August 26, 2011

Information Battle Over “al-Qaeda 2.0” Escalates

The UNHCR estimates that over 3,700 Somali refugees have fled to Yemen in August alone, many traveling hundreds of miles on makeshift rafts. If true this looks like the most concrete evidence that al-Shabaab could have landed Shaqa, roughly 40 miles from Abyan’s local capital of Zinjibar. Government officials issued such allegations earlier this week, claiming that 400 al-Shabaab fighters crossed the Gulf of Aden under cover of the refugees. These reinforcements, if false, are designed hype al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and keep the U.S. on Ali Abdullah Saleh’s side.

Yet as improbable as this scenario sounds, the insurgents’ ability to disguise themselves and secure faster vessels from cooperative pirate lords cannot be underestimated. Southern Yemen’s total breakdown in government authority renders their landing a nonissue.

Allowing for the possibility that al-Shabaab units could make the crossing undetected through a host of international navies, the question becomes whether they have such a force to send. The group’s strength is estimated in low thousands and has deployed much of its force in Somalia’s southern and central regions. Hundreds of fighters had holed up in Mogadishu until their abrupt withdrawal earlier this month, while African Union (AU) commanders estimated al-Shabaab’s Ramadan offensive at 300 reinforcements. Those fighters that haven’t withdrawn from the capital have been reported across Somalia’s southern half - Lower and Middle Shabelle, Bay, Gedo - in an apparent bid to both stop the remaining population from leaving and secure a perimeter around Mogadishu.

While al-Shabaab could have 400 fighters to throw at Yemen, it seems unlikely that the group can afford the loss during its realignment. A smaller cadre appears to be the most realistic possibility.

In a related development, Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for bombing the UN’s Nigerian headquarters in Ajuba. At least 18 people were killed and many more injured when a suicide bomber drove up the building’s main reception area. The anti-Christian sect has began to employ this tactic with greater frequency and range from its northern territory, including a June bombing on the capital’s police headquarters. Western leaders responded with rapid condemnation but without mentioning the group.

Although President Barack Obama also ignored recent rumors of a connection to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), America’s generals have spoken for him. Now the question of whether AQIM assisted Boko’s latest bombing is on many observers’ minds. The Sahel group has released a steady stream of friendly propaganda since offering its assistance last year, and regional analysts suspect at least a few transfers of knowledge have resulted in more sophisticated attacks from Boko Haram. Factoring in an insurgency’s inherent manipulation of information and the Internet’s availability, AQIM’s personal outreach cannot be discounted entirely despite the Pentagon’s attempt to will the groups together.

In the latest of a string of connections between AQIM, al-Shabaab and AQAP, General Carter Ham told The Associated Press that "multiple sources" indicate a connection between Boko and AQIM. The chief of AFRICOM offered his own worst case scenario, explaining, "What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts. I'm not so sure they're able to do that just yet, but it's clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that."

"I think it would be the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well,” Carter concluded.

The General’s alarmist claim has been met with a degree of suspicion from local and regional observers, partially because Ham added that a "loose" partnership also would include al-Shabaab. Somalia’s militants have yet to reach out publicly to AQIM or Boko. With Osama bin Laden out of the picture and Afghanistan supposedly “winding down,” U.S. officials have busied themselves connecting all of these “new” dots in order to run them through the same Special Forces machine. This is al-Qaeda 2.0 according to Navy SEAL Adm. Eric T. Olson, who just turned U.S. Special Operations Command over to Adm. William H. McRaven. Olson also warned of an “invisible bridge” between AQAP and al-Shabaab, a term loaded with deeper implications than an ideological bond.

For these reasons we remain skeptical on the overall connection between these groups; al-Qaeda 1.5 may be more accurate. AQAP in particular is nebulously enabled by Ali Saleh’s corrupt regime and U.S. support, a trajectory aimed at justifying prolonged security cooperation. U.S. strategy against AQIM has also been criticized in some quarters for delegating to a suspect Algerian government, labeled “a prickly, paranoid group” in a 2008 Embassy cable. Ham has already offered security training to the Nigerian government.

However we will not deny the truth as it is revealed either. If al-Qaeda is shifting into “2.0,” these events portend to another decade (or more) of decentralized warfare, open U.S. security expansion in Africa and a massive shadow operation. Washington and bin Laden’s visions of a long war, unfortunately, are colliding.

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