Stratfor News Analysis
Profiling: Sketching the Face
By Scott Stewart
On Jan. 4, 2010, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) adopted new rules that would increase the screening of citizens from 14 countries who want to fly to the United States as well as travelers of all nationalities who are flying to the United States from one of the 14 countries. These countries are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Four of the countries — Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria — are on the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The other 10 have been labeled “countries of interest” by the TSA and appear to have been added in response to jihadist attacks in recent years. Nigeria was almost certainly added to the list only as a result of the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man.
As reflected by the large number of chain e-mails that swirl around after every attack or attempted attack against the United States, the type of profiling program the TSA has instituted will be very popular in certain quarters. Conventional wisdom holds that such programs will be effective in protecting the flying public from terrorist attacks because profiling is easy to do. However, when one steps back and carefully examines the historical face of the jihadist threat, it becomes readily apparent that it is very difficult to create a one-size-fits-all profile of a jihadist operative. When focusing on a resourceful and adaptive adversary, the use of such profiles sets a security system up for failure by causing security personnel and the general public to focus on a threat that is defined too narrowly.
Sketching the face of jihadism is simply not as easy as it might seem.
The Historical Face of Terror
One popular chain e-mail that seemingly circulates after every attack or attempted attack notes that the attack was not conducted by Richard Simmons or the Tooth Fairy but by “Muslim male extremists between the ages of 17 and 40.” And when we set aside the Chechen “Black Widows”, the occasional female suicide bomber and people like Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph, many terrorist attacks are indeed planned and orchestrated by male Muslim extremists between the ages of 17 and 40. The problem comes when you try to define what a male Muslim extremist between the ages of 17 and 40 looks like.
When we look back at the early jihadist attacks against the United States, we see that many perpetrators matched the stereotypical Muslim profile. In the killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the thwarted 1993 New York Landmarks Plot, we saw a large contingent of Egyptians, including Omar Abdul-Rahman (aka “the Blind Sheikh”), ElSayyid Nosair, Ibrahim Elgabrowny, Mahmud Abouhalima and several others. In fact, Egyptians played a significant role in the development of the jihadist ideology and have long constituted a very substantial portion of the international jihadist movement — and even of the core al Qaeda cadre. Because of this, it is quite surprising that Egypt does not appear on the TSA’s profile list.
Indeed, in addition to the Egyptians, in the early jihadist plots against the United States we also saw operatives who were Palestinian, Pakistani, Sudanese and Iraqi. However — and this is significant — in the New York Landmarks Plot we also saw a Puerto Rican convert to Islam named Victor Alvarez and an African-American Muslim named Clement Rodney Hampton-el. Alvarez and Hampton-el clearly did not fit the typical profile.
The Kuwait-born Pakistani citizen who was the bombmaker in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is a man named Abdul Basit (widely known by his alias, Ramzi Yousef). After leaving the United States, Basit resettled in Manila and attempted to orchestrate an attack against U.S. airliners in Asia called Operation Bojinka. After an apartment fire in Manila caused Basit to flee the city, he moved to Islamabad, where he attempted to recruit new jihadist operatives to carry out the Bojinka plot. One of the men he recruited was a South African Muslim named Istaique Parker. After a few dry-run operations, Parker got cold feet, decided he did not want to embrace martyrdom and helped the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service special agents assigned to the U.S. Embassy orchestrate Basit’s arrest. A South African named Parker does not fit the typical terrorist profile.
The following individuals, among many others, were involved in jihadist activity but did not fit what most people would consider the typical jihadist profile:
- Richard Reid, the British citizen known as the “shoe bomber.”
- Jose Padilla, the American citizen known as the “dirty bomber.”
- Adam Gadahn, an al Qaeda spokesman who was born Adam Pearlman in California.
- John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban.”
- Jack Roche, the Australian known as “Jihad Jack.”
- The Duka brothers, ethnic Albanians involved in the Fort Dix plot.
- Daniel Boyd and his sons, American citizens plotting grassroots attacks inside the United States.
- Germaine Maurice Lindsay, the Jamaican-born suicide bomber involved in the July 7, 2005, London attacks.
- Nick Reilly, the British citizen who attempted to bomb a restaurant in Exeter in May 2008.
- David Headley, the U.S. citizen who helped plan the Mumbai attacks.
As reflected by the list above, jihadists come from many ethnicities and nationalities, and they can range from Americans named Daniel, Victor and John to a Macedonian nicknamed “Elvis,” a Tanzanian called “Foopie” (who smuggled explosives by bicycle) and an Indonesian named Zulkarnaen. There simply is not one ethnic or national profile that can be used to describe them all.
An Adaptive Opponent
One of the big reasons we’ve witnessed men with names like Richard and Jose used in jihadist plots is because jihadist planners are adaptive and innovative. They will adjust the operatives they select for a mission in order to circumvent new security measures. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when security forces began to focus additional scrutiny on people with Muslim names, they dispatched Richard Reid on his shoe-bomb mission. And it worked — Reid was able to get his device by security and onto the plane. If he hadn’t fumbled the execution of the attack, it would have destroyed the aircraft. Moreover, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed wanted to get an operative into the United States to conduct attacks following 9/11, he selected U.S. citizen Jose Padilla. Padilla successfully entered the country, and it was only Mohammed’s arrest and interrogation that alerted authorities to Padilla’s mission.
But their operational flexibility in fact predates the 9/11 attack. For example, some of the operatives initially selected for the 9/11 mission were Yemenis and could not obtain visas to the United States. Since Saudis were able to obtain visas much easier, al Qaeda simply shifted gears and decided to use Saudis instead of Yemenis.
Pakistan-based militant groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad e-Islami likewise sought to fool the Danish and Indian security services when they dispatched an American citizen named David Headley from Chicago to conduct pre-operational surveillance in Mumbai and Denmark. Headley, who was named Daood Gilani at his birth, legally changed his name to David Coleman Headley, anglicizing his first name and taking his mother’s maiden name. The name change and his American accent were apparently enough to throw intelligence agencies off his trail — in spite of his very aggressive surveillance activity.
Most recently, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) showed its cunning when it dispatched a Nigerian, Abdulmutallab, in the Christmas Day attack. Although STRATFOR was among the first to see the threat AQAP’s innovative devices posed to aviation security, there is no way we could have forecast that the group would conduct an attack originating out of Nigeria using a Nigerian citizen. A Saudi or Yemeni, certainly; a Somali or American citizen, maybe — but a Nigerian? AQAP’s use of such an operative was a total paradigm shift. (Perhaps this paradigm shift explains in part why U.S. officials chose not to act more aggressively on intelligence they had obtained on Abdulmutallab that could have prevented the attack.) The only reason Nigeria is on the list of 14 countries now is because of the Christmas Day incident, and there is no reason that jihadists couldn’t use a Muslim from Togo, Ghana, or Trinidad and Tobago instead of a Nigerian in their next attack.
Jihadist planners have now heard about the list of 14 countries and, demonstrating their adaptability, will undoubtedly try to use operatives who are not from one of those countries and choose flights that originate from other places as well. They may even follow the lead of Chechen militants and the Islamic State of Iraq by employing female suicide bombers. They will also likely instruct operatives to “lose” their passports so that they can obtain new documents that contain no traces of travel to one of the 14 countries on the list. Jihadists have frequently used this tactic to hide operatives’ travel to training camps in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Moreover, jihadist groups have no lack of operatives from countries that are not on that list. Jihadists from all over the world have traveled to jihadist training camps, and in addition to the large number of Egyptian, Moroccan and Tunisian jihadists (countries not on the list), there are also Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians and, of course, Americans and Europeans. Frankly, there have been far more jihadist plots that have originated in the United Kingdom than there have been plots involving Nigerians, and yet Nigeria is on the list and the United Kingdom is not. Because of this, a British citizen (or an American, for that matter) who has been fighting with al Shabaab in Somalia could board a flight in Nairobi or Cairo and receive less scrutiny than an innocent Nigerian flying from the same airport.
In an environment where the potential threat is hard to identify, it is doubly important to profile individuals based on their behavior rather than their ethnicity or nationality — what we refer to as focusing on the “how” rather than the “who”. Instead of relying on pat profiles, security personnel should be encouraged to exercise their intelligence, intuition and common sense. A U.S. citizen named Robert who shows up at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi or Amman claiming to have lost his passport may be far more dangerous than some random Pakistani or Yemeni citizen, even though the American does not fit the profile requiring extra security checks.
The difficulty of creating a reliable and accurate physical profile of a jihadist, and the adaptability and ingenuity of the jihadist planners, means that any attempt at profiling is doomed to fail. In fact, profiling can prove counterproductive to good security by blinding people to real threats. They will dismiss potential malefactors who do not fit the specific profile they have been provided.
Taking Credit for Failure
By Scott Stewart
On Jan. 24, a voice purported to be that of Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the botched attempt to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The short one-minute and two-second audio statement, which was broadcast on Al Jazeera television, called the 23-year-old Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a hero and threatened more attacks. The voice on the recording said the bombing attempt was in response to the situation in Gaza and that the United States can never dream of living in peace until Muslims have peace in the Palestinian territories. The speaker also said that attacks against the United States would continue as long as the United States continued to support Israel.
While the U.S. government has yet to confirm that the voice is that of bin Laden, Al Jazeera claims that the voice is indeed that of the al Qaeda leader. Bin Laden’s health and welfare have been the topic of a lot of discussion and debate over the past several years, and many intelligence officials believe he is dead. Because of this, any time an audio recording purporting to be from bin Laden is released it receives heavy forensic scrutiny. Some technical experts believe that recent statements supposedly made by bin Laden have been cobbled together by manipulating portions of longer bin Laden messages that were previously recorded. It has been STRATFOR’s position for several years that, whether bin Laden is dead or alive, the al Qaeda core has been marginalized by the efforts of the United States and its allies to the point where the group no longer poses a strategic threat.
Now, questions of bin Laden’s status aside, the recording was most likely released through channels that helped assure Al Jazeera that the recording was authentic. This means that we can be somewhat confident that the message was released by the al Qaeda core. The fact that the al Qaeda core would attempt to take credit for a failed attack in a recording is quite interesting. But perhaps even more interesting is the core group’s claim that the attack was conducted because of U.S support for Israel and the treatment of the Palestinians living in Gaza.
Smoke and Mirrors
During the early years of al Qaeda’s existence, the group did not take credit for attacks it conducted. In fact, it explicitly denied involvement. In interviews with the press, bin Laden often praised the attackers while, with a bit of a wink and a nod, he denied any connection to the attacks. Bin Laden issued public statements after the August 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks flatly denying any involvement. In fact, bin Laden and al Qaeda continued to publicly deny any connection to the 9/11 attacks until after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. These denials of the 9/11 attacks have taken on a life of their own and have become the basis of conspiracy theories that the United States or Israel was behind the attacks (despite later statements by bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that contradicted earlier statements and claimed credit for 9/11).
In the years following 9/11, the al Qaeda core has continued to bask in the glory of that spectacularly successful attack, but it has not been able to produce the long-awaited encore. This is not for lack of effort; the al Qaeda core has been involved in several attempted attacks against the United States, such as the attempted shoe-bomb attack in December 2001, dispatching Jose Padilla to the United States in May of 2002 to purportedly try to conduct a dirty-bomb attack, and the August 2006 thwarted plot to attack trans-Atlantic airliners using liquid explosives. Interestingly, while each of these failed attempts has been tied to the al Qaeda core by intelligence and investigative efforts, the group did not publicly claim credit for any of them. While the group’s leadership has made repeated threats that they were going to launch an attack that would dwarf 9/11, they simply have been unable to do so. Indeed, the only plot that could have come anywhere near the destruction of the 9/11 attacks was the liquid explosives plot, and that was foiled early on in the operational planning process — before the explosive devices were even fabricated.
Now, back to the failed bombing attempt on Christmas Day. First, the Yemeni franchise of al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has already claimed responsibility for the attack, and evidence strongly suggests that AQAP is the organization with which Abdulmutallab had direct contact. Indeed, while some members of AQAP have had prior contact with bin Laden, there is little to suggest that bin Laden himself or what remains of al Qaeda’s core leadership has any direct role in planning any of the operations conducted by AQAP. The core group does not exercise that type of control over the activities of any of its regional groups. These groups are more like independent franchises that operate under the same brand name rather than parts of a single hierarchical organization. Each franchise has local leadership and is self-funding, and the franchises frequently diverge from global al Qaeda “corporate policies” in areas like target selection.
Furthermore, in an environment where the jihadists know that U.S. signals-intelligence efforts are keenly focused on the al Qaeda core and the regional franchise groups, discussing any type of operational information via telephone or e-mail from Yemen to Pakistan would be very dangerous — and terrible operational security. Using couriers would be more secure, but the al Qaeda core leadership is very cautious in its communications with the outside world (Hellfire missiles can have that effect on people), and any such communications will be very slow and deliberate. For the al Qaeda core leadership, the price of physical security has been the loss of operational control over the larger movement.
Taking things one step further, not only is the core of al Qaeda attempting to take credit for something it did not do, but it is claiming credit for an attack that did little more than severely burn the attacker in a very sensitive anatomical area. Some have argued that the attack was successful because it has instilled fear and caused the U.S. government to react, but clearly the attack would have had a far greater impact had the device detonated. The failed attack was certainly not what the operational planners had in mind when they dispatched Abdulmutallab on his mission.
This attempt by the al Qaeda core to pander for publicity, even though it means claiming credit for a botched attack, clearly demonstrates how far the core group has fallen since the days when bin Laden blithely denied responsibility for 9/11.
The Palestinian Focus
Since the beginning of bin Laden’s public discourse, the Palestinian cause has been a consistent feature. His 1996 declaration of war and the 1998 fatwa declaring jihad against the West and Israel are prime examples. However, the reality of al Qaeda’s activities has shown that, to bin Laden, the plight of the Palestinians has been less an area of genuine concern and more of a rhetorical device to exploit sympathy for the jihadist cause and draw Muslims to al Qaeda’s banner.
Over the years, al Qaeda has worked very closely with a number of militant groups in a variety of places, including the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in China. However, while one of bin Laden’s mentors, Abdullah Azzam, was a Palestinian, and there have been several Palestinians affiliated with al Qaeda over the years, the group has done little to support Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas, even though Hamas (as the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) sprang from the same radical Egyptian Islamist milieu that produced al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which al-Zawahiri later folded into al Qaeda.
Jihadist militant groups such as Jund Ansar Allah have attempted to establish themselves in Gaza, but these groups were seen as problematic competition, rather than allies, and Hamas quickly stamped them out.
With little help coming from fellow Sunnis, Hamas has come to rely on Iran and Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, as sources of funding, weapons and training. Even though this support is flowing across the Shiite-Sunni divide, actions speak louder than words, and Iran and Hezbollah have shown that they can deliver. In many ways, the political philosophy of Hamas (which has been sharply criticized by al-Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders) is far closer to that of Iran than to that of the jihadists. With Iran’s help, Hamas has progressed from throwing rocks and firing homemade Qassam rockets to launching the longer range Grad and Fajr rockets and conducting increasingly effective irregular-warfare operations against the Israeli army.
Hezbollah’s ability to eject Israel from southern Lebanon and its strong stand against the Israeli armed forces in the 2006 war made a strong impression in the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are seen as very real threats to Israel, while al Qaeda has shown that it can produce a lot of anti-Israeli rhetoric but few results. Because of this, Iran and its proxies have become the vanguard of the fight against Israel, while al Qaeda is simply trying to keep its name in the press.
Claiming credit for failed attacks orchestrated by others and trying to latch on to the fight against Israel are just the latest signs that al Qaeda is trying almost too hard to remain relevant.