Thursday, 17 April 2014

Western al-Qaeda recruits pose threat for future

A New Zealand citizen killed in an American airstrike in Yemen last year may have been in the country as part of an al-Qaeda franchise group operating in the war-torn country. The group concerned is most likely Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed April 16 the New Zealand-born man was killed in the counter-terrorism operation on November 18 of last year.

The Australian reported the man may also have held a dual-Australian citizenship and gone by the name of Muslim bin John. He is reported to have died alongside an Australian citizen named as Christopher Harvard of Townsville. According to reports, a US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) conducted the airstrike as the pair travelled in a convoy of cars with another militant.

AQAP has been the most active of al-Qaeda franchise groups. They’re attacks have not been isolated to Yemen, where they are predominantly based. They have set their sights on attacking Western targets especially US-bound airliners.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key confirmed he had been informed of the man’s involvement in a training camp in Yemen, and that the man was the subject of an intelligence warrant. Mr Key defended the use of  UAVs in the operation, saying the three people killed were well-known al-Qaeda operatives.

A video also surfaced April 16 purportedly showing a large group of al-Qaeda militants, including AQAP’s commander Nasir al-Wuhayshi. The video appears to be authentic and CIA analysts are combing the footage for potential clues, according to a US official. Mr al-Wuhayshi appears to be addressing a large outdoor crowd of AQAP members who may have been celebrating a February prison break. During the break, which occurred in February, perhaps 29 AQAP inmates escaped after militants stormed the complex.

Senior bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri, suspected as the most competent of al-Qaeda technicians, is still at large in supposedly residing in Yemen.

Some of the militants appear in the video not to be wearing scarves over their faces. These people have had their facial features pixelated in post-production which could indicate a third party’s involvement in preparing the film before it was released to the media. Such protective measures might point to an evolving operational security practised by the AQAP militants, although obscuring vulnerable faces has been standard procedure in all media and is unlikely to be a new process for the group.

Instead, obscuring faces of some of the members may stem from the fact that more Western individuals, such as the recently killed New Zealander, could be included in the group.  According to anonymous US intelligence officials, radicalised Western recruits have been tracked entering various conflict zones around the world and fighting alongside or as part of al-Qaeda franchise groups on a number of occasions.

Syria and Pakistan have become the two main war zones attracting Western recruits in recent years. But AQAP and the Somalia-based al-Shabaab are also reportedly actively engaging radicalised recruits from Europe, United States, and Australia. An ongoing concern for Western intelligence agencies is what happens to these individuals when they finish their fights and decide to return home. Britain’s MI6 and the American CIA are actively involved in monitoring these people.

It is assumed many of the recruits will not return to their homelands because they take part largely as simple foot soldiers. The most common recruit apparently wishes for “martyrdom” in battle, rather than experience, indicating they do not intend to finish their adventure alive.

Militant leaders will take these recruits, but they prefer those with an education or possessing foreign desirable passports and identities. Historically speaking it is these recruits who tend to outlive whatever war they’re fighting and return home. Western counterterrorism agencies will find it difficult to monitor and track where these individuals eventually go, due to their training in terrorism tradecraft. However, each of these militants possess impressive first-hand battlefield experience, especially those returning from Syria.

These individuals will pose a problem for their home countries. What is especially worrying is the sheer amount of such experienced people milling around in war zones. Because of this reality, Western nations are likely to experience an uptick in terror attacks and militancy in the coming decade.

If the number of obscured faces in the AQAP video is the total amount of Western recruits in the group, then it would be a surprisingly small figure. Other individuals are likely not included in the video.

The video is likely to concern US counterterrorism officials that such a high-level meeting was not detected before it took place. The brazen attitude of the militants and the fact that the meeting was conducted during the day. shows they may not be as worried as in years past about American UAV strikes. The video should encourage US officials to prioritise more UAV surveillance flights to disrupt AQAP’s ability to conduct attacks. It should also go some way in funnelling more resources to bolstering the human intelligence (HUMINT) effort on the ground in Yemen.

That the meeting took place at all points to a potential lack of rigorous on-the-ground HUMINT assets in the war-torn country. The United States has tended to rely overwhelmingly on electronic and technologically-heavy surveillance platforms, such as their various fleets of UAVs, satellites, and manned aircraft.

Since 2008, these platforms have had good success rates targeting militants across the Middle East, South Asia, and Sahel Africa. However, the de-emphasis on HUMINT work could be creating nasty gaps in situational awareness leading to completely missing large-scale gatherings such as the militants shown in the video.

Western-led human intelligence is slowly getting a greater share of resources from governments, but the reality in almost every developed nation is still deference to electronic surveillance as a first option. Of course, the reason for missing the AQAP meeting might not entirely be blamed on negligence on behalf of intelligence work.

As with many long-term operations, the meeting could have been part of an important surveillance effort and perhaps the timing to target the group did not fit into the larger picture of the operation. Intelligence operations are by their very definition opaque, with the open-source world rarely hearing about successful operations.

Targeting a New Zealand-born man suspected to be affiliated with AQAP does however offer a good example of both a successful operation and the danger of Western radicals fighting in overseas war zones.

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