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The Seduction of Simple Solutions

Late last week Frank Cilluffo and Clint Watts released a policy brief from George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute entitled “Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Exploiting a Window of Counterterrorism Opportunity.”

My in-box quickly filled up with helpful people sending me copies of the report, I have now had time to read it and digest and my thoughts follow below. 

(Note🙂 I don’t know Frank Cilluffo but I do know and respect Clint and he has seen a copy of my rebuttal here prior to posting.

For those who are faithful readers of Waq al-waq it should come as no surprise that I strongly disagree with the report and its conclusions.  I think this is what happens when smart people tackle a complex problem in an environment they don’t know particularly well.  The report, in my opinion, is full of assumptions that make sense broadly but break down the closer one gets to Yemen.

Obviously there are parts of the report I agree with, and many other places where well-intentioned people can disagree. 

(Quotes from the paper are in italics; mine are in regular caps.)

Assumption 1: AQAP suddenly stronger this month

This week’s escape of 63 suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters from a Yemeni prison exemplifies how President Saleh’s departure to Saudi Arabia and Yemeni instability embolden this lethal al Qaeda affiliate.

I’m pretty sure that AQAP was emboldened prior to Salih’s departure, the group has been incredibly active in Yemen recently and I would argue that largely as a result of US air strikes between December 2009 and May 2010, the organization is actually stronger now in terms of recruits than it was when it dispatched the so-called underwear bomber who tried to bring down the airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

Assumption 2: Huthis and Southern Movement are responsible

In recent weeks, the writ of government in Yemen has evaporated under the twin strains of the Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen and the Secessionist movement in southern Yemen.” 

This is simply untrue – the writ of Yemen’s government has evaporated under popular protests.  The Huthi rebellion has been ongoing since 2004 and the Southern movement since 2007 – neither of these are new, and neither of these are the cause of the recent collapse.

Assumption 3: The Foreign Operations Unit

For the U.S., AQAP’s Foreign Operations Unit is of greatest concern.The unit was described by Dr. Thomas Hegghammer as a small cell, “which specializes in international operations and keeps a certain distance to the rest of the organization.”

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born cleric, allegedly leads this group, steadily morphing his role from an Internet ideologue to full-blown operational planner.  Awlaki’s online sermons, recruitment of U.S.-based Americans and production of AQAP’s English-language jihadi magazine Inspire with Samir Khan (another American AQAP member) have inspired lone wolf attacks on Americans.  Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, AQAP’s talented bomb maker, transforms the Foreign Operations Unit’s threats into sophisticated attacks. 

Asiri and his well-trained bombmaking protégés have demonstrated their capabilities repeatedly by devising undetectable devices that nearly killed Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in 2009, almost brought down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and halted air cargo shipments from Yemen in 2010.  The Foreign Operations Unit’s special knowledge of the U.S. and unique destructive capabilities make AQAP an immediate threat to the U.S.”

This theory was put forward by the very smart Thomas Hegghammer, but it is just that: a theory.  We’re not certain if such an operations unit exists and in fact much of what we know about AQAP’s operations suggests that this theory doesn’t hold any water.  AQAP has written time and again that it seeks to attack targets in Yemen, the region, and the west. 

For example, the 2009 attempted assassination of Muhammad bin Nayif, Saudi Arabia’s deputy Ministry of the Interior was planned in Marib by Qasim al-Raymi and Ibrahim Asiri.  In many ways this plot prefigured the Dec. 2009 attack – same explosives, same bomb maker and same basic set (bomb in rectum and/or underwear). 

We also know that Asiri’s fingerprint was on one of the 2010 parcel bombs, but – and here is the kicker – the major players involved in this attack are also actively involved in domestic operations in Yemen.  It would also stretch the imagination to believe that al-Raymi, AQAP’s head military commander, would be taking orders from Anwar al-Awlaqi, who Hegghammer regards as the head of the Foreign Operations Unit.

A closer reading of the available sources suggests that the AQAP brain trust is active – as they claim to be – on the domestic, regional, and international fronts.

Thomas may very well be right about the Foreign Operations Unit  – he is after all a very smart guy.  But the evidence we have suggests otherwise. 

Assumption 4: AQAP and al-Shabab

Moreover, AQAP acts as a critical conduit for regional AQ activities linking al Shabab and other East Africa-based AQ operatives with sustained resources and foreign fighters- some of whom were recruited from Europe and North America. 

Al Shabab’s consolidation of power, leadership, homicide/suicide bombing tactics and targets are likely indicative of AQAP’s regional influence.  Perhaps most troubling is Al Shabab’s growing international ambitions as evidenced by recent attacks in Kenya and Uganda and complete alignment of their goals with those of Al Qaeda’s.”

The links between AQAP and al-Shabab are not well documented – there is a lot more that we don’t know than there is that we know.  I’m uncomfortable at how seamlessly the report jumps from AQAP to al-Shabab, dangerously conflating the two as closely allied groups – I haven’t seen evidence to support this reading.

Assumption 5: It Is the Terrorists We Know

 “Elimination of key AQAP members, especially those in the Foreign Operations Unit, would immediately increase U.S. security.  Removal of Wahayshi, al-Shihri, Awlaki, Asiri or any other key AQAP leaders could short-circuit AQAP’s operational capability and disrupt their regional coordination of AQ efforts.  As Dr. Hegghammer noted, “AQ in Yemen is short on this type of human capital,” suggesting targeted leadership decapitation would seriously weaken AQAP’s proven international terrorism capability.”

I’m certainly in favor of eliminating people like Wihayshi, Shihri and Asiri – but here is the problem: the US does not have a good record of hitting what it aims at in Yemen.  It has missed Awlaki numerous times, and the same goes for Wihayshi and Raymi – and these strikes, as I’ve said before, don’t happen in a vacuum.  The dead women, children and innocent civilians are, I believe, at least partially responsible for the influx of recruits AQAP has benefitted from in 2010 and 2011.

There is also an underlying assumption here that our knowledge of AQAP is more complete than it actually is.  The US has been down this road before.  After the 2006 prison break, the US was most worried about Jamal al-Badawi and Jabir al-Banna.  But, of course, as we all now know it was actually Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi that were the most dangerous escapees. 

The idea that we can kill these leaders and they won’t be replaced is a tempting one, but not one that history supports.  The US killed Harithi in 2002 and the organization crumbled – it has learned since, which is why the regional leaders the US killed last year have all been replaced. 

Assumption 6: Limited Consequence to Bombing

For the first time, the U.S. can pursue AQAP targets in Yemen without being embroiled in Yemeni government politics and trapped in Yemen’s dual insurgencies. “

The idea that the US can drop bombs on a country and not become involved in its internal politics is, I believe, a dangerously mistaken idea.  There will be consequences to US actions, particularly when the US misses – and it will miss. 

I’ve talked myself blue in the face, arguing that AQAP has been making an argument that Yemen is no different from Iraq or Afghanistan, and that just like those two countries Yemen is under western military attack.  This is important because if AQAP is successful in this argument than many more Yemenis will be willing to fight.

Why do you think more Yemenis went abroad to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan than are fighting at home?  The answer is because many still don’t see Yemen as a legitimate theater of jihad.  The more bombs the US drops – the easier it is for AQAP to make this argument and the wider the war gets.  I’m particularly worried that eventually the circle of who constitutes an AQAP member becomes so wide that the US can’t kill its way out of the war.

Assumption 7: It is the US v. al-Qaeda

In dismissing several possible policy options Cilluffo and Watts fall into a common trap.  Namely, that it is the US against AQAP.  This is the conventional wisdom and just the way AQAP would like to frame the conflict.  As long as it is the US against AQAP, the US will never win this war.  It has to be Yemen against AQAP. 

Most Yemenis are strongly against AQAP – a fact the organization has recognized by playing with a different name recently – and this animosity has to be used to the mutual advantage of both Yemen and the US.  This requires seeing Yemen as more than just a CT problem.

Drones and Special Ops are a unique tool that can be part of the solution in Yemen if used very judiciously, but they can’t be the whole of the solution.  And I think right now most policy makers look at Yemen as simply too hard to do and throw up their hands and want to hear the seemingly simple solution that Cilluffo and Watts offer – keep AQAP on the run and they won’t attack – they jump on board.  But it won’t work.  And in a few years will be in an even worse position and wondering how things got so bad. 

The US should be just as active diplomatically as it is militarily, but at the moment the very overwhelmed embassy in Sanaa is unable to take advantage of Salih’s absence from the country to transition away from his rule.  The longer the political stalemate goes on the worse the AQAP problem will become – US bombs or no. 

Assumption 8: Things will go Great

I agree with Cilluffo and Watts that when drone strikes or Special Ops go right – like they did with bin Laden – they are excellent.  But what happens when they go wrong?  And they go wrong a lot in Yemen. 

Take for instance the May 2010 strike that killed Jabir al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Marib, instead of the AQAP figure the US was targeting.  His tribe is now active in cutting off supplies and electricity to Sanaa as punishment to the government for its complicity in the strike.  That in turn is creating a more chaotic environment in Yemen.  My point is simply this: these strikes when they go wrong have consequences that are incredibly difficult to predict.  And it is so easy to make a bad problem worse.

Assumption 9: Questioning hurts the mission

Debates over the legality of pursuing AQAP in Yemen through drones and SOF create unnecessary seams in our nation’s fight against a seamless terrorist enemy.  The threat environment we face today predicates the further synchronization of the military and intelligence community. 

This evolution in the operational environment demands that the authorities under Title 10 (legal basis for the military services and the department of defense) and Title 50 (procedures for covert actions) be equally synchronized and coordinated.  The many corridors inside the Beltway must not stymie operational performance in the field. 

The U.S. State Department officially designated AQAP a Foreign Terrorist Organization in January 2010 and most of AQAP’s leaders are now Specially Designated Global Terrorists under Executive Order.  Under this legal designation, the U.S. should use all available assets to eliminate the immediate threat of AQAP.”

The legal question is something I’ve been pondering for a while now – largely thanks to the great work by the guys at the Lawfare blog.   Maybe someday I’ll even fulfill my childhood dream of going to law school.

First, I think it is good to ask questions, and I think the Obama administration has acknowledged as much in the aftermath of its handling of Libya and the War Powers Resolution.

The question I’ve been pondering lately is this: If the Obama administration is using the 2001 AUMF to justify its air strikes in Yemen, what happens if Ansar al-Shariah or any of the other militant groups around Zanjubar and elsewhere turn out not to be AQ? 

Does the AUMF still apply? 

Adm. McRaven’s testimony as interpreted by Lawfare seems to suggest that there is a difference between AQ, the Taliban and other groups.  So if the militants in the south aren’t AQ are US strikes illegal?  If not, what authority is the US using? 

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Cilluffo and Watts have provided one possible way for the US to go in Yemen.  I think that way is a mistake that won’t yield the results the US wants to see in Yemen. 

The bottom line is this: the US has tried this before in Yemen and it hasn’t worked.  It only made the problem worse.  Doubling-down on a failed strategy is only going to get it more of the same.

Still, one of the criticism academics like myself often come up against is that we provide an analysis of the situation without giving direction on a better way forward – I hope to correct this in an upcoming paper.  Stay tuned.


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