Several very important news stories have come out over the weekend that provide a great deal of insight into the nature and composition of our post-9/11 enemy, namely al-Qaeda and those groups aligned with it inside the framework of the Islamic International Front (the same name, one might note, as the group that sent a claim of responsibility for the Taba bombings to Sada al-Balad). It is important to understand as much as possible with respect to the enemy because such things are very helpful in recognizing how al-Qaeda has changed and adapted since 9/11.
I've noted before (along with Instapundit and others) the importance of the Algerian GSPC and its Moroccan imitators in Salafi Jihad in al-Qaeda's global network. Now, All Africa has the scoop on why the US has been so focused on the Pan-Sahel Initiative to make certain that al-Qaeda is not able to exploit the failed state environment in North and West Africa the way they had Afghanistan in the 1990s.
As the article notes, the GSPC has established a base in the Tibesti mountains of northern Chad (probably with assistance from hardliners in the Chadian rebels in the MDJT) for the purpose of creating a "Sahara Brigade" made up of Chadian, Sudanese, Libyan, Malian, and Mauritanian extremists trained and led by GSPC commanders as well as black (Nigerian?) Muslims from the Sub-Saharan regions of Africa.
There's a lot of information in this article, but from the looks of things the GSPC has managed to reform following the capture of Amari Saifi (aka Abderrazak el-Para) last spring and the killing of its leader Nabil Sahraoui by the Algerian security forces over the summer. There's been a lot of different reporting on the identity of Sahraoui's successor, but the GSPC website and statements sent to the Algerian press says that it's one of Sahraoui's former advisors named Abdelmalek Droukdel, while this article names Mokhtar Belmokhtar as the new top man. I honestly don't think that these two claims should be seen as contradictory - Droukdel likely leads the GSPC fighters inside Algeria proper, while Belmokhtar commands the Sahara Brigade.
While I don't have much information on Droukdel, the accession of Belmokhtar to the GSPC leadership is probably a bad thing. As my previous analyses on the GSPC have noted, Belmokhtar is the guy who receives private messages from Osama bin Laden and has attempted to attack US as well as local government installations in North Africa.
I am also given to understand that in addition to being a terrorist, he is also something of a smuggler, gun runner, and drug dealer on his own right and is considered a major figure within what they call la mafia du sable - the sand mafia. Through his underworld connections, Belmokhtar has ties to a number of local extremist and rebel groups throughout the Sahel region who depend on him for weapons and supplies.
From the looks of things, Belmokhtar is attempting to incorporate Arab and Tuareg extremists in northern Mali as well as Tuareg rebels in northern Niger into his Sahara Brigade to serve as a force multiplier for the GSPC and its ambitions in Africa. If there is a link between the Mauritanian Baathists/Islamist coalition who launched a coup attempt back in 2003 and the GSPC, Belmokhtar is likely the connection between the two. A link between the GSPC and the rise of sectarian violence and Islamic extremism in Nigeria should likewise not be ruled out, especially given how many dead Nigerians were killed during the US-backed clashes with el-Para's fighters last spring.
Another interesting point about this article is that the GSPC is reckoned at ~3,000 fighters, far larger than the 400 or so that the Algerian military places them at in official government statements. Gunaratna reckoned them at 1,800 in 2002 (when the Algerian government figures were at about 800), but my guess is that neither he nor the Algerian military were taking this Sahara Brigade into account when they did their estimates. If the GSPC does have 3,000 fighters in its ranks, it certainly makes a lot more sense at how they are able to accomplish all of this than it does if they were down to a mere 400.
There's also a really good piece in the Advertiser on al-Qaeda operative Willie Brigitte's account to French investigators of his training with the al-Qaeda affiliate group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in late 2001, after the events of 9/11 and Operation Enduring Freedom made it impossible for al-Qaeda trainees to go to Afghanistan. He says that there were British and American nationals training at the camp, which I don't find particularly hard to believe. Any number of British nationals are known to have trained or fought with the LeT in the past and a number of US nationals based in northern Virginia were charged (and, I believe, convicted) of LeT membership over the past two years.
As the article makes clear, as of at least late 2001 dissident elements of the Pakistani military were still providing ample amounts of assistance and weaponry to al-Qaeda affiliate groups, the LeT among them, even going to the trouble of tipping off all of the foreign fighters in the area whenever the CIA and Pakistani troops loyal to Musharraf were going to be stopping by.
There is one unanswered question though: who is this "Zakerahmane" who was running the camp and where is he now?
I noted in my last analysis that one of the "reasons" given by detractors of the whole idea that Zarqawi is an al-Qaeda leader was that he hasn't sworn an oath to bin Laden. This is a disingenuous line of argument for a number of reasons, but regardless, I think it's fair to say that this particular line of argumentation is now dead. And before anybody starts adopting the line of argument that Zarqawi wasn't an al-Qaeda leader prior to this point allow me to explain something.
The GSPC, which was basically an al-Qaeda creation in 1998 after it was determined that Antar Zouabri and the GIA had descended into little more than violence for its own sake, waited until September 2003 before having both its leader and membership (a key distinction, and one made in the al-Tawhid statement) swear unconditional allegiance to bin Laden.
There are a number of reasons as to why this was done, but if you were to say in 2001 that GSPC leader Hassan Hattab, who was running much of al-Qaeda infrastructure in Western Europe at this point, wasn't an al-Qaeda leader, I think it's safe to say that you'd be more or less arguing over semantics. That Zarqawi has now pledged allegiance to bin Laden isn't likely to change much for the situation in Iraq, no more than Hattab's similar pledge did in Algeria, except to prevent any possibility of schism inside the al-Qaeda component of the insurgency.
On the issue of communications between al-Qaeda and al-Tawhid, according to the work of Jonathan Schanzer and others, the capture of Hassan Ghul, who was the chief liaison between the two groups' leaderships, made it much more difficult for the two to coordinate operations between the two of them. It may even explain why Zarqawi has chosen to form alliances with native Iraqi Sunni Islamist groups like the Islamic Scholars' Front (ISF), despite their less stringent views of which forms of terrorism are justified under Islamic law - for example, the ISF condemns the practice of beheading.
Regarding the apparently-resolved dispute that between the two organizations, there are at least 3 possibilities as far as what it could be:
- Zarqawi's expressed desire for sectarian warfare, which could jeopardize al-Qaeda's own alliance with Iran.
- Zarqawi's past ties to Saddam Hussein, which were cited by B. Raman as a source of tension between Zarqawi and bin Laden.
- Zarqawi's strategy of attacking the "near enemy" versus the "far enemy."
I don't have a clue which of the three is being referenced here, but it's easy to see why they'd no longer be relevant. In order:
- Saif al-Adel is reputed to have come down hard on Zarqawi following the Ashura Massacre, which may well have made some in the Iranian hierarchy think twice about harboring the surviving al-Qaeda leadership. Since then, Zarqawi has by and large ceased launching mass casualty sectarian attacks and judging from the remarks made by a senior IRGC general some months back, it seems that Iran holds him in high esteem.
- Bin Laden's fear that Saddam Hussein would take over his network and put it at his disposal was also shared by a number of US counter-terrorism officials during the late 1990s, Richard Clarke among them. If you don't believe me, search the sainted 9/11 report for "boogie" and you may be surprised to see the results. In any case, with Saddam Hussein in jail, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri and his sons have sworn allegiance to Zarqawi and converted to Wahhabism. Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed (who appears to have assumed command of the al-Tikriti tribesmen and the remnants of the Iraqi security and intelligence apparatus) is being forced to remain in Syria for the time being, so the threat of Baathist infiltration into al-Qaeda would seem to be extremely small at this point.
#I've always viewed this as something of a farcial rationale for differences between bin Laden and Zarqawi, given that bin Laden appears to desire both the near and the far enemies destroyed, though in no particular order. In any case, Zarqawi's main opponents inside Iraq are all "crusaders" by bin Laden's definition, so there's no particular reason for the two of them to quibble over it.
Also in my last Zarqawi analysis ("Zarqawi In Context: Is He al-Qaeda?"), Praktike asked me about the issue of Abu Wael being a Mukhabarat (Saddam's intelligence service) agent. As I told him, to the best of my knowledge nobody seriously disputes this - even people who opposed the war and don't regard US claims of Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda as credible. The issue, ultimately, can only be resolved by getting ahold of Abu Wael himself. As he is alleged to be currently inside Iran (and I would sure love to hear his conversations with his IRGC backers), this would be a very difficult thing indeed. This is one of those areas where people can look at the same evidence and come to different opinions on the subject.
As I said, nobody seriously questions whether or not Abu Wael is a Mukhabarat agent. The question is, was this a fact known to the Ansar al-Islam leadership prior to the war or not? If so, was he the liaison between Ansar al-Islam and the Iraqi regime or was he a deep-penetration agent sent to usurp control of the group at Saddam's behest?
I have my own suspicions, but the 3 top Ansar al-Islam leaders we have in custody (Aso Hawleri, Ayoub Afghani, and Qods) all have different stories on what they knew about Abu Wael. Qods, by his own admission, didn't learn about Abu Wael's ties to the Mukhabarat until after he met up with him again in Iran after the war.
What is known about pre-war Iraqi assistance to Ansar al-Islam is that a large number of weapons and explosives that were easily traced back to the Iraqi military were found at the Ansar enclaves after the war. But here again, there are issues about whether this was provided to Ansar al-Islam by the Iraqi regime or whether they stole it or whether they found some corrupt Iraqi officials who were more than willing to sell them weapons in return for some easy cash.
These are the kinds of disagreements you find when you're dealing with an incomplete picture of the situation. Which is to say, with intelligence information generally.
I imagine the WoC readership already knows where I fall in on these issues, but my point is that this stuff is not nearly as clear-cut as some people like to imagine. The same goes, I should mention, for other points of view on the issue of Iraqi assistance and/or complicity in attacks against Americans or against US targets over the course of the past decade. In either case, these kinds of views are a lot less disingenuous than many of their detractors (which, in the case of people who disregard Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda, includes me) want to make them out to be. As I think I've said before, the best way to regard this stuff is to begin with a basic assumption of good will on the part of the people you're dealing with, even if you think they don't deserve it.