Frontpage Interview's guest today is Jonathan Schanzer, a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in radical Islamic movements. He is the author of the new book Al-Qaeda's Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups & the Next Generation of Terror.
FP: Mr. Schanzer, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Schanzer: Thank you. It's great to be here.
FP: What motivated you to write this book?
Schanzer: I first started thinking about Al-Qaeda's Armies when I came to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in September 2002. One year after the 9/11 attacks, analysts inside the beltway were spending countless hours researching al-Qaeda, but there was something missing. The primary target known as "al-Qaeda" had been oversimplified. As a result, many Americans believed that if the U.S. military simply captured Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the terrorist threat would dissipate. The Bali bombing and the attack on the French Tanker Limburg in Yemen that fall demonstrated to me that al-Qaeda's power and reach stemmed from a network of small and local groups that work as "subcontractors" for terrorist attacks all over the world, even as bin Laden and his top lieutenants hid in distant caves. In other words, the al-Qaeda network was able to be resilient because it relied not only upon its top leaders and clandestine cells, but also "affiliate groups," which are larger, homegrown, organic Islamist terror groups that became volunteer fighters for the al-Qaeda matrix.
With fighters that returned to their home countries after passing through the Afghanistan training camps and the Bosnian jihad, affiliate groups became the local outposts of al-Qaeda throughout the Muslim world. To put it very simply, if Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was the headquarters of the al-Qaeda corporation, affiliates are the international franchises.
I worked with the hypothesis that the next challenge in the War on Terror is to defeat this growing network of affiliates and cells – what amounts to "al-Qaeda's Armies." As such, the book examines the affiliate groups operating specifically in the Arab world. I looked at Asbat al-Ansar in Lebanon, the Islamic Army of Aden in Yemen, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, as well as the two original affiliate groups in Egypt – al-Jihad and al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya.
FP: Tell us how the affiliate groups give al-Qaeda its resiliency.
Schanzer: Clearly, the U.S. has gone on a counterterror offensive since 9/11. Al-Qaeda has adjusted to the challenge by relying more on the infrastructure of associate groups and individuals. This allows for the sharing of expertise, resources, strategic ideas and even individuals prepared to carry out an attack. This kind of sharing on the periphery allows the network to continue to function, even under intense international pressure. Playing a large role in this peripheral infrastructure are affiliate groups. Al-Qaeda can rely on them because they are considered the second tier of looming al-Qaeda threats, and therefore play a small or nonexistent role in the grand strategy of the global war on terror.
Another thing that allows these groups to operate is their size and their remote areas of operation. They are often relatively small and operate in areas outside the reach of state authority. In the Arab world, where leaders exert too much authority, al-Qaeda has found pockets of weak government control, where terror can proliferate. The U.S. government calls these areas "ungoverned spaces" or "ungoverned territory." Today, these ungoverned spaces of have become the well-entrenched homes of today's terrorist groups in the Arab world. Lebanon's Asbat al-Ansar operates in the lawless Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, which is simply teeming with Palestinian terrorists. Yemen's Islamic Army of Aden has traditionally operated in three or more lawless, tribal provinces, including Marib, which I visited in 2003. Ansar al-Islam first operated in the northeastern Kurdish enclave, but soon spread throughout war-torn Iraq with the help of terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat operates throughout Algeria, where civil war ravaged the country for more than a decade, and where the government continues to struggle for control.
FP: Could you discuss the sources you used for your research?
Schanzer: I used varied sources for this. I had to read just about every book and article about al-Qaeda first, to draw upon the good work of others. It was also important to look at the Arabic language newspapers that saw each individual affiliate as a local threat. Interestingly, while much of the Arabic media is not free and often regurgitates government propaganda, papers form Lebanon, Algeria and Egypt actually allowed some good information to trickle out into the public. Even though I don't speak French or Turkish, I looked at valuable journal and magazine articles in French and Turkish with the help of some colleagues. It was also interesting to hold interviews with government officials (State Department and Pentagon), foreign diplomats (Barham Salih, now deputy prime minister of Iraq), and even a few academics (Professor Mark Katz of George Mason University and Quintan Wictorowicz of Rhodes College).
The real fun came in the form of face-to-face interviews in Baghdad, Sulaymaniyya, Sanaa, Aden, Cairo, Paris and Tel Aviv. Government officials, academics, security experts and people on the street all helped provide for a better understanding of the affiliate groups I studied, as well as the environment that allows them to thrive. I hope that the governments of Lebanon and Algeria will consider allowing me to travel there the next time I make a request.
FP: You interviewed one of Saddam Hussein's former intelligence officers. Can you tell us about that experience?
Schanzer: During a trip to Iraq last year, I interviewed a young man named Abdul Rahman al-Shamari, who served in Saddam's Mukhabarat from 1997 to 2002. I interviewed al-Shamari in a PUK prison in Sulaymaniyya on January 29, 2003. He had been in prison since March 2002. He spoke in Arabic, and I understood most of what he told me. I also had a translator with me.
My first question to al-Shamari was whether he, as an agent of Saddam's secret police, had been involved in the operations of Ansar al Islam, the small al-Qaeda affiliate group that had been active on the Iranian border leading up to the Iraq war of 2003. Al-Shamari stated that his division of the Mukhabarat provided weapons to Ansar, "mostly mortar rounds." Al-Shamari added that the Mukhabarat also helped finance Ansar al Islam "every month or two months," providing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Al-Shamari also told me about ties between Saddam's regime and the broader al-Qaeda network. He estimated that some 150 foreign fighters were imported from al-Qaeda affiliate groups in Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon to fight with Ansar al-Islam's Kurdish fighters. For instance, he mentioned a man named Abu Aisha. He was likely referring to Bassam Kanj, alias Abu Aisha, who fought with the Dinniyeh group, a faction of the Lebanese al-Qaeda affiliate Asbat al-Ansar. Al-Shamari said that there was also contact with the Egyptian "Gamaat al-Jihad," and the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Al-Shamari talked of Abu Wael's links with Turkey's "Jamaa al-Khilafa"--likely the group also known as the "Organization of Caliphate State."
Al-Shamari also explained that Abu Wael had fostered some cooperation with Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He claimed that Zarqawi, now seen as the top terrorist in Iraq, was al-Qaeda's link to Iraq in the same way that Abu Wael was the Iraqi link to al-Qaeda. In short, al-Shamari claimed that al-Qaeda and Saddam were cooperating well before the insurgency that erupted after the March 2003 invasion.
If al-Shamari was telling the truth, Saddam Hussein may not have had a close relationship with al-Qaeda's top leaders, but he likely had a close relationship with some of al-Qaeda's lesser known lieutenants and affiliates.
FP: What it will take to successfully fight and defeat these affiliate groups?
Schanzer: While we continue to hunt for Usama bin Laden and company, we must now also consider a sustained campaign against al-Qaeda's periphery, which constitutes the bulk of the threat. If affiliates around the world are allowed to operate unchecked, they could expand into larger centers of al-Qaeda activity.
Fortunately, while affiliates threaten American interests, the U.S. and its allies can also threaten them. Clandestine al-Qaeda cells are hard to identify and even more difficult to dismantle. By contrast, al-Qaeda affiliates can be seen as al-Qaeda's soft targets. It is known exactly where these groups are based (for targeting) and who commands them (for financial operations or even arrests). As such, they represent the "low hanging fruit" in the war against al-Qaeda – in the Middle East and throughout the world. At a time when the U.S. military is spread thin in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, small operations against these groups can be a less complicated, less time-consuming and less expensive mode of fighting terrorism.
In addition to targeting groups with military might, the U.S. now also faces the challenge of building relationships with cooperative Middle East states that will bring areas of weak central authority under their control so that more affiliates cannot spawn. Across the board, al-Qaeda Middle East affiliates first grew from areas of weak central authority. From Lebanon and Yemen to Northern Iraq and Algeria, al-Qaeda exploited weak central authority by furnishing financial, military, and/or logistical assistance to local Islamists groups, allowing them to develop into more dangerous as affiliates.
In the cases when Middle Eastern states are willing to cooperate fully with the U.S., it will be important to ensure that the U.S. role is not a heavy-handed one. A light footprint is necessary for successful cooperation in states such as Algeria, Yemen and elsewhere. Overzealous U.S. activity in the Middle East, a part of the world that resents U.S. power, if not harboring an outright hatred for America, can lead to disaster, both in the fight against al-Qaeda affiliates, and more broadly, in U.S.-Middle East relations. For example, open cooperation between the highly unpopular government in Algiers and Washington, which continues to decline in popularity throughout the Middle East, will not go unnoticed by an Algerian public prone to mistrust and conspiracy theories. If progress is to be made in countering the threat of the GSPC, it should be done quietly and behind the scenes. Over time, if stability and transparency result from U.S.-Algerian cooperation, a heavier footprint could be advised.
If a country, such as Syria (in the case of Asbat al-Ansar in Lebanon) refuses to take steps against affiliate groups and the lawless environments in which they operate, intense diplomacy is the first step. If diplomacy fails, tough penalties and sanctions can be imposed. Threat of force may even be necessary. After all, harboring terrorists amounts to aiding and abetting them. Countries that allow affiliates to operate openly within their borders may first dig in their heels and ignore U.S. demands. Indeed, some may initially become more sympathetic to the affiliates in reaction to U.S. pressure. But a steadfast commitment to a policy that does not allow states to harbor al-Qaeda affiliates will eventually yield positive results.
In the final analysis, fighting al-Qaeda's affiliates will require a Herculean effort, given the amorphous nature of affiliate groups. The U.S. will have to be flexible because the strategies, tactics, positions, and leaders of affiliate groups change fast and often, requiring real-time intelligence and quick decision making. If employed successfully, such a strategy of aggressively pursuing affiliate groups can yield a series of unequivocal victories in a short amount of time. These victories will be perceived as both military and political. These small operations can also take immense pressure off of an increasingly overburdened American military. Indeed, small victories might invigorate a public that has already grown weary of incessant bad news in Iraq and the war on terror, writ large.
FP: Thank you Mr. Schanzer, it was a pleasure talking to you.
Schanzer: The pleasure was mine, Jamie. Thank you.