Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jihadist terrorism: Al-Qaeda franchises are still cause for concern

By James Blitz

September 8, 2011

Ten years after the al-Qaeda attacks that scarred the US, western states continue to face serious challenges from jihadist terrorism.

But the origins and nature of today’s threats are very different from those of 10 years ago.

On the one hand, what is often described as the “core al-Qaeda” group founded by Osama bin Laden – and which operates from the Pakistani tribal areas and Afghanistan – has been seriously damaged.

Bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, is dead. Many of his followers have been killed by US-launched drone attacks. Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is nowhere near as charismatic as his predecessor.

On the other hand, groups often described as the “al-Qaeda franchises” – and which operate from areas in the Middle East and north Africa – have developed in recent years. They are a disconnected bunch and probably incapable of pulling off a spectacular attack on the scale of 9/11.

But western intelligence agencies warn that their ability to carry out an act of terrorism in the west should not be under­estimated.

At the top of the list of jihadists worrying western governments is al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, a movement operating from Yemen.

Here, the individual whose activities cause most concern is Anwar al-Awlaki, a 40-year-old, US-born cleric who has been at the source of relentless plotting against the west for some years.

Mr Awlaki was the mastermind behind the attempted bombing of an aircraft over Detroit on Christmas day in 2009.

He also organised the dispatch of parcel bombs concealed in cargo aircraft bound from Yemen to Chicago in October 2010.

Airline bombs are not his only area of expertise. He has become a highly effective internet preacher, grooming people in western states to carry out attacks.

Mr Awlaki’s online sermons radicalised a woman who attempted to murder Stephen Timms, a former British cabinet minister, in a knife attack in May 2010.

This year, Mr Awlaki also emerged as the inspiration for a former British Airways employee to hatch an abortive plot to blow up an aircraft in an attack intended to kill hundreds of people.

A second franchise of concern is the group called al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Largely made up of Algerians, the group’s main area of operation is the vast Saharan territory of southern Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, where it exploits smuggler routes and the absence of state control.

It regularly kidnaps foreign tourists for ransom and periodically stages attacks against western targets mainly in Africa’s Sahel region.

Western intelligence experts say that al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has recently shown its strength by helping to develop a Nigerian radical Islamist group called Boko Haram.

Last month, Boko Haram displayed its growing capability and ambition with an attack on the UN mission in Abuja that killed at least 23 people and injured more than 80.

A third franchise of concern is the al-Shabaab movement that operates in Somalia.

There are two groups within al-Shabaab. One of them, al-Ansar wants to set up an Islamist state inside Somalia and is fomenting attacks in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.

The other – al-Muhajiroun – is influenced by bin Laden’s ideology and seeks to conduct attacks on the west.

In the UK, one of the concerns about al-Shabaab is that there are thought to be about 40 British nationals fighting for the extremist group in Somalia’s civil war.

The fear is that some of these individuals may come back to the UK, rejoin the Somali community and plot an attack on British soil.

Can any of these groups instigate a serious outrage in a western nation in the next few years? There is certainly confidence in the US and Britain that these franchise groups – like core al-Qaeda – are on the back foot.

This year, Leon Panetta, the former head of the CIA and now US secretary of defence, gave an upbeat assessment of the progress against al-Qaeda and all its affiliates.

We’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda,” he said.

The key is that, having got bin Laden, we’ve now identified some of the key leadership within al-Qaeda, both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas.”

There are other reasons for confidence.

In the events of the Arab uprising this year – in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain – jihadists have been bystanders.

They have not been the protagonists that bin Laden had wanted them to be.

But western governments know the chances of a successful terrorist attack cannot be ignored.

Intelligence agencies need to be lucky at every stage of their operations against jihadist groups but the jihadists only need to be lucky once.

Australian Study Examines Ideological Risk to Indonesian Students

September 08, 2011

Phil Mercer | Sydney

New Australian research has explored the exposure to radicalism of Indonesian students who study in Pakistan and Yemen. In the past decade authorities in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, have had significant victories in the fight against extremism, but there are concerns that the next generation of extremists could be indoctrinated at Islamic institutions in the Middle East and South Asia.

Australian researchers say there has been a long tradition for Indonesian students to study at Islamic institutions abroad. Pakistan has always been popular and now Yemen, which practices a similar kind of Islam to Indonesia, has also become a favored destination. There are close ancestral ties between Yemen and Indonesia.

The study by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, an independent research body, reports that around 300 Indonesian students are studying at Islamic institutions in Pakistan and about 1,500 to 2,000 are studying in Yemen.

Researchers say the number of students attending well-known Islamic institutions has remained roughly constant in the past decade, there has been a sharp drop in the small number who attend extremist institutions.

Researchers analyzed the risks of students becoming exposed to extremist ideology or organizations. Their report states that, although the majority were not likely to “fall under the spell” of militants, the study’s author Anthony Bubalo says other Indonesian students were considered to be vulnerable.

“In the case of Pakistan, there's clearly still an interest amongst the Indonesian extremist community to get to Pakistan. You know, most recently we saw the arrest in Pakistan of Omar Patek, a, you know, famous JI [Jemaah Islamiyah] extremist in the same city in which Osama bin Laden was killed a short while afterwards," Bubalo explained. "And, the concern in relation to Pakistan is that the students -- is that these extremists might use student cover to go there. In the case of Yemen, our concern is mainly with a significant number of Indonesian students that go to Salafi institutions.”

Salafism is a movement for reform in Islam and has ideological links to militant groups, including al-Qaeda.

Researchers said the number of Indonesian students studying in Yemen has risen from a few hundred to some 2,000. However the majority of those students are attending well-established Islamic educational institutions with a mainstream religious outlook. They said a quarter of the students are attending Salafi institutions which raises concerns about students potentially at greater risk of coming into contact with extremists.

The Lowy Institute recommends that governments monitor the whereabouts of Indonesian students in Pakistan and Yemen to try to ensure they are there for legitimate educational experiences.

The study also involved researchers from the Center for International Security Studies at Sydney University and the Center for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia.

Australian and Indonesian authorities have collaborated closely since the attacks in Bali, in October 2002. The bombings of a bar and a nightclub by Islamic radicals killed more than 200 people. Eighty-eight of the victims were Australian vacationers, bringing their country to the frontline of international terrorism.

The bombings stiffened Canberra’s resolve to fight alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Australia regards Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, as a key security partner.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Real Threat of Fabrication?

Sana'a, September 8, 2011– President Saleh very early recognized the need for his government to assist the U.S in its fights against terrorism in the Middle East as he knew that Yemen could very well turn into the next American’s target in terms of military strike.
American security analysts have always claimed that Yemen was one of the terror group’ strongholds, with many training camps and recruitment centers spread across its southern region.
Firmly determined to remain in charge of his country’s affairs, President Saleh promised President Bush to actively combat terrorism in his country and to collaborate closely with his new American ally. Yemen counter-terrorism was born.
For the next decade, America would generously fund Yemen’s terror programs, giving this impoverished nation of the Arabic Peninsula access to several hundreds of millions of dollars. Saleh had de facto become a valuable U.S ally in the region, believed to be by many officials a bulwark against al-Qaeda.
However, many of the president’s detractors have now came out of the wood work claiming that Saleh was using the terror threat to assert his power over Yemen, accusing him of having close ties with members of the group.
But as Yemen southern region of Abyan is being besieged by armed militants operating under the name of “Ansar al Shariah”, an alleged branch of al-Qaeda, Yemenis are discovering the reality of a life under terrorism.
President Saleh and al-Qaeda
On the wake of September 11, and the American military intervention in Afghanistan, president Saleh decided to be pro-active, offering his support to the Bush administration in its chase of al-Qaeda operatives in the region.
In exchange of the support, America opened its check book, willing to oversee chronic mismanagement as it was given extraordinary leeway in Yemen: drones intrusion within Yemeni airspace, surgical military strikes on Yemeni soil, overview of interrogations conducted against alleged al Qaeda sympathizers and so on…
Despite this close “cooperation” however, well-known terror group leaders still remained at large, although being in Yemen’ s public full view. For instance, Sheikh Abdel Mageed al-Zindani, who is an influential Yemeni cleric, an Islah party leader (the government main opposition party and home to some of the most powerful men in Yemen, Sheikh Sadeea al Ahmar and Genaral Ali Mohsen al Ahmra being among them) and one of the most wanted men in the U.S, was never challenged by Saleh’s government. Only when al-Zindani threatened to bring down the regime did Saleh announce the Sheikh’s arrest warrant.

In his decade long fight against Islamism, Saleh did not really succeed in destroying its operating cells in Yemen. Despite the ever growing security units and the national security programs, Saleh merely managed to veil al-Qaeda’s operations in the region, leading many to believe that he was in control.
Defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar very publicly accused president Saleh a few months ago of allowing al-Qaeda militants to disturb the peace in the southern province of Abyan as to prove that Yemen would sink into chaos if he was to ever leave. He went further by claiming that Saleh had al-Qaeda operatives within his government and that it had been so for years.
Until March of this year, Mohsen was considered as Ali Abdullah Saleh’s most faithful and longstanding ally. After having been privy to the president’s policies and political maneuvering for several decades, such accusations reverberated loudly through Yemen, putting a question mark on the president’s trustworthiness.
Although foreign media reported the news, no real comments were made by politicians as they choose to look the other way. In Yemen, analysts and politicians went on overdrive.
Yemen’s main opposition party, the JMP (Joint Meeting Party), chorused the general’ statement when Mohamed Qahtan, its most senior spokesman, announced that al-Qaeda was a fabrication. As proof, the JMP told the media that Yemen’s army was doing next to nothing to stop the militants’ advances in the region, accusing it of having surrendered Zinjibar to “Ansar al Shariah”, the terror group allegedly linked to al-Qaeda.
Many Yemenis, most of them anti-government protesters, are convinced that the Opposition is telling the truth.
As for the regime, they are invoking a decade-long partnership with the U.S saying that they had committed themselves to fighting terrorism in Yemen and that the defected General was merely a disgruntled enemy of the government he once served.
Yemen’s Reality Today
Outside the corridors of politics, Yemen’ southern region of Abyan is living the terrible reality of terrorism. Since “Ansar al Shariah” seized, its regional capital, Zinjibar, civilians had had to endure death and destruction.
Thousands of families were seen fleeing the conflict with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, desperately looking for safer grounds. Those who stayed behind are painting a far different reality than what the terror group is said to want to achieve. “Ansar al Shariah” is claiming to be fighting for an Islamist state, based on the teachings of the holy Quran. They say to be fighting for justice and fairness for all.
In Jaar and Zinjibar, local residents are telling the press that the group is preventing them from accessing hospitals. Residents have learned to dread every passing jet fighters as the militants have settled their encampments at the heart of residential communities. Only a few days ago, a mosque was bombed as the government claimed it was used by the Islamists, 30 people died.
Several reports coming from the South have warned that the Islamist insurgency is gaining ground, spreading towards the Oil and Gas rich provinces of Marib and Shabwa.
Whether or not the al-Qaeda threat was used by the regime to rally western support behind an ailing presidency, it has become a reality that no one can ignore anymore. Now that the hat is out of the box, it is putting it back that might be proven difficult.
Source: Yemen Post

Al-Qaeda still A Danger in Yemen, Somalia: Experts

September 8, 2011, Xinhua

By Matthew Rusling

A decade after launching the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, al-Qaeda has been hobbled in Pakistan but remains a danger in Yemen and Somalia, U.S. experts said.

John Brennan, adviser on homeland security and anti-terrorism to President Barack Obama, said in a recent interview with the U.S. media that he thinks the terrorist organization has been severely weakened. As evidence, al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader was killed in Pakistan in late August, another major U.S. victory after U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden in May.

Brennan billed the death of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman -- allegedly by drone strike -- in Pakistan's tribal region as a major blow to al-Qaeda, sending the group scrambling to hide and rendering it unable to plan new operations. He also credited the absence of terror plots in the lead up to the 10th 9/11 anniversary to aggressive U.S. action against radicals.

Many U.S. experts, however, warned against complacency on the U. S. anti-terrorism campaign, noting that while al-Qaeda may be weakened in Pakistan, the group's splinter organizations are still alive and well in Yemen and Somalia.

"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen is very dangerous. We've had a number of plots hatched out of there against the United States," said Peter Brookes, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who previously served in the Central Intelligence Agency.

Al-Shabaab in Somalia is a capable terror group, and al-Qaeda in Iraq has also set off a number of bombings recently, he added. "There's a lot of places still to be concerned about," he said in a recent interview with U.S. TV news network Fox News.

"So when he (Brennan) says 'al-Qaeda', I really think he's got to parse that down a little bit," he said. "He was talking about al-Qaeda in Pakistan but there's a lot of dangerous affiliates out there that are threats not only regionally but also globally and including to the United States."

He added that he is concerned that the United States could become complacent in fighting radicalism, noting that there have been three terror plots hatched out of Yemen in the last 18 months.


Other analysts echoed Brennan's words, saying that al-Qaeda is crippled and unlikely to mount any major attacks on the United States.

Scott Stewart, analyst at global intelligence company Stratfor, argued on the organization's Web site that the core group of al- Qaeda is "off balance and concerned for its security -- especially in light of the intelligence gathered in the raid on bin Laden's hideout."

In May, U.S. Navy Seals special forces stormed bin Laden's compound in Pakistan in an operation that resulted in the terrorist mastermind's death in a firefight and the uncovering of a wealth of intelligence on al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda's leaders do not have the same freedom of movement they did prior to September 2001, and no longer have the same operational capability in terms of international travel and the ability to transfer money that it had prior to 9/11 attacks, Stewart contended.

Some fear that militants would like to plan an attack on the United States as a symbolic statement to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and others fret that the group's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may feel pressure to conduct an attack in order to prove his credibility as al-Qaeda's new leader.

Stewart argued, however, that while radicals are doing their utmost to launch an attack, they are unlikely to meet that goal.

Moreover, the group has for some time been under considerable pressure to prove itself relevant for several years but has been unable to deliver. That means that the pressure to conduct a successful attack is no heavier now than it was prior to bin Laden' s death, he contended.

Finally, if the group had the capability to launch a major attack, it would have done so as soon as it could, instead of waiting for a symbolic date, as security near the 9/11 anniversary is likely to be tightened, Stewart argued.

Suspected al-Qaida Militants Attack Gov't Building in S Yemen

September 8, 2011, Xinhua

Suspected al-Qaida militants Thursday attacked a government building in the southern port city of Aden, leaving two policemen seriously injured, a local security official said.

Suspected al-Qaida militants fired three stun grenades at a government building in the al-Mualla district of Aden, leaving two policemen critically injured, the official told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

Following the attack, sporadic gun shots toward the building were heard, local residents said.

Government authorities tightened security measures in the city, deploying armored vehicles across the streets and conducting intensive inspections for cars heading to Aden, witnesses said.

In Aden's neighboring province of Lahj, another local security official said that suspected al-Qaida militants fired rocket- propelled grenades at the Military Intelligence Agency headquarters in al-Houta city, the provincial capital of Lahj.

No information about casualties was available, he said, adding that tension escalated in the city as a number of terrorists fled to Lahj during the past two weeks from Zinjibar city in Abyan province, where government forces have launched a crackdown on the al-Qaida group.

Meanwhile, a source close to the al-Qida militants said that leading members of the group in Abyan vowed to move their battles with the army forces to the neighboring provinces of Aden and Shabwa after scores of terrorists were killed in air strikes and army offensives.

Militants of the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have taken advantage of the country's political turmoil to seize several towns in the nearly lawless southern and eastern provinces.