This week has seen a number of debates waged on Twitter and elsewhere regarding the status of the al-Qaeda movement as a whole, as well as the fates of individual franchises. (Mary Habeck’s Foreign Policy piece in particular seemed to set off a number of firestorms.) What all of these discussions indicate is that al-Qaeda’s story is not yet complete, as much of some analysts and politicians would like to wrap it up and move on.
One thing I think most people can agree on is that al-Qaeda is not what it once was. Now, stronger or weaker, larger or smaller, more effective or less effective - these are all open to debate. The al-Qaeda of 2012 is not the al-Qaeda of 2001, though; it, like most long-lasting terrorist groups, has evolved continuously.
That is perhaps why it is so difficult to pin down al-Qaeda’s exact status. It is the eternal problem of political science (and the reason I was convinced to be a history major): by the time you’ve figured out what’s going on, the situation on the ground has changed. At least with history, the facts are static, even if people disagree on how to interpret them.
All of this suggests a couple of things. First, we have to be ever vigilant to understand what al-Qaeda means today (just as we have to be ever vigilant to understand who else to keep an eye on). Second, we have to be intentional about making sure our efforts to counter al-Qaeda are not frozen by what worked yesterday (though carefully studying what actually works versus what we’ve just tried is always a good idea).
I was reminded of the need to stay current on al-Qaeda’s activities by my brief exchange on Twitter with Clint Watts regarding the potential move by elements of al-Shabaab to Yemen. Watts postulated in a blog post on Selected Wisdom that “Somalia’s al-Shabaab merger with al-Qaeda […] represented the relative weakness of both groups over their history,” and that Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane “saw the merger as a means for potentially retreating to Yemen with those Shabaab fighters most devoted to al-Qaeda’s ideology and least tied to clans holding strong positions in Somalia (minority, weak clan members).”
After Watts posted this, I questioned whether or not leaders like Godane might butt heads with AQAP’s bigwigs if Shabaab (or a big part of it) actually moved to Yemen, partially because the merger was officially with the AfPak-based al-Qaeda Central. Watts countered by pointing out that Shabaab’s leaders had made at least four references to AQAP in their merger announcement and other statements, including by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow.
Moreover, Watts argued, the indictment of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame showed a link between al-Shabaab and AQAP that went beyond mere words. Watts essentially makes a similar point on this front that Katherine Zimmerman made last September:
AQAP has […] strengthened its ties to al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant group operating across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. Prior to this summer, the al Shabaab and AQAP public relationship remained limited to rhetorical ties. The indictment of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in the U.S. revealed operational ties between the two terrorist groups. Warsame, who had fought with al Shabaab, trained with AQAP for a year on explosives. He also attempted to negotiate a weapons deal with AQAP for al Shabaab. Somali militants have also been reported in south Yemen fighting under Ansar al Sharia’s name. This relationship between al Shabaab and AQAP may serve as a force multiplier and certainly facilitates the sharing of tactics, techniques, and procedures.
While Watts stated that the “evidence for this hypothesis [that Godane might move Shabaab elements to Yemen] remains scant but continues to emerge,” I still think there’s a potential issue with AQAP’s leaders feeling encroached upon should Shabaab move wholesale into Yemen.
There are a few reasons for my speculation. For one, as Bryan Price points out in his recent International Security article “Targeting Top Terrorists,” terrorist groups are usually insular for security reasons and because they are often dependent on charismatic leaders. Thus, Nasser al-Wahayshi might be more open to having individual Shabaab members working with him than to having co-equal partners - and competitors - in the likes of Godane or other Shabaab higher-ups if the whole group crossed the Gulf of Aden. Similarly, Wahayshi - a former bin Laden secretary - might consider Shabaab part of the newer generation that has strayed too far from the old guard’s ways, or might even fear that the dissent within Shabaab could spread to AQAP itself.
Of course, there are arguments against my supposition as well. AQAP has already shown itself to be open to mergers, arising as it did from a combination of the Saudi and Yemeni wings of al-Qaeda. Wahayshi allegedly corresponded with bin Laden about having Anwar al-Awlaki take over AQAP because of Awlaki’s greater name recognition, so perhaps he doesn’t fear losing his position. Moreover, adding Shabaab’s assets to AQAP’s existing ones (including heavy and light weaponry recently taken from Yemeni military units) might compensate for the loss of Awlaki, who was allegedly the head of AQAP’s Foreign Operations Unit.
It is this question of each group’s role in relation to their short and long term goals that I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around. Would Shabaab’s alliance make AQAP stronger? As Gregory Johnsen pointed out recently, in the last two years estimates of AQAP’s size have already tripled, at a minimum. (I can’t say that’s all due to US intervention in Yemen, as Johnsen implies, but we haven’t always helped either.*) Ansar al-Shariah’s relationship with AQAP remains murky, and I don’t fully see how al-Shabaab would fit in. I’ve argued before that AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah share some goals:
It may be, then, that AS and AQAP are two pincers working together to establish control of areas in Yemen as a springboard for controlling territories elsewhere, unified under the cause of the ummah. It may mean, too, that AQAP and AS together have three approaches to their cause: to attack the far enemy, as they have tried against the US; to attack the near enemy, as they have against Yemeni and Saudi targets, as well as Westerners in Yemen; and to establish emirates under Taliban-like control. Each element could operate quasi-independently while seeking the same purpose.
Including al-Shabaab could potentially complete the trifecta, with each group addressing its part: Shabaab on the far enemy, AQAP on the near one, and Ansar al-Shariah on the emirates. I’m not convinced by that argument, however, particularly Shabaab’s role.
Which leaves me saying simply this: as al-Qaeda changes, we’ll have to study it to see where it goes and how we should address its changes. Al-Qaeda is neither at its strongest nor its weakest point, but it remains constant on one issue: eternal change. The rise of franchises was already a permutation of al-Qaeda’s brand of umbrella organization. The re-organization, combination, or competition of the franchises and affiliated groups could spell either the emergence of a more global and stronger al-Qaeda, or mark the dissent necessary to break up the whole thing.
* I’ve accidentally misrepresented Johnsen here, as he pointed out in a Tweet: “I never meant to imply AQAP growth solely due to US bombings. Many causes, my argument is US bombing single most important.”
My apologies. I hoped to get into that issue a little bit, but I think it will have to wait for another post.
For the record, Johnsen elaborates on his view of drone use in Yemen - and a bit on the changing nature of AQAP - in his post “Signature Strikes in Yemen,” which I hadn’t yet read when I wrote this post.