The theme of Stratfor's 2006 forecast for al Qaeda and the jihadist movement centered on the evolution — or the devolution, really — from al Qaeda "the group" to a broader global jihadist movement. This essentially was a shift from an al Qaeda operational model based on an "all-star team" of operatives that was selected, trained and dispatched by the central leadership to the target, to an operational model that encourages independent "grassroots" jihadists to conduct attacks, or to a model in which al Qaeda provides operational commanders who organize grassroots cells. We refer to this shift as devolution because what we are seeing now is essentially a return to the pre-9/11 model.
This shift has provided al Qaeda "the movement" broader geographic and operational reach than al Qaeda "the group." This larger, dispersed group of actors, however, lacks the operational depth and expertise of the core group and its well-trained terrorist cadre.
That last point is important. It is something which degrades the capability of AQ in the near future, but, as a movement with the time to train, may mean a bigger and more potent AQ further on out.
The metamorphosis continued in 2006, with al Qaeda announcing the merger of existing jihadist groups such as Gamaah al-Islamiyah (GAI) in Egypt and Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and others in the Maghreb into their global jihadist umbrella organization. These groups have had long-standing links to al Qaeda, and the announcement of the mergers is really a formalization of the relationship, though these new nodes joined al Qaeda's formal network of affiliate groups in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.
Since the announcements, these new groups have not yet demonstrated that they possess the ability to boost al Qaeda's operational effectiveness. We have seen no attacks that can be attributed to GAI, and perhaps the only attacks that can be attributed to the GSPC are the Dec. 11 attack against a bus carrying foreign oil workers and the simultaneous Oct. 30 attacks against two police stations in Algeria. Given this lack of results, the announcements ring somewhat hollow, as the mergers have not given al Qaeda the surge of momentum it might have wanted.
As Burton goes on to point out, these "new groups" haven't demonstrated any real operational ability to this point. This is the early part of the metamorphasis or conversion to a "movement", so naturally bringing these disparate groups under the AQ umbrella means they'll come in with varying and different levels of experience and expertise. At the moment that level appears to be much less that that which was enjoyed by AQ when it was under what Burton refers to as the "all star" concept. The proof of this is to be found in AQ operations in 2006 as opposed to 2005.
In 2005 AQ carried out 7 successful attacks (the three most notable being London, Sharm al Sheikh and Amman) with only 2 failures. In 2006 they only attempted 7 with 6 of those being deemed failures (Dohab the only success with 24 killed). In fact, in 3 of the 7, more attackers were killed than victims.
And, of course, it's Iraq "node" has been a miserable failure although some level of expertise has been exported as we'll see later.
Because of this lack of expertise, AQ has been forced to change its focus from it's preferred targets, which have been "hardened" to softer targets:
As we noted in January, the shift to the broader movement model allowed for an increase in the number of attacks, although the movement's lack of expertise was forcing it to focus its attacks against soft targets such as hotels, trains and subways.
Thus London (subway), Amman (hotel) and Sharm al Sheikh (tourist resort).
Their preferred targets?
As we said in January, al Qaeda the group has long been interested in striking financial targets, aircraft and chemical/petroleum plants. Because of that, and al Qaeda's demonstrated history of revisiting targets after failed or foiled attacks, it was logical to project that it would continue to attempt strikes against such targets in 2006.
The petroleum sector indeed was targeted in 2006, as the strikes against petroleum facilities in Abqaiq and Yemen, and against oil contractors in Algiers, demonstrate. Although no attack occurred against financial targets as we anticipated, we still believe that target set remains at risk for the future, along with the others.
Although authorities thwarted the plot to simultaneously destroy several airliners en route from London to the United States, it once again demonstrated that al Qaeda and the jihadist movement maintain a significant interest in airline targets. Details released in February on the Library Tower bombing plot provide another example of this fixation.
Its 2006 target list involved 3 attacks on oil facilities, all essentially failures. And Burton points out the largest of the attacks on airliners, also a failure. Stratfor thinks these will remain primary targets for AQ, but it will have to rethink and revamp it's approach to attacking them.
However it should be remembered that while AQ is going through this change from a group to a movement, it is building experience and expertise among some which will, of course, be transfered to others within the movement:
The forecast, which noted that the active armed struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus still serve as a kind of "jihadist war college," predicted that its graduates would continue to share their training and experience upon returning to their countries of origin.
We already have seen a transfer of terrorism tactics and technology to Afghanistan, and we anticipate that this will continue in the future. In addition, the interpersonal connections that the militants make in places such as Iraq and Chechnya also will link them to the global movement in the same way the jihad in Afghanistan did for the preceding generation.
Of course while AQ is rethinking, revamping and retraining, the US and it's allies are engaged in trying to get inside their decision cycle and continue to thwart their plans. It is a game of adapt and re-adapt and re-adapt again.
The US strategy has, thus far, managed to keep another attack on US soil from occurring. That is partly due to a "pick up first and ask questions later" philosophy:
The U.S. government and its allies have been successful over the past year in disrupting terrorist plots and plans in many locations. The strategy of disruption these countries are following is really quite simple: It is better to pick up an al Qaeda suspect on immigration fraud or another lesser offense than to investigate a smoking hole in the ground. Although there has been significant skepticism over the terrorist credentials of those responsible for some of these plots, such as the one involving the Miami Seven, the plots serve as a reminder that there are people who remain committed to striking the United States. Over the years, Islamist militants have proven to be resilient and adaptable in the face of adversity, and they will certainly continue to adapt.
It is the "Al Capone" strategy. Pick him up on something which you can pin him on and then take the time to investigate his (or her) other activities. As Burton points out, at times it may seem a waste of time and resources to pick up those like the Miami Seven. But remember that while our security forces have to grab the right guys every time to successfully thwart another attack, the terrorists only have to slip through once to be successful. Also remember the cost, not in just lives, but economically, that 9/11 brought.
It points to one of the reasons immigration reform and enforcement is such an important issue. It is also important to remember that our enemies are very patient:
It is important to remember that more than eight years elapsed between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attacks — during which time al Qaeda and its jihadist network faced nothing approaching the level of pressure they have endured since then. There were several thwarted terrorist spectaculars between 1993 and 2001, and yet the jihadists persisted and eventually succeeded in carrying out a massive strike on U.S. soil.
The bottom line: Al Qaeda still exists but is changing its form a group of radicals to a movement of radicals. It has suffered because of that in terms of operational experience and expertise, at least for the near future. That lack of experience and expertise has been seen in its operations attempted in 2006 and Iraq. However, that is likely to change as the experience and expertise builds to the point that it can again attempt operations on its three favorite types of targets: petroleum, airliners and financial.
Depending on how quickly AQ can make up this deficit, you might see an attempt or attempts at those sorts of targets again (London may have been the first of such attempts). If you do, look for a rash of such attacks to follow fairly closely as AQ will have successfully completed its change and have gotten their incorporated groups up to at least a minimal operational standard.
One last thing. AQ has a formidable public relations or propaganda arm. The west is going to have to do a much better job of countering it as a part of their strategy to defeat the terrorist organization.
The Iraq node of Al-Qaeda has been a "failure"? Didn’t the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque destabilize Iraq to the point where the US mission there is almost certainly impossible to accomplish now? Doesn’t that qualify it as a resounding success, possibly Al-Qaeda’s greatest since 9/11? Does Stratfor mention this in their full report, or does it not believe that Al-Qaeda’s responsibility has been sufficiently established yet?
Didn’t the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque destabilize Iraq to the point where the US mission there is almost certainly impossible to accomplish now?
I think it contributed but the tensions and violence weren’t precipitated overnight or by a single particular act. The bombing is one in a long series of events which have escalated the sectarian violence. Mostly I put it at the feet of the Iraqi government’s continued refusal to confront and force the disbanding of the militias as well as the slow progress in training up the ISF and giving it the dominant role in policing the country.
You can’t share (or cede) power and expect the organizations which fill the vacuum and have violent agendas aimed at gaining and consolidating power (and to exact revenge) to act in a civilized manner.
Does Stratfor mention this in their full report, or does it not believe that Al-Qaeda’s responsibility has been sufficiently established yet?
Stratfor says, about AQ in Iraq:
Overall, 2006 was not a good year for the al Qaeda nodes in Saudi Arabia and the Sinai. It also was a dismal year for the Iraq affiliate, whose charismatic leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June. Twelve months have made a vast difference in the fortunes of the Iraq node. Last year at this time, al-Zarqawi made the headlines almost daily and his organization was conducting frequent and spectacular attacks. Now, following the death of al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq has been largely marginalized and eclipsed by Iraqi Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups.
I think for the most part they see the bombing as I do ... one in a long series of events leading to the state of violence we see today, but not the event which is the primary cause of the violence.
McQ: I agree that the odds of US success in Iraq have been poor at least since the postwar looting and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. And it’s true that Iraq may well have eventually reached the current levels of chaos and violence without the mosque bombing. However, my understanding of the impact of the bombing was to undermine the influence of moderates such as Sistani and to increase the influence of violent militia leaders such as Hakim and Sadr. The appearnce of Shiite death squads and the escalation of sectarian attacks came shortly after the bombing. Sistani doesn’t even attempt to have an influence in domestic affairs anymore. I think that the US had a chance of achieving its objectives when moderates like Sistani still had sway, but that their marginalization basically eliminated this chance. I believe that, if Al-Qaeda’s objective in destroying the mosque was to provoke or accelerate the advent of a sectarian civil war (and it probably was), then their mission was a huge success by any standard. The fact that the incredible death and bloodshed caused by the ensuing war now makes Al-Qaeda-generated horrors pale in comparision, is a sign of how effective the bombing was, not the opposite. What Al-Qaeda loses in headlines, it will be compensated for US resources and influence becoming drawn away from counterterrorism and into trying to stop the Iraqi Civil War.
However, my understanding of the impact of the bombing was to undermine the influence of moderates such as Sistani and to increase the influence of violent militia leaders such as Hakim and Sadr.
Sistani condemned the bombing, forbid retaliatory attacks by Shiites on Sunni mosques and actually hinted for a larger role for militias in the face of the Iraqi government’s inability to protect holy sites.
Interestingly, Sadr did as well. In fact it was Sadr who fashioned an agreement between shiites and sunni not to attack each other’s mosques. In fact he even went as far as to order his militia to protect sunni mosques in southern Iraq.
SUNNI AND Shi’ite clerics agreed yesterday to prohibit killing members of the two sects and banning attacks on each other’s mosques in an effort to ease tension between Iraq’s Muslim communities following sectarian violence after the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine.
The agreement was made during a meeting between representatives of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Shi’ite religious leader Jawad al-Khalisi and members of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars at the Abu Hanifa Mosque, a Sunni place of worship.
The agreement followed sectarian violence that left more than 150 people dead since Wednesday’s explosion that damaged a Shi’ite holy shrine in the central city of Samarra. Dozens of Sunni mosques were attacked after that.
A statement read by association member Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi condemned attacks on holy places and "those who tried through the media to incite sectarian strife and civil war."
The clerics also agreed to prohibit killings of Sunnis and Shi’ites as well as attacks on mosques and shrines.
Even Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Shiites not to take revenge on Sunni Muslims for the attack on mosques.
OTOH, al-Hakim did use the bombing to attempt to increase his power and authority.
It should also be noted that al Qaeda denied involvement in the bombing in several statements released although there is some evidence that at least one al Qaeda member knew about it and may have participated (Abu Qudama al-Tunesi).
The appearance of Shiite death squads and the escalation of sectarian attacks came shortly after the bombing.
Correlation is not causation. You don’t throw together an operation of that magnitude in a couple of days or weeks. Again, it appears that such a development may have coincided with the bombing of the mosque but not necessarily have been a result of it.
Sistani doesn’t even attempt to have an influence in domestic affairs anymore.
Actually he did so quite recently (although unfortunately I can’t recall the purpose at the moment).
I think that the US had a chance of achieving its objectives when moderates like Sistani still had sway, but that their marginalization basically eliminated this chance.
I think the essence of your point is correct although I wouldn’t go as far as saying the chance of success is "eliminated". There are still opportunities, but they’re becoming limited and much harder than those which presented themselves in ’04 and ’05.
I believe that, if Al-Qaeda’s objective in destroying the mosque was to provoke or accelerate the advent of a sectarian civil war (and it probably was), then their mission was a huge success by any standard.
Again, given their denials, it isn’t at all clear that AQ had a hand in it. And given the opportunity al Sadr had to use this as a legitimizing event to turn his militia loose and didn’t (even fashioning a truce of sorts with Sunnis) doesn’t really support your theory.
Also, does Stratfor go into any detail regarding Al-Qaeda setbacks/defeats in Sinai and Saudi Arabia?
Not so much detail as more to note that the operations in total for AQ were down for the year and that the attack in Saudi Arabia (Abquiq) killed 4 and the one in the Sinai killed only the 2 bombers.
McQ: Thanks for the comprehensive response. I was unaware that Sadr, at least initially, called for peace after the bombing.
In September, frustrated with his waning influence and the assassination of a senior aide, Sistani reportedly told his remining aides
"I will not be a political leader anymore...I am only happy to receive questions about religious matters." (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/09/03/wirq03.xml)
Sistani may have stepped back from that somewhat since then, as he apparently still plays some role in politics as shown my his recent rejection of a plan for a Sunni(Da’wa Party)-Shiite(SCIRI party) coalition in the Iraqi parliament which would have had the effect of isolating the Sadrists. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,,-6300409,00.html) but this event may have been more indicative of his increasing dependence on Sadr (whom he apparently relies on for security) than his independence and influence.
I do share your skepticism about the Abu Qudama al-Tunesi connection to the bombing. The confessions produced by American and Iraqi security forces are to be taken with a good deal of salt. However, I don’t think that the fact that Al-Qaeda has not officially taken credit for the bombing is much of an indicator that they didn’t. I’m not an expert at this kinda thing, but when you’re trying to instigate a civil war through a sort of "false flag" attack, it completely defeats the purpose to accept credit. By not taking official credit, the Shiites are left suspecting that, Sunni militants committed the attack and some Sunnis can suspect that the Shiite militias did this to themselves to get an excuse to go out and kill Sunnis. None of this happens if Al-Qaeda puts videos of themselves planting mosque bombs. I also don’t think that, even for Al-Qaeda, such material would attract a lot of new recruits.
However, I don’t think that the fact that Al-Qaeda has not officially taken credit for the bombing is much of an indicator that they didn’t. I’m not an expert at this kinda thing, but when you’re trying to instigate a civil war through a sort of "false flag" attack, it completely defeats the purpose to accept credit. By not taking official credit, the Shiites are left suspecting that, Sunni militants committed the attack and some Sunnis can suspect that the Shiite militias did this to themselves to get an excuse to go out and kill Sunnis.
Of course the corollary to that is if you do so, one of those sides has to believe the other did it and then take the desired action. It appears that while that while shiites may may have believed the sunnis did so, given reaction of Sadr, Sistani and sunni clerics, it didn’t take.
And it may also be that they both knew that AQ did it and because of that, didn’t react in the desired manner as well.
In either case, it doesn’t appear that sectarian violence was hardly any fiercer or any worse strictly because of the bombing.