External Forces Driving al-Qaeda Action and Zawahiri's Global Conference Call

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Clint Watts

Earlier this week at FPRI, I proposed the “two competing al Qaedas hypothesis” as a theory for explaining the internal factors that may be pushing Ayman al-Zawahiri to execute a major attack on the West.  However, aside from the many internal forces that may be at play, a host of external forces also make now particularly ripe for an attack.  The alleged direct order issued by Ayman al-Zawahiri to his newest deputy and emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Nasir al-Wuhaysi  (and possibly all of his affiliates during a conference call – see below) may be inspired by many actions taking place.  Here are some obvious and maybe less obvious reasons why there are external forces prompting Zawahiri’s call to action. 

  • Uhh, they are al-Qaeda after all, a terrorist group, attacks are what they do! – As I’ve commented over the past couple years, Zawahiri and al-Qaeda Central needs a spectacular attack.  Global al-Qaeda has not executed a big attack on the West in quite some time and if a terror group doesn’t execute attacks, it’s fairly hard to keep donors and recruits excited.  Without attack production, resource and personnel inputs will likely decline  (a.k.a. “Zawahiri’s Put-up or Shut-up Problem”).
  • Pace of attacks, R&D and planning time – al-Qaeda affiliates have varying abilities to conduct attacks on the West and varying access to Western targets.  AQAP in Yemen has been the primary affiliate for attacking the West in recent years and a key component of this capability is Ibrahim Asiri – AQAP’s talented bombmaker.  Some news stories this week allege that Asiri and his band of bombmaking partners have developed the ability to make undetectable explosive clothing from a new liquid drying process.  As long as he’s alive, Asiri is likely to continue creating more sophisticated devices.  Drones and other counterterrorism actions may be able to slow down the pace of development but ultimately if Asiri and AQAP have even a small handful of operatives planning attacks on the West, there will eventually be more sophisticated plots arising. See the chart below (Figure A) for my crude estimate of Asiri and AQAP’s planning and development timeline since Dec. 2009 measured alongside the pace of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen (New America Foundation data).

  • Egypt -  The fall of the Morsi regime at the hands of the Egyptian military opens another opportuntity for Zawahiri in his home country.  His anti-democratic narrative and possible opportunity to rally Salafis and maybe more militant Muslim Brotherhood elements presents a  second life to an al-Qaeda in the Sinai that was quelled by losses.
  • Syria – Zawahiri needs to reassert his reach into Syria.  Why not use a global attack to refocus jihadi objectives on al-Qaeda’s bigger prizes: the U.S., the West and Israel.

 Aside from today’s news of a Yemeni counterterrorism disruption of a plot to seize a port and kill Westerners, the Daily Beast is reporting that the call intercepted was not just a call from Ayman al-Zawahiri to his new deputy, AQAP’s commander Wuhaysi.  Instead, the Daily Beast reports that it was a global conference call led by Zawahiri and included:

“representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official”

What? This sounds like a crazy villain call mocked in movies like Team America.  I can't believe this is true.  In fact, I need more confirmation, but I’ll ponder this situation as if its true as it could be quite revealing about al-Qaeda and Zawahiri.

Question: If the Daily Beast story is true, why on earth would Zawahiri do a global conference call and risk himself and all of his subordinates in such a way?  After more than a decade on the run and utilizing the most stringent operational security imaginable, why would Zawahiri jump to a live phone call over three continents? This would take an amazing amount of pre-coordination just to execute.

  • Maybe its deception - Based on current revelations from Snowden and Zawahiri's general assumption that his communications are already monitored, maybe Zawahiri devised an elaborate global feinting maneuver triggering the U.S. to react and revealing for sure that the U.S. monitors him.  Essentially, the call was a giant fake-out that required no effort on the part of al-Qaeda, put them back in the media spotlight and terrorized the West without even a single explosion.  But still, if the call was true, this would expose a lot of his network and risk operatives everywhere. Again, if the conference call story is true, I think the deception theory doesn’t hold.  Failing to attack after such a forced communication would only further diminish Zawahiri’s credibility.
  • Reiterate to everyone that Zawahiri is the boss - Failing to commit an attack in a long while, struggling to communicate with his affiliates in a timely manner and smelling dissension in the ranks (Baghdadi in Iraq possibly), nothing says command and control like a conference call.  Zawahiri needs to rein everyone in and get them marching in the same direction. Operational security and command and control are always at odds with each other.  Years of the “Digital Pony Express” whereby Bin Laden and Zawahiri dispatch couriers with thumb drives has left al-Qaeda Central out of touch and undermined command and control.  As his grip slips, Zawahiri recognizes the need to reestablish his leadership and throws operational security to the wind to maintain command and control.  (See Felter, Shapiro, Bramlett, Fishman in CTC-West Point’s Harmony and Disharmony for a great description for this tradeoff. I included the graphic below in Figure 1.) 
  • Maybe Zawahiri doesn’t think he has much time left -  In concert with feeling a loss of control, Zawahiri may feel that he doesn’t have much time left to either execute an attack or continue as leader.  Zawahiri isn’t a spring chicken, he could be sick. Or maybe he thinks the drones aren’t far from him.  Either way, he formalizes his succession plan by formally declaring Wuhaysi as second-in-command and snubbing any upstarts that may want to take control in the event of Zawahiri’s death (Baghdadi maybe).
  • Zawahiri needs an attack so bad, he doesn’t care what he has to do to get it – If you're a global terrorist group that doesn’t commit global terrorist attacks, then what are you really?  With drones killing leaders left and right, Syria overshadowing bigger AQ, and Egypt posing a potential opportunity, if Zawahiri was ever going to go all in, why not now?  If there are attacks on the West available for execution, why not use them now in a coordinated fashion?

The past week has reenergized a neverending debate as to whether al-Qaeda is stronger or weaker, growing or retracting, and in all cases this debate is both impossible to measure and impossible to conclude for there is no common understanding of what al-Qaeda is and what defeat would look like. What I’m more interested in is how often a globally coordinated conference call-type of communication has occurred amongst Zawahiri and his affiliates?  If it’s happened before, then it likely means that despite the pushback of sub-leaders like Baghdadi in Iraq, al-Qaeda remains a global organization after more than a decade since the 9/11 attacks. 

However, if this is a one-time type of global communication, the conference call could signal something very different.  Zawahiri might be saying, “OK team, let’s give it one last push!” The recent series of al-Qaeda linked prison breaks across multiple countries may demonstrate sustained coordination of the former scenario.  But this is difficult to tell and I don’t think that anyone working off strictly open source information will know the answer to these questions. 

Lastly, who leaked this phone call information?  And why?  If the U.S. is intercepting senior leader calls like this, why give away that information?  Unless of course the motive was political, and then that might explain the leaks.  With pressure to pull back on communication surveillance and reduce drone use, there is strong incentive in all parts of the U.S. government to start letting the American public know what threats the U.S. is facing.  While I shutter at the harm it does to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities, maybe it is a good thing for the American public to become a bit more informed on terrorist threats that have largely dropped from their radar with each year since the 9/11 attacks. 

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al QaedaAQAPyemen