Mohamed Osman Mohamud and Somali-American Terrorism Attempts

On Friday, the FBI arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized US citizen from Somalia, on charges of plotting to detonate a bomb at a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. Mohamud, like other would-be terrorists arrested in recent years, appears to have been an amateur without substantial skill or training. FBI agents, moreover, had been communicating with Mohamud for months. Mohamud, as an individual, did not ultimately pose a major security threat to the US. But if his plot indicates a growing trend of radicalized Somali-American youth contemplating terrorist attacks on US soil, then the incident takes on greater significance.

The LA Times has the details of Mohamud’s plot and arrest [I’ve edited out everything not directly related to the plot]:

The FBI began tracking Mohamud in August 2009 when they discovered he was e-mailing a former Oregon student who was living in Pakistan’s lawless northwest region, where Al Qaeda has a stronghold. The Associated Press reported that the bureau was led to Mohamud by a tip from someone concerned about him.


An FBI undercover agent contacted Mohamud and pretended to be Abdulhadi, providing an e-mail address that the FBI controlled. Mohamud and the agent met for the first time on July 30 in downtown Portland.


Mohamud told “Abdulhadi” that he “initially wanted to wage war in the U.S.” The FBI agent told Mohamud he could not tell him what to do, but suggested several options, including going “operational” or becoming a shaheed, or martyr. Mohamud said he wanted to build a car bomb, but would need help.


Abdulhadi, the first FBI agent, picked up Mohamud at about noon Friday, and they went to inspect the bomb. Built by FBI technicians, it appeared impressive. But the explosives, the detonation cord and the blasting caps all were inert.

“Beautiful,” Mohamud said.

At 4:45 p.m., they drove the van to Yamhill and Sixth Street and parked. Police had secretly kept the space open. Mohamud attached the blasting cap and flipped the toggle switch to arm the bomb, then put on his hard hat.

They walked several blocks, got in another car and drove to a pre-selected parking lot. Mohamud quickly dialed the number to detonate the bomb. When they didn’t hear anything, he got out of the car to look for a better signal, and FBI agents swarmed in for the arrest.

Some have questioned the behavior of the FBI agents. Others have argued that what happened to Mohamud constitutes entrapment. In response to such concerns, Attorney General Eric Holder has said, “I am confident there is no entrapment here…There were … a number of opportunities … that the defendant in this matter was given to retreat, to take a different path. He chose at every step to continue.”

From a security standpoint, three points emerge for me:

  1. Federal agents intercepted Mohamud at an early point in his radicalization and were able to neutralize whatever threat he posed.
  2. The plot demonstrates the vulnerability of public spaces in the US and shows that would-be terrorists are interested in targets beyond airplanes. Public spaces are difficult, if not impossible, to secure, and effective law enforcement remains the most likely avenue of preventing terrorist attacks such as the one Mohamud planned.
  3. Mohamud seems to have been motivated not primarily by religious concerns, but by political ones related to the situation in Somalia and to aspects of American foreign policy elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Mohamud’s arrest comes on the heels of other arrests of Somali-Americans on charges related to aiding al Shabab, the main rebel group in southern Somalia. As I have written concerning those incidents, “The persons arrested represent a tiny fraction of a large group of hardworking, patriotic, law-abiding US citizens and residents, many of whom came here to escape Somalia’s problems and find a better life for their families.”

Yet that tiny fraction – which perhaps numbers in the dozens – has the potential to commit major acts of violence in the US. That’s one reason why some analysts say more terror plots are on the way. Probably most would-be terrorists will continue to be amateurs as well, but the political fallout from Somalia’s civil war is clearly an increasing liability for the US.

Happy Thanksgiving!

We at al-Wasat are thankful for many things, but I’d like to say thanks for reading and supporting this strange blog effort, we hope it keeps growing and growing!

In the meantime, enjoy this:

Negotiate with bin Laden?

Last Thursday al-Jazeera broadcast a tape attributed to AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, demanding the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan as a condition for the release of seven French, Togolese and Malgache hostages currently held in northern Mali (UPDATE: Aaron has the tape in English here). But then, when he said that any negotiations for the hostages had to “be done with no one other than our Sheikh Osama bin Laden… and according to his terms,” well, that was something new. While it makes sense to invoke bin Laden, AQIM’s nominal leader after the then-GSPC swore allegiance to al Qaeda in 2007, it seems a bit odd to designate him as an intermediary in hostage negotiations, something that has not been done in previous AQIM kidnappings (or any kidnappings and other activities, for that matter).

This statement comes at a time of relative inaction on the hostage front; after an immediate French military buildup in the region in September, the hostages were reportedly dispersed in different groups, and last week incoming French Defense Minister Alain Juppé said that France has been in contact with AQIM, presumably in view of some sort of negotiated release. Though new French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie quickly added that, “France will not accept that its policy is dictated to from outside by anybody,” Droukdel’s statement had already caught the attention of both the francophone and anglophone press.

As Aaron pointed out, Droukdel’s language mirrors bin Laden’s, linking France’s security to its withdrawal from the war on a precise deadline. People I respect have privately raised the possibility that the likeness between the statements, as well as the sudden prominent referencing of AQIM operations by al Qaeda leadership and vice-versa, could indicate either some level of coordination between the two organizations or at least a desire for one.

However, I think that in the absence of other evidence, mutual public recognition by the groups are instead an attempt to expand AQC’s reach (as I discussed here), while for AQIM these statements are part of a larger attempt to reform the organization’s public image and tap into the legitimacy still held by AQC and bin Laden. AQIM has a fairly well-deserved reputation for its kidnapping and other criminal (drug running, human smuggling, etc…) operations, but it’s military operations, in decline since 2007, do not compare to those of other AQ affiliates such as AQAP.

By explicitly linking itself with common themes of “classical” jihad, to use Thomas Hegghammer’s term, AQIM is likely trying to skirt its reputation and operational history, and frame all of its operations, even the kidnapping of foreigners, as jihadist operations with religiously-sanctioned aims. In fact, AQIM has been pursuing this line specifically with reference to its hostage operations for at least several months; in an initial message after the September 16 Niger kidnappings, an AQIM spokesman claimed that the kidnappings were a reaction to foreign efforts to take the wealth belonging to Niger. This again is a clear attempt to set AQIM up not as a kidnapping-for-ransom organization, but one that defends Muslim wealth against foreign aggressors, an idea that fits neatly within the acceptable bounds of “classical” jihad.

The other impetus for AQIM pushing its association with bin Laden is likely the group’s continued marginalization in Algeria, despite the growth of its reach and influence in the Sahel. The northern AQIM branch remains largeley contained in Kabylia, where Droukdel is believed to be hiding, and the increased income and recruitment of the Sahelian AQIM has not changed this fact. The Algerian news site Ennahar ran an interesting story earlier this month that three members of Abou Zeid’s group were picked up near the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset, carrying $100,000 supposedly meant for Droukdel. If this story is true, it shows the isolation of the northern AQIM, in that its fundraising efforts are in part dependent on the operations of semi-independent groups situated far away from northern AQIM’s combat zone.

The tape also has to be understood within the context of speculation that AQIM is increasing its operations in Europe, or at least gearing up for eventual operations there. Italian authorities last month rounded up what looked to be a bomb-making network at least tangentially connected to AQIM, and the arrests in France of five Algerians allegedly plotting to attack the rector of the Paris Grand Mosque have led some to argue that AQIM is becoming more of a threat to Europe. But many experts agree that AQIM is not yet ready to set up networks or attacks in Europe (whatever their ambition might be), and  readers should not conflate Algerians or other North Africans with AQIM; one of AQIM’s great failures has been that it has not been able to demonstrably tap into recruitment networks in France, and interestingly it seems that the one member of the Grand Mosque plot to train abroad went not to the Sahel or Kabylia, but to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. AQIM has been singularly unable to draw large number of recruits to its jihad, in large part because despite the name change, AQIM is still seen by many as an Algerian group dedicated to fighting the Algerian government. By talking more about bin Laden, Abdelmalek Droukdel wants desperately to show that his organization is a true member of al Qaeda, not just the one-time GSPC.

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.

Jihadism and the ‘Ulama

Two days ago, J.M. Berger of IntelWire wrote an article describing a recent trend in the statements and video releases published by Adam Gadahn and Anwar al ‘Awlaki that have tried to discredit the ‘ulama (religious scholars). These ideas, though, are not new, but provide further example of a trend, which has pervaded some of the key Jihadist intellectual thinkers in the post-Caliphate era (the Caliphate was abolished in 1924).

Today, Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers in 1928, would not be considered a global jihadist, but his ideas became a foundation for later thinkers to build off of and further radicalize his thought. al-Banna did not understand how the ‘ulama could do nothing in the face of what he percieved was happening to the Muslim world. He viewed the Muslim Brothers’ values as a refutation of the values of al-Azhar University (the most respected Sunni place of high education) and how the university dealt with contemporary issues. The late Richard P. Mitchell, a scholar at the University of Michigan and author of The Society of the Muslim Brothers, summed up al-Banna’s thought on the ‘ulama, stating:

Azhar had persisted in a time-worn, anachronistic approach to Islam and its teachings—dry, dead, ritualistic, and irrelevant to the needs of living Muslims.[1]

Sayyid Qutb, who is viewed as the godfather of the modern jihadist movement, was critical of the ‘ulama as well. He believed they were opportunists that were using religious texts to their own advantage, which is pretty rich coming from Qutb, a man that has a degree in literature and created his own innovative way of understanding Islam.[2] Even more zealous over the problems with the ‘ulama was Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, who coined the term the near enemy as well as led the group Tanzim al-Jihad (later Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. These are his thoughts from his book Jihad: The Neglected Duty:

There are some who say that what we should do now is busy ourselves with seeking knowledge, for how can we struggle in the cause of Allah while we are lacking the knowledge, which is fard (obligatory) to seek? But we have not heard anyone who says that it is permitted to abandon an Islamic order or an obligation of the obligations of Islam because of knowledge, especially if this obligation is Jihad. So how can we abandon a fard ‘ayn (individual obligation) because of fard kifayah (collective obligation)? … So he who says that knowledge is Jihad must realize that what is fard is fighting … If a person wants to increase his knowledge … he could do so, because there are no restrictions on knowledge, which is available for everybody. But to delay Jihad because of seeking knowledge is an evidence of the one who has no evidence … However, we do not underestimate knowledge and scholars, rather we call for that. But we do not use it as evidence to abandon the obligations that Allah ordained.[3]

More recently, Osama bin Laden argued:

Despite of this hard siege imposed on you O my Islamic Ummah, you still have a great opportunity to regain your freedom to go out of the submission to and the dependence of this Crusader/Zionist alliance. To reach that, you should free yourself from the fetters of humiliation and subservience shackling us by the agents of this alliance who are our countries’ governors and their helpers especially the fetters of the Ulamaa of the Sultan, as well the fetters of the Islamic groups which transform their method to recognize the governor who betrayed the religion and the Ummah, and they join the political process of the state of this governor, and no difference for them if they are in the rule or opposition.[4]

Further, last month, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri stated:

This orientation has the purer methodology and the more correct doctrine, because it relies on the explicit and definite proofs of the Qur’an and Sunnah [Prophetic Way], and cites the historical and political reality of the Muslim Ummah, and believes neither in the fatwas of the “Fuqahaa” of the Marines nor in the hired ‘Ulama in Riyadh, Cairo and Qatar.[5]

Finally, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian cleric who mentored Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and is considered the most influential living global jihadist theorist, has written about what he describes as the murji’ah (non-righteous scholars) on several occasions. Here are a couple examples:

I advise them not be deceived by the ambiguities of the phony scholars, who confuse the truth with falsehood and confuse the path to Paradise with the path to Hellfire.[6]

The Mujahideen do not need you, half men and with no resolve. They do not need any advice on Jihad from scholars who are paid for and defeated. They do not need to ask you if it is okay with you or if their Jihad is compatible with you thinking. No, they do not need that. They have all the wisdom and the vision that they need. Die in your anger, and continue your criticism of the Mujahideen. You cannot destroy their resolve; your poisoned pins would not affect their Jihad. Nothing will affect them.[7]

Added up, one can see that individuals involved with the jihadist movement have tried to discredit the ‘ulama for quite some time now. One of the goals is to weaken state institutions linked to corrupt governments, as well as weakening potential enemies. Another is due to the lack of true religious legitimacy by many in the movement. As such, they are compensating and trying to discredit individuals who are trained in the religion and understand that their understanding of Islam is not based on the classical tradition.

[1] Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), 212-213.

[2] Roxanne Leslie Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 133.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, Jihad: The Neglected Duty (Birmingham, UK: Maktabah Al Ansaar Publications, 2000), 46-48.

[4] Osama bin Laden, The Way To Rescue Palestine (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2008).

[5] Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, A Victorious Ummah, A Broken Crusade: Nine Years After the Start of the Crusader Campaign (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2010).

[6] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, A message in support of the Mujahideen in Somalia and exposing the doubts created the Ullamah of Dajjaal (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad, 2009).

[7] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, The Caravan is Moving and the Dogs are Barking (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad).

Identifying the enemy in the Sahel

For fear of too-closely echoing Aaron and quickly making this blog a forum only for angry ranting and ad hominem attacks against noted and widely-published, respected figures, I want to make clear that what follows is not so much an attack as a plea for better citation of evidence as well as a fairer discussion of context when dealing with Sahelian politics. Caveat Lector.

When I saw SOAS researcher and Tuareg expert Jeremy Keenan‘s new Al-Jazeera piece on the most recent bin Laden audiotape and the Sahel, I already had a rough idea where it would go, or at least where it would begin. And indeed, Keenan didn’t disappoint. After a brief discussion of the tape (which I covered separately here), my thoughts tracked roughly with Keenan’s that bin Laden’s “blessing” of the September 16 kidnapping of seven employees of the nuclear giant Areva and a subsidiary in Niger would be “transformative.”

And then, with, “This is because al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahara-Sahel was a creation of the Algerian DRS (Direction du Renseignement et la Sécurité) with its three main emirs in the Sahara-Sahel – Abdelhamid abou Zaïd, Yahia Djouadi and Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (all with many aliases) – being strongly suspected of being DRS agents,” Keenan promptly lost me.

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of this theory. On the one hand, there has been consistent suspicion for years that the DRS, the main Algerian intelligence service, was working with Islamist terrorist groups in some fashion. Notably former Algerian and French officers as well as some writers and even other jihadist groups have accused the DRS and various army units of at least some coordination with, if not infiltration of, units of the hyper-violent Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) during Algeria’s civil war, and the treatment of certain key militants in more recent years has continued to fuel speculation about dirty tricks and terrorism in Algeria. For instance, the former commander of the GIA splinter group (and AQIM forerunner) the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), Abdelrazek el-Para, has still not seen a court room despite having been arrested in Chad in 2004 and ruled by a court to still be at large when he had been, for several months, in the custody of Algerian authorities. He has since renounced terrorism, and not been punished. And the first GSPC leader, Hassan Hattab, currently lives freely in Algiers after having broken with the group in 2003 and renounced terrorism several times in the past years, despite at one point being subject to a death sentence for his role in the anti-government insurgency, and threatened with death by his former compatriots.

For some, this anecdotal evidence (evidence of what, I’m not quite sure) is enough to suggest that the Algerian security services are in league with AQIM. While this isn’t impossible, and the DRS and Algerian military were certainly responsible for horrible things and nasty coverups during the civil war and after, there’s simply no real evidence that these ties exist. Now, absence of evidence is not by any means the evidence of absence, but the available information does not allow one to make claims such as, “The DRS created AQIM” especially when AQIM sprang from the GSPC, which was in turn a reaction to the insane violence of the GIA, which itself was founded by a group of “Afghan Arabs” who eventually took over from a host of other armed militant groups waging war against Algeria’s government in 1992. You get the picture.

This is something Keenan does fairly regularly, asserting as fact the idea that the DRS created and to a certain extent ran or still runs AQIM, but without any sort of specific or even general sourcing for his claims or reference to specific other people who agree with him.

Keenan also contradicts his own argument about the level of DRS “control” of AQIM. He writes:

Between the end of 2008 and this year, as the group’s estimated strength increased from around 200 to some 300 to 400, its composition changed. As young Mauritanian Islamists have become increasingly attracted to the Sahara Emirate, as they call it, so they have come to outnumber Algerians, possibly diminishing DRS influence and control over the group.

Indications are that AQIM recruitment from young and more ‘Islamist’ and ‘jihadist’ elements in the region leapt in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Mauritanian raids into Mali on July 22, ostensibly to liberate the French hostage Michel Germaneau, and again after September 16 when France’s ally (‘proxy’) Mauritania, which had joined France in ‘declaring war’ on AQIM, was given a very bloody nose by AQIM fighters at Ras el Ma (west of Timbuktu).

Keenan’s assessment of AQIM’s changing composition fits with reports from the region, the increased pace of attacks against Mauritanian civil and military targets stretching back several years,  and AQIM propaganda, which has tried not only to showcase the group’s increasingly diverse (and increasingly Moorish) composition but to attract more Moors, as well as Haussa speakers and Tuareg.

That said, Keenan’s point about changing AQIM recruitment targets and composition undermine his image of a DRS-controlled or -infiltrated AQIM; if Belmokhtar, Abu Zeid and Djouadi are all DRS agents, why would they recruit in a way that would, as Keenan put it, diminish DRS influence? And would the all-powerful DRS continue to tolerate an increasingly dangerous, large, and wealthy organization slide out of its control? And even assuming that the origins of AQIM are as Keenan suggests, his own point about the organization’s changing structure would suggest that the group is becoming more localized and more organic to the Sahel. This in turn means that AQIM could pose a genuine regional threat, a fact and flaw in his argument that Keenan refuses to address.

The second major issue with this article is that it takes at face value the negative statements other Sahelian countries make with regards to Algeria, terrorism, and AQIM without mentioning the context behind those statements. Case in point:

Most of Algeria’s neighbours have recently begun to accuse it of being in some way responsible for the development of the AQIM ‘terrorist’ threat in the Sahel.

Cheikh El Moctar Ould Horma, Mauritania’s minister of health, recently ‘suggested’ that Algeria was the ‘porte-parole’ (spokesperson) for AQIM; elements in the Moroccan media have accused Washington of appeasing Algeria in its relationship with and use of AQIM as a ‘terrorist’ organisation; a senior member of Mali’s security forces accused the DRS of being ‘at the heart of AQIM’; Niger is angry with the role played by Algeria’s DRS in the political destabilisation of its northern regions; while Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, has suggested euphemistically that the problem in the region is Algeria’s DRS.

Again, we have the problem of broad statements made without any hint at the evidence (or, in the case of Niger, a statement made about an entire government in one line). But more importantly, Keenan makes this statement and then fails to acknowledge the general reasons why various countries in the region are upset with Algeria that don’t have to do with Keenan’s claims about Algeria creating AQIM, or the specific motivations behind the statements.

Let’s start with the regional context; Algeria has by far the largest and most combat-tested military in the region, and specifically in the Sahel likes to throw its weight around. While there has been cooperation between the major Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger) and others on counterterrorism issues, including various intelligence and military discussions as well as the creation of a joint military headquarters at Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, Algeria often does not see eye-to-eye with its neighbors on AQIM, ransom payments for hostages, and more.

More locally, Algeria has been critical of Mauritanian anti-AQIM operations in Mali,  lashed out in July against Franco-Mauritanian operations against AQIM as well as cooperation between Mauritania and Mali on ransom payments that led to the liberation of two Spanish hostages in exchange for AQIM-linked kidnapper Omar al-Sahrawi (and several million euros). More recently, Algeria rather petulantly ridiculed the “incompetence” of the Malian army in fighting AQIM on their own territory.

But more important to understanding the context behind anti-Algeria statements is one of the seminal issues in the Sahel, the presence of the various Tuareg populations that reside in it. Relations between Algeria and Mali have been tense for several years in part due to Algerian intervention over Mali’s trouble with its Tuareg; Algeria helped negotiate an end to Mali’s most recent Tuareg rebellion in 2006, and has since been pushing (directly and in the Algerian press) for more Tuareg autonomy as well as the arming of Tuareg in order to help keep security in northern Mali, something that is part of the Algiers Accords that ended the conflict, but understandably worries Mali. In Niger the same is true, where in the wake of a more recent Tuareg rebellion both Algeria and Libya have tried to take leadership roles in “settling” the conflict, raising the prospect of more money and support going to Nigerien Tuareg, to the detriment of the Nigerien government (especially in the wake of September’s kidnapping, which led some to ask if Niger’s Tuareg, in the absence of government support and money, are being radicalized by AQIM).

And then, of course, there’s Morocco. While the now decades-long animosity between the two is due to the conflict in Western Sahara, and Algerian support for the pro-independence Polisario front, Morocco has for the past several months attempted to use terrorism and AQIM to propel themselves into a position of influence in the Sahel. Moroccan media sources and friendly writers and “experts” have been talking increasingly of late about links between the Polisario and AQIM, even though there is little or no evidence of any linkage beyond a few scattered Sahrawis joining or partnering with the group.

By establishing a link between an Algerian-supported group and terrorism, Morocco stands to gain several very real benefits; among other things, this link could get Morocco access to counterterrorism money that the EU and U.S. are pouring into the region, threatening the credibility of Morocco’s negotiating adversary in talks about the future of Western Sahara (in addition to strengthening Morocco’s case for their “autonomy” proposal which guarantees Morocco’s right to guard Western Sahara’s borders) and undermines confidence in Algeria’s anti-terrorism leadership. Gaining inclusion into the terrorism debate in the Sahel also gains Morocco access to regional counterterrorism forums, such as the recent G8-sponsored summit in Bamako, which Algeria predictably boycotted because of Morocco’s presence.

None of this is to say that other countries do not have reason to be pushing back against Algeria for their own efforts to assert their place in the Sahel and against AQIM; rather, it is to demonstrate just a fraction of the incredible complexity of the power dynamics in the region, which covers the fighting between regional powers (Algeria, Libya, Morocco) for influence and power, amongst both Western and Sahelian countries, long-running power struggles between Morocco and Algeria, internal and inter-Sahelian conflicts that touch Mauritania, Mali and Niger, and the ongoing efforts of these countries to defend their own sovereignty against outside intervention. With all of the countries (and the West) concerned about terrorism in the region, it makes sense that the threat of terrorism could be wielded in public as a response to a whole host of conflicts. Instead, Keenan simply takes these claims at face value in order to criticize Algeria, without looking at any of the underlying motivations each state might have to play the terrorism card.

This is at heart my greatest issue with Keenan’s writing, his unquestioning acceptance of accusations that benefit his argument without any exploration either of the truth of his evidence or the varied and shifting motivations of outside actors for talking about terrorism the way they do. Sourcing, context, and questioning are an analysts’ friend, and in the absence of those three Keenan becomes an advocate at best, a polemicist at worst. And until that changes, his work should be read with an eye not to what Keenan argues, but rather to what he leaves out.


Welcome to a new blog venture that Andrew Lebovich and I (Aaron Y. Zelin) are starting.

Looking around the blogosphere, we at al-Wasat saw a good deal of specific coverage of certain issues – the Middle East, South Asia, CT, COIN, etc. But we have not seen a website that brings different perspectives on these separate but interrelated issues together. We wanted to change that.

Our goal was to bring together some articulate, interesting, and occasionally funny individuals to write about radicalization, counterterrorism, terrorist ideology, Muslims in the West, and regional issues, all in one blog.

Currently, we have a few individuals that are planning to contribute, but now the blog will mainly feature articles from the two of us. I hope you enjoy our articles and please comment on the blog to make it a vibrant and dynamic place for discussion.

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.