Friday, March 25, 2016

U.S. Appears to Take Notice of Growing Al-Qaeda Threat

     It’s been said many times in the recent past, and worth reiterating; al-Qaeda is playing the long game.  It always has demonstrated a model of longevity as compared to its former kin the Islamic State group.  Despite many misconceptions about the differences in tactics – IS focused on its immediate region seizing and governing territory while al-Qaeda was only focused on hitting the west disregarding territorial governance – al-Qaeda has always been interested in governing territory and has done so several times in the past.  The main differences in ideology relate to how this governance should be implemented – IS takes the totalitarian view forcing its way of life down the throats of its subjects while al-Qaeda has utilized a bottom up approach to first gain the support of local populations before implementing harsh Sharia governance.

     Despite the gruesome attacks perpetrated on IS’s behalf recently as well as the group’s penchant for spotlight, al-Qaeda has also been highly active and the U.S. has taken notice.  The group’s east African affiliate al-Shabaab, while dealt significant blows in the past two years, refuses to be eliminated.  In fact, some counterterrorism experts have drawn parallels from al-Shabaab’s defensive posture to IS’s current offensive in western cities as it loses territory in its Middle Eastern strongholds.  “Similar to Shabaab’s decline in recent years in Somalia, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has begun its transition from a more conventional force seeking terrain to a regional and international terrorist menace seeking a new home for survival,” Clint Watts, former FBI special agent and Army officer wrote.  “As Shabaab lost ground to an international coalition, it shifted to suicide operations and shock attacks against soft targets in Mogadishu, perpetrating regional terror attacks through a network of foreign fighters and affiliates in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.”

     With African forces making inroads, though struggling to deal the group a lasting blow, the U.S. hit an al-Shabaab training camp killing 150 of its members in March.  The strike, some have argued, is not a sign that the group is gasping for its last breath, but rather, that the U.S. is concerned about its vitality.  “[I]t would be a mistake to conclude that al-Shabab was on the ropes before these attacks or that it’s significantly more so now. More than anything, regional analysts and Somali diplomats say the airstrikes on a terrorist training facility roughly 120 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu, illustrates just how dramatically the group has rebounded in recent years,” Foreign Policy reported.  “Al-Shabab’s resurgence has grown increasingly hard to ignore in the last 12 months. In that time, the group has ramped up its terrorist operations in neighboring Kenya, where it killed 148 people at Garissa University last April, while at the same time it accelerated its attacks on [African Union] forces in Somalia. In addition to ambushing and attacking [African Union Mission in Somalia] supply lines with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the group has begun direct strikes, with deadly effect, on the peacekeeping mission’s forward operating bases. Since June of last year, it has overrun three such bases — in Leego, Janaale, and El Adde — and killed more than 170 soldiers.”  The group was also responsible for the hidden bomb in a laptop that brought down a plane late last year.

     Al-Shabaab is not the only al-Qaeda affiliate to draw attention from the U.S. military recently.  Last week, U.S. forces hit a training camp in Yemen belonging to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) killing 70 fighters.  AQAP is long believed to be the franchise’s most dangerous group responsible for several plots against the west with personnel highly skilled in sophisticated bomb making.  Yemen’s civil war has allowed AQAP to seize greater territory, gain more influence, and begin its redemption at governance following its failed attempts in 2011 and 2012.  During that time the group overstepped its bounds issuing brutal edicts leading to riots (putting to death the myth that al-Qaeda was never interested in governing or taking territory).

     What’s startling about the strikes in Somalia and Yemen is the sheer casualty count.  As Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out this week, the U.S. has conducted 575 counterterrorism strikes in “Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen killing 4,000 people (7 per strike)” over the last decade and a half, while the last two strikes in Somalia and Yemen have killed roughly between 100-150 and 40-70, respectively.

     The counterterrorism approach the Obama administration has displayed consisted of tracking high value individuals and targets of al-Qaeda and executing precision strikes via drones or, in rare cases, raids by Special Operations Forces.  This model was touted as a success by President Obama and used as the template for operations against IS in September 2014.  However, the campaign against IS deviated from the counterterrorism policy previously employed in these regions favoring instead a quasi-war-coutnerterrorism approach.  In other words, the anti-IS efforts employ a combination of training local forces, targeting high value IS targets – both part of the previous counterterrorism policy – but target foot soldiers, cash depots, staging areas, as well as other wide-ranging targets.  The recent strikes in Yemen and Somalia indicate that the administration is taking the threats from these groups seriously – despite the disproportionate media coverage they’ve received – and it is using expanded tactics more along the lines of war and combat operations.

     The U.S. is seemingly changing its own targeting rules in Somalia.  Recent strikes against the group seem to have shifted from just targeting members that were both members of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda core to providing air support for African Union troops, an escalation not addressed by the administration.

     When actions began to ramp up against IS, the administration lifted the rules of engagement from a protection operation to rescue marooned Yazidi minority Iraqis on Mount Sinjar that just targeted certain members of IS, to one that widened targets including IS soldiers and facilities.  “[T]he coalition's strategy to defeat ISIL includes eliminating high value individuals, which can include enemy leaders, commanders of various levels of importance, recruiters or even social media and information technology savvy ISIL members,” a spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the global anti-IS coalition said using a different acronym for the group.  “The United States and its coalition allies and partners are in an armed conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). There are both domestic and international legal bases to use lethal force against those individuals who are determined to be members of ISIL,” another DOD spokesperson added.

      Al-Qaeda has also been active elsewhere.  Last fall, U.S. and Afghan forces disrupted a training camp belonging to the franchise’s newest affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) – that spanned 30 square miles.  It’s still not clear how such a large camp could have operated under the nose of U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan.  “This was really AQIS, and probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war,” former commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Campbell said.

     Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has also executed a series of attacks on hotels in western Africa targeting westerners.  “[T]he group is making a devastating comeback. Until relatively recently, it was best known around the world for kidnapping Westerners in remote parts of the Sahel and using the ransoms to support itself,” the New York Times reported.  “But its recent assaults on three enclaves for expatriates and African elites — in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali — seem to be patterned after the kind of big, shocking terrorist attacks carried out by rival extremist groups like the Islamic State.”  Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Times “For AQIM, this is an evolution in terms of tactics and targeting…It shows a broadening of the group’s appeal and much more staying power than many people thought.”

     Lastly, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), a potentially potent force despite its exclusive Syria-looking focus, has cultivated and gained support of several local rebel militias and citizens.  Many rebel groups partner with JN on the ground for tactical purposes as they share similar tactical goals.  JN was so popular with local groups that when the U.S. designated it a terrorist organization, opposition groups affirmed “we are all al-Nusra.”  However, many believe the group may have overstepped its bounds recently trying to consolidate power, put down dissent, and sow greater support at the peril of disaffecting many.

     “[A] significant terrorist facilitation network likely remains in Europe empowering attacks al Qaeda always dreamed of executing but for which they lacked the operational support capability,” Watts, also a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, wrote regarding IS's capabilities.  “Al Qaeda never successfully mobilized these disaffected young boys to execute a string of attacks on Western targets. Today, the Islamic State’s current and former foreign fighters have come from these disaffected communities on a scale several fold larger than the numbers produced during al Qaeda’s heyday.”  Despite IS’s recent attention and crowdsourced approach, al-Qaeda is quietly increasing its reach and lethality.  In the words of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “[I] cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises that we confront as we do today.”

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