Friday, September 13, 2013

Zawahiri and AQ Core's evolving strategy

The leader of Al Qa'ida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has released another audiotape.

Much of the recording follows Zawahiri's traditional form - calling for resistance to western civilization, ridiculing American culture, claiming AQ/affiliates have driven the US out of the Middle East etc.

Still, there are two interesting elements to this latest message.

First, when Zawahiri calls for attacks ''by one brother or a few of the brothers [followers of AQ ideology]", he's speaking to an evolving attack strategy on the part of AQ core. Astute to western capabilities in the field of communications intelligence (specifically signal intercepts), for a number of years now, AQ has sought to reduce its electronic footprint. Indeed, this renewed focus on improved operational security is further evidenced by Zawahiri's decision to release an audio rather than video tape (video tapes obviously providing more analytic utility to US Intelligence). Ultimately, Zawahiri is aware that every time his operatives communicate across the internet etc. they run the risk of detection. Combined with the fact that US Intelligence/allied services adopt a range of other actions to identify and disrupt AQ agents, the group has been forced to embrace a diversified attack strategy. By inspiring acts of violence (note his praise of the Boston bombers), Zawahiri hopes to hurt the United States without jeopardizing his assets (if interested, see my thoughts on the Tsarnaevs). 
          Nevertheless, in contrast to the former FBI agent who speaks in the video below, I believe that it would be a serious mistake to underestimate AQ Core's desire and capacity to employ their own operatives where possible. The apparent operational synergy between the suspects in Operation Pathway and the Zazi plotters, illustrates that AQ Core remains active beyond simple influence messaging.

Second interest element- Zawahiri's statement: I warn my brothers in Syria against any compromise with those factions. They have to learn the lesson of Egypt... [Zawahiri then condemns Morsi for maintaining the peace treaty with Israel].” From my perspective, Zawahiri is pursuing two objectives with this message. 
            First, he's encouraging affiliates like ISIS to continue their campaign of destruction in the region (see point 2 here). Zawahiri believes that political instability and escalating sectarian tensions will provide a foundation for AQ's broader empowerment.* 
              Second, regarding his condemnation of Morsi, I suspect that Zawahiri is attempting to create fissures in the Muslim Brotherhood - seeking to attract disaffected MB supporters towards AQ linked extremism. A few weeks back, I expressed my concern that the Egyptian Army's crackdown would spark a 'Salafist Spring' (see point 5 here). Zawahiri might be a fanatic, but as he proved in his dealings with al-Zarqawi, he's also a semi-astute political actor - he senses an opportunity in the chaos.

* - AQ's obsession with violence says much about the group's organizing identity. They are extremist totalitarians - individuals who pursue catastrophic violence as their primary mechanism of action.

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