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.”

Out of Sight out of Mind: The Battle for Yemen’s North

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After at least six months of handwringing, Yemen’s President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih has finally signed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) deal to step down as president of Yemen. It would require Salih to step down when a new president is elected after 90 days from the date of signing. There is hope for the future, yet there is much to fix and many challenges ahead in Yemen. The next government will have a difficult time putting the country back together as Salih’s dithering has led to a loss of control at the fringes of Yemeni society in the south, but even more so in its volatile north. The Huthis, a revivalist Zaydi movement, whose main base of operation is in Sa‘da, is wrestling control of Yemen’s northern governorates from the Yemeni state, its tribal allies, and Islamist factions.

Within a few hours of Salih signing the GCC deal, the leader of the Huthis, ‘Abd al-Malik Badr ad-Din al-Huthi, released a communiqué denouncing the deal. ‘Abd al-Malik emphatically stated: “We consider any agreement with the oppressor is a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and the wounded, and a disregard for the sacrifices of the Yemeni people and a painful stab against the free rebels who have endured all kinds of suffering and imprisonment, torture and murder of more than ten months.” ‘Abd al-Malik proclaimed that the revolution would continue until the demands and goals of the revolutionaries are met.

Prior to the Yemeni uprising that began following the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in late January 2011, between 2004 and 2010, the Yemeni state fought the Huthis in six rounds of battles; the last with the help of the Saudis. Besides their pent up antipathy toward Salih’s regime, one reason that the Huthis may be against the resolution is because they have made a lot of progress over the past few months in taking over three governorates in northern Yemen. The past few months have seen renewed fighting in northern Yemen this time between the Huthis and Islah, one of the main opposition parties in Yemen that is a coalition of Ikhwanis (the Muslims Brothers), Salafis, and tribal elements from the Hashid tribal federation.

At the outset of the Yemeni uprising, ‘Abd al-Malik announced his support for the pro-democratic protests and for regime change. Large crowds of Huthi supporters joined in protests in Sa‘da where the Huthis main base of operations lies. At the same time, the Huthis saw an opportunity to wrestle control of Sa‘da back from the state as Salih’s regime became isolated in Sana‘a. On March 26, the Huthis took Sa‘da and installed new military checkpoints as well as established their own administration in Sa‘da Governorate, independent from Yemeni authorities; appointing former arms dealer Fares Mana‘a as the new governor.

The Huthis also began an offensive in al-Jawf Governorate, which is southeast of Sa‘da. Fighting picked up in July against fighters from Islah where hundreds are believed to have died on both sides. There are reports that the Huthis are in control of al-Jawf now, too, and have now turned its attention to Hajjah Governorate, which is south of Sa‘da. On November 9, the Huthis beat back the pro-government Kashir and Aahm tribes and were able to take control of Kuhlan Ash Sharaf District, which is vital since there is a highway there that connects Sana‘a to the Red Sea. Pro-government sources in Hajjah believe the Huthis are taking these strategic positions to prepare an attack on Sana‘a. If Hajjah falls to the Huthis they will be in control of three governorates in northern Yemen.

Another issue at hand is increasing tensions with the Salafis at the Dammaj Institute in Sa‘da, which could exacerbate already thick sectarian tensions. A month ago, the Huthis laid siege to the Dammaj Institute complex after a letter from Imam Yahya al-Hajuri, the principal of Dammaj Institute, was leaked to the Huthis. In the letter, al-Hajuri thanked Brigadier General Yahya Mohamed ‘Abdullah Salih, the president’s nephew and chief commander of Yemen’s security forces, as well as the Saudis for fighting the Huthis in previous rounds of battle. The Huthis are also claiming that Salafis are bringing weapons inside their educational institutions. Making matters worse, al-Hajuri has sanctioned a jihad against the Huthis.

Attempts at reconciliation have been futile, as both sides have broken multiple potential ceasefires over the past few weeks with continued low-level fighting. Tensions have also been heighted because according to ‘Abd al-Malik, two weeks ago, the Huthis foiled a suicide attack in al-Jawf on Eid al-Ghadir, which is celebrated by Shi‘a to commemorate the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s speech appointing ‘Ali ibn ‘Abi Talib as his successor, which is a contentious issue between Sunnis and Sh‘ia. Although ‘Abd al-Malik blamed the failed attack on the United States as a way to ratchet up sectarian strife as he did in August when there was a successful car-bombing, this case like the one in August was most likely perpetrated by elements in or affiliated with al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Earlier in the year, AQAP declared jihad against the Huthis, whom they view as agents of the Iranians or as they call them rawafid (a derogatory term for Shi‘a meaning rejectionists). AQAP also claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that killed ‘Abd al-Malik’s father, Badr ad-Din al-Huthi, who was seen as the most influential Zaydi scholar of the past generation, and later his funeral procession both in late November 2010. Additionally, there are reports on global jihadi forums that AQAP has set up training camps in Sa‘da with 200-300 fighters.

There is no end in sight for the potential of even more expanded fighting in Yemen’s north between the Huthis and Salafi elements as well as AQAP. The destabilization of Yemen’s north has been a worry of the Saudi regime, which is one of the main reasons they entered the sixth battle between the Yemeni state and the Huthis in late 2009 and early 2010. As Gregory Johnsen has noted on numerous occasions, Saudis main policy with regard to Yemen is to keep it stabilized enough so it that does not become a failed state, at the same time, not strong enough so that it does not challenge the Saudi state.

If the Saudi’s decide to join the fight again to try and suppress the Huthis it has regional implications as well. Although the Huthis follow the Zaydi school of Shi’ism while the Iranians practice Imami (or Twelver) Shi’ism there is a level of affinity. Unlike Hizbullah, HAMAS, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad the Huthis are not an official proxy of the Iranian state. That said, due to the sectarian overtones of the fight between the Saudis and the Huthis, Iranian media endorsed the side of the Huthis. The Iranian government also decided to name some of their streets after Huthi “martyrs” from the fighting. As such, the conflict in northern Yemen could quickly become another chess match between the Saudis and Iranians in their cold war.

Even if the conflict in northern Yemen does not become a strategic regional battle, the fragile state of the northern governorates is a worry to the fractured Yemeni state. Indeed, the new Yemeni government has much to deal with including a spiraling economy, depleted water and energy resources, continued humanitarian disasters, secessionism in the South, and disillusioned youth who jump started the uprising; yet a resolution to the decade-plus long grievances of the Huthi movement and the Zaydi population in the north at large would go a long way in hopefully providing space for the new Yemeni government to deal with even more dire issues.

What’s in a Name: The Death of the al-Qa’ida Brand?

This is my first piece back after doing Middlebury’s Arabic program this past summer. Clearly, I couldn’t wait to write since I wrote this on the plane ride back this past Saturday. Looking forward to your feedback.

Last week, Ansar al-Shari’ah, (Supporters of Shari’ah), based in Yemen, released its first video titled “The Opening [Conquests] of Zinjibar.” Since mid-April, many analysts and scholars have wondered where this apparently new group came from, who its members were, and what connections it has to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The name Ansar al-Shari’ah was first mentioned in an unofficial audio release by AQAP’s leading shari’ah official, Shaykh Abu Zubayr ‘Adil bin ‘Abdullah al-Abab, who conducted a question and answer session with online global jihadi activists through PalTalk in Ghorfah Minbar al-Ansar (Pulpit Room of the Supporters). The first question was “What is the general situation of the mujahidin in Yemen and the status of the Shabab Ansar al-Shari’ah?” al-Abab responded that when they recruit new members to AQAP, they first introduce themselves under the banner of Ansar al-Shari’ah. But why would they need to do that? Has the AQ brand really become that tarnished? And is Ansar al-Shari’ah really AQAP?

Some have been skeptical of links between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah. While conclusive evidence is lacking, there are several strong indicators. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s first video release, which was not published by AQAP’s media outlet al-Malahim (the Epics), highlighted “martyrs” who were also eulogized in the most recent issue of AQAP’s Inspire Magazine — Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, ‘Ali bin Salih bin Jalal and ‘Amar ‘Abadah al-Wa’ili. Although this is not proof of collusion, there clearly seems to be some overlap. Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.

We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The name game isn’t new. al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) attempted to rehabilitate its image following the death of its leader,  the notorious butcher Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. AQI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) as a way of rebranding itself because many Iraqis were repulsed by the organization’s overuse of violence, as well as the perception that it was made up of foreigners. The latter is also the reason they announced Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, a purported Iraqi, as their new leader, although it has been disputed whether he was actually a real person. In the years since, the name change has not done much for AQI’s credibility. It remains a threat, but is a shadow of its former self.

Another place where naming is an issue is in Somalia, where Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (The Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth) has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden but has not changed its name to become an al-Qa’ida franchise. Leah Farrall recently wrote an excellent overview on this topic in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel. Although it is a great addition to the literature, there were also other explanations for the lack of formal name change. Reportedly, al-Qa’ida itself opposed the name change because it did not want al-Shabab to sully its so-called “street cred” by using its polarizing brand. It is difficult to ascertain whether these reports are credible. But the very discussion shows the growing pitfalls of the al-Qa’ida brand.

All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership. It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.[1]

Even if the brand name is discredited, AQ’s ideas still resonate with many, especially if it can be repackaged for local contexts, as in the apparent case of AQAP. As we have seen in the past, AQ is a very nimble organization that learns, evolves, and quickly adapts to a rapidly changing “battlefield.” It would be wise for our policy makers and government officials to heed these subtle changes in its counterterrorism strategies. Otherwise, we are fighting an imaginary enemy, one that only exists in our minds or that existed in 2001 or 2008, but not in 2011.


[1] Ansar or the supporters played an important role in early Islamic history when the Muslim prophet Muhammad was still preaching and calling people to Islam. Ansar were the individuals in Medina that helped Muhammad and his followers following its hijra from Mecca. Therefore, the use of the term Ansar acts as a strong link to the past that appeals to the average Muslim. Further, when attaching it to the Shari’ah, which has primacy in the lives of religious Muslims, Ansar al-Shari’ah becomes a catchy and useful name that is stronger in Islamic terms than Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The Global Jihad Internet Forum Launches New Sub-forum Dedicated to Anwar al-‘Awlaqi: A Sign of His Growing Influence?

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Global Jihad (al-Jihad al-‘Alami) jihadi-takfiri Internet forum has launched a new sub-forum/section (qism) dedicated to the lectures of Anwar al-‘Awlaqi (Awlaki, Aulaqi), the militant American Muslim preacher currently in Yemen and believed to be a member of or affiliated with Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The Arabic announcement reads: “Glad tidings, the inauguration/opening of a sub-forum/section for the lectures of Shaykh Anwar al-‘Awlaqi, may God protect him.”

The inauguration (or “opening [for the first time],” to use a more direct translation of the Arabic announcement) of a new sub-forum on one of the most prominent Arabic-language jihadi-takfiri Internet forums is significant in that it provides further evidence of al-‘Awlaqi’s growing appeal outside of his original English-language audience base. The last three major videos or audio messages he’s been featured in or recorded have all been in Arabic. Two videos, an “interview” produced by AQAP’s Al-Malahem (Malahim; Epics, Epic Battles) Media Foundation that was released in May 2010 and an independently-released (it seems) November 2010 video message were both released first in Arabic and only later in an English translation.

Various lectures and writings of his have been translated into a growing number of languages used by jihadi-takfiris including Urdu, Russian, Somali, Arabic, Indonesian, French, German, and Bosnian.  Al-‘Awlaqi has also slowly but steadily become a more popular figure in graphic artwork produced by cyber jihadi-takfiris and posted to Arabic Internet forums.

Despite the growing evidence suggesting that his influence is increasing over a broader spectrum of the jihadi-takfiri community (or communities), his exact role, if any, in AQAP remains unknown and debated.  Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that al-‘Awlaqi’s role in AQAP is frequently exaggerated in North American and European media because he is more well known to its journalists and speaks English.  Johnsen has also argued that the militant preacher’s role, however, is likely not as key to AQAP as the roles of its senior leadership, which includes amir Nasir al-Wihayshi, deputy amir Sa’id al-Shihri, senior military commander Qasim al-Raymi, and chief ideologue ‘Adel al-‘Abab.  In a critique of Johnsen’s argument, Thomas Hegghammer argued in a November 2010 Foreign Policy magazine online article that al-‘Awlaqi is likely AQAP’s head of foreign operations and thus should be a primary target of intelligence agencies.  Anonymous U.S. government sources claim that evidence was uncovered in Usama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout that the Al-Qa’ida Central founder dismissed a change in AQAP’s leadership from al-Wihayshi to al-‘Awlaqi, though the evidence of this claim remains unavailable for critical examination.

Whether or not al-‘Awlaqi is a member of AQAP, he is part of an informal group of charismatic scholar (or preacher)-ideologues who provide AQC, AQAP, and their sister movements with a unique mix of, however contested, an element of juridical authority, personal charisma, and rhetorical and oratorical skills.  Together with figures such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, ‘Atiyyatullah bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, and Khalid al-Husaynan, al-‘Awlaqi serves as part of the vanguard of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend’s charismatic “missionaries of jihad,” an argument I develop further in a forthcoming article.

Guest Post from Xavier Rauscher: How the African Union Defines Terrorism

As Africa grows more concerned with terrorist attacks, as the conflict in Somalia spills over in the East and Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) grows more and more bold and active in the West, the African Union is currently working on a draft law and common ground to harmonize their counter-terrorism policies. Yesterday, Magharebia published a detailed article on the progress of the draft law. Here’s an excerpt:

“This law will enable member nations of the AU to pursue or extradite terrorists active on their territory,” African Union (AU) Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said. The bill also calls for “drawing up of a list of known terrorist and terrorist entities, like those of the UN”, he noted. (…)

The proposed model law should be “expandable and comprehensive, featuring all the necessary legal procedures to prevent and combat terrorist acts, including the criminalisation of terrorist acts, establishment of channels of co-operation, enhancement of surveillance on the border, exchange of intelligence, judicial cooperation and combating terrorist financing,” [Algerian Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader]Messahel added.

He also pointed out to the need to incorporate international agreements and the relevant UN Security Council regulations into the new bill.

Some countries are hoping this law will encourage African co-ordination on the anti-terrorism front and get past the problems that impeded regional collaboration, especially with regards to extraditions. Algeria and Mauritania have both criticised Mali for releasing terrorists, including suspects wanted by the Algerian judiciary, who were detained by Mali. Bamako released those wanted terrorists as part of a deal to free Pierre Camatte, a French hostage detained by AQIM.

A few remarks about what this news could mean:

Stating the obvious, but… This is excellent news for those worried about the rise of terrorism in Africa. It shows that African countries are taking the threat seriously and therefore are willing to go to new lengths to cooperate, including binding themselves in an international convention. Needless to say, to efficiently combat transnational terrorism, international cooperation is a must.

A classical but valuable counterterrorism instrument for Africa

From what can be gathered from the media articles on this topic, it would appear that the African Union is moving towards a “classical,” law-enforcement type of counter-terrorism convention founded on the standard aut dedere aut judicare (‘prosecute or extradite’) approach. As Algerian Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs Abdelkader Messahel claimed:

the law “will have to be comprehensive and complete and provide all legal measures to prevent and fight terrorist acts, including the criminalisation and penalisation of terrorist acts”.

From the Magharebia article:

The model bill is seen as a “comprehensive tool” aimed at directing and guiding Africa in the counter-terrorism field, especially through the unification of legislation, according to AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra. He added that the matter was primarily related to the enhancement and implementation of the principle of international law as represented in “pursuit or extradition” as soon as the “terrorist” acts are recognised as punishable on the international and African levels.

Although such an approach has shown its limits in the past, such as in the Lockerbie case (PDF file) that opposed the United States and the United Kingdom on one side, and Libya in the other side, it is still a safe and proven system that has its share of advantages and that is greatly geared towards international cooperation, especially in judicial affairs.

The aut dedere aut judicare principle is the framework on which all other international counterterrorism conventions are based. Two noteworthy differences should be pointed out about the African Union draft convention: first of all, it is regional, which makes it almost unique. Indeed, to my knowledge, only the European Union has adopted so far a regional instrument to harmonize their efforts in counterterrorism, namely the Council Framework Decision of 13 June 2002 on combating terrorism. Secondly, this convention is comprehensive. And that could open the gate to a lot more.

A way out of the impasse?

International law, in dealing with terrorism, has been confronted with what has been so far an insurmountable obstacle to obtaining a comprehensive counterterrorism instrument: the impossibility to agree on a common definition of terrorism. This is essentially due to what has been qualified by many as a “cliché”: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Indeed, there has been a lot of debate within the international community on what constitutes a terrorist group and what does not, especially in the context of national liberation movements, from the period of decolonization to the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. In the words of Carol Bahan, “the inability to define terrorism is predominantly due to the fact that states have different beliefs about which acts constitute international terrorism.”[1]

The lack of an internationally accepted definition of terrorism has forced the international community to abandon the idea of a comprehensive international legal instrument to fight terrorism, and to adopt a “sectorial” approach: thirteen different counterterrorism conventions, each addressing a different aspect of combating terrorism as terrorism has evolved over time, from the 1963 Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed On Board Aircraft to the 2005 International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

What will be particularly interesting to watch once the African Union convention is finalized is what definition is adopted by African states in order to harmonize their criminalization of terrorism – a necessary step in the law enforcement approach, and announced by Minister Messahel – and whether the African consensus on a definition could lead the way – and offer the political impetus – to obtain a long-awaited international comprehensive convention against terrorism, which would without a doubt strengthen international cooperation in the global struggle against terrorism.

Xavier Rauscher is a recent LLM graduate who specializes in international law with a focus on international counter-terrorism. He regularly blogs at The International Jurist, and you can follow him on Twitter @xrauscher_

Thanks to Catherine Minall for mentioning this recent development to me last week, and to Caitlin Fitz Gerald for her help error-hunting.

[1] C. A. Bahan, “International Terrorism: The Legitimization of Safe Harbor States in International Law” (2010) 54 NYLSLR 333, 338.

To Drone, or not to Drone: Yemen Edition

I had originally planned to post something about the debate on drones in Yemen earlier in the week, but got caught up with other commitments. Since then, though, there has been a great back and forth conversation between Clint Watts at Selected Wisdom (see here and here) and Brian O’Neill at Always Judged Guilty (see here). To catch those up with what they have discussed thus far, I will first provide a spark notes version of what they said and then interject with another layer of issues to think about when establishing a long-term strategy and short-term tactics for the war against AQAP.

In Watts’ first post, he lays out five possible strategies and provides the pros and cons of each:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Arm, train and assist Yemeni forces.
  3. Provide U.S. foreign aid and conduct diplomacy, soft power catchall.
  4. Conduct a counterinsurgency effort to win over the Yemeni populace.
  5. Deploy drones to disrupt AQAP’s safe haven.

The U.S. needs action and results in Yemen now.  Looking at the above options, we are likely to pursue parts of options 2 and 3 no matter what the circumstances.  But, option 5 is a must.  The U.S. must act, and drones are the most effective option the U.S. has against small-decentralized terror cells immersed in indigenous populations in rugged terrain.

Brian responded and teased out some thought provoking ideas to ponder too (since his post was long I will try and point out key parts):

What drones do best, or rather as a product of what they do best (killing), is disrupting networks and sewing paranoia.  This will become more and more important in Yemen as foreign fighters see it as a profitable place to wage jihad (creating this image is a major short-term goal for AQAP).  Drone strikes, even if they don’t end up taking out the leadership, will force it to be on the move and less able to plan operations- though they have shown a remarkable ability to learn and maneuver on the fly.

What is frequently lost in discussing Yemen is that future drone strikes wouldn’t be new in the country- in 2002 the US took out AQ’s leader in one of the first successful drone attacks.  This was an operation agreed to by both Yemen and the US, with the understanding that it would be presented as an accident … the US was understandably excited by their success, and publicized it.  This was dumb.  Pesident Salih felt burned, as that opened up a vulnerable flank to charges of lapdogism.  Right now, Salih is facing a massive crisis of legitimacy- drone strikes are a painful reminder of a recent past, and will allow not just al-Qaeda but other domestic enemies to charge him with being a puppet who lets Americans kill Yemenis.

Our best hope in Yemen, to me, is to maintain Salih’s power while devolving it and working with the tribes, both for security and structural reasons- working directly with them not only helps us keep contact with real power brokers, it also closes off avenues of corruption … Having tribal allies will speed up the process of apprehending AQAP and denying them tribal havens- it won’t be absolute, but it will be better than what we have now.  Killing with drones hurts our chances to establish these crucial relationships, and these relationships are the best way to get things done in Yemen.

I am very reluctantly, and surprisingly to me, signing off on drone use … But these drone strikes have to come with excellent local intelligence collected through a cultivation of tribal relationships- these will both help the chances of a successful strike and partially mitigate the chances of a blood feud.  We have to be smart so we aren’t used by one tribe to take revenge against another.

This has to be combined with aggressive soft-power remedies.  A civilian’s death can overwhelm the news of one good deed, or ten or 100, but these good deeds have to be so prominent they cannot be ignored.  We also have to have an anti-AQAP PR blitz, in Arabic.  Without these things, drone strikes are nothing more than a militant sop.

I think this is an important start to a crucial discussion individuals in the United States should be having over strategy in Yemen. I am glad to see that guys like Watts who provides a broader picture regarding strategy and Brian with his local knowledge will hopefully lead to the best possible solutions when dealing and trying to dismantle AQAP.

First off, I tend to come down on the same side as Watts and Brian regarding the use of drones in Yemen. I believe they are a necessary evil, but I do not believe we should be using them in Yemen at the same rate and level as in the Pakistani tribal regions. As Brian alluded to, establishing tribal relations is crucial and as a result could hopefully provide us with actionable intelligence, which would allow us to accurately target a high-ranking official within AQAP. In situations like that I am all for drones strikes. I believe the ideal scenario would be something along the lines of the successful drone attack in November 2002 in Yemen that killed the leader of AQ in Yemen Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, which caused minimal collateral damage.

The thing I am worried about, though, is if droning individuals becomes a large part of our strategy in contrast to soft power efforts and training Yemeni security officials. As Gregory D. Johnsen has noted in a couple of recent posts at Waq al-Waq, just because an individual or a group of individuals look like al-Qaeda and the tribal violence surrounding them might appear as an al-Qaeda operation, in fact it could be local tribal politics and fueds, and that is something we do not want to get in the middle of. It would only make our efforts significantly harder. As such, in my estimation it would only be prudent to go after senior-level officials in AQAP, which differs from the way the United States has conducted its drone campaign in Pakistan.

This leads me into my final point, which is a warning and potentially a worst case scenario when using drones in Yemen. Although I am pro-drone use in Yemen on a limited basis as described above, I fear that a drone campaign in Yemen could exacerbate the Huthi conflict and the southern movement’s secessionist cause. As I have previously argued:

The politics are treacherous. Launching drone strikes could hinder efforts to solve the northern and southern conflict peacefully.

If the United States tried to target an AQAP operative in a Huthi stronghold in northern Yemen and accidentally killed individuals who sympathize with the Huthi cause, it would most likely break the fragile peace and lead to a resumption and major escalation of war between the Huthis and the Yemeni government. Further, in the past round of battle from August, 2009 to February, 2010, Saudi Arabia — which collects a large amount of American military aid — overtly entered the war. A small counterterrorism operation could quickly spiral into a regional war that has nothing to do with AQAP, but could further destabilize the security situation in Yemen and detract from the fight against AQAP.

One has to also consider the rise in recent months of violence between AQAP operatives and Yemeni security forces, which has mainly occurred in southern Yemen as well as the recent uptick in violence by the Yemeni government against the southern movement. This could potentially lead southerners to establish closer ties to AQAP, even though each group has different goals. AQAP has already tried to co-opt the southern movement’s banner for cessation, though, under the framework of an Islamic Emirate when releasing a message titled “Message to Our People in the South.” As the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wahayshi, states: “We in the al Qaeda network support what you are doing: your rejection of oppression practiced against you and others, your fight against the government and your defending yourself.”  As of now, there is no evidence of collusion between the two groups even if the Yemeni government argues otherwise. The southern movement has rejected overtures from AQAP in the past. But if the Yemeni government continues to conflate the southern movement with AQAP and further violence is directed toward the southern movement, it could lead to an alliance of convenience.

Although the above is the worst case scenario it is not too far-fetched. For instance, a Yemeni airstrike on January 15, 2010 reported to kill, which ended up being untrue, one of the deputy leaders in AQAP, Qasim al-Raymi, in northern Yemen between Sa’dah governorate and al-Jawf governorate near the region of al-Buq’a. So even though AQAP assets are mainly located in South Yemen, there are AQAP operatives and activities in the northern part of the country as well.

Further, the southern movement is a huge catch-22 for the United States. In any other situation, one could argue that the southern movement would be a group that the United States would want to support. This is because they want to reestablish the state they had prior to unification in 1990, which was secular in nature and far more developed than northern Yemen. Also, one of the key leaders in the southern movement Tariq al-Fadhli raised an American flag in front of his residence. It is problematic then that we give so much largesse to Yemen’s President ‘Ali Abdullah Salih who has diverted these funds to violently deal with the southern movement (as well as the Huthis). As such, a group that we should be strengthening we could potentially be leading them into the hands of AQAP because of our unfortunate, but necessary relationship with the snake charmer.

As such, the above considerations should be taken into account as well when establishing a strategy going forward in Yemen and particularly the use of drones to hunt down AQAP senior leaders.

Between Memes and Blurred Vision

Note: The point of this article is to explain and show why Anwar al-Awlaki is not as important as individuals in the media and politicians make him out to be. Obviously, he is a threat and we should try and counteract his influence, but it should be based on a real understanding of him and his role in AQAP.

As one who follows Yemen on a daily basis it is disheartening when it becomes the focal point of the news following an attempted, failed, or successful terrorist attack. Out of the woodwork comes individuals who have no context, grasp, or understanding of Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), yet they act as if they know everything about Yemen. One of the most problematic trends since the Fort Hood shooting and the failed Christmas Day plot is the fundamental misunderstanding of Anwar al-Awlaki. In an eleven month period, al-Awlaki has gone from an obscure figure with a cultish following — from Muslims that have no formal education in Islam — in the English-speaking world to supposedly the next Osama bin Laden. It is completely delusional for one to even ponder that thought since it is so far from the truth. This trend has gone completely off the rails especially following the most recent failed cargo plot. In an article from the Guardian, it states:

US officials believe Asiri [the alleged bomb maker in the plot] is working closely with the radical US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has provided the “spiritual” support for attacks on the US as well as being a driving force behind them.

First off, who is this US official and where is there any proof of this? This idea has clearly been plucked out of thin air. Before explaining why this statement is completely wrong, it would be prudent to extrapolate on al-Awlaki’s position within AQAP. As Gregory D. Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, has been stating for almost a year now, al-Awlaki is middle management within the AQAP branch.

In addition, the recent news that Yemen is putting al-Awlaki on trial in absentia is a sleight of hand. It might appease those who do not know any better, but those who do realize this is a complete charade since al-Awlaki is not the man Yemen should be worried about. If Yemen actually focused their attention on the senior leadership in AQAP one would feel more comfort when Yemeni government officials state they are going after AQAP. The key leaders one should be far more focused on and worried about are Nasir al-Wihayshi, Qasim al-Raymi, Said al-Shihri, Adil al-Abab, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh as well as others. Furthermore, Ibrahim al-Asiri would not be taking spiritual guidance from an individual like al-Awlaki, but rather someone like al-Abab who is one of if not the key religious figure(s) within the AQAP branch.

Indeed, one should not discout the potential thorn in the side al-Awlaki can create since he speaks English and can attract westerners to the cause, but one has to remember al-Awlaki has scant influence in the Arab world or in the internal matters of AQAP. He is only worthwhile for potential recruitment and external operations at best. Most of the guys attracted to Al-Awlaki, though, are not field ready or battle tested individuals. Moreover, al-Awlaki lacks military experience or any type of field training. Brian Fishman, an expert on al-Qaeda, recently tweeted that individuals in the movement regard battlefield experience more important than theory, and as Fishman stated: “Awlaki is a keyboard jockey.” As a result, it has been foolish on the part of the media and pundits to make al-Awlaki more than he actually is. For the Christian Science Monitor to argue that al-Awlaki had a larger role in the 9/11 attacks is simply preposterous. Yes, he knew two of the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks who had attended al-Awlaki’s mosque, but that does not mean al-Awlaki had intimate knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, in the 9/11 Commision it states there was not enough evidence to implicate al-Awlaki. It takes a big leap of logic to connect al-Awlaki as an important figure in the 9/11 attacks. These types of misrepresentations in some respects has manifested in a self-fulfilling prophecy that al-Awlaki will become more important to the AQAP branch. Not until individuals started over inflating his importance did al-Awlaki appear in any official AQAP media. Just because he speaks English and one can understand him does not make him the top guy in AQAP or on par with Bin Laden.

The jury is still out on whether al-Awlaki has risen within the AQAP branch in the past year due to individuals’ hysteria over his connections with some past plots. Based on the information we have, it is far-fetched to believe he is more than a mid-level individual within AQAP that could inspire English speakers to join their jihad. The key is, though, the real power and potential mayhem comes from the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian leadership in AQAP. al-Asiri takes cues from those guys not al-Awlaki whose influence is only in the English-speaking world.

It would be a tragedy, though, for individuals with influence to create policies based off of false premises, such as droning al-Awlaki as the silver bullet to solving the problem of AQAP. Another short-sided policy is removing al-Awlaki’s videos from YouTube. If politicians knew a thing they would realize that it will not change anything since al-Awlaki’s materials are also on forums, websites, blogs, facebook, and other places. Further, there are other radical preachers out there too.

As such, the idea that al-Awlaki has a large influence in AQAP or is the spiritual leader of AQAP or is the next Bin Laden has to end. Focus on Wihayshi, Raymi, and Shihri instead. This first step will then allow us to make better policy decisions and further allow us to better understand the AQAP branch and hopefully eradicate it from Yemen.

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