The Franchising of al-Qaeda

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

NYT's Ben Hubbard, on al-Qaeda's second wind:

What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups.

“Al Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now,” said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. “It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilizing people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don’t have to join the actual organization anymore to get those benefits.”

Yemen: Can AQAP mount an insurgency?

This post was co-authored by the editor of the recently released report "A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes, and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen", Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, and the author of the same report. For reasons of security and to facilitate future research in the region the author's name has been withheld from the report. Gabriel is an associate at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences.

On 15 January a member of a United Nations team was kidnapped from an upscale neighborhood in Yemen’s capital.  He was reportedly taken to the eastern governorate of Marib and held for more than a week by heavily-armed tribesmen who demanded the release of their relatives held on suspicion of supporting al-Qa`ida. The day of the abduction, word spread of militants from an alleged al-Qa`ida affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia`a, overrunning a city just 80 miles south of Sana’a.  A week later, footage of an alleged commander of the group, a tribal sheikh and brother in law of Anwar al-`Awlaqi named Tariq al-Dhahab, was posted on YouTube.  The clips seem to show Ansar al-Sharia`a fighters in control of the city’s mosque, enjoying support from some local residents, and for the first time on video, soliciting oaths of allegiance from young men on behalf of al-Qa`ida’s leaders in Yemen and Pakistan. (Click here for videos)

Both events have been interpreted as the latest evidence of Yemen’s imminent collapse, an outcome especially troubling for the United States. Whereas the Arab Spring has spurred varying degrees of optimism regarding political developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and even Libya, Yemen appears headed in the opposite direction. The prospect of al-Qa`ida inspired militants moving to fill the void left by a faltering central government makes a bad situation that much worse. AQAP is not alone in taking advantage of the chaos. Across the country the Yemeni government is ceding ground to a variety of sub state actors. These include Southern Secessionists in the former PDRY (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), Houthi insurgents in the North, and since May of 2011 in Abyan and perhaps Baydah governorates, al-Qa`ida’s local offshoot, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Shar`ia. 

Given the grim picture, bleak predications about Yemen’s future are inevitable. But they represent only part of the story.  The abduction of the UN official or seizure of Rada’a while troubling, are not proof of Yemen’s “failure” – much less victory for AQAP.  While these events might be conclusive evidence of collapse in a country with a history of a strong, centralized government, Yemen has never neatly matched up with Weberian concepts of sovereignty. To make sense of where Yemen is going, events must be evaluated using Yemeni metrics rather than ahistorical assumptions about territorial control taken from the West, or other Arab countries for that matter.

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Bin Laden finally dead

A bittersweet moment: he deserved to die, but it took so long  to track him down, despite all of the billions spent in intelligence and high-tech defense gear, that by the time he died it seemed almost irrelevant to the wider problems of the region. Also, to think of all the time and lives wasted, and the unnecessary, criminal ventures like the war on Iraq that were justified in the name of fighting Bin Laden. But I'm a believer in revenge, and symbolically this is important for the US, and for the families of the victims of 9/11. Let's hope this might be used as an occasion to turn the page in US foreign policy. 
Several things do strike you, though. First, outside of Pakistan and the US this won't be much of a big deal — and it probably wouldn't have been either at any point in the last decade, which goes to show how the alarmism about Bin Laden being some kind of popular figure in the Muslim world was misplaced. Secondly, where's Ayman Zawahri? And thirdly, the amount of Pakistani complicity with Bin Laden really seems beyond the pale. From the NYT:

The strike could exacerbate deep tensions with Pakistan, which has periodically bristled at American counterterrorism efforts even as Bin Laden evidently found safe refuge on its territory for nearly a decade. Since taking office, Mr. Obama has ordered significantly more drone strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan, stirring public anger there and prompting the Pakistani government to protest.

When the end came for Bin Laden, he was found not in the remote tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border where he has long been presumed to be sheltered, but in a massive compound about an hour’s drive north from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. He was hiding in the medium-sized city of Abbottabad, home to a large Pakistani military base and a military academy of the Pakistani Army.

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Nir Rosen on Yemen and the US

A bold claim by Nir Rosen in this piece on Yemen's uprising:
The small al Qaeda franchise in Yemen is known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The American industry of terrorism experts has dubbed AQAP the greatest terrorist threat facing the United States and has wrung its hands over AQAP’s threat to the Yemeni regime. This is despite the fact that AQAP’s international success amount to a failed underwear bomb and a package bomb that failed to detonate. In fact the regime does little to pursue AQAP because it does not perceive it as a threat. Rather than being too weak to fight AQAP, the regime has focused its various security forces attention on fighting domestic political opposition, killing or wounding hundreds of demonstrators. Likewise the demonstrators have not been concerned about al Qaeda except as a pretext for the regime’s security forces to target innocent people or receive international support. Al Qaeda is a marginal phenomenon in Yemen (as in the rest of the Middle East). While it is the primary concern of the United States government and hence the United States media, it is far from the real problems facing Yemen which the demonstrators express in a near blackout of international media attention. 
I'm ommitting a lot of great narrative that you should read for yourself — firsthand observations of how the protests unfolded. Rosen concludes:
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More Israeli propaganda failures

Max Blumenthal shows that the IDF is quietly redacting its own press releases to remove allegations of links between the IHH members of the flotilla and al-Qaeda:

Not content to believe that night vision goggles signal membership in Al Qaeda, Israel-based freelance reporter Lia Tarachansky and I called the IDF press office to ask for more conclusive evidence. Tarachansky reached the IDF’s Israel desk, interviewing a spokesperson in Hebrew; I spoke with the North America desk, using English. We both received the same reply from Army spokespeople: “We don’t have any evidence. The press release was based on information from the [Israeli] National Security Council.” (The Israeli National Security Council is Netanyahu’s kitchen cabinet of advisors).

Today, the Israeli Army’s press office changed the headline of its press release (see below), basically retracting its claim about the flotilla’s Al Qaeda links.

We debunked the basis of previous al-Qaeda links here.

Getting over al-Qaeda

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Marc Lynch makes a good point about the Arab media not giving much coverage to the attempted plane bombing in Amreeka, and its possible al-Qaeda connections: people don't really care.
In most of the Arab newspapers which I follow on a daily basis, the failed airplane plot didn't even make the front page -- or, at best, got a small and vague story. Gaza dominates the headlines, as it often does. Yemen continues to command considerable attention because of the ongoing clashes between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement, something which has been of far more consistent interest to the Arab public than to the American. Iran's protests are covered heavily. Most of the better papers also focus on local political issues. One of the only papers to cover the story prominently is the deeply anti-AQ Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat, which leads with "passengers save America from a terrorist catastrophe." It's the same on the major pan-Arab TV stations. On the al-Jazeera webpage, the story doesn't even appear on the Arab news page, while a bland story about the airplane incident is only the sixth story on the international page (the same place it held in the broadcast news roundup; yesterday it was the third story in the news roundup, with the killing of 6 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the lead). It does not crack the top 6 stories on the al-Arabiya website today. The Arab media's indifference to the story speaks to a vitally important trend. Al-Qaeda's attempted acts of terrorism simply no longer carry the kind of persuasive political force with mass Arab or Muslim publics which they may have commanded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even as the microscopically small radicalized and mobilized base continues to plot and even to thrive in its isolated pockets, it has largely lost its ability to break out into mainstream public appeal. I doubt this would have been any different even had the plot been successful -- more attention and coverage, to be sure, but not sympathy or translation into political support. It is just too far gone to resonate with Arab or Muslim publics at this point. The downgrading of al-Qaeda and the "War on Terror" by the Obama administration helps this trend along, even if the dynamics which produced it were largely local and internal to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The failure of the failed plot to capture even a modicum of mainstream Arab public interest speaks volumes to the robustness of this trend... though the frankly disturbing enthusiasm for the story in some quarters in the U.S. suggests that not everybody is happy to see al-Qaeda recede.
I don't think there ever was much support for al-Qaeda among the Arab public, or any chance that al-Qaeda turning into a leading shaper of public opinion. That was even less likely as the Baader Meinhof gang and Red Brigades becoming leading shapers of European opinion. There may have been some misplaced and insensitive "chickens coming home to roost" reaction to 9/11, but I don't ever believe that a Bin Laden moment would be lasting. This is a crucial point missed by some in the West, partly because of the spin and focus the Arab reaction stories were given after 9/11, which represented shadenfreude as the leading Arab reaction. This in turn led to the moronic "why do they hate us" meme, which survives to this day largely through the efforts of Thomas Friedman and his wish for "an Arab civil war" (a notion that implicitly puts al-Qaeda as a serious contender in the "battle for Arab minds"). In other words, the Arabs have gotten over (never fell for?) the mystification and fetishization of al-Qaeda. Their governments now concentrate on its security element, which ultimately is partly a policing matter, partly about preventing failed states and lawless areas in the region, and in the case of Saudi Arabia about curbing tolerance for jihadism within the regime. When will the Americans follow suit? This is not to underplay the threat of al-Qaeda inspired terrorism (as the recent arrests suggests it is all too real), but rather to take the grand teleological meaning it is ascribed by so many.
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Links for 10.13.09

Essay - The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate - NYTimes.com | Speaking of the Large Hadron Collider, this is pretty cool. ✪ BBC NEWS | Europe | 'Al-Qaeda-link' Cern worker held | Terrorist attack of potentially cosmic proportions: "The suspect had been working on the LHC Beauty (LHCb) experiment, which is investigating the slight differences between matter and anti-matter by studying a type of particle called the "beauty quark"." ✪ Kurdistan Halts Oil Exports - NYTimes.com | Over payment dispute with central government. ✪ AFP: Hamas claims member tortured to death in Egypt jail | In other words, a Hamas member is treated like an Egyptian. ✪ Erotic Poet Cavafy’s Trace Fades in Egypt’s Mythic Alexandria - Bloomberg.com | The usual nostalgia for cosmopolitan Alexandria. Do visit the Cavafy museum when in Alex, though. ✪ Loonwatch.com - "The Mooslims, they're heeere!" | A newish website that tracks Islamophobia, with a particular lookout for the kind of people who write for Middle East Forum and other reflexively anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sites. ✪ Middle East: a Belgian solution? | Khaled Diab | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | This is a funny, surreal headline but Khaled Diab is very misinformed about Belgian politics: the Belgian model is not pragmatic compromise, but rather wasteful deadlock. ✪ Ben Barka: Le dossier secret de la gendarmerie - affaire ben barka - leJDD.fr | Ben Barka's body said to have been incinerated outside of Paris. ✪ Tariq Ali: Ahmed Rashid's War | Nasty attack on Ahmed Rashid by Tariq Ali. Don't know if any of this is true, but Ali alleged Rashid operates on behalf of Hamid Karzai. ✪ Middle East News | Egypt detains 24 Muslim Brotherhood members | More zero-tolerance in Egypt towards people protesting in solidarity with Palestinians. ✪ Algerian Islamists in the Era of Reconciliation « The Moor Next Door | On the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brothers, and their relationship with the regime. ✪ New Statesman - Textbook injustice in Gaza | Gazan children go back to school with few textbooks, and anything else for that matter. ✪ FT.com / UK - Airline flies on natural gas | Qatar experiments with natural gas-derived kerosene, which makes sense for the country with the world's biggest gas fields. ✪ Netanyahu: No war crimes trials for Israelis - Yahoo! News | One day there will be many trials ya Bibi... and until then Israeli officials will be less and less able to travel abroad. ✪ Palestinian Memo says Hopes in Obama 'Evaporated' Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | "JERUSALEM, (AP) – An internal document circulated among members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' political party says all hopes placed in the Obama administration "have evaporated" because of alleged White House backtracking on key issues to the Palestinians."
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Links for 09.14.09

Why I Love Al Jazeera - The Atlantic (October 2009) | Robert Kaplan. Incidentally, while some of what he says about al-J (here he means the English channel) is interesting, he does not seem to be conscious that The Atlantic is one of the most biased publications among the mainstream pseudo-highbrow mags in the US. ✪ Osama bin Laden: in it for the long haul | World news | guardian.co.uk | Ian Black on the new Bin Laden audio tape. ✪ Middle East Report 252 contents: Pakistan Under Pressure | New issue of Middle East Report, Getting By in the Global Downturn," with selected articles available online. ✪ A la Mostra, le déroutant voyage d'Ahmed Maher - LeMonde.fr | Success for Egyptian director Ahmed Maher at Venice Film Festival. ✪ The five ages of al-Qaida | World news | guardian.co.uk | Infographic.
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Obama's Ankara speech

There were two passages in Obama's speech in Ankara, which I suppose is his much-touted address to the Muslim world, that struck me. The first moved away from the idea that engagement with the Muslim world is a policy solely based on the war on terror and the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. This is a great step, and most of the advocates of public diplomacy in the last few years were deeply wrong in framing the need for outreach in the context of al-Qaeda. The subtext to that idea was, essentially, a conflation of al-Qaeda and Islam that was deeply damaging to America's image in the Muslim world -- and it did not help that President Bush pathetically tried to show his understanding of Islam by holding iftars and other pageants. Here it is:
But I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim work cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better – including my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country – I know, because I am one of them. Above all, we will demonstrate through actions our commitment to a better future. We want to help more children get the education that they need to succeed. We want to promote health care in places where people are vulnerable. We want to expand the trade and investment that can bring prosperity for all people. In the months ahead, I will present specific programs to advance these goals. Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes, and our common dreams. And when people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship.
The great thing about this approach is that it says to Muslim countries, and societies, that while America has a problem with al-Qaeda it will not deal with Muslims through that problem alone, but in a multilateral fashion that addresses the "normal" global problems we all face: climate change, trade policy, diplomacy, conflict resolution, etc. The focus on education (in a dire state in much of the Arab world at least) encapsulates the universalism of these common concerns. Basically, the difference between Bush and Obama's approach is a switch from a focus on exceptionalism (Muslim societies as unusually problematic) to one of universalism (all countries and societies face common challenges far beyond the ones that have to do with religion and its excesses.) The second part is linked to Obama's choice of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with deeply secular values despite the fact that its current government is Islamist, as the venue for the speech. In many respects it's an odd choice, considering that for a long time Turkey wore many different hats than "large Muslim country" in US policy circles: NATO partner, prospective EU member, Eastern Mediterranean economic powerhouse, energy crossroad, gateway to Central Asia, etc. I interpret it in the fact that aside from India and possibly Indonesia, no country with a large population has the type of government that could be seen as progressive, at least partly committed to democracy and that can be seen as successful in terms of socio-economic development. Hence the focus on the very particular Turkish heritage of Attaturkism, which for all its faults has helped create a very dynamic, relatively open society in Turkey:
This morning I had the privilege of visiting the tomb of the great founder of your Republic. I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Ataturk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong and secular democracy, and that is the work that this assembly carries on today. This future was not easily assured. At the end of World War I, Turkey could have succumbed to the foreign powers that were trying to claim its territory, or sought to restore an ancient empire. But Turkey chose a different future. You freed yourself from foreign control. And you founded a Republic that commands the respect of the United States and the wider world. There is a simple truth to this story: Turkey’s democracy is your own achievement. It was not forced upon you by any outside power, nor did it come without struggle and sacrifice. Like any democracy, Turkey draws strength from both the successes of the past, and from the efforts of each generation of Turks that makes new progress for your people.
Not only does Obama here recognize the heroic resistance of Turkish nationalists against efforts by Europeans to carve out their country after World War I, but explicitly rejects the idea of external imposition of democracy (a landmark Bush administration idea) and puts the focus on domestic forces. Beyond this, he also puts the emphasis on Turkey's achievement as a a secular country whose ruling party, while notionally Islamist, accepts and has thrived within a secular framework. I am probably reading too much into this, but I like to see in it an argument for the secular framework as, in recent history at least, a great model for development, especially compared to the outright Islamist models of Iran, Saudi Arabia or Sudan that have been respectively civic, moral or social failures -- or indeed the hybrid pseudo-secular experiments of Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Algeria and most other Arab states. The problem here is that while it's an approach that greatly appeals to me ideologically (I believe that the secular model is best), I am not sure it is practical anymore. The contemporary dominance of Islamist ideology, and its recuperation by the power elites of Arab countries even when they claim to cherish secular values, has gone too far. The opportunity that Turkey grabbed (not to disregard Attaturkism's cultish tendencies and human rights abuses) has passed the Arab world by, and we are left dealing with a bizarre mishmash of the worse that Islamism, socialism, capitalism and nationalism have to offer: intolerance, inefficiency, cronyism and empty jingoism. The trick is now to find the best of those same ideologies, and in this case Islam's ideal of social justice does have something valuable to offer. The question for Obama will be whether, in going beyond the idea of democracy promotion that we know is difficult to practice when facing deeply-entrenced anti-democratic forces (first and foremost the regimes in place), he will abandon it altogether. For me the first test of this would be to see him back the formation of a representative national unity government in Palestine that includes legitimately elected Hamas, making new elections possible in which, this time, I hope the United States won't waste their money interfering in on Fatah's side.
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Links for November 28th

Automatically posted links for November 27-28th:
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Links for November 24th

Automatically posted links for November 24th:

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Del.icio.us links for November 23rd

Automatically posted links for November 23rd:

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