Reading al Qaeda’s signals from Yemen — and Pakistan

David Ignatius writes:

Behind the latest terrorism plots is an al-Qaeda leadership that is getting battered in Pakistan but that is determined to strike back wherever it can – using a dispersed network and new tactics that are harder to detect.

The package bombs sent last week from Yemen are one face of al-Qaeda’s continuing campaign. The Yemeni operatives are nimble, adaptive and “frustratingly clever,” says a U.S. counterterrorism official. “They have one main goal, which is to mess with us.”

We’ve got all sorts of metaphors going here. Al Qaeda is up against the ropes — but it’s punching back. It used to wait in caves, ready to be smoked out — even while it was on the run. But just in case its persistent ability to outwit US intelligence services might make the latter look unintelligent, we are duly reminded that our cavebound-boxing-running nemesis is actually very smart.

Now, with a melodramatic Hollywood-style flourish, France’s interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, adds that one of the printer bombs was defused just 17 minutes before it was due to explode! Let’s not forget (or maybe we are meant to forget) that British investigators took 20 hours to figure out that one of these devices was actually a bomb.

What’s the common thread here? That when officials and commentators talk about al Qaeda, the structure of their own thinking is much more in evidence than any understanding of the strategic thinking that probably connects a set of seemingly disparate events. My hunch is that the string of “failed” operations emanating from Yemen have actually accomplished most of their objectives.

Consider, for instance, this detail in the printer bombs: the way they were addressed — with names linked to the Crusades at out-of-date locations for two synagogues in Chicago.

We are told the bombs were designed to blow up on board the cargo aircraft that carried them, so why use addresses that could prematurely flag the parcels? If on the other hand the bombs were meant to reach the synagogues, in a meticulously planned operation such as this, wouldn’t we expect valid addresses to have been used? The addresses provide a clue that these were bombs meant to be found rather than explode.

Let’s not forget how the attack was actually averted — not through an NSA intercept but thanks to a tip from a former Guantanamo inmate who had a change of heart just in time.

Perhaps the object of the exercise here was neither to blow up synagogues nor bring down aircraft but simply generate fear around both possibilities. Indeed, al Qaeda is currently demonstrating that bombs which don’t explode can in many ways be just as effective and in some ways more effective than those that wreak havoc.

The choice of synagogues in Chicago may simply have been a way of making sure that some of President Obama’s most influential supporters — such as Lester Crown — would be pressing the White House to do everything necessary to tackle the threat from Yemen.

But why would al Qaeda be wanting America’s attention to now focus on Yemen?

Ignatius quotes a US official who claims that bin Laden’s response to Obama’s expansion of drone warfare in Pakistan was to send out a directive which could be summarized: “Undertake operations however and wherever you can. We need to prove ourselves again.”

Even if such a directive went out — one that portrays this fight simply as a contest in the expression of power — I find it hard to believe that this actually reveals much about al Qaeda’s strategic thinking. After all, as grandiose as their ambitions might be, they surely have few illusions about the nature of the power differential they face as Hellfire missiles come raining down.

Bin Laden’s more pressing concern, I would suggest, is to find a way of getting the hell out of Waziristan and lining up a new base for operations — a move precipitated not just as a result of drone warfare but more importantly because of the likelihood that any process of reconciliation that brings about an end to the war in Afghanistan will result in al Qaeda losing its sanctuary in Pakistan.

The conventional wisdom is that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates independently from Pakistan-based commanders, but the Australian counterterrorism expert, Leah Farrall, thinks otherwise. AQAP, she writes:

… is not an affiliate, not a franchise, and not a network. Rather it is an operating branch of AQ, which means that while it may have authority for attacks in its area of operations (the Arabian Peninsula), it comes under AQ’s strategic command and control for external attacks outside of this area of operation. And it has always done so, right back to 02.

To the extent that the message coming out of Washington for most of the last year has been that Yemen is now the epicenter of the al Qaeda threat, this may reflect less about the depth of US intelligence than it does about al Qaeda’s own messaging. In other words, al Qaeda very much wants to be equated with Yemen.

Why? This much should be obvious to everyone: wherever the US sees a terrorist threat emanating from, its primary response is military. Yemen is no exception. Ignatius confirms that in the wake of Obama’s expanding drone war in Pakistan:

[a] similar escalation is likely in Yemen, with soldiers from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command working with Yemeni government forces. The JSOC sums up its lethal approach with the phrase ‘find, fix, finish,’ but a U.S. official says it has been hard to keep track of al-Qaeda targets in Yemen’s tribal villages and cities.

The Pentagon’s thinking no doubt, is that a sufficiently “robust” response will ensure that the burgeoning threat from al Qaeda in Yemen can be nipped in the bud. Al Qaeda’s strategic view however, may well be radically different.

Farrall points out that al Qaeda in Iraq began with only 16 operatives. Thanks to the blundering American military machine, the jihadists were able to tap into enough local hostility that they were eventually able to trigger a civil war.

Even though the US is not contemplating invading Yemen, operations it conducts in collaboration with a compliant Yemeni government will do more to weaken that already weak government and thereby make the country an even more hospitable environment for al Qaeda HQ to relocate its operations.

Yemenis, far from sharing Washington’s concerns, view them with a mix of skepticism and suspicion. As the New York Times reports:

For now, most Yemenis seem to dismiss reports of Al Qaeda killings as a “masrah,” or drama, staged by the government and its American backers. The suspicion runs so deep that any action by the Yemeni government seems to confirm it: counterterrorist raids are often described as punitive measures against domestic foes, and the failure to act decisively is derided as collusion.

“This latest episode with the packages is only making it worse,” said Mr. Faqih, the Sana University professor. “Many people think it was all about the elections in the U.S., or an excuse for American military intervention here.”

If there is a set of assumptions that al Qaeda’s strategists can reliably make about their American adversaries it is that the Americans find it next to impossible to respond to acts of terrorism without recourse to military violence; that they pay insufficient attention to the motives of those they choose to fight; that patience is their most easily exhausted asset; and that without fail a fear-bound America can always be guaranteed to overreact.

Meanwhile, what passes for strategic thinking in Washington still takes seriously this bizarre idea: that it is possible to simultaneously bomb a country and assist in its development.

And people still wonder how it’s possible for a tiny militant organization to challenge American might? Because America makes it far too easy.

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7 thoughts on “Reading al Qaeda’s signals from Yemen — and Pakistan

  1. Ian Arbuckle

    Can you or the Australian counterterrorism expert (where do they find these people?), Leah Farrall, give me one iota of verifiable evidence other than the usual “said to be”, or based on “information from interrogations”… of even the existence of Al Qaeda let alone the command and control structure and its complexity of cells or affiliates like AQAP or AQ in Iraq? Sure, it has a central command. I think it is more likely to be in Langley, rather than Waziristan.

    Bin Laden is dead. He was a CIA operative. His organization at its highest was a sham. If not prove me wrong, show me in facts, not smoke and mirrors of secret information sources, that it is not a different man in each purported video of him after 9-11; a man supposedly dying of kidney failure apparently getting younger, changing bone structure, character or behavior. The 9-11, said to be, highjackers were trained in the US by the military and many have been shown to be alive and well despite their suicidal adventures in 2001. Show me the physics, engineering and chemistry that disintegrates steel and concrete, leaving detectable traces of military nano-thermite, being caused by impact with aircraft, or in the case of WTC building 7, not even that.

    These referred articles and this comment just attempts to build on, and thereby perpetuates the myths of the phantom that has been created at the root of this completely staged GWOT, and thereby demands its acceptance to be read. There has never been substance that cannot be shown to be lies and subterfuge in this myth. Sure, if less discerning people are told the same story often enough by authorities, that they have been taught to trust, they will end up accepting it as fact, even if those very authorities are shown to consummate liars. But surely it is not the intention of War in Context to sustain such brainwashing?

    Do the anomalies of this harebrained Yemen package bomb story with red flag addresses, and quickly modified scenarios of the number and origin of aircraft and flights, the use of cell phones for timers, the tip offs by repentant hajis, and Hollywoodesque just in time disarming. Why use a cell phone if a timer will do? Why use the Yemen? Why not Uruguay or Burkina Faso?

    In my most skeptical and humble opinion these bombs make more sense as a statement of a casus belli needed for the extension of American/Saudi/Israeli state terrorism. Just think about it. Statistically you have a far greater chance to be a casualty of GWOT, eloquently termed as “collateral damage” than a casualty of the so called terrorists, that they are apparently fighting if not recruiting and training. And if that is because of their excellent counter intelligence and prevention, then why are they killing so many ordinary innocent families with drone attacks in Pakistan? Sorry I don’t buy it! But hey, if you believe all this Al Qaeda boogieman stuff, I’ve got a bridge in Manhattan that I can sell you!

  2. Paul Woodward

    If one has the conviction that al Qaeda is a fiction, then it goes without saying that there could be no evidence that would prove otherwise. All so-called evidence will be treated as part of the conspiracy.

    While I can understand that many people harbor suspicions about official accounts about 9/11 and about the nature of al Qaeda, to make a bald assertion such as “bin Laden was a CIA operative” is simply that — an assertion without proof.

  3. Ian Arbuckle

    What evidence has not been accepted or termed as “part of a conspiracy”? Of course there is a conspiracy. In fact I am waiting 9 years now for any “tangible evidence” to support the US government’s “conspiracy theory” involving Osama Bin Laden and 19 highjackers having taken the US defences and security by complete surprise.

    Al Qaeda is no fiction but there is no evidence that bin Laden even used the term “Al Qaeda” to refer to the name of a group until after September the 11th, when he realized that this was the term the Americans have given it. Here is a comment bin Ladin made from an October 2001 interview between Al-Jazeera television correspondent Tayseer Alouni and Osama Bin Laden in October 2001: “The name “al Qaeda” was established a long time ago by mere chance. The late Abu Ebeida El-Banashiri established the training camps for our mujahedeen against Russia’s terrorism. We used to call the training camp al Qaeda [meaning “the base” in English]. And the name stayed.”

    The question is more who created it, what is really behind it and what for? And more practically, who and what is running it today.

    Ok, you are absolutely right, I am aware that they are in the business of lies but at least we can take it from a former CIA official, who spent years in Afghanistan; Milt Bearden that the Bin Laden that we have been presented with, with or without the training and sponsorship of the CIA is a myth :

    http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/16/inv.binladen.denial/

    Or take it from Mr. Springman, the ex-consulate official as to why visas were being issued for highly unqualified travellers from Saudi Arabia :

    http://www.pakistan.tv/videos-osama-bin-laden-was-a-bush-%5BPAnFtJgDk_0%5D.cfm

    “and that their asset, Osama bin Laden was working with them”. Hearsay, absolutely; doubtlessly an assertion without proof, but see part 2 of 2 too.

    http://www.pakistan.tv/videos-osama-bin-laden-was-a-bush-%5BjDy8w706680%5D.cfm

    No, I cannot prove Osama worked for the CIA on their payroll or travelled in the US under the name of Osborn. He may have been handled through the ISI and funded through his Saudi family firm to all intense of purpose but the available evidence points to a far different scenario from that given by authorities and codified in whitewashed reports of official enquiries, that have been shown to be consummate lies. The scenario that fits the readily available evidence in fact would require local collaboration at high levels inside USA and from US authorities to complete the 9-11 attack.

    All I want to establish here is that the Al Qaeda and Osama as portrayed by authorities and in your comment is obviously a myth built of smoke and mirrors for mind wars. Responsible thinking and comment requires us not to build on the unfounded assumptions which are put out there and repeated to brainwash the masses.

  4. Norman

    Perhaps Mr. Woodward might do his homework better and dig into who bin Laden was/is, who helped bankroll & train him, his early adventures in Afghanistan, how he was able to convince the Taliban he was who he said he was, why he was allowed to flee Tora Bora, why nobody seems to catch him? As for being a conspiracy, have you, Mr Woodward any knowledge as to why # 7 @ the WTC came down? Besides of course, what the “Official” cause was? There is a lot more to this tale then anyone wants to tell. Perhaps the most telling, is what the Pakistanis know! The U.S. has/is being played for a sucker in this “longest war scenario”, with no end in sight. By the way, perhaps you might also pursue the “Poppy” trail, as there is so much money being made there, well, I think you get the picture!

  5. DE Teodoru

    There’s so much in so many places that none of us can verify or follow the leads on because life sends us in many other directions of expertese and responsibility than it does the CIA’s kiss and tell friend Mr. Ignatus. But one thing is clear: alQaeda has done little more damage in the world since 9/11– which was the fault of irresponsible airlines– than any Colombian drug cartel had done internationally. But somehow it is justification for far more four-stars generals than during Vietnam War and twice as many DoD Under-Secretaries than then when the military was twice as large. Perhaps Obama is running an involuntary PA project using our volunteers and Reservists to keep Petraeus&Co. employed, not to speak of all the Bush/Cheney corporate friends whose only product drunken has-beens trying to kill people and missing.

    Lastly, Mossad surely knows that its KNOWN behavior invariably would raise questions about its unknown behavior. Afterall, it does think it can manipulate all of us “dumb goyim,” often exposing itself butt-naked in all its inherent superiority. That invariably makes some think that them who constantly cry “fire” may well set them. But then again, it’s all speculation because with every square of toilet paper marked TOP SECRET, it’s hard to tell whose s—t is flying at us…..keep reading Ha’aretz, ya all!

  6. Colm O' Toole

    Ah the old question of whether AQ is/was supported by the US?

    I guess the clearest answer is who of us really knows the situation? Every war in the last few hundred years has had lies/misinformation/propaganda and modern times this situation has no doubt been finely tuned. All of this blurs and spins the picture.

    I like everyone here who has an interest in foreign affairs and geopolitics has looked into all these accounts before. In my view, the question of whether the US supported/funded Al Qaeda is not all that important because regardless of who funds it the important question is whether Al Qaeda’s existance serves US interests.

    On that question it is clear that it does. An interesting book on this topic is Robert Dreyfuss “Devils Game: How the US helped unleash fundamentalist Islam”.

    One of the things the book looks at is the rise of Hamas, which was supported by Israel. Israel knew if the PLO continued being moderate than they would be forced into a two-state solution. So they helped the rise of Hamas by targetting rival moderate groups, not intercepting money and arms to Hamas and generally allowing Hamas to flourish with the intention helping Hamas rise and therefore not having a negotiating partner.

    Its very much the same strategy the British used in Northern Ireland (I live in Southern Ireland). Also seems to be what the US is using in the GWOT. The US likely does not fund AQ (for the simple reason that AQ gets more than enough money from Saudi princes) but Al Qaeda is certainly helpful in regards to creating reasons to invade Middle Eastern countries/increase security domestically/make people focus anger on Muslim culture while the Economy crashes.

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