Jul 13, 2007

More Stratfor Reports on Al Qaeda

Here are three Stratfor reports issued after their last report titled "Many faces of Al Qaeda"

The Reality of Al Qaeda's Resurgence

A leak from the U.S. defense community revealed a document titled "Al Qaeda better positioned to strike the West" on Thursday, touching off a firestorm of debate within the United States over the status of the war on terror. According to the leak, al Qaeda is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago," has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," and is "showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."

Stratfor cannot analyze the contents of the report because we have not read it; so far, no one has felt it necessary to commit a felony by leaking this specific document to us. But the general thrust of the document, that al Qaeda has regenerated, is clear. Many of Stratfor's readers have noted that this position clashes with our recently clarified assessment that, while al Qaeda remains dangerous, the group's day in the sun is over.

The first and most important question to ask when looking at this leaked report, then, is which al Qaeda is being discussed. Evolution and misuse of terminology means there are now two.

The first is the al Qaeda that carried out the 9/11 attacks. This group deeply understands how intelligence agencies work, and therefore how to avoid them. After the 9/11 attacks, however, this group's security protocols forced it to go underground, pushing itself deeper into the cave each time it thought one of its assets or plans had been compromised. The result was a steady degradation of capabilities, with its attacks proving less and less significant. Stratfor now estimates that, while this al Qaeda -- which we often refer to as the apex leadership, or al Qaeda prime -- still exists and is still dangerous, it is no longer a strategic threat to the United States. Its members can carry out attacks, but not ones of the grandeur and horror of 9/11, or even of the Madrid bombings, that achieve the group's goals of forcing policy changes on Western governments.

The second al Qaeda is a result of the apex leadership's isolation. It represents a range of largely disconnected Islamist militants who either have been inspired by the real al Qaeda or who seek to use the name to bolster their credibility. While many of these groups are rather amateurish, others are deadly efficient. It is best to think of them as al Qaeda franchises. However, these franchises lack the security policy or vision of their predecessor, and they do not constitute a strategic threat.

The difference between a strategic and a tactical threat is the core distinction, and one that should not be trivialized. There are hundreds of militant groups in the world that pose tactical threats, and many of them are indeed affiliated with al Qaeda in some way. As a bombmaker or expert marksman, a single person possesses the skills to kill many people, but that does not make that individual a strategic threat to the United States.

Posing a strategic threat requires the ability to carry out operations in a foreign land, raise and transfer funds, recruit and relocate people, train and hide promising agents, a multitude of reconnaissance and technical skills, and -- most important -- the ability to do all this while avoiding detection before striking at a target of national importance. Yes, an attack against a local mall or a regional airport would be a calamity, but it would not be the sort of strategic attack against national targets that reshapes Western geopolitics as 9/11 did.

Charging that al Qaeda is as strong now as it was in 2001 simply seems a bridge too far. Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda was running multiple operations across multiple regions simultaneously. Its agents were traveling the globe regularly and operating very much in the open financially. Their vision of resurrecting the caliphate was a large and difficult one. Achieving that vision required mobilizing the Muslim masses, and this required spectacular attacks.

A spectacular attack is what they carried out -- once. Since then, all the apex leadership has done is issue a seemingly endless string of empty threats, and consequently its credibility is in tatters. No one doubts al Qaeda's desire to strike at the United States as hard and as often as possible, but the lack of activity indicates its capabilities simply do not measure up.

And even if al Qaeda did not have a goal that required regular attacks, we would still doubt the veracity of this report. If an intelligence agency has penetrated an organization sufficiently to be aware of its full capabilities, the last thing the agency would want to disclose is this success. The agency would keep its intelligence secret until it had neutralized the militants. Shouting to the world that it knows what the militants are up to tells the militants they have been penetrated and starts them on the process of going underground and sealing the leak.

  • Which, of course, raises the question: What is this report actually seeking to accomplish? That depends on who commissioned the report in the first place, and -- considering the size of the U.S. intelligence community -- it could well mean just about anything. A partial list of justifications could include:
  • an effort to pressure Pakistan into cracking down on al Qaeda for fear that the group is just about ready to launch another attack,
  • an effort by the U.S. administration to regenerate its political fortunes by reconsolidating national security conservatives under its wing,
  • a plea for more funding for this or that branch of U.S. security forces,
  • a general warning to force any militants currently planning attacks to pull back and reassess -- in essence, an effort by intelligence services to disrupt any cells they have been unable to penetrate,
  • or even an effort by one branch of the government to discredit the efforts of another.

But regardless of which memos are floating about Washington these days, al Qaeda prime itself is not feeling all that confident of late. In his most recent taped release (al Qaeda's attacks have sputtered recently but its multimedia arm is booming), deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calls on Muslims everywhere to focus their efforts on the jihad in Afghanistan. He does not focus on Iraq, where the fires burn bright, or on Pakistan, where the apex leadership resides.

It appears the Pakistani government is on the verge of finally moving in force against al Qaeda in the country, and a looming U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is making the position of foreign jihadists in Iraq increasingly tenuous. That leaves the movement with only the mountains of Afghanistan for shelter. After all, there is no spot on the globe farther away from what the West might consider friendly shores.[Stratfor]

Al Qaeda After the Red Mosque

Deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's most recent taped message, which addresses the Red Mosque standoff in Pakistan's capital, contains very telling insights about the situation facing the apex leadership of the transnational jihadist organization, despite being issued before Pakistani security forces overran the mosque/madrassa complex. Now that the mosque operation has ended, having whipped up a great degree of anti-government sentiment, al-Zawahiri can be expected to release a follow-up tape to try to exploit the situation. But even in this initial tape, which was made some time after Red Mosque cult leader Maulana Abdul Aziz was arrested while trying to escape from the facility wearing female robes, al-Zawahiri demonstrates an awareness of the threat to al Qaeda that lies ahead.

As far back as June 2005, we identified that al Qaeda's clandestine global headquarters had relocated to the area comprising the districts of Dir, Malakand and Swat in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) following the ouster of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan. Being based in Pakistan meant al Qaeda could not go too far in staging attacks in country for fear of attracting unwanted attention. It therefore tried to ensure that jihadist activity in the country did not become a security liability for the apex leadership.

Clearly, a great deal of militant activity within Pakistan is not commissioned by al-Zawahiri, but rather is the handiwork of domestic jihadist actors. Despite several attacks against Western and Pakistani government targets since Islamabad joined the U.S. war against jihadism, the government of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf refrained from engaging in major action against the Islamist militancy. The Red Mosque crisis, however, forced the Pakistanis to change their attitude. Not only did the government decided to engage in an unprecedented assault against a mosque, but in a July 12 address to the nation Musharraf also announced plans to go after militant groups all over the NWFP and the adjacent tribal badlands.

We forecasted this move, predicting it could prove devastating for al Qaeda prime. Al-Zawahiri is well aware of the potential for such an outcome, which explains his remarks urging Pakistanis to focus on jihadist activity in Afghanistan as opposed to the situation in Pakistan -- which, from al Qaeda's point of view, is hopeless. Al-Zawahiri said, "Muslims of Pakistan ... you must now back the mujahideen in Afghanistan with your persons, wealth, opinion and expertise, because the jihad in Afghanistan is the door to salvation for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of the region. Die honorably in the fields of jihad."

The call to focus on Afghanistan makes sense given the strategic and tactical situation al Qaeda faces. Pakistan has thus far provided the leadership sanctuary, but at the cost of significantly diminishing al Qaeda's operational capability. Furthermore, despite the significant radical Islamist presence within Pakistan, the country poses significant structural impediments to al Qaeda's objectives.

What al Qaeda really needs is the anarchy Afghanistan offers, presenting conditions conducive not only to the group's survival but also to a revival of its operational capabilities. Al Qaeda calculates that, given U.S. problems in Iraq and the disarray among NATO member states, the United States eventually will force the West yet again to abandon Afghanistan. The jihadists would then be able to use Afghanistan again for their purposes. The West is not going to leave Afghanistan anytime soon, but al Qaeda prime, which faces only bad options, will pursue the best one.

Although al Qaeda would love to exploit the anti-government sentiments that have arisen among Pakistanis in the wake of the storming of the Red Mosque, the group probably is bracing for what Stratfor has identified as the beginning of a long-term struggle between the Pakistani state and the jihadist Frankenstein it created over an extended period. While the struggle against the jihadists will be a long engagement, the founders of al Qaeda could get caught in the cross-fire between Islamabad and its former proxies in the not-too-distant future.[Stratfor]

Intelligence Guidance on Al Qaeda

There have been many warnings by the government of potential and impending attacks in the past six years in the United States. None have come to pass. The credibility of these warnings has to be judged on this basis. When you have a source that has consistently claimed knowledge of an impending event of the same class and the event has consistently not occurred -- and this has happened over the course of years -- you have difficulty taking any claim seriously. In fact, according to the craft, given this track record, the best thing to do is rigorously avoid listening to the claim and, well before this point, start looking at the motive for a trail of erroneous calls.

It is always possible that this time the government has better intelligence than before, but that is not the most likely explanation.

Warnings from the government of potential attacks are always suspect for the following reason: If you have penetrated an organization sufficiently that you are aware of its intentions, the last thing you want to give away is that you have penetrated. You keep it secret for exploitation. Your mission is to find and kill the enemy, and telling the world that you know what they are up to tells the enemy that they are penetrated -- it tells them to shut the leak. You do not want that. So in one sense, the administration's latest announcement rests on a dubious pedigree, and in addition, the question has to be asked: Why would an intelligence organization tip off an enemy that it has been penetrated by humint or electronic means? Why warn them that you are on to them? The warning gives away a huge advantage.

From these two facts, it is very difficult to take this seriously. So, since U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is no fool, we have to look for other reasons:

1. We are attempting to abort a potential and poorly understood operation. We do not really know very much, but there has been chatter about an attack. Since the attackers will not chatter, this is a dubious pedigree, but again, it is one that has to be reacted to. By issuing a nonspecific warning, all potential groups, if they are out there, will hopefully reassess and abort. This is not bad strategy, but it is used only when your intelligence is of a relatively poor quality and not actionable, and you want to put the other side off balance. You do not do this when you have really good penetration.

2. There is currently a collapse in the Bush administration's political position in the Republican Party. A warning like this coincides precisely with such a situation. A warning at this time reminds everyone that the main enemy is out there, and puts those who oppose the Iraq war on the defensive. The administration has used warnings for political purposes in the past, but this particular warning is so blatant it is hard to take seriously.

3. The warning takes place at the same time as events in Pakistan. There is a warning of a reconstituted al Qaeda, the leak of the 2005 incursion, the Red Mosque, and three carrier battle groups are about to be in the region. The warning can be taken as a prelude for military action in Pakistan. Certainly, we have established just cause with the warning.

4. There is a semantic issue. The administration has historically mulched together al Qaeda as a strategic terrorist organization, with al Qaeda as a paramilitary force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have also confused Taliban and Al Qaeda. The reconstitution of the Taliban is a known fact. They undoubtedly have extensive paramilitary training facilities. Given past administration usage, these camps (the 10,000 terrorists al Qaeda was training in 2001) could be what they are seeing and the finding is being deliberately used in the way it was in 2001 -- conflating poorly trained Taliban fights with al Qaeda prime.

Finally, please note that if al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in Pakistan, this is an admission of a massive failure in the intelligence community. Given the resources spent to prevent such a reconstitution, the community is saying it has again been out-thought and outmaneuvered by al Qaeda. It has managed to rebuild in spite of the intense operations conducted to stop it from doing so. Not only have we not captured Osama bin Laden, but we have not even been able to interfere with al Qaeda's activities. Interestingly, the government seems to be saying that we have penetrated the organization well enough to know its status, but were impotent to have prevented its moves.

Given the government's track record and its warning, it is difficult to take this seriously. If the government indeed had deeply penetrated al Qaeda, announcing it publicly would make no sense, when no meaningful defensive measures could be taken and it would undermine the penetration. In addition, the claim of knowledge coupled with the admission of impotence makes no sense.

It could be that this warning should be taken more seriously than prior warnings that never amounted to anything. But we have been at this for six years, with prior warnings about actions in the continental United States that never came to fruition. Six years is a long time to generate false positives. But they have done this much. For the moment, the conversation has shifted from Iraq to al Qaeda. And if something does happen -- and who knows? It may -- the government has protected itself. If nothing happens, it will be forgotten. We know there have been no attacks in the United States since Sept. 11. We know there have been numerous alerts. It would be interesting for pure academic reasons to count the number.[Stratfor]

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