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Guest Thinkers

Things We don’t know

Studying and thinking about groups like al-Qaeda can be an intellectually dangerous undertaking. Like most areas of study, the information one is dealing with is often heavily biased. Additionally, there is often comparatively little information to study. This means that constructing a coherent narrative about what is going on often requires reading much too much into too little evidence; piecing together disparate shards of evidence to create a comprehensive whole. Anytime anyone is basing so much of their analysis on such a precarious base of evidence the results can become quite skewed, which is, at least for me, one of the reasons that so much of the writing and “scholarship” on al-Qaeda is crap.

But this also means that it is important to still deal with the evidence that doesn’t fit neatly into any narrative. And this brings us to the point of today’s post. Two things that have been bothering me for some time about AQAP (there are many more, but I will only post on two) and for which I don’t have good answers.

The first issue is why wasn’t the hit list of 55 security officers released through al-Malahim’s media wing? This was the list that was distributed around Abyan in September on the authority of “al-Qaeda” that the individuals (“spies”) on the list needed to repent after Friday prayers in Zanjibar, the capital of Abyan, on September 10, 2010 or they would be fair game for al-Qaeda. To the best of my knowledge, only one individual from the list, Ghazi al-Samawi, has been killed.

It is difficult to be certain, however, as some of the names are only first names or first names and father’s names, which could be almost anybody. For instance, I don’t think yesterday’s killing of Muhammad ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in Mukalla was the same Muhammad ‘Abd al-‘Aziz as is on the list as the list seemed to be restricted to Abyan.

So this issues really raises two questions, which themselves beg a number more. 1. Why didn’t al-Malahim release this? If it was an official AQAP directive, surely the media wing would have put it out by now. 2. Why in all the assassinations of security officials that have taken place in recent weeks has only one of them been directed at an individual on the list of 55?

Previously when AQAP distributed something locally – I’m thinking of the Tarbush video – it also distributed it on the Internet.

Speculation could lead down some interesting roads – some of which others are already exploring: Does al-Wihayshi have as much command-and-control over the organization as some previously thought? Have all the new recruits over the past year-and-a-half made the organization too big to be effectively controlled by al-Wihayshi, al-Shihri, al-Raymi, and al-‘Abab – (notice Anwar al-Awlaki is not on that list).

2. What ever happened to AQAP’s threat to execute the security official from Sa’dah, Ali Muhammad Salih al-Hisam, it claimed to have in custody back in mid-September? At that point it gave the government 48 hours to release two prisoners or it would execute al-Hisam. So what happened?

To the best of my knowledge no who knows is saying. AQAP has not released a statement either saying al-Hisam was executed or that its two comrades were returned, so …. where does this leave us?

If the prisoners are still in prison this should be verifiable (I almost wrote “easily,” but then I remembered.) But mostly, I’m curious as to why AQAP hasn’t followed this statement up with anything.

In 2010 there has been a wandering to the organization’s media message, meandering statements on a variety of subjects that wasn’t present in 2008 and 2009. Some of this may be attributable to the death of al-Qahtani, the Saudi founder of Sada al-Malahim. But I tend to believe both that this is one of the reasons for Sada al-Malahim’s faltering schedule and also that the removal of one individual like al-Qahtani wouldn’t have this much impact on the group’s media strategy. So, again, where does this leave us?


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