Saturday, April 21, 2012

The al Qaeda numbers game

It seems that I’ve been reading the same article for a decade or so: “Al Qaeda is down, but not out; their numbers are diminished, but they’re branching out, ready to target the homeland. Government officials warn same old bullshit. But this time they mean it.”

That’s pretty much the gist of this piece from The Economist. The article parrots the Obama Administration’s line in claiming that asses are being kicked on a massive scale, but there are new asses that need kicking, especially in Yemen and Somalia. And maybe Nigeria. Rather than claiming victory, the Administration boasts of partial victory while searching for more monsters to slay.

Al Qaeda central in Afghanistan/Pakistan, we’re told, is currently in the “low hundreds.” But, this is nothing new: in 2010 intelligence officials estimated the group's membership at “more than 300." In fact, al Qaeda membership was not a large organization even during its  heyday in the '90s. It trained a lot of militants, but few were invited into the actual organization. Even many of the 9/11 attackers remained outside of the group until the planning was well under way.

Numbers didn’t matter all that much because al Qaeda had resources. In addition to bin Laden’s trust fund, the organization had a network of fronts and scams that provided funds for attacks, as well as the tuition collected from its training camps. But between the invasion of Afghanistan and the dismantling of the group’s financial resource base, al Qaeda’s material power was significantly depleted. Indeed, Ahmed Rashid argues that bin Laden’s gang had to rely on the financial support of Pakistani militant organizations in relocating to Pakistan after their expulsion from Afghanistan.

Then Al Qaeda was small but rich; but now it’s small and cash-strapped. This suggests that the “ties” between al Qaeda and its affiliates are likely being overblown, since al Qaeda has little to offer. The organization may not even be able to offer its expertise to groups in Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, since many of its most experienced members—i.e. those who trained in Afghanistan camps during the nineties—are dead or in prison. Indeed, the “experts” training the new generation of jihadis in Pakistan appear to be ISI agents, not al Qaeda militants. Al Qaeda, in short, has little to give to “global jihad.”

But, the western media has largely accepted the narrative of al Qaeda’s growth beyond Afganistan-Pakistan. Reports of “ties,” “links,” and “support” are bandied about uncritically. Al Qaeda, we're told, has contracted and expanded simultaneously, breaking the laws of organizational physic. As Brian Fishman argues, the media's ready acceptance of this narrative results in key questions not being asked:
Are we really to measure al-Qaeda's strength based on some assessment of its "synergies" with other groups? What is the baseline? How do you compare the late 1990s, when al-Qaeda collaborated with a relatively strong, but very independent, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) to the situation today where a faction of LIFG has joined al-Qaeda but has vastly diminished resources? Does "synergy" mean they collaborate on attacks in Afghanistan together or that they agree on attacking western targets abroad? How do you measure the relative effectiveness of al-Qaeda's training programs from the late 1990s to today? Camps are smaller, but do you need a jungle gym to learn how to hijack a plane?
I’ve written about al Shabaab’s purported ties to al Qeade before, so in this post I will focus on the supposed Nigerian and Yemeni "franchises."

Whether or not Boko Haram has actual “ties” with al Qaeda is an open question. The evidence for such links is largely limited to mere “claims,” whether made by Nigerian security officials, western intelligence agencies, or “purported” Boko Haram spokesmen. But each has good reason for seeking such links. For Boko Haram, it’s a matter of prestige and profile. For western intelligence agencies, it’s about justifying intervention and expanding influence in Africa. And for the Nigerian state, it’s largely a matter of what Jason Burke calls the “blame al Qaeda syndrome,” whereby repressive governments seek to cover up their own misdeeds in giving rise to violent conflicts within their states. (During the Cold War a similar “blame the international communist conspiracy” ploy was especially effective in Latin America.)

The Economist article claims that Boko Haram’s “increasingly violent attacks and use of suicide-bombings suggest it has technical and material help from AQIM.” That the group has engaged in suicide attacks does not actually suggest this. First, suicide bombing is a modular form of violence, like car bombing, kidnapping, or beheading. It thus can be—and has—been used by various groups that have no connections. In the 1990s, Hamas and the Tamil Tigers both used suicide bombings, but this doesn’t suggest material ties whatsoever. Andrew Breivik’s attacks were not all that different from the Mumbai attacks, but no one is arguing that the Norwegian was trained by Pakistani militants. 

Second, bombs are relatively cheap to make and the knowhow is available on the internet. In addition, explosives are often available locally. Boko Haram allegedly obtains its explosives form raiding construction sites in Nigeria. The Madrid train bombers got theirs through a small-time crook/miner who led them to a warehouse wear the dynamite was stored. In both cases, no al Qaeda “technical and material” assistance was needed.

Of course, the Madrid bombing demonstrates that militants do not need direct al Qaeda ties to commit atrocities on a massive scale against Western targets. But they do need the intention to do so. Thus far, neither Boko Haram nor al Shabaab have demonstrated the intention to attack the “far enemy,” that is the West. Boko Haram’s conflict is against the Nigerian state and, particularly, security forces—and, increasingly, Nigerian Christians. Though the group did attack U.N. headquarters in Nigeria, they are largely engaged in a local conflict. Al Shabaab's foreign attacks have been focused on getting African Union states to leave Somalia. The West is not presently a concern. Not yet, at least.

With regard to the Yemeni al Qaeda, which according to The Economist “is reckoned by Western spooks to be most dangerous internationally,” a distinction must be made between their considerable level of success in Yemen as an insurgent organization and their obvious incompetence in waging global jihad. The two most notable international operations by the group—the “underwear” and the “printer cartridge” plots—were absolute failures. Furthermore, like al Shabaab, Yemeni jihadis may have more pressing concerns in waging a classic insurgency—and, increasingly, acting like a proto-state in territories under its control—which may make international attacks mere distractions.

But are we providing these groups with the motive to attack western target? By expanding the War on Terror into new arenas beyond the AfPak region, are the counterterrorists setting the stage for further “self-fulfilling prophecies”? By engaging in an increasingly militaristic counterterrorist strategy—and the concomitant “al Qaedization” of local insurgencies—is the Obama Administration creating the conditions for further violence? And even if expanding the War on Terror is providing these groups with the motive to attack the "far enemy," do they have the resources and expertise to commit such ambitious actions while simultaneously managing their insurgencies?

In all of this, the actual al Qaeda doesn't really matter, but rather it is this phantom "al Qaeda" that is driving events.

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