Posts Tagged ‘AQAP’

A late posting of a recent piece for my institutional home RUSI exploring the question of al Qaeda versus ISIS/Daesh/ISIL and the degree to which they are able to advance the lone actor strategy. Lots of longer form writing going on at the moment which is keeping me busy and will eventually land.

Why is Daesh Able to Inspire More Attacks Than Al-Qa’ida?

The fact that there are more and more Daesh-inspired lone-actor terrorist attacks may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.
vigil_of_solidarity_in_the_wake_of_the_orlando_pulse_shooting_27027482763

Daesh appears to have intensified its efforts to encourage individuals to carry out lone-actor terrorist attacks, as events over the weekend in the US indicate. But this trend has been observed for quite some time, and it may be the product of technological changes, rather than a different approach to terror.

The US was rocked this weekend by a series of terrorist attacks. While Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) claimed responsibility for the stabbing spree in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the New York and New Jersey explosions have not yet been claimed by any terrorist group. Given the uncertainties at this stage in the investigation, it is unclear if there is any deeper meaning to this distinction, but the speed with which Daesh claimed responsibility for one terrorist attack and not the other suggests a rationale. The Minneapolis attack was an example of the lone-actor methodology that Daesh has managed to appropriate from Al-Qa’ida with a high degree of success. A key unanswered question is this: why has Daesh has proven so much more effective at delivering this sort of attack than Al-Qa’ida?

The first thing to note is that the approach which Daesh appears to be so good at promoting is not novel. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine used to advocate a similar methodological approach. It aped various prominent mainstream advertising campaigns – including Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign – and offered easily accessible attack methodologies for aspirant warriors. And there was some evidence that it worked, with the bomb recipe offered in the magazine repeatedly showing up in terrorist plots. From the limited available evidence at the moment, the latest New York bombs seem to emulate a recipe in Inspire.

Yet it was never clear that the group was able to instigate and steer such attacks. Numerous Al-Qa’ida leaders spoke of the lone-actor methodology as one that adherents in the West should copy, but very few terrorist attacks seem to have actually taken place as a result. Occasional plots seemed to hint in this direction, but it was almost impossible to draw a direct causal link between Al-Qa’ida and these attacks. And, according to one letter found in his lair in Abbottabad, Osama Bin Laden did not entirely approve of all of the various random mass murder methodologies Inspire used to offer its readers.

Fast-forward to today, and we see repeated attacks using small bombs, knives, guns and other weapons to attack innocent citizens in the West, with Daesh regularly claiming responsibility for them. And while some appear to be over-eager claims by the group – like the case of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June – in a growing number of cases there appears to be clear evidence of some sort of connection with Daesh.

Three factors appear to have changed since the heyday of Inspire magazine that may help explain Daesh’s effectiveness in inspiring lone-actor terrorist attacks.

First, the ideology that Daesh espouses comes in the wake of Al-Qa’ida and it is louder, brasher and more attractive, projecting an image of power and control of territory; markedly different to Al-Qa’ida’s image of a secretive menacing organisation.

Second, the definition of ‘terrorist attack’ has been diluted, with the range of actions that are considered terrorist attacks now broader. Whereas in the past only large-scale bomb or plane attacks would be considered terrorist attacks, now using a vehicle or knives against other citizens can constitute a terrorist attack. Furthermore, the targets have now become diffuse – cafés, churches, people’s houses,  among others, are all in the crosshairs. This means that a terror attack is no longer the complicated large-scale endeavour that it used to be. And if it is easier to carry out a terrorist attack, then there are a wider range of attacks for Daesh to be able to claim. This lower threshold is something that Daesh has eagerly embraced, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which has allegedly had reservations about this approach.

Third, it turns out that a number of these attacks are not actually as lone or detached as they seem prima facie. After an investigation, the German authorities uncovered clear evidence of contact with Daesh in an axe attack on a train in Wuerzburg and an attempted bombing in Ansbach in July this year. The June murder of a police officer and his girlfriend at their home in Magnaville, 55 km west of Paris, and the subsequent July murder of a priest in Rouen, as well as the attempted car bombing in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, were all linked back to the same French Daesh leader: Rachid Kassim. Previously, a network of British plotters in the Syrian city of Raqqa – Junaid Hussain, Reeyad Khan and Sally Jones – were talking and instigating various attempted attackers in the West.

In many of these cases, it was subsequently discovered that the plotters on the ground were involved in quite intense conversations with Daesh handlers or directors. Apparently using apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or Telegram, the attackers were communicating with their Daesh handlers. The Ansbach bomber, for example, was quite literally directed in his attack by his handler outside Germany. So, although the perpetrators may seem to have been alone in their actions, they both had some backing and plenty of connections.

In some ways, this is likely a product of the way we communicate these days. Daesh, therefore, appears to be in part a product of its time; the communication apps that are now available were not accessible to Al-Qa’ida when it was promoting a similar message, and Daesh’s more contemporary audience is simply using the tools in everyday life. The phenomenon also builds on what came before it: Al-Qa’ida had already started to sketch out the path of lone-actor attacks that Daesh has so eagerly embraced. And in part it is a product of a leadership in Daesh that sees value and strategy in low-grade random attacks, in contrast to Al-Qa’ida, which appears fixated on more large-scale, dramatic attacks.

Daesh has not invented a new strategy of launching attacks; what we are witnessing instead seems to be an attempt on the part of Daesh to increase the incidence of a particular form of terrorism, lone-actor terrorism, an upward trajectory that was most likely to happen anyway. Daesh’s attacks seem a product of their times, rather than a completely novel strategic approach.

A piece on kidnapping by terrorist groups for Italian magazine Panorama, a kind of more tabloidy version of the Economist. It basically makes the case for why paying is a bad idea, though I must say that I am maybe a bit more ambivalent on the topic than the article might suggest. I fully understand families and others difficulties in deciding whether to pay or not, but it is clear that paying does propagate the phenomenon. The counter-point would be if we didn’t pay, would people not get kidnapped? Maybe it simply make kidnapping an even more dangerous experience since it would in essence be a deadly journey each time. It is very difficult to know. This was actually written and published prior to the emergence of the James Foley video, and I have been doing various bits of media around that. More on that soon.

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

Il rapimento delle due ragazze italiane in Siria e la decapitazione del giornalista Usa riaprono la polemica sui soldi versati agli estremisti in cambio della liberazione degli ostaggi. 
Un immenso flusso di denaro. Che va bloccato

27-08-2014

Guerra al terrore: ma è giusto pagare i riscatti?

James Foley a Idlib, in Siria, nel 2012

Credits: ANSA /EPA /Nicole Tung /Courtesy of GlobalPost

di Raffello Pantucci*

Vantandosi in una recente lettera con il collega leader di al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico (Aqim), Nasser al Wuhayshi, numero 2 del movimento islamista nella penisola arabica (Aqap), gongolava per il fatto che «la maggior parte dei costi della battaglia erano pagati dai bottini: quasi la metà dei quali proveniente da riscatti. I rapimenti costituiscono un facile bottino, un affare vantaggioso e un tesoro prezioso». Per quanto l’affermazione di Wuhayshi possa apparire vanagloriosa, mette in evidenza le ragioni per cui il pagamento dei riscatti è qualcosa che i terroristi e i gruppi estremisti considerano un’attività fondamentale per la continuazione delle loro azioni.

Le organizzazioni terroristiche e gli insorti hanno bisogno di soldi. Operando in ambienti ostili, dove rifornimenti e fondi scarseggiano, il denaro è necessario per comprare cibo, vestiario e armi, per pagare le spese di trasporto e i combattenti, e per assicurarsi il transito in aree governate da signori della guerra e capi tribali che altrimenti potrebbero denunciare le attività sospette alle autorità. Le attività criminali come contrabbando o estorsioni consentono di incassare soltanto parte dei fondi, ma richiedono forti investimenti e un grande impiego di uomini. Mentre fare soldi con i rapimenti è decisamente più facile e veloce.

I gruppi armati sono sempre più consapevoli degli ingenti profitti che è possibile realizzare sequestrando persone di paesi noti per correre in soccorso dei propri cittadini, e puntano individui provenienti da stati più disposti a pagare per la loro liberazione. È un’operazione puramente economica, nella quale l’ideologia c’entra poco. I soldi ricevuti sono indispensabili per le attività terroristiche e si può tracciare la parabola delle varie formazioni a seconda della loro capacità di assicurarsi fonti di finanziamento. Così mentre il nodo attorno al nucleo di al Qaeda si è stretto e l’attività della rete terroristica è diminuita, quella di gruppi come al Qaeda nel Maghreb islamico, al Qaeda nella Penisola arabica, o Isis prosperano grazie alla loro abilità nell’ottenere denaro dalle attività criminali.

La situazione per coloro che sono prigionieri in Siria è sfortunatamente ancora più complicata, perché non sono chiare le motivazioni per cui i miliziani dell’Isis trattengono gli ostaggi. Stanno chiedendo soldi per rimetterli in libertà o hanno soltanto intenzione di usarli come scudi contro attacchi esterni? Ciò che è chiaro, tuttavia, è che gli ostaggi resteranno pedine dei gruppi che cercano fondi e attenzione. Il fatto che famiglie, aziende e governi alla fine decidano di pagare è solo un modo per perpetuare questo circolo vizioso, aumentando il numero di gruppi che guardano al rapimento come un’attività lucrosa.

Per interromperlo è necessario che tutti si rifiutino di pagare. È una decisione difficile da mettere in pratica, e anche difficile da fare accettare a famiglie e opinione pubblica. Ma è l’unico modo per chiudere la «fabbrica dei sequestri».

*Esperto di sicurezza e terrorismo al Royal united services institute (Rusi) di Londra

My contribution about the Westgate attack for my home institution RUSI. Tries to put the incident within the bigger context of trends we are seeing within al Qaeda and terrorism internationally. I did quite a bit of media around the Nairobi attack, a lot of questions about the mythical ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite: the New York Times, ABC, NBCNew Statesman, Guardian, Daily Beast, Sky News, BBC, Times, as well as others I cannot find and a video for RUSI.

The Westgate Nairobi Attack: A Sign of the Diversified Threat from Al-Qa’ida

RUSI Analysis, 4 Oct 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism

The locus of countering Al-Qa’ida style terrorism has now shifted overseas, with Western governments facing a new and complex set of issues that have been brought into particular focus by recent events at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
Westgate Terror attacks Kenya Nairobi

Al-Shabaab’s audacious attack in central Nairobi came in the wake of Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest message entitled ‘General Guidelines for Jihad.’ His communication laid out an attack plan for his global movement which focused on two main themes: the growing geographical diversity of the struggle that he is trying to lead and the need to be more careful in targeting. Neither is a particularly new. But the message seems all the more salient following a year that so far has seen large-scale operations at In Amenas in Algeria, a scare against Western targets in Yemen, a brutal massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and all alongside a constant patter of death in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan

The threat from international terrorism is one that has become more diverse and complicated, posing Western security officials with a growing array of risks and dangers across a wider geographical space. Complicated terrorist plots no longer solely emanate from Pakistan’s badlands targeting Europe or the United States.

Regional Al-Qa’ida affiliates instead seek Western targets near their home bases, focusing on the subsequent media attention. Places such as In Amenas, Western Embassies in Yemen or the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the future of terrorism. For Western security officials, the problem is to develop strategies to protect, prepare and prevent terrorist attacks that are targeting nationals and interests abroad.  They will have to deal with a complicated basket of issues that will require developing local capacity and ability, as well as improving regional and international coordination, in particular within the European Union. The locus of countering terrorism has now shifted overseas and developing capacity to address this new and complicated threat will be the focus for the medium term future.

Al Qa’ida Diversifying

As is his wont, Zawahiri talked at length about the confrontation with the ‘far enemy’ the United States, but also focused in some detail on the numerous live jihadi battlefields where his group has some connection. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Syria and ‘the environs of Jerusalem’ – an interesting allusion to one of the most active Sinai based groups that has been responsible for the attack on the Egyptian Interior Minister in Cairo on 5 September 2013. He also voiced sympathy for ‘brothers’ in Kashmir, Xinjiang, the Philippines and Burma, where al-Zawahiri sees potential supporters, but no specific allied groups and so restricts himself to simply calling for support for these people in their struggle against their oppressors.

The signal is that Al-Qa’ida is diversifying its branches and regions of influence. Since the Arab Spring, Al-Qa’ida core has found itself preoccupied less on the West and more on the Muslim world, where there seems to be more room for rallying support and potential inflection points for social change. Whether this is a sign of the movement’s weakness in the West, or an inability of the centre to control its branches, the strengthened development of its networks and ideas in an increasingly diverse geographical space presents a clear and present danger to Western interests in the regions.

From being a relatively monolithic beast, Al-Qa’ida has evolved into a complicated beast with branches, affiliates and sympathisers around the globe. From a counter-terrorism perspective, this presents a more dangerous creation in many ways, though one that seems to have less ability to reach directly into Western capitals except through the tool of uncontrolled ‘lone actor’ terrorists. The threat to Western capitals continues to exist in Al-Qa’ida rhetoric and aspiration, but in practice they find it easier to hit targets full of Westerners closer to home.

Al-Zawahiri’s missive also emphasised the need for caution in the Jihadi struggle, reflecting a broader ongoing internal debate within Al-Qa’ida. Ever since the debacle of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutality in Iraq and the public backlash this led to in the mid-2000s, al-Zawahiri has sought to rein in more savage acts. This particular aspect was seen on display in both the In Amenas and Westgate attacks where the groups made efforts to avoid killing Muslims. These may have been more demonstrative than practical (and Muslims perished in both incidents), but at the same time, some effort was made and this was publicised, with the affiliates responsible for those attacks keen on overtly implying that they seem to have learned some lessons from others experiences.

Drawing on lessons learned during the grim struggle in Algeria during the 1990s, al-Zawahiri realises that in order to be an effective vanguard you need to have a potential pool of support behind you. A message he further hammered home in his emphasis on the importance of educating and creating awareness within the masses, and of conducting ‘dawa’ (preaching) and spreading their message throughout Muslim lands and beyond. He emphasises a basic principle: ‘to avoid entering in any conflict with them [so-called proxies of America], except in countries where confronting them becomes inevitable.’

The New Locus of Threat

It is within this context that Western counter-terrorism officials will see recent events in Nairobi and what this means for the threat from international terrorism. No longer are Al-Qa’ida or its affiliates targeting the West, but rather they are pursuing Western interests in their near neighbourhoods.

The centre of gravity as fragmented away from the West itself. Regional groups like al-Shabaab, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula or Boko Haram now seek to attack Western interests in their immediate surrounding.  Hence, the choice of attacking a Western company site in Algeria, the Westgate Mall, Western embassies or kidnapping individuals in the broader Sahel. In all of these instances, Westerners were part of the thinking in target choice, but the action was carried out abroad. It remains attractive to attack Westerners given the international focus and attention that it brings and westerners can increasingly be found in almost every corner of the globe. It is worth highlighting that these target choices are not that new, but increasingly they seem the focus.

The dilemma is two-fold: how far can Western security forces push the boundaries of the security umbrella under which nationals can operate? And on the assumption that it cannot extend universally, what can be done to either strengthen locals to respond to the threat or to work with locals to eradicate the underlying problems that provide a fertile ground for extremist ideas to grow. In other words, how do we develop and successfully implement counter-terrorism strategies across the board far from national borders?

At one level, the response to this can be found by forging stronger local relationships between relevant security officials. This needs to be through training in response, but also in the preventative aspect of counter-terrorism. Fostering a culture of observance to questions of justice and human rights can be just as important as strengthening technical capability to respond to an incident. Furthermore, encouraging greater cooperation at an international level with European or other international partners to coordinate local efforts, while at the same time fostering regional cooperation (for example through AMISOM in Somalia or the African Union effort in Mali) are all going to be key in controlling the threat.

Learning Lessons?

Perhaps Al-Zawahiri’s approach in diversifying Al-Qa’ida’s efforts to vulnerable geographies and proceeding cautiously and with due regard for local issues should be mirrored by the West.  The complexity of Islamist extremist networks and their ability to draw on local issues to strengthen their narrative makes them difficult to understand and counter. The circumstances under which they manage to thrive are different. A one-size-fits-all approach to countering them is headed for failure.

At the same time, international cooperation to counter the development of these terrorist networks overseas requires caution as it is linked to issues of sovereignty, human rights and local legitimacy, to name a few. Unintended consequences such as the strengthening of resentment against the West is a constant concern, as many counter-terrorism efforts are still deemed to be a form of imperialism rather than a genuine effort to improving human and community security and justice.

In that sense, a partnership with legitimate local actors is a requirement for success, but identifying the correct ones and finding effective ways to working with them presents difficulties for policymakers. An additional layer of complexity is that assessing ‘illegitimate’ local actors and their intent is also problematic: the number of worldwide groups and individuals affiliated with or potentially influenced by Al-Qa’ida is vast. Some may be more proximate to thresholds of legitimacy than others.  New movements and mergers within Syria as well as so-called lone wolves who might emerge present a further challenge.

How an adequate response to the transnational influence of this group can be formulated is an on-going debate. The trend towards transnationalism, ‘globalised’ local partnerships and disaggregation is something that al-Zawahiri has recognised and is eager to harness. It remains uncertain that he has been successful in this.  But in countering this strategy, tackling the feeling of local anger that the Al-Qa’ida’s narrative continues to be able to tap into remains a challenge for more nuanced and sophisticated counter-radicalisation and counter-extremism work.  Managing this work across broad geographies presents as complex a management challenge as al-Zawahiri faces.

Twelve years after Al-Qa’ida’s keynote attack on the West, the organisation continues to survive and, in some battlefields, thrive. Attacks like the incident in Nairobi highlight that often it is not the core that is the biggest threat, but the regional affiliates that might be discounted as simply local problems. No longer the monolith it once was, it has latched on to local narratives and anger on a global scale, initiating bottom up dynamics that are far beyond Al-Qa’ida core’s ability to control or even influence.  Al-Zawahiri’s message is a call for coherence. Coherence coupled with caution may also be what’s needed at the core of policymakers’ and practitioners’ approach to countering the Islamist extremist threat across the globe.

Been quiet for a few weeks as I try to crack on with some much longer and larger writing commitments. They should land eventually and cover a few issues I look at. In the meantime, however, I have been doing a bit around the current threat pulse that is passing through the system. I did a few media bits, including a longer interview for ITN that was used by the Telegraph. Below is my contribution to the conversation from the yesterday for my institutional home, RUSI. More on this story as it emerges.

Al-Qa’ida’s August Surprise?

RUSI Analysis, 5 Aug 2013
By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

US officials are speaking of a level of terrorist chatter as high as that prior to 11 September 2001. With Embassy closures across the Muslim world, large-scale prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, the threat tempo is rising. Is Al-Qa’ida planning an August surprise?

AQAP Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula

The weekend announcement by the American government that nineteen embassies should remain closed through the next week, alongside a travel advisory for US citizens travelling in the region, seems to emanate from a threat linked to Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Coming hot on the heels of a series of large-scale prison breaks in IraqLibya and Pakistan, the fear is that this is part of some co-ordinated effort. The reality is probably far more complicated than this, with the larger point being that the threat from Al-Qa’ida affiliated and associated terrorism continues to be a major concern.

The Threat from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula

The first aspect to focus on is the danger from Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the driver of the threat reporting this past weekend. It seems to be focused on Sana’a in particular, with American, British, French, and German embassies all electing to close in Yemen last weekend. This was extended for the US, UK and German Embassies at least through Eid at the end of the week. French Foreign Minister Fabius announced the French mission would reopen Wednesday. Beyond this, the US closed a further twenty embassies across the Muslim world, while Canada decided to close its in Dhaka, Bangladesh – all relating to the same stream of threat reporting.

The level of specificity around the threat suggests that intelligence agencies have intercepted something particular, but the link to AQAP is not surprising. It is just over two weeks since Transport Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John Pistole confirmed a story that had been circulating for some time that AQAP master bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri had managed to successfully train a number of students. This knowledge transfer was seen as particularly dangerous given that al-Asiri has been responsible for a number of cunning devices that were able to penetrate airport security – Umar ‘underpants bomber’ Farouk Abdulmutallab, the dual printer bombs that were intercepted in Dubai and the UK while en route to the US, and the ‘underpants 2‘ bomb that was handed over to authorities by an agent that had penetrated AQAP. In addition, we have seen a growing volume of drone strikes in Yemen in the past few weeks withthree in quick succession since July 28, suggesting a growing focus by US intelligence.

A year has now passed since a bomb with al-Asiri’s touch had been publicly detected, but he remains on the loose and eager to strike the US. Most recently, there has been a particular tempo of threat warnings from Al-Qa’ida in particular with leader Ayman al Zawahiri vowing to ‘spare no effort’ to free the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, whilst also condemning the use of drones. Guantanamo has a particular resonance with the leadership of AQAP, with recently deceased senior member Saaed al Shirhi having spent time in the jail before being released in 2007. His death by drone was recently confirmed by Ibrahim al Rubaish, another senior AQAP member who had been in Guantanamo. The group vowed to avenge his death. AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhaishi, a former confidant of Osama bin Laden is reported to have been promoted to a senior role within the global Al-Qa’idaorganisation. The close links between what is left of Al-Qa’ida core in Waziristan and AQAP in Yemen, its technical capabilities, as well as its ability to control pieces of territory in Yemen, all point to it being one of the most dangerous of the Al-Qa’ida affiliates in terms of wanting and being able to launch attacks in the West.

As Al-Qa’ida-Core Fades, Al-Qa’ida Affiliates Consolidate

All of this comes in parallel to the large-scale prison breaks that we have seen in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The exact implications of the Libya break-out is unclear. But in Iraq and Pakistan the hand of Al-Qa’ida linked groups can be seen. In Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) demonstrated an ability to once again launch targeted operations with relative impunity in Pakistan – this time leading to the release of some 250 prisoners. It is unclear whether any of them were particularly high value targets, but doubtless the influx of people will be a boost to the organisation’s capabilities regionally.

The Iraqi break seems far more alarming, especially given the reporting that a number of individuals of high concern have escaped. This comes as the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the Iraqi affiliate of Al-Qa’ida that has spread its wings deep into Syria), the group that claimed responsibility for the prison break, demonstrates an increasing ability on the field in Syria, while the death toll in Iraq last month is creeping up to the levels of the brutal insurgency of a few years ago. The almost 1,000 killed in the past month is a five year high. The influx of hardened fighters in the wake of the prison break will only further bolster its capabilities and raise the potential risk of the group launching attacks against targets in the broader region.

And atop this, we have seen a growing tempo of violence from the long brewing insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai and an open question hanging over what will happen now that the military has deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, has seen gradually escalating violence and instability with targeted political assassinations, a number ofdeadly clashes between militants and authorities, and a man blowing himself up by accident in the capital while preparing a device. A recent report on foreign fighters being drawn to the battlefield in Syria highlighted the fact that in the dataset examined by the authors of death notices posted by groups, Tunisians accounted for the second-most number of foreign nationals killed at the front. This is a surprising evolution, further suggesting that jihadi fervor is strong in the country. And across North and West Africa, brewing hotspots and roving networks continue to launch sporadic attacks. In Somalia, a group that had largely been counted out, al-Shabaab, continues to be able to function with a relatively regular flow of incidents attributed to the group.

It seems, therefore, that there are many facets to this complicated threat picture, but it is not clear as to the degree to which all of these are connected. Even in the cases where there are clear and known links between the groups, it is not certain that all of these activities can be seen as part of a campaign.

Instead, a conclusion that can be drawn is the fact that some terrorist groups abroad are growing in strength and capability. At the moment, they remain relatively disparate with occasional links and connections though the co-ordination and global drive that used to underline Al-Qa’ida seems to have gone. But the connections cannot be completely discounted – in particular with AQAP – and the unifying impact of the conflict in Syria may yet bring some coherence back to the group.

There is a longer-term concern here. The more groups are able to consolidate their hold on pieces of territory, replenish their ranks through prison breaks and gain greater experience on the battlefield, the more experience and capability they develop. At the moment this seems something that is of greater regional than international concern, but the worry remains that eventually they might decide to live up to their international aspirations and rhetoric. Alternatively, individuals or groups with global ambition or anti-Western views might use these groups as a springboard to launch attacks against the West, drawing on their replenished capacity to attack.

Al-Qa’ida may now be a shadow of its former self, but the ideology and, more importantly, the affiliates it helped nurture remain. As they benefit from the chaos stirred by the Arab Spring, the long tail left after the 11 September, 2001 attacks gets longer. Countering terrorism overseas is clearly going to be key for Western policymakers for the next few years

More on current events in North Africa, this time for the BBC. I owe Virginia a note of thanks for reviewing it – grazie! I was also quoted briefly in this Financial Times article on the British government’s response. (UPDATE: have briefly tweaked it to reflect a commenter’s correct catch)

Islamists in Africa emerge as threat to West

By Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute

An Islamist rebel is pictured on April 24, 2012 near Timbuktu in northern Mali
Militant Islamists are operating across the vast Sahara Desert

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Islamist extremists in North Africa pose a “large and existential threat” – a comment he made following the siege of a gas facility in Algeria, where dozens of people, nearly all of them foreigners, were killed.

“It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” Mr Cameron said.

“What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa.”

The group responsible for the incident in In Amenas in Algeria appears to have been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a local jihadist-criminal who had been a commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He left or was asked to leave AQIM late last year. Branching out, he founded an independent faction called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion that seems to have operated out of territory controlled by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) in northern Mali.

Belmokhtar’s faction claims that the assault in Algeria was conducted to avenge the French decision to attack northern Mali.

But, with his organisation reportedly having agents within the compound, it seems likely that this was a longer-term plot that was brought forward in response to the French assault.

It was in fact Belmokhtar’s close companion, Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader in Mujao, who declared in response to the French intervention in Mali that France “has opened the gates of hell [and] has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia”.

That Belmokhtar’s faction would want to attack a Western target is not entirely surprising.

He has a long form of kidnapping foreigners and AQIM – to which he belonged until last year – has a long and bloody history.

Originally born as the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) in the wake of the Algerian military annulling elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win Algeria in the early 1990s, the group evolved first into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), before adopting the al-Qaeda mantle in 2007 to become AQIM.

Militant Islamists Mukhtar Abu Mansur  and Omar Hammami (R) in Mogadishu, Somalia,  on 11 May 2011
American-Syrian Omar Hammami (R) joined al-Shabab in Somalia in 2011

The GIA, in particular, has been linked to attacks in the mid-1990s on the Paris metro system, the GSPC to plots in Europe and North America prior to the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, and the groups across North Africa have historically felt particular enmity towards former regional colonial power France.

What is worrying about events in Africa, however, is that violent groups espousing similarly extreme rhetoric can be found in a number of countries.

In Mali alone, alongside AQIM, Mujao and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion is Ansar Dine, another splinter from AQIM that has held large parts of the north since last year and has been imposing its version of Islamic law.

In Nigeria, Islamist group Boko Haram has conducted a destabilising and bloody campaign of terrorism in a fight that is rooted in longstanding local social and economic tensions.

Reports emerged last week that a leader from the group may have found his way to northern Mali, while American military commanders have long spoken about the connection between AQIM and Boko Haram.

Further demonstrating the potential links to Nigeria, back in July last year, a pair of men were accused in an Abuja court of being connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

And across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen is Somalia, a country that has been home to al-Shabab, a jihadist group that last year aligned itself officially with al-Qaeda.

There have been reports of Boko Haram fighters training alongside al-Shabab fighters and the Somali group is known to have deep connections with AQAP.

Particularly worrying for Western security planners, many of these groups have attracted an unknown number of foreign fighters.
In al-Shabab, some, like Omar Hammami, the American-Syrian who rose up in the Somali group’s ranks before recently falling out of favour, have become minor celebrities in their own right.

AQIM’s networks are known to stretch into France, Spain, Italy and even the UK.

Mujao’s Omar Ould Hamaha claims to have spent some 40 days towards the end of 2000 in France on a Schengen visa, whilst there have been numerous reports of Westerners being spotted or arrested trying to join the jihadists in northern Mali.

And now in In Amenas it appears a Canadian citizen may have been one of the attackers.

Seen from Western Europe, a dangerous picture emerges, potentially leading back home through fundraising networks and recruits.

But the risk is to overstate the threat and focus on the whole rather than the individual parts.

While links can often be drawn between these groups – and they can maybe be described as “fellow travellers” ideologically – it is not the case that they operate in unison or have similar goals.

Rescue workers carry the coffin of one of the hostages killed during a hostage crisis in a gas plant at the hospital in In Amenas, 21 January 2013.
Western interests in Africa will be reassessed as potential targets

Often local issues will trump international ones, even if they claim to be operating under the banner of an international organisation such as al-Qaeda.

And looking back historically, it has been a long time since AQIM-linked cells have been able to conduct or plot a major terrorist incident in Europe.

While a number of plots over the past few years have been connected to al-Shabab, so far there is little evidence that they have actually directed people to attack the West.

The bigger threat is to Western interests in Africa – sites such as In Amenas that will now be reassessed as potential targets for groups seeking international attention, or revenge for French-led efforts in Mali or Western efforts to counter groups elsewhere.

I have a review of Mitchell Silber’s book in the new International Affairs journal, I previously commented on it alongside Seth Jones book for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall, so I cannot just post it here, but have asked if I can. For those very eager, become Chatham House members or get in touch and I can try to help out…

A rather long-delayed book review for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at a pair of books by Mitch Silber and Seth Jones. More book reviews coming out soon, as well as another more historical piece I am quite pleased with for AfPak Channel.

Appraising al-Qaeda: The practitioner’s perspective

By Raffaello Pantucci | Monday, November 5, 2012 – 3:55 PM

Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 – Seth Jones

The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West – Mitchell D. Silber

What is the nature of al-Qaeda? Is it an organization with tight leadership structures and command and control, or is it an idea that takes harbor in the hearts and souls of disenfranchised or disillusioned young men and women seeking some greater meaning to their lives? Over time, the importance of these two schools of general thought has waxed and waned with various academics, authors, pundits and practitioners alternatively concluding the importance of one over the other largely depending on the nature of the latest plot to be disrupted. Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 by Seth Jones and The al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West by Mitchell D. Silber offer different insights into this question, while reaching largely similar conclusions about what al-Qaeda is and how it has targeted the West.

Both of these books were published over a decade after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington bloodily thrust al-Qaeda into the public consciousness, meaning they are able to look back at a considerable amount of data. While Jones’ is the more narratively satisfying book, telling a story of al Qaeda around the world, there are omissions in the text that reflect its heavy American focus. Silber’s, on the other hand, is a case-by-case analysis that lacks a narrative storyline, but the accounts of the plots in question are drawn from primary sources that make them some of the most factually accurate versions yet told of the various plots, and bring new and interesting insights useful to analysts and researchers.

Gathering information from court documents, press, personal experience, and interviews the books focus on two different theses that ultimately reach the same goal. Silber sets out to find, “what is the “al Qaeda factor” in plots against the West?” For Jones, the central question is “what factors have caused al Qaeda waves and reverse waves?” “Waves” are “surges in terrorist violence” and “reverse waves” are “decreases in terrorist activity.” The underlying aim of both is to understand how it is that al-Qaeda has targeted the West, and to what degree we can ascribe responsibility to the core organization.

Silber argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between those plots he characterizes as “al-Qaeda command and control,” “al-Qaeda suggested/endorsed,” and “al Qaeda inspired.” As the definitions quite clearly imply, in each case there is some semblance of a connection to al-Qaeda or its ideas, but there is a distinct difference between the cases in which individuals sitting in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have provided direction, and those in which individuals internalized al-Qaeda ideas to try to carry out plots (or al-Qaeda-like ideas, given the inclusion of the 1993 attempt by Ramzi Yousef to bring down the World Trade Center, something he did after having been trained in Afghanistan and having plotted with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but prior to Mohammed’s swearing of bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden). The end result, however, of all three types is the same: a plot, or attempted plot, to attack the West in support of al-Qaeda’s ideology. The cases offered are a laundry list of some of the most prominent plots targeting Europe, North America and Australia.

Jones’ thesis is instead that al-Qaeda’s violence has come in waves, the product of more or less intense and effective focus by counterterrorism forces. Identifying three key prongs to an effective counterterrorism strategy – a light military footprint, helping local regimes and authorities in their counterterrorism efforts, and exploiting al Qaeda’s tendency to massacre civilians – Jones draws upon events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as al-Qaeda plots in America, Spain and the United Kingdom, to map out how these waves have crested and broken against determined counterterrorism efforts.

Al-Qaeda’s ability to shoot itself in the foot, as in the wholesale butchery by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is highlighted as an example of where the group goes too far and causes a local resurgence from which American forces were able to profit. It also serves to highlight how al-Qaeda Central can lose control of affiliates and suffer as a result. AQI’s butchery not only appalled the general public, but it also led a number of scholars to write about the group’s brutality and the numbers of Muslims that it wantonly killed whilst claiming to be targeting the West.

Here we can see how the organization would have liked to have tighter control, but was unable to maintain it. As the ideas it has been advancing take root, they increasingly find themselves being used by groups that take them in directions that detract from the original strategy of using terrorist attacks to stimulate the broader ummah into rising up. In some cases, like the Madrid bombings of 2004, the inspiration approach seems to work, as a group loosely connected to — but not directed by — al-Qaeda managed to carry out a successful attack on the West. In Iraq, on the other hand, where a local affiliate became too bloodthirsty, massacres of civilians led to the “Anbar Awakening” against al-Qaeda.

While al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is not the focus of attention in either book, he lingers as a background presence, his letters and writings surfacing as he tries to assert authority over the network he has created. In Jones’ book we see others in the organization finding his leadership somewhat lacking. Jones quotes a letter in which top al-Qaeda operative Saif al-Adl expresses anger to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about how Osama “‘had failed to develop a cogent strategy for what would happen after the September 11 attacks.” In Silber’s text, bin Laden features even less, mentioned only as being aware of the 9/11 attacks (though plotting is described as being led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and as meeting with some of the members of the ‘Lackawanna Cluster,’ a group of Yemeni-Americans who prior to 9/11 travelled to Afghanistan and trained at al-Qaeda camps. Some of these young men heard bin Laden speak, and soon afterwards concluded they were not interested in doing any more training.

One of them, Sahim Alwan, was invited to speak to bin Laden directly, and the al-Qaeda leader asked why he was leaving and more generally about what Muslims in America were like. But, as Silber points out, while this presented an opportunity for the group to recruit the men, “it did not happen.” Both authors conclude that bin Laden was important primarily as a figurehead. As Silber writes towards the end: “regardless of the nature of his precise operational role in the organization, in the ten years since 9/11, he had become a legendary and mythical source of inspiration to individuals in the West who aspired to join his movement, regardless of whether they were in London, New York, Toronto or Madrid.”

But the larger figures in these books are the operational leaders underneath bin Laden. Coming from authors with deep involvement in American counter-terrorism efforts, the books are highly tactical in their approaches. Silber’s is written from the perspective of a man who has spent many years tracking al-Qaeda’s threat to New York as Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD, while Jones writes as a researcher at RAND, drawing heavily on interviews with key players from the American counter-terrorism community, including Bruce Hoffman, Philip Mudd, Art Cummings, and John Negroponte.

Both authors conclude that al-Qaeda Central has tried and failed repeatedly over the years to launch attacks against the West. September 11 was a thundering success in this regard, but since then, while we have seen surges of terrorist violence around the world linked to al-Qaeda affiliates, the core organization’s ability to effectively launch attacks has clearly been stymied by effective counterterrorism efforts. Heavy pressure means less time for people to be trained properly, and this means less effective operators and a reduced capacity to attack.

And while the spread of extremist ideas is important, it is not always going to produce great cells. While the Madrid group or the Hofstad Cell in Holland were reasonably productive cells that connected with peripheral al-Qaeda figures and led to results like the Madrid bombings or the murder of Theo van Gogh that impressed al-Qaeda, the Duka family in New Jersey or Russell Defreitas in New York (both highlighted in Jones’ text) produced half-baked plots like the effort to blow up the fuel pipeline to JFK airport with no proper training that are hardly the sort of activity that al-Qaeda would want to be associated with.

Both books are useful in painting a methodical picture of how al-Qaeda has tried to attack the West, but where they are maybe less effective is in identifying how it is that these individuals can be prevented from ever going down the path of seeking meaning in al Qaeda’s ideas. Jones does suggest finding ways to exploit the inconsistencies in al-Qaeda’s narrative in order to undermine their capacity to recruit, but the fact is that more than a decade since the group’s official creation, people are still being drawn to the flame. This suggests that we have still not figured out how to offer an appealing alternative narrative, and that the ideas that al-Qaeda advances are still able to draw recruits.

Jones’s Hunting in the Shadows could be described as an official history of sorts of al-Qaeda from the U.S. government perspective. This makes it a different beast to Silber’s The Al Qaeda Factor, in which a much more coldly analytical process draws a clear conclusion about the ‘al Qaeda factor’ in various terrorist plots.

Jones and Silber both conclude that it is becoming ever harder for al-Qaeda to effectively connect with and re-direct these recruits back home to carry out terrorist plots. Taking this conclusion a step further, we may assume that over time this sort of pressure will wear the network down. But if they are able to harness individuals drawn to them more effectively and enable a further wave of terrorist violence, the al-Qaeda ideology may survive longer. The solution advanced in both of these books, and echoed by the U.S. counterterrorism community, is to maintain heavy pressure through drone strikes as well as support to the host governments, and continue to focus on disrupting the groups’ capability to launch attacks on the West.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’ (Hurst/Columbia University Press).