriguez’s flawed logic, or outright deception is when he says “we wanted to show the world…”  There is simply no conceivable situation where Rodriguez, or the US government would choose to show “the world” a video of a detainee being water-boarded. Rodriguez clearly taped the interrogations to protect himself from any kind of policy change.

Rodriguez also acknowledges taking several other steps in order to protect himself and his team from future reprisals.  By forcing Agency leadership to repeatedly sign off whenever EIT techniques were used, he assured that he could never be ‘hung out to dry’ as he alleges CIA personnel have been in the past.  I don’t think anyone that has ever worked within a dynamic, politically charged bureaucracy can fault Rodriguez on this one.  There were indications early in the Obama Administration that they may consider prosecution. While I do not believe that this was ever likely, I can understand why he took this step. It should also be noted that Rodriguez’s destruction of the tapes certainly raised the question of whether they contained evidence of illegal activity.  The destruction was a key aspect to the Justice Department conducting a review.  Ultimately, neither Rodriguez or anyone from his team was prosecuted for any actions taken during this time.

Rodriguez also seems to contradict himself on the overall utility of EIT.  While he claims that it directly led to the capture of several senior al Qaeda leaders, in the next breath he states that it was unreasonable to expect that it would lead to Osama bin Laden.

Lesley Stahl: Here’s something that was told to me. Abu Zubaydah’s stories sent the CIA around the globe. Not a single plot was foiled. We spent millions chasing phantoms.
Jose Rodriguez: Bullshit. He gave us a road map that allowed us to capture a bunch of Al Qaeda senior leaders. [...]

Lesley Stahl: But the truth is about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you really didn’t break him.
Jose Rodriguez: Why? Why do you say that?
Lesley Stahl: Well, he didn’t tell you about Osama bin Laden. He didn’t tell you how to get him. He didn’t tell you how to find him.
Jose Rodriguez: Some of these people were not going to tell us everything.
Lesley Stahl: So you don’t break ‘em.
Jose Rodriguez: There is a limit, there is a limit to what they will tell us.
Lesley Stahl (Voiceover): Actually KSM lied about the courier – whose identity finally led to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the terrorist leader he calls Sheikh bin Laden was hiding.
Lesley Stahl: Now, here’s what I heard: that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told you the courier had retired and threw you off the scent for a while.
Jose Rodriguez: That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh. He was not going to tell us.

The most bizarre theme in the interview that Rodriguez repeatedly tries to hit is that EIT is not that bad and that it is basically what normal people experience in a routine day.

Lesley Stahl: You also employed stress techniques?
Jose Rodriguez: Uh-huh. There was a technique where the detainee would sit on the floor and would raise his hands over his head.
Lesley Stahl: In other words, he had to hold his hands up there forever and ever, right?
Jose Rodriguez: Forever & ever? I was thinkin’ about this the other day. The objective was to induce muscle fatigue, and most people who work out do a lot more fatiguing of the muscles.
Lesley Stahl: Are you saying this was like going to the gym? Come on.
Jose Rodriguez: A little different.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah.
Central to the interrogation was sleep deprivation. Abu Zubaydah was also kept awake for three straight days.
Jose Rodriguez: Sleep deprivation works. I’m sure, Lesley, with all the traveling that you do, that you have suffered from jet lag. And you know, when you don’t get a good night’s sleep for two, three days, it’s very hard.
Lesley Stahl: Now, you don’t really mean to suggest that it’s like jet lag. I mean, you make it sound like it’s benign when you say stuff like that.
Jose Rodriguez: Well, I mean, the feeling–
Lesley Stahl: And you go into the gym and jet lag–
Jose Rodriguez: Well, the feeling that you get when you don’t sleep.
Lesley Stahl: But I mean, these were enhanced interrogation techniques. Other people call it torture.This was– this wasn’t benign in any– any sense of the word. [...]

Jose Rodriguez: No. He [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] gets a good night’s sleep. He gets his Ensure. By the way, he was very heavy when he came to us and he lost 50 pounds. So– [I really wish Stahl wouldn't have cut him off here because it sounds like he is going to explain how EIT is just like a diet program.  -JSG]
Lesley Stahl: What his Ensure? You mean like people in the hospital who drink that stuff?
Jose Rodriguez: Yes. Dietary manipulation was part of these– our techniques.

In these examples, Rodriguez seems to say, “We didn’t do anything to hurt these guys, basically we sent them to the gym, made them stay up a little bit past their bedtime and we put them on the Atkins diet.”  These are ridiculous defenses of EIT, but they are tame compared to the last one.

Jose Rodriguez: Can I say something about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? He’s the one that was responsible for the death of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street reporter. He slit his throat in front of a camera. I don’t know what type of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of you like that, but I can tell you that this is an individual who probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about having water poured on his face.

Regardless of your opinions on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in general or water-boarding in particular, this statement should send a chill down your spine.  Apart from the unconscionable comparison of water-boarding to something as mundane-sounding as taking a shower, Rodriguez essentially states that if a detainee has done something horrific enough, it becomes impossible to torture them. What is implicit in that statement is that because KSM brutally killed Danny Pearl he has somehow ceased to become human and therefore no action we take against him could possibly be considered torture.

The issues surrounding the authorization and utilization of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in 2002 and beyond are complex.  There will assuredly never be a full accounting on either the positive or negative aspects.  That complexity is what I wanted to see in this interview.  I was prepared to give Jose Rodriquez the benefit of the doubt on several aspects.  I reminded myself that there was a very different political tone in the country immediately post-9/11.  I hoped to hear a rational defense of the CIA utilizing harsh tactics to elicit information for the greater good.  I wanted to identify with someone who recognized the great weight and responsibility that his position held.   Instead, I got Jose Rodriguez.  A man who comes across as being in no way troubled with the actions that he took or concern for the way those actions reflected on his country.  If he ever did have any concerns, he has rationalized them away over the last decade.  Now, he literally has “no qualms.”

This is my concern with the logic that went into the development and utilization of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.   Somebody, somewhere needed to have qualms.  When we chose to go down this path, we should have recognized the impacts that this would have on our character and our identity as a nation.  We should have been mindful and vigilant and perpetually troubled by our decision.  Instead of just asking the legal question of ‘Can we do it?’ we also should have asked, and continued asking the question of ‘Should we do it?’


Posted in Al Qaeda, Middle East, Radicalization, Terrorism | 2 Comments

Assessing Interpretations of the New Bin Laden Documents

The documents recovered from Abbottabad that were released on Thursday represent the largest new trove of information about al Qaeda to be made public in years. Researchers and analysts have already written about the release extensively, and we can expect far more to be said about it in the future. One thing I have noticed about terrorism studies is that often narratives set early in a process get recirculated endlessly, regardless of the truth of the matter: this was the case, for example, for the baseless claim that Osama bin Laden was on dialysis, a claim which we never really heard the end of. Thus, I wanted to weigh in on three narratives that I feel are unjustified by the evidence — some of them by writers or institutions whom I respect.

Al Qaeda Honchos Were Offered Tributes

The Christian Science Monitor, in an article purporting to outline the top five revelations in the newly released documents, includes the following:

Like tribute money offered to Mafia dons, funds were offered to Al Qaeda out of fear. One letter in the new trove explores whether Al Qaeda leaders should accept such money. It notes, for example, that Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, “has offered us funds, purportedly to [support] jihad, but there is another reason, namely their fear of becoming targets of our swords.”

The quote is accurate; the problem is that this does not actually demonstrate tribute money being offered to “al Qaeda.” The primary source isn’t al Qaeda’s description of what is happening to one of its affiliates in the Palestinian territories, but rather Atiyya’s response to a number of requests for juristic rulings from the Palestinian salafi group Jaysh al Islam. The request for a ruling quoted above asks whether it is permissible to take money from groups with questionable religious pedigrees.

Jaysh al Islam, though, is not an official al Qaeda affiliate, and in an extensive review of Palestinian salafi groups, Yoram Cohen and Matthew Levitt conclude that “the prospect of a true al Qaeda affiliate developing in this area remains unlikely.” Indeed, Atiyya’s rather cold response to his Palestinian interlocutor provides little reason to think this situation will change anytime soon.

Never Mind Winning the Battle, Just Kill Americans

At Wired, Spencer Ackerman writes that bin Laden simply wanted to target Americans, “even when it made little military sense.” Ackerman states that bin Laden would continually harp on this point “even when it led to bizarre advice.” Ackerman continues:

“If we were on the road between Qandahar and Helmand and army vehicles of Afghanis, NATO, and Americans drove by, we should choose to ambush the American army vehicles, even though the American army vehicles have the least amount of soldiers,” bin Laden wrote to a deputy. “The only time you are allowed to attack the other army vehicles is if those army vehicles are going to attack our brothers. In other words, any work to directly defend the mujahidin group will be excluded from al Qaida’s general politics policy because the mujahidin group should be able to carry out its mission, which is striking American interests.”

Bin Laden kept harping on the point, even when it led to bizarre advice. “Whatever exceeds our capability or what we are unable to disburse on attacks inside America, as well as on the Jihad in open fronts, would be disbursed targeting American interests in non-Islamic countries first, such as South Korea,” he urged in a separate communique. (There have never been any al-Qaida attacks in South Korea.)

Did bin Laden’s advice in fact prioritize attacks on Americans over sound strategic logic? In part, this question ties into a broader debate about whether al Qaeda thinks strategically. In the original source, bin Laden explains the rationale behind targeting the U.S. primarily. He describes the enemy al Qaeda confronts as “a wicked tree” that has a 50 cm trunk and “many branches, which vary in length and size.” The trunk of the tree, in this metaphor, represents America, with the branches representing “countries, like NATO members, and countries in the Arab world.”

Confronted with such an enemy, bin Laden says that the jihadis’ best option is “to slowly cut that tree down by using a saw. Our intention is to saw the trunk of that tree, and never to stop until that tree falls down.” To bin Laden, attacking the branches was a distraction: by more evenly distributing attacks rather than concentrating on Americans, “we could never finish the job at hand.” This paradigm makes sense of why bin Laden said that American vehicles should be targeted in Afghanistan, even if there were fewer soldiers in the American vehicle: doing so weakens the trunk of the tree, while attacking other vehicles wastes time on the branches.

As to bin Laden’s other piece of advice about targeting American interests in non-Muslim countries with what “we are unable to disburse on attacks inside America,” this too falls in line with his guidance to attack the trunk rather than the branches. Ackerman is right that there have never been al Qaeda attacks in South Korea — but given that South Korea only served as an example to illustrate bin Laden’s guidance, rather than a well considered target, we shouldn’t let the fact that there have been no al Qaeda attacks there serve as too much of a distraction. In my recent book Bin Laden’s Legacy, I argue that one of the U.S.’s major strategic errors in undertaking the “war on terror” was unnecessarily broadening the battlefield. Bin Laden is trying not to make similar mistakes, which seems to be a sound approach for a small actor like al Qaeda.

Bin Laden Was Unable to Exercise Control Over Al Qaeda’s Affiliates

West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) described at length the perils of making broad judgments about al Qaeda based on a sample as limited as 17 documents. “Analyzing the state of al Qaeda on the basis of the documents is like commenting on the tailoring of a jacket when only a sleeve is available,” the CTC report accompanying the documents’ release warns. Despite these wise words of caution, some of the report’s conclusions appear to exceed anything justified by the released documents. One notable area is the report’s conclusion about bin Laden’s “seeming inability to exercise control over [the affiliates'] actions and public statements.” Indeed, the report dubs this finding “the most compelling story to be told on the basis of the 17 declassified documents.” However, bin Laden’s inability to exercise control is not as evident from the released documents as CTC claims.

To be clear, CTC is correct that al Qaeda under bin Laden was not a traditional top-down organization in which the emir’s commands would automatically be followed throughout the ranks. There are multiple reasons for this, including the fact that al Qaeda’s core leadership was the target of an intense manhunt and found secure communications with affiliates difficult, a fact that massively slowed communications and diminished (though did not entirely undermine) the central leadership’s awareness of what was happening on various battlefields. To illustrate the view that many al Qaeda specialists had of relations between the group’s core and affiliates prior to the Abbottabad raid, we can turn to Leah Farrall’s March/April 2011 Foreign Affairs article, “How Al Qaeda Works.” Farrall wrote that al Qaeda “is not a traditional hierarchical terrorist organization, with a pyramid-style organizational structure, and it does not exercise full command and control over its branch and franchises. But nor is its role limited to broad ideological influence. Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises.” In fact, some observers thought the core exercised far less influence than this, as can be seen by the debate that raged about whether al Qaeda had become an ideology, rather than an organization.

Farrall described al Qaeda as being structurally composed of “core, branch, and franchises,” but her schema reflects a rather complex relationship amongst them. Farrall’s schema helps to illustrate my dissatisfaction with CTC’s statement that “the framing of an ‘AQC’ as an organization in control of regional ‘affiliates’ reflects a conceptual construction by outsiders rather than the messy reality of insiders.” Essentially, the conceptualization of a core and franchises does not necessarily deny that messy reality — certainly Farrall’s model, in which the core was seen as having more of a role than many other specialists thought, fully anticipated haggling, contention, and extended negotiations between core and franchises.

A second problem with CTC’s conclusion that bin Laden was unable to exercise control over the affiliates is that we do not know this from the released documents. The documents do illustrate his frustration with affiliates, but this is a different matter than the claim that bin Laden was unable to exercise control. There are two important factors in determining whether bin Laden was able to exercise control over affiliates. First, it is important to distinguish bin Laden’s advice from his orders. For example, when bin Laden wrote to Shabaab’s Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr about such matters as targeting the African Union (AMISOM) forces in Somalia, his words appear to be the advice of one who is far removed from the battlefield, rather than the dictates of a supreme commander. The second factor is judging bin Laden’s commands against facts on the ground suggesting whether or not they were followed. For example, several released documents reflect bin Laden’s evacuation order, that al Qaeda members should leave Waziristan. In one document, bin Laden suggests Zabul (there spelled “Zabil”) as a possible place to which these men can escape. A report written by Martine van Bijlert for the New America Foundation notes that around the time that bin Laden stated this, in the summer of 2010, “inhabitants of Zabul and eastern Uruzgan reported an increased presence of Arabs, which resulted in greater pressure on the population.” To be clear: we do not know from these two data points whether bin Laden’s mention of Zabul and the observed increased presence of Arabs there are linked. A causal determination would need to be more extensive than what I just provided. Rather, my point is that this is the kind of analysis — a comparison of bin Laden’s dictates to external evidence — that would help us actually determine whether bin Laden was unable to exercise control.

My final problem with this analysis is that, to the extent the released documents do speak to bin Laden’s influence over affiliated entities, they’re indicative of a degree of deference that isn’t reflected in CTC’s conclusion. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sought bin Laden’s blessing before undertaking personnel changes at the top levels, such as Anwar al Awlaki’s promotion.

Posted in Al Qaeda | 1 Comment

Jamshid Muhtorov, the Islamic Jihad Union, and Joshua Foust

As regular Gunpowder & Lead readers will know, one of my preferred genres of writing is known informally as the “evisceration.” My recent piece on Fawaz Gerges’s proclamation that al Qaeda has died is one example of this genre (the thrust of which is probably evident from its rather descriptive name). So over the weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that if I had time to eviscerate one piece written during the previous week, it would be an offering at Registan by Joshua Foust– my friend and frequent sparring partner – about the indictment of Jamshid Muhtorov, an Uzbek man living in Colorado, on terrorism charges (material support for the Islamic Jihad Union). Alas, I felt that I had no time to do such a thing: before I leave the continental U.S. on Thursday, I need to finish a major study on the tactical and strategic use of small arms by terrorist groups, finish editing a book on terrorism in Canada for which I am volume editor, write an academic piece on jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring, write a book review, and teach my weekly course at the Catholic University of America.

When pressed by Foust on the fact that my tweet offered no actual refutation of his work, I demurred that I utterly lacked the time to get into a debate, but urged Foust to consider himself “THEORETICALLY EVISCERATED.” Not seeing the humor in such a concept (humor that I thought was obvious from the use of ALL CAPS), Foust insisted that theoretical eviscerations were “weak sauce,” and repeatedly goaded me for my unwillingness to write an actual refutation of his work. This prompted Lauren Morgan, who is sometimes known as my female alter-ego, to offer to assist me in writing a response to Foust, and give him the intellectual beat-down he was apparently pining for. Thus, I bring you…

The Evisceration of Joshua Foust

by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Lauren Morgan

Jamshid Muhtorov was arrested last week for allegedly providing and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). Immediately after the arrest, Joshua Foust wrote a rather unsubtly titled Registan entry, “The Crazy, Trumped Up Uzbek Hype.” In it, Foust argues that the case against Muhtorov is based upon weak evidence, and argues that the group Muhtorov allegedly supported in fact “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms.”

The major problem with Foust’s piece is that it is an epistemological wreck, littered with claims that either he has no way of knowing or are simply unproven, while employing a style that smacks of absolute certitude. This is not the first time one of us has called Foust out for an article that makes epistemological errors; and doing so may in some small way enhance the public sphere. As C.J. Chivers wrote in his excellent review of Foust’s book Afghanistan Journal: “The collection bluntly challenges many of the people, in and out of the military, organizing or speaking for the war, and submits their assumptions to a determined inquiry…. If Mr. Foust were to have a slogan, it might be this: ‘What’s your evidence?’” In our view, it is important for Foust to apply that same standard — one demanding evidence for all assertions — to his own work outside the context of Afghanistan. Our critique of Foust’s contribution to the debate over the Muhtorov case is just that that: “What’s your evidence?”

Criminalizing Participation in a Chat Room?

Foust argues that the facts alleged in the arrest affidavit represent “awfully thin stuff for a terrorism investigation — essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room.” Taking the affidavit at face value (which one must do in determining whether its allegations are “thin stuff”), it is a remarkable exaggeration to say that it amounts to the criminalization of participation in a chat room. Beside the rather obvious problem that the complaint never once mentions chat rooms, the allegations show that this is not a case about freedom of expression. According to the indictment:

  • Muhtorov began e-mail correspondence with the administrator (named Muhammad) of the IJU-affiliated website on February 5, 2011.
  • In a phone call on March 8, 2011, Muhtorov informed an associate that the IJU (“our guys over there”) is in need of support. He specifically referenced Juma Namangani, one of the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), before being warned by his associate that he shouldn’t mention Namangani because the call may be subjected to surveillance.
  • On March 22-23, 2011, Muhtorov made bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the IJU, and told Muhammad that he was “ready for any task, even with the risk of dying.” Muhammad would later tell Muhtorov that the pledge of bay’ah had been passed on to the group’s leadership.
  • Beginning in April 2011, Muhtorov repeatedly told Muhammad that an associate wanted to send along money for a “wedding gift” (the affidavit notes that the out-of-place reference to a “wedding” was likely “code for a terrorist event or attack”), and became agitated when he heard that the “master of ceremonies” was unable to communicate with him directly.
  • Muhtorov began looking for one-way flights to Istanbul in May 2011, but instead of purchasing one immediately, he began working long hours.
  • On July 25, 2011, Muhtorov spoke to his daughter on the phone, telling her he would never see her again, but that “if she was a good Muslim girl, he will see her in heaven.”
  • Finally, in January 2012, Muhtorov quits his job and purchases a one-way ticket to Istanbul, scheduled to leave January 21, 2012 at 5:25 p.m. CST.

In other words, according to the arrest affidavit, it seems that Muhtorov opened up communications with the administrator of an IJU website, spoke favorably of Juma Namangani, committed himself to IJU in an electronic pledge of bay’at, wanted to send money to IJU, quit his job, and was preparing to travel abroad when he was arrested — after telling his daughter that she would only see him again in heaven. Unless there are some very bizarre circumstances that explain this behavior, it seems there was probable cause for the U.S. to arrest him. Foust can argue that Muhtorov’s situation should have played out longer, and investigators should have gathered more information, but given that he was actively preparing to leave the U.S., it’s uncertain what the authorities were supposed to do.

There is an obvious difference between an individual who expresses sympathy for a terrorist organization or creates Internet fodder promoting their ideologies (take, for example, the case of Youssef al Khattab) and an individual who has made bay’ah to an organization, and has purchased a one-way ticket to leave the U.S. and join said organization. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech; it does not guarantee citizens the right to travel abroad to join a foreign terrorist organization.

Elsewhere, Foust asks if the current charges are trumped up. While this is a fair question, Foust would do a service to his readers — and best assist them in actually approaching the question — by fairly portraying the facts of the case rather than jumping to the most hyperbolic conclusion.

Does the Islamic Jihad Union Not Actually Exist?

Foust argues that the IJU “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms,” stating that the IJU is only alleged to have ever done one thing, “some bombings in Tashkent in 2004,” and that this could have simply been made up by the Uzbek government. (For the record, we both agree with Foust that the Uzbek government’s claims should not be taken at face value — but that doesn’t settle the issue, as we will explain.) The 2004 Tashkent bombings are in fact the only thing the IJU is alleged to have done on page 2 of the arrest affidavit, but there is more on page 3:

  • “In September 2007, German authorities arrested three IJU operatives, disrupting a plot against unidentified U.S. or Western facilities in Germany. The IJU operatives had acquired about 700 kg of hydrogen peroxide and an explosives precursor, which was enough raw material to make the equivalent about about 1,200 pounds of TNT. The IJU claimed responsibility for the foiled plot.”
  • “The IJU has claimed responsibility for attacks on Coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2008, including a March 2008 suicide attack against a U.S. military post purportedly carried out by a German-born Turk.”
  • “In April 2009, Turkish authorities seized weapons and detained extremists with ties to the IJU. The IJU has also claimed responsibility for a May 2009 attack in Uzbekistan and numerous attacks in Afghanistan against coalition forces.”

So it really cannot come down to security officials simply being duped by the Uzbekistan government; it is not just Uzbekistan that is trumping the IJU as a real thing, but also Germany, Turkey, and the IJU itself. They could all be wrong, of course, but we are talking about more than the U.S. just accepting Uzbekistan’s word. (Nor is it accurate to say, as Foust claims in this section, that the designation of the IJU “made it a crime to communicate with them” — the material support statute plainly does not prohibit communication with designated entities.)

But Foust provides a link when he says that the IJU doesn’t exist — maybe it brings us to a piece that definitively shows that the IJU is a fiction? Clicking through, you get this analysis by Foust. Does it prove that the IJU isn’t a real thing? Well, let me quote: “None of this means the IJU is an actual hoax.” That’s right: Foust manages to misquote his own work in arguing that the IJU does not exist.

The other thing Foust takes issue with is the depiction of the IMU as  being a “global jihadi movement” (something that JZ Adams claimed in the Asia Times). Adams wrote that the IMU “evolved from being a group focused on overthrowing the ‘apostate’ regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s into the global jihadi movement that it is now.” In response, Foust writes that it is “patently ridiculous to call the IMU a ‘global jihad threat.’” Now, if you compare those quotes carefully, you will see that Foust’s direct quote of Adams actually misquotes him. Adams didn’t write that the IMU is a “global jihad threat,” but rather that it had evolved from a regional focus into being part of the “global jihadi movement.” This misquotation is actually significant because the question of whether IMU is positioning itself as part of the global jihadi movement is separate from the question of whether it should be seen as a “global threat.”

Why are the IMU and IJU seen as being global in outlook? It is not because of “crazy, trumped up Uzbek hype” (though someone somewhere will certainly hype virtually any issue under the sun), but rather because both groups are actively portraying themselves that way, and reaching out to the global jihadi movement. Significant in this regard are the photos circulating on jihadi websites of IJU amir Abdullah Fatih meeting with high-level al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libi.* In August 2011, the IJU claimed that three of their members were martyred by a drone strike in Pakistan. Then there’s this March 2011 statement from IJU expressing solidarity with the mujahedin in the Caucasus region.

Further, both the IJU and IMU have been actively seeking recruits in Europe, Germany in particular. (The IJU’s Eric Breininger hailed from Saarland, Germany.) Indeed, in the middle of this month German officials arrested a man of Afghan descent and charged him with recruiting for the IMU. In reaching European jihadists, Uzbek militant groups have emphasized the role the Khurasan region plays in Islamic end-times prophecy. This region comprises parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and is mentioned in multiple ahadith. The late Syed Saleem Shahzad opened his book Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban by emphasizing the importance of this region to Islamic militant groups: “Khurasan was to be the first battleground for the End of Time battles, before a decisive confrontation against the West, with the last battle being fought in the Middle East for the liberation of Palestine and all occupied Muslim lands.”

The evidence goes on: the point is that the perception of these groups being global in outlook comes not from the Uzbek government, but from the groups themselves.


Foust has repeatedly criticized the idea that “Uzbeks are scary,” and on Twitter he commented to us, “I await hearing how the IJU is a threat to all peoples!” This is part of the problem when you are discussing a legal case, as Foust is here. Neither of us find the Irish to be scary, nor do we believe that the IRA is “a threat to all peoples” — but that doesn’t mean that Americans have the right to join the IRA and assist its militant activities. Nor is the idea that the IJU simply doesn’t exist self-evident when IJU leaders had met with Abu Yahya al Libi, and multiple governments have arrested its members. The least that can be said about Foust’s contribution is that it goes far, far beyond any conclusions that the evidence can sustain.

But the bigger, and far more important lesson is that you should never beg Daveed Gartenstein-Ross to eviscerate you over Twitter.

* Note: Previous version prior to correction said that Eric Breininger, and not Fatih, had met with al Libi. A video of the meeting had improperly been labeled “Eric Breininger und Abu Yahya al Libi,” but a subsequent archival search made clear that the meeting had featured Fatih rather than Breininger. Thanks to Kévin Jackson for pointing out the error.

Posted in Al Qaeda, Evisceration, Terrorism, War | 4 Comments