Smuggling wars in the Sahara?

On Saturday, the last bit of proof I have sought since last year about surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) leaving Libya became public, when Reuters reported that Algerian security forces had seized a sizable cache of the weapons a little more than 60 km south of In Amenas, itself about 40 km from the border with Libya. On Monday the francophone Algerian daily El Watan provided more details on the story, noting that the stock, which had been carefully protected and buried in the desert, contained 43 missiles, including 28 SA-7 missiles as well as 15 of the significantly newer and more advanced SA-24 (oddly, the link to the original El Watan article seems to have disappeared from the website). This is of course important news, as it would seem to confirm what Algerian and Chadian leaders first warned about last March, that highly advanced missiles were being taken from Libya – though we do not know for certain when the weapons actually began disappearing into other countries.

Unsurprisingly given the concern about the threat these weapons may pose to civilian aviation, this story was reproduced by several wire services and press outlets. But for me another key part of the story that got less attention was that Algerian security forces only discovered the weapons stores after another trafficker or group of traffickers tipped them off.

The weapons seem to have been at a midway point in the delivery process; as the original article noted, after bringing in the weapons from Libya, smugglers wrap the stock in protective plastic before burying it and marking the location on a GPS. Once the prospective buyer has paid for the weapons, the article continues, they are then given the GPS coordinates for their brand new supply of missiles, guns, or whatever else might be buried in the desert.

While the article did not go into more detail, the suggestion of rivalries among weapons traffickers in southeastern Algeria raises some intriguing questions for me. The first is, well, why talk to the Algerian authorities? Did Algerian authorities arrest a group of traffickers who then squealed on another group? Was this a calculated attempt to eliminate rivals, curry favor with authorities, or perhaps drive up the price of other available weapons? And presuming this was not the only collection of such weapons that have made it across the border, how many others have gotten through? After all, Algeria’s government says that they arrested 214 weapons smugglers in 2011 – including 87 Libyans – but this is the first publicly announced seizure of SAMs that I can recall.

This leaves just one final question: Where were these weapons going? The natural choice for many would be al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), though there are other militant and criminal networks in the Sahel and North or West Africa that could certainly make use of these weapons. However, it is worth noting that relatives of key Sahelian AQIM commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (Or Abid Hammadou, or Mohamed Ghdir, depending on which name you prefer) are known as prominent smugglers in this region as well as in Libya, where Abou Zeid himself reportedly operated as a smuggler before entering into militancy.

Indeed,  some sources suggested that relatives of Abou Zeid may have been responsible for the brief kidnapping last month of the prefect of the Illizi province following guilty verdicts handed down by an Algerian court not just on Abou Zeid but also on several family members. Other sources indicated that the kidnappers were AQIM members under Abou Zeid’s command, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Either way, the kidnappers made quick time into Libya, where they were stopped by Libyan militia forces a day later and more than 100 km away from the Algerian border.

All of this goes to show that for all of the discussions of weapons smuggling in the post-Qaddafi Sahel, there’s been relatively less public inquiry into the extremely complicated networks of smugglers in the Sahel, groups sometimes linked by direct family ties, by tribe, by ideology, or just by the allure of cash. Yet in order to understand how weapons, drugs, cigarettes, and people circulate in the Sahel’s clandestine networks, we need to learn more about the smugglers who make these trades possible.

Jihadi Soft Power in Tunisia: Ansar al-Shari’ah’s Convoy Provides Aid to the Town of Haydrah in West Central Tunisia [WITH PICTURES]

Yesterday, the salafi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia provided aid in a convoy to residents in the city of Haydrah (Haïdra) in West Central Tunisia who have been hit hard by extremely cold weather. This may give pause and alarm to the elites in Tunis. As Erik Churchill, based in Tunisia and an independent development consultant, pointed out to me: “The French speaking elites have been patting themselves on the back the last few weeks for their ability to mobilize aid to these regions. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s work shows that the elites (both secular and an-Nahdha) do not have a monopoly on this kind of social work.”

Over the previous few weeks, there has been a major cold front, which included sub-zero temperatures and snow in northwest and west central Tunisia in regions within the governorates of Jendouba and Kasserine. Due to the remoteness of some of the locations and coinciding with many strikes and protests by factory and distribution center workers, there has been a major shortage of essential goods to stay warm and replenish food supplies. According to Tunisia-Live:

Despite the fact that the new interim president and members of the interim government have visited several regions of the country in the past week, no efficient measures were taken to deal with the scarcity of essential goods in the North West.

However, while the government has failed to provide an answer, Tunisian citizens have tried to create solutions. A group of Tunisians living in Germany started a volunteering company, using social networking to collect covers and clothes for those struggling with the cold in the deprived rural areas of the north-west. The group of Tunisian-Germans were looking for more volunteers within Tunisia to help them deliver covers and clothes to families in need.

Additionally, Qatar and UAE both sent airplane loads of supplies. There are also indigenous Tunisian groups that have attempted to assist, including El Kolna Twensa, Le PaCTE Tunisien, the Enfidha airport workers, and the Assabah/Le Temps newspaper group. Part of the issue is the lack of access due to roads being blocked by as many as 2.5 feet of snow in very rural areas. Although efforts were difficult, an-Nahdha did mobilize some of its supporters to help with relief efforts.

The secular-affiliated relief groups and organizations have targeted its aid more so to the governorate of Jendouba, since that region is viewed as more independent, moderate and socially liberal; whereas areas in the governorate of Kasserine are seen as more amenable to the message of a group like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia. Although the snow has receded in some of the areas, the temperatures remain cold and residents such as in the city of Haydrah, which is in the governorate of Kasserine and about an hour northwest of the city of Kasserine, are still struggling to survive the harsh conditions.

On Saturday February 18th, the non-violent jihadi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (that has connections to al-Qa’ida’s global jihadi online network) announced on its Facebook page that it was planning a convoy to take aid to suffering brethren to the town of Haydrah on Monday the 20th. Prior to driving from Kasserine in a convoy of trucks and vans, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia Shaykh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi emphasized to his followers the wajib (obligation) of providing aid to those in need as an Islamic duty and that these services were an aspect of jihad fi sabil Allah (in the cause of God), which would hopefully lead eventually to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate. One can see a variety of pictures from Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s da’wah activities that assisted the residents in Haydrah below.

Interestingly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is filling the vacuum of the Tunisian government, which is dealing with issues related to the economy, writing the constitution, and maintaining order while also redressing many grievances workers have. This type of social work had been what brought popularity to groups such as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt (and to a lesser extent an-Nahda in Tunisia because although Ben Ali’s former regime was corrupted they provided services far better than the Egyptian government). Assisting in social work gave space to preach ones ideology. As a result, if Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is able to continue with similar efforts along with protesting cultural policies (the niqab and appropriate levels of freedom of expression/speech), one may see its small movement gain wider popularity. This could be especially true in rural areas where many citizens are more conservative, religious, and extremely disillusioned with the governments lack of attention to it. Churchill concurs stating: “an-Nahdha is very concerned that their social bona fides could be usurped by more extreme elements.”

Although in differing contexts, one sees similar efforts to provide services and governance in Yemen by Ansar al-Shari’ah in Yemen as well as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia. This differs from previous methods by jihadis, which did not emphasize providing social services and basic needs like the case of al-Qa’ida in Iraq or even al-Qa’ida Central to local populaces. From this, a potential pattern is emerging whereby jihadis have learned the valuable lesson of providing for locals to curry more support versus blindly just calling for jihad and rhetorically speaking about a future Islamic state. In short, they are actually (dare I say) on a minuscule level providing a positive good versus just wrecking havoc through audacious suicide attacks and bombings. Either way, not only should the secularists in Tunis be worried about the potentially rising popularity of anti-systemic pan-Islamists like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia, but an important aspect of an-Nahda’s raison d’être and credibility is being challenged in the same way an-Nahda did to the old regime.

Convoy on its way to the City of Haydrah from the City of Kasserine

Unloading Aid From the Trucks and Vans

Distribution of the Aid

‘Asr (Afternoon) Prayer Following the Delivery of Aid

Ansar al-Shari’ah’s Caravan of Aid Leaves Haydrah

Signs Beyond Western Eyes: Unpacking The Announcement of the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade

This past Thursday, on February 16, a group of around twenty individuals claiming to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), released a video message to YouTube announcing the formation of a new battalion named the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. It should be noted that during the Iraq war, al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) also named one of their battalions the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. There is no definitive proof that the new battalion established by the FSA is connected with the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq networks. That said, one should be cognizant of the expansive facilitation networks there were for foreign fighters attempting to join the Iraq jihad in Syria.

There are many layers to unpack from the video itself as well as the name chosen for the martyr brigade and its potential illusions.

With the recent revelations that al-Qa’ida was allegedly behind a series of suicide bombings in Syria over the past few months, along with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent video giving support to the Syrian “mujahidin;” much worry has risen over the specter of al-Qa’ida influencing and/or hijacking the opposition movement in Syria that hopes to topple Bashar al-Asad and his current regime.

The Flags

Many will point to the flag in the background used in the above video as a sign that these individuals are indeed al-Qa’ida since it looks strikingly similar to the one used by al-Qa’ida’s Islamic State of Iraq (For more background on al-Qa’ida’s use of flags and its context in Islamic history read here):

FSA background flag

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Indeed, it is a worrying sign. At the same time, one should also note that in the above video, they also bear the old Syrian flag:

As such, for any student of al-Qa’ida and jihadism, the use of a Syrian flag shows direct support of a nationalist project, which is contrary to al-Qa’ida’s worldview. This is because the nation-states carved out were established not by God, but rather by the British and French. From this, one could posit that the al-Qa’ida looking flag used in the above video has become popularized to a broader audience then just a global jihadist one. More specifically, “the Che Guevara-ing” of the flag insofar as it has just become a symbol of resistance than necessarily a sign that the group has allegiance to al-Qa’ida. At the same time, the name used for the martyrs brigade (as AQI did, too) may abrogate or disprove this potential theory.

Who is al-Bara’ ibn Malik?

Prior to discussing the significance of the name of the martyrs brigrade in the context of al-Qa’ida, it is worthwhile to delve into the figure al-Bara’ ibn Malik to try and better understand why the FSA (and AQI) would invoke this figures name. Ibn Malik was one of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s sahabah (companions) and considered an ansar (supporter) from the tribe of Banu al-Khazraj since they established relations with Muhammad’s nascent movement of mu’minin (believers) following the hijra to Medina (originally Yathrib). Ibn Malik is the brother of the famous sahabi Anas ibn Malik, an aide to Muhammad and who is one of the major narrators of hadith.

al-Bara’ ibn Malik originally took part in the Battle of Yamamah, which was part of the Riddah (apostasy) wars following the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. After the ascension of Abu Bakr as-Sadiq as the first Caliph some tribes and individuals apostatsized from Islam and attempted to return to their original religious practices. Abu Bakr called for war against them leading to a series of battles in 632-634 CE/11-13 H. The Battle of Yamamah is most famous for the deaths of a large portion of Qur’anic reciters, which led Abu Bakr to start the codification of the Qur’an into a written mushaf, since beforehand the Qur’an was recited orally. In the latter part of the Battle of Yamamah, when the opposition forces led by Musaylimah (referred in Islamic historiography as al-Kadhab or the Liar) were beginning to lose the battle they hid behind a gated garden. Prior to launching an assault on the garden, al-Bara’ ibn Malik stated: “يا أهل المدينة، لا مدينة لكم اليوم، إنما هو الله، والجنة” or “Oh People of al-Madinah, there is no al-Madinah for you after this day. There is only Allah, then Paradise.” Ibn Malik was hoisted upon a fellow soldiers shield to try and jump over the gate, which he succeeded. He sustained wounds, but was able to break open the gate allowing the rest of the Muslim army to defeat Musaylimah’s men. The episode would later refer to the “Garden of Death.” Although Ibn Malik had injuries, he recovered and later fought and was “martyred” in the Battle of Tustar against the Persian Empire in 640 CE/19 H.

There are three key points that should be highlighted from the above description of al-Bara’ ibn Malik: (1) he had an important role in defeating “apostates;” (2) his quote from above shows his willingness for martyrdom in the face of tough odds; and (3) he fought against the Persian Empire, which although Persians were not Muslims or Shi’a for that matter at that time one can imagine the symbolism of Ibn Malik fighting against the Persians. Jihadis today describe Shi’a (many being Persian) today as rawafid (Dissenters/Defectors/Deserters), which is a derogatory term, and do not believe they are true Muslims.

Contextualizing al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades Today

Returning to the modern context, in both cases (AQI and the FSA), the name of the martyrs brigade fits and alludes to the three points made above regarding the biography of Ibn Malik. Regarding the first point, in both Iraq and Syria the fighters believe they are fighting apostate regimes. In Iraq against the ascendent Shi’a Mahdi Army and newly formed majority Shi’a Iraqi government and in the case of Syria al-Asad’s Alawite regime (seen as a sect of Shi’a Islam and viewed as heretical by even non-jihadi Sunni Muslims). As for the second point, it is quite obvious that they are martyrdom brigades and are therefore willing to sacrifice themselves in the face of great odds. And thirdly, the Iranian government was viewed in the Iraq war as assisting the Shi’a militias, while in the current context in Syria, the al-Asad regime is a known proxy of the Iranian regime. As such, in a round about way, in both the Iraq and Syrian versions of the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades they would be fighting the “Persian Empire” similar to Ibn Malik himself.

General Concluding Remarks About the Current State of Jihadism in Syria

The establishment of the FSA’s al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade should give pause to talk of blindly arming the FSA as an alternative to the failed resolutions in the UN Security Council. That said, it is believed the FSA is a loose confederation without much centralization and therefore this battalion is most likely independent and doing its own thing. With the news of the potential release of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, the creation of a new local jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and reports of a foreign fighter from Kuwait being killed in Syria, it is clear Syria has become another important front in the jihadi war. The penetration of al-Qa’ida in Iraq into Syria and potential of foreign fighters arriving, should be watched closely. At the same time, ones support for the uprising to defeat the authoritarian al-Asad regime should not be looked at completely through the prism of al-Qa’ida nor should it preclude or discredit any attempts for supporting some elements within the opposition. There are certainly risks involved, but identifying and vetting elements within the Syrian opposition is something that needs to be further acted upon in a precise manner versus providing weapons haphazardly just because of horrific scenes of slaughter on YouTube that one views without fully thinking through the potential second and third order consequences.

The Formalizing of an Affiliation: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen & Al-Qa’ida Central

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), Al-Shabab’s spokesman, at a press conference on the killing of Usama bin Laden on May 6, 2011.

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

UPDATE (23 February 2012): Al-Shabab’s Political and Governorates Office has issued two statements today.  The first congratulates the Muslim Ummah on its formal affiliation with Al-Qa’ida Central and gives “special thanks to our amir, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.”  It states that the Somali insurgent movement’s resources now fall under his authority.  It has yet to be seen if this leads to a significant change in Al-Shabab’s Somalia-centric insurgency.  The second thanks AQC’s Al-Sahab Media Foundation for producing the video announcing the affiliation as well as the Global Islamic Media Front for its longtime online distribution support of Al-Shabab.

UPDATE (17 February 2012): See insurgent photographs from a rally in Baidoa HERE.

UPDATE (14 February 2012): See a second set of insurgent photographs of the rallies HERE.

UPDATE (13 February 2012): Al-Shabab leaders have hosted celebrations across Lower Shabelle for the formalization of affiliation between their movement and Al-Qa’ida Central.  Among those leaders present were spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), governor of Banaadir Muhammad Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, governor of Lower Shabelle Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, and preacher ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min.  Noticeably absent, at least in insurgent photographs and the official statement announcing the celebrations, were Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow and Hasan Dahir Aweys.  This may or may not mean the latter two were not present.  If they were not present it may be a sign of a rift, though the nature of cleavages in the movement remain hotly debated.  It is not the first time that not all the “public faces” of Al-Shabab were not present at a major event.  For example, ‘Ali Rage was not pictured in insurgent photographs or video footage of the movement’s conference marking the killing of Usama bin Laden in May 2011. Signs and banners held by civilians present express “joy” at the “union of the mujahideen” and “jihadi movement.”  To see insurgent photographs and read the official statement, see my post at VIEWS FROM THE OCCIDENT.

In a new media release, half audio message and half video message, released on Thursday, February 9 by Al-Qa’ida Central’s (AQC) media outlet, the Al-Sahab (The Clouds) Media Foundation, the group’s amir, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Ahmed Godane, the amir of the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth; Al-Shabaab) formally announced the official affiliation of Al-Shabab with AQC.  The announcement, which was teased a day prior to its release on jihadi-takfiri Internet forums, formalizes the relationship between the two groups following a lengthy history of ideological affinity and cooperation between them.  Its release has renewed discussions about how Al-Shabab should be classified, as mostly a local or regional insurgency, a transnational militant movement akin to AQC, or a mix of the two.  This post, like much of my current research and writing on Al-Shabab, attempts to make a modest contribution to this discussion.  I have and continue to argue that Al-Shabab is most accurately seen as a type of “glocal” militant movement, a mainly localized militant movement that uses transnational rhetoric and maintains an operational capability to carry out attacks outside of its home base inside Somalia, primarily but not necessarily limited to regional countries in East Africa.

Entitled, Glad Tidings from the Two Shaykhs, Abu al-Zubayr and Amir Ayman al-Zawahiri, the announcement is roughly evenly divided between an audio message from Godane, who is more commonly known in jihadi circles by his nom de guerre “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr,” and a video segment from al-Zawahiri, who stoically gives “glad tidings to the Muslim Ummah (worldwide community), in particular to the mujahideen” regarding Al-Shabab’s joining of the Al-Qa’ida organization-led jihadi movement (al-harakat al-jihadiyya) against the alliance of Crusaders, Zionists, and their allies and agents, the munafiqeen (hypocrites, a term used for those who claim to be Muslims but whose actions prove otherwise).  He welcomes “our brothers” Al-Shabab and praises the steadfastness of the movement against the mounting Crusader attacks on it by the United States, Ethiopia, and Kenya, all of whom have become increasingly involved in the Somali civil war that pits Al-Shabab against the weak but internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which depends on the nearly 10,000 African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) soldiers for its survival.  Al-Zawahiri also urges Somalis to stay away from those religious scholars (‘ulama) who seek to lead them astray and who support the corrupt TFG leaders who have allied themselves to “Crusader” forces.

Al-Zawahiri sits in front of a green curtain, which appears to be felt.  He has sat in frot of the same or a very similar curtain in a number of other recent video messages including Days with the Imam: Part 1, released November 15 of last year, The Glory of the East Begins with Damascus, released July 27, and And the Defeats of the Americans Continue, released October 11.  The background setting of the AQC amir’s location suggests that the video segment featuring him was recorded fairly recently, within the last seven months.

Godane, as Al-Shabab’s amir, declares his loyalty to “our amir,” the “beloved amir, the blessed/honorable shaykh,” al-Zawahiri.  During his audio segment, a static background identifies Godane as the speaker and includes a still photograph from the conference in December 2010 at which Al-Shabab announced the joining to it of Hizbul Islam, the Somali Islamist insurgent group formerly headed by Hasan Dahir Aweys, who is now a senior Al-Shabab leader.

The issuing of this announcement now, during a period when both AQC and Al-Shabab are facing mounting pressures, is telling.  It is unclear at the current time who initiated this formal affiliation of Al-Shabab with AQC, or whether it was mutually initiated.  AQC, faced with the loss of its founder, Usama bin Laden, and a senior operational leader and ideologue, ‘Atiyyatullah al-Libi (Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati), last year is reeling from losses inflicted by U.S. drone missile strikes and is struggling to remain a relevant force.  Of the two groups, it arguably has the most to gain from formalizing its relationship with Al-Shabab, which continues to control vast swaths of territory in central and southern Somalia.  The insurgent movement or its allies also reportedly have made significant inroads into parts of northern Somalia, both in the autonomous region of Puntland and a contested area between Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland.  Despite significant military setbacks since last spring, Al-Shabab remains a potent force within the country and its military power, even if it is in decline, remains the subject of pride for the Sunni jihadi current.  With the exception of Ansar al-Shari‘a, which is at the very least affiliated with AQAP, no other AQC affiliate controls any significant amount of territory.  The jihadi-insurgent “golden age” in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, during which AQ in the Land of the Two Rivers, the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Shura Council), its successor the Islamic State of Iraq, controlled villages and cities in certain regions, such as Al-Anbar, has long since ended.  The control and governance of territory has long been a transnational jihadi dream and Al-Shabab’s exercise of governing authority, however basic, over large parts of southern and central Somalia is thus something that AQC leaders and transnational jihadis online have long heralded as one of the best examples of what a “jihadi state” can accomplish.  Despite its delusions of grandeur with the Islamic State of Iraq, which, in terms of its actual ability to exercise significant governing authority over territory, exists mostly on paper rather than in practice, the transnational jihadi current’s attention has been shifting away from Iraq and toward other theaters, such as Somalia.

AQC leaders, from Bin Laden to al-Zawahiri to Abu Yahya al-Libi, have long held up Al-Shabab as a source of pride to the transnational jihadi current.  During its heyday from roughly 2008 through the summer of 2010, Al-Shabab represented, for both AQ, broadly defined, ideologues and online jihadis one of the best examples of what can be accomplished, in terms of controlling and governing territory, by “steadfast mujahideen” with few resources in the face of a numerically and technologically-superior set of adversaries, in this case AMISOM, Ethiopia, and their U.S. backers.  This was highlighted, for example, by Abu Yahya al-Libi in Al-Sahab’s 2008 “9/11 anniversary” video, The Results of Seven Years of the Crusades, and he more recently argued that the Kenyan military intervention in Somalia is a step on the way to victory for the “mujahideen” since it will lead to further economic catastrophe for Kenya and the U.S.  AQAP’s deputy amir, Sa’id al-Shihri, also praised Al-Shabab in a February 2010 audio message in which he urged increased cooperation between the two groups.

The fact that Al-Shabab’s successes in Somalia were only made possible by a unique set of circumstances that do not exist and are likely not reproducible in other regions seems not to have been considered by them.  In other words, Al-Shabab’s success at capturing and holding territory has provided AQ and other likeminded jihadis with hope that it is possible for “mujahideen” to implement “God’s rule,” a harsh implementation of a rudimentary form of shari‘a, and act as executors of a kind of state power.

Anwar al-‘Awlaqi, the late American militant preacher affiliated with AQAP who was killed in a U.S. drone missile strike on September 30, was perhaps the most outspoken in his view that Al-Shabab represents the potential of a jihadi state.  In a December 21, 2008 post on his blog, he lauded and congratulated Al-Shabab for its victories in Somalia against the Ethiopians, AMISOM, and the TFG, writing that they filled “our hearts with immense joy.”  He went on to describe Al-Shabab’s project in Somalia as a “university” that “will graduate” distinguished alumni who can share their experiences with and educate other “mujahideen” in implementing a similar social and governing program in other regions.  The Somali theater, he wrote, “will provide its graduates with the hands-on experience that the Ummah greatly needs for its next stage.”

Al-‘Awlaqi reiterated his positive assessment of Al-Shabab in his first, and thus far only publicly released, interview with AQAP’s Al-Malahem Media Foundation, which was released in May 2010.  When asked to clarify his position on the Somali insurgent movement, he said, “The various Islamic movements are searching for a solution for the Ummah, as are the scholars…Today we are seeing the solution in front of our very eyes in Somalia.  This small hand of mujahideen, with limited resources, has been able to establish a state and rule with God’s almighty Shari‘a.  Today, they are providing solutions for the people…Today, they are dealing with the realities and providing solutions from the Islamic Shari ‘a.  For this reason, as I mentioned, this is a unique experience from which the Ummah must derive benefit.”  Clearly, this is a heavily selective description of Al-Shabab’s execution of governing authority over wide swaths of Somalia.  However, al-‘Awlaqi’s response clearly shows how important the Somali theater has been to jihadis as a model to emulate.

SEE HERE FOR A VIDEO CLIP OF ANWAR AL-’AWLAQI’S DESCRIPTION OF AL-SHABAB.

Despite Al-Shabab’s importance in illustrating how a jihadi state can be run in praxis, the movement’s leaders have not been as frequently cited in videos produced by AQC and its affiliates as the reverse.  An audio clip of Godane was used in Ghazwat al-Mansura, a video in AQIM’s series The Shade of Swords, released on July 22, 2010, to my knowledge for the first, and so far only, time.

For its part, Al-Shabab has for a long time closely affiliated itself ideologically with AQC and the transnational jihadi current in the hope of garnering benefits from this relationship that would otherwise not be available to it.  This has been particularly true in terms of the movement winning financial support and potentially new recruits from outside of Somalia, particularly when the number of diaspora recruits from North America and Western Europe began to slow following the Ethiopian military withdrawal in January 2008.

Mukhtar Robow

Al-Shabab from its early stages embraced and has been strongly influenced by the charismatic persona of Bin Laden.  His image and clips of his audio and video messages have been used in the insurgent movement’s video productions since at least 2008.  For example, his image and audio clips of him were used prominently in Al-Shabab’s video series Martyrdom Operations in Somalia.  Insurgent leaders, from Godane to Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), and Hasan Dahir Aweys have continuously spoken with great affinity for Bin Laden and the late AQC founder continues to occupy a place of prominence in Al-Shabab’s media productions.  The insurgent movement held a major conference entitled “We Are all Usama” in mid-May following his killing in Pakistan.  Senior Al-Shabab leaders including Aweys, Robow, Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole,” and its governor of the Banaadir region, Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, and ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min were present, as was American member Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami.

Hasan Dahir Aweys

The clearest example of Al-Shabab’s ideological affinity for Bin Laden is a 48-minute video entitled Labbayk Ya Usama, which translates approximately to, “We Heed Your Call” or “At Your Service,” released on September 20, 2009 by Al-Shabab’s media wing.  In the video, Godane refers to Bin Laden, whom he calls by his kunya Abu ‘Abdullah, as “shaykh-i-na wa amir-i-na” (our shaykh and our amir).  Godane and other Al-Shabab leaders, such as Robow, Rage, and Aweys, have long described Bin Laden as the epitome of Muslim resistance to Western imperialism, epitomized by the United States, and its local clients such as Somalia’s TFG.

Insurgent ideological affinity for the transnational jihadism represented by AQC has not been limited to the personage of Bin Laden.  Al-Shabab’s media apparatus, originally called simply “Media Department” and now the “Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation,” has also made frequent use of video and audio clips from other prominent transnational jihadi ideologues including Al-Qa’ida Central’s Abu Yahya al-Libi (a clip of whom appears in an early Al-Shabab media production, the July 2008 Al-Shabab video eulogy for its founder, Adan Hashi Farah ‘Ayro), the late Al-Qa’ida Central commander in Afghanistan Mustafa Abu’l Yazid, and Al-Qa’ida in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq leaders Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (after which it named a research institute that published one issue of its Internet magazine Millat Ibrahim), Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.  Materials studied by Al-Shabab fighters and missionaries, at academies named after ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, include, in addition to classical and medieval books on Arabic grammar, Qur’anic commentaries, books of hadith, and prophetic biography, books by Ayman al-Zawahiri (al-Wala’ wa’l Bara’) and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Millat Ibrahim).

In addition to the significant ideological affinity that Al-Shabab’s leaders have for Bin Laden and other transnational jihadi ideologues, the former also get strategic benefit from their affiliation with Al-Qa’ida and the transnational jihadi community it represents.  By distributing its media materials on major jihadi Internet forums through the Global Islamic Media Front and embracing Bin Laden and other jihadi leaders, Al-Shabab is able to reach a broader audience of potential and actual supporters than it would otherwise be able to.  In tandem with its recruitment networks in East Africa, Europe, Australia, and North America, this has enabled it to win new supporters, some of whom have traveled to Somalia in order to join the movement.  It is important to note, however, that Al-Shabab maintains multiple tiers of media communication and messaging: (1) media aimed at transnational jihadis online, (2) Somali domestic and diaspora audiences via Somali language media outlets, which are as or more important than #1, (3) communications aimed at external enemies, for example via the “HSM Press” Twitter account and some of Al-Kata’ib’s videos.

On the operational front, AQC operatives in East Africa played a key role in training and providing ideological guidance to Al-Shabab in its formative days, though their exact roles remain hazy.  Chief among these operatives were Abu Talha al-Sudani (killed in 2007 or 2008), Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhani (killed in a U.S. military strike in southern Somalia on September 14, 2009), and Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad, also known as Fadil Harun (killed in a chance encounter in June 2001 at a Transitional Federal Government checkpoint in Mogadishu).  Of the three, al-Nabhani occupied the most visible role in aiding Al-Shabab, appearing in a 24-minute video released by Al-Shabab’s media department in August 2008 in which he called on Muslims outside of Somalia to come and aid “their brothers” in that country.  He made specific calls to Muslims in Sudan and Yemen, saying that “we are waiting for reinforcements from Sudan and Yemen, the places of wisdom (al-hikmah) and faith (al-iman).”  Al-Nabhani is shown briefly instructing military exercises alongside Mukhtar Robow in the video.  A day after al-Nabhani’s death, Al-Shabab issued a statement eulogizing him.

During a period of severe crisis in which it is dealing with the effects of a severe famine, declining diaspora financial and manpower support, and growing military pressures from AMISOM, the TFG, Ethiopia, Kenya, their allied militias, and the U.S., Al-Shabab may be wagering that by formally affiliating itself with AQC it will receive financial support or recruits that it may otherwise not have had access to.  Questions remain, however, as to the timing of this announcement.  AQC likely has little spare financial support or manpower that it can send to Al-Shabab, given the former’s needs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it was hoping for another safe haven in Somalia, AQC will likely be disappointed in Somalia since the “golden age” of Al-Shabab’s insurgent state is likely over.  However, it may not be direct AQC support that Al-Shabab is aiming for but rather support from non-Somali jihadis who are sympathetic to AQC’s ideological message who may choose Somalia as their field of “jihad” and thus provide the insurgent movement with badly needed reinforcements.

On the operational level, it is unclear whether AQC still has key operatives in East Africa.  The group’s original core group of operatives has died or been killed, likely leaving a vacuum that will be difficult for AQC to fill, particularly given its weakened state and need for all the financial and manpower resources it can get for the Afghanistan-Pakistan front.  The only suspected AQC operative that has been revealed publicly since the chance killing of Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad at a TFG checkpoint in Mogadishu on June 8 of last year, has been Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir, who the FBI believes to be American citizen Jehad Serwan Mostafa.  He was present at a major media event staged in October by Al-Shabab and AQC at the insurgent movement’s flagship refugee camp, Al-Yasir, in the Lower Shabelle region, which has since been closed.  The masked al-Muhajir delivered humanitarian and other aid to Al-Yasir.  On banners present at the event, the identities of “AQ” and Al-Shabab were kept distinct and separate.  The aid was labeled as being from “AQ” but distributed in coordination with Al-Shabab.  Al-Muhajir’s exact role in AQC, if any, have not yet been specified in any detail by the group, nor was the aid distribution discussed in any detail, at least yet, in AQC media releases.  Without significant infrastructure in the form of skilled operatives in Somalia, it is unlikely that the official announcement of Al-Shabab’s affiliation with AQC will bring about any immediate significant changes on the ground for the insurgent movement.  The official announcement of affiliation does, however, potentially provide AQC with a propaganda coup in that it is able to continue presenting itself as relevant and it could also provide a new cause for its supporters to unify around.

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (left) with Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir at Al-Yasir camp in Lower Shabelle in mid-October

Al-Shabab is also likely to remain focused on the ongoing conflict inside Somalia, though it will also likely continue to carry out attacks in Kenya and other neighboring countries that either have soldiers inside the country or have sent soldiers to join the AMISOM force.  Given the reportedly high numbers of non-Somali foreign fighters that have joined its ranks (numbers remain unclear), it is possible that as Al-Shabab becomes increasingly desperate it will attempt to carry out more attacks against countries that are militarily engaged in Somalia.  Al-Shabab has already, it seems, solidified an operational relationship with militant elements within the Kenyan Muslim population and it is likely that Al-Shabab has already and will continue to attempt to form relationships with other Muslim militant groups in the Horn of Africa.  It is important to note that, unlike other AQC affiliates with the exception of AQAP and Ansar al-Shari‘a in Yemen, Al-Shabab has a significant domestic population over which it rules, a constituency so to speak, though clearly not all of the people support the movement’s rule.  Domestic politics and social relations will likely continue to play a major role, if not the most important role, in determining Al-Shabab’s trajectory.

Al-Shabab is a hybrid movement, part domestic insurgency and part jihadi movement with a transnational flare.  It is a “glocal” militant movement that, while focused mainly on waging a domestic insurgency, has deliberately cultivated relations with AQC, AQAP, and the transnational jihadi current which they represent, in part due to real ideological affinity and in for strategic reasons, mainly to expand its limited base of potential recruits and supporters.  Its desire and ability to move fully into the transnational arena, defined here as outside Somalia and the Horn of Africa, remains an open question.  It is possible that the movement will be ultimately uninterested in or incapable of, like AQIM, of moving fully into transnational militancy.  Al-Shabab, despite facing major setbacks during the past year, has succeeded in establishing clandestine recruiting networks on several continents, developed a sophisticated set of media operations, and continues to prove that it remains a potent force inside Somalia, though how long it can remain so under increasing military pressure is unclear.

The possibility of fractures emerging in the movement, particularly as pressure mounts, remain perhaps the greatest danger to Al-Shabab’s existence as a unified, or fairly unified, militant force inside the country.  These fractures will perhaps emerge following the formal affiliation of Al-Shabab with AQC, if consistent reports of a rift between Godane and more Somalia-centric Al-Shabab leaders are true.  These fractures, however, may not emerge in the short term, as the insurgent movement has proven remarkably resilient in the fact of major crises such as the famine.  The Al-Shabab media reaction, in the form of its own press statements, videos, and other media releases, to the official announcement of affiliation will also be telling with regard to how the insurgent movement itself, and not AQC, presents the affiliation.  It also remains to be seen whether the distribution network of Al-Shabab media materials online changes, moving from the Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad) Media Center of the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) to the Al-Fajr (The Dawn) Media Center, which distributes AQC, AQAP, ISI, and AQIM media materials exclusively, in addition to some of its own material.  Even close allies of AQC in other regions, such as the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, do not have their media materials distributed via Al-Fajr.  Such a shift would be a further sign of Al-Shabab’s full adoption into the AQ family.

As the idiom says, “watch this space.”

Iran, al-Qaeda, and missing information

Late last month, Foreign Affairs magazine ran a rather surprising article from Seth Jones, the RAND political scientist and well-regarded scholar of American military tactics, titled simply “Al-Qaeda in Iran.” Surprising not for what the article reveals, but for what it fails to fully analyze, and what it misses entirely.

For one thing, I have a hard time understanding the first two words of Jones’ piece, that the presence since 2001 of senior al-Qaeda members in Iran has gone “virtually unnoticed.” For one thing, the topic has been common knowledge and conversation fodder among counterterrorism specialists for years, some of whom, like Leah Farrall wrote publicly about Iran’s detention and harboring of al-Qaeda figures and historical fellow-travelers. But as Jones hints (and Josh Foust explicitly lays out), the U.S. government has in recent years taken increasing public action to draw attention to the connection; in the summer of 2009 the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Osama bin Laden’s son Sa’ad, as well as three other suspected al-Qaeda members, stating clearly that Sa’ad and others were believed to be in Iran. And last summer Treasury stepped up the pressure (and rhetoric), designating six al-Qaeda figures for sanctions and publicly accusing Iran of having forged a “secret deal” with al-Qaeda, one that in the words of Treasury official David S. Cohen allowed the terror group to “funnel funds and operatives through [Iranian] territory.”

Digging into the details of the piece, I was disappointed to find that, well, there aren’t very many of them. Jones only names a limited number of people actually believed to be in Iran, including the figures on what he terms al-Qaeda’s “management council” in Iran — Saif al-Adel, Sulayman Abu Ghayth, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani — as well as Yasin al-Suri, who Jones calls an al-Qaeda facilitator. While  al-Suri and Abu al-Khayr aren’t exactly household names, al-Adel, Abu Ghayth, Abu Hafs, and Abu Muhammad are all long-time al-Qaeda figures, and the first three should be known to anyone who has even given a cursory study to al-Qaeda’s history before and after the 9/11 attacks (and again, their suspected presence in Iran has long been noted by specialists and journalists alike).

The second major fault of this piece is that, despite having “culled through hundreds of documents from the Harmony database at West Point; perused hundreds more open-source and declassified documents, such as the U.S. Department of Treasury’s sanctions against al Qaeda leaders in Iran; and interviewed government officials from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia” Jones doesn’t acknowledge the widespread reports that circulated in 2010 that al-Adel, Abu Ghayth, and Abu Hafs had quietly been allowed to leave Iran. While these reports may not be conclusive, the possible departure of such key leaders from Iran seems to be too important of a data point to simply ignore.

Moreover, last fall Mauritanian news sources suddenly reported that the family of Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, whose real name is Mahfouz Ould Walid, had been repatriated to Mauritania and were being debriefed by Mauritanian officials. Admittedly, there aren’t many people who make it a regular habit to peruse the Mauritanian press. But this information was and is available online, and I personally know a number of lay analysts and former intelligence analysts who not only saw this information, but talked about it publicly on forums like Twitter. It is one thing to allow personnel to travel freely, but another altogether to give up the leverage gained by holding on to an al-Qaeda leader’s family. However, because this information does not make it into Jones’ article, its impact cannot be addressed.

Setting aside these concerns, Jones’ analysis of the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda falls short on other key points. While he argues (and I agree) that “It would be unwise to overestimate the leverage Tehran has over al Qaeda’s leadership” and that al-Qaeda “is no Iranian puppet” Jones argues that in the event of an American or Israeli attack, Iran could step up its material support for al-Qaeda and “could turn to al Qaeda to mount a retaliation to any U.S. or Israeli attack.”

This assertion smacks of contradiction, though no analyst can predict the future hypothetical reaction of Iran and al-Qaeda to a hypothetical U.S. or Israeli strike. But history lends this argument no credence, and Jones gives no evidence to back up his own eventuality. While al-Qaeda’s capabilities are open to debate, the organization has not managed to even link itself to a successful attack against the West since the 2005 London transport bombings. And al-Qaeda core has never managed to stage an attack against Israel — though groups inspired by al-Qaeda have succeeded in a limited fashion, while others paid a heavy price for their allegiance.

Moreover, while some believe al-Adel has played an increasing operational role in al-Qaeda since 2010, major al-Qaeda plots in recent years, including the 2009 New York Subway bomb plot and the 2010 “Dussëldorf Cell” plot in Germany involved senior al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas. As Paul Cruickshank has detailed, al-Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas have played a major role in training foreign fighters and plotting attacks against the West even as drone strikes decimated the group’s leadership, though this may change following the deaths of crucially important figures like Attiyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman. Yet the point remains that al-Qaeda’s leadership in Iran have not been essential players in plots against the West since 9/11, and Jones does not show why this center of gravity would necessarily shift to Iran, even if the Ayatollahs or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad decided that it should.

Despite the time I’ve spent directly critiquing Jones here, my point here is not to attack him, but rather to show the importance of dealing with al-Qaeda’s history, especially since 9/11, in analyzing what the group may do next and how they will continue to operate in a post-bin Laden world. While much of this is classified, there is still a tremendous wealth of information in the open-source, and there is still no substitute for careful unclassified research. And perhaps, from time to time, you should check the Mauritanian papers.

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