AQAP: New Talent
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
In a sign of just how sensitive it is to what I will call Islamist criticisms, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula wasted little time in responding to what it called "the lies" of Saudi's Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayyif. Specifically, that AQAP was planning terrorist attacks against the upcoming hajj pilgrimage. For me, this is just one more sign of how dangerous AQAP believes these critiques are. It is vulnerable when attacked from an Islamic perspective.
AQAP has attempted to stake out a position of "holier than thou" and anything that challenges this is, the organization realizes, a threat to its continued existence and growth. This is where the US, Yemeni and Saudi governments should be pouring many more resources. (Not that they are devoting much here at the moment.) Look at the response a simple comment from Prince Nayyif gets.
This statement, like #27, which I wrote about here, is particularly fascinating. This is AQAP speaking to its constituents.
There are a number of interesting things to say about this statement. One is the use of the word "Ijrami" (criminal) to describe potential attacks against the hajj. The choice of word is fascinating. And, I believe, tells us something about how AQAP views the attacks that it carries out - namely, that it has to portray them as being against the "enemies of God," or else they too would be criminal. So it is the choice of target and intent - rather than the means or tactics of an attack - that make it legitimate or criminal. This, I think, should give intelligence agencies around the world a much better idea of how to craft their critiques in such a way as to have the maximum impact.
Also interesting to me is the appearance of General Petraeus, the top US Commander in Afghanistan. Now, General Petraeus used to be head of CentCom and as such responsible for Yemen, but that hasn't been the case since General McChrystal self-destructed in a Rolling Stones profile. So why mention Petraeus?
Well, by itself I would be willing to overlook this as the overwrought hyperbole of a jihadi calling out a famous US General, but I don't think that is the case. This is the latest in a series of suggestions that I have seen lately that lead me to believe that there is some new talent in the organization. And I am of the early impression that it is coming from Pakistan/Afghanistan.
If I'm right, this is incredibly worrying. A couple of years ago, I watched as the evidence mounted, suggesting a influx of talent from Saudi Arabia. Over the past few months I have seen - in AQAP audio and video tapes - enough hints and fragmentary pieces of evidence that lead me to believe that a similar thing is happening now. That is people and individuals from Afghanistan and Pakistan are moving to Yemen.
Now none of this is certain - see my caveat on this post - there are incredibly few certain answers in studying groups like al-Qaeda (which is only one of the reasons so many people can get away with saying much of the junk that they do). But the evidence is mounting, and I have seen enough of it to believe that this is happening.
AQAP in my mind, strikes an important early blow in the battle for the hearts and minds of its constituents, making in this statement an early denial that it would ever be behind attacks in mosques or public markets. Instead claiming that these attacks - if they take place - are the work of the "enemies of God" (Petraeus and so on). This is incredibly important. It is setting the framework for the debate, setting the stage while the US is - well, I really have no idea what the US is doing - besides debating about drones - which is incredibly bad idea (but that is another post).
The US ignores this rhetoric at its own peril. Just because it seems self-evidently false to us in the west, doesn't mean that it does to people in Yemen or Saudi Arabia. And just in case you hadn't noticed that is where the war is being fought. But if the US loses this debate (and I have seen no evidence that would lead me to believe it is even aware it is in a debate) the war won't stay there.
Finally, AQAP gets in a shot at the Saudis about ignoring the security threat from Shi'a pilgrims. But this post has gone on too long - so enought for now.
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