Jul 17, 2007

R.I.P. Osama bin Laden?

Stratfor after examining the latest Osama video is of the opinion that Osama might just be dead. I am not buying it yet especially when it is strongly 'rumoured' that Osama is in a safe house in Pakistan after he was airlifted along with those Pakistani military personnel who were helping the Taliban in Afghansitan.

Al Qaeda's media branch, As-Sahab, released a 40-minute video July 14 featuring several jihadist figures paying tribute to "martyred" militants. Attention to the video, however, is centering on a previously unseen 50-second clip of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who extols the virtues of martyrdom.

Although the bin Laden video is new in that it has not been seen before, it is not new chronologically. In fact, the "new" footage appears to have been taped at the same time as a bin Laden video released by the United Kingdom-based Islamic news agency Al-Ansaar in May 2002. Bin Laden's dress, the camera angle and the setting for both videos are identical. In both tapes, a mountain rises up next to bin Laden's right shoulder, there is a tree to his left and the same bodyguard stands behind him, occasionally visible over his left shoulder.

One other similarity about these two videos is that they both were released under similar circumstances: during a time when there was doubt about bin Laden's well-being.

At the time of the May 2002 video release, there was some doubt that bin Laden had survived the December 2001 U.S. assault on Tora Bora. Al-Ansaar reported that it believed the video had been recorded in March 2002, and that this proved bin Laden had survived the attack. Al Jazeera, however, reported that it had seen the video in early 2002 but did not air it. Al Jazeera further said it believed the video was recorded in October 2001 and that it therefore did not prove bin Laden survived Tora Bora. Later tapes that were deemed authentic new releases, however, did prove bin Laden survived the attack.

Today, the question of whether bin Laden remains alive is being debated again. He has not been seen on video since October 2004 and he has not issued a new audio statement since July 2006. This silence stands in stark contrast to the flurry of audio statements he released in 2006. That series began with a January audiotape, in which he warned Americans that an attack against the U.S. homeland was imminent, and ended with a July 1 message discussing Somalia. Bin Laden's silence also is remarkable when compared to the media activity of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has issued a number of statements this year, including three audios and a video within the past month.

Al Qaeda has little to gain by keeping bin Laden out of the spotlight. Indeed, it could gain far more by trumpeting his ability to evade the massive U.S.-led manhunt for him. Al Qaeda also is under a great deal of pressure to demonstrate that bin Laden is alive and well, and in command of his organization. These factors suggest there is another reason for bin Laden to maintain a low profile. Perhaps he is dead, although based on al Qaeda's acknowledgement of the death of other senior figures, we would expect the organization to acknowledge such a loss, eulogize its "great martyr" and attempt to gain a public relations advantage out of the situation.

There also have been continuous reports that bin Laden is seriously ill, so al Qaeda might not want to show him in poor health. Indeed, there was much speculation about his health after his last video, when he stood behind a lectern and did not move much. This was in contrast to a 2003 video (aired around the second anniversary of 9/11), in which bin Laden was shown walking with the aid of a cane on a hillside in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. If, indeed, bin Laden is in poor health, his voice might be too weak to come across forcefully on audio.

Although al Qaeda faces an operational security risk related to video messages -- al-Zawahiri has curtailed his video appearances markedly since the October 2006 missile attack in Chingai, Pakistan -- it should not be as concerned with an audio message. Audio equipment is compact, easy to conceal and easy to use without the need for a crew or lighting equipment. Bin Laden, therefore, could easily record his own voice.

There must be another reason for his silence.[Stratfor]

A new al Qaeda tape is circulating; a sort of montage honoring the "fallen martyrs" of the Afghan war. Within the tape is a 50-second clip of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden discussing his thoughts on the subject.

The tape was first released July 14, but now news commentators aplenty are citing the video as proof of al Qaeda's strength in general, and of bin Laden's vitality in particular. However, judging from the camera angle, the clothing and what appears in the video's background, the tape is more than five years old and was filmed on the same reel used to assemble a video released in May 2002.

That means it has been more than a year since al Qaeda released any evidence indicating bin Laden is still alive, and roughly five years since the apex leadership of al Qaeda has been conclusively linked to any attack outside the Middle East or South Asia.

We certainly understand al Qaeda's effort to make its leader loom large; there are few organizations whose need to do something spectacular outweighs that of al Qaeda, and there is arguably no one who needs to prove he is a player more than bin Laden does. But barring a secret plan that, for some as-yet-undisclosed reason, necessitates hiding in Pakistani caves for years, bin Laden is either dead or incapacitated to the point that he cannot speak -- or his condition is such that his handlers prefer he does not.

So, whatever other axes one might have to grind with the U.S. administration -- and these days there seem to be enough to outfit an army of Vikings -- take this for what it is: Bin Laden is probably gone for good, and al Qaeda likely lacks the ability to strike in any strategically meaningful way.

But with the war against al Qaeda now disposed of, what of the other?[Stratfor]

Rest of that article is on the mess in Iraq.

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]

Jul 11, 2007

Stratfor: Red Mosque Fallout Could Derail Election Schedule

Stratfor on Red Mosque fallout.

The much-anticipated Red Mosque operation in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday was in its final stages. Security forces were cleaning up and trying to fully secure the mosque/madrassa complex. Intense fighting between security forces and the militants lasted about four hours. At least 40 militants and roughly six security personnel reportedly were killed. Dozens were wounded on both sides, and some 50 militants were arrested. As of the writing of this piece, however, there is not much information on the fate of the women and children the militants were holding hostage.

After the dust settles and more information becomes available regarding casualties and damage to the mosque, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government likely will face the wrath of radical and Islamist militant forces in the country. This likely will involve a significant wave of attacks against government, military and Western targets throughout the country. There also could be assassination attempts against Musharraf and other key government and military officials.

Meanwhile, there already are indications that the government is going to engage in anti-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations elsewhere, especially in the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. A militant reaction to the Red Mosque operation or a sweeping government action against jihadist forces -- or both -- is likely to lead to significant violence and unrest. The United States likely will be watching the situation closely and will be ready to act should the situation arise. In such a situation the government could move to impose some form of emergency rule.

The imposition of emergency rule could allow the government to get a handle on the militancy in the country and even lead to the capture or elimination of al Qaeda-related high-value targets -- albeit after a long and bloody campaign. But it would further complicate the political situation because the parliamentary and presidential elections slated for the fall would have to be postponed. This could create political unrest in addition to a militant insurgency.

Even if Musharraf decides against imposing emergency rule, the fallout from the Red Mosque operation could still cause a delay in the elections. At the very least, parliament could be dismissed, which would allow Musharraf to continue as a president leading a caretaker government for some time before new elections could be held. But this will only allow him a limited amount of time to conclude ongoing back-channel talks with his political opponents to secure his own political future.

In the wake of the Red Mosque operation, Musharraf will need not just the support of the Pakistan People's Party, whose secular ideology he shares, he also will need the support of some of the more pragmatic Islamist elements to help counter extremists and militants. Here is where Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam -- the largest component party of the Islamist coalition Mutahiddah Majlis-i-Amal -- could play a role.

But this depends on whether the president will be able to press ahead with the elections and deal with the militancy at the same time. Musharraf no longer has the luxury of dealing with them separately.[Stratfor]

The Many Faces of Al Qaeda

Here is another excellent article from Stratfor’s Peter Zeihan on Al Qaeda. It also looks at the core Al Qaeda’s possible Armageddon battle.

With all the talk about al Qaeda "leaders," al Qaeda "factions" and militants with "links" to al Qaeda, it is useful to take a step back and clarify precisely what al Qaeda actually is. Al Qaeda is a small core group of people who share strategic and operational characteristics that set them apart from all other militants -- Islamist or otherwise -- the world over. All signs indicate this group is no longer functional and cannot be replicated. Whether or not Osama bin Laden is still alive, al Qaeda as it once was is dead.

Strategically, these men envisioned a world in which the caliphate would rise anew as a consequence of events they would set into motion. The chief obstacle to this goal was not the United States but the panoply of secular, corrupt governments of the Middle East. Al Qaeda knew its limited numbers precluded it from defeating these governments, so it sought to provoke the Muslim masses into overthrowing them. Al Qaeda also knew it lacked the strength to do this provoking by itself so it sought to trick someone more powerful into doing it.

By al Qaeda's logic, an attack of sufficient force against the Americans would lure the United States to slam sideways into the Middle East on a mission of revenge, leading to direct and deep U.S. collaboration with those same secular, corrupt local governments. Al Qaeda's hope was that such collaboration with the Americans would lead to outrage -- and outrage would lead to revolution. Note that the 9/11 attacks were not al Qaeda's first attempt to light this flame. The 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings and the 2000 USS Cole bombing were also the work of this same al Qaeda cell, but the attacks lacked the strength to trigger what al Qaeda thought of as a sufficient U.S. response.

The Real Difference
But al Qaeda is hardly the first militant group to think big. What really set al Qaeda apart was its second characteristic -- its ability to evade detection. That ability was part and parcel of the way in which al Qaeda formed. Al Qaeda's roots are not merely within the various militant groups of the Arab Middle East but deep within the geopolitical struggles of the Cold War. Many of the mujahideen who relocated to Afghanistan to resist the Soviet invasion found themselves recruited and funded by Saudi intelligence, equipped and tasked by U.S. intelligence and managed and organized by Pakistani intelligence.

This exposure not only leveraged the Afghan resistance's paramilitary capabilities but also gave the mujahideen a deep appreciation for, and understanding of, the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. and Soviet intelligence systems. When the Cold War ended, some of those mujahideen reconstituted their efforts into what came to be known as al Qaeda, and those deep understandings became part of the organization's bedrock.

Such knowledge enables al Qaeda to operate beneath the radar of nearly all intelligence agencies. It knows how those agencies collect and analyze intelligence, where the blind spots are and, most important, how long it takes for an agency to turn raw information into actionable intelligence.

This characteristic is al Qaeda's greatest asset. Al Qaeda's standards of operation assume that intelligence agencies are always waiting and watching, and only al Qaeda's understanding of those operations keeps the "base" from being busted. Operational security -- not operational success -- is al Qaeda's paramount concern; its attacks are meticulously planned, fantastic in scope and sacrificed in a heartbeat if the leadership suspects a breach in security. This makes al Qaeda nearly impossible to track.

It also means that al Qaeda, by necessity, is a very small, close-knit group. The organization's core -- or the apex leadership, as we often call it -- consists of little more than Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and a double handful of trusted, heavily vetted relationships stretching back more than a decade. Disposable operatives with minimal training can be picked up for specific missions, but these people cannot do anything very complex (such as infiltrate a foreign country and hijack a civilian airliner).

Replacement of lost assets within this small group is negligible due to security concerns. Ultimately, the same security protocols that empowered al Qaeda to be a player of strategic scope are what removed al Qaeda from the chessboard.

Once the CIA and its affiliated allies named al Qaeda public enemy No. 1, al Qaeda's security instincts became its greatest liability. The rapid U.S. invasion of Afghanistan caught al Qaeda off guard -- the group had assumed it would have months of U.S. pre-mission staging before the invasion, a lesson it learned from watching the first Gulf War. The quick U.S. response meant al Qaeda was forced to go into hiding before it had fully secured redundant communication, funding and travel routes. Intelligence agency efforts to penetrate al Qaeda forced the group to constrict information flow, limit financial transfers, reduce recruiting and abandon operations. Once the United States succeeded in co-opting Saudi assistance against al Qaeda in 2003 -- something brought about both by a U.S. presence in Iraq and al Qaeda's own efforts to destabilize its ideological homeland -- al Qaeda's star stopped falling and started plummeting.

Al Qaeda has not only failed in its attempts to trigger region-wide uprisings against the Middle East's secular governments, it has also lost the ability to launch strategically meaningful attacks -- that is, attacks resulting in policy shifts by its targets. Al Qaeda can operate to a certain degree in regions where it has allies, many of whom flowed through its training camps in the 1990s, but the ability of the group that planned the 9/11 attacks to operate beyond the Middle East and South Asia seems to have disappeared. Attrition after years of confrontation with the Americans, coupled with self-imposed isolation, has rendered al Qaeda useless as a strategic actor. Not only is its ability to provide command and control nonexistent, but its self-enforced invisibility and inactivity have undermined its credibility.

Furthermore, al Qaeda has left no one truly capable of taking up its mantle. The training camps in the 1990s processed hundreds of would-be jihadists, but the quality of that training for the rank and file has been exaggerated. Most of it was a combination of poor conventional combat training and ideological indoctrination. Hence, most "veterans" of those camps have neither access to the core al Qaeda leadership nor the operational security or tactical training that would allow them to reconstitute a new elite core. They are no more members of the real "al Qaeda" than today's skinheads are members of the real Nazi party.

By the only criterion that matters -- successful attacks -- al Qaeda has slipped from readjusting global priorities (9/11) to contributing to the change in government of a middling U.S. ally (the March 2003 Spain attacks) to affecting nothing (the 2005 London bombings). No attacks since can be meaningfully linked to al Qaeda's control, or even its specific foreknown blessing. Al Qaeda had hoped for a conflagration of outrage that would sweep away the Middle East's political order; it only managed to raise a few sparks here and there, and now it is a prisoner of its own security.

Yet, public discussion of all things "al Qaeda," far from fading, has reached a fever pitch. But this talk -- all of it -- is about a fundamentally different beast.

Enter Al Qaeda the Franchise
It all started with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who put himself forward as the leader of the Iraqi node of al Qaeda in 2004. While one can argue that al-Zarqawi might have been through an al Qaeda training camp or shared many of bin Laden's ideological goals, no one seriously asserts he had the training, vetting or face time with bin Laden to qualify as an inner member of the al Qaeda leadership. He was a local leader of a local militant group who claimed an association with al Qaeda as a matter of establishing local gravitas and international credibility. Other groups, such as Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah, had associations with al Qaeda long before al-Zarqawi, but al-Zarqawi was the first to claim the name "al Qaeda" as his own.

For al Qaeda, prevented by its security concerns from engaging in its own attacks, repudiating al-Zarqawi would make the "base" come across as both impotent and out of touch. Accepting "association" with al-Zarqawi was the obvious choice, and bin Laden went so far as to issue an audio communique anointing al-Zarqawi as al Qaeda's point man in Iraq.

Others have also embraced the al-Zarqawi/al Qaeda association, as dubious as it was. Al Qaeda's operational security protocols -- and its ongoing presence just beyond the United States' reach in northwestern Pakistan -- meant that destroying al Qaeda (the real al Qaeda) was at best a difficult prospect. But al-Zarqawi was local and active and clearly valued launching attacks over maintaining hermetically sealed security. Al-Zarqawi could be brought down. And just as al-Zarqawi's "association" with al Qaeda increased his street cred with the Arab world, that "association" also increased his value to the U.S. military as a target. Taking down an "al Qaeda-linked terrorist" was much better for purposes of public relations and funding than taking down any random militant. The media, of course, stand ready to help; reporting on a militant with direct connections to bin Laden is sexy -- even if that connection was only catching a glimpse of Big "O" walking by during breakfast.

The result has been the formation of an odd iron triangle among an al Qaeda desperate for relevance, local jihadists seeking a fast track to importance and Western intelligence and law enforcement seeking credibility and funding. In the common lexicon, al Qaeda is no longer that core of highly trained and motivated individuals who tried to change the world by bringing down the World Trade Center, but a do-it-yourself jihadist franchise that almost anyone can join. Some nodes are copycats who look to the real al Qaeda for inspiration; others are existing militant groups -- such as Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, now called the al Qaeda Organization for the Countries of the Arab Maghreb -- that can identify with their ideological brethren. But few to none have any real connections to al Qaeda.

Violence is certain to continue, but the lack of meaningful attacks in the West in general and the United States in particular suggests al Qaeda's degraded capacity and the West's improved security have minimized the chances of a geopolitically significant attack for the next several years.

This does not mean would-be "al Qaeda" groups are not dangerous, or that the "war on terror" is anywhere near over. While some of the would-be al Qaeda groups almost seem comical, others are competent militants in their own right -- with al-Zarqawi perhaps being the most lethal example. Their numbers are also growing. The ongoing war in Iraq has provided potential militants across the Islamic world with the motive to do something and the opportunity to gain some serious on-the-job training. Just as Soviet operations in Afghanistan created a training ground for a generation of Middle Eastern militants in the 1980s and 1990s, the Iraq war is in part a crucible for the next generation of Arab militants. Add in al Qaeda's offer of open association and we will be hearing from dozens of "al Qaedas" in the years to come.

Luckily, links between these new groups and their erstwhile sponsor are limited mostly to rhetoric. There might be a few thousand people out there claiming to be al Qaeda members, but the real al Qaeda does not exercise any control over them. They are not coordinated in their operations or even working toward a common goal. And while many of these new al Qaedas might be competent militant groups, they lack the combination of strategic vision and obsession with security that ultimately allowed the original al Qaeda to move mountains.

Top it off with terminology buy-in from Western intelligence, law enforcement and the media and the result is a war literally without end; the definition of al Qaeda is stretched by nearly any player to fit nearly any political need. The United States is now waging a war against jihadism as a phenomenon, rather than against any specific transnational jihadist movement.

Back to Square One?
The political situation in Pakistan has long imposed an unstable stasis on what many feel should have been the real focus of the war on terror all along. Since escaping from Afghanistan in 2001, the true al Qaeda has spent most of its time taking refuge in northwestern Pakistan, where a mix of political complications and ethnic and tribal allegiances have allowed it to stay out of harm's way.

The United States has been aware of al Qaeda's presence there, but ultimately has not attacked for three reasons. First, al Qaeda's internal security protocols forced the organization to isolate itself. During a time when the United States had a great many fish to fry, al Qaeda seemed to have put itself into lockdown; it was issuing videos, not starting wars like Hezbollah or reconstituting like the Taliban. Second, while U.S. intelligence knows the region in which al Qaeda resides, it has never gotten enough detail to allow for airstrikes to take care of business. Such not-quite-there intelligence has always been just diffuse enough to necessitate boots on the ground -- and raise the specter of a disastrously botched and politically problematic military operation.

Which brings us to the third and, in many ways, most important reason for leaving al Qaeda alone. The United States felt it could not risk an assault for fear of political fallout. Ultimately, the United States needs Pakistani cooperation to wage war in Afghanistan -- after all, Pakistan has the only easily traversable land border with the landlocked country -- and support for radical Islam runs deep in both Pakistani society and government. So, yes, U.S. attacks against militant sites located on Pakistani soil happen all the time, but they are small pinprick operations. Any large attack could not be disavowed and, therefore, could result in the fall of the very Pakistani government that makes the hotter parts of the war on terror possible.

Back in 2005, the United States believed it had credible intelligence about a planned meeting of the core al Qaeda leadership in northwestern Pakistan. A strike force of several hundred to several thousand was assembled in order to punch through the Pakistani tribes hiding and shielding bin Laden and his allies, but the strike was ultimately abandoned because then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld felt the operation could not be kept quiet. It is one thing when Pakistanis think there are a few Americans running over the border to do something tactical. It is quite another when Pakistanis know that several thousand Americans with heavy air support are surging across to do something strategic. The U.S. might have been able to take out its target, but probably not without losing a critical ally.

Details of this attack plan were leaked July 8 to The New York Times. For us at Stratfor, news of the plans was nothing new. It made perfect sense that this plan, and likely dozens of others like it, were at various times in the works stretching back as far as 2003 (and we have noted such on numerous occasions). What caught our attention was the timing of The New York Times article. The United States has been eyeing northwestern Pakistan for years. Why draw attention to that fact now?

The United States' core fear in 2005 was that the Pakistani government would destabilize. Well, in 2007, the Pakistani government is horrendously unstable. On July 10, Islamabad launched a multi-hour raid replete with Branch Davidian overtones against the Red Mosque complex and a gathering of radical (some would say mentally unhinged) Islamists challenging the government's writ. Be worried when the government of an Islamic republic feels it must take such action. Be doubly worried when the government taking the action already seems to be in its death throes.

Previous efforts by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to strengthen his political grip on the country by firing the chief justice rebounded on him so severely that he cannot even depend upon his oldest allies. Various political, military and cultural power centers are sniping at the president, making their own independent and often contradictory demands. There are also hints that Musharraf's faculties are beginning to crack. The government -- as well as the president -- is now teetering on the edge of oblivion, facing an unsavory menu of crushing compromise with one force or another to stay in power in name, and risking the turbulent waters of emergency rule over an increasingly hostile population.

If the threat of a government fall was the only thing holding Washington back in 2005, and now that the fall is imminent through no action of the United States, what does Washington have to gain from restraining itself any further?

This is more than a rhetorical question. The relative inactivity of al Qaeda these past six years, as well as the political situation in Pakistan, has imposed a shaky equilibrium on the issue. Al Qaeda's security protocols curtail al Qaeda's threat level, and that has allowed the United States to shelve the issue for another day. Meanwhile, the instability of Musharraf's government limits the United States' ability to pressure Islamabad over the issue of al Qaeda. Consequently, al Qaeda has been more or less hiding in plain sight.

Alter any aspect of this scenario -- in this case, drastically increase the tottering of the Musharraf government -- and the "stability" of the other pieces immediately breaks and the United States is forced to surge assets into Pakistan.

Washington has to assume that an al Qaeda anywhere but Pakistan is an al Qaeda that will act with less conservatism. By the American logic, al Qaeda assets in Saudi Arabia, long drilled that security is paramount, would naturally doubt that a telegram from bin Laden ordering a new attack is genuine -- but they would certainly believe bin Laden himself should he show up at their door. By al Qaeda's logic, Musharraf's fall would force al Qaeda to relocate from Pakistan because the group would have to assume that the Americans would be coming.

Which means the odd stasis in the war on terror these past six years could be about to loosen up, and a front that has proven oddly cold might be about to catch fire.[Stratfor]

This Stratfor article on Al Qaeda is from an American perspective. From this we in India can get an insight into the way Pakistan’s ISI manages its terror jihad against India. Pakistan has clearly taken portions from Al Qaeda’s terror handbook (or is it other way round that ISI’s terror manual is Al Qaeda’s guidebook?) and has put it to work in India and the results are horrendously spectacular. So much so that today, after every terror attack, the investigations usually arrive at dead ends.

One thing that is clear from this article is that we Indians have more to fear from ISI instigated terrorism than from the main Al Qaeda. But actually, there is no difference between the two - what with ISI’s terror wings in India like LeT, JM, HM all being members of Al Qaeda’s Int’nl terror org.

Jul 10, 2007

Cartoon Speak: Eighth Wonder of the World

Courtesy: The Hindu

Stratfor: Plotters' Al Qaeda Links Not Likely

Stratfor on why the London and Glasgow terror perpetrators wouldn't have met anyone from the core Al Qaeda leadership and why it is important to link the botched attacks to Al Qaeda.

British media reported July 9 that Kafeel Ahmed, one of the two men in the sport utility vehicle that rammed into a passenger terminal at Glasgow International Airport on June 30, had ties to a "senior al Qaeda" leader. Ahmed, who was severely burned in the attempted attack and remains hospitalized, is believed to have once associated with Abbas Boutrab, an Algeria-born man arrested in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2003 and sentenced to six years in prison for plotting to blow up an airliner. The men reportedly met in Belfast while Ahmed was studying engineering.

British media also reported that at least one individual connected to the London and Glasgow plots traveled to Pakistan and met with al Qaeda leaders. U.S. officials have repeated the claims reported in British media that SO15, Scotland Yard's counterterrorism command, uncovered evidence that at least one of the suspects communicated with militant leaders in Iraq.

Though Ahmed could have crossed paths with another amateur jihadist, it is very unlikely that he -- or any other participants in the botched attacks in Glasgow and London in June -- would have been able to meet with anyone who is actually part of al Qaeda's core leadership. However, linking the sloppy attempts at militant attacks in the United Kingdom to al Qaeda helps authorities remind the public of the threat of similar attacks and show that al Qaeda's operational capacity actually has declined.

Several things indicate that the London and Glasgow plotters were not tied to any significant element of al Qaeda's leadership. First, for its own security, al Qaeda's core leadership remains extremely isolated, taking refuge in the remote areas of the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Al Qaeda's leaders limit their contact with the outside world to the extreme minimum. If any of the plotters did meet with al Qaeda members, these members likely were lower-level field operatives who are not in direct contact with the apex leadership. Western intelligence officials believe that after the Taliban regime's ouster in Afghanistan in 2001, al Qaeda's leadership regrouped in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Though jihadists certainly operate in the area, some intelligence officials and the media use the term "al Qaeda leader" very liberally, since locals and visitors alike in the border region tend to think every armed Pashtun is with the Taliban and every armed non-Pashtun is with al Qaeda.

Another indication is the amateurish nature of the attempted attacks. Any operation sanctioned by the core -- or even the second or tertiary tiers -- of al Qaeda's leadership would probably display more thoughtfulness and skill than the London and Glasgow incidents showed. The attacks' complete failures, combined with the speed with which British authorities detained individuals connected to the attacks, indicate poor planning. Even the July 7, 2005, London Underground bombers -- some of whom trained in jihadist camps and pulled off a very successful attack -- did not meet with anyone close to al Qaeda's core leadership.

Some of the plotters could have gained access to militant facilities and individuals in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Some British citizens of Pakistani origin -- former members of the now-defunct London-based al-Muhajiroun organization -- relocated to Pakistan around the time of the 9/11 attacks and set up a conduit to funnel British Muslim youth to training camps operated by Taliban and al Qaeda elements. These former al-Muhajiroun members went offline after the arrests of several operatives who used this conduit and the London Underground bombings spawned a worldwide counterterrorism dragnet. However, the conduit could still be operational (though limited). Even if the London and Glasgow plotters used this channel to gain access to militants and their facilities, those militants would not necessarily be al Qaeda or Taliban members, as there are plenty of local Pakistani militants in the Afghan-Pakistani border region.

The al Qaeda link story will be allowed to proliferate among the media. Governments have an interest in linking even amateurish militant operations to al Qaeda because the name itself is instantly recognizable and associated with major jihadist attacks. This keeps anti-terrorism issues high on the public agenda, which can increase overall vigilance and helps various government intelligence and law enforcement agencies when budgets are being drawn up. Additionally, by allowing the botched attacks in the United Kingdom to be associated with al Qaeda, Western governments can emphasize to the Islamic world just how far al Qaeda has declined from the days when it was able to plan and execute spectacular attacks.[Stratfor]

Jul 9, 2007

The War Between Pakistan and its Ex-Proxies

Stratfor asks some questions on the type of people holed up at Lal Masjid and looks what this means for Pakistan on the security front.

After days of avoiding an all-out assault on the mosque/madrassa complex, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf reportedly has issued orders to storm the Pakistani capital of Islamabad's Red Mosque. The government also has claimed that the Islamist militants holed up in the mosque include both wanted hard-core Pakistani jihadists as well as foreign fighters -- mostly Arabs -- affiliated with al Qaeda. The six-day security operation to dislodge Islamist militants from the Red Mosque thus appears to have entered a decisive stage.

The government's new claims may have some merit to them, thus warranting an examination of the facts associated with the operation. The Pakistanis, fearing possible public backlash in an already-charged political atmosphere, have up till now avoided taking the facility by force. Nonetheless, the government has brought in some of its best security units to flush the militants from the mosque. These include the army's 111th Brigade, its Special Services Group (SSG) commando force, the 9th Wing of the Rangers paramilitary force, and the elite anti-terrorism squad of Punjab Police.

Despite being up against some 12,000 well-trained, professional and heavily armed security personnel, the militants inside the Red Mosque have managed to hold their ground. They have managed to survive several days of intense bombardment in the form of shelling and gunfire. Moreover, they have managed to kill a commander of the SSG (a lieutenant colonel) during one operation Friday night.

All of this does not appear to be the work of mere seminary students who are followers of the rogue mullahs running the Red Mosque, perhaps boasting only a little experience handling an AK-47. Radical seminary students do not possess the skills to strategize -- let alone hold off -- a superior force. Holding out in the face of insurmountable odds demands a certain level of nerves as well.

The leaders of the resistance in the mosque probably are battle-hardened jihadists, not a mere ragtag band of seminarian zealots, which raises a number of questions. How did these elements establish themselves in a major mosque in the South Asian country's capital, just a few miles from the city's diplomatic enclave, key government institutions, --- and above all, the headquarters of the country's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate? How were the fighters able to procure the weapons and other supplies needed to sustain such a standoff without setting off alarms? Why are the militants able to make back-channel contacts with some key top officials even after the government has made it clear the fighters must surrender unconditionally?

The answers to such questions are not readily available, but the questions themselves bolster claims that the Pakistani state, especially its military and intelligence agencies, are significantly infiltrated by jihadist elements. This has directly resulted from the army's past practice of employing Islamist militant actors to pursue its domestic and foreign policy objectives.

Pakistani media reported July 7 that a close relative of the mullahs controlling the Red Mosque is the driver for Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, as he was for the minister's two predecessors in office. Meanwhile, the bodyguard of the deputy leader is an employee of the National Crisis Management Cell, led by retired Director-General Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema -- who is also the Interior Ministry's spokesman.

Consequently, these militants are not just challenging the writ of the state, they enjoy a significant number of sympathizers both within the government and the wider society. The military leadership led by Musharraf may have embarked upon a strategic shift as far as the role of Islam in state and society is concerned, but clearly a large number of people both inside and outside the government do not subscribe to his philosophy of "enlightened moderation."

Though radical Islamist forces constitute a minority, they constitute a significant one. And while the vast majority of Pakistanis do not support jihadists, they do not necessarily support Musharraf's agenda either. Overall, Pakistan lacks a national consensus regarding Islam's role in public affairs, something extremist and radical forces are exploiting to their advantage.

Therefore, the Red Mosque operation does not amount to a one-off event. Rather, it is likely the beginning of a long confrontation between the state and radical/militant Islamist forces. Such a clash will involve military operations in areas like the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well as nationwide social unrest.[Stratfor]

Jul 5, 2007

Emoticons and You

It is 25 years since emoticons or smilies made their debut and Yahoo! came out with this survey.

People in the age group 19-25 are the most smitten by emoticons, with about 68 per cent using smileys daily, a survey by online portal Yahoo! revealed.

.... Emoticons changed the way emails were perceived in the early years.


However, its not just the younger generation embracing emoticons. Nearly 48 per cent of users over 50 use emoticons in their everyday communication.

The Yahoo! survey further indicates that 82 per cent of Yahoo Messenger subscribers use emoticons while chatting. The perception though is that emoticons are used more by women. Men, said the survey, are more prone to use instant messengers and emoticons to fire someone (14 per cent) versus women (11 per cent).

The majority of survey respondents said they best express themselves in IM using emoticons. Nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) rely on emoticons to best express their feelings, while 17 per cent on internet slang (i.e. LOL, GR8) and 13 per cent on photo-sharing.[B-S]

Cartoon Speak: Playing With Letters

Courtesy: Indian Express

Courtesy: The Hindu

Jul 2, 2007

Cartoon Speak: "Commie-cal" Ethics

Courtesy: Indian Express