28 February 2010

Africa & SW Asia Updates

Getting ready to drop off the net in a couple of hours but there are a couple of topics I felt needed to be covered before I go incommunicado. My research time and capabilities will be limited in the short-term, so much of the Africa-related information on al Sahwa will drop for a while. Before I break, I wanted to post a couple of observations on recent events.

There was an unprecedented number of Taliban senior leadership detained this week. Unfortunately, as evidenced through Friday’s attack in Kabul, the Taliban won’t be out of the fight for long. We saw a couple of these huge leadership shifts in Mosul previously after key leaders were detained. There was degradation in AQ operations for a couple of weeks and then they were back at it with new methods. I expect the same here; overall I think the Taliban will suffer in the very short-term and then be right back in the mix.

We’re going to be in Iraq a lot longer than anyone wants to admit, whether they are American or Iraqi. Tom Ricks’ op-ed in the NY Times was an excellent piece and extremely thought provoking. You break it, you buy it. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m ok with staying if it means we finish what we started. I hope for the people of Iraq’s sake that the country continues to blossom and does not regress back into chaos.

Liberia is not getting a lot of attention in Western media, but the situation is growing more serious. Ethnic tensions are growing. A buddy from college passed a message that a young girl who accidentally crossed another religion’s prayer line was beaten to death last week. I can’t find it online to confirm the story, but he’s on the ground there now so I think it has credibility.

Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua recently returned from a 4-month stint in a Saudi hospital but is yet to reassume his Presidential duties. VP Goodluck Jonathan has been serving in his place as Acting President. If something does not change politically, I could see a power grab taking place, particularly by the military. The scenario is unlikely but definitely exists, and should be given additional weight due to Nigeria’s romance with the military coup.

As always, comments are appreciated but my responses may be a bit delayed.

26 February 2010

Emerging Threats: Active Shooter Scenario

I want to start a new series of posts titled, Emerging Threats. The goal is to "White Board" future threats, discuss possible threat outcomes, and discover ways to prevent/thwart future attacks. The 9/11 Commission stated that one of the primary reasons our intel agencies were unable to connect the dots was due to a lack of imagination. The goal of the Emerging Threats series is improve our imagination, and hopefully generate feasible defensive measures.

Active Shooter Scenario
On December 25, 2009, Al Qaeda proved that air travel was still their primary high payoff target. I believe that this event will focus the majority of our homeland security efforts on air travel safety. I am confident that the failed attack will serve as a shot in the arm and ensure al Qaeda will not be able to successfully target American aircraft for a reasonable amount of time. Once a government highlights its security focus, their enemies will naturally look for other ways to achieve their end state.

The Active Shooter Scenario is not a new phenomenon to America. Active shooters are individuals or groups who, for a number of reasons, decide to murder innocent people in a shooting rampage. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Ft. Hood are all examples of the active shooter scenario. Law enforcement statistics show that the average Active Shooter Scenario is a single individual who is rounds complete within 8 minutes. What I want to focus on is a terrorist scenario with the intent of lasting longer than 8 minutes, like Beslan (334 dead) and Mumbai (173 dead). We know al Qaeda seeks the spectacular attack with maximum media exposure and casualties. Mumbai was not spectacular because of the number killed, it was spectacular because it showed India's inept response to neutralize a mere 10 individuals.

I think we can benefit from looking at past incidents and attempt to gleam what al Qaeda can learn from our experiences in these scenarios. The Columbine school shooting was a watershed event that significantly changed law enforcement reactions to the active shooter scenario. The Columbine response had three phases. First, establish a cordon and contain the shooters in order to deny freedom of maneuver and allow the local SWAT team to arrive on scene. Second, the SWAT team systematically cleared Columbine High School, room by room, searching for the suspects and ensuring they did not miss any other unreported suspects. Third, neutralize the shooters and provide medical care to the wounded. The primary lesson learned was; when you have active shooters in a populated building methodically killing people, you no longer have the luxury of containing the shooters and waiting for the SWAT team. Al Qaeda now knows the United States will not allow a Mumbai style attack to proceed for 60 hours. Our local law enforcement officers will bravely challenge any shooter actively targeting innocent civilians. Two local law enforcement officers, who were the first to respond, neutralized the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hassan. This is our current neutralization TTP. Since it looks like we have a viable option to thwart a Mumbai style terror attack, how can al Qaeda successfully use the active shooter scenario and still achieve their objectives?

Law enforcement officers have to make the distinction between a hostage situation and the active shooter scenario because the response is vastly different. If a first responder receives a 911 dispatch to a mall or school where a suspect is actively shooting and killing citizens, that officer will undoubtedly move toward the small arms fire and attempt to neutralize the suspect. If that same officer is responding to an armed hostage situation at a school or bank, the officer will most likely establish a perimeter and evacuate any bystanders. This is how al Qaeda can target America using a combination of the active shooter scenario and a hostage situation. I believe we have a solid response to both hostage situations and the active shooter scenarios; however, a combination of the two provides al Qaeda a viable option for a low technology spectacular attack.

First lets white board what al Qaeda needs to avoid:
Foreign Nationals who infiltrate America from terrorist hot spots (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, ect.) We are watching those areas closely.
Explosives, excluding low technology pipe bombs. We are focused on the logistics and explosive facilitation.
Large Metropolitan areas because of increased law enforcement response capacity.
Airports large enough to facilitate C-130/C-17 aircraft landing (hard to do), mitigating rapid transportation of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT).

Now lets look at plausible aspects of a future attack: Planning, Facilitation, Execution, and End State.

Planning: Al Qaeda needs to conduct their planning using the courier system in order to avoid raising concerns for a future martyrdom operation. I believe the initial planning would take place in the known terrorist havens, ie Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan. The External Operations Network is the most likely point of origin for initial concept development. I think this operation would have a long range planning horizon, preceding the operation by more than 12 months. The plan would be simple and require less coordination than the 9/11 attack. The reason for such a long planning horizon is to ensure successful infiltration of the terror cells.

Facilitation: The active shooter scenario is logistically simple. LeT's doctrinal template, utilized in Mumbai, is a viable option. 10 shooters is a large enough group to simultaneously attack several objectives, while also being small enough to fly under the intelligence radar. One group of 4, and three groups of 2 allow al Qaeda to use a similar leadership scenario as the 9/11 hijackers. The could have 4 leaders who are knowledgeable of the operation, with 6 muscle men who are largely in the dark until immediately prior to the operation's execution. I also think the 9/11 hijacker model would be followed concerning the infiltration of the 10 terrorists. The 10 shooters would assimilate into a normal American life style for as long as a year in order to disguise intentions. The year dwell time would also be used for a deliberate accumulation of automatic weapons and body armor. The armament would logistically look similar to Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu's set up. The group leaders could also use this time to conduct surveillance and rehearsals on site.

Execution: (Location) Taking a look at the number of casualties from both Beslan and Mumbai shows us that a large metropolitan area is not needed and in fact would increase the likelihood of successful law enforcement interdiction. This is why I believe an attack on a small town would increase the likelihood of successful execution while still netting a significant number of casualties. A rural town will not have a full time SWAT team, will increase the response time of national law enforcement, and the local law enforcement might initially have to operate on a 1:1 ratio of officers to terrorists.
(Targets) A mix between hostage situation and active shooter scenario is more advantageous. A combination of Beslan and Mumbai is a viable scenario. Four well trained terrorists, could control a local high school and initiate a hostage situation, drawing the events out long enough to facilitate the media's live reporting. Once the media is in place, the active shooter scenario with the remaining three teams of two could over whelm the local 911 network and sow enough disorder to create havoc among the responding officers. The active shooter scenario could take place on mini-malls or other locations that provide multiple areas with moderate to high civilian density. They could use spike strips on the highest traffic road/highway and create a traffic jam while shooting civilians stuck in their vehicles. One of the objectives would undoubtedly be to show the government's inability to protect its citizens. This would be highlighted if the local medical response is over whelmed along with the law enforcement. Molitov cocktails are a cheap, easy option to start fires once they leave each objective. Changing vehicles between targets would also add to the confusion with 911 callers reporting more groups than there actually are.
(Command and Control) Again, the Mumbai attacks illustrate the best way to C2 an active shooter scenario. The live media feeds allow terror leaders to use cell phones to direct multiple teams throughout the operation. They also allow the terror leaders to warn their shooting teams of pending SWAT team assaults. One way to increase the effectiveness of the attacks is to have prepared lists of targets that allow the active shooting teams to conduct the operation with limited direction. The leadership could inform other shooting teams that an adjacent team has been neutralized and they should pick up their target set.
End State: What would be the benefit of an attack of this style for a terror group that is largely under the gun in all corners of the World? I think the best possible outcome for al Qaeda is for an attack that creates a situation for America to loose inherent freedoms or degradation of our system of values. I want to offer up two worst case scenarios that may be unlikely, but not impossible.
1) What if AQIM could tap into the drug cartels they currently collude with and use their members as the active shooter teams? These teams would infiltrate through the porous Mexican/US border and assimilate into daily life within the States along the border. If al Qaeda could use South American's from Venezuela, Columbia, or even worse Mexico, it would cause a massive amount of rage toward illegal immigration. It could cause a situation of hysteria and increase the risk of acts of violence against anyone with South American/Mexican decent. Also, it utilizes a race of people that we currently don't associate with acts of random non-Narco terrorism.
2) Another possible scenario looks to our Northern border. I think it would be beneficial for al Qaeda to use the United Kingdom and/or Canada as a pool of recruits to carry out an active shooter scenario. Both countries could have citizens that hold dual citizenships, who travel to terrorist havens and hand carry instructions to terrorists who will cross into America illegally or legally from Canada. Canada is a viable launch pad for a terror operation. This may cause a rift between the intelligence collection and sharing between these nations. It may lead to alleviating pressure from Pakistan since the latest attack originated from an ally nation. These are just two possible scenarios, we could play the "what if" game all day, but I think it is important to highlight unlikely scenarios in order to get our analytical powers moving. I left out the most obvious scenario, a home grown terror attack like Nidal Hassan's.

The Way Forward: Fred Leland, Law Enforcement Security Consulting Inc., has a two part series that dives into the Active Shooter Scenario, here. Fred focuses his attention toward the response and law enforcement training. He coined the term, "Full Spectrum Policing" which alludes to the wide problem set law enforcement officers have to deal with. Our officers across the board need to have quarterly or bi-annual training responding to an active shooter scenario. I have a few points to add in addition to Mr. Leland's recommendations. First, law enforcement officials need to identify likely locations for active shooter scenarios and conduct mass casualty drills on location. Next, the local news executives need to be brought into the fold and agree to delay live footage of active shooter scenarios for at least 30 minuets. This should almost be a non issue since the majority of active shooter incidents are over within 8 minuets and most news agencies cannot respond fast enough. My concern would be for a Mumbai style attack where the shooting teams have commanders who are directing their activities from another country through live news footage. Finally, the intelligence sharing between the federal agencies and local law enforcement needs to be improved. This is a topic that will need continual improvement; however, we need to ensure that credible threats make there way down to the state and local level.

My hope is that this new series of posts can bring in expert opinions, as well as average citizens, who can throw out ideas and continue build/improve doctrine templates, that homeland security officials can turn into individualized situational templates.

24 February 2010

Sustainable Strategy: Mid to High Exploitation

Did it all start with an accident? Since Taliban military commander, Mullah Baradar, was seized by ISI on 8 February, a second prominent leader, Mullah Kabir, operating within the inner circle of Quetta Shura, has been reportedly captured. Now, the latest confirmation of the arrest of nearly half of the Taliban leadership (7 of 15), most of whom are thought to be active decision-makers in Quetta Shura, seems almost surreal. Andrew Exum, Fellow at CNAS and Author of Abu Muqawama even asked, "Woah, did Pakistan just arrest half of the Quetta Shura?"

You must read and bookmark as a reference Bill Roggio's intelligence report on Afgahn Taliban's top leaders. Bill raises an important point, stating, "It remains to be seen if the sustained US offensive and possible future detentions in Pakistan will grind down the Taliban's leadership cadre." I am concerned here with what is sustainable for US [and ISI] counterterrorism officials to dismantle and defeat not only Taliban leadership but also al-Qaeda leadership and the like, including but not limited to ASMM (Al Shabaab merger with Hizbul Islam), AQAP, AQIM, LeT, etc.

According to logic, the disruption of leaders within Quetta Shura shows us that if we capture a senior-level leader then we can exploit higher. Can this strategy take us all the way? "Much of the Quetta Shura [is] in custody now," but we should not fail to point out that it may really have begun with actionable intelligence targeting two shadow governors in Karachi. One aspect of our plan we must examine is whether the sustainable strategy is and/or remains to be a mid-tier one that enables counterterrorism officials to exploit personalities and sources, locations and havens, materials and routes.

Of course, the rule is to exploit higher when one has the sources and methods to do so. However, we must still strategically decide how to actively dismantle and defeat inner-circles of leaders in networks for which we do not have senior-level commanders in custody - either by accident or actionable intelligence - such as those mentioned above, ASMM, AQAP, AQIM, LeT.

In this case, due to the recognizable (but minimally measured) inter-network collaboration between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and LeT, it is possible that additional operations can disrupt planning and execution of plots or even lead to the capture of other personalities. As reported by The Nation (Pakistan) on 4 December, 2009;
Al-Qaeda sees using the Taliban in Pakistan and groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba as ways to destabilise Pakistan and even try to provoke a conflict between India and Pakistan that would inevitably destabilise Pakistan,”US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Gates said the US has evidence which suggest that the al-Qaeda aims at destabilising Pakistan. “We have evidence that al-Qaeda is helping them pick targets, do operational planning, helping them in their effort to try to destabilise the Pakistani government,” Mr. Gates told lawmakers in response to a question. “The other piece of this that does not include the Taliban or that -- apart from the Taliban is, we also know that al-Qaeda is helping the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the terrorist group that carried out the bombings in Mumbai,” he said. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, said: “I certainly agree with the nexus (between al-Qaeda and the LeT), and I have watched it over the last year to two, that these groups are coming together... Secretary Gates talked about the linkage between the LeT and Al Qaeda.”

Shall we continue to advocate for a sustainable strategy of attack that targets mid-tier personalities? What promotes the best method of exploitation from here moving forward in targeting affiliate and/or other networks; North Africa, Somalia, Yemen? I will take an accident, especially one that leads to a surreal result, but I think it wise to plan according to the nature of the beast(s) and the threat(s) we face: Each operational environment varies, and is morphing (as seen in the recent growth of Al Shabaab).

22 February 2010

Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty

Today AQ-affiliated terrorist Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty in Brooklyn Federal Court, admitting that he and several associates were planning a "martyrdom operation" targeting Manhattan's subway system to be carried out sometime in mid-September 2009. As has been previously reported, Zazi's plot was disrupted by federal officials who had been tracking him for several months, eventually ending in his car being stopped by FBI agents on a bridge into Manhattan. Prior to his arrest, Zazi resided in Aurora, CO, where he had rented a hotel room and was utilizing a recipe (given to him at an Al Qaeda training facility in Pakistan) to create TATP-based explosives.

Zazi faces a maximum sentence of life in prison after pleading guilty to three separate charges: conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to kill US soldiers abroad, and providing support to al Qaeda. Reportedly, Zazi agreed to plead guilty to the charges in an attempt to spare his parents from prosecution.

For more background on Najibullah Zazi and the circumstances leading to his detention in September 2009, check out my previous posts here and here. Also, see this excellent summary of the incident from the NEFA Foundation.

Zazi's guilty plea in this important case is significant for several reasons:

1) In terms of understanding current and future threats, Zazi's failed plot highlights the fact that Al Qaeda still retains the capability and intent to conduct attacks against the US homeland originating from the AfPak region. Zazi first became affiliated with Al Qaeda at a training camp in Pakistan in 2008, where he traveled so that he could fight alongside the Taliban. However, several AQ leaders identified his potential utility in a more significant attack, re-directing him to focus on planning and conducting a suicide attack in the US. I think it's safe to assume that AQ continues to focus much of their recruiting efforts on US citizens and visa holders, as evidenced by the five young men from Virginia who were recently arrested in Pakistan after being recruited via Facebook.

2) In terms of determining how best to prosecute future terrorist cases within the US, the successful guilty plea by Zazi should be viewed as evidence that utilizing the existing criminal system (rather than the military justice system) is the best way to go. As Attorney General Eric Holder said today, "In this case, as it has in so many other cases, the criminal justice system has proved to be an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists, one that works in concert with the intelligence community and our military." The ability to apply pressure to Zazi through prosecution of his parents would not have been available in the military justice system. We are also seeing similar results in the ongoing interrogations and prosecution of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the failed Christmas Day bomber), who began providing detailed intelligence to officials after his parents were flown to Detroit.

18 February 2010

Watch For al-Qaeda Propaganda

Joseph Andrew Stack, age 53, crashed his plane into a building after setting his home on fire. His 6-page suicide note is a rant against the US, specifically the IRS, as corrupt and greedy (among other things). In closing, Joe stated:

"I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well. The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.”

As of Thursday, there are upwards of ten social networking groups listed on Facebook alone, all in the name of Joe Stack. One titles itself, "Joseph Andrew Stack, we salute thee." Another, " The Philosophy of Joe Stack." One more, "Take My Pound of Flesh Anti-IRSPage." Many of these pages "sympathize" with Joe because he was "only trying to prove a point." Others are a flat-out "dedication" to his "right action" as the "first casualty in America's Revolution." Some take an objective view, simply providing a forum for discussing the question, "Will he be remembered as a patriot or terrorist?”

The main reason why I am even posting on this topic is to bring to light the highly-probable event that al-Qaeda will, after they receive information on the "deed" of "brother" Joe Stack and analyze it, tailor a message echoing "infidel greed;" with elements to the effect that "America is tearing itself a part, and it should be no surprise." This dangerous message, in pinpointing the collective confusion in the wake of the event (and events similar, such as repeated college-campus shootings) and the personal frustration with the US domestic economic hardship (mostly due, according to their anticipated analysis, with the structural system), can never serve to increase and/or speed the radicalization process. AQ will most definitely tie it to the work (or inability to work, according to their perspective) of President Obama and his "failure," as al-Zawahiri did this past November.

Such a message, if/when issued, would re-iterate, once more, the emphasis on AQ Phase IV Strategy, as shown here in a statement by OBL on 30 October, 2004;

"All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.

All Praise is due to Allah."

In short, examining the personalities can draw distinctions and parallels of active psychological frameworks; meaning that Joe Stack can be compared and contrasted to Nidal Hasan because they both shared an "anger" towards America and their activities, either military and/or economic. Furthermore, analysis can follow comparing and contrasting the propaganda projected by AQ in both cases for purpose of underlining tactical methods. Questions to consider (for a start);

(a) Who delivered the message;

(b) From where was it delivered;

(c) What was the main message;

(d) What descriptive language was used;

(e) How does it support AQ campaign, either AQCL and/or affiliate (i.e. AQAP)?

Further analysis is required, and time will only tell. I think this event raises the importance of examining the ever-emerging use of the Internet as the breeding ground, what NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly calls the "new Afghanistan." As I have continually said, such interconnected analysis can serve as a resource in the formation of a solid counter-narrative program. Joe Stack used a 6-page letter to communicate his creed; AQ will use their methods as well. We must continue to use full-scale information warfare tactics.

17 February 2010

A Sequel to Steven Spielberg's "Munich"?

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founding leader of Hamas, was suffocated on January 19, 2010, in Dubai.

Background on Mahmoud al-Mabhouh
Mahmoud was a key node in Hamas' arms smuggling operation, providing arms to Hamas fighters in the Gaza strip. Mahmoud was even reported as being the prime conduit for the Iranian arms shipment that Israel interdicted in Sudan last year. In the early years, Mahmoud pioneered the TTP of capturing Israeli soldiers in order to create favorable negotiating platforms. Israel suspected Mahmoud played an integral role in the capture of Avi Sasportas andIIan Sa'adon in 1989. In addition to this, Mahmoud is widely regarded as the founding member of Hamas' military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade (1992).

Piecing together the events:
At 0900, Mahmoud boarded Flight EK 912 from Damascus, Syria to Dubai and landed at 1430 local time. Dubai officials denied knowing Mahmoud landed at the Dubai International Airport because he flew under an alias. Under the same assumed named, Mahmoud checked into the Bouston Rotana hotel. There are different reports placing Mahmoud on the first floor in RM 130or the second floor, RM 230. Haartz reports that Mahmoud left the hotel around 1630 to meet with someone for dinner and returned sometime around 2030. It is believed that Hamas leadership knew who Mahmoud was meeting in Dubai.

Dubai officials informed CNN that they have identified 11 suspects (seen above) in connection with Mahmoud al-Mabhouh's assassination. The group acquired European passports (1 German, 1 French, 3 Irish, and 6 British). Some of the suspects dressed in tennis attire and carried tennis rackets to look like tourists. Others had wigs and fake mustaches to help conceal true identities. Exact details are sketchy; however, the assassins worked in groups of 2-4 personnel, and stayed in different hotels around Dubai. The man with the French passport is believed to be the logistical expert, who specifically asked for a room across from Mahmoud's and paid in cash. Below is a compilation of surveillance tapes that show a chilling site, the assassins working in teams shadowing Mahmoud, and even rode with him in an elevator prior to his execution. The group had fairly sophisticated equipment that allowed the assassination team entry into the hotel room, without having to create a commotion. Mahmoud had what looked like teaser burns on his body and was believed to be suffocated by a pillow. Mahmoud's wife placed a call to his cell phone at approximately 2130, which he failed to answer. It is believed that Mahmoud died prior, between 2030 and 2050. It is clear that the assassination squad had detailed information prior to January 19, because the team only spent 19 total hours in Dubai. Within minutes of Mahmoud's assassination, the team calmly walked out of the Bouston Rotana hotel, and promptly boarded flights to Europe. Later, Mahmoud's body was transported back to Damascus, Syria for his funeral.

Hamas reports that Mahmoud was not short on enemies to include; Israel, the Palestinian Authority (Fata), and both Egypt/Jordan (where he spent a year in prison). All had reasons to target him, but Israel quickly became the focus of the speculations. Mir Oren, who wrote an editorial for Haartz, calls for the Mossad Cheif to resign. He describes MG Meir Dagan as, "belligerent and Heavy-handed". The Washington Post provides a similar article where Israeli Security Officials believe Mahmoud's assassination was in fact the work of Mossad, Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Minister Avigdor Lieberman provided even less information by neither confirming, nor denying, Israels involvement stating, "Israel never responds, never confirms, and never denies". The assassination TTP fits in line with previous assassinations linked to Mossad, except for the use of passports from Israelis with dual citizenship. I have not had the time to fully research other attacks, but I doubt there are other examples of Mossad assassinations conducted with passports from people with dual Israeli citizenships. For an assassination that was expertly resourced, planned, and executed, I have a hard time believing such poor trade craft would be used. Adding to my disbelief, Dubai reported they detained two U.A.E citizens with Palestinian decent in connection to the hit squad. Dahi Khaflan, A Dubai Police Chief stated, "The United Arab Emirates does not accept the notion that its land can be used as a battlefield for settling scores...". If they truly believe this, it will be imperative for Dubai to keep Iran from using their resort city as a facilitation rat line.

Next in Line: Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir?

By now, we’ve all heard the great news of Mullah Baradar’s capture. As most analysts and experts agree, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was a vitally important figure within the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) – overseeing the day-to-day operations of the group, developing and enforcing the recently released Taliban “Code of Conduct,” serving as an intermediary to Mullah Omar, and running the Taliban’s Shura (and associated sub-committees) based in Quetta, Pakistan. For an excellent profile of Mullah Baradar, check out this article from Newsweek and for some insightful analysis on the potential implications of his capture, check out great articles from The Economist, Josh Foust at Registan, and Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal.

While it’s absolutely critical to examine the events leading up to Mullah Baradar’s capture and the implications of his capture on US policy and operations in the wider Af-Pak region, I’d like to focus on a more immediate question: Who will replace Mullah Baradar? And (closely related) who should the US focus on next within the Taliban? Based on my research and analysis, the answer to both is clear: Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir aka Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul.

Mullah Zakir, born circa 1973, is an Afghan citizen from Helmand province who has been involved with the Taliban movement for the majority of his life. Zakir was a senior fighter during the Taliban regime in the 1990s. In a memorandum prepared for his administrative review board at Guantanamo, Zakir stated he, "felt it would be fine to wage jihad against Americans, Jews, or Israelis if they were invading his country." In 2001, he surrendered to US and Afghan forces in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif as the regime was collapsing. He spent the next several years in custody, was transferred to Guantanamo around 2006 (listed as ISN #008), then to Afghanistan government custody in late 2007 (in Block D of the Pul e Charkhi prison), and was eventually released around May 2008. For more on his circumstances of capture and subsequent release, see these excellent articles from the UK Times Online here and here. Also, for summaries and full transcripts of all three of Zakir’s Guantanamo release boards, check out his Wikipedia entry here.

As Seth Jones (from RAND) explains in his excellent profile, Mullah Zakir wasted little time rejoining his Taliban brothers in their fight against ISAF and ANSF forces, quickly assuming another high-level position within the organization as the Overall Emir for South Afghanistan (responsible for a huge area including the vital provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban’s primary safe haven and command and control (C2) base as well as the logistical hub for Taliban supply, finance, and drug smuggling). Clearly, the fact that Mullah Zakir was appointed to such a prominent position almost immediately after his release speaks to his stature within the organization and helps to confirm reports of his close relationship with both Mullah Omar and Mullah Baradar. Mullah Zakir quickly developed a reputation as a charismatic and effective leader, helping to increase the level and severity of IED attacks across RC-South while simultaneously bolstering the Taliban shadow governance system and minimizing Taliban excesses that could cost them valuable popular support among locals.

In fact, multiple reports suggest that Mullah Zakir was one of the primary authors of the 2009 Taliban Code of Conduct (along with Mullah Baradar). This document (and the enforcement of its provisions) has been critical during the Taliban’s campaign to bolster their control and influence across the country, especially in RC-South – where ISAF leaders have chosen to focus the initial elements of the US “surge” beginning with Operation Moshtarak in Marjah. In addition to his prominent role as the overall emir of South Afghanistan, I also assess that Mullah Zakir plays an important role within the Taliban’s Shura (“council”), which oversees and plans all QST operations from Pakistan. He is likely the de-facto replacement for Mullah Dadullah Lang (EKIA in May 07) as the Chief of the Taliban Military Commission and is also assessed to run the important Accountability Commission (responsible for implementing the Taliban Code of Conduct and acting as the Taliban’s version of “internal affairs”). As the head of these two committees, Mullah Zakir essentially runs both the Taliban’s lethal and non-lethal operations across the entire country, making him an extremely influential leader within the organization.

In the wake of Mullah Baradar’s capture, we can expect the Taliban to choose a competent, experienced, and well-respected replacement. An individual who understands both the lethal military aspects of the fight as well as the equally important imperative to win the support of the local Afghan populace. Mullah Zakir fits this description perfectly. In fact, as Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal notes, it appears that one of the first Taliban commanders to confirm Baradar’s capture in a telephone interview with Bloomberg was none other than “Abdul Qayam,” likely identifiable with Mullah Zakir. I’m confident that our expert interrogators and analysts are already working with the Pakistani Army (and ISI) to fully exploit Mullah Baradar, likely with the primary focus of developing lines to Mullah Omar. Hopefully they are also developing actionable intelligence on other key QST leaders, particularly Mullah Zakir. I expect that Zakir’s influence and importance will increase significantly now that Mullah Baradar is out of the picture.

16 February 2010

Who's Who The Terrorist Edition: Qari Hussain Ahmed Mehsud

Qari Hussain Ahmed Mehsud
Occupation: Taliban Commander (TTP)
Born: December 6, 1988 (Kotki, South Waziristan)
Education: Early Islamic education close to home, then transfered to the Jamia Farooqia University in Karachi, Pakistan, to further his Islamic studies.
Employer: Qari is under Cousin Hakeemullah's (if alive) chain of command
Career Highlights: In 2007, Qari took a page from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's book and began to train suicide bombers and implemented beheadings as a future technique. He also received much media attention for his creation of a suicide training camp that focused its teachings on children. Australian media reports that Qari may have even trained Balawi, suicide bomber who attack FOB Chapman. Here is a list of suicide attacks possibly linked to Qari's hand; Lakki Marwat (88 Dead), Lahore (22 Dead), Jamrud (50 Dead), Islamabad (60 Dead), Lahore (30 Dead), and Bannu (15 Dead)
Family: Familial ties to Hakeemullah Mehsud (cousin)
Address: South Waziristan
Assessment Summary: Qari is a likely successor and will one day lead the TTP if he is not killed before he gets his chance. Qari is also apart of the "2nd Generation" of terrorist leadership, one that is more ruthless and needs less religious justification to do their deeds. Look for a shift in targeting from Qari, focusing more attention and possibly a new TTP targeting Political Officials. Visit the LWJ to read more about Qari.

15 February 2010

HIMARS Use In Afghanistan Suspended After 10 Civilians Killed In Marja

“The compound that was hit was not the one we were targeting,” said Captain Joshua Biggers.

Yesterday in Marja, an embattled Marine Rifle Company called in a HIMARS rocket strike to help clear a stubborn and well entrenched enemy. The resulting kinetic strike hit a compound that was full of civilians, killing 12. Following this tragic engagement, GEN McChrystal ordered the immediate suspension of the use of HIMARS until an investigation of the incident can be completed.

Rewind to January 28th, 2008, a Platoon from my Battalion is struck with a massive IED in southeast Mosul that kills five Soldiers. The remainder of the Platoon is engaging a well-prepared enemy seemingly all around them. A Scout Weapons Team from 4-6 Air Cavalry Squadron (ACS) provides overhead cover and immediately begins gun runs on enemy locations. Munitions carried by the OH-58s are insufficient, so the Platoon on the ground calls for something bigger. The events as told by me here are from my perspective in the Battalion TOC. I was the Task Force Fire Support Officer, so my perspective on the situation is slightly removed and not based on ground truth. Further, the situation I am about to provide does not make me look like a stellar performer, and luckily for me, I was able to learn from this event without directly resulting in any loss of friendly or civilian life. My Fire Support Element, upon learning of the Troops-in-Contact (TIC) situation immediately brought assets to bear overhead, including manned and unmanned surveillance platforms, and a pair of F-16’s. My Fire Supporters in the TOC are simultaneously receiving reports from the Company CP and FSO, the battlespace-owning Company, the Battle Captain and the visual sensors overhead. With that tremendous amount of information, we (those of us in the TOC) were still unable to gain fidelity of what was going on. After determining a GPS-guided 500 pound bomb (GBU-38) was necessary to stop the incessant enemy fire on the Platoon, we began the necessary steps required to drop the bomb. We checked and re-checked the engagement location with the ground elements, running their grids through our targeting systems to ensure we were about to target the correct building (in this case a mosque). After doing this multiple times, attempting to confirm visually through our sensors, we finally received clearance to engage. As the F-16 began its final run-in, we were told by the powers that be to abort the 500 pound bomb drop. Hellfire strikes from the OH-58s coupled with advancing US and Iraqi elements were able to finally gain control of the situation. As the event culminated, I sat and watched in amazement as the elements on the ground cleared a different mosque than the one we had seemingly confirmed a dozen times over. The grid my team in the TOC was provided with over and over again was not the location the ground element was clearing. My Fire Supporters in the TOC took the grid from the ground element and the building description and found a match. What we did not realize is that there were multiple mosques in the area matching the description, and one of them was too new to be on our newest and most up-to-date imagery.

This was my Battalion’s first major engagement and many of the checks, balances and systems we would develop over the next 13 months were a direct result of this situation. I became a staunch advocate of the gridded reference graphic (GRG), along with several other checks that must be met before I was comfortable putting a bomb on target. Luckily, we ended up not dropping that day.

Looking again at Marja, it becomes easier to understand why something went wrong there. I’m not on the ground there, so I have no idea where the flow of information went wrong; from sensor to shooter there are many sets of eyes and many computers involved. What I do know is that I have never personally seen this rocket miss; it goes where someone tells it to go. I’ve also been that young Platoon Leader and Company FSO on the ground trying to put munitions in the right place while being shot at. It’s not easy and it’s not fun. After this investigation is completed, I’m willing to bet that this “errant strike” will be attributed to inaccurate reporting from the Company on the ground, or the first level where the information is plugged into our targeting systems, whether that is Battalion-level or higher. These are the two most-likely stops in the flow where something will go wrong.

The Celebration of President's Day

From President George Washington's Farewell Address, September 19, 1796:
"The unity of Government, which constitutes you one people, is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty, which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee, that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion, that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of american, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.

But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those, which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the Union of the whole."

From President Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the fight as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

14 February 2010

AQAP and Shabab: A 2010 Naval Alliance?

In mid-2008, al Qaeda’s al Ikhlas media published an article calling for the establishment of naval jihad cells. The article highlighted the waters off Yemen as being of supreme strategic importance to Western interests.

This week Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) urged Harakat Shabab Mujahideen (HSM) to join them in an effort to reclaim the Bab al Mandab Strait for the lands of Islam. I initially discounted this commentary as utterly ridiculous; both groups lack any kind of legitimate naval force. After sitting back with a phenomenal pre-deployment glass of Glenmorangie “Extremely Rare” 18 year old scotch, I began to re-think what it would take for AQ to actually reclaim, or at least severely disrupt foreign interests in the strategic “Gate of Tears”.

An AQAP-HSM coalition would not have to actually block the 18-mile wide sea corridor; they would likely find it quite difficult with a combined maritime task force operating in the area. Instead, all they have to do is conduct some kind of operation that permeates a far greater psychological threat internationally. Three of the most viable offensive operations available to an AQ maritime force include:

1. Attack against naval forces while docked in Djibouti, similar to the USS Cole attack in Aden. This is the least likely of three potentially viable possibilities I offer due to the difficulty (read: perceived difficulty, I’ve never been there) of breaching port defenses.

2. Suicide attack using pirate “mother-ship” techniques. The techniques and procedures for Somali pirates are constantly evolving and could easily be manipulated to support a suicide attack against either a naval or civilian vessel in open water. There is a plethora of open-source reporting on the links between southern Somali pirates and HSM, which lends credence to this method for maritime offensive operations. The downfall is that this is unlikely to cause the psychological impact that AQAP-HSM requires to effectively shut off the Strait.

3. Homemade sea mines. This is the most dangerous, and arguably the easiest, option available to AQAP-HSM in the Strait. HSM has maintained the capability to conduct IED strikes for years now, so the transition to a waterproof-version would not be a giant technological leap. A mined Bab al Mandab Strait would take weeks to clear and have the sufficient psychological impact necessary to close the Strait off from all foreign vessels. Indigenous fishermen using wooden boats would be able to travel through the minefield with very little threat of detonation, so the impact on locals would be negligible. It would also be relatively cheap and require no real complex planning or scheme. That’s the real beauty of all of this. AQAP-HSM just have to evoke a psychological response, they don’t have to actually sink any ships (although it wouldn’t hurt their cause).

“A naval minefield is a significant physical and psychological threat that can cause attrition to enemy ships and submarines or limit ship movements by forcing delays and diversions because of perceptions and fears, both real and exaggerated.” (Doctor, 1998)

These scenarios are unlikely in the near future. HSM will have their hands full in the near-term countering the TFG offensive underway in and around Mogadishu. If the TFG offensive sputters by the Spring, which is highly likely, it may provide the necessary breathing room for an expanding AQAP-HSM partnership to open a maritime front.

13 February 2010

Historical Analysis: US, China, Iran, & the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

President Obama and the Dalai Lama are to meet on Thursday, February 18, in the White House Map Room, four months after a previous meeting between the leaders was postponed in October, 2009 during the Dalai Lama's visit to Washington. As the Washington Post notes, "That made October the first time the Dalai Lama has come to Washington without meeting with the American president since before 1991, when he met with George H. W. Bush."

*Following this visit, the Dalai Lama will present lectures in Los Angeles and throughout Florida on the need for compassion in the pursuit of world peace. See more information on his CA speech here, and more on his FL speech at Florida Atlantic University here.

The emphasis, I think, should not be on the fact that President Obama and the Dalai Lama did not meet the first time around, but on the situation surrounding their upcoming meeting in less than a week. An historical analysis presents reasons to conclude that; (a) their interaction is representative of a necessary, established tradition of protecting human rights, and (b) this meeting comes at an pressing time in US foreign relations.

Human Rights

His Holiness, as he is called by followers, visits the democratic nation of the United States to, for one, be a messenger of good news as all religious leaders ought to be. In particular, I think his journeys here are a continuation of his peaceful campaign for compassion against violence, which rightly includes the building of relationships with Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Throughout the past two decades, American Presidents have welcomed the Dalai Lama as a champion of human rights, and as an advocate for the defense thereof. Each time a meeting has been held with both parties, representatives of the Chinese Government have issued statements of disapproval and warnings of forthcoming strains in relationship. In terms of international relations, the
US does, in fact, understand Tibet as part of China, but recognizes the struggle to establish the full granting and practice of human rights.

After meeting with President H.W. Bush in April 1991, President Clinton heard arguments from Tibetan delegates that China was undertaking
"population transfer into Tibet of alarming proportions" intended to reduce the Tibetans to a minority in their own region. This time, President Obama, I think, will receive a similar message from China that his predecessor, President W. Bush did in 2007: "China's display of anger [will be] demonstrated by its [non-support of sanctions] on Iran's nuclear program." A 2008 meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Sarkozy resulted in the same behavior: China cancelled a summit with the European Union.

Economic Growth

We must consider, in light of this possibility, whether President Obama may have successfully reduced this chance of occurrence through his diplomatic discussions with Chinese leaders in November 2009. A released White House statement did report that Obama's "visit to China has demonstrated the depth and breadth of the global and other challenges where US-China cooperation is critical." Although his postponment of his meeting with the Dalai Lama did seek to ensure a strengthing of US-Sino relations, "Zhu Weiqun, a Communist Party official who manages Tibet affairs, said on Feb. 2 that the meeting would 'seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations" and "not help the United States surmount the current economic crisis."

We must consider also, in light of the upcoming meeting, whether the Dalai Lama's
Nine Rounds of Dialogue with Chinese leadership, who oppose his pursuit for autonomy in the Tibetan homeland, has either added fuel to the fire or stabilized disagreement of and/or anger at the US-Tibet relationship. Recent reports give overwhelming reason to think his efforts have only resulted in the former. In addition to China's dissatisfaction with the ninth round, the selling of US weapons to Taiwan, who is also viewed by China as a part of its political territory, has set a stage for further confrontation in the coming months.

So it seems that, yes, feelings of anger and actions of ignoring the US are bound to happen again as they have done historically. But, the current situation is strikingly different than before when considering the two most important diplomatic relations at stake between the US and China; one, economic prosperity - in particular trade - and two, military defense - in particular nuclear warfare.

For one, as discussed by columnist Frank Ching from the China Post;
"...the United States was in a much stronger position vis-a-vis China in the 1990s. Beijing was fearful of losing its most-favored-nation trading status and
desirous of American support for it to join the World Trade Organization. Now, Beijing is Washington's biggest creditor and the United States wants China to continue to lend it money by buying Treasury bonds."
China is the single biggest holder of US Treasuries, owning at least US$776.4 billion of US government debt at the end of June 2009. Moreover, not only has China just recently surpassed Germany, the now-former Exportmeister, as the world's third-largest economy as a result of its tenfold growth in three decades, but the nation "will become the 'pre-eminent world commercial influence' by 2035 when it surpasses the U.S. economy," according to a report released in 2008 by Albert Keidel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Indeed, despite global trends of slower growth, China's economy continues to "expand strongly in emerging markets."

In comparison, Chinese Gross Domestic Product has expanded 10.7 percent over the last four quarters, while United States Gross Domestic Product has expanded .10 percent over the same time period. The growth is attributed, in many ways, to China's ability to export, which gives indications of strong domestic market trends. As we are well aware, the US ability to grow over time will be strained by the onslaught of debt (i.e. monies from China), although the dollar will gain advantage over the euro the undergoing
economic struggle of Greece and concern in general for the PIGS - Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Greece. Both factors will certainly add to China's arm-twisting; although, improvements seem to be forthcoming .
*For further explaination of how China has succeeded in expanding its growth, see the section titled, "Another Look at China's Success Story," in Jeffrey Sach and Wing Thye Woo's report published by the World Bank Group, entitled, China's Transition Experience, Reexamined).

National Defense

Secondly, as Iran continues to claim it will now begin to enrich uranium - which indicates their ability to soon become a nuclear nation - the US needs strong, multilateral support as it moves forward with sanctions.

There is "overwhelming evidence" that Iran has been and is a sponsor of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan (although presumably now more cautious than before), and failing and/or faltering to dry Iran's thirst for nuclear weapons will not only greatly alter the geo-strategic threat throughout Israel and Palestine, as well as shift the power constructs of the Middle East, but redefine US foreign policy. Furthermore, I think it will allow Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network to propagandize US efforts - or the lack thereof. The prospect of AQ obtaining nuclear, biological, and/or chemical weapons is always on the front burner, and it still remains a possibility we must safeguard against that Iran can transfer [at least some] resources to AQ.

President Clinton angered China in 1995-96 during his efforts to deter Iran from opening its energy sector to foreign investments, resulting in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, and President W. Bush experienced the same in his actions to pressure North Korea, sell the first part of the $6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan, and previously continue sanctions on Iranian banks and nuclear programs. James Dobbins, an analyst at RAND, thinks there are good chances during President Obama's continued talks with China that they will yield sanctions on Iran by abstaining and "not standing in the way of them."

Both China and Iran will be watching President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, and walking the line of good relations with China is connected also to forthcoming dealings with Iran, especially when considering the US role as a broker in the Arab-Israeli peace process. As stated in the Joint Experts' Statement on Iran (November 2008);

"Any U.S. moves towards mediating the Arab-Israeli crisis in a balanced way would ease tensions in the region, and would be positively received as a step forward for peace. As a practical matter, however, experience has shown that any long-term solution to Israel’s problems with the Palestinians and Lebanon

probably will require dealing, directly or indirectly, with Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran supports these organizations, and thus has influence with them."

This statement, I think, shows how far-reaching dealings with China can be when considering the connections to national defense, incorporating both Iran and nuclear warfare and terrorist networks. (I do not think it is an overstatement; rather, I think it shows the effects of systems-oriented globalization - where one region is affected by other regions while simultaneously affecting another - and increasing alterations in the Middle East region, especially the strings that are attached).


It is a shame, plain and simple, that the meeting with the Dalai Lama cannot be nothing other than a celebration of human rights. I think President Obama's strong personality will certainly carry this tone during the established tradition, but it remains a part of the equation that how he handles US interests in this matter will impact future economic and military relations with China and Iran, and subordinately, their associates (such as those mentioned here) North Korea, Hamas, and Hezbollah. President Obama may be planning to take another strategy from the Joint Experts' Statement by using the upcoming February 18 meeting to "Support human rights through effective, international means," in that; "While the United States is rightly concerned with [China and] Iran’s record of human rights violations, the best way to address that concern is through supporting recognized international efforts."

Perhaps the White House Map Room has further directions on this matter stashed away somewhere.