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. 

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Would you have to tip robots? You might be answering that question sooner than you think as Domino's is about to start using robots for delivering pizza. Later this year a fleet of self-driving robotic vehicles will be spreading the joy of pizza throughout the Houston area for the famous pizza manufacturer, using delivery cars made by the Silicon Valley startup Nuro.

The startup, founded by Google veterans, raised $940 million in February and has already been delivering groceries for Kroger around Houston. Partnering with the pizza juggernaut Domino's, which delivers close to 3 million pizzas a day, is another logical step for the expanding drone car business.

Kevin Vasconi of Domino's explained in a press release that they see these specially-designed robots as "a valuable partner in our autonomous vehicle journey," adding "The opportunity to bring our customers the choice of an unmanned delivery experience, and our operators an additional delivery solution during a busy store rush, is an important part of our autonomous vehicle testing."

How will they work exactly? Nuro explained in its own press release that this "opportunity to use Nuro's autonomous delivery" will be available for some of the customers who order online. Once they opt in, they'll be able to track the car via an app. When the vehicle gets to them, the customers will use a special PIN code to unlock the pizza compartment.

Nuro and its competitors Udelv and Robomart have been focusing specifically on developing such "last-mile product delivery" machines, reports Arstechnica. Their specially-made R1 vehicle is about half the size of a regular passenger car and doesn't offer any room for a driver. This makes it safer and lighter too, with less potential to cause harm in case of an accident. It also sticks to a fairly low speed of under 25 miles an hour and slams on the breaks at the first sign of trouble.

What also helps such robot cars is "geofencing" technology which confines them to a limited area surrounding the store.

For now, the cars are still tracked around the neighborhoods by human-driven vehicles, with monitors to make sure nothing goes haywire. But these "chase cars" should be phased out eventually, an important milestone in the evolution of your robot pizza drivers.

Check out how Nuro's vehicles work: