Of Threats and Bounties
On December 23 - the same day the US carried out an apparent drone strike in the al-Baydha governorate of Yemen, apparently targeting 'Abd al-Rauf al-Dhahab - AQAP released a 43 minute video.
The video, which is one of the more polished videos I've seen AQAP release, is basically a catalog of perceived US and western crimes against Islam, ranging from allegations of torture in Guantanamo to the Danish cartoons, Terry Jones, and more recently the "Innocence of Muslims" video.
Three top al-Qaeda figures - Qasim al-Raymi, Said al-Shihri and Ibrahim Rubaysh - are all featured in the 43 minute video.
At first view the video appears to be a standard - if polished - piece of AQAP propaganda. But yesterday, there was a 41 second addendum linked to the video and it is this snippet that is causing a great deal of concern.
In the 41 second video AQAP makes two announcements. First, they say that the organization is placing a bounty of 3,000 grams of gold on the US ambassador to Yemen. Second, the video offers 5 million Yemeni riyals to anyone who kills a US soldier in Yemen.
Given that the original video included a translated segment of a New York Times article, talking about Benghazi and the killing of the US ambassador to Libya yesterday's threats and bounties have attracted a lot of attention. For one example, see the Associated Press story here.
But since the threats and bounties weren't announced in the original video are we even certain that this is AQAP? Particularly since there is a strange story that the US somehow deleted the bounty announcements from the original video. Another theory goes that the video being released on December 23 is what prompted the 4 apparent US drones strikes this week in Yemen.
I'm not sure I have a good answer to any of these questions, but I have looked at both video clips - the 43 minute one and the 41 second one, and here is what I've come up with.
Both carry the al-Malahim logo, which by itself doesn't prove much as this would be fairly easy to throw up on any video. The first, longer video is quite clearly an AQAP production, featuring AQAP leaders alive and dead (Anwar al-Awlaki even makes an appearance), but the second one - the one with the bounties - is less clear. It is only a voice and, at least the version I saw, text of the two announcements in both Arabic and English.
And that means that really the only thing we have to go on is the voice - the text itself seems like something AQAP might plausibly say, but again that in itself isn't much in the way of proof.
I've listened to both videos and, to me, the narrator sounds the same in both. But like much when studying AQAP that isn't a whole lot to go on.
I don't think we'll know for certain whether or not this was AQAP until either the bounty addendum is given its own banner ad on a forum (the clip I saw was not hosted on a forum). And I'm curious if any other forum watchers have come across the bounty video. I've seen it referenced but I haven't seen the banner ad put up by site administrators.
The other confirmation would be a second statement put out by AQAP confirming the bounties. The group has periodically done this in the past both to confirm or to deny that they were responsible for a particular act or statement. However, the group has been - at least for it - relatively reserved in releasing material over the past 6 months. (This doesn't mean AQAP hasn't been active on the ground, just that its online presence has receded a bit.)
Either way, the bounty addendum clip and the stories about the US erasing it from the original are all a bit strange. Unfortunately, I think we're all going to have to wait a bit for the picture to settle. That is not satisfying, but it is honest.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.