May 20, 2012

“al-Qaeda 2.0” Watching

Many question marks but one certainty: the battle between America and al-Qaeda, in any of its forms, is far from over. 

Is Al-Qaeda Beefing Up Its Presence in Mali? 
Ali Cissé, 30, a shopkeeper, couldn't contain his curiosity when a new wave of gunmen rolled into town. Outside the governor's compound in downtown Gao — a dusty administrative center of adobe architecture and open skies — he saw a fleet of armored vehicles with foreign fighters standing guard. "I saw [militants] from Niger, Pakistan, Algeria, Mauritania [and] Tunisia," Cissé tells TIME by phone from northern Mali. "I identified them by their accents because they like approaching people... to try to win their [sympathy]." Whatever their provenance, the fighters had one thing in common: they rode with Ansar Eddine, a group at times almost indistinguishable from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the regional terror franchise. 

Ever since a motley combination of Tuareg separatists and Islamic supremacists swept through northern Mali in a blaze of gunfire, an echo-chamber of rumor, gossip and misinformation has supplanted hard facts, and it's worth treating all information — however credible the source — with caution. But it isn't just Cissé claiming that foreign Islamic militants are flocking to this latest of troublespots. In the fabled waystation of Timbuktu, 300 miles upriver from Gao, a tour guide called Buba tells TIME that "Algerian nationals" are prevalent among the armed groups controlling the city. Taken with other reported sighting of foreign Islamist supremacists arriving in northern Mali, it's one of a number of signs that will have al-Qaeda watchers wondering whether northern Mali is becoming a new jihadist playground — even as the U.S. and its allies move against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a relentless drone campaign batters the badlands of Pakistan's Northwest frontier. 
Could Al Qaeda be infiltrating the Syrian uprising? 
Suicide bombings and sophisticated attacks on key Syrian government sites have stirred fear among some Middle East analysts that Islamic extremist groups are trying to infiltrate the 14-month-old rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad has blamed foreign militants for the uprising against him since it began in March 2011, trying to cast his bloody crackdown as part of the broader fight against Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda. 

Although no direct evidence of Al Qaeda involvement has emerged, some Obama administration officials and Middle East analysts say they have detected the group's hand in recent attacks. They point to the scale and tactics of recent suicide car bombings in Damascus and to calls by Al Qaeda leaders for Muslim holy warriors to join the fight against Assad. 

“We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an Al Qaeda presence in Syria, but frankly we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week in Washington. 

In February, Ayman Zawahiri, the elusive Al Qaeda strategist who took the reins of the terrorist network after Osama bin Laden was killed last year, called on Muslims from neighboring countries to flock to Syria to help their embattled brethren topple the Syrian regime. 

A little-known militant group calling itself Al Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for bombing Syrian government sites, including the coordinated suicide attacks in Damascus on May 10 that killed 55 people. Al Nusra Front has said its attacks are carried out by fighters returning from battles elsewhere, triggering suspicion of links to Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq. 

Rebel leaders in the Free Syrian Army have insisted that they want nothing to do with the terrorist  network. But some security analysts contend that Al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take advantage of Syria's chaos and violence to resume operations in the region.
NPR interview with The Nation's Jeremy Scahill: Why The U.S. Is Aggressively Targeting Yemen 
 SCAHILL: Well, in the past week, Terry, the United States military announced, quietly, but announced that it was sending U.S. trainers back into Yemen. Somewhere between 50 and 100 U.S. soldiers are going to be on the ground in Yemen operating alongside of Yemen's military and security forces. 

The U.S. basically created a counterterrorism unit in Yemen made up of Yemeni soldiers, and U.S. Special Forces troops for years have been in Yemen building up these units, and the idea behind it was that the U.S. didn't want to send troops into Yemen but believed that there was a substantial threat posed by al-Qaida figures in groups in Yemen, and so they wanted to encourage the Yemeni government to start taking a more active role in actually hunting down and killing these people. 

But what happened, Terry, is that these forces that the U.S. built up, and it began in the mid-2000s, ended up not fighting terrorism but actually defending the failing regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. So they were never operating in the territories where al-Qaida figures were believed to be but rather being used to defend the U.S.-backed regime of Saleh as it was crumbing to pieces. 

And so there was a lot of resentment from Yemenis. They call them the Saleh family military, the U.S.-backed units. They call them the Saleh family military, not the national military. Anyway, so the U.S. builds up that, they have trainers on the ground, and then you have a network of Saudi informants that are inside of Yemen. 

And then you have U.S. airpower in the form of drones, as we've mentioned, but also cruise missiles that are being launched off the coast of Yemen from vessels or submarines that are there ostensibly to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and there have been a number of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes. In fact, the most deadly strike that we know of in Yemen to date, authorized by the Obama administration, was his first strike in Yemen, and that was on December 17, 2009, and it was not the CIA, and it was not a drone. It was cruise missiles launched from the sea, and it slammed into this village called Al-Majalah, which is in south Yemen, and the U.S. had intelligence that was given to it by the Yemeni government that there was an al-Qaida training camp there and storage facilities for weapons. 

Well, it turned out that that wasn't true, and the U.S. bombed this village and killed 46 people, and we know the names of all of the people that were killed. I went there myself. I interviewed a woman who lost her entire family. An old man, 17 of those 46 people that were killed were members of his family. There were five pregnant women among the dead. 

It was a huge scandal in Yemen, and what ended up happening is that when the WikiLeaks cables came out, we discovered that General David Petraeus, who's now the director of the CIA, was in a meeting with the president of Yemen shortly after that strike where they conspired to cover up the fact that it was a U.S. bombing, and the Yemeni president famously told Petraeus, according to this U.S. cable, we'll continue to lie and say the bombs are ours and not yours. 

And that kicked off - that bombing, Terry, kicked off a sustained almost three years of bombing by the United States in Yemen in the form of drones, cruise missile strikes, and the backing of these so-called elite counterterrorism units that actually have done very little to fight terrorism and a lot to fight the pro-democracy movement in Yemen.


  1. One news medias patriot.
    Is another news medias terrorist.

  2. Many Yemenis, both inside and outside of the country, consider U.S. media reporting to be a psychological terror.

  3. I was about to ask you put up a view on Mali. Should have known you would be ahead of the pace. Afghanistan 2 imo. CIA attentions will not be assisting in any march to peace. Good link:

  4. If you're looking for COIN-based analysis on Mali, I posted this shortly Timbuktu fell to the MNLA and Ansir Dine -

    This ongoing situation is very dangerous: the government has yet to right itself, AQIM is reportedly embedding deeper into Ansir Dine and the situation is ripe for a Western overreaction. ECOWAS may enter the conflict as well but I have no confidence that it can restore a legitimate government and conduct COIN against the Tuaregs/Islamic militants at the same time. Combating AQIM and its affiliates (supposedly Boko) could take all decade or longer, with Western governments forced to pair with and train corrupt, dictatorial or weak governments.