AQAP leader calls for ‘simple’ attacks in the West

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 8, 2017:

Qasim al Raymi, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), wants jihadists in the West to carry out “easy and simple” attacks. His message was delivered in a short video (just over 5 minutes long) that was released online yesterday by AQAP’s propaganda arm, Al Malahem Media.

Raymi addresses the “patient” jihadists “living in the Western countries” and he argues they should be viewed as part of a cohesive, global cause.

“My Mujahid brother, we do not view you as an individual – even though it is referred to as Individual Jihad,” Raymi says. “We rather view you as a group, a brigade, or even an army in itself.”

Raymi says he and others “wish” they “had an army” in the West to carry out operations, but jihadists who act on their own “are that army.”

“And it is important to view yourself from this angle, that you are part of this Ummah [community of worldwide Muslims], a part of this body,” Raymi says. “If any part of the body is not well, then the whole body shares the sleeplessness and fever with it.”

The AQAP chief continues: “We are a single united body, and today this body is in pain in many places. And you are situated in a place where you can harm our enemy. And so it is upon you to carry out that role.”

Raymi emphasizes that the actions of individual jihadists are connected to the wars being fought by their ideological brethren overseas. He notes that their enemies “continuously carry out thousands of operations on a daily basis” and invites Muslims in the West to see themselves as members of the same families struck abroad. “We are a single united body,” Raymi says. “An American Muslims is the same as a Yemeni Muslim, and a Yemeni Muslim is the same as an Australian Muslim. We do not believe in nationalism; we believe in Islam.”

In this context, Raymi mentions a series of wars and clashes that he considers to be a part of the same broader struggle, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the wars in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Syria. Raymi then asks: “If every operation against the Muslims were to be retaliated by a single Muslim living in the West and result[ed] in the killing of many Americans, then what do you think will happen (as a result)?” The goal is to make “the enemy think twice about his actions,” Raymi says.

AQAP forced to praise operations conducted by Islamic State supporters

AQAP was an early innovator when it comes to inspiring individual jihadists to strike on their own without formal training abroad. Other ideologues had espoused the concept previously, but Anwar al Awlaki, an AQAP leader, was the chief advocate of such operations at the time of his death in a US drone strike in Sept. 2011. Awlaki and his comrades founded the English-language Inspire magazine, which is largely devoted to encouraging “lone mujahid” to lash out in the West.

As the Islamic State rose to prominence beginning in 2014, however, AQAP was eclipsed as the main instigator of “lone mujahid” attacks. Many of the small-scale terror plots carried out in recent years have involved supporters of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s caliphate, or were claimed by the Islamic State as the work of its “soldiers.” In some cases, ties to the Islamic State organization are nebulous, or non-existent, but counterterrorism officials have found connections (even if only online) or evidence of inspiration in many cases.

Therefore, Raymi’s speech could be viewed as part of AQAP’s attempt to reclaim the narrative when it comes to inspiring “lone mujahid” attacks. His talk is branded as an “Inspire” production. Still, the Islamic State’s success in amplifying AQAP’s original concept looms large.

Indeed, the only example of an individual jihadist cited by Raymi is Omar Mateen, who repeatedly swore allegiance to Baghdadi during his night of terror in June 2016. Mateen was reportedly exposed to Anwar al Awlaki’s teachings online. But like a number of other individual plotters who were first drawn to AQAP’s messaging, Mateen became infatuated with the idea of striking in the name of the so-called caliphate.

Raymi ignores Mateen’s oath of fealty to Baghdadi, as AQAP has rejected the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration.

“If you sacrifice and expect reward from Allah, then you can do great things,” Raymi says. The AQAP emir continues: “Our brother, Omar Mateen — May Allah accept him and elevate his status high — when he executed his blessed operation…how many smiles do you think he drew on the faces of the widows, orphans and Mujahideen all over? Today, the Muslim Ummah only hears of tragedy after tragedy facing it. Yet it is you who (can) draw a smile in their face. And if making a Muslim smile is a charity, then what about drawing a smile upon thousands and millions of Muslims?” Raymi points to his own smile while making this point. (See the screen shot above.)

Raymi uses the example set by Mateen to draw lessons for his listeners: “Don’t complicate matters, take it easy and simple, the same as our brother Omar Mateen did, he took an AK-47 [sic] and headed towards their gatherings and attacked them.”

“If such operations were to continue whenever there is a tragedy upon Muslims, we will be transferring the tragedy back to them, and it will be an eye for an eye,” Raymi argues.

AQAP has previously praised Omar Mateen’s shooting rampage. The group released an “Inspire Guide” explaining the supposed benefits of the massacre from the jihadists’ perspective. But AQAP also argued that Mateen’s choice of target – a LGBT nightclub in Orlando – confused matters by drawing attention away from the jihadists’ cause.

“The executor [Mateen] specifically chose a homosexual nightclub, and even though the killing of such people is the most binding duty and closer to human nature, [it is better] to avoid targeting areas where minorities are found,” AQAP’s propagandists wrote last year in their “Inspire Guide” for the Orlando attack. AQAP worried that the target took away from the “essence of the operation.” AQAP’s guide continued: “The Western media focused on the testimony by Mateen’s father who said that his son hates homosexuals and the terrorist ideas had no place in his motives. The media reiterated this, saying that Omar saw some homosexuals kissing each other and that such a scene offended him. The media tried to portray the operation motives to be against a particular group of people in order to turn the American public away from the real motives of the operation.”

AQAP also argued that Mateen erred by targeting a nightclub where “most of the individuals present…were Latino.” It “is better to avoid targeting places and crowds where minorities are generally found in America” and jihadists should instead target “areas where the Anglo-Saxon community is generally concentrated,” because this “class of the American community is the majority and it is the one that is in the American leadership.”

This critique of Mateen’s mass murder – that he should have chosen a target that didn’t muddy the jihadist motivation – is entirely missing from Raymi’s speech.

AQAP has, at times, encouraged followers to carry out more targeted slayings. For instance, the 15th issue of Inspire, released in the Spring of 2016, was dedicated to “Professional Assassinations.” The cover story advocated “precision in choosing the target from the beginning to the time of execution,” and the group also published a list of “economic personalities” whose murder would garner much attention. AQAP was behind the targeted strike on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris in Jan. 2015. Inspire had previously listed Charlie Hebdo’s employees as legitimate targets, because they had supposedly offended Islam.

To be sure, AQAP has promoted less precise attacks throughout its history, including first advocating the use of trucks and other vehicles in indiscriminate killings. And the “Professional Assassinations” edition of Inspire also contained an article encouraging the use of knives in attacks inside the US (“O Knife Revolution, Head Towards America”), just as they have been employed against Jews in Israel.

But AQAP has also been encouraging followers to pursue more complex operations, such as using magnetic car bombs against high-profile individuals. AQAP may very well continue to provide innovative terrorist ideas along these lines, but it is telling that Raymi avoids all of this, telling would-be followers not to “complicate matters, take it easy and simple.”

In addition to the June 2016 Orlando massacre, AQAP has praised other attacks that were inspired, or claimed by the Islamic State.

For example, in Inspire and the Inspire Guides, AQAP has lauded: the truck attack on Bastille Day in Nice, France last year; the Sept. 2016 stabbings at a mall in Minnesota; and the vehicular assault near the British parliament in March.

In another Inspire Guide, Raymi’s men decried the arrests of women who were allegedly preparing to carry out a jihadist operation in France on behalf Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate. AQAP advised “brothers in the west not to allow our Muslim sisters to participate in any lone jihad operation” – a recommendation some in the Islamic State’s network are likely to ignore. AQAP has also endorsed the bombings in New Jersey and New York last September. The bombings were carried out by a jihadist who cited Osama bin Laden, Awlaki and the Islamic State’s spokesman in his notebook. It was that same spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, who helped the Islamic State amplify AQAP’s “lone mujahid” concept by stressing the necessity of striking in the name of the so-called caliphate.

Therefore, AQAP has been forced to praise terrorist anti-Western attacks carried out in the name of their rivals in the Islamic State. This cannot sit well with Raymi and the al Qaeda loyalists around him.

Raymi’s video is a rare, direct appeal by the AQAP leader to jihadists in the West. He clearly seeks to move AQAP back into the fore of the “lone mujahid” effort.

“If you are true to Allah and seek his assistance, then he will never neglect you,” Raymi tells his audience. “You will be greatly rewarded for [alleviating] the distrust of your Mujahideen brothers everywhere and be an example of brotherhood and the spirit of unity.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Al-Qaeda to Muslims: An American ‘at Your Doorstep’ Is ‘a Test to Your Faith and Loyalty’

Qasim al-Raymi (Al-Malahem Media)

PJ Media, by Bridget Johnson, May 2, 2017:

As ISIS is losing territory in Iraq and Syria but al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula maintains its strength, AQAP’s chief stressed that all jihadists “pious and immoral” are considered their “brothers” in the face of the common enemy, America and its allies.

Qasim al-Raymi, the 38-year-old leader of the Yemeni terror group, began the interview, distributed in English online, with AQAP’s Al-Malahem Media talking about the January raid by U.S. forces on one of their compounds, which he said confirmed “we are confronting a spiteful, criminal and crusade enemy.”

“What America is doing in the era of Trump is a clear sign of their accumulated failure in the American administration,” al-Raymi said. “Consecutive administrations have failed and continue to fail in confronting mujahideen.”

SEAL Team 6 led the operation in a Yaklaa district compound soon after President Trump took office. U.S. officials said 14 enemy fighters were killed, including some women. One Navy SEAL was killed — Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, 36, of Peoria, Ill. — and three were wounded, and one MV-22 Osprey was destroyed by a U.S. strike after it crash-landed during evacuation.

Yemenis said there were multiple civilian casualties, including the 8-year-old daughter of late al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico. A U.S. Central Command review team “concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of a firefight” during the raid, and “casualties may include children.”

The administration said significant intelligence was retrieved during the raid; al-Raymi dismissed the claim as “just mere attempts to cover their failure.”

As is customary for al-Qaeda, al-Raymi said they reviewed the details and results of the raid to compile some new unclassified guidance for jihadists: “Not less than two people in a shift” for guard duty. Planning ahead for nighttime defensive scenarios. “No one should leave his stationed place during combat, as planes above him could detect him. One should fight in his stationed place,” he added.

The leader also advised “planting bombs and mines in a circular motion and away from the place of keeping guard, the station and away from shelter,” and “leaving the enemy to advance until he reaches the place of ambush and sphere of combat.”

“There is no Muslim who sees America violating sanctity, killing children and women and yet hesitates in fighting them,” al-Raymi added. “If an American comes at your doorstep, that is by all means a test to your faith and loyalty. Therefore, this is a golden chance to avenge your fellow Muslims by this American soldier who practices crime against the Muslim nation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and among other Islamic countries… the mujahideen do not let the crimes of America pass by without consequences.”

The United Arab Emirates, which conducted the raid alongside U.S. forces, was also on the AQAP chief’s hit list. “They cooperate and contribute with the Americans constantly,” he said. “They too are held responsible for these crimes.”

Al-Raymi claimed the UAE “wants to entirely implement the American project in Yemen” and control ports and islands with oil reserves there while “striving to be the ultimate soldier in the region to his master America.”

“We noticed that the first visit of the minister of American defense was to Emirates,” he said. “Whatever the western crusade wants is conducted by the Arabs who claim Islam.”

“There is no greater evidence to this than Dubai itself… hotels of indecency and the loss of Islamic identity.”

He praised al-Qaeda’s ally, the Taliban, as a good example for incorporating Islamic scholars into the ranks of mujhideen as “this is what keeps their jihad steady and keeps it away from any deviation and aberration.”

As for other terror groups: “We treat and deal with them according to Islam and attributes of sharia. And any Muslim whatsoever is our brother. We today face a crusade war that does not determine anyone on its way. Defensive jihad does not stipulate any condition. We are ready to aid and protect any Muslim and fight together with all Muslims as one… Jihad is with all, pious and immoral.”

Al-Qaeda, the terror chief said, is not “after leadership” in regions it strives to conquer but “our main goal is to be governed by the Islamic Sharia.”

“As for the mujahideen elsewhere, we sent to them our greetings and best regards,” al-Raymi added. “Our brothers in Khorasan in the Islamic state under the leadership of [Taliban leader] Sheikh Al-Mawlawi Hiibatu Allah Akhandzaada, and our brothers in Chechnya, Turkistan, Sham [Syria], Islamic Maghreb, beloved Somalia, Palestine and elsewhere.”

Also see:

What’s really behind Trump’s laptop ban

Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, detonated a laptop bomb on this Daallo Airlines aircraft in February 2016.

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, March 23, 2017:

More than 15 years after the September 11 hijackings, the U.S. government has issued yet another warning about airline security. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced new restrictions on electronics brought on board certain U.S.-bound flights. Passengers on planes leaving from 10 airports throughout the Middle East and North Africa will no longer be able to carry laptops or similar electronics with them into the cabin of the plane. Cell phones and smaller electronics are unaffected by the new measures, but computers will have to be checked in luggage.

The move instantly generated controversy and questions. Namely, why now? Some dismissed the DHS announcement as a protectionist move aimed at boosting the futures of U.S. carriers, who have complained of unfair competition from Gulf airlines for years. Twitter wags called it a “Muslim laptop ban,” whose secret aim was to discourage travel from the Arab world. But by now it should be clear that the new restrictions are deadly serious, even if there are legitimate questions about how it is being implemented.

Initial press reports, including by the New York Times, cited anonymous officials as saying that the restrictions were not a response to new intelligence. But the DHS announcement implies otherwise. One question on the DHS web site reads, “Did new intelligence drive a decision to modify security procedures?” The answer: “Yes, intelligence is one aspect of every security-related decision.” The British government’s quick decision to follow suit also suggests that something new is afoot here.

Subsequent reports from CNN and The Daily Beast indicate that intelligence collected during a U.S. Special Forces raid in Yemen in January led to the restrictions. That is possible. The raid was highly controversial, but the Trump administration argues the costs were worth it because the U.S. learned key details about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) plotting. A Navy SEAL perished during the operation, as did a number of women and children. Within hours, jihadists began circulating a photo of an adorable little girl who died in the crossfire. The girl was the daughter of Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni-American al Qaeda ideologue killed in a September 2011 drone strike. Al Qaeda immediately called for revenge in her name.

Whether new intelligence led to the decision or not, we already know for certain that al Qaeda has continued to think up ways to terrorize the skies. For years, Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere have been experimenting with sophisticated explosives that can be smuggled onto planes.

DHS points to the “attempted airliner downing in Somalia” in February 2016 as one reason for ongoing concerns. That bombing was carried out by al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia. Al Shabaab attempted to justify the failed attack by claiming “Western intelligence officials” were on board the flight, but that excuse may be a cover for something more sinister.

Some U.S. officials suspect that al Qaeda’s elite bomb makers wanted to test one of their newest inventions, a lightweight explosive disguised as a laptop that is difficult to detect with normal security procedures. At the very least, Shabaab’s attack demonstrated that al Qaeda has gotten closer to deploying a laptop-sized explosive that can blow a hole in jetliners. While no one other than the terrorist who detonated the bomb was killed, the plane was left with a gaping hole in its side.

Al Qaeda-linked terrorists have tested their contraptions before. In December 1994, a bomb was detonated on board a Philippine Airlines flight, killing one of the passengers and severely damaging the plane. The device was implanted by Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Yousef planned to blow up several airliners at once as part of “Project Bojinka” and he wanted to try out his invention beforehand. Authorities ultimately scuttled his plot, but al Qaeda didn’t forget Yousef’s idea. Instead, the terrorist organization returned to it again in 2006, when a similar plan targeting jets leaving London’s Heathrow Airport was foiled.

Al Qaeda’s failure in 2006 didn’t dissuade the group from pressing forward with a version of Yousef’s original concept, either.

In September 2014, the U.S. began launching airstrikes against an al Qaeda cadre in Syria described by the Obama administration as the “Khorasan Group.” There was some initial confusion over what the Khorasan Group really is, with some opining that it was simply invented by American officials to justify bombings, or a separate terror entity altogether. In reality, it was simply a collection of al Qaeda veterans and specialists who were ordered by the group’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, to begin laying the groundwork in Syria for operations against the West.

As far as we know, the Khorasan Group never did attempt to strike the U.S. or Europe. Perhaps this is because a number of its leaders and members were killed in the drone campaign. But there is an additional wrinkle in the story: Zawahiri didn’t give his men the final green light for an operation. Instead, Zawahiri wanted the Khorasan cohort to be ready when called upon. In the meantime, al Qaeda didn’t want an attack inside the West to jeopardize its primary goal in Syria, which is toppling Bashar al Assad’s regime.

The Islamic State gets all the headlines, but Al Qaeda has quietly built its largest guerrilla army ever in Syria, with upwards of 10,000 or more men under its direct command. The group formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra merged with four other organizations to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria”) in January. Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee months earlier, in June 2016, that Nusra was already al Qaeda’s “largest formal affiliate in history” with “direct ties” to Zawahiri. The merger gives al Qaeda control over an even larger force.

Al Qaeda could easily repurpose some of these jihadists for an assault in Europe, or possibly the U.S., but has chosen not to thus far. That is telling. Zawahiri and his lieutenants calculated that if Syria was turned into a launching pad for anti-Western terrorism, then their efforts would draw even more scrutiny. At a time when the U.S. and its allies were mainly focused on ISIS, al Qaeda’s potent rival, Zawahiri determined the West could wait.

But Zawahiri’s calculation with respect to Syria could change at any time. And the organization maintains cadres elsewhere that are still plotting against the U.S. and its interests.

The Khorasan Group included jihadists from around the globe, including men trained by AQAP’s most senior bomb maker, a Saudi known as Ibrahim al Asiri. U.S. officials have fingered al Asiri as the chief designer of especially devious explosive devices. Al Asiri has survived multiple attempts to kill him. But even if the U.S. did catch up with al Asiri tomorrow, his expertise would live on. Some of his deputies have trained still others in Syria.

Al Qaeda now has units deployed in several countries that are involved in anti-Western plotting. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.”

The Pentagon regularly announces airstrikes targeting al Qaeda operatives, some of whom, identified as “external” plotters, have an eye on the West. Incredibly, more than a decade and a half after the 9/11 hijackings, al Qaeda members in Afghanistan are still involved in efforts to hit the U.S. In October 2016, for instance, the U.S. struck down Farouq al Qahtani in eastern Afghanistan. The Defense Department explained that Qahtani was “one of the terrorist group’s senior plotters of attacks against the United States.”

Meanwhile, ISIS has also proven it is capable of downing an airliner. Thus far, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men have used low-tech means. In October 2015, the so-called caliphate’s Sinai province claimed the bombing of a Russian airliner. If the group’s propaganda is accurate, then a Schweppes Gold soft drink can filled with explosives and equipped with a detonator led to the deaths of all 224 people on board. This beverage bomb was a far cry from the sleek explosives al Qaeda’s bomb makers have been experimenting with, but it was effective nonetheless. All it required was proper placement next to a fuel line or some other sensitive point in the airliner’s infrastructure. ISIS could have more sophisticated bomb designs in the pipeline as well.

The truth is that the threat to airliners isn’t going away any time soon. However, this doesn’t mean that every counterterrorism measure intended to protect passengers is the right one. Some quickly questioned the Trump administration’s policy. Why does it impact only flight carriers in some countries? Were security measures found to be lax in some airports, but not others? Why is the threat of a laptop bomb mitigated if it is in checked luggage, as opposed to on board the plane? And what about the possibility of al Qaeda or ISIS slipping a bomb onto connecting flights, before the planes head for the U.S. homeland?

These are all good questions that should be asked. And the Trump administration should answer them.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Also see:

Report: Intel for Carry-on Electronics Ban Came from Yemen Raid

Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, March 10, 2017

Editor’s note: On March 9, Thomas Joscelyn testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The hearing, “Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy,” was called to explore the political dynamics of the ongoing war in Yemen, as well as the roles played by foreign actors and al Qaeda. His written testimony can be read below. A version of Mr. Joscelyn’s testimony with footnotes can be found here.

Senator Corker and other members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen. Unfortunately, I do not see a way that this conflict can be resolved any time soon. Yemen is rife with internal divisions, which are exacerbated by the proxy war being waged by several actors. Arab states, Iran, and others see Yemen as a key battleground in their contest for regional power. In addition, al Qaeda has taken advantage of the crisis to pursue its chief objective, which is seizing territory and building an emirate inside the country.

I discuss these various actors in my written testimony below and look forward to answering your questions.

The Iranian-backed Houthi offensive has significantly undermined U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Governance in Yemen has been a longstanding problem. But the Houthi offensive in late 2014 knocked President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from power at a time when the U.S. was counting on his government to act as a vital counterterrorism partner.

There is a debate over how close the Houthis and Iran really are. Some have argued that the Houthis should not be thought of as an Iranian terror proxy, such as Hezbollah. While this accurate – the Houthis have their own culture and traditions – there is no question that Iran and the Houthis are allies. And it is in Iran’s interest to work with the Houthis against Saudi-backed forces in Yemen, while also encouraging Houthi incursions into the Saudi kingdom.

The U.S. government has long recognized Iran as one of the Houthis’ two key backers. (The other being former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his network, which is discussed below.) In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, the State Department noted:

Iran actively supported members of the Houthi tribe in northern Yemen, including activities intended to build military capabilities, which could pose a greater threat to security and stability in Yemen and the surrounding region. In July 2012, the Yemeni Interior Ministry arrested members of an alleged Iranian spy ring, headed by a former member of the IRGC.

That warning proved to be accurate, as the Houthis made significant gains just over two years later. The U.S. and its allies have intercepted multiple Iranian arms shipments reportedly intended for the Houthis. And senior U.S. officials have repeatedly referenced Iran’s ongoing assistance. Late last year, Reuters reported that “Iran has stepped up weapons transfers to the Houthis,” including “missiles and small arms.”

In September 2015, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter listed America’s “core interests in the region.” Among them, according to Carter, was “supporting Saudi Arabia in protecting its territory and people from Houthi attacks, and supporting international efforts to prevent Iranian shipments of lethal equipment from reaching Houthi and Saleh-affiliated forces in Yemen.” The Houthis have responded by launching missiles at American ships, as well as ships operated by other countries.

Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his supporters have worked to undermine President Hadi’s’s government.

Former President Saleh and his son have allied with the Houthis to thwart any chance of having a stable political process inside Yemen. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Saleh and two Houthi military commanders in 2014, describing them as “political spoilers.” Saleh became “one of the primary supporters of violence perpetrated by” the Houthis as of the fall of 2012, and has provided them with “funds and political support.” Then, in April 2015, Treasury sanctioned Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh. The junior Saleh was commander of Yemen’s Republican Guard, but was removed from that post by Hadi. Still, Ahmed Ali Saleh “retained significant influence within the Yemeni military, even after he was removed from command.” And he has “played a key role in facilitating the Houthi military expansion.”

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is attempting to build an Islamic state in Yemen.

Al Qaeda is working to build Islamic emirates in several countries and regions, including Afghanistan, North and West Africa, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Unlike its rivals in the Islamic State (or ISIS), al Qaeda has adopted a long-term approach for state-building. While AQAP has begun to implement its version of sharia law in Yemen, it has not advertised the most gruesome aspects of its draconian code for fear of alienating the population. Still, AQAP controlled much of southern Yemen from April 2015 to April 2016, including the port city of Mukallah, where it reportedly earned substantial revenues via taxes. AQAP’s forces simply melted away when the Arab-led coalition entered Mukallah and other areas. By doing so, AQAP presented itself as a protector of the local population and lived to fight another day. The group is capable of seizing more territory at any time.

AQAP isn’t just an “affiliate” of al Qaeda; it is al Qaeda.

In addition to being a regional branch of al Qaeda’s international organization, AQAP has housed senior al Qaeda managers who are tasked with responsibilities far outside of Yemen. For example, Nasir al Wuhayshi (who was killed in 2015) served as both AQAP’s emir and as al Qaeda’s general manager. At the time of his death, Wuhayshi was the deputy emir of al Qaeda’s global operations.

Beginning in 2014, the Islamic State (or ISIS), mushroomed in size after declaring the establishment of its so-called caliphate across a large part of Iraq and Syria. Some predicted, erroneously, that AQAP would defect to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s cause in the event that Wuhayshi was killed. That prediction was based on a stunning ignorance of AQAP’s organization and implicitly assumed that AQAP’s loyalty to al Qaeda was embodied in a single man. Wuhayshi’s successor, Qasim al Raymi, quickly reaffirmed his and AQAP’s allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri. Al Qaeda veterans and loyalists from a new generation of jihadists are peppered throughout AQAP’s ranks.

The U.S. has killed a number of top AQAP leaders, but the group has effectively replaced them and likely retains a bench of capable fill-ins.

Wuhayshi was one of several senior AQAP leaders killed in the drone campaign in 2015. Others have perished since. But AQAP has quickly filled their positions with other al Qaeda veterans, including Raymi, Ibrahim al Qosi (a former Guantanamo detainee), Ibrahim al Banna (discussed below), and others. Most of AQAP’s insurgency organization, including its middle management, has not been systematically targeted. Therefore, the organization as a whole has not been systematically degraded. AQAP still threatens the West, but most of its resources are devoted to waging the insurgency and building a state inside Yemen. Recently, the U.S. has stepped up its air campaign, launching 40 or more airstrikes against AQAP this month. Those airstrikes are intended, in part, to weaken AQAP’s guerrilla army. But it will require more than bombings to do that. Without an effective government representing most of the Sunni tribes and people, AQAP will continue to position itself as the legitimate ruler in many areas of Yemen.

Al Qaeda has deep roots inside Yemen.

Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al Zawahiri’s men first began to lay the groundwork for al Qaeda’s organization inside Yemen in the early 1990s, if not earlier. Zawahiri himself spent time in Yemen alongside his comrades in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which effectively merged with bin Laden’s operation in the 1990s. Zawahiri, his brother, and their fellow EIJ jihadists established a base of operations in Yemen. One of these EIJ veterans, Ibrahim al Banna, was designated as a senior AQAP leader by the U.S. government late last year. In 1992 or 1993, Zawahiri ordered al Banna to oversee “the administration” of al Qaeda’s “affairs” in Yemen, “opening public relationships with all the students of knowledge and the notables and the tribal sheikhs.” That was more than a quarter of a century ago. Yet al Banna, a co-founder of AQAP, continues to command jihadists inside the country to this day.

Al Qaeda has suffered multiple setbacks inside Yemen since al Banna was first dispatched to the country in the early 1990s. But the jihadists’ patient approach has clearly borne fruit. An unnamed U.S. military official recently explained that AQAP has “skillfully exploited the disorder in Yemen to build its strength and reinvigorate its membership and training.” This same official estimated that AQAP’s total group strength is in the “low thousands,” but warned that because many of its members are Yemeni “they can blend in with the tribes there.”

This assessment of AQAP’s overall strength may or may not be accurate with respect to the total number of deployed fighters. But the U.S. has underestimated the size of jihadist organizations in the past, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. AQAP maintains a deep support network within Yemeni society that allows it to regenerate its forces and continue waging jihad despite fighting on multiple fronts for many years.

The U.S. Treasury Department has outlined parts of AQAP’s fundraising apparatus in a series of terrorist designations. Treasury’s work has highlighted the mix of tribal politics, Gulf fundraising, and local banking that has helped fuel AQAP’s war in Yemen.

Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal that al Qaeda has sought to maintain friendly tribal relations and avoid the mistakes made in Iraq, where the predecessor to the current Islamic State alienated tribal leaders. It is difficult to gauge the extent of ideological support for AQAP’s cause within Yemen’s tribes, but the jihadists do not need key tribes to be completely committed to their cause. While there have been tensions at times, AQAP benefits from the tribes’ frequent unwillingness to back government forces against the jihadists.

Some tribal leaders are closely allied with AQAP, so much so that they have been integrated into the organization’s infrastructure. This has led to an awkward situation in which some of AQAP’s leaders are also partnered with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Hadi’s government in the war against the Houthis. For instance, during a raid against AQAP in January, U.S. forces killed a prominent tribal leader named Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab. The Associated Press (AP), citing “military officials, tribal figures and relatives,” reported that Dhahab met “with the military chief of staff in Hadi’s government” shortly “before the raid.” Fahd al-Qasi, Dhahab’s “top aide,” accompanied Dhahab to the meeting and subsequently confirmed that it took place. “During five days of talks with the military, al-Dhahab — who commands a force of some 800 tribal fighters — was given around 15 million Yemeni riyals ($60,000) to pay his men in the fight against the rebels, al-Qasi and the two officials said,” according to the AP. Al-Qasi “distributed the money to the fighters” just hours before the raid.

AQAP has also benefitted from its longstanding relationship with Shaykh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani and his network. The U.S. Treasury Department first designated Zindani as a terrorist in 2004, describing him as a “loyalist to Usama bin Laden and supporter of al-Qaeda.” In 2013, Treasury said that Zindani was providing “religious guidance” for AQAP’s operations. Zindani has been a prominent leader in Islah, which is a Yemeni political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and Islah have a lengthy history of relations, which had cooled in the not-so-distant past. However, as a result of the Houthis’ successful push across Yemen, Saudi Arabia has embraced Islah once again. Zindani himself has maintained friendly relations with the Saudis.

Zindani is the founder of Al-Iman University, which has served as a jihadist recruiting hub. Some al Qaeda leaders have not always been happy with the elderly ideologue. But one letter recovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound demonstrates why al Qaeda would not publicly criticize him. “To be fair, a significant number of al-Mujahidin who reach the jihadi arena here were instructed or prepared by him, especially the new Russian converts to Islam who moved from Russia to Yemen and stayed for a while at al-Iman University and then moved with their families to the field of Jihad,” a senior al Qaeda leader wrote in March 2008. Whatever disagreements al Qaeda may have had with Zindani at times, he and his broad network have provided valuable support for AQAP’s operations.

The preceding paragraphs above give a brief overview of AQAP’s deep network inside Yemen, demonstrating why it remains a potent force. The Islamic State has also established a much smaller presence inside Yemen. The Islamic State’s men are capable of carrying out large attacks, particularly against soft targets such as funerals and markets. AQAP avoids such operations, seeing them as detrimental to its cause, which is based on building more popular support for the jihadist group.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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Watch the Senate hearing, “Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy”

Also see:

The future of counterterrorism: Addressing the evolving threat to domestic security

joscelynLONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN | February 28, 2017 | tjoscelyn@gmail.com | @thomasjoscelyn

Editor’s note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee Counterterrorism and Intelligence, on the future of counterterrorism and addressing the evolving threat to domestic security.

Chairman King, Ranking Member Rice, and other members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. The terrorist threat has evolved greatly since the September 11, 2001 hijackings. The U.S. arguably faces a more diverse set of threats today than ever. In my written and oral testimony, I intend to highlight both the scope of these threats, as well as some of what I think are the underappreciated risks.

My key points are as follows:

– The U.S. military and intelligence services have waged a prolific counterterrorism campaign to suppress threats to America. It is often argued that because no large-scale plot has been successful in the U.S. since 9/11 that the risk of such an attack is overblown. This argument ignores the fact that numerous plots, in various stages of development, have been thwarted since 2001. Meanwhile, Europe has been hit with larger-scale operations. In addition, the U.S. and its allies frequently target jihadists who are suspected of plotting against the West. America’s counterterrorism strategy is mainly intended to disrupt potentially significant operations that are in the pipeline.

-Over the past several years, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies claim to have struck numerous Islamic State (or ISIS) and al Qaeda “external operatives” in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. These so-called “external operatives” are involved in anti-Western plotting. Had they not been targeted, it is likely that at least some of their plans would have come to fruition. Importantly, it is likely that many “external operatives” remain in the game, and are still laying the groundwork for attacks in the U.S. and the West.

-In addition, the Islamic State and al Qaeda continue to adapt new messages in an attempt to inspire attacks abroad. U.S. law enforcement has been forced to spend significant resources to stop “inspired” plots. As we all know, some of them have not been thwarted. The Islamic State’s caliphate declaration in 2014 heightened the threat of inspired attacks, as would-be jihadists were lured to the false promises of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s cause.

-The Islamic State also developed a system for “remote-controlling” attacks in the West and elsewhere. This system relies on digital operatives who connect with aspiring jihadis via social media applications. The Islamic State has had more success with these types of small-scale operations in Europe. But as I explain in my written testimony, the FBI has uncovered a string of plots inside the U.S. involving these same virtual planners.

-The refugee crisis is predominately a humanitarian concern. The Islamic State has used migrant and refugee flows to infiltrate terrorists into Europe. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda could seek to do the same with respect to the U.S., however, they have other means for sneaking jihadists into the country as well. While some terrorists have slipped into the West alongside refugees, the U.S. should remain focused on identifying specific threats.

-More than 15 years after 9/11, al Qaeda remains poorly understood. Most of al Qaeda’s resources are devoted to waging insurgencies in several countries. But as al Qaeda’s insurgency footprint has spread, so has the organization’s capacity for plotting against the West. On 9/11, al Qaeda’s anti-Western plotting was primarily confined to Afghanistan, with logistical support networks in Pakistan, Iran, and other countries. Testifying before the Senate in February 2016, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper warned that the al Qaeda threat to the West now emanates from multiple countries. Clapper testified that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.” To this list we can add Yemen. And jihadists from Africa have been involved in anti-Western plotting as well. Incredibly, al Qaeda is still plotting against the U.S. from Afghanistan.

Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda continue to seek ways to inspire terrorism inside the U.S. and they are using both new and old messages in pursuit of this goal.

The jihadists have long sought to inspire individuals or small groups of people to commit acts of terrorism for their cause. Individual terrorists are often described as “lone wolves,” but that term is misleading. If a person is acting in the name of a global, ideological cause, then he or she cannot be considered a “lone wolf,” even if the individual in question has zero contact with others. In fact, single attackers often express their support for the jihadists’ cause in ways that show the clear influence of propaganda.

Indeed, al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) first began to aggressively market the idea of “individual” or “lone” operations years ago. AQAP’s Inspire magazine is intended to provide would-be jihadists with everything they could need to commit an attack without professional training or contact. Anwar al Awlaki, an AQAP ideologue who was fluent in English, was an especially effective advocate for these types of plots. Despite the fact that Awlaki was killed in a U.S. airstrike in September 2011, his teachings remain widely available on the internet.

The Islamic State capitalized on the groundwork laid by Awlaki and AQAP. In fact, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s operation took these ideas and aggressively marketed them with an added incentive. Al Qaeda has told its followers that it wants to eventually resurrect an Islamic caliphate. Beginning in mid-2014, the Islamic State began to tell its followers that it had already done so in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate has also instructed followers that it would be better for them to strike inside their home countries in the West, rather than migrate abroad for jihad. The Islamic State has consistently marketed this message.

In May 2016, for instance, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani told followers that if foreign governments “have shut the door of hijrah [migration] in your faces,” then they should “open the door of jihad in theirs,” meaning in the West. “Make your deed a source of their regret,” Adnani continued. “Truly, the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here; it is more effective for us and more harmful to them.”

“If one of you wishes and strives to reach the lands of the Islamic State,” Adnani told his audience, “then each of us wishes to be in your place to make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbor fears his neighbor.” Adnani told jihadists that they should “not make light of throwing a stone at a crusader in his land,” nor should they “underestimate any deed, as its consequences are great for the mujahidin and its effect is noxious to the disbelievers.”

The Islamic State continued to push this message after Adnani’s death in August 2016.

In at least several cases, we have seen individual jihadists who were first influenced by Awlaki and AQAP gravitate to the Islamic State’s cause. Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife were responsible for the December 2, 2015 San Bernardino massacre. They pledged allegiance to Baghdadi on social media, but Farook had drawn inspiration from Awlaki and AQAP’s Inspire years earlier.

Omar Mateen swore allegiance to Baghdadi repeatedly on the night of his assault on a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. However, a Muslim who knew Mateen previously reported to the FBI that Mateen was going down the extremist path. He told the FBI in 2014 that Mateen was watching Awlaki’s videos. It was not until approximately two years later, in early June 2016, that Mateen killed 49 people and wounded dozens more in the name of the supposed caliphate.

Ahmad Khan Rahami, the man who allegedly planted bombs throughout New York and New Jersey in September 2016, left behind a notebook. In it, Rahami mentioned Osama bin Laden, “guidance” from Awlaki, an also referenced Islamic State spokesman Adnani. Federal prosecutors wrote in the complaint that Rahami specifically wrote about “the instructions of terrorist leaders that, if travel is infeasible, to attack nonbelievers where they live.” This was Adnani’s key message, and remains a theme in Islamic State propaganda.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has alleged that other individuals who sought to support the Islamic State were first exposed to Awlaki’s teachings as well.

These cases demonstrate that the jihadis have developed a well of ideas from which individual adherents can draw, but it may take years for them to act on these beliefs, if they ever act on them at all. There is no question that the Islamic State has had greater success of late in influencing people to act in its name. But al Qaeda continues to produce recruiting materials and to experiment with new concepts for individual attacks as well.

Al Qaeda and its branches have recently called for revenge for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who died in a U.S. prison earlier this month. Rahman was convicted by a U.S. court for his involvement in plots against New York City landmarks in the mid-1990s. Since then, al Qaeda has used Rahman’s “will” to prophesize his death and to proactively blame the U.S. for it. Approximately 20 years after al Qaeda first started pushing this theme, Rahman finally died. Al Qaeda’s continued use of Rahman’s prediction, which is really just jihadist propaganda, demonstrates how these groups can use the same concepts for years, whether or not the facts are consistent with their messaging. Al Qaeda also recently published a kidnapping guide based on old lectures by Saif al Adel, a senior figure in the group. Al Adel may or may not be currently in Syria. Al Qaeda is using his lectures on kidnappings and hostage operations as a way to potentially teach others how to carry them out. The guide was published in both Arabic and English, meaning that al Qaeda seeks an audience in the West for al Adel’s designs.

Both the Islamic State and AQAP also continue to produce English-language magazines for online audiences. The 15th issue of Inspire, which was released last year, provided instructions for carrying out “professional assassinations.” AQAP has been creating lists of high-profile targets in the U.S. and elsewhere that they hope supporters will use in selecting potential victims. AQAP’s idea is to maximize the impact of “lone” attacks by focusing on wealthy businessmen or other well-known individuals. AQAP has advocated for, and praised, indiscriminate attacks as well. But the group has critiqued some attacks (such as the Orlando massacre at a LGBT nightclub) for supposedly muddying the jihadists’ message. AQAP is trying to lay the groundwork for more targeted operations. For example, the January 2015 assault on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris was set in motion by al Qaeda and AQAP. Inspire even specifically identified the intended victims beforehand. Al Qaeda would like individual actors, with no foreign ties, to emulate such precise hits.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has lowered the bar for what is considered a successful attack, pushing people to use cars, knives, or whatever weapons they can get in their hands. The Islamic State claimed that both the September 2016 mall stabbings in Minnesota and the vehicular assault at Ohio State University in November 2016 were the work of its “soldiers.” It may be the case that there were no digital ties between these attackers and the Islamic State. However, there is often more to the story of how the Islamic State guides such small-scale operations.

The Islamic State has sought to carry out attacks inside the U.S. via “remote-controlled” terrorists.

A series of attacks in Europe and elsewhere around the globe have been carried out by jihadists who were in contact, via social media applications, with Islamic State handlers in Syria and Iraq. The so-called caliphate’s members have been able to remotely guide willing recruits through small-scale plots that did not require much sophistication. These plots targeted victims in France, Germany, Russia, and other countries. In some cases, terrorists have received virtual support right up until the moment of their attack. The Islamic State has had more success orchestrating “remote-controlled” plots in Europe, but the jihadist group has also tried to carry out similar plots inside the U.S.

Read more

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Homeland Security Committee:

Multiple terrorist networks actively plot attacks against the United States, and American interests, or encourage adherents to conduct inspired attacks inside the U.S Homeland without specific direction. Though significant progress has been made in improving American counterterrorism efforts since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, challenges persist. Over the last several years, the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence (CT&I) has continually worked to identify and address these weaknesses and improve U.S. domestic security. This hearing provides an opportunity to examine the continued evolution of the terrorist threat and review recommendations for improvement from national security experts.

OPENING STATEMENTS

Rep. Pete King (R-NY), Subcommittee Chairman
Opening Statement

WITNESSES

Mr. Edward F. Davis
Chief Executive Officer
Edward Davis, LLC
Witness Testimony

Mr. Thomas Joscelyn
Senior Fellow
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy
Witness Testimony

Mr. Robin Simcox
Margaret Thatcher Fellow
Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy
The Heritage Foundation
Witness Testimony

Mr. Peter Bergen
Vice President, Director
International Security and Fellows Programs
New American
Witness Testimony

US strikes three radar sites in Houthi-controlled part of Yemen

07b471aabad84e558627fb4f9d68508b_18Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, October 14, 2016:

The US has launched missiles against three radar sites in the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen. The strikes came in response to two attacks on the USS Mason, which operates in international waters off the Red Sea coast of Yemen. The Houthis are also thought to have fired rockets at an United Arab Emirates military vessel earlier this month.

The US military “targeted radar sites involved in the recent missile launches threatening USS Mason and other vessels operating in international waters in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb,” according to a statement by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. The Bab al-Mandeb is a strait located between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. “These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway,” Cook continued.

Cook added that the “United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb, and elsewhere around the world.”

Separately, the US Navy released a video, just over one minute long, of the USS Nitze launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at the radar sites. The cruise missile were fired just hours after the USS Mason was forced to respond to an incoming missile for the second time this week. No one was injured in the failed missile attacks, but the USS Mason had to employ “defensive countermeasures.”

The Houthi rebels in Yemen have been backed by Iran. And their rise to power in the country was a blow to the US government’s counterterrorism strategy. The Obama administration relied on President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government as a key, on the ground partner in the fight against al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

But in late 2014 and early 2015, the Houthis seized large swaths of Yemen from Hadi’s government. AQAP capitalized on the instability by launching its own offensive throughout the southern part of the country. The al Qaeda branch controlled contiguous territory along the coast from April 2015 until April 2016, when an Arab-led coalition moved to dislodge the jihadis. AQAP’s fighters slipped away from strategic locations, such as the port city of Mukalla, in order to fight another day. AQAP portrayed the move as an effort to protect local residents and civilian institutions, such as mosques and markets, from the ravages of war.

Subsequently, Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza released an audio message in which he accused Saudi Arabia of attacking al Qaeda’s men at a time when they were “preoccupied” with the Houthis. Hamza portrayed the ground assault launched by the Saudi-led coalition that entered Mukalla as boon to the Houthis, even though the Saudis are opposed to the Houthis’ expansion.

In addition to AQAP, the Islamic State took advantage of the turmoil in Yemen by establishing a small upstart branch comprised of AQAP defectors and others.

The State Department has formally accused Iran of backing the Houthis. In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, State said that “Iran actively supported members of the Houthi tribe in northern Yemen, including activities intended to build military capabilities, which could pose a greater threat to security and stability in Yemen and the surrounding region.” The report also cited an incident from July 2012, when Yemen’s Interior Ministry “arrested members of an alleged Iranian spy ring, headed by a former member of the IRGC” (Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps).

However, Foggy Bottom dropped the language about Iran’s sponsorship of the Houthis from the 2015 version of Country Reports on Terrorism. Asked why similar language was not included in the report for 2015, acting coordinator for counterterrorism Justin Siberell responded: “There’s a serious concern about Iran’s activities in Yemen, yes.”

In February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper delivered the US Intelligence Community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to Congress. Clapper noted that Iran “continues to back the [Houthis],” has shipped “lethal aid” to them, and referred to the “Iranian-backed [Houthi] insurgency.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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Russian media reporting:

Also see:

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda fights on

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn Sept. 11, 2016:

All appeared lost for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in December 2001. In the years leading up to the 9/11 hijackings, bin Laden believed that the US was a “paper tiger” and would retreat from the Muslim majority world if al Qaeda struck hard enough. The al Qaeda founder had good reasons to think this. American forces withdrew from Lebanon after a series of attacks in the early 1980s and from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” episode in 1993. The US also did not respond forcefully to al Qaeda’s August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, or the USS Cole bombing in October 2000.

But bin Laden’s strategy looked like a gross miscalculation in late 2001. An American-led invasion quickly overthrew the Taliban’s regime just weeks after 19 of bin Laden’s men hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Some of al Qaeda’s most senior figures were killed in American airstrikes. With al Qaeda’s foes closing in, bin Laden ordered his men to retreat to the remote Tora Bora Mountains. Here, bin Laden must have thought, al Qaeda would make its last stand. The end was nigh.

Except it wasn’t.

Bin Laden slithered away, eventually making his way to Abbottabad, Pakistan. When Navy SEALs came calling more than nine years later, in early May 2011, the world looked very different.

Documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound reveal that he and his lieutenants were managing a cohesive global network, with subordinates everywhere from West Africa to South Asia. Some US intelligence officials assumed that bin Laden was no longer really active. But Bin Laden’s files demonstrated that this view was wrong.

Writing in The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qa’ida to ISIS, former CIA official Mike Morell explains how the Abbottabad cache upended the US intelligence community’s assumptions regarding al Qaeda. “The one thing that surprised me was that the analysts made clear that our pre-raid understanding of Bin Laden’s role in the organization had been wrong,” Morell writes. “Before the raid we’d thought that Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was running the organization on a day-to-day basis, essentially the CEO of al Qaeda, while Bin Laden was the group’s ideological leader, its chairman of the board. But the DOCEX showed something quite different. It showed that Bin Laden himself had not only been managing the organization from Abbottabad, he had been micromanaging it.”*

Consider some examples from the small set of documents released already.

During the last year and a half of his life, Osama bin Laden: oversaw al Qaeda’s “external work,” that is, its operations targeting the West; directed negotiations with the Pakistani state over a proposed ceasefire between the jihadists and parts of the government; ordered his men to evacuate northern Pakistan for safe havens in Afghanistan; instructed Shabaab to keep its role as an al Qaeda branch secret and offered advice concerning how its nascent emirate in East Africa should be run; received status reports on his fighters’ operations in at least eight different Afghan provinces; discussed al Qaeda’s war strategy in Yemen with the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other subordinates; received updates from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, including details on a proposed truce with the government of Mauritania; authorized the relocation of veteran jihadists to Libya, where they could take advantage of the uprising against Muammar al Qaddafi’s regime; corresponded with the Taliban’s leadership; and generally made decisions that impacted al Qaeda’s operations everywhere around the globe.

Again, these are just a handful of examples culled from the publicly-available files recovered in bin Laden’s compound. The overwhelming majority of these documents remain classified and, therefore, unavailable to the American public.

Al Qaeda has grown under Zawahiri’s tenure

The story of how bin Laden’s role was missed should raise a large red flag. Al Qaeda is still not well-understood and has been consistently misjudged. Not long after bin Laden was killed, a meme spread about his successor: Ayman al Zawahiri. Many ran with the idea that Zawahiri is an ineffectual and unpopular leader who lacked bin Laden’s charisma and was, therefore, incapable of guiding al Qaeda’s global network. This, too, was wrong.

There is no question that the Islamic State, which disobeyed Zawahiri’s orders and was disowned by al Qaeda’s “general command” in 2014, has cut into al Qaeda’s share of the jihadist market and undermined the group’s leadership position. But close observers will notice something interesting about al Qaeda’s response to the Islamic State’s challenge. Under Zawahiri’s stewardship, al Qaeda grew its largest paramilitary force ever.

Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, warned about the rise of Al Nusrah Front during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 28. “With direct ties to Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor, Nusra[h] is now al [Qaeda’s] largest formal affiliate in history,” McGurk said. US officials previously contacted by The Long War Journal said Nusrah could easily have 10,000 or more fighters in its ranks.

It is worth repeating that Nusrah grew in size and stature, while being openly loyal to Zawahiri, after the Islamic State became its own jihadist menace. Far from being irrelevant, Zawahiri ensured al Qaeda’s survival in the Levant and oversaw its growth.

image-posted-by-tilmidh-usamah-bin-ladin-1024x348

On July 28, Al Nusrah Front emir Abu Muhammad al Julani announced that his organization would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or the “Conquest of the Levant Front”) and would have no “no affiliation to any external [foreign] entity.” This was widely interpreted as Al Nusrah’s “break” from al Qaeda. But Julani never actually said that and al Qaeda itself isn’t an “external entity” with respect to Syria as the group moved much of its leadership to the country long ago. Al Nusrah’s rebranding was explicitly approved by Abu Khayr al Masri, one of Zawahiri’s top deputies, in an audio message released just hours prior to Julani’s announcement. Masri was likely inside Syria at the time.

Julani, who was dressed like Osama bin Laden during his appearance (as pictured above), heaped praise on bin Laden, Zawahiri and Masri. “Their blessed leadership has, and shall continue to be, an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group,” Julani said of Zawahiri and Masri.

Most importantly, Al Nusrah’s relaunch as JFS is entirely consistent with al Qaeda’s longstanding strategy in Syria and elsewhere. Al Qaeda never wanted to formally announce its role in the rebellion against Bashar al Assad’s regime, correctly calculating that clandestine influence is preferable to an overt presence for many reasons. This helps explain why Nusrah was never officially renamed as “Al Qaeda in the Levant” in the first place. However, fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, there is such widespread ignorance of al Qaeda’s goals and strategy that Nusrah’s name change is enough to fool many.

Al Qaeda has grown in South Asia as well. In Sept. 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which brought together elements of several existing jihadist organizations. AQIS quickly got to work, attempting to execute an audacious plan that would have used Pakistani arms against American and Indian ships. The plot failed, but revealed that al Qaeda had infiltrated Pakistan’s military.

Pakistani officials recently told the Washington Post that they suspect AQIS has a few thousand members in the city of Karachi alone. And al Qaeda remains closely allied with the Taliban while maintaining a significant presence inside Afghanistan. In October 2015, for instance, Afghan and American forces conducted a massive operation against two large al Qaeda training camps in the southern part of the country. One of the camps was approximately 30 square miles in size. Gen. John F. Campbell, who oversaw the war effort in Afghanistan, explained that the camp was run by AQIS and is “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

With Zawahiri as its emir, al Qaeda raised its “largest formal affiliate in history” in Syria and operated its “largest training” camp ever in Afghanistan. These two facts alone undermine the widely-held assumption that al Qaeda is on death’s door.

Elsewhere, al Qaeda’s other regional branches remain openly loyal to Zawahiri.

From April 2015 to April 2016, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controlled a large swath of territory along Yemen’s southern coast, including the key port city of Mukalla. An Arab-led coalition helped reclaim some of this turf earlier this year, but AQAP’s forces simply melted away, living to fight another day. AQAP continues to wage a prolific insurgency in the country, as does Shabaab across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. Shabaab’s leaders announced their fealty to Zawahiri in February 2012 and remain faithful to him. They have taken a number of steps to stymie the growth of the Islamic State in Somalia and neighboring countries. Shabaab also exports terrorism throughout East Africa, executing a number of high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to operate in West and North Africa, often working in conjunction with front groups. Like al Qaeda’s branches elsewhere, AQIM prefers to mask the extent of its influence, working through organizations such as Ansar al Sharia and Ansar Dine to achieve its goals. Late last year, Al Murabitoon rejoined AQIM’s ranks. Al Murabitoon is led by Mohktar Belmokhtar, who has been reportedly killed on several occasions. Al Qaeda claims that Belmokhtar is still alive and has praised him for rejoining AQIM after his contentious relations with AQIM’s hierarchy in the past. While Belmokhtar’s status cannot be confirmed, several statements have been released in his name in recent months. And Al Murabitoon’s merger with AQIM has led to an increase in high-profile attacks in West Africa.

In sum, AQAP, AQIM, AQIS and Shabaab are formal branches of al Qaeda and have made their allegiance to Zawahiri clear. Jabhat Fath al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusrah, is an obvious al Qaeda project in Syria. Other organizations continue to serve al Qaeda’s agenda as well.

Al Qaeda’s veterans and a “new generation” of jihadist leadership

As the brief summary above shows, Al Qaeda’s geographic footprint has expanded greatly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some US officials argue that al Qaeda has been “decimated” because of the drone campaign and counterterrorism raids. They narrowly focus on the leadership layer of al Qaeda, while ignoring the bigger picture. But even their analysis of al Qaeda’s managers is misleading.

Al Qaeda has lost dozens of key men, but there is no telling how many veterans remain active to this day. Experienced operatives continue to serve in key positions, often returning to the fight after being detained or only revealing their hidden hand when it becomes necessary. Moreover, al Qaeda knew it was going to lose personnel and took steps to groom a new generation of jihadists capable of filling in.

From left to right: Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Abu Khayr al Masri. These photos, first published by the FBI and US intelligence officials, show the al Qaeda leaders when they were younger.

From left to right: Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Abu Khayr al Masri. These photos, first published by the FBI and US intelligence officials, show the al Qaeda leaders when they were younger.

Last year, several veterans were reportedly released from Iran, where they were held under murky circumstances. One of them was Abu Khayr al Masri, who paved the way for Al Nusrah’s rebranding in July. Another is Saif al Adel, who has long been wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. At least two others freed by Iran, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Khalid al Aruri, returned to al Qaeda as well.

Masri, Al Adel, and Aruri may all be based inside Syria, or move back and forth to the country from Turkey, where other senior members are based. Mohammed Islambouli is an important leader within al Qaeda. After leaving Iran several years ago, Islambouli returned to Egypt and eventually made his way to Turkey, where he lives today.

Sitting to Julani’s right during his much ballyhooed announcement was one of Islambouli’s longtime compatriots, Ahmed Salama Mabrouk. The diminutive Mabrouk is another Zawahiri subordinate. He was freed from an Egyptian prison in the wake of the 2011 uprisings.

Al Qaeda moved some of its senior leadership to Syria and several others from this cadre are easy to identify. But al Qaeda has also relied on personnel in Yemen to guide its global network. One of Zawahiri’s lieutenants, Hossam Abdul Raouf, confirmed this in an audio message last October. Raouf explained that the “weight” of al Qaeda has been shifted to Syria and Yemen, because that is where its efforts are most needed.

The American drone campaign took out several key AQAP leaders in 2015, but they were quickly replaced. Qasim al Raymi, who was trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, succeeded Nasir al Wuhayshi as AQAP’s emir last summer. Raymi quickly renewed his allegiance to Zawahiri, whom Raymi described as the “the eminent sheikh” and “the beloved father.” Another al Qaeda lifer, Ibrahim Abu Salih, emerged from the shadows last year. Salih was not public figure beforehand, but he has been working towards al Qaeda’s goals in Yemen since the early 1990s. Ibrahim al Qosi (an ex-Guantanamo detainee) and Khalid al Batarfi have stepped forward to lead AQAP and are probably also part of al Qaeda’s management team.

This old school talent has helped buttress al Qaeda’s leadership cadre. They’ve been joined by men who signed up for al Qaeda’s cause after the 9/11 attacks as well. In July, the US Treasury Department designated three jihadists who are based in Iran. One of them, known as Abu Hamza al Khalidi, was listed in bin Laden’s files as part of a “new generation” of al Qaeda leaders. Today, he plays a crucial role as the head of al Qaeda’s military commission, meaning he is the equivalent of al Qaeda’s defense minister. Treasury has repeatedly identified other al Qaeda members based in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Some members of the “new generation” are more famous than others. Such is the case with Osama’s son,Hamzah bin Laden, who is now regularly featured in propaganda.

This brief survey of al Qaeda is not intended to be exhaustive, yet it is still sufficient to demonstrate that the organization’s bench is far from empty. Moreover, many of the men who lead al Qaeda today are probably unknown to the public.

The threat to the West

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that al Qaeda “nodes in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey” are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.” His statement underscored how the threats have become more geographically dispersed over time. With great success, the US worked for years to limit al Qaeda’s ability to strike the West from northern Pakistan. But today, al Qaeda’s “external operations” work is carried out across several countries.

During the past fifteen years, Al Qaeda has failed to execute another mass casualty attack in the US on the scale of the 9/11 hijackings. Its most recent attack in Europe came in January 2015, when a pair of brothers backed by AQAP conducted a military-style assault on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. AQAP made it clear that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was carried out according to Zawahiri’s orders.

Thanks to vigilance and luck, al Qaeda hasn’t been able to replicate a 9/11-style assault inside the US. Part of the reason is that America’s defenses, as well as those of its partner nations, have improved. Operations such as the 9/11 hijackings are also difficult to carry out in the first place. Even the 9/11 plan experienced interruptions despite a relatively lax security environment. (Most famously, for example, the would-be 20th hijacker was denied entry into the US at an Orlando airport in the summer of 2001.)

But there is another aspect to evaluating the al Qaeda threat that is seldom appreciated. It is widely assumed that al Qaeda is only interested in attacking the West. This is flat false. Most of the organization’s resources are devoted to waging insurgencies in Muslim majority countries.

The story in Syria has been telling. Although al Qaeda may have more resources in Syria than anywhere else, Zawahiri did not order his men to carry out a strike in the West. Al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group” laid the groundwork for such operations, but Zawahiri did not give this cadre the green light to actually carry them out. Zawahiri’s stand down order is well known. In an interview that aired in May 2015, for instance, Julani explained that the “directives that come to us from Dr. Ayman [al Zawahiri], may Allah protect him, are that Al Nusrah Front’s mission in Syria is to topple [Bashar al Assad’s] regime” and defeat its allies. “We have received guidance to not use Syria as a base for attacks against the West or Europe so that the real battle is not confused,” Julani said. However, he conceded that “maybe” the mother al Qaeda organization is plotting against the West, just “not from Syria.” Julani emphasized that this “directive” came from Zawahiri himself.

To date, al Qaeda has not lashed out at the West from inside Syria, even though it is certainly capable of doing so. Al Qaeda’s calculation has been that such an attack would be too costly for its strategic interests. It might get in the way of al Qaeda’s top priority in Syria, which is toppling the Assad regime. This calculation could easily change overnight and al Qaeda could use Syria as a launching pad against the West soon. But they haven’t thus far. It helps explain why there hasn’t been another 9/11-style plot by al Qaeda against the US in recent years. It also partially explains why al Qaeda hasn’t launched another large-scale operation in Europe for some time. Al Qaeda has more resources at its disposal today than ever, so the group doesn’t lack the capability. If Zawahiri and his advisors decided to make anti-Western attack planning more of a priority, then the probability of another 9/11-style event would go up. Even in that scenario, al Qaeda would have to successfully evade the West’s defenses. But the point is that al Qaeda hasn’t been attempting to hit the West nearly as much as some in the West assume.

In the meantime, it is easy to see how the al Qaeda threat has become more diverse, just as Clapper testified. AQAP has launched several thwarted plots aimed at the US, including the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing. In 2009, al Qaeda also plotted to strike trains in the New York City area. In 2010, a Mumbai-style assault in Europe was unraveled by security services. It is not hard to imagine al Qaeda trying something along those lines once again. Other organizations tied to al Qaeda, such as the Pakistani Taliban, have plotted against the US as well.

Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda lives. Fortunately, Zawahiri’s men have not replicated the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. But the al Qaeda threat looms. It would be a mistake to assume that al Qaeda won’t try a large-scale operation again.

*The spellings of al Qaeda and bin Laden are changed in this quote from Morell to make them consistent with the rest of the text.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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Listen to John Batchelor interview Thomas Joscelyn:

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Fifteen Years Later, Al Qaeda Grows