"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, March 22, 2010

AQAP Offshore

The US has taken to warning ships that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could very well attack them in the near-future.  

"Information suggests that al Qaeda remains interested in maritime attacks in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden along the coast of Yemen," the office said in a statement, citing an advisory by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"Although it is unclear how they would proceed, it may be similar in nature to the attacks against the USS Cole in October 2000 and the M/V Limburg in October 2002 where a small to mid-size boat laden with explosives was detonated," it added.
 It is important to remember that while the methods of AQ are horrifyingly nihilistic, and its theological goals medieval, its groups generally have a grounded strategy.  The main branch over-reached on Septemer 11th, thinking that it could create a clash of civilizations, a world war.  But it had an idea- this wasn't blowing things up just for the sake of blood.

And AQAP is far more developed, strategically.  All of their actions have been toward the goal of harassing and distracting the government, either aiding in its topple or promoting its irrelevance (it is an argument as to which is more likely, and which might benefit AQAP more.  I had one belief, but some discussions have me wavering.  This is a post for another time.  Suffice it to say: there is a strategy).  Maritime martyrdom would not be used simply to cause death.

What successful attacks would do could look like a repeat of the Cole/Limburgh aftermath.  Though the port of Aden had been in steady decline, the astronomical insurance rates that came in the aftermath of those attacks made it economically difficult for ships to dock or refuel there.   That helped to crater an already beaten-down economy.   Oil and gas go away, but the strategic location and natural viability of Aden never will.  It is in an incredibly important place, and its resurrection as a functioning port is extremely important to the future of Yemen (I am ignoring the Southern Movement here, but you get my point).  If AQAP can launch some attacks, that economic lifeline could go away.

But their goals are not limited to Yemen.  The Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandal are also crucial global shipping lanes.  Piracy is already taking its toll, but who looks up to pirates?  Hampering shipping, disrupting the global economy, evading the US Navy- these are things that help cement you as the flagship franchise for al-Qaeda.   That is one of their goals, and all their actions are intended to help reach that.

I've said this before, and Greg and I used to say this all the time on Waq al-Waq, but it is the patience and long-term strategy of AQAP that makes them so dangerous.  Zarqawi in Iraq was so consumed with feverish bloodlust that there was no way he could ultimately succeed.  It is of course a relief that AQAP isn't intent on proving themselves solely by bodycount.  But this means we can't expect them to destroy themselves.  We have to recognize that they are smart.   Giving them credit doesn't mean approval- it only improves chances of victory.

Relatedly, Tom Ricks has had a good conversation on maritime security.


  1. Who directs this strategy? AQAP seems like such a decentralized group that central coordination would prove difficult. This kind of organized mission has to start all the back with training and brainwashing. Are all members going through similar training?

  2. No, it is very centralized. But as it grows- and, more importantly, as its reputation grows, it will be able to have more independent cells. As to who would do it- never underestimate the suicide pool. The Christmas bombing, while a "failure", was by someone not even in the organization. It cost them nothing.