TERRORISM 2015: WILL THE US, OR THE UK BE NEXT — OR IS LOWER-HANGING FRUIT ON THE MENU?
By Michael S. Smith II
Soon after the terrorists who struck the offices of Charlie Hebdo were killed in France a senior official in al-Qa’ida’s Yemen branch (AQAP) praised their attack. Numerous social media accounts used to promote al-Qa’ida propaganda promptly began distributing links to the audio of his message that was initially posted to YouTube. Many of these accounts also simultaneously posted links to what has been described as an “unofficial” message attributed to AQAP regarding the attacks, text of which was published via JustPaste.It. More recently, the managers of many of these accounts — a majority of whom normally employ Arabic in their social media communications — have made a significant push to put these messages on the radars of English-speaking audiences, using platforms like Twitter to broadcast English-language translations of them (examples above, below and here).
The aforementioned unofficial message from AQAP attributes the attack to guidance provided by Usama bin Laden, who “warned the West about the consequences of the persistence in the blasphemy against Muslims’ sanctities.” Continuing, the message states: “Sheikh Usama said in his message to the West: If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.” Meanwhile, in providing a list of “a number of important messages to all the Western countries” which are said to have been conveyed by the 7-9 January 2015 terrorist operations executed in France by jihadis with known ties to AQAP, the authors take care to credit the policies of bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as key drivers behind the terrorist plot in France.
The list, which also describes Inspire as a critical tool used to mobilize such attacks, states:
“One: Touching Muslims’ sanctity and protecting those who make blasphemy have dear price and the punishment will be severe.
“Two: The Crimes of the Western countries, above them America, Britain and France will backfire deep in their home.
“Three: The policy of hitting the snake’s head followed by the al-Qa’ida organization under the leadership of al-Zawahiri is still achieving its goals; until the West retreats.
“Four: The inspiring media policies of the Mujahidin of al-Qa’ida, especially of Inspire magazine, have greatly succeeded in identifying its targets and collecting powers.”
In the Winter 2014 edition of Inspire, al-Qa’ida’s leading English-language publication that is produced by AQAP, the US, UK and France are repeatedly listed as key targets for al-Qa’ida’s so-called “Global Lone Jihad Movement.” A montage section contained therein also features a photo of a French passport (screenshot here).
In 2013, a photo of the editor of Charlie Hebdo was featured on a hit list published in Inspire. Just after news of the editors’ death broke, al-Qa’ida propagandists began distributing an updated edition of that hit list via social media, a red X imposed over his photo (screenshot here).
As with previous editions, the Winter 2014 edition of Inspire provides descriptions of suitable targets in the West. Accompanying a manual for the construction of a bomb that is described as undetectable to Western security, a section titled “Field Tactics” that is attributed to the “External Operations Reconnaissance Team” lists civil aviation and “high-profile” individuals as ideal targets for participants in what the so-called “AQ Chef” earlier calls the “Global Lone Jihad Movement.”
The list of ideal civil aviation targets is limited to airlines that are identifiable as American, British and French brands: American Airlines, United, Continental, Delta (described as the target of 2009 Christmas Day attack plot operative Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab), British Airways, easyJet, Air France, and Air France-KLM. In addition, as noted in initial coverage of the Winter 2014 edition of Inspire by DOWNRANGE, the following individuals are identified as suitable targets for assassination plots: Bill Gates and former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.
According to British intelligence officials, al-Qa’ida is orienting its resources to mobilize mass-casualty attacks in the UK. Discussing the elevation of Britain’s security precautions in response to the attacks in France Home Secretary Theresa May explained:
“Following the attacks we took the precautionary step yesterday of increasing security at the French-UK border.
“The UK threat level, which is set by the independent Joint Terrorism Advisory Centre, remains at severe; that means a terrorist attack is highly likely and the public should remain vigilant.”
Taking into consideration the contents of the latest edition of Inspire, paired with both the recent events in France and the context for these events provided in the aforecited “unofficial” message regarding the Kouachi brothers’ terrorist operations in France attributed to AQAP — which is today helmed by al-Qa’ida’s second-in-command — one could reasonably deduce that al-Qa’ida is providing just as significant signals of plans to unleash attacks in the US as it is in Britain and France.
Moreover, it is almost certain that the competition for attention that is underway between al-Qa’ida and the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) will be an increasingly important factor in the milieu of considerations that will lead al-Qa’ida’s trainees and sympathizers who are able to maneuver in the West to execute similar easy-to-execute attacks. (Some of my initial coverage of this phenomenon is available here and here)
The same is the case for Daesh’s supporters. Following its claim that it has established a caliphate on areas under its de facto control in Iraq and Syria, Daesh’s leadership and its sympathizers have been attempting to assert control of the Global Jihad movement by eclipsing the specter of al-Qa’ida. Clearly, for Daesh, attention from major media organizations is a key tool in its IO kit.
Indeed, there is growing evidence that suggests the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo executed by the Kouachi brothers — terrorists who told a bystander to advise the media their acts were the handiwork of AQAP — stimulated an attempt to dilute renewed media interest in al-Qa’ida made by Amedy Coulibaly, a supporter of Daesh killed during a simultaneous standoff with French authorities. This, or the Kouachi brothers, who were reportedly associates of Amedy Coulibaly, knew of Coulibaly’s plans to kill French citizens in the name of the Islamic State, and moved to execute a more psychologically impactful attack than those which have been executed by supporters of the Islamic State in the West in order to steer the media’s attention back toward al-Qa’ida.
It is certainly possible that neither of these scenarios accurately reflect what has occurred in France.
Nevertheless, the subsequent activities of al-Qa’ida propagandists highlight that, in order to maintain the interests of major news organizations, al-Qa’ida is pushing its trainees and supporters in the West to execute more attacks. Concurrently, the same goes for the Islamic State. Thus it seems the blood of Americans and Europeans is indeed the primary currency both groups believe they require to either retain, in the case of al-Qa’ida, or gain, in the case of Daesh, leadership of the Global Jihad movement.
Meanwhile, it is important to note that, in the most recent edition of Inspire, while the US, UK and France are repeatedly listed as top-priority targets, jihadis are advised that, if logistical factors preclude them from striking these targets, they should identify paths of lesser resistance in other NATO-member states.
Above Screenshot: On 10 January 2015, an ostensible al-Qa’ida supporter whose Twitter account details indicate he is based in or from South Africa corresponds in English via Twitter with a promoter of messages attributed to AQAP regarding the Kouachi brothers’ attacks; correspondence topic: How to properly respond to incidents of Muslims insulting the founder of Islam.