AQIM and Libya’s missing weapons

It is a frightening thought; an al-Qaeda franchise in the heart of Africa which has sworn to target European and American interests in the region, not to mention local governments, equipped with a growing arsenal of heavy weapons and even surface-to-air missiles. Two reports have recently suggested rather strongly that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had acquired truckloads of weapons from abandoned army stocks in Eastern Libya, including SA-7 missiles. This news has caused concern among commentators and officials, especially in the wake of NATO supreme allied commander Adm. James Stavridis’ testimony last week that U.S. intelligence had detected “flickers” of al-Qaeda among Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebels, news that several Islamist former militants and a former employee of Osama bin Laden in Libya are playing key roles in Libya’s rebellion, and as writers dig back into the “Sinjar Records” documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq that showed an unusually high percentage of foreign fighters came from Eastern Libyan cities like Benghazi and Darnah, epicenters of the current rebellion. Yet before things get out of hand and people draw the worst conclusions about the admittedly real threat from AQIM to the region, these latest reports of weapons acquisition require a careful look, to determine not only what the impact of AQIM acquiring these weapons might be, but also if these reports can be trusted at all.

First, to the Reuters report citing an unnamed Algerian security official that eight truckloads of weapons from Eastern Libya had traveled through Chad and Niger before ending up in Northern Mali, including SA-7 “Strela” missiles (the same missiles used to target an Israeli airplane in Kenya in 2002), as well as “RPG-7s, FMPK (Kalashnikov heavy machine guns), Kalashnikovs, explosives and ammunition.” The official continued, saying, “we know that this is not the first convoy and that it is still ongoing.” An interview nearly two weeks ago with Chad’s president Idriss Déby similarly asserted that AQIM had acquired SAMs in Libya and brought them back to northern Niger, and was becoming “a real army, the best-equipped in the region.”

If true (and I’m really not sure about this) the news is interesting and worrisome, but not for the reason many people think. While the specter of an al-Qaeda affiliate getting their hands on SAMs brings to mind the failed 2002 attack, the scenario described in the two stories imply instead that AQIM is hoarding the missiles in isolated strongholds in the Sahel (the Ténéré region in Niger and likely the Timétrine in Northern Mali) far from any high-profile airline targets. And while it’s not impossible that these weapons would be redeployed or re-sold, the effort that would have gone into transporting these weapons across several countries and thousands of miles of difficult terrain just to send them elsewhere.

Instead, as I told journalist Paul Cruickshank last week, it is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011, where French forces rapidly deployed and attacked fleeing AQIM forces in Mali in a failed attempt to rescue two hostages seized 12 hours earlier in Niger’s capital of Niamey. This possibility also makes some sense alongside an interesting piece of information from North Africa analyst Geoff Porter, who wrote in an article for the CTC Sentinel in February that AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had bought a .50 cal. DSHK (or “dushka”) anti-aircraft weapon. AQIM has become militarily more aggressive in the Sahel in recent years, and heavy weapons would indicate an increased desire to expand its operations, especially as its forces becomes increasingly isolated in northern Algeria.

What is also interesting about the possibility of AQIM purchasing weapons taken out of Libya by smugglers (as the Reuters piece implies) is that it shows that despite releasing several audio tapes in support of the Libyan revolt (and despite reports of a limited AQIM presence in Libya), AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad.

That is, of course, if these reports are even true. Despite the widespread attention this news has received, the claims about AQIM seizing weapons come in large part from two sources, Idriss Déby and an anonymous Algerian intel officer. While Déby’s concern about AQIM may well be genuine, he has also developed a very close relationship with Qaddafi in recent years, to the point where, in the same interview with Jeune Afrique where he said AQIM had seized the SAMs, he also said he has been speaking with Qaddafi every day.

As for the other source, it is silly to think that a senior Algerian official would speak about such a sensitive issue, and in such detail, without official sanction. And Algeria has taken a strong stance against foreign intervention in Libya, likely out of a calculation that more revolutions in North Africa are bad revolutions, as well as Algeria’s traditional opposition to foreign military involvement in conflicts in they’re back yard. Indeed, after telling the Reuters journalist about AQIM’s newfound weapons, the Algerian concluded that, “If the Gadhafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya — in terms of a country which has watertight borders and security and customs services which used to control these borders — which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean.” The official concludes then that to prevent this eventuality, Qaddafi’s regime must be preserved, with or without Qaddafi.

It is quite a reach to assume that AQIM is in any real way involved in the fighting, let alone that AQIM would be able to use the vacuum left by Qaddafi’s fall to take over a large swath of North Africa, especially given the fact that no estimate that I have seen puts AQIM’s numbers in the Sahel at more than several hundred, hardly enough to control swaths of territory that are far more populated than AQIM’s area of operations in the Sahel, all with hostile NATO forces watching closely and rebels who may not take too kindly to al-Qaeda stepping onto their turf for any other reason than to fight Qaddafi. Instead, that final quote casts some suspicion on the earlier missile claims, raising the possibility that the Algerian government is inflating or at least heavily advertising an AQIM involvement in Libya in order to discredit efforts in the West to overthrow Qaddafi or support the rebels.

Additionally, this new information follows on what appears to be a rather crude attempt to forge an AQIM statement claiming that AQIM fighters were killed in a NATO air raid last Friday, analyzed quite thoroughly by al-Wasat co-editor Aaron. As Aaron points out, not only do the details of the statement appear to be inconsistent with standard AQIM statements, but it was released directly to the Algerian news outlet Tout Sur l’Algérie, and has not appeared on any jihadist forums or been confirmed by news reports. All told, this is more than enough to be suspicious of claims of AQIM of involvement, especially given the organization’s near-total radio silence on Libya over the past two weeks; no images of AQIM fighters alongside Libyan rebels, no testimony from Libyan AQIM fighters, no biographies of “martyrs” killed in combat, and thus far no video of seized weaponry.For an organization that generally produces astute media products, the failure to capitalize on clear openings to generate more credibility and support is a glaring failure.

None of this is to say that the disparate reports of AQIM’s growing arsenal are false or staged. Such eventualities are entirely possible, and AQIM would certainly love to get their hands on more weapons. And AQIM’s recent silence could be an attempt to lie low in the face of Western pressure, for fear of being snuffed out or hunted before securing either a better role in the insurgency or a victory against Qaddafi. But the context surrounding the limited evidence of AQIM involvement in the Libyan rebellion or benefiting from its chaos is enough to make me seriously question these stories, as we wait for more concrete evidence.

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.