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Al Qaeda Round-Up, 2012

December 30, 2011

As we enter a new year, I wanted to outline the contours of, and analyze, a few issues that are likely to feature prominently in the fight between the U.S. and al Qaeda in 2012.

Is Al Qaeda Dead?

There were more claims coming from smart, informed people in 2011 suggesting that al Qaeda is dead than I’ve seen in previous years. The two biggest reasons underlying these claims have been the feeling that the “Arab Spring” killed al Qaeda by shattering its narrative or rendering it irrelevant, and the view that Osama bin Laden’s death left the organization in the hands of unworthy successors. This belief in al Qaeda’s defeat has been bolstered by triumphalist proclamations from the Obama administration about how the organization is “on the ropes.” However, I do not think it’s safe to say that al Qaeda has been killed.

Al Qaeda’s core is in fact degraded due to the death of bin Laden and the loss of other important leaders. But a degraded core and a defeated adversary are not the same. There are two reasons that, to riff on Mark Twain, the reports of al Qaeda’s death are greatly exaggerated. First, looking geographically at areas where al Qaeda and its affiliates have had a foothold in recent years, there is still a significant amount of territory where they can either find safe haven or else be considered a predominant force. This includes Yemen, where over the course of the past year Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been able to seize territory in the Abyan province; Somalia, where al Shabaab is the dominant force in a number of areas within southern Somalia, and has the ability to operate in still others; North Africa, where Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates; and Pakistan, where al Qaeda has a known presence, and where disputes between the U.S. and Pakistan’s government are constricting America’s ability to conduct drone strikes aimed at the organization.

Second, in the past al Qaeda has proven to be resilient. Current rhetoric about al Qaeda’s weakness emphasizes that about 75% of its top leaders (73%, to be exact) have been killed in counterterrorism operations. But as Bill Roggio points out, President Bush made virtually the same claim about al Qaeda’s attrition back in 2005. Al Qaeda was able to soldier on despite that attrition, as the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessing that it “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability” makes clear. Should we believe that al Qaeda is in fact closer to death now than it was in 2005? The bottom line, it seems, is that we don’t have a solid analytic grasp of how resilient a network like al Qaeda is — a network that is both clandestine and also cellular, where taking out a particular node does not necessarily bleed over to other nodes. In the past I’ve recommended a thesis written at the School of Advanced Military Studies by Derek Jones that examines this resiliency point, entitled Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Cellular Networks. It remains an excellent resource, but Jones will be publishing an updated version with Joint Special Operations University in the new year, which I’ll say more about when it is available. The bottom line is that we should not now underestimate our opponent’s resiliency, as we have done in the past.

One development that could change this equation is if the U.S. is able to kill new al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and recover another significant stash of intelligence from him. It’s my view that right now Zawahiri is trying to re-establish his operational security, and to build up his ability to communicate and give commands or guidance throughout the network. As I’ll explain momentarily, we don’t really know that this is what he’s doing now, but this would mirror the course that al Qaeda followed back in 2002-03 after it lost its Afghanistan safe haven. If the U.S. were able to take out Zawahiri and get a significant amount of intelligence from the raid despite the precautions he’s taking, that could be a significant blow that might cause me to re-evaluate my assessment: at that point, we might reasonably discuss the possibility that the U.S. is overwhelming al Qaeda’s resiliency. But right now, though al Qaeda has experienced undoubted setbacks during the past year, I question whether U.S. officials really know enough about the network to be as triumphalist as they have been.

Al Qaeda’s Core and Affiliates

Earlier, I referenced a number of jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda in places like Yemen, North Africa, and Somalia. One thing we don’t know is the current level of interplay between al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates. I recently had a long conversation with an intelligence analyst who is neck-deep in these issues, and he emphasized that for a lot of critical questions — such as how operationally relevant Zawahiri is at present to affiliates — we just don’t have answers. (The fact that we lack answers to these vital questions should cast further doubt on the manner in which some officials have declared al Qaeda dead or close to defeat.)

The documents unearthed in Abbottabad after the raid that killed bin Laden suggest that he was more operationally relevant to al Qaeda’s affiliates than most analysts believed at the time. (The conventional wisdom before the Abbottabad raid was that bin Laden was a mere figurehead.) As I stated earlier, my own gut feeling is that Zawahiri is now trying to re-establish lines of communication with affiliates, and insert himself into operations — but this really is nothing more than a gut feeling. The methods of communication now being used by Zawahiri are the kind of methods the world’s monarchs would have used 200 or 300 years ago: couriers. This avoidance of e-mail and electronic transmissions that could be uncovered by SIGINT limits our visibility of the network.

Iraq: Sectarianism and al Qaeda

The current sectarian tension in Iraq is highly significant. Nouri al Maliki, the Shia who has been prime minister since 2006, is in a fierce row with a couple of prominent Sunni politicians. One of them is deputy prime minister Saleh al Mutlaq, but the more significant fight has been with vice president Tariq al Hashemi. After Maliki accused Hashemi of sponsoring terrorist attacks (a charge for which there is no discernible evidence), and an arrest warrant was issued, Hashemi fled to the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. Maliki has made noise since then about mobilizing Iraqi troops and forcefully apprehending Hashemi. This is perceived by other Iraqi politicians, and by Sunnis more broadly, as a power play on Maliki’s part: he seems to be consolidating his own power, and marginalizing the Sunnis.

Al Qaeda in Iraq remains potent, as can be seen by the attacks that struck Baghdad on December 22, when about a dozen car bombs killed more than 60 people and injured about 200. (Here is the Islamic State of Iraq’s claim of responsibility.) The sectarian strife being stoked by Maliki’s recent actions could not possibly be better for al Qaeda. The issues of sectarianism and al Qaeda’s strength within Iraq will be intertwined as 2012 begins.

Somalia: Whither Shabaab?

Over the past few years, Shabaab has been able to either control or operate in a sizable portion of southern Somalia, and until very recently it was the dominant force in Mogadishu. However, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is attempting to protect the country’s U.N.-recognized transitional government from Shabaab, reports recent success in pushing the group out of the capital. In an idiomatically unfortunate statement, Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha said of Shabaab: “We have managed to beat them off.” Though AMISOM claims that the government now controls nearly 100% of the capital, Wednesday night clashes between AMISOM forces and Shabaab militants in the Hurwaa area suggest that the figure is likely inflated.

It is not inconceivable, though, that AMISOM forces have largely driven Shabaab out. This raises the question of whether this is a strategic defeat for Shabaab, or simply a retreat. And if it is just a retreat, when does Shabaab plan to return?

Yemen: AQAP’s Gains

The most significant development in Yemen during the past year, insofar as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is concerned, is the gains that the group made in the Abyan governorate. Al Qaeda has been able to control territory there, a fact that has been documented by Arab journalists who have visited. AQAP has imposed a harsh version of sharia in Abyan, where it has carried out executions; it has set up checkpoints and barricades between Aden and Al Mukalla; and it has been able to operate a radio station in Shabwah. What these developments indicate is a stronger fighting force than many American analysts had anticipated, and a group that remains vital overall.

AQAP has been able to place three bombs on board passenger planes over the past couple of years. In December 2009, there was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted Christmas Day attack: he sneaked explosives past airport security in his underpants, but fortunately a faulty detonator saved 290 lives. The following year, in October 2010, AQAP managed to get bombs hidden in printer cartridges on board FedEx and UPS planes; the explosives subsequently made their way onto civilian aircraft. Those planes didn’t blow up: penetration by Saudi Arabian intelligence allowed officials to disarm the bombs before they were set to explode. But the fact is that, although none of the bombs took down a plane, all three were able to make their way onto airplanes. This is indicative of AQAP’s organizational capabilities.

One problem the U.S. has in Yemen is a reliance on third-party intelligence. This is clear from a current controversy concerning a strike that occurred over a year and a half ago, where it appears that the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh duped the U.S. into killing one of its political opponents. The Saleh government gave the U.S. intelligence about the location of terrorists against whom it expected the U.S. to launch an air strike. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, the subsequent May 25 missile attack “killed at least six people including Jabir Shabwani, the 31-year-old deputy governor of Yemen’s central Mareb province.” The problem is that American officials did not know that Shabwani, whose relationship with Saleh’s family had soured, would be killed in the strike — and they now suspect that the U.S. was fed this intelligence specifically because Yemen’s government wanted Shabwani dead. When the U.S. is forced to rely on other countries for intelligence, it always creates the possibility that such events can arise: the U.S. can get played, unwittingly serving an agenda that isn’t necessarily aligned with American national interests.

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  1. The Death of al Qaeda: Fawaz Gerges Edition « Gunpowder and Lead

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