Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Al-Qaeda Plots, NSA Intercepts & the Era Of Terrorism Competition

Al-Qaeda Plots, NSA Intercepts & the Era Of Terrorism Competition

This weekend, the U.S. closed 22 of its embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa in response to an al-Qaeda threat described by Rep. Peter King described as, “the most specific I’ve seen.”  The New York Times reports, “Intelligence officials said the threat focused on the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen,” and the threat advisory coincides with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent public message released this week. 

This latest threat to American and Western targets overseas is not surprising because of the many internal motivations of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda to plot a spectacular attack now.  Increasingly, al-Qaeda Central and what I would now call al-Qaeda Central Forward — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen -– face stiff competition with one of its own affiliates, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the latter’s recent absorption of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

“…competing al Qaeda affiliates may actually increase their attack tempo in an effort to assert themselves” – FPRI, June 17, 2013

As I noted last month when al-Baghdadi rebuffed al-Zawahiri’s announcement of a dissolution of the AQI – Nusra merger, Zawahiri needs to take action in one or more ways that I described in this FPRI post from June 17, 2013 and highlighted here. 

Zawahiri needs to: 1) execute a spectacular attack to re-establish his credibility, 2) increase and speed up communication between he and his subordinates, 3) regain control of resource distribution as most affiliates are currently self-financed, and 4) fire somebody – nothing demonstrates power more than removing subordinate leaders.    

I’ve gotten the sense that since the rise of the Syrian conflict two different strains of al-Qaeda-like threats have emerged.  The first group is the remaining “Old Guard” al-Qaeda members loyal to bin Laden and his successor Zawahiri.  The second, I believe, is al-Qaeda in Iraq who claims to have absorbed Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria as part of the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – although its still undetermined who is leading who in this region. 

“Old Guard” al Qaeda – From Pakistan to Yemen to…..

Drones have taken a toll on Zawahiri’s AQ Central headquarters and over the past several years AQAP has taken the lead role in conducting external operations against the U.S.  Additionally, several clues have surfaced over the past year to suggest that aside from Zawahiri, AQAP has assumed the role of al-Qaeda’s central headquarters. First, as far back as 2011, AQAP provided resources (though insufficient) to the Nasr City cell in Egypt as part of Zawahiri’s alleged plans to overthrow the Morsi regime.  This is not surprising as AQAP’s proximity to Arab Gulf donors and relative but short-lived sustainment of a safe haven in Yemen made them ideally suited to perform fund transfers on behalf of AQ Central. Second, over the past two to three years, AQAP has increased its role as a propaganda hub through its creation and distribution of Inspire magazine and up until the end of 2011 playing host to Anwar al-Awlaki who embodied the unique qualities needed to rally recruits globally via the Internet. Third, the revelations of Omar Hammami, the American terrorist on the outs with al-Shabaab, details how AQAP in Yemen provided the needed communication and coordination function between AQ Central in Pakistan and al Shabaab in Somalia.  Fourth, the FBI recently named suspects in the Benghazi and an unnamed source reported to CNN that three to four of the suspects were from AQAP in Yemen further showing signs of AQ Central’s reliance on AQAP for the conduct of attacks against the West.  Lastly, this week Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly formalized the appointment of AQAP’s leader Nasir al-Wuhaysi as al-Qaeda’s overall second-in-command.  (This Paul Cruickshank article at CNN provides a good overview on the AQAP connections to the recent embassy closures.

In 2012, I was trying to determine what role a headquarters plays for al-Qaeda globally and descended on these items:

“A headquarters provides strategic vision outlined by ideological principles, structured planning of operations, sustained communications for command and control, indoctrination and training programs for the accession of new recruits, financial resources for sustaining global operations, and logistical support for executing attacks.”

As of today, if any al-Qaeda entity performs these functions it would be AQAP led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi.  Aside from Zawahiri residing in Pakistan, AQAP in Yemen is al-Qaeda Central and the chain-of-succession has been put in place in the event that Zawahiri is finally killed or captured.

The morphing affiliate: Al-Qaeda in Iraq – Islamic State of Iraq – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Which is it?)

Recent machinations in Syria and Iraq suggest a different strain of al-Qaeda seeking its own path may be emerging in the Levant and Mesopotamia.  The Syrian revolution has been a needed shot in the arm for global jihad.  No conflict since the Afghan jihad of the 1980’s has persisted for so long and attracted such large numbers of foreign fighters.  Syria’s decentralized revolution has provided Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, plenty of room to flourish.  Well resourced compared to other groups and the central hub for global foreign fighter migration, al-Nusra became the brightest spot for a global al-Qaeda otherwise finding misfortune.  However, in recent months, al-Qaeda in Iraq, who has ridden the waves of Iraq’s sectarian conflict to grow in strength, acquired al-Nusra in a merger that appears to have been without the blessing of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda Central.  The merger and creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham sent foreign fighters into the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq while also fostering a public rebuttal of Zawahiri by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi–-al-Qaeda in Iraq’s emir.  Dating back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the rebranding to become the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq has always been at a distance from al-Qaeda Central focused more on sectarian and local insurgency than global jihad, and often out of communication or ignoring the guidance of senior leaders such as bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Al-Baghdadi’s unsanctioned merger with Jabhat al-Nusra may represent a calculated maneuver to move past the “Old Guard” al-Qaeda and set al-Qaeda in Iraq on its own jihadi path.

The Two “al-Qaedas” Hypothesis

The two “al-Qaedas” hypothesis isn’t mutually exclusive as I do not doubt that all al-Qaeda affiliates communicate to some degree and that at least on the surface these communications will appear cordial.  However, I see an era of  terrorism competition between al-Qaeda Central and AQ in Iraq based on several reasons and factors. 

Strategic and Attack Focus – After bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda global seemed to focus on using local affiliates enmeshed in the Arab Spring uprisings to create tighter links with local populaces and additional safe havens.  AQAP in Yemen, AQIM in Mali and possibly Ansar al-Sharia in Libya all pursued this approach.  However, Western intervention largely short-circuited this al-Qaeda rebranding strategy.  Meanwhile, the West has chosen not to interfere in Syria providing al-Qaeda in Iraq time to capitalize on the rise of al-Nusra.  Stunted in his command and control of al-Nusra and AQ in Iraq, Zawahiri has possibly returned to large-scale attacks on the West to reinvigorate his “Old Guard” cadres and take revenge on the U.S. who has decimated his ranks via drones. Overall, I think AQ in Iraq’s local focus in the near-term with a build up to attacks on the West over the longer-term is more effective and prevents the West from intervening in ways that disrupted affiliate growth in Yemen and Mali.

Regional Priority – Because of location and proximity, AQ in Iraq and al-Nusra have focused locally on the Syrian Revolution and increasingly on the fight against the Iraqi Regime.  Meanwhile, “Old Guard” AQ Central has pushed in many directions sequentially from Yemen to Egypt and then to Syria resulting in their, like the U.S., arriving late into the Syrian revolution.  It’s likely Zawahiri’s Egyptian bias and hopes of unseating Morsi has provided time for the likes of al-Baghdadi to gain strength and influence in Syria.  For Zawahiri, if you pursue jihad everywhere, you pursue it nowhere.  

Personnel – By preemptively merging with al-Nusra, al-Baghdadi has placed himself on top of the largest foreign fighter migration in recent years.  With more personnel, Baghdadi acquires more power.  Meanwhile, jihadi fights in Pakistan, Yemen and Mali have declined in sequence while drones have severely degraded “Old Guard” al-Qaeda’s leadership.  “Old Guard” al-Qaeda and Zawahiri need a big attack on the West now or risk being outshadowed by a strengthening AQ in Iraq.

Resources – As documented by Afshon Ostovar and Will McCants in their report on Syria, al-Nusra and by extension AQ in Iraq have gained significant resource support from wealthy Gulf donors.  Their increasing share of jihadi revenues likely decreases the share available for “Old Guard” al-Qaeda.  By preempting the merger, al-Baghdadi has placed himself further in the middle of resource streams that likely increase his power vis-à-vis “Old Guard” al-Qaeda leaders.  Unable to get involved in Syria separate from al-Nusra/al-Qaeda in Iraq, a spectacular global attack occurring in multiple locales might be an effective way to reinvigorate their financial base.  

Communication – Beginning with the Bin Laden documents and even more with the retreat of AQIM and al-Baghdadi’s rebuttal, communication between “Old Guard” al-Qaeda and its affiliates varies considerablty between theaters and rests largely on long-term relationships forged by al-Qaeda’s remaining senior leaders.  Meanwhile, AQ in Iraq and al-Nusra host the shortest and likely most protected lines of communication allowing them to move faster and make greater gains from their actions.  As seen by recent headlines, what appears to be one of the largest al-Qaeda Central plots in sometime was allegedly detected through a communication intercept. For Zawahiri positioned in Pakistan, his exterior lines of communication consistently put him at a disadvantage.

Competition Resulting in Escalation and Violence – In conclusion, Zawahiri’s plotting of a spectacular attack and nomination of Wuyashi may be the result of internal forces–competition with AQ in Iraq-–more than external forces.  Zawahiri needs a big attack to reassert his authority and curb the growth of a rival.  AQ in Iraq’s growth and Baghdadi’s rebuttal may have pushed Zawahiri to rush an attack and in the process led to its detection. I’m guessing that only time will tell. Overall, Zawahiri and “Old Guard” al-Qaeda may be returning their focus to global attacks or attacks on Westerners, say in Egypt, to regain momentum and increase their appeal to a new generation of recruits and donors.  If Zawahiri doesn’t act soon, the global jihad will pass him by.