Al Qaeda’s Breakup with ISIS and its Consequences

A contribution from NESA intern, Philippe Labrecque.

The Syrian war just got more complex when Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s top commander, officially disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). There are a variety of factions fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but few of these groups have grown in strength as much as ISIS, as numbers of foreigners joined their ranks in the last year.

With around 1000 armed groups, with a total of nearly 100,000 fighters, friction and conflicts within such fragmented opposition with different objectives had to be expected, even between al-Qaeda’s affiliates. But al-Zawahiri’s statement in relation to ISIS goes deeper than factions fighting for control over regions of Syria.

Al-Zawahiri’s public rejection of ISIS should be understood not only as a result of diverging interests and strategy in Syria between rebel groups but also as a growing internal struggle within al-Qaeda itself. ISIS is a creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), that dates back to April 2013.

After creating the al-Nusra Front to fight in Syria, al-Baghdadi expanded his operations across the Syria-Iraq border in April of last year when al-Nusra’s successes on the battlefield made the headlines. By moving his operations to Syria, al-Baghdadi demanded that al-Nusra go back to being incorporated into ISI, effectively creating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), against al-Zawahiri’s explicit orders.

The public defiance of al-Baghadadi in creating ISIS led to a schism within the about to be absorbed al-Nusra Front as many within al-Nusra pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri in their own defiance to al-Baghadadi. The survival of a faction of al-Nusra, loyal to al-Qaeda, and the creation of the defiant ISIS helped fuel the recent carnage and violence between rebel groups that we have witnessed since at least January 2014.

The merger under al-Baghdadi’s command had tactical implications in the fight against Assad but it also weakened al-Qaeda’s successor to Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, within the organization as al-Baghadadi grew powerful enough to refuse an order by al-Zawahiri when the latter forbid the merger with al-Nusra. Al-Baghdadi’s rising influence and might was proven when al-Zawahiri didn’t further oppose the merge of what are two al-Qaeda affiliates.

It may be premature to say that al-Baghdadi and ISIS could challenge al-Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda or even the al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria since ISIS is already isolated amongst the rebel groups in the current conflict due to their unpopular, brutal, tactics and their will to dominate the entire insurrection against Assad’s regime. However, for al-Qaeda’s top commander to publicly disavow one of its affiliates demonstrates that it may only have partial control over many of its ideological affiliates. If ISIS were to overwhelm al-Nusra and become the dominant faction amongst the rebel groups, it could further damage al-Qaeda’s leadership position within the organization and against rival international Islamist groups.

What this means for the civil war in Syria is that al-Qaeda is reduced to what is left of al-Nusra as well as fighting ISIS for influence and control over the opposition while the war against the Syrian regime is still raging. Its chances of achieving the dream of an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist state on a parcel of Syria’s land is now nearly impossible. Moreover, the break with al-Baghdadi over Syria also means that al-Qaeda has very little influence left in Iraq as al-Baghdadi retains leadership there, for the moment at least.

Russian and Iranian support behind Assad’s regime and al-Qaeda’s potentially diminishing influence in Syria’s civil war and ISIS’ increased isolation confirms what most observers knew at this point: the Syrian civil war is a proxy war between Iran and the Gulf States for influence over the Middle East.

It remains to be seen however if al-Qaeda will get out of this conflict stronger, either by influencing the outcome or through propaganda, or if it may become even more decentralized to the point where it becomes difficult to truly assess what their actual strategic objectives are and if its ideological core has any executive power over self-proclaimed al-Qaeda affiliates in other regions such as North Africa. A fragmented al-Qaeda with tens of thousands of hardened fighters, after an eventual end to the Syrian conflict, might very well become the greatest threat to the greater Middle East and the West.

Despite the disavowal by al-Zawahiri, Al-Baghdadi proved that regional commanders with enough power may pursue their own objectives and vision of what the ideological cause demands. Depending on how and when the Syrian conflict culminates, the fight against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism may become even more multi-faceted and require fighting many varied fronts if the West, and particularly the United States, must face multiple regional leaders increasingly free of al-Qaeda’s central command.

If it is obvious that the Syrian conflict is a proxy war, it is not so clear whether an even more fragmented al-Qaeda is necessarily better from an American counter-terrorism perspective. By the war’s end in Syria, the entire Middle East and the West may very well face a large wage of battle-tested fundamentalist fighters looking for their next battleground, creating instability in neighboring countries especially.

If Syria seems in a deadlock at the moment, it shouldn’t prevent the U.S. from preparing for a potentially disrupting new terrorist threat that equally endangers the stability in various Middle Eastern countries, especially Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. In every crisis there is an opportunity and as American interests and Middle Eastern interests converge, the U.S. should take the lead in building even stronger ties in the region and start the dialogue and cooperation with key actors in dealing with a common threat.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.



Iraq Seeing Resurgence of Violence

Today, our guest blogger, Chris Chapman, returns with a new post on Iraq’s continued troubles…

Syria and Egypt garner the most press when it comes to current coverage of the Middle East. Yet, a rising tide of violence in Iraq should not be ignored.  Iraq, the country the United States spent eight years and countless dollars engaged within, is teetering on the edge of intense conflict.   Recent waves of sectarian attacks are reminding analysts of the mood in Iraq during 2006-2007 when the country nearly fell into civil war

An increase in car bombings, suicide attacks, and jailbreaks have marked a resurgence of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq.  But the violence is not solely being directed by Sunnis against Shiite Muslims.  Within October alone, Iraq has seen multiple attacks on Sunni and Shiite targets.  On October 15 in Kirkuk, a bomb exploded in a crowd of Sunni worshippers coming out of a mosque to celebrate Eid al-Adha and killed 12 people.  On October 13, a string of bombings across the country, many in Shiite areas, killed up to 42 civilians at commercial areas, public spaces, and a funeral. On October 12 a car bomb exploded in Samarra killing 17 people.  These are not battles such as in Syria, these are women and children being killed going about their daily lives.  Reports show that since an April crackdown by the Iraqi government on a Sunni protest camp in Hawija, over 5,000 people have died in sectarian violence.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq is creating an environment of fear and doubt.  Fear of public safety and doubt that the Shiite led government can keep the country stable are on the rise

The brazen attacks in popular community sites exemplify Al-Qaeda’s mission to destabilize the state.  And in doing so, it is pulling Iraq further away from democracy.  The al-Maliki government’s crackdown on terrorism led to a renewed emphasis on a strong internal security apparatus and consolidation of power within the government.  People found guilty of terrorism are subject to the death penalty.  In fact, last week 42 people were executed on charges of terrorism and 68 people received the death penalty in 2011.

The danger of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is real.  Already ISIS is entrenched in Syria fighting.  Reports show they are killing and kidnapping civilians.  If Iraq falls into a civil war alongside Syria expect reports of this type to be more common.  One reason for the invasion of Iraq was to foster stability in the region, but this recent evidence only points out the failings of that endeavor. 

Chris Chapman is currently a Research Intern at the NESA Center and an M.A. candidate at American University’s School of International Service

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

The Jihajjis

For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.

However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.

In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.

As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.

The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.

That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Chemical Weapons Used – Now What?

President Obama recently acknowledged chemical weapons use in Syria, but underscored the lack of evidence required to link the attack to the Assad regime, saying, “What we don’t know is who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody.” During his press conference, Obama cautioned against “rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence” because it would ultimately negatively impact our ability to “mobilize the international community to support what we do.” For the time being, he advocated continuing a rigorous investigation, using “all assets and resources at our disposal, as well as “working with neighboring countries to establish a clear baseline of facts,” and calling on the UN to lead the investigation.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s response to the chemical weapons accusations has generated a wide range of commentary. Many of the president’s critics, like senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain, for example, repeatedly call for greater US involvement in Syria, particularly in arming rebels and creating a no-fly zone. The New York Times editorial board recently challenged the senators, suggesting that such critics fail to offer a “coherent argument for how a more muscular approach might be accomplished without dragging the United States into another extended and costly war.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly part of the Obama administration and current professor at Princeton University, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post, also criticizing Obama’s inaction on Syria, essentially accusing him of ignoring “evidence” of chemical weapons attacks, saying that “evidence has been squelched again and again,” but notes that British, French and Israeli statements confirming the attacks have forced the administration to finally acknowledge the problem. John Allen Gay, assistant editor of The National Interest, suggests that Slaughter’s “evidence” should be viewed with caution, however. Regarding the cable sent by the US consul in Istanbul last December referenced by Slaughter, Gay explains that there are “multiple discrepancies in reports of what happened… yet Slaughter’s account removes all this subtlety and contradiction.” Gay further warns that this “seemingly willful blindness to shades of gray in the interpretation of intelligence should awaken memories of the rush to war in Iraq,” and that “Slaughter’s Cheneyesque reading of the Istanbul cable is a fresh reminder of the eargerness for war in some circles – right and left.”    

George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, carefully reviews a long list of complex issues associated with intervention in Syria, frequently drawing on lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. He also specifically addresses the current rush towards intervention on both sides of the political aisle, harshly stating:

“The difference between right-wing and left-wing interventionists is the illusions they harbor. In spite of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, right-wing interventionists continue to believe that the United States and Europe have the power not only to depose regimes but also to pacify the affected countries and create Western-style democracies. The left believes that there is such a thing as a neutral intervention — one in which the United States and Europe intervene to end a particular evil, and with that evil gone, the country will now freely select a Western-style constitutional democracy. Where the right-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, the left-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Libya.”

Fortunately, current government officials in positions of influence are still advocating a more cautious approach in handling Syria. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, for example, explained that employing the “military instrument of power” will not necessarily end violence, stabilize Syria, or lead to political reconciliation. He  underscored differences between Libya and Syria’s air defense systems, noting that, “in Syria, there are five times more air defense systems, some of which are high end. The US military has the capability to defeat that system,” he explained, “but it would be a greater challenge, take longer, and require more resources.”

Like General Dempsey, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has also expressed apprehension regarding a US-led intervention, and questioned, specifically, whether the US could even secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.

Obama is wise to defer to the UN for a resolution on the chemical weapons use issue. As Bruce Riedel states, “The Bush administration’s weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle in Iraq unfortunately means that only a UN confirmation of Syrian chemical weapons use will have real international credibility. The US, UK, and Israeli intelligence assessments carry too much baggage to convince skeptics.” Obtaining this confirmation, if played correctly, can help Obama convince Putin that Russia can no longer support Assad’s brutal regime, he argues. In severing this relationship, China will adjust its stance, too, as it “will not stand alone against a UN Security Council consensus,” Riedel explains.

Undoubtedly, the Syria crisis is ugly and complicated, and becoming more so. Eli Lake of The Daily Beast reported that, according to “recent intelligence community assessments,” the Syrian military has “transferred more and more of its stock of sarin and mustard gas from storage sites to trucks where they are being moved around the country.” To make matters worse, officials warn that militias tied to Assad are receiving training on how to use the weapons. If these statements are indeed true, they demonstrate the time sensitivity involved in the decision-making process. On the other hand, while the chemical weapons issue is urgent, exercising prudence and caution are critical, especially if we hope to avoid another entanglement reminiscent of the all-too-recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What’s the Deal? Crafting an Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Ever wondered exactly what an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would look like? The NESA Center’s Strategic Studies Network (SSN) recently undertook the monumental task of drafting just such an agreement. Hosted at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice from 16 to 17 March, the SSN convened a specialized task force with that goal in mind. The group – consisting of P5+1, EU, GCC, Israeli, and Turkish experts and practitioners – was able to reach a shared understanding on a broad package that included a draft agreement, a phased reciprocal sequencing chart, and a sample of a bilateral “side letter” as a first step toward normalizing relations with Iran. As noted in the introduction to the report:

“Renewed negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have generated considerable commentary as international concerns about Tehran’s intentions rise and sanctions bite deeper into the country’s economy. The biggest headlines involve the military dimensions of the issue – debates over the relative merits of military action to destroy or delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability versus deterrence or containment of a nuclear-armed Iran. Others shift the focus to diplomatic efforts and debate the potential scope of these negotiations – whether they should be narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program or encompass a broad set of issues constituting a “grand bargain.” Still others focus on the process of the talks themselves by exploring the effectiveness of particular negotiating tactics.

What is missing from the conversation, however, is an investigation of the substantive configuration of these elements that might constitute a successful and internationally acceptable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. A thorough examination of how the various policy prescriptions articulated to date might be reflected in authentic negotiations would advance thought leadership in this area beyond theory toward practical application. Moreover, the negotiated settlement that might result from such an endeavor could serve as the cornerstone of a broader effort to normalize the international relations of Iran.”

The full report, which includes the text of the draft agreement, the phased reciprocal sequencing chart, and the sample bilateral “side letter,” can be found here under the Publications section of the SSN website.

On The Gatekeepers

This blog has tended to stay away from delving into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but over the weekend I had the fortune of attending a screening of The Gatekeepers. For those not familiar with the film, it entails interviews with every surviving Director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services. While there are many ‘money quotes’ regarding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, the most important acknowledgment is that Israel has been engaged in “short-term tactics with no long term strategy.”

This insight should be given heightened importance given the current impasse in Israeli electoral politics. While Likud did ‘win’ the recent parliamentary election, obtaining 31 seats (a loss of eleven from the previous Knesset), Netanyahu has so far been unable to create a governing coalition. So far, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi (who came in second and fourth respectively in the elections) have not signed on with Likud to join any coalition. Labor (third place) rejects any Likud partnership. On 2 March 2013 Netanyahu was granted a two week extension to his attempt to forge a coalition. If unsuccessful either another party gets a shot at forming a government or new elections will need to be called.

In such an arduous political climate one must ask how likely it is that Israel will move beyond tactical planning and into a more strategic mindset. The Gatekeepers from the film describe an Israeli state security apparatus that is extremely capable at dealing with threats in the short-term. Tales of taking out radicals with phone bombs or precision aerial strikes abound, but none of them see any strategic direction. While these operations are impressive from a certain standpoint, what is the overall goal? In order to formulate a strategic plan there must be some degree of political will. The ongoing parliamentary horse trading does not bode well for any new strategic process.

There are no easy answers for these questions. While the film does not offer a new strategic framework for Israel, it does suggest a way to lay out the groundwork for creating one. Perhaps one of the most important suggestions coming from the film is a rethink of who is who and what role they can play. Avraham Shalom, Shin Bet Director from 1980-1986 and one of the men on the team that captured Adolph Eichmann, states:

Talk to everyone, even if they answer rudely. So that includes even Ahmadinejad, [Islamic Jihad, Hamas], whoever. I’m always for it. In the State of Israel, it’s too great a luxury not to speak with our enemies…Even if [the] response is insolent, I’m in favor of continuing. There is no alternative. It’s in the nature of the professional intelligence man to talk to everyone. That’s how you get to the bottom of things. I find out that he doesn’t eat glass and he sees that I don’t drink oil.  

Any strategy must take a realistic assessment of the ground. No Israeli strike is going to dislodge Hamas from Gaza. Additionally, no strike will eliminate Iran’s capability to create nuclear weapons; a strike will delay them at most unless we are envisioning a long-term game of whack-a-mole. Dealing with people we don’t want to deal with would be an important first step in creating a new strategic outlook. The last situation Israel wants to find itself in is one in which, in the words of Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet Director from 1995-2000:

“We don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.”

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Please Sir, Could I Have Some MANPADS?

A few weeks ago I argued the United States should not be arming Syrian rebels. This week the United States stepped up its aid to the rebels, but maintained the non-lethal nature of said aid. The rebels, unsurprisingly, are not happy about this. A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Mohammad Sarmini, states:

“This has become embarrassing and degrading. The regime’s escalation has rendered even our unmet pleas foolish. We used to beg for antiaircraft missiles. What do you ask for to counter Scuds?”

The same article mentions that Gulf States are already in the process of providing rebels with small arms. We need to be clear about what the rebels are asking for. They are not asking for more AKs or ammunition for small arms, they are asking for advanced and dangerous weapons systems. Sarmini’s quote indicates a desire for weapons designed to counter Scuds and antiaircraft weapons. While it appears that Syrian rebels have managed to get their hands on a few Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, they are not in wide circulation as of yet. Regardless, there are serious issues with deciding to supply the rebels with this type of weaponry.

Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) hold a particular danger for proliferation. MANPADS falling into the wrong hands would most emphatically not be desirable. One of the most famous uses of MANPADS was in 1994 when a plane carrying the leaders of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down – triggering the Rwandan genocide. Of course, not all attacks need lead to genocide, but there have been other instances of attacks on civilian airliners. For example, in 2002, Al Qaeda fired a few shots at an Israeli civilian aircraft in Kenya (they missed). Suffice it to say, a few well fired missiles at civilian airliners could have dramatic economic effects, not to mention the significant loss of life.

Sarmini’s mentioning of arms for countering Scuds is also problematic. Patriot missile systems, or something similar, are incredibly complex and it is very unlikely that, even were the rebels to receive them, they would be able to operate them. Even the Patriot systems in Turkey are operated by NATO troops, not Turkish forces. It is also highly unlikely the United States would send NATO troops into Syria to operate advanced anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology, let alone directly giving them to the rebels. At that point, intervention would be necessary to at least protect the troops operating the weapons systems. An intervention in Syria is clearly not palatable for the United States.

The proliferation concerns here should not be downplayed. While they do not make up the majority of Syrian rebel forces, Jabhat Al Nusra is gaining strength. Some estimate them as making up around a quarter of rebel forces. The same report notes that this Al Qaeda-affiliated group, generally held to be a direct descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has attempted to sponsor cross-border attacks in Jordan. The United States simply should not be giving advanced weapons systems like MANPADS or ABMs to rebels when potentially a quarter of those rebels are affiliated with Al Qaeda. 

Small arms are already being taken care of by our allies in the region. Given that fact, it is better for the United States to focus on being ‘above the fray’ as much as possible so as to be able to produce a solution acceptable to all players. As described by my colleague Mr. Presto, siding fully with the rebels will make it much less likely the United States will be able to broker a deal with all sectors of Syrian society. So, sending small arms does not add to what is already being sent. This type of weaponry also presents serious proliferation concerns, especially if these arms fall into Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters or spread outside the borders of Syria. The more serious, advanced weapons systems being discussed above, ABMs and MANPADS, either also hold too great a danger of proliferation or are too complex to be usable in the shifting sands of Syria’s rebellion.

Added bonus for the week is a map, also linked to abvove, of MANPADS attacks in Africa:


Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Cybersecurity in 2013

Cybersecurity is a hot topic this month. President Obama highlighted the issue during his State of the Union address, saying,

“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

In response to this threat, Obama further indicated that he signed an executive order, designed to “strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy,” but emphasized that Congress still needs to do more to “give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks” (NYT).

A recent Bloomberg article offers a better understanding of the executive order, while addressing the political barriers blocking effective cybersecurity legislation. Essentially, it requires federal government to “develop voluntary cybersecurity standards for companies operating the nation’s vital infrastructure.” As mentioned in his address, “information sharing” also plays an important role in combating emerging cyber threats. According to Bloomberg, “the order expands a government program for sharing classified threat data with defense contractors and Internet-service providers to include infrastructure owners and the companies that provide them with network security.” With regards to cyber legislation pushed by both the House and Senate, the political objections are predictable – conservatives consider strict compliance standards as “burdensome regulation,” while the left expresses unease with companies potentially sharing customers’ personal data with the government.

The executive order’s focus on protecting critical infrastructure comes as companies reported a significant increase in attacks on their computer systems, up 52 percent in 2012, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. At the forefront of this aggressive campaign is China. The New York Times article, “Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against US,” reviews the findings of Mandiant, an American computer security firm responsible for linking a series of cyberattacks to one group based in Shanghai, known as “Comment Crew.” Based on Mandiant’s analysis, as well as the recent National Intelligence Estimate’s findings, Comment Crew is likely a state-sponsored group whose aim is to not only steal sensitive information for economic gain, but to obtain access to critical infrastructure in the US, as well. As The New York Times reveals, one company targeted by the group had “remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.”

China’s increased focus on American infrastructure raises the question – why? Greg Austin, director of policy innovation at the EastWest Institute, suggests that if a war broke out between China and Taiwan, and the US intervened, then the Chinese could retaliate by targeting American infrastructure (NYT). 

Richard Andres explores this concept of state-sponsored cyber-militias in “Cyber-Gang Warfare”. These autonomous militias, Andres argues, allow states to “deflect responsibility for attacks originating directly or indirectly from the state sponsor,” essentially complicating the victim’s ability to attribute an attack to a specific entity. He notes that states also benefit tremendously from stealing intellectual property, and, as evidence, cites the theft of American F-35 design plans, which eventually led to the development of the Chinese J-31 stealth fighter, a replica of the American model.  

Andres also emphasizes how cyberwarfare places states on an equal playing field. Referencing the recent Iranian attacks on US banks, he notes that they have the “potential to inflict much greater costs than the Iranian military could extract in a conventional war.” Furthermore, Andres warns that these attacks send a worrisome message to other states, because they demonstrate how to inflict damage without fear of reprisal.  

Aside from threats posed by states and the cyber-militias they support, NPR recently featured a story on the dangers of flawed computer software. To a hacker, the glitch acts as a “potential back door into the computer network”; unfortunately, demand for this information is on the rise, and researchers frequently sell secrets no questions asked, reports NPR. One “vulnerability seller” explained, “I don’t see bad guys or good guys, it’s just business.” This mentality grants states or cyber criminals a chance to inflict significant damage, especially given the absence of regulation on the vulnerability market.

In combatting cyber threats, experts offer a range of options. Most often, companies are encouraged to improve their cyber defense capabilities, but some in the private sector are adopting offensive tactics in hopes of deterring and disrupting criminal activity. Former top FBI cyber-attorney Steven Chabinsky advocates this approach, saying, “There is no way we are going to win the cybersecurity effort on defense. We have to go on the offensive.” This approach, however, is met with some skepticism, prompting concerns that this tactic amounts to vigilante justice.

Richard Clarke, chairman of Good Harbor Security Risk Management and former special advisor for cybersecurity during the George W. Bush administration, highlights significant gaps in international cyberdefense policy, and presents a variety of remedies in his op-ed for The Washington Post. For Clarke, international cooperation is a vital component in combating transnational threats; in the cyber realm, he advocates creating an international cybercrime center capable of deploying “fly-away teams” to conduct investigations and help countries suffering from cyberattacks. He also encourages norm-building, focusing first on areas of joint concern. Since nations worldwide have an economic stake in secure global markets and financial institutions, Clarke recommends that cooperation begin on this front. Similarly, he advocates protecting the infrastructure that supports cyberspace.

Cyber threats won’t dissipate anytime soon, especially as states and non-state actors view cyberspace as an arena placing them on par with global superpowers. For the US, effectively confronting threats should start at home – first by pushing Congress to pass legislation with teeth. It’s also important this legislation be timely and flexible, written in such a way to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. Though politically sensitive, requiring private companies to improve their cyber defense capabilities in order to better safeguard data, intellectual property, and customers’ private information is critical. As Obama’s new executive order establishes, the private sector won’t manage risks alone, but work closely with the federal government to pinpoint vulnerabilities, identify perpetrators, and eliminate threats altogether. Time is critical, though, and another day wasted on political bickering is yet another opportunity for states to steal valuable secrets, or even target critical American infrastructure.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Changing Tack

In France’s efforts to push Al Qaeda out of Northern Mali (AQIM), a notebook was recently discovered containing ideas, remarks, and strategies enumerated by Abdelmalek Droukdel, Emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These notes show an Al Qaeda in flux, one that is not quite as rigid as its forbears in Afghanistan and Somalia. While this book may only be the thoughts of one man, it likely suggests a new adaptability in the Al Qaeda mindset.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab pursued their ideas with a single-mindedness not seen in North Africa. There are, for example, reports that Al Shabaab fighters sought to tear down all English or Somali signage in towns under their administration and replace them with Arabic versions. Of course, most Somalis do not speak Arabic so this new signage would likely be of limited effectiveness. While Al Shabaab are known for their more violent tendencies, this example of signage clearly demonstrates their unwillingness to adapt their movement for local attitudes.

In contrast, Droukdel writes:

“The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands. Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death.”

These are the words of a man who understands that wanton cruelty and indifference to local mores will not aid their mission to set up an Islamic theocracy. Droukdel is no moderate, as former explosives expert for the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) in Algeria he has been involved with construction of explosive devices that were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. And he did not slow down as he moved upwards through the ranks until gaining control of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) – which later became AQIM in 2004. Yet here he is preaching moderation, at least of a relative kind.

We see this moderation in the governance of Northern Mali. Not only have Droukdel’s notes been found, but so have “court” records. One case, from October, shows a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, accused of witchcraft and magic. Where Al Shabaab might resort to a beheading or some other grisly repercussion, AQIM’s courts only sentenced the man to three days in jail. This isn’t to say the courts were always moderate, women were known to be lashed for “mixing with men and the usage of foul language” as well as less gender specific lashings for alcohol use or anything else dubbed un-Islamic. Not to mention the destruction of Sufi shrines and other cultural heritage markers. Put mildly, these were not nice men.

However, there was a fascinating struggle on the part of some leadership elements, including Droukdel, to mitigate these abuses. Droukdel’s notes advise against the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites and public floggings, saying:

“On the internal front we are not strong… and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population. Your officials need to control themselves.

This is not to say the militant’s rule was not brutal. It was. Cases of amputation are far from uncommon. This is not a story of a moderate Islamic group, but of an extremist group with extremist ends attempting to cover its extremist means in a sheen of moderation.

While the end goal remains the same, Al Qaeda is learning that it needs to be seen to moderate its message, or at least alter it to be acceptable in differing cultural zones. This will only make Al Qaeda a more formidable opponent in the future if it allows them to gain more local acceptance than the limited amount extant in past examples.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

More Reasons Not to Arm the Syrian Opposition

As my colleague Ian descibed last week, the Obama administration’s Syria policy again came under fire after outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta revealed that top level administration support in favor of arming the Syrian opposition was overruled by the President and the White House. Critics of the President’s handling of the Syrian conflict seized on this as another example of him leading from behind and being overly cautious when it comes to using U.S. power to influence events and outcomes during the Arab uprisings. Some commentators even went as far as to say that the Obama administration had over learned the lessons of the Iraq war to a point of paralysis, and that the time to arm the Syrian rebels is now.

While the Obama administration has been criticized for its lack of action in Syria, there is little argument against the administration’s stated policy objective of ending the Assad regime through a transition to a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic Syria, where the rights of all Syrians are protected.  What is unclear, however, is how a strategy of arming and supporting one faction in Syria’s civil war would somehow achieve this stated objective.  Such a strategy would resemble the one currently being employed by Iran as it continues to arm and equip Shiite and Alawite proxy forces. This strategy makes sense for the Iranians because it supports their objective of keeping Syria divided in order to maintain influence once the regime falls and keep open its gateway to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Similarly, Turkish and Qatari support for the Syrian opposition forces has also resulted in keeping Syria divided, most recently in the country’s northeast where opposition and Kurdish forces have engaged in repeated clashes.

Contrary to what proponents of intervention say, the interference of neighboring countries in Syria’s internal affairs very much resembles what happened during Iraq’s civil war, and the U.S. would be wise not to repeat its same mistakes.  The U.S. should not militarily assist another group of exiles from a majority sect take power from an oppressive regime controlled by a minority sect.

If the Obama administration’s goal is to convince Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and Shiites to unite against the Assad regime, it does not make sense to arm the Syrian opposition who these groups view as the biggest threat to their future in a post-Assad Syria. A more logical strategy is the encouragement of reconciliation between the factions, which is precisely what the administration did last week when Vice-President Biden endorsed Syrian opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib’s overture toward Assad to enter into conditional negotiations. While there are many obstacles precluding a successful agreement, it is better to continue to try to hammer out those issues now while all sides still have an incentive to compromise and pursue some level of national reconciliation.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.