Prepare for Blackout

I have been wanting to write this down for a while, so I may as well do it now with half an hour to spare: I believe that al-Qaida, or more precisely al-Qaida Central, is rapidly becoming more and more difficult to cover, analyze and understand -- for academics, journalists and government agencies alike. And as a journalist, I am happy to be the first to admit that.

The main reason, of course, are the deaths of important Qaida cadres over the past few years. Now this post is NOT about whether or not that is a good thing, it is solely about the consequences in terms of understanding our common subject matter.

One could also put it this way: I believe there are not many experts around at all who could write even one page profiles of the ten most important people inside AQ Central right now. My feeling is that some experts treat this like a dirty secret: THEY know it, their colleagues know it, but they won't admit it. But the truth is, if you are an "average" expert who has no day-to-day access to super secret dossiers and intel and HumInt or SigInt, general visibility of AQ central is down to a fairly historic low and unlikely to increase any time soon.

Sure, Ayman al-Zawahiri is still around. And Adam Gadahn is (who is more important than many thought according to the Abbottabad documents but not important in any meaningful way). Abu Yahya al-Libi is likely not around any more. Saif al-Adel might be, but most of us have no real idea of his impact, and info provided by people who say they do is conflicting. And after these we are down to... what... Khaled al-Husaynan?

I may be exaggerating here, but I am trying to make a point: In the future it is going to be more likely that we will miss important developments than it was in the previous years. It is to be assumed that people inside of and close to al-Qaida Central have taken up positions or are acting in ways that are important who we do not even know. This may mean, for example, that some of them can talk to individuals and groups that AQ could formerly not talk to. Cooperations may have become viable that we would have thought impossible. I guess all I am really saying is: We may well be surprised before we know it. And: I think it is important to acknowledge that.

As I said, this is true for AQ Central. Visibility is still fairly good for AQAP. It was never good for AQI after Zarqawi's death. And it was mostly murky for AQIM ever since they joined. It is reasonable for al-Shabaab. So we are not left with nothing.

But at the core of expertise, at least in my book, is a certain degree of transparency. I personally will find it easier to trust those experts who'll admit that there is a hell of a lot we do NOT know - and much less we DO know.



PS: It is true of course that a large part of good info on the inner working of AQ central in the last few years came by way of statements of arrested recruits, and we may see more of that in the future. But as helpful as these info were, in some cases they pointed to the exact problem I am describing in this post. For example, we learned that Sheikh Yunis al-Mauretani was apparently immensely important in 08/09 re: euro plot. But I have yet to meet anyone who could tell me more than four sentences worth about him...


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