28 Jun 2007

The Condition of Al Qaeda Prime

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Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, writing for the subscription service Stratfor’s Terrorism Intelligence Report, use several metrics to assess the current condition of al Qaeda’s organizational leadership core. The article is quoted in its entirety by Watch n’ Wait.

Al Qaeda’s media branch, As-Sahab, released a statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri to jihadist Internet forums June 25. In it, al Qaeda’s deputy leader urges Muslims to support Palestinian militants by providing weapons and money, and by attacking U.S. and Israeli interests. Although al-Zawahiri’s message is interesting, especially the fact that he urges support for an organization he has criticized heavily in the past, perhaps most telling about the release is that it contains no new video footage of al-Zawahiri himself. …

The fact that al-Zawahiri chose this format rather than the more engaging and visually powerful video format suggests al Qaeda’s apex leaders are feeling the heat of the campaign to locate and eliminate them. Although many people believe the al Qaeda leadership operates as it pleases along the Pakistani-Afghan border, evidence suggests otherwise.

Last week’s Terrorism Intelligence Report discussed the campaign conducted by the United States and its allies against al Qaeda’s regional and local nodes. Though these efforts have been under way in many parts of the globe, the United States and its partners have been pursuing a concurrent campaign against al Qaeda’s apex leadership, al Qaeda prime. Like the campaign against the regional nodes, the effort against the prime node employs all of the five prongs of the U.S. counterterrorism arsenal: military power, intelligence, economic sanctions, law enforcement operations and diplomacy.

The overall success of this campaign against al Qaeda prime has been hard to measure because there are few barometers for taking al Qaeda’s pulse. By its nature it is a secretive and nebulous organization that, in order to survive, has taken great pains to obscure its operations — especially since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that flushed its leaders from their comfortable and well-appointed refuge inside the Taliban’s Islamic republic.

While bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have escaped U.S.-led efforts to locate them, a large number of second-tier leaders and operatives have been captured or killed. This means the group’s organizational chart has been altered dramatically below the top rung, making it difficult to determine the quality of the individuals who have been tapped to fill in the gaps. … with so many unknown players filling critical positions, it is difficult to determine precisely how much the attrition has affected the prime node’s ability to plan and execute attacks.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that their operational ability has been diminished. The group has not launched an attack using an al Qaeda “all-star team” since 9/11. Meanwhile, outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, the attacks conducted by its regional nodes, or by regional nodes working with operational commanders sent from al Qaeda prime, have decreased in frequency and impact over the past several months. The first six months of 2007 have been quieter than the first six months of 2006 and far more peaceful that the last six months of 2005. And, not to downplay the loss of life in London, Madrid, Bali and other places, but in terms of numbers, the death tolls and financial impacts of all those attacks do not hold a candle to the 9/11 attacks — even when many of them are combined.

Beyond the personnel losses al Qaeda has suffered, the loss of its dedicated training facilities in Afghanistan also has changed the way the prime node works. It is less autonomous and far more dependent on the largesse of Pakistani and Afghan feudal lords who control training camps along the border — and who are key to the security of al Qaeda prime. … Another way to gauge the health of the organization, or at least the comfort level of the group’s apex leadership, is by looking at its public relations efforts and the statements it releases to the public. Al Qaeda prime has produced a steady supply of messages in order to keep local nodes — and perhaps more important, grassroots jihadists around the world — motivated. These releases, however, reveal a change over the last several months in the way al Qaeda communicates to the world.

The number of messages from al Qaeda’s two top leaders has fallen, while the use of video has dropped dramatically. Before the October 2006 missile attack in Chingai, Pakistan, 14 out of 15 messages were released in video format; since then, only three of the nine have included video. The switch to an audio format indicates concern about operational security. It also is noteworthy that bin Laden has not been heard from in any format, audio or video, since July 1, 2006 — nearly a year now. All these factors considered, it is apparent that the apex leadership feels threatened.

Read the whole thing.


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