Saturday, October 01, 2005

Information War, Al Qaida and Power Struggles

On May 25, 2005, reports surfaced that Zarqawi had been severely injured and possibly near death. This was based on a website that has been considered an unverified, but fairly accurate part of the Jihad Information War. The person "releasing the information" was Abu Maysarah al-Iraqi, an information/media coordinator . Al-Iraqi should be remembered as a tribal name or identifier, just as Saddam Hussein's tribe was "al-Tikriti". Either the Tikritis took their tribal name from the area of Tikrit or the area had been given its name based on the tribe. Additional historical information would have to be gathered to establish this.

Some may imagine that "al-Iraqi" simply means "the Iraqi" or "of Iraq". This may be true, but it may also be true that "al Iraqi" is an actual tribal name that originates from Iraq.

Why is this important?

Abu Azzam al Iraqi was killed during a raid by coalition forces recently and was announced on September 26. Knowing how the military works on delivering information, it may be more responsible to state that his death was "announced" on that date than to assume that the death occurred on or around September 26. Particularly, when doing intelligence work, it would not be wise to let announce any such thing until identity is confirmed and as much intelligence gleaned from the raid can be correlated and exploited. Even Jihad websites were slow to announce his death until after coalition forces had done so.

Bill Rogio at Fourth Rail posits the theory that Abu Azzam may have been leading the recent car bombing attacks in Baghdad prior to his demise.

I want to step back from that theory for a moment and address another point that Bill made, but did not extend out to any other theory about the leadership of al Qaida in Iraq although he did address it in a May posting regarding possible "successors" to Zarqawi.

We have already witnessed the struggle between Abu Maysira al-Iraqi and Abu Hafs al-Qarni (al Gerni), as the latter attempted to usurp command by issuing a statement via the web.

This announcement was later withdrawn with a rather vehemanent denial that any such replacement had been considered. At the same time, the insurgency went strangely quiet for a few days before picking back up. The announcement and then withdrawal was a significant mistake in Al Qaida's information war, since it gave outsiders a peak into the issues surrounding the leadership struggles and what a "disseminated" leadership structure can suffer when the strong leader is gone. On the plus side, disseminated leadership allows for more and quicker decision making at a local level, capable of reacting more quickly to changes or intelligence on the ground. On the other hand, without a clear structure for successors or promotions, it can lead to in fighting within the ranks. Particularly, if the process requires much consultation to make such a determination.

Not long after, Zarqawi made an appearance and personally announced the death of Al Rashid (Rashoud, Rashud), a religious mentor and propagandist for Al Qaida in Saudi Arabia, which put an end to discussions of "successors".

However, in the Abu Azzam posting, Bill points out that three of the nine likely candidates for the replacement of Zarqawi after his serious injury had been announced, have been killed or captured. This includes Abu Azzam, Suleiman Khalid Darwish, and Abu Talha. Darwish was killed and Talha captured within 30 short days of this original power struggle. This may be related to separate intelligence asset's providing information or it could be from information gleaned from Zarqawis laptop captured in April that just took that long to process. One report did say that Talha was captured after information "pinpointed" his location. This was on June 16, barely two weeks after Zarqawi's grievous injury was announced and the "power struggle" was noted.

One thing is certain, it is best not to assume that Al Qaida is some super structure where every commander agrees whole heartedly with strategic objectives, does not have ambitions of their own or believes in the "cause" with a single mind as to what that cause is and the expected outcome. While the top leaders of the so called "insurgency", needing to hide within the populace, may run a higher risk than a coalition Captain, Colonel or General in theater, and, improved intelligence networks on the ground can certainly contribute to improved actions against high value targets, some things need to be explored.

For instance, the recent debate over whether the US Administration's often, seemingly unending claims, of killing a "top commander" has resulted in claims the US is overstating its success. Walid Phares indicates that this debate may simply be over semantics and a misunderstanding by many in the public of the nature of establishing "commanders" in Al Qaida and its power structure. However, these ambiguous claims on the intel networks part may be directly related to their information campaign to stir concern in the jihadist ranks over the status of their leadership as well as inject possible power struggles but giving one "commander" more status than another, may stir the power struggle pot. Jealousy and ambition are not simply "western" trains.

Another issue I find interesting is that the Al Qaida battle plan usually calls for the withdrawal of leadership elements in the face of high danger and leaving "foot soldiers" behind to cover their escape. Zawahiri makes this plain in chapter eleven of Knights Under the Prophet's Banner:

However, an extremely important and serious question arises here; namely, what if the movement's members or plans are uncovered, if its members are arrested, the movement's survival is at risk, and a campaign of arrests and storming operations targets its members, funds, resources, and leaders?
In this case, the movement must ask itself a specific question and give a clear answer.

Could it disperse in the face of the storm and pull out of the field with the least possible casualties? Or is patience not feasible and means total defeat and there is no room for withdrawal?

Or perhaps the answer could be a combination of the two aforesaid scenarios, meaning that it could pull out some of its leaders and members safely, leaving some others to face the risk of captivity and brutality.
In my opinion, the answer is that the movement must pull out as many personnel as possible to the safety of a shelter without hesitation, reluctance, or reliance on illusions. The most serious decision facing someone under siege is the escape decision. It is the hardest thing to leave the family, the position, the job, and the steady style of life and proceed to the unknown, uncertainties, and the uneasy life.

We saw this played out in Tora Bora, Fallujah, Mosul, Qaim and Tal afar. So, how would three "top" leaders be abandoned to capture in the last four months, two of them within thirty days of the power struggle appearance on the web?

Aside from the web apparent power struggle, another indicator may be this letter written by Abu Zayd, a coordinator for foreign fighters in Mosul, lamenting the poor leadership in his area:

Abu Zayd informs in his letter to the "Sheikh" that, "This is a clarification of what has become of the situation in Mosul, and it is no secret to you the noticeable decrease in the attacks carried out by the Mujahidin, from not long ago when Mosul was in the hands of the Mujahidin..." Abu Zayd continues by listing the multiple reasons why the "Mujahidin" have been less effective recently.

Abu Zayd claims that the Mosul Emirs are incompetent; attacks lack diversity; suicide bombings are focused more on quantity and not quality; those who are in the network are disobedient; a legitimate organization in Mosul does not exist; collaboration between the Emirs is lacking; "Muslim money" is squandered on petty expenses; numerous security violations occur; "inaccurate and blurred" updates to the Sheikh are reported; and foreign fighters endure "deplorable" conditions to include lack of pay, housing problems and marginalization.

Chrenkoff also notes that a similar letter was received from the Baghdad office of Al Qaida in April of this year, presumably after Abu Azzam al Iraqi had taken over operations having fled Fallujah prior to the November 2004 assault.

The Islamic nation is waiting for the establishment of an Islamic state that rules by God's laws and carries out his punishments and is waiting for the men who can protect its honor, which is being violated every day. This is the path, but where are the men? We ask God to guide them. What has happened to me (and to?) my brothers is an unforgivable crime. ...

In other words, the new leader in town is very bad at his job. The letter goes on to say that there is favoritism in the ranks, the foreigners are being forced to perform "martyrdom" operations or "go home"; the immigrants (foreign fighters) are not being put up in the manner they were expecting and many are being jailed with no relief (legal or money for bribes). He goes on to say specifically:

The most important thing is that you don't hear from (only) one side, even if it were the closest person to you. Hear from all sides so that the truth can become clear to you. We have found emirs who are not fit for leadership. We are not the ones who can determine who is fit and who isn't, but we are witnesses of God's people and we are the ones who have experienced and know them. ...

Oh sheik, test those who are below you. Some of them are ... Oppressors and some of them are not so.

This is my last request: to meet you, because there are many things that are secret and the truth is that I no longer trust any person who says that he is coming from the sheik's side. We are tired and we have suffered a lot. Thanks be to God.

On September 11, Abu Zayd was killed in a fire fight with coalition forces.

Abu Azzam was killed on or about September 26. It may be that the pyramid of information gleaned from previous arrests and intelligence found on the Abu Zayd raid led to Abu Azzam being located. However, the semantics used in these reports appear to imply that the specific information that led to the events were human intelligence. Another point is that Abu Zayd may have been totally correct in his assessment considering that, regardless of the attacks in Baghdad the last 10 days, prior to that, the attacks in this area had been decreased to something like 5 to 6 a day instead of 30 to 60.

Zawahiri, in "Knights" chapter 11, also had this to say about the leadership of the jihad:

The Islamic movement in general, and the jihad movements in particular, must train themselves and their members on perseverance, patience, steadfastness, and adherence to firm principles. The leadership must set an example for the members to follow. This is the key to victory. "O ye who believe. Endure, outdo all others in endurance, be ready, and observe your duty to Allah, in order that ye may succeed." [Koranic verse]

If signs of relaxation and retreat start to show on the leadership, the movement must find ways to straighten out its leadership and not to permit it to deviate from the line of jihad.

In context of the recent captures and kills, these words should take on a whole new meaning for the Al Qaida leadership in Iraq. If they do not perform they may suffer "permanent" termination from the job. Abu Zayd had the temerity to go outside his chain of command to complain and may have had his career ended through an inside leak. Abu Azzam may have had a similar fate, particularly since a jihad website posting concerning his death insisted that Azzam was not really a leader, but a simple "soldier" in the fight for Islam. Pharid Wales posits a theory that:

A minimal understanding of the propaganda machine of the Jihadists would have realized that “they” don’t want to give any psychological victory to the infidels. From at least a significant leader in the structure, his terrorist companions reduced Abu Azzam to a “simple soldier among others,” so as to deny Iraqis and the Coalition any political victory.

However, messages posted to these websites are often either directly to other jihadists or carry a dual message to both the outside world and their internal structure. Thus, it is possible to surmise that this was the Al Qaida version of the Godfather putting a horses head in the bed of its internal detractors: a warning about what happens when leaders forget their place and "deviate from the line of jihad". Al Talha may have suffered the same fate considering the April letter from Mosul, his place in the possible line of succession after Zarqawi's injury and the ensuing short power struggle. Darwish may have been more directly related to the power struggle itself.

One important question to answer to validate this theory is the method in which these leaders met their fates: at the hands of coalition forces. The answer may lie in evaluating other gangland or similar organizations' power struggles. Typically, these power struggles can arise from three directions: top down; lateral; or bottom up. The two types of attacks are direct and indirect.

Top down power struggles can be the result of: subordinates threatening the leadership position of a "commander"; subordinates continue to act outside the leadership guidelines and threaten the organization; subordinates are too independent and the leadership wishes to "consolidate" their control. A wise leader can pull off either a direct or indirect attack to suit his needs. For instance, a direct attack where it is obvious directions derived from the leadership is often for the purpose of projecting power and putting the other subordinates on notice. An indirect attack, allowing for "plausible deniability" can be used if the take out of a subordinate leader could cause an already unstable situation to worsen, deepen the power struggle among subordinates and top leadership or if a tactical gain can occur such as dumping the body in an opposing organizations territory or doing the "take down" in such a way that it appears the opposing force perpetrated the act. In such a way, the leader can not only deny involvement, but use it as a rallying point or reason to attack the opposing force to gain territory or simply weaken their hold. It also has the advantage of keeping possible loyal "soldiers" to the killed subordinate leader from seeking revenge.

Lateral power struggles typically concern consolidating power directly below the top leadership or ending "shared power" situations with the top leadership. Consolidating territory and resources provide a wider base of support for take over of leadership or allows the establishment as the "real" second in command, having responsibility over a wide base and giving the appearance of personal sucess based on that larger group's activities, even if they weren't directly responsible for the set up and operations. It's possible that the type of attack could be "direct" for the same reason a top leader would do so, flexing muscle and showing other subordinates "who's in charge", however, it is probably more likely to be "indirect" in order not to anger the top leadership, not to give away moves that may alert other subordinate leaders to the prospect of their own take down and to keep loyal "soldiers" from seeking revenge. Again, plausible deniability is an important cover for this type of internal operation.

Bottom up power struggles are the most likely to appear "indirect" or "stealth". Mostly because "soldiers" have not proven themselves, have a very small base of supporters and are generally not protected from counter acts should the upper leadership consider them a risk to their own positions.

The deaths and capture of the three Iraq Al Qaida leaders would suggest that these are possible "top down" or "lateral" moves. Instead of a simply "concerned citizen" providing information, it's possible that a member of the organization was directed to provide such information. Not only could they deny responsibility, but they can perpetuate the myth of martyrdom, use it as a recruiting tool, keeping a weakened organization stable and rally existing troops against opposing forces.

Losing a miniscule moment of the information war might have been a small price to pay to clean up the leadership and meet additional goals.

No comments: