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Guest Thinkers

On Us Intelligence Failures.

John Brennan, counter-terrorism chief (via Ambinder)

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an extension of al Qaeda core coming out of Pakistan. And, in my view, it is one of the most lethal and one of the most concerning of it. The fact that they had moved forward to try to execute this attack against the homeland I think demonstrated to us — and this is what the review sort of uncovered — that we had a strategic sense of sort of where they were going, but we didn’t know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here. And we have taken that lesson, and so now we’re full on top of it.

There are a few disturbing things here, obviously, as anyone who paid attention or (ahem) read this blog knew that AQAP was growing more dangerous by the day, and increasingly gaining the ability to match their ambition. I completely understand, though I don’t like, how the media has (largely) not been paying attention. I mean, the US military, the most powerful institution in the world, is overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t expect a media that is dealing with its own collapse to be able to deal with more things than the USG.

But it still should not have been a surprise. It isn’t as if there were only a few people talking about Yemen. There have been high-level visits all year. Yemen was on the radar. So why was this missed?

I think there is a line that Brennen uses that does show a failure of intelligence (institutional, not personal), but, more importantly, a failure of imagination.

This dovetails with something I wanted to mention in my Bruce Reidel post below, but stopped because the post was overlong and I was tired of ripping on someone I admire (although here I go again). Riedel concludes:

We also need to keep in mind that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still takes its strategic guidance and direction from the terror organization’s core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The merger between the Yemeni and Saudi factions of al Qaeda that created al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula last January was directed by bin Laden. Yemen is a vital battlefield in the war against al Qaeda, but the epicenter is still in Pakistan

This echoes with Brennan, above.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an extension of al Qaeda core coming out of Pakistan.

I find both visuals- “epicenter” and “extension of core” to be misleading. I think they fail to take into account how decentralized the idea of al-Qaeda has become. If bin Laden and crew were all arrested or killed in Pakistan tomorrow, every last one of them, with no chance to escape to Somalia or Yemen or Algeria, the danger of AQAP would not be reduced one whit.

Hopefully the recent attention will clear this up a little bit, but this kind of thinking reminds me of a “fighting the last war” kind of mentality. The merger may have received a blessing of sorts from bin Laden, but he does not direct AQAP’s actions, nor do they need his advice or even his theology (such as it is). They have their own propaganda machines, own ideas, own militants, and own strategists. This is not McDonald’s, where each franchise receives McNuggets and Happy Meal toys from Ray Kroc’s zombie (or whoever runs McDonald’s- there is zero chance of me looking that up).

I’ve spent the last few minutes idly trying to come up with a metaphor for what the relationship is, but then realized I was being part of the problem. “Epicenter”, “branch”, “spoke”- these are not helpful. Even “franchise”, while closer, is misleading. The only way US intelligence can deal with AQAP is to treat it as what it is: its own terrorist group, which, while having ties to the Pakistan branch, has its own rules, its own leaders, and its own historical and local context. The administration has been accused, absurdly, as living in a pre-9/11 world, not understanding that there is a terrorist threat. This interpretation is nonsense. But if it continues to view al-Qaeda as a centralized organization, the pre-9/11 charges will carry some actual weight.

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