20 December 2009

Phases of Collusion: A Study of al Qaeda's Coexistence with Pakistan and Yemen

On December 17th, Yemen conducted targeted strikes on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with the support of the United States, in form of Cruise Missiles. ABC reported that the primary target was Qaaim al-Raymi, the suspected leader of AQAP. The LWJ reports, the initial post operation assessment is 34 killed, to include Muhammad Salih al Awlaqi, Muhammad al Amburi and Munir al Amburi, and 17 captured. Seventeen captured AQAP members can provide a substantial amount of actionable intelligence allowing Yemen to continue the counter terror (CT) pressure, but will they? The continuation of lethal targeting by Yemen is questionable due to their collusion with AQAP.

I would argue that the majority of Americans now understand that the best approach to countering the global aspirations of al Qaeda is to work through the governments in close proximity to al Qaeda centers of gravity. COIN is time consuming and costly both in money and American lives, while CT is often a more attractive option. The difficulty in this approach is how do we work through governments that are in collusion with elements of al Qaeda? I think the answers can be found in Pakistan. If we look closely at Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Iran, we will see those governments in different stages of collusion with al Qaeda.

Pakistan inherited al Qaeda following the successful operations of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) was an obvious choice for al Qaeda, because of the lack of government. In 1996, Osama bin Laden (OBL) chose Afghanistan over Pakistan for his next base of operations due to Afghanistan’s lack of functioning government. In Pakistan, OBL would be constricted to the NWFP and FATA only, because the ISI and Pakistani military did not have control over these areas. Al Qaeda (AQ) did have ties to Pakistan pre-9/11 with Umar abd al-Rahman, “The Blind Sheikh”, Ramzi Yousef, and Abu Zubaydah living in Pakistan. The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) involvement with training and supplying the Mujahidin, during Russia’s war in Afghanistan, provided the groundwork for ISI’s creation and support of the Taliban in 1994. The relationship between ISI and al Qaeda is a result of the collusion between the Taliban and the ISI. ISI tried to keep a leash on AQ indirectly through their control of the Taliban. As AQ and the Taliban continued to grow closer together, the distinction between ISI’s support to the Taliban and AQ became blurred. AQ’s 055 Brigade fought alongside the ISI supported Taliban in their fight with the Northern Alliance. According to Rohan Gunaratna’s research, the Pakistani government and the ISI never directly support AQ. The ISI’s lack of control over the FATA/NWFP provides AQ the lack of government vacuum that AQ needs.

Al Qaeda cannot operate freely throughout Pakistan. Let us not forget the ISI’s involvement post 9/11 with the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Abu Zubaydah. Unfortunately for the ISI, the monster they created in Afghanistan continued to grow into Pakistan. Using hindsight, we can look back on all of the news articles about the Taliban’s growth in Pakistan and their increase of attacks. There is a tipping point when the Pakistani Government shifted from appeasement to overt confrontation. The Taliban conducted their first strike against the post Musharraf government by assassinating Benazir Bhutto, on Dec 27, 2007. Pervez Musharraf was the lesser of two evils, for the Pakistani Taliban. The Musharraf government conducted largely unsuccessful military actions against the Taliban and Musharraf was outspoken against our Predator drone attacks inside the FATA/NWFP. After looking back through the news articles, I believe Bhutto’s assassination was the beginning of the Taliban and Pakistani government relationship reaching critical mass. The Taliban had initial success with signing peace agreements with the Pakistani government in territory of Swat. This deal was on and off until the Swat Taliban defeated the Pakistani Army in February of 2009. This set the stage for a Taliban friendly agreement. A dangerous precedent was now established. The Pakistani Taliban now believes they can fight their way to a pro-Taliban deal. President Asif Zardari launched a ground invasion of SWAT on May 7, 2009 because the Taliban in Swat failed to live up to the peace agreement. The Pakistani Taliban launched a wave of attacks across Pakistan in an attempt to erode public support for the ground offensives. The Taliban continue to hammer both Peshawar and Lahore with complex attacks. The calls to end our Predator drone strikes ended sometime after Baitullah Mehsud’s death. The Pakistani Army launched a large operation in South Waziristan on Oct 17, 2009. The Taliban continue to conduct terrorist attacks throughout Pakistan; however, their safe havens are now in jeopardy.

These series of events outline the probable phases of collusion between terrorist organizations and the governments of their current home. Phase I, the government either pretends the problem will go away on its own or they show signs of denial to the group’s very existence (Taliban in FATA). Phase II, the government attempts to reach a peaceful coexistence agreement (Swat peace agreement). Once the terror organization reaches a level of coexistence, they are now capable of running their own course of action. Phase III is overt confrontation, once the terror organization proves they will not conform to the government’s stipulations, the government is then forced to act (Army offensive in Swat). I doubt that every situation will follow these three stages in order; however, I think the Pakistani situation, with the Taliban and AQ, can provide us with a template to view similar situations.

The situation in Yemen is very different from Pakistan, but we may see a similar tipping point down the road. The CTC Sentinel published an interesting article analyzing the relations between the USGOV and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Government. There are some indications that Yemen probably did not know how to deal with initial al Qaeda presence pre-9/11, and for that matter, no one else did either. OBL established at least one training camp in Yemen before the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Prior to 2001, al Qaeda was not a parasite to the country they operated in. The worst thing AQ did was cause foreign governments to put pressure on their host nations to arrest its members.

After reading the myriad of news articles concerning Yemen’s arrest of the suspected USS Cole bombers, one can infer that the arrests were more along the line of appeasement to the United States. I would classify Yemen as hoping the problem would just go away at this point (Phase I). After significant pressure from the United States, Yemen did arrest some of the culprits, while stopping short from continuing to search for the AQ leadership.

Yemen exhibited signs of Phase III by allowing US involvement in the fight to dismantle the al Qaeda presence in Yemen. As the CTC reported, the stage was fairly successful until 2003. A news story, about the November 2002 strike to kill Ali Qa’id al-Harithi, leaked Ali Abdullah Saleh’s cooperation with the “Great Satan”. Ali Abdullah Saleh received a large amount of domestic pressure for government’s cooperation with the United States. To make matters worse for Saleh, the US announced, in 2005, that Yemen would no longer receive $20 million in aid due to political corruption. The very next day, The World Bank cut $140 million in aid to Yemen. The interesting part is, Yemen exhibited signs of Phase I (lackluster investigation of the USS Cole bombing), then directly to Phase III (2000-2003 US/Yemen cooperation), and because of the loss of aid, Yemen reverted to Phase II (current state of affairs). The CTC reported that Yemen has a mercenary style relationship with AQAP. AQAP supports Hamas and is known to conduct operations against the Houthi Rebels, along Saudi Arabia’s boarders. Ali Abdullah Saleh reaps two benefits from AQAP’s active presence in Yemen. Yemen has a terrorist problem deserving of economic aid, while having a proxy force that can be used to help their Hamas ally and to counter the Houthi Rebels. The question before our government is was Thursday’s joint strike a shift from Phase II to Phase III, or simply Ali Abdullah Saleh’s attempt to placate everyone?

I think we should look at Syria and Iran through this context. Syria exhibits signs of Phase II by allowing al Qaeda in Iraq to plan, prepare, and execute spectacular attacks in Iraq. I believe Iran is savvy enough to only allow AQ to use Iran as a safe haven and transit location. I doubt Iran will allow AQ to plan and prepare attacks against Western targets from within their borders, but if that happens I will be the first to say Iran had a Phase I relationship with AQ.


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