30 December 2009

Right Before Our Eyes: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's growth into a global threat

Pat Ryan explained, on an earlier post here, the process that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) used to establish themselves into a highly effective terrorist organization. If we use Pat's hard won knowledge on this topic as a prism to view the growth of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), we will witness AQAP grow right before our eyes.

The bombing of the USS Cole, on 12 October 2000, was an attack resourced by Al Qaeda proper. I would not classify the terrorist attack, in the port of Aden, as an Al Qaeda in Yemen attack. At this time, Al Qaeda was not a popular movement until after September 11, 2001.

As the primary leaders and facilitators of Al Qaeda proper established themselves in Afghanistan, a smaller number of Al Qaeda members continued to operate inside Yemen. On 7 November 2002, the United States launched the first successful drone attack, killing the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen (AQIY), Qaed Senyan al-Harithi. Between 2002 and 2008, the majority of AQIY attacks revolved around kidnapping and assassinations of foreigners, here, and here. If you search the NY TIMES online you will find a steady level of pressure applied to the AQIY leadership. My last post on Ali Abdullah Saleh's collusion with Al Qaeda shows that his pressure was superficial at best. During this period, Yemen was a major exporter of foriegn fighters supporting Al Qaeda operations in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Caucuses.

AQIY demonstrated their ability to conduct a spectacular attack against the US Embassy, on 18 September 2008. The double suicide car bombing was reportedly a response to US intelligence directing Yemeni forces against an AQIY safe house. I think this is an important event because it shows a significant growth in AQIY's domestic capabilities. A multiple suicide car bombing (SVBIED) attack is both time and resource intensive. AQIY needed a robust logistical element for the procurement of the explosives and the construction of the VBIEDs. You cannot build and hide two large car bombs without a functioning financial cell. They also needed a solid security element to hide the lengthy process. AQIY needed a sharia emir to bless off on the attack and someone to radicalize the suicide bombers. The only thing AQIY did not have in place at this point was an effective media cell.

On January 26, 2009, Al Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia officially combined into Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Jane Novak wrote a great post for the Long War Journal about their merger. The merger of the two groups identified the completion of AQAP's command and control node. Just before the official announcement of the merger, AQAP established their media wing. On January 13, 2009, Sada Al-Malahim posted their first online media journal. From my research on open source media, I believe the media wing and C2 node were the last two cells needed to provide AQAP the capability of attacking global targets. We know from previous Al Qaeda attacks that their sharia, military, and finance sections were operational long before the merger of AQAP.

January 2009 was the first time Al Qaeda in Yemen had the capacity to plan, resource, and execute global operations. If this is true, I think its reasonable to ask why did it take nearly 12 months before their first strike? It's important for us to continually remind ourselves that Al Qaeda has extremely long planning horizons. Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States six months prior to the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Nairobi. AQAP became increasingly open with their activities in Yemen. Bill Roggio of the LWJ covers this aspect, and explains AQAP's openness was the primary reason for Ali Abdullah Saleh's recent raids. Since the Dec 17 attack involved US cruise missiles, AQAP probably felt the need to quickly retaliate to save face. From an IO perspective, their failed operation was far more successful than the US cruise missiles. If FLT 253 was a retaliatory act, it shows a remarkable capability on AQAP's ability to plan and execute an attack in only one week.

I think we often don't give enough credit to our enemy's capabilities. I believe its obvious that Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab completed his radicalization and suicide training prior to the Joint Dec 17 strikes. I am not 100% familiar with Al Qaeda suicide training, but I don't believe that AQAP could talk Abdulmutallab into Martyrdom in only a few days. One theory I have, Abdulmutallab was supposed to be one of the suicide bombers planning to attack the British Embassy in Yemen, which was the reason for the Dec 17 strikes. Another possibility, AQAP had the Christmas Day attack planned prior to the Dec 17 attacks. The timing alone is brilliant; the President is on vacation, hundreds of thousands of travelers would be stranded with a stand down of air travel, and the blow that the stranded workers/wallstreet would inflict on our economy would be significant.

It is far to early for effective analysis on the paticular Christmas Day attack, but it is blatantly clear that AQAP is now a global threat.


Why the Christmas Day Detroit Terrorist Attack is Different

The Christmas Day failed terrorist attack is different than past planned attacks on the homeland. I stated on Monday that "Domestic terrorism is here, and transnational terrorism is now scarier than before because of a) the rate at which threats are arising and b) amount of time AQ and affiliates are organizing attacks on the homeland." The cases of Nidal Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab present some general differences between domestic terrorism and transnational terrorism.

In short, Hasan is a lone-wolf type who acted independently with ideological intentions. As my colleague, Pat Ryan, notes, Hasan is a "soldier who work[ed] in the crusader armies and the apostate governments [who] repent[ed] to Allah..." We at Al Sahwa believe Hasan can be thought of as a "franchise terrorist," one who uses the brand of an entity and independently capitalizes on the strength of its image, mission, and reach to succeed. Hasan shouted "Allah akbar" simply because that is what he thought he should do; he believed he was being good by carrying out divine intention.

Abdulmutallab is not a lone wolf. He was inspired and instructed (in some way we do not yet know entirely) to carry out the Christmas Day attack. Additionally, he must have received materials and instructions from within AQAP either vis-a-vis leaders who confirmed the decision or operatives whom he was connected with. Abdulmutallab is not known to have shouted "Allah akbar" like Hasan or 9/11 perpetrators - and it is not surprising. Whereas Hasan falsely and wrongly did what he did for the Mulsim world, Abdulmutallab did it I think to liberate the Arabian Penisula from the "Western crusader."

Both terrorists do have similarities: a) they give us the opportunity to learn more through interrogations, as they are alive and recovering; b) they can serve as legal case studies for terrorists in US federal prisons. Above all, and of great threat to the US: Hasan and Abdulmutallab will now be the faces for terrorist recruitment campaigns.

It is paramount to understand the differences between domestic and transnational terrorism in order to identify the strategic plan of AQ (Serpent Head). I stated that "The jihadi 20-year plan is entering a new phase, one I think we will see unfold at an increased rate over the next 1-2 years simply because AQ believes we are a) internally vulnerable and b) slow to counter." I now think AQ has entered a new phase with the attempted attack carried out by Abdulmutallab, and here is why.

The central cause for concern is nothing other than Detroit, MI. The location means absolutely nothing to AQ and its affiliates AQAP, AQI, AQAFPAK; there is nothing of importance there for them to capitalize on. Detroit spotlights for us AQ logic: they are willing to choose any entry point for a deadly attack in order to send the message that they can and will continue to kill us to counter our military and diplomatic campaigns. AQ, at least AQAP, showed on 25 December that they are interested more in a swift response than a detailed but delayed response.

Comparing Detroit to 9/11 helps us understand the meaning of Detroit more deeply. One, 9/11 was planned over a course of several years; Detroit was most likely planned over the course of a couple of days after US air strikes in Yemen 17 December as a response to attempting to kill Islamic AQ cleric al-Awlaki.

Two, as mentioned above, Detroit holds no national or cultural meaning in comparison to previous targeted areas: the World Trade Center was the financial hub of the US (and world), and the Pentagon is the center of national and international security activity.

Three, the 9/11 plan utilized domestic flights that originated in Boston, MA (American Airlines 11, United Airlines 175), Newark, NJ (United Airlines 93), and Washington, D.C. (American Airlines 77). All flights were meant to fly across the States to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but the hijackers wanted to use the stored fuel for larger impact.

In comparison, Detroit (Delta Airlines 253) was an international flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands. This shows a break from the previous plan: AQAP did not scientifically measure the amount of fuel or strategically plan for taking over the cockpit. Rather, Abdulmutallab used the natural flight path and was probably instructed to wait until an appropriate time just before the flight ended. As stated, the goal was not the size of the impact but their ability to respond.

Detroit means that AQ in general, and AQAP specifically, are more confident in their attempts to bring the fight directly to the US homeland. The new phase of the AQ plan, I think, will employ Detroit-like methods in terms of a) short response time over larger impact and b) US targets that are more vulnerable than meaningful. This strategy spreads their playing field and imitates their tactics in the Arabian Peninsula against "crusader armies and governments."

29 December 2009

Another Round of Somali Piracy

In the wake of three additional ship hijackings by Somali pirates, the likelihood of another year full of maritime instability and danger remains high. These hijackings over the last 48 hours serve as a strong indicator that current international policies toward Somalia are not working, especially Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 which after the recent round of attacks appears incapable of providing security in the Gulf of Aden, where the CTF was originally chartered to operate. Another strong indicator of failed US policy is the 21 December State Department release, which does little more than provide watered-down talking points for senior leadership. This State Department release seemingly highlights the fact that the US lacks any kind of enduring plan in regard to Somalia.

Looking forward into 2010, the international community should:

1. Adjust the follow-on to UN Security Council Resolution 1846 to allow for offensive operations against pirates from land, sea and air. This includes targeting those individuals identified as sponsors of piracy. The follow-on Resolution must also ban all foreign nations from fishing inside Somali territorial waters, and actually implement some form of penalty to those nations that choose to break the law. This will eliminate the moral justification Somali pirates rely upon for their operations.

2. CTF 151 must be re-molded into a fully integrated and combined/joint/inter-agency effort, with the US Navy serving as the leaders of this effort:
a. A full intelligence fusion cell must be stood up to fight the piracy network in a full-time capacity. Each US Government entity should provide specialists to contribute to the effort. Army and Marine Corps Intelligence Officers, Soldiers and Marines should be provided who have operational network-based targeting experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Network-based targeting constructs and expertise would serve this new CJTF well.
b. The USAF should continue to expand UAS/UCAV (unarmed and armed) operations in support of this task force (as discussed in my 24 October post).
c. Continue combined “sea denial” operations. The UN needs to get on the ball and provide some clear guidance for what constitutes hostile intent in international waters. This guidance should already be resident within Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Once hostile intent or action has been demonstrated, we cannot continue to wait for permission from higher authority to take action. The on-scene commander must have the tools to take immediate action to repel an attack. If a ship is boarded, it is obvious that responding international maritime forces are already in a position of significant tactical disadvantage.
d. Ground-based operations should be covertly expanded into Northern and Central Somalia from neighboring Djibouti, where a US contingent already exists. The forays into neighboring Somalia should be executed with the intent of building human intelligence networks into the Puntland-based piracy networks with the ultimate aim of disrupting pirate operations at their bases. The trick would be to correctly map out tribal and clan-based affiliations in and around the cities of Eyl and Bosaaso.

3. This new task force must begin to identify methods for isolating pirates from the population. One solution, albeit a risky solution, may lie in this report from al Jazeera:

How do we identify the pirates as morally corrupt without swaying the populace toward the opposite end of the spectrum? In other words, how do we eliminate the allure of piracy, showing them as something akin to godless heathens, without playing into the hands of a group like al Shabaab? The obvious answer lies in a strong federal government that has the capacity to reign in terrorists and pirates alike. Unfortunately, the Somali Transitional Federal Government’s sway falters outside of a few Mogadishu city blocks. On the bright side, the democratically elected President of the autonomous Somali State of Puntland is a willing recipient of any assistance he can muster. His efforts have been recognized by a variety of Western nations, but efforts to raise funding through the World Bank and other organizations have proved problematic due to bureaucratic fumbling by various international organizations and governments, including the US.

Whatever approach for eliminating the piracy threat is implemented, it must be part of a broader East African strategy. And a broader East African strategy must be executed by AFRICOM. It means little that the attacks are taking place in CENTCOM-controlled waters, what matters more is where the attacks originate. Somali instability is threatening to drag its neighbors into chaos as well. Al Shabaab recently
seized Kenyan territorial islands on 23 December, and Kenya responded by closing its borders on 25 December. The UN imposed sanctions against Eritrea on 23 December for supporting groups like Hizb-ul-Islam in Somalia. These actions all highlight the threat Somali instability plays on East Africa, and serve as prime examples of the need for AFRICOM to take over the Horn of Africa and Somalia mission responsibilities; assuming, of course, that the US Government can develop and implement a comprehensive long-term strategy for engagement in Africa.

AQAP Claims Failed Midair Plot

The Counterterrorism Blog has some great coverage of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) recent claim of responsibility for the failed terror attack on Christmas Day. Only three days after the attack (Dec 28), AQAP released a message praising the "heroic mujahid...Omar al Farooq." A full translation of the media release is available from the NEFA Foundation. The text and timing of the the release tell us a few important things:

1) The AQAP media wing ("Al Malahim") is able to rapidly produce and disseminate a fairly sophisticated release. This indicates that AQAP likely has in place a robust command-and-control (C2) structure modeled similarly on the structure we saw in place in Mosul in 2008 (see my earlier post here). It also illustrates that AQAP views the recent failed attack as an opportunity to gain additional recognition and attention, a critical element of expanding their campaign.

2) The AQAP release contains a photo (see above) which shows Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab in a photo with an al Qaeda banner in the background. Although we are uncertain exactly when the photo was taken, this proves that Abdulmutallab was definitely associated with AQAP prior to the attack. It might also indicate that AQAP knew he was going to carry out the attack and wanted a photo of him to release after the attack which would prove a linkage between the attacker and AQ. This is significant and goes a long way towards confirming the claims made by Abdulmutallab that the attack was directed by AQ in Yemen. Further, the release spells out the fact that the attacker conducted the operation, "through direct coordination with the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula."

3) The release explains that the main reason for the attack was in response to, "the monstrous raids using cluster bombs and cruise missiles that were launched from the American warships occupying the Gulf of Aden, targeting the proud tribes of Yemen in Abin, Arhab, and lastly in Shabwa, and they killed tens of Muslim women and children, and they also killed entire families." Although an attack this complex was likely already quite far along in the planning process, AQAP was savvy enough to speed up the execution of the attack in order to make it seem like a response to the Dec 17 and Dec 24 US-Yemeni stikes on AQAP. This is similar to the response we saw from al Shabaab (an AQ-affiliated group in Somalia) after the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in September 09. Nabhan was killed on Sep 14 and we saw a massive suicide VBIED attack three days later on Sep 17 that targeted the AMISOM HQ and killed several top African Union leaders. This appears to be a common TTP for AQ and AQ-affiliated groups who want to seize the opportunity to respond to US counter-terrorism efforts in their countries with a swift and symbolic response.

4) The AQAP media release provides some further insight into the organization and capabilities of their group when they explain that, "the mujahideen brothers in the Manufacturing Sector possessed a highly advanced device, with Allah’s grace, and it was tested and proved to be successful and practical, and it passed the inspection machines." Once again, we see parallels between AQAP and other AQ-affiliated groups, which all usually contain a separate "Logistics" structure which often constructs IEDs and other weapons and supplies them to members of the "Military" cells which then carry out the attacks. This allows the network to design advanced weapons and keep the identity of the highly valuable bombmakers secret from military cell members who may be captured and compromise their identity.

5) The release ends (as usual) with a call to arms for, "every Muslim protective of his religion and doctrine to...declare it a full-scale war against every crusader in the [Arabian] Peninsula." However, they then go a step further urging, "every soldier who works in the crusader armies and the apostate governments to repent to Allah and walk the footsteps of the heroic mujahid brother Nidal Hasan." Clearly, AQAP wants to play upon the knowledge that Anwar al Awlaki (who inspired and corresponded with Nidal Hassan) is known to live/operate in Yemen. As AQAP builds their reputation, they desire to affiliate themselves with al Awlaki, who has gained increased prominence since the Ft. Hood shooting spree. **On a related note, see our earlier posts which discuss the possibility that the Dec 24 strike by the Yemeni AF killed al Awlaki. There is still no official confirmation either way if he was EKIA.

Finally, on a separate but clearly related topic, also check out the article released on Oct 29 in AQAP's official magazine Sada al Malahim (English translation available here from the NEFA Foundation). In the article, AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhayshi (who was possibly EKIA in the Dec 24 airstrike) urges would-be attackers to target, "airports in the western crusade countries that participated in the war against Muslims; or on their planes, or in their residential complexes or their subways." While we have no way to know for certain, this could be an indication that the airplane plot was devised by top AQAP leadership and had been underway for several months. On the other hand, it could be an example of the increasingly common trend where top AQ leaders continue to push the "AQ brand" and advocate attacks, but individuals or small groups actually do the planning and conduct attacks on their own.

I think in this case, the attack was planned with the knowledge and support of top AQAP leaders. In fact, it's quite likely that the Dec 24 meeting which was hit by the Yemeni AF based on US intelligence was being held to give final approval for the attack that Abdulmutallab was going to carry out the next day. This would potentially explain why Nasir al Wuhayshi, Said Ali al Shihri, and possibly Anwar al Awlaki were all located together.

28 December 2009

New Security Measures for America: Jihadi Transnational Terrorism

Walid Phares, FOX News Terrorism Expert, Director of FDD's Future of Terrorism Project, and author of Future Jihad (2006), highlighted the need for new training and re-training security initiatives on the federal, state, and local levels during his appearance on FOX this afternoon (28 December). The main task: To identify the radicalization process of jihadi terrorists. How can professionals, academics, and analysts alike differentiate between religious-minded persons and radicals?

Domestic terrorism is here, and transnational terrorism is now more scary than before because of a) the rate at which threats are arising and b) amount of time AQ and affiliates are organizing attacks on the homeland. Security agencies can counter this by following Walid's advice by increasing the rate at which we develop our protection and prevention measures (i.e. database management) and amount of time we institute training initiatives.

To aid this process, agencies have the opportunity to couple internal training with a strong recruitment campaign that broadens the pool. However, as Walid also notes, operating procedures need to be (re)defined to identify who among the acting and recruitment pool can access levels of security information. A successful strategic plan will rightly incorporate a structure for information sharing, which I call "bubblenet intelligence."

Such steps should begin simultaneously as President Obama's investigation is being conducted. The jihadi 20-year plan is entering a new phase, one I think we will see unfold at an increased rate over the next 1-2 years simply because AQ believes we are a) internally vulnerable and b) slow to counter. Of course, our activity in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, along with our (strained) diplomatic efforts with Iran, China, and Latin America, fuels their responsive activity.

Above all, what I think Walid is saying is that national security and international security agencies - in collaboration with one another - need to be more proactive in nature. A system needs to be implemented to ensure this transition, and I think it begins by understanding a strategic analytical framework for realistically quantifying religious radicalization. Furthermore, and perhaps one of the most important aspects of this training effort, is civic engagement with religious leaders. Community engagement promises a) steady growth of unity of mission as well as b) the ability to adapt to emerging scenarios while c) collecting sound intelligence to proactively stay ahead of the enemy at a successful rate for an extended amount of time.

27 December 2009

Background: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

For some great additional background and bio data on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and the circumstances behind his failed attempt to detonate a PETN-based bomb on Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, check out the following resources:

-Steve Coll at his blog Think Tank does a great job of examining the attacks in the wider context of the overall global al Qaeda movement. He also provides a good primer on the Nigerian Taliban aka Boko Haram, which maintains loose ties with AQ and could be viewed as a "feeder" for AQAP. For more on Nigeria and Boko Haram, check out Josh's post from last month here.

-Coll also provides a link to a good, in-depth bio of Abdulmutallab from the Nigerian newspaper This Day. The article provides some interesting insight into the attacker's upbringing as well details about his father, a prominent international banker, who actually reported his own son to US authorities last month.

-Wes Bruer at the Long War Journal gives us some good background and commentary from Bill Roggio about possible links between Abdulmutallab and AQAP in Yemen.

-The NY Times provides important details about the reporting of Abdulmutallab's name to US authorities at the US Embassy in Nigeria - by the attacker's own father. The article also highlights the fact that his name was added to the TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment) database, which is supposed to be used to track potential terrorists and provide a base for the "no-fly" list.

-Peter Bergen provides some excellent original analysis at CNN based on the method of attack and the type of explosive. He argues that there are several key similarities between the failed attack attempt by Abdulmutallab and the failed assassination attempt on Saudi prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of Saudi Arabia's CT efforts. The attacker who targeted Nayef also used PETN and the plot was linked back to Yemen. This link could be critical to unraveling the origins of the failed Christmas Day plot on Northwest Flight 253.

-Finally, Abu Nasr at Challenge COIN does a great job of summarizing the similarities between many of the recent terrorist attacks in the last few months, providing a rough profile that can be used to better understand the origins and motivations of the individuals who are perpetrating these attacks. His "un-politically correct" analysis is exactly the type of honest dialog we need to be having in the face of increasing domestic terrorist threats.

25 December 2009

Failed Midair Terrorist Attack Linked to AQAP (Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab)

It appears the the recent US-Yemeni operations targeting AQAP in various parts of Yemen have stirred up the hornet's nest...

Northwest Airlines 253 (originating from Amsterdam) was the site today of a failed attempt to detonate some sort of Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The Wall Street Journal reports that after the plane landed in Detroit, TSA and FBI officials quickly took one individual into custody and were interviewing all passengers. Although full details are yet to emerge, initial reports say that the man had some sort of IED strapped to his leg and attempted to detonate the device in midair. The device malfunctioned and started a small fire.

According to the WSJ, the man told officials that he had been given the IED by an AQ (or AQ-affiliated) operative based in Yemen and was acting on their instructions. If true, this would show the ability of AQAP to extend their reach beyond the wider Arabian Peninsula into the West and the US specifically. It also clearly raises questions of physical security vulnerabilities on flights originating from international locations.

As more details emerge in terms of how the events leading up to the failed attack unfolded, the identity of the attacker(s), and the attackers' links to the wider AQAP and AQ networks, we'll gain a better understanding of what this really means. For now, though, I would assess that this is an attempt to show that AQAP is upset after the two recent US-Yemeni strikes against the group over the last ten days. If they were able to put together an attack on such short notice (even a fairly simple one like this), it clearly shows that the group is more capable and has a wider global reach than many initially thought.

*Update: The WSJ reports that Nigerian national Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab (a student in London) is the primary suspect in the attack. The article also provides some good background on the recent increase in overt activity by AQAP in Yemen, as we have discussed in several previous posts here on al Sahwa.

24 December 2009

Yemen Strike: Anwar al Awlaki EKIA?

Recent open-source reporting has discussed the possibility that Anwar al Awlaki, the radical cleric who was in e-mail contact with MAJ Nidal Hassan prior to his Ft. Hood shootings, was killed today in an airstrike in Shabwa province. For initial details, see Bill Roggio's post at the LWJ here.

In an article in today's Washington Post, it's reported that both US and Yemeni officials claim that Awlaki was EKIA along with two other prominent Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders. The Yemeni Embassy in Washington reported that Awlaki was at a meeting of regional leaders along with Nasser al Wuhayshi (the regional head of AQAP) and Said Ali al Shihri (his deputy). According to reports from Saba News, the official media outlet of the Yemeni government, all three were at a meeting at the home of Awlaki (or one of his close relatives) to discuss responses to the 17 Dec combined raid and air strikes against an AQAP training camp in Sanaa and Abyan that resulted in 34x AQAP EKIA and 29x captured. For more on the 17 Dec strikes, see this great article in the LWJ.

However, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the three were at the meeting and who was actually killed in the strikes, which were carried out by the Yemeni Air Force. According to the Yemen Observer, the whereabouts of Awlaki and Shihri are unknown, and Wuhayshi is thought to have survived/escaped. Al Jazeera (English version here) is also reporting that local sources say Awlaki was not injured/killed in the attacks. The AJ story also provides an interesting sidenote to the complex story surrounding Awlaki, when an official in Yemen is quoted as saying that, "[Awlaki's] father is an adviser to the president of Yemen. If they really wanted him, they could phone him and tell him to come back to the capital and arrest him...I have serious doubts about him being a target - simply because he is well connected to the government and there is no serious case against him." Sounds about right for the Middle East...

Although initial reports are always sketchy and we might not know for sure for several days, I assess that Awlaki was not EKIA in this particular strike. There are several reasons for this: 1) The initial reports from the Yemen Observer say that the strike occured at Awlaki's home, but never say that he was actually present - in fact, in the WP article, Awlaki's father claims that he has actually been staying with an uncle who lives over 40 miles away for the last two months; 2) Awlaki is more well-known among Western audiences and jihadists and has little historic affiliation with top AQ-affiliated leaders like Wuhayshi and Shihri; 3) Awlaki is more of an "inspirational" figure (would likely fall under the sharia wing of the organization), while the others are more operational/military planners. While Awlaki might be consulted to bless off on a planned attach, these two groups are more likely to communicate via phone than to meet in person; 4) If the Al Jazeera report is true and Awlaki has some ties to the government, I doubt they would have launched the strike. As JD explained previously in his excellent post, the Yemeni government (led by Ali Abdullah Saleh) is playing both sides and has historically tolerated (and even supported) some AQ elements in the country.

The only way that I could see these three (and reportedly several other top AQAP leaders) being together in one location would be if the Dec 17 strikes (a combined US-Yemen effort driven by US intel) were so disruptive that they spread panic across the organization and forced the top members of the group to communicate via phone to set up a face-to-face meeting to assess the damage and plan the way forward. More likely, however, is that some folks within the Yemeni government got overexcited and reported false or exaggerated information to the media, which is now being propagated across the Western and Middle Eastern media outlets.

I hope the initial reports are true, but I doubt it.

23 December 2009

Peeping Toms Part Deux

This is quite possibly the most ridiculous article I’ve read in at least a week. A couple choice quotes from the USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Lt Gen David Deptula:

“The hacked videos resulted in no significant impacts on operations and tactics”

“Meanwhile, the UAV operators and ground troops developed new tactics to prevent the enemy from doing harm by intercepting transmitted signals”

Having come out of Theater not too long ago, the only “new tactic” I can think of that was implemented was to actually run the platforms and ground-based downlink software (OS/RVT and Rover) how they were intended, in the pre-existing encrypted format. Why wasn’t everyone doing this from the start? Simple, the feed is awful. We’re talking awful to the point that the platform might as well not be in the air.

The Air Force continues to rush these platforms with existing bandwidth capabilities to Theater because UAS/UCAVs are probably about 75% of what they are contributing to Iraq and Afghanistan. From Lt Gen Deptula’s perspective, he may not have seen any significant impacts from data interception. But how do we know that there haven’t been any missions compromised? Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) conversion software is readily available on the internet. As William commented on my earlier post, the real danger comes from an enemy putting forth a concerted effort to protect their interests; Iran attempting to protect Quds Force operatives in Iraq or proxy forces (Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthi rebels in Yemen) from being targeted are prime examples of a country with the capability, need and willpower to execute this kind of operation.

In this context, I absolutely reject the assumption that these data intercepts are not potentially significant. How many “dry holes” on targeted raids did this SkyGrabber program contribute to? We’ll obviously never know. These data intercepts have the potential to not only impact Soldiers at the tactical level, but our strategic efforts from South America to Africa to SW Asia. It’s time to own up to a very serious deficiency in our architecture and develop a real solution.

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.


19 December 2009

Al Qaeda-Connected Drug Trafficking in West Africa

The New York Times reported Friday that the US charged three Malians with plotting to transport cocaine in support of al Qaeda. At face value, this appears to be a victory over the transnational traffickers and al Qaeda. Unfortunately, this is likely not the case. This is likely a hollow victory, and may even set us back even further in our efforts to develop the West and North African drug trafficking networks as these groups realize the actual reach of our agencies, and the emphasis being placed on the region by these same agencies. The simple counter-action by these groups will be to tighten OPSEC procedures and further scrutinize any outsiders attempting to make contact.

Unfortunately, we likely nabbed three relatively minor players in the overall process, who likely added a lot of bravado to their purported ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Unless interrogations are extremely fruitful, we won’t be any closer to understanding the full extent of transnational connections, or the full extent of the role AQIM actually plays in the South American - Africa - Europe network. Equally important to analysts and those targeting this network would be to understand the routes, staging areas, etc in West and North Africa. I doubt any of these three detainees can read a map well enough to get this information across accurately. Would it have been better if we left our informants in play and had them actually transport a shipment across Africa and into Europe? How many additional personalities, camps and safe houses could we have identified by doing this?

I think we could, and should, have done a lot more to fully develop this network through this investigation, especially considering it will be a lot harder for the DEA to gain access in the future.

Northern Iraq's Biggest Issue: Pregnancy?

I firmly believe in our ongoing support of the Government of Iraq as they continue to gain capacity. But at some point we need to ask what exactly our Soldiers are doing over there when the Multi-National Division-North (MND-N) Commanding General has to threaten Court Martial’s for pregnancies. It’s really quite sad when you consider MND-N has the two major ethnic flash points of Kirkuk and Mosul, which currently holds the (dubious) honor of highest attack rates in Iraq. There’s also that pesky issue of Kirkuk potentially ripping Iraq apart if it becomes part of Kurdistan. There obviously is nothing going on in MND-N. Read more here.

17 December 2009

Peeping Toms and New Air Force Toys: UAS Updates

For those of you watching the news today, the big story coming out of both Theaters is the Iranian-backed (or more likely: Iranian-led) interception of data-downlinks from aerial assets. According to the Wall Street Journal, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan used a software program designed in Russia called SkyGrabber that was originally intended to intercept multimedia files over wireless computer networks. This is not surprising. Iranian-supported insurgents have been far more advanced than their Sunni adversaries for quite a while. As we move forward with future generations of unmanned platforms and supporting hardware/software, DoD (and specifically the USAF) must address specific shortcomings in bandwidth and downlink rates.

There has been a lot of news and blog chatter about the “new”
RQ-170 Sentinel over the last week or so, the Air Force’s first stealth and jet-propulsion unmanned platform. This thing is pretty choice. I’m all for strategic assets, but the reality is that there is a tremendous shortage of UAS at the tactical level. The USAF loves the big, cool new toys, and they are cool, but I shudder to think how many Predators could have been bought for the same amount of money that one of these Sentinels cost. Hopefully this serves as a wakeup call to the Army that the Air Force is not nearly as interested in aerial support to tactical-level elements as they think.

My recommendation? Form Tactical UAS Companies inside Special Troops Battalions within BCTs that are autonomous from the current MICOs. Task organize the Company so that each maneuver Battalion gets one UAS Shadow Platoon. Move something like the i-GNAT down to support BCT-level Commanders, and give each Division headquarters its own Army-driven Predator. I’ll expand on this topic with a full post in the near future after additional research. For now I’d like to open this up for discussion with readers. Thoughts?

15 December 2009

The Camp Bucca Fallacy

Al Jazeera (AJ) has an interesting article from 12 December discussing the radicalization of moderate detainees interned at US-run prisons like Camp Bucca. Camp Bucca was long (unofficially) known as the beacon of prison radicalization by Soldiers in Iraq until it was shut down in September. If you’ve ever been to Camp Bucca you’re probably muttering under your breath right now that you’re not surprised due to the way the prison was run in the first place. For those of you who have not had the privilege of visiting the Camp, a Google Image search should satisfy your curiosity of the Camp’s emphasis on extra-curricular activities. Some of you reading this may say this is an overly critical assessment of those units responsible for guarding our detainees in Iraq. I would counter that the images in the Google search I hyperlinked are a spot-on synopsis of the overall attitude of the Camp’s guard force.

What’s most appalling is not that the radicalization happened in the first place, the same thing happens in US prisons after all, but the fact that we continue to deny that it was an endemic problem in the first place, and that these detainees continue to pose a significant risk to the security of Iraq. AJ cites a DoD statistic that only 4% of detainees returned to violent activities. Speaking within the context of my recent 15-month deployment, this number is probably way too low. An article on The Huffington Post from May of this year quotes Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi saying that many of the attacks seen in that period were conducted by recently released by U.S. forces who had rejoined "criminal gangs and terrorist groups like al-Qaida in Iraq."

It’s time for us to fess up and acknowledge the fact that while we definitely did not get our detainee operations right for many years in Iraq, the Iraqi-negotiated terms of the Status of Forces Agreement and a pathetic judicial branch will keep Iraq mired in chaos for years to come. These recidivists and recently-radicalized individuals continue to reinforce Sunni and Shi’a insurgencies alike. If you’ve made it this far, I highly recommend Pat’s recent post on the insurgency that bends but refuses to break, AQI in Mosul. I also recommend a great statistical analysis of Ninewa Province attacks from Joel Wing at The Ground Truth in Iraq.

AQI in Mosul: Don't Count Them Out

As much of our collective national attention shifts its focus to the pending “surge” in Afghanistan, it’s easy to lose sight of important events and indicators occurring in Iraq. As Josh discussed in his recent post here, we continue to see spectacular, coordinated attacks targeting the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) and GOI (Government of Iraq) targets across the country. While less frequent, these attacks are still extremely deadly and more importantly continue to highlight the inability of Maliki’s government to secure the populace and counter the insurgents. In particular, I’d like to focus on the current state of the insurgency in Mosul – a key finance, logistics, planning, and facilitation hub for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

While there are substantial and important differences between Al Qaeda’s presence in various areas, a close look at how AQI operates in Mosul (and the linkages of this region to the wider AQ efforts) provides great insight into the global “modus operandi” of AQ. Before we can put recent events into context, it’s important to understand how AQI is structured and how they attempt to gain control over a specific city/region/province. AQI tends to organize along similar lines in most areas (with certain tweaks made to adjust for local conditions). Their structure, as shown above, gives us insight into how they operate. When attempting to influence, control, and eventually dominate an area, AQI roughly follows this methodology:

1) Establish intelligence/security apparatus: gain understanding of the area, identify targets and key individuals to influence, develop intelligence source network, intimidate/assassinate uncooperative elements, counter-intel efforts against CF informants, extortion and criminal activity

2) Establish administrative and finance nodes: lay foundation for command and control (C2), recruiting, and logistical support of military cells and other support structure

3) Establish sharia network: begin building relationships with local religious leaders, start recruiting efforts, begin initial information operations (anti-CF and pro-jihadist), bless off on targets

4) Establish media/information capability: Develop capacity to track/record attacks, develop ability to send to higher elements for production, eventually create own production capability

5) Establish military cells and conduct attacks: last step completed after all other elements are ready to support, rely heavily on security to choose targets, admin to pay and track personnel, sharia to recruit and justify attacks, and media to gain local populace support

Note that this is often not a rigid step-by-step process, but is usually very fluid and can often waver back and forth between different phases across different areas based on local conditions. They key takeaways to keep in mind are: 1) Every military attack conducted requires significant support and planning efforts; 2) Just because we fail to see traditional military attacks in an area doesn’t mean that AQI doesn’t still maintain a significant presence in an area in terms of security/admin/media; and 3) AQI is often capable of quickly escalating and moving from a lower-level assassination and intimidation campaign to a military (sometimes even conventional) campaign; then they can quickly “go underground” and de-escalate.

Recent media reporting (often based on poor and/or overly optimistic assessments from CF in the area) has repeatedly highlighted the decrease in attacks conducted by AQI, arguing that the organization has been severely weakened or even defeated. Recently, even GEN Petraeus declared that, "There is no question that Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly reduced in its capability and capacity." (Reuters) We must be careful, however, that we don’t count AQI out and let up the pressure on them that we’ve so effectively applied through precision lethal targeting of the network across all of its operational lines (military, admin, sharia, finance, media).

A recent Reuters story (read it here) does just this, declaring that the increase in “[d]rive-by shootings, murders and extortion” represents a, “weakened insurgency in Mosul.” I would argue that although we’ve made significant progress against AQI in Mosul, they still retain the capability to conduct large scale attacks that feed the still-strong sense of insecurity in Mosul and de-legitimize the local/provincial/national government and security forces. We saw this just the other day when a VBIED detonated at a police recruiting center on the eastern edge of Mosul (in Gogjali), killing two and wounding 18 (Reuters, 13 DEC). Even more worrisome is the almost delusional assessment provided by COL Gary Volesky (commander of 3/1 CAV who replaced 3 ACR in Mosul last year). He argues that, “[t]he insurgency has evolved from being ideologically-driven to organized crime looking for money.” Volesky’s boss (BG Vandal) goes even further, assessing that, “Because of their inability to do, in some instances, those high-profile attacks ... they're resorting to extortions, assassinations to continue to exert pressure on individuals.” I’m not sure where these guys are getting these ideas from, but they appear to be more politically motivated (to stay in line with the already announced drawdown of US forces) than based on ground truth.

What is actually occurring is that AQI has suffered some small setbacks in terms of interrupted finance and some key leaders being captured/killed, but they still clearly maintain the ability to influence the local populace. Although the military apparatus’ ability to conduct attacks is degraded, we see clear indicators that the security and media lines are operating at near full capacity. With these parts of the organization functioning, all AQI needs to do is continue to pick off effective government and security leaders (with assassination and intimidation) and conduct a slow but steady stream of spectacular attacks (which will then be effectively captured and distributed by various media products) to maintain their relevancy and delegitimize the Iraqi government. Additionally, we are likely to see an uptick in politically motivated attacks designed to target candidates for the 2010 national elections as inflame the already simmering Arab-Kurd tensions that form the underlying cause of insecurity and ineffectiveness in Mosul and N. Iraq.

If we’re not careful and we let up the pressure too quickly, we could easily see a return to what Mosul looked like when my unit assumed our battlespace on the East side of the Tigris River in January 2008 (foreign fighters were embedded in a multitude of military battalions across the city, multiple VBIED and catastrophic IED attacks every week, and AQI forces essentially controlling terrain in some parts of the city with the tacit support of almost the entire local populace). For more details on this, read the excellent report “The Fight for Mosul” from the Institute for the Study of War.

Looking beyond the current (and future) situation in Mosul, we must keep these lessons in mind elsewhere. Open-source reporting on a daily basis describes similar indicators of growing AQ security, admin, and media elements in multiple areas across the globe (including Somalia, Yemen, Northern Afghanistan, and potentially even the US?). Even though we have yet to see major attacks (or at least a regular stream of them), we must be conscious of the process by which AQ lays its roots and establishes a foundation for future military actions in a given area. If we are able to effectively identify these indicators, mobilize resources, and target these elements (ideally in partnership with host nation CT elements) we can potentially nip this growing AQ presence in the bud with fairly limited resources.