08 January 2010

AQAP & A Central Question We Must Ask

The Christmas Day attack has sparked, and rightly so, a rigorous debate surrounding a central question that we must ask at this time: Is AQAP legitimately advancing, and if so, what is it advancing - ideology, tactics, strategy, operations?

Scholars Christopher Boucek, Associate in the Middle East Program of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Leah Farrell, author of the blog, All Things Counterterrorism, offer insight into the historical and contemporary workings of AQAP.

Boucek holds, in an interview conducted 29 December, that AQAP "...pose a serious challenge to U.S. and regional security efforts. For one, plotting against targets on U.S. soil represents an expansion of the al-Qaeda affiliate's ambitions..."

On the other hand, it seems Farrall takes a different line, stating;
"Bottom line: There is very little that is new here. AQAP has always had an external attack capacity and sought to use it. It has always recruited internationally...The only *new* thing here is the type of device used and reaction to the plot. But even in terms of IED’s, AQAP has always been on the sharp end of the stick when it comes to innovation."

Despite the differences in viewpoints, in either case there is something new that is emerging because it is not the same in nature and scope. I think we simply cannot put our finger on the exact aspect that is morphing, namely the ideology, tactics, strategy, and/or operations. We must ask the following subordinate questions whether the case be that AQAP is expanding ambitions or continuing to recruit internationally:
a) Who is providing funding to support these activities, and has the funding increased?
b) What materials are being trafficked into the network, and from where?

The answers will give hint as to who AQAP is talking to, if it has changed and to what degree, and how the relationship(s) is advancing. This investigative process will also, by default, determine if AQAP has the capacity to advance internally - which would be the worst case as Josh explains here.

But Boucek reminds us of the larger picture, identifying for us the type of situation that we are seeing at the moment:
"There have been reports for about the last six months saying that there have been al-Qaeda operatives fleeing Pakistan and the Tribal Belt in Pakistan and Afghanistan--leaving [and] fleeing to Yemen and Somalia."

The geo-political issue now facing the region has more meaning, as Boucek states, "The terror group's rise occurs at a time of growing security and economic challenges besetting Yemen's central government--from civil war to a shortage of oil and water. If left unchecked... conditions may ripen for al-Qaeda's further entrenchment in Yemen...The fear is that al-Qaeda-aligned or affiliated organizations will make use of these under-governed spaces to plot and plan and train to mount operations inside Yemen and beyond."

Is this a trend or a cycle of AQAP's ebb and flow as Farrall argues:
"I wrote back in September that I thought AQAP had reached a position similar to what it had in 2003, and as such it would seek a broader operational ambit and permission for external attacks against N America, as it did in early 03. All the indicators were there...How did I know that? Well for starters I watched AQAP congeal online in early 02 and I have their founding documents, their guidelines, objectives and rules of conduct and lists of what detachments they formed–right down to the oath recruits were to take. I’ve watched them ever since because I find the group fascinating and...I know that this is not the first time AQAP has tried to attack in N America. It’s not even the second time."

Let us return to our question to identify what we are seeing happening at this moment.

What if the the advancement is larger than one sole issue. Is there reason to think that the emergence is occurring at the level of communication; in the way that terrorists affiliates talk to one another? Conventional wisdom holds that many lines of communication are informal, ad hoc. With the possibility of Al Shabaab aiding AQAP by crossing the Gulf of Aden and the continuous uncovering of a growing recruitment effort by these entities in Europe and America - including the efforts by LeT - there is reason to project that the terrorist "franchises" are operating with business savviness.

The innovation may be occurring at the organizational level, but we are focusing on the entity level only; i.e. growth of Al Shabaab. Groups may be beginning to talk intra-organizationally. This would cause a systematic shift in ideology, tactics, strategy, and operations. The shift need not be small but only effective; it need not be complex, but only coordinated.

Therefore, when asking the question, "Is AQAP legitimately advancing(?)," we must ask also the connecting questions:
1) Is Al Shabaab advancing?
2) Is LeT advancing?
The answers may lead us, in some way, to better understand the organizational interconnection (and the growth), if there is one, between the "franchises." It would also help us understand further the recruitment efforts of these entities transnationally, involving persons from the Virginia Muslims (Pakistan), Minnesota Somalis (Pakistan), and UK Nigerians.

Terrorists may now be seeing the benefit(s) of working together to execute transnational attacks.


  1. Not to nitpick, but I think in the third to last paragraph you mean "inter" and not "intra". But hey, it's Friday night. You get a pass.

    Otherwise, good post and interesting questions raised.

  2. It was just a matter of time before all the wolf packs got together and formed one big wolf pack...they all have eyes on the same prey. Your post was very good and thought provoking, thanks.

  3. LMD,

    You are keen to point this out! I meant what I said, "intra."

    AQ is a network with nodes. An example of one of their nodes is AQAP that I discussed. All of the nodes are linked; i.e. AQCL and AQAP. All links represent the shared relationship, which is the subject of my study here: is the shared relationship advancing tactis, attack methods, etc?

  4. FJK,

    I suggest you read Josh's latest post discussing the difference between franchise and conglomerate.

    Defining the way we ought to understand AQCL will help us also clearly understand the motivations of lone wolf, Hasan-types. I ask myself everyday how to stay ahead of this dangerous, emerging trend in the US and UK...also Germany.

    It may begin with an extended demographics study that updates the information.

    What say you?