Al Qaeda in Iraq publicly rebuts al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

Two months ago, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI – al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate) announced its merger with Jabhat al-Nusra – the dominant Syrian jihadi militia fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.  While the merger didn’t come as a surprise to most analysts of al Qaeda, the regional consolidation did come as quite a surprise to one person in particular-–al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  It turned out Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan were not consulted when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi decided to annex the rising Syrian jihadi group.  Baghdadi’s power play resulted in mass defections from al-Nusra with foreign fighters fully migrating to join the ISI.  Subsequently, last week, Zawahiri allegedly released a statement dissolving the union of the two al Qaeda affiliates and returning al Qaeda’s Levant to its previous state-–a Syrian al Qaeda affiliate in al-Nusra and an Iraqi affiliate in the ISI. 

The thought that Baghdadi had announced the merger without getting Zawahiri’s approval was quite surprising and a bold move by the Iraqi affiliate leader.  However, this week Baghdadi did something no other al Qaeda affiliate leader had publicly done to date – he outrightly defied Zawahiri.  In a message attributed to Baghdadi and showing up on social media sites, the leader of the ISI claims:

“As for the message that was attributed to Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, may Allah preserve him, we have … several shariah and method-based issues [with it], and the worshiper was given the choice between the command of His Lord and the command that opposes Allah’s command,” al Baghdadi says, according to SITE.

Baghdadi seems to suggest that Zawahiri’s interpretation of Sharia and the situation in the Levant are both flawed and that he and al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch will choose their own direction on how best to move forward. 

Both Zawahiri’s letter and Baghdadi’s rebuttal should be approached with caution.  As al Qaeda has degenerated so has the ability of outsiders and analysts (such as myself) to know for certain whether internal al Qaeda messages leaked to the outside media are truly authentic.  But, reactions to the Zawahiri and Baghdadi notes suggest that jihadis perceive them to be real.  While it is surprising to see a public rebuttal by a subordinate al Qaeda leader, it is not surprising that the ISI was the first to resist Zawahiri in such a way.  Years ago, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi found disagreement with al Qaeda Central over strategy and at the time of Bin Laden’s death, the Abbottabad documents showed a communication gap between headquarters in Pakistan and the Iraq affiliate

One year ago when writing “What if there is no al Qaeda? “, I began wondering when Zawahiri would lose control of the decentralized, global organization he inherited noting several signs of what might lead to a loss in his authority.

Zawahiri’s communications likely take weeks to reach their recipients. Zawahiri probably directs little money to affiliate groups and, if he commands anything, he’s likely limited to routing veteran al-Qaeda survivors from Pakistan to other safe havens. From the perspective of al-Qaeda affiliates, there is little incentive to continue seeking direction from a buttoned-up Zawahiri.

Today, Zawahiri must be quite concerned as he has major command and control issues on two other fronts aside from Iraq.  Al Shabaab in Somalia, since formally merging with al Qaeda, has been in a state of near collapse with Ibrahim al-Afghani, a high-level Shabaab operative, publicly pleading for Zawahiri to relieve Shabaab’s emir Ahmed Godane. This public plea coincides with Godane and Shabaab’s betrayal and hunting of American foreign fighter to Somalia Omar Hammami-–a public dispute that has likely harmed Shabaab’s international support. 

Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after successfully seizing northern Mali for almost a year saw the defection of its most celebrated operative, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke with AQIM and sought to set up his own organization and independent relationship with Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central.  In internal documents discovered by the Associated Press, AQIM notes:

we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan”

I believe Zawahiri must do several things to reassert his authority if he intends to hold al Qaeda together as a global organization.  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.  However, I’m not certain Zawahiri has the capacity to do any of these four things.  Additionally, I wonder if Zawahiri’s efforts to reassert communication and control in the coming weeks and months will increase the chances the West might finally detect and interdict one of the last great culprits of the 9/11 attacks.  (Let’s hope this comes true.)

Like last year, I’m trying to focus on:

“when these terror groups [al Qaeda affiliates] compete and when they cooperate. Knowing when terror groups compete will help the West construct an environment around threat groups replicating the conditions most prone for destructive interference. “

The disaggregation of al Qaeda may now open the door for new counterterrorism interventions beyond military targeting.  Are there ways, for example in Syria and Iraq, where the U.S. can shape conditions such that groups like al-Nusra and the ISI compete rather than unify? Can the provision of military and foreign aid or the introduction of new proxies create rifts by which he U.S. can weaken al Qaeda’s grip in the Levant?  Likewise, can the U.S. influence foreign fighters in Syria to suggest that fighting the Assad regime does not equate to later attacking the U.S. on behalf of al Qaeda? 

Lastly, while al Qaeda may be degrading globally, the West should not mistakenly believe that jihadi violence will necessarily decrease.  On the contrary, competing al Qaeda affiliates may actually increase their attack tempo in an effort to assert themselves as the new leader post-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central.  More successful attacks will likely lead to more media attention, more recruits and more resources. As I noted last year in “What if there is no al Qaeda?”, the U.S. may now be encountering many different regional terror groups. Some will require direct engagement and elimination. Some indirect engagement and disruption. And others may only require monitoring and little to no engagement.  Ultimately, in a post-al Qaeda-era (much like the post-Soviet-era), analysis, planning and decision-making will in many ways become more difficult rather than less difficult. 

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al Qaeda doesn’t follow its own lessons learned!

Don’t feel bad U.S. military, you are not the only force struggling to make better decisions from your lessons learned.  Al Qaeda and particularly their Sahel affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), struggle to improve their operations based on analyses of past failures as evidence in the Associated Press’s (AP) recent publication of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel’s confidential letter to his fighters in Mali.  While an incomplete manuscript, three chapters of AQIM guidance discovered in Timbuktu provide some clarity to al Qaeda’s strategic thinking in a post-Bin Laden era.

Overall, the document echoes many of the recommendations discussed by Bin Laden in the Abbottabad documents and outlined in a previous post “Are today’s al Qaeda offshoots following Bin Laden’s vision?”.  Droukdel, like Bin Laden, stresses several important principles to his followers at some point after the June 2012.

  • Patience – Droukdel realizes that AQIM’s gains in Northern Mali were fragile and that pushing the implementation of Sharia aggressively amongst a resistant population could short circuit their future Islamic state. 

  • Integrate with local movements – Droukdel encourages his followers to, “extend bridges to the various sectors and part of Azawad society – Arab, Tuareg, and Zingiya – to end the situation of political, social, and intellectual separation.” Droukdel’s narrative is strikingly similar to that of Bin Laden’s “winning hearts and minds” guidance.

  • Learn from mistakes – In Chapter 1 page 3, Droukdel discusses mistakes made by their proxies in implementing Sharia requesting that they avoid the “destruction of shrines” and harsh application of religious punishments.  Droukdel, like Bin Laden, does not want to see his troops continuing to make the same mistakes.

In addition to the points of similarity with Bin Laden’s vision, Droukdel provides some rather interesting analysis of AQIM’s situation and future.

  • Predicted a military intervention – While I was quite surprised it was the French stepping up to stop the march of extremists in Mali, Droukdel expected the West to intervene.  This suggests AQIM likely had a withdrawal plan in place at the time of the intervention. “It is very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur, whether directly or indirectly, or that a complete economic, political and military blockade will be imposed along with multiple pressures, which in the end will either force us to retreat to our rear bases or will provoke the people against us because of starvation….” An interesting passage all around from Page 1 of Chapter 1.  So where are AQIM’s rear bases? 

  • Less “Vanguard” and more “Invisible Hand” – In the past, al Qaeda has considered itself the vanguard for leading and establishing resistance against the West and local apostate governments.  However, years of drone attacks and other counterterrorism attention have resulted in al Qaeda moving from a “lead from the front” mentality to a “lead from behind” position.  Droukdel says “we should also take into consideration not to monopolize the political and military stage…we should not be at the forefront.”  

  • Two methods for AQIM integration with Ansar Dine – Droukdel offers two ways in which AQIM can integrate and coordinate with AQIM.  The first option would be AQIM reporting to the emir of Ansar Dine in Mali for local issues and conflicts.  However, AQIM would pursue global jihad on its own without Ansar Dine interference and would assure Ansar Dine no repurcussions from AQIM actions.  (I have no idea how AQIM could guarantee this “no blowback” clause after watching what unfolded with the Taliban in Afghanistan after al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks) Droukdel’s second option suggests small, dedicated cadres would be detached to Ansar Dine to help them administer governance in cities while the remaining al Qaeda members would be entirely independent.  In both cases, the objective seems to be for al Qaeda members to keep tabs on Ansar Dine and ensure safe haven stability for the purpose of planning and executing external operations against the West.

  • Compromise in the near term to achieve long-term goals – Droukdel stresses to followers that AQIM should, “make sure to win allies, be flexible in dealing with realities and compromise on some rights to achieve greater interests.”  While this would offer a new direction for al Qaeda operatives I imagine that the elitist nature of their followers undermines the ability of devout members to compromise with local groups.

The document provides a fascinating peak into the mindset of al Qaeda affiliates after Bin Laden’s death.  While flashes of Bin Laden’s intent appear in Droukdel’s dispatch, AQIM’s strategic plan to integrate with local groups appears to undermine itself in two key ways. 

  1. Why should local groups follow AQIM’s lead? – As has been seen on other al Qaeda fronts such as Somalia, local groups may not be inclined to pursue the vision of outside al Qaeda leaders.  Why should Ansar Dine follow the intent of AQIM? If AQIM were to provide resources or something of critical value, I can see Ansar Dine acquiescing to AQIM’s direction.  But Ansar Dine has its own interests to pursue. Did this dynamic lead to AQIM overreaching (because it couldn’t control partner aggression) and provoking a French intervention?

  2. It’s difficult to contain the extremism of extremists – AQIM, like al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), recognizes the need to learn from mistakes and restrain excessive violence.  However, Droukdel could not seem to hold back his extremists from being extreme.  This is a fatal flaw for al Qaeda in their new integrative approach with locals.  Many joining al Qaeda do so because they want to participate in violence and implement Sharia.  For al Qaeda leaders to then tell their recruits to restrain violence and be patient – this approach truly undermines itself.  Young men don’t join al Qaeda to be insurgent liaisons and government administrators in the middle of the Sahara.  They join al Qaeda to participate in violence.

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Why al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms

For several months up to the recent French intervention in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been able to gain, control, and govern large swathes of the Sahel.  Towns such as Kidal and Timbuktu fell under the rule of strict forms of Sharia law and many perceived al Qaeda as resurgent.  Many rightly noted the collapse of Qaddafi’s Libyan regime provided operational space and caches of weapons emboldening AQIM’s push into Northern Mali.  

However, other analysts of the Sahel and terrorism have suggested AQIM’s growth and the proliferation of its offshoots (Ansar Dine and Movement for the Unity of Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA)) comes equally as much from the network’s ability to acquire resources through illicit schemes such as drug/cigarette trafficking and most importantly kidnapping.  Over the past several years, AQIM, more than any other al Qaeda affiliate, has been able to effectively kidnap travelers to the region (mostly Europeans) and then successfully extract multi-million dollar ransoms.  Serge Daniel in his book, “AQMI, l’industrie de l’enlèvement” (AQIM the kidnapping industry)” tried to account for the ransoms paid to AQIM in recent years:

Daniel says two French companies paid a total of 13 million euros (a little over $17 million) for the release of the hostages, Austria paid three million euros, Spain nine million and Canada three to five million. Source: Global Post

Essentially, France indirectly funded AQIM for years building up the terror affiliate to only now commit further blood and treasure to defeat the group.  Unforunately, France is not alone in falling into a vicious fund-then-fight cycle with a terrorist group.  

On the surface, kidnapping and smuggling appears an ideal financial engine for terror groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates. This assertion, however, ignores the inherent challenges encountered when any organization, whether terrorist group to criminal enterprise, undertakes illicit funding schemes.  Kidnapping and ransom operations introduce significant transaction costs which significantly devalue the gross sum of revenues.  Kidnapping operations create a series of internal costs for terror groups:

  • Networks Of Intermediaries –  Negotiations and payments for kidnapping operations require layers of middlemen with each network extracting a percentage of the overall take.
  • Transaction Time – The time between hostage taking and ransom payments can be significant requiring the terror group to maintain a solid reserve of capital to sustain its operations between transactions.  Essentially, time is money, and in the case of kidnapping operations, a cost to the terror group.
  • Hostage Deaths – The trauma of kidnapping and the harsh environments in which terrorist groups operate often result in the death of hostages.  The death of a hostage hurts the terror group directly in terms of loss revenues. But, even more damage occurs indirectly as the hostage death erodes trust for future ransom negotiations.
  • Infighting – In any business, transactions often lead to conflict.  This is particularly true in illicit industries where trust is constantly being questioned.  Kidnapping negotiations naturally generate friction between intermediaries and when negotiations become protracted parties may turn to open conflict.
  • Declines in Hostage Availability – As groups like AQIM continue to kidnap hostages, the availability of hostages naturally declines requiring the terror group to operate at longer distances to acquire captives.  This distance imposes significant logistical costs.  
  • Undermines Terror Group’s Ideology – Inevitably, in illicit schemes and even licit enterprises, business gets messy and the terror group must make choices with regards to sustaining its resource flow.  Often times, these choices result in alienation of a terror group’s local base of popular support or hypocritical conflicts of interest between the terror group’s deeds and its words.  The recent accusations of Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter who has fallen out of favor with al Shabaab, demonstrate how al Shabaab’s turning a blind eye to Qat distribution in Somalia for the purpose of taxation has called into question the group’s committment to al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia law.
  • Opportunity Costs – When al Qaeda is dedicating more time, manpower and resources to illicit fund generation, they are spending less time recruiting and training new operatives, planning operations and executing attacks.

All al Qaeda affiliates and terror group’s in general must participate and rely on illicit and licit funding schemes to some degree.  But what really separated al Qaeda from other terror group’s was its ability to garner donor revenues from wealthy supporters.  As Gregory Johnsen accurately noted in his recently published book on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) entitled the The Last Refuge, what separated al Qaeda from other Sunni extremist groups was Bin Laden, his understanding of business and his command of resources. 

 “Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.”

Donor resources provide essential support to global terrorist groups.  Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates, when sustained by donor contributions, can dedicate more manpower to planning and executing attacks as operatives are freed from the burdens of illicit/licit fund generation. Likewise, a donor empowered al Qaeda can more easily build local support by granting funds that embolden their ability to govern locally.  Most importantly, donor funds prevent al Qaeda groups from undermining their ideology to sustain their short-run resource needs.  As seen in this graphic, I estimate that each donor dollar equals roughly five dollars in illicit fund generation. 

Today, while there remain many ideological challenges to al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death, the terror group and its affiliates face equally large obstacles securing donor resources to allow for significant operational expansion.  al Qaeda’s efforts to expand operations in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak have been frustrated by resource generation.  Thomas Joscelyn notes in a recent article that Muhammad Jamal al Kashef: 

“complains that he “received an amount of money from our brothers in Yemen,” a reference to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), “but it was much less than what is required.” Zawahiri is “aware” of the “huge amounts of money” needed to purchase arms, set up training camps, move vehicles into the Sinai Peninsula, and “provide for the families of the brothers who work with us.”  Source: The Long War Journal

As I noted last summer, today al Qaeda and its affilaites are one of many rather than the only Salafi-Jihadi extremist group operating throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.  The uprisings of the Arab Spring have created a plethora of ideological and financial competitors to al Qaeda.  For a terror group to break out and begin securing donor resources at a pace greater than its competitors, they must do one thing better and faster than other groups: successfully execute high profile attacks on Western targets.  Donors, like good investors, like supporting winners.  Therefore, those al Qaeda affiliates or new upstarts that pull off the most impressive attacks may find themselves more able to garner important donor revenues.  Only Mokhtar Belmokhtar has grabbed international media attention in recent years.  Will his actions garner him and “Those Who Sign With Blood” more donations in the future?  Only time will tell…

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Are today’s al Qaeda offshoots following Bin Laden’s vision?

The May 2011 raid killing Osama Bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound not only eliminated the world’s most notorious terrorist but also provided a unique glimpse into the strategic musings of al Qaeda’s leadership.  The Abbottabad documents released in May 2012 reveal Bin Laden’s strategic recalibration as he witnessed the demise of his organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan while missing out on an Arab Spring that toppled many of the so-called “apostate dictators” he despised. All of the documents disclosed to the public reveal different aspects of al Qaeda’s operations.  However, two documents in particular shed light on Bin Laden’s last thoughts on the future direction.  

SOCOM-2012-0000016 demonstrates the close and consistent contact between al Qaeda’s senior leadership and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (AQAP).  Bin Laden pushes AQAP to be patient in developing the situation in Yemen while also pressing the affiliate to focus their targeting on the U.S. rather than the Yemeni government.  

Bin Laden’s thoughts in document SOCOM-2012-0000017, however, reveal more about his thinking for al Qaeda’s future.  At times, the document reads like a page from the U.S. military’s own counterinsurgency manual as Bin Laden appears to be detailing to his followers how to “win the hearts and minds” of local tribes in the countries they occupy.  Here Bin Laden notes the impact of indiscriminate violence on al Qaeda relations with locals.

The killing of a greater number of tribesmen often boosts tribes’ vengeful attitudes. The Mujahidin, hence, must be extremely careful about initiating operations to which they know little about the consequences

Ironically, while Bin Laden continues to encourage his followers to learn lessons from past al Qaeda failures, his ruminations mirror those shortcomings he and his lieutenants identified twenty years earlier after their flawed foray in Somalia in the early 1990’s where al Qaeda operatives initially got lost and later frustrated by a clan system they did not adequately understand. 

The above noted al Qaeda document and others released with it suggest several strategic imperatives for al Qaeda’s future in Bin Laden’s eyes. 

  • al Qaeda needs a new name – the al Qaeda brand is tarnished

“This name [al Qaeda] reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims, but they are at war with the organization of al- Qa‟ida, which is an outside entity from the teachings of Islam..” SOCOM-2012-000009-HT

  • al Qaeda needs to win over local “hearts & minds”

“This shows how important it is to ensure having the necessary support and loyalty of the people before building a state, be it ordinary, or influential tribesmen.” SOCOM-2012-0000017

  • al Qaeda needs a new safe haven – Pakistan is a “no-go” due to drones

“Our Waziristani brothers, for example, said that they were frankly exhausted from the enemy’s air bombardments.” SOCOM-2012-0000017

  • Should wait to establish a caliphate till the time is right

“We do not see escalation as necessary at this point because we are in the preparation stage; therefore, it is not in our interest to rush in bringing down the regime.” SOCOM-2012-0000016

  • Must avoid killing innocent Muslims, al Qaeda should target Westerners outside the main battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan

“For example, the attacks targeting several infidel Imams during their visits to public locations where most of the Muslims are located, as they should be targeted away from the Muslims.” SOCOM-2012-0000019

  • Review past lessons learned & adjust course

“There was also the Libyan experience. The brothers in Libya failed because, firstly, they did not listen to any of the advice they were offered. The al-Qa’ida advised them to wait, so did the Jihad Group and the Islamic Group. All the brothers advised the Libyan Mujahidin that they did not have the basic resources to topple the Libyan regime. Not to mention, the timing did not add up.” SOCOM-2012-0000017  

  • al Qaeda needs a victory, an attack on the West -fast!

“The point is that people tend to be in favor of a winner rather than a loser.”  SOCOM-2012-0000017

  • Yemen might be the best option for al Qaeda in the future

“I’ll begin with the matter of escalation in Yemen. To begin I would say that Yemen is the Arab country most suited to the establishment of an Islamic state, but this does not mean that the necessary fundamental elements for success for such a project have yet been realized.” SOCOM-2012-0000019

Today, one might ask, “Are al Qaeda affiliates and new upstart groups following Bin Laden’s guidance from before his death?”  Analysts can probably argue either way with regards to this question.  With regards to a name change, the emergence of several different extremist groups behaving like al Qaeda but calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia suggests Bin Laden’s message was received.  Additionally, AQAP became the first affiliate to rise and attempt to build its own state after Bin Laden’s death, but their rush to break out may have ignored Bin Laden’s call for patience.  Likewise, al Qaeda’s merger and branding with al Shabaab in Somalia resulted in disaster for both parties revealing internal fractures in the jihadi movement. Ansar al Sharia’s attack on U.S. consulate in Benghazi focused on Western targets in new theaters but brought the ire of local Libyans. Most recently, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its branches have governed north Mali. But their aggressive expansion has brought French resistance and the continued fragmenting of the affiliate into sub-groups suggesting there maybe more competition than unity in the Sahel. 

It is too early to assess whether Bin Laden’s guidance is the basis for the disaggregated Salafi-Jihadi violence occurring around the world.  However, al Qaeda and its admirers continue to morph in the wake of Bin Laden’s death. 

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