Gunning for Al Qaeda Prime
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
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.
In the 25-minute statement, al-Zawahiri discusses the importance of al-Quds (Jerusalem) to Muslims, and urges Muslims to unite with the "mujahideen in Palestine" (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc.). Al-Zawahiri also calls on Hamas to establish a government based on Islamic law in Gaza, noting that, "Taking over power is not a goal, but a means to implement God's word on earth." The release begins with a snippet of an October 2001 video of al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, but the bulk of the release consists of a still photograph of al-Zawahiri placed over a thin banner containing a small photo of the al-Aqsa Mosque.
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.
Quantifying the Campaign
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. Publicly, al Qaeda has appointed Azzam the American as a major spokesman. If the prime node has been forced to promote others of his caliber to operational leadership positions, the group could be in big trouble. However, 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. However, it is still difficult to pinpoint the impact this has had on al Qaeda's ability to operate.
Occasional glimpses into the organization made possible by intelligence efforts, however, have provided some information as to its health. For example, the seized July 2005 letter from al-Zawahiri to then-al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which al-Zawahiri asks for financial assistance, demonstrates that al Qaeda's prime node was hurting for cash at the time. This state of affairs, a key objective of U.S. economic sanctions, likely was exacerbated by the Saudi government's action against al Qaeda supporters inside the kingdom, action prompted by attacks by al Qaeda's Saudi node.
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.
As the numbers in the chart illustrate, 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.
The Campaign on the Border
Al Qaeda leaders hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border have good reason to be cautious. On June 19, an explosion killed at least 32 militants in Pakistan's mountainous Datta Khel district. Pakistani intelligence officials said 10 to 15 Arab and Turkmen militants were among the dead. According to sources, Abu Laith al-Libi, al Qaeda field commander in Afghanistan, was the target. DNA tests reportedly are being performed on the victims' remains in an effort to determine whether al-Libi is among them. If in fact he was killed in the strike, history suggests al Qaeda will release a statement confirming the death between June 29 and July 6.
The Datta Khel strike highlights the gravity of the threat faced by al Qaeda leaders hiding out in the area along the border for the past several years. Other notable strikes include:
Jan. 16, 2007: Pakistani Army Aviation units launch a predawn airstrike against a suspected militant camp near Zamzola in Pakistan's South Waziristan, killing 25 to 30 militants, including eight to 10 foreigners.
Oct. 30, 2006: A missile strike against an Islamic school in Chingai, Pakistan, near the Afghan border, levels the building and kills at least 80 people. Sources say al-Zawahiri was the target.
Jan. 13, 2006: A hellfire missile hits a home in Damadola, Pakistan, killing 18 people, including four senior al Qaeda operatives. The attack's intended target, al-Zawahiri, is not present.
Dec. 4, 2005: Pakistani authorities say Hamza Rabia, reportedly al Qaeda's director of operations, is killed when a hellfire missile fired from a predator drone strikes a house in Haisori, North Waziristan.
May 7, 2005: Haitham al-Yemeni, an al Qaeda operative who reportedly replaced Abu Farj al-Libi in al Qaeda's hierarchy after al-Libi's May 2, 2005, capture, is killed in a hellfire missile attack in North Waziristan.
While not in the same region, al Qaeda's then-military chief Mohammed Atef also was killed in a hellfire missile strike by a CIA predator drone in eastern Afghanistan in November 2001.
Predator drones cannot be seen or heard by those on the ground. This means that a target's first indication that he is being attacked is the arrival of one or more supersonic, highly accurate and very destructive hellfire missiles. To those being targeted, the psychological impact of a weapon that can kill without warning is intense.
The Safe Bet
Shortly after the Chingai strike we noted a difference between al-Zawahiri's reaction to that strike and the Damadola strike. At the time, we said the Chingai strike hit very close to home, sent shockwaves through al Qaeda's operational security system and likely forced al-Zawahiri to go deeper underground. The numbers above appear to confirm that analysis.
We also speculated that the Damadola and Chingai strikes damaged As-Sahab's capabilities. One of those killed in the Damadola strike, Abdul al-Maghribi, not only was al-Zawahiri's son-in-law, but also a senior As-Sahab manager. Despite these strikes, however, As-Sahab has released at least 13 video statements by al Qaeda leaders since the Chingai attack. Only three of these videos featured al-Zawahiri; the other 10 featured al Qaeda spokesmen such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, Azzam the American and the now possibly deceased Abu Laith al-Libi. As-Sahab also has released several other videos showing operations under way against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Regardless of these videos from Afghanistan, things have not been going well for the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies recently. Their much-touted spring offensive has largely fizzled and they have suffered many casualties on the battlefield against NATO forces in the south (the Canadians appear to have completed their learning curve). The loss of charismatic, experienced battlefield commander Mullah Dadullah also will have an impact. Meanwhile, the Taliban have broken from traditional insurgent tactics with such things as suicide bombings, roadside bombings and attacks with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. This deviation suggests desperation on their part -- which also would increase al Qaeda's angst.
Given that As-Sahab continues to release several videos each month, the lack of appearances by al-Zawahiri, and even bin Laden, is not the result of some scarcity of camera gear or video technicians. Indeed, there must be some other compelling reason for them to change their behavior -- and fear that the forces hunting them are drawing close is a safe bet.