Stratfor: Just Plain Wrong

So, I am on the email list for Stratfor, an intelligence group, although I generally delete them. There is only so much time in a day. But today's was titled "AQAP: Paradigm Shifts and Lessons Learned". It was, of course, about the attack on bin Nayif last week. It started out ok, though wierdly ignoring Yemen. I found the middle section- really, the bulk of it- interesting. It was about how tactics are constantly evolving, and how each new tactic almost precludes it being used again. This wasn't earth-shattering, but it was a fairly interesting summation. But then. I'm going to quote at length here. This isn't just to rip on Stratfor, but because I think this highlights some conventional wisdom.

While the Aug. 28 attack highlighted AQAP’s operational creativity, it also demonstrated that the group failed to effectively execute the attack after gaining the element of surprise. Quite simply, the bomber detonated his device too far away from the intended target. It is quite likely that the group failed to do adequate testing with the device and did not know what its effective kill radius was. AQAP will almost certainly attempt to remedy that error before it tries to employ such a device again.

In the larger picture, this attempt shows that AQAP does not have the resources inside the kingdom to plan and execute an attack on a figure like Prince Mohammed. That it would try a nuanced and highly targeted strike against Mohammed rather than a more brazen armed assault or vehicle-borne IED attack demonstrates that the group is very weak inside Saudi Arabia. It even needed to rely on operatives and planners who were in Yemen to execute the attack.

I guess it did highlight the group failed to fufill its goals, but I'll be frank, here: that isn't what I took away from it. Saying that the attack on the Prince, planned and executed by for the visscitudes of fate shows that it doesn't have the resources to carry out the attack is incredible. The very nuance of insitutional reach of the attack shows an unnerving amount of tactical genius and patience, and that it pin-pointed it rather than using an armed assault or IED demonstrated far more strength than would a showy but harder-to-be-certain attack. That analysis is almost 180 degrees removed from reality. But it is the last sentence that shows a breathtaking lack of knowledge.

It even needed people inside Yemen! For some reason, the Stratfor author doesn't realize that the leadership of the group is Yemeni, that it is based in Yemen, and that it is from Yemen it projects its strength. The Saudis of AQAP were not outsourcing to some menial peasants- the heart of the Qaeda franchise is in Yemen. This isn't limited to Stratfor, either. The Times article on the attempted assasination dubbed it the work of the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda. Not that I stay up worrying about his bruised ego, but if I were Nasir al-Wahayshi (I'm not, BTW), I'd be pissed. The problem here isn't just unfairly misplaced credit- it is again focusing on the comfortable, familiar Saudi Arabia and once again pushing Yemen to sideshow status. This is sloppy and dangerous analysis.

When the formation of AQAP was announced in January, STRATFOR noted that it would be important to watch for indications of whether the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni groups was a sign of desperation by a declining group or an indication that it had new blood and was on the rise. AQAP’s assassination attempt on Prince Mohammed has clearly demonstrated that the group is weak and in decline.

I don't even know what to say about this. The group is on the rise. A better thing to say is "our original theory was wrong", rather than bend the facts to meet thesis. From Yemen, they struck at the heart of Saudi Arabia. This is: not weakness. I really, really hope that no one with any influence at all believes otherwise.

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