China and the Arab Spring


China’s response to the recent protests for democratic change in North Africa and the Arab world has been one that has mixed caution with aggressive diplomacy.

This article offers a brief assessment of China’s response to what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. I shall do so at two distinct levels. The first part of the article focuses on the strategy adopted at home in order to check dissent, while the second section addresses Chinese efforts at balancing its alliances in order to ensure that its strategic and energy interests are safeguarded.

The Jasmine Revolution that forced out the long-serving Tunisian president  Zine El Abidine Ben Aliand soon spread across borders inspiring large scale street protests in different parts of the Arab world caught most of the world by surprise. While the dynamics of protests and demands differed from nation to nation, there emerged a common underlying narrative, i.e., unelected and undemocratic regimes that did not respect basic human rights no longer held legitimacy with people. In that context, it was scarcely a surprise that uncomfortable questions would be raised, domestically and internationally, about the legitimacy of the Chinese regime.

The first real sign that calls for revolution were gaining currency in China was evident in the end of February. An anonymous protest appeal on urged people in 13 cities across the country to take to the streets on February 20.

In response, the Chinese government adopted a two-pronged strategy. The first part of this was to deal with any potential “trouble-makers” with an iron fist.Despite the fact that only a handful of people, reportedly 200 odd in Beijing and 100 in Shanghai, turned up for the protest on February 20, the police responded firmly, dispersing and detaining protesters, sending a clear message that even tepid challenges to the regime would be dealt with appropriately.   Soon after, the state began cracking down on human rights activists, artists and writers. The most noted amongst these has been artist Ai Weiwei, who was arrested in early April. That was accompanied with strict control over the Internet and social media networks.

The second part of the strategy was combating the dissenting voices with a calculated propaganda campaign. US Ambassador John Huntsman’s interaction with protesters in Beijing on February 20th afforded the perfect opportunity rile up nationalistic and anti-American fervor. A brief snapshot of the Chinese blogosphere, offered by Jacob Zenn for the Asia Times, reveals the potency of this sentiment.

Meanwhile, several Chinese commentators went to great lengths to draw distinctions between the one-party, socialist system and Arab monarchies. The Arab regimes were described as feudal and self-serving dictatorships that failed to invest in their people, resulting in economic stagnation.

In contrast, the Chinese state was defined as robust with a strong central leadership, which was premised on collective decision-making, the absence of individual monopoly over power, the grassroots network of the CCP. Its success and superiority could be gauged by the rapid economic prosperity and improved standards of living experienced by citizens along with the state’s ability to respond swiftly to disasters, such as the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

On the international stage, meanwhile, China remained rather circumspect in its response to the unfolding events. However, with the passage of time, a clear strategy appears to be taking shape.

With the tectonic shift that the region is undergoing, China has moved to rebalance alliances and project itself in a new light. The goal here appears to be one of securing crude and gas supplies while positioning itself as a responsible regional facilitator, which stresses on non-interference in internal affairs and shares a strong relationship with nearly all of the key players.

The first steps toward that end were taken in mid-March, as Beijing dispatched its special envoy for Middle East affairs, Wu Sike, for a whirlwind trip through Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar.

In the statements emerging since then, Chinese officials and academics have described the failure of US policies, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as one of the key factors for the regions ills. Such positioning is critical, considering Hamas and Fatah’s reconciliation efforts and the anticipated declaration of statehood by Palestine in September UNGA meet.

In terms of its energy needs, China imports approximately 58 percent of its oil from the Middle East. This figure is estimated to grow to 70 percent by 2015. Saudi Arabia is by far the largest exporter of crude to China, with Iran a distant second. Thus far, despite the growing shrillness between Riyadh and Tehran over the latter’s suspected role in supporting Shiite movements in the Gulf, China has walked a fine line not to upset its ties with either of them. In fact, in a world where the US and EU’s ability to influence the Islamic Republic remains limited, China finds itself in a unique position of strength, being Tehran’s largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, Beijing has also moved to deepen its cooperation with Moscow. The recent visit of Foreign Minister Jiechi resulted in an announcement of “tight cooperation” between the two nations on regional issues, while setting the stage for greater exports of gas to China. Moscow remains critical for China to counterbalance Western influence in the Middle East, while diversifying its energy imports.

Thus, at a geo-strategic level, China, despite initially seeming rather reluctant to get entangled the shifting political architecture of the Middle East, has slowly begun to rebrand and re-position itself as an responsible stakeholder and a unbiased broker, while working to secure uninterrupted oil flow.

(This article first appeared on the website of Centre for Land Warfare Studies on May 24, 2011)

Even on slippery slope, an ace up Pak sleeve


The elimination of Osama bin Laden in the military cantonment town of Abbottabad on May 2 and, within three weeks, on May 23, the 17 hour siege of Pakistan’s major naval-air base in Karachi have heaped humiliation on the Pakistan Army and the ISI.

Do these unfortunate experiences chasten the army or does Gen. Pervez Kayani still fall back on the expedience: “Ours is an India centered army?”

The Abbottabad operation remains a mystery. There is a body of observers, in Pakistan as elsewhere, which is convinced that the army, or at least a section of it, collaborated in Osama’s capture. It is simply not possible for a fugitive to find a comfortable hideout in the shadow of Pakistan’s premier military academy.

If the army denies knowledge, it is incompetent. If it accepts participation it invites a storm by way of “revenge” from the Pakistan Taliban.

The basic suspicion remains: elements in the Pak army or its affiliates, retired officers, were in cahoots with the Americans.

The siege of the naval base in Karachi leads to an even more frightening conclusion. The base was attacked without outsiders having been noticed at the countless checkpoints required at a military facility. Does it not prove without a shadow of a doubt that it was an inside job?

If both Abbottabad and Karachi are “inside” jobs, the narrative becomes frighteningly confused. In Abbottabad the collaboration was with the Americans to get Osama. In Karachi the operation is avowedly to avenge Osama’s death.

The charitable conclusion is that the left hand of the army does not know what the right is doing. A more sinister line to pursue is to look for fissures in the army on the issue of Jihad.

There was a nasty little theory doing the rounds: it was called the “one percent solution”. The implication is that if one percent of say 9.5 lakh of the army, navy and air force is infected with Jehadism, then the siege of the naval base or the attack on the GHQ in Rawalpindi in October 2009 are spontaneous eruptions linked to a secret society which grows in direct proportion to rampaging anti-Americanism. It is quite a frightening scenario for the region and beyond, particularly when such anarchy grips a country strapped to unclear weapons.

How does one calm a Pakistani establishment on sixes and sevens? Consider the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Kabul. It cannot be anybody’s case in Pakistan, even those obsessed with strategic depth, that an Indian Prime Minister must never visit Kabul because otherwise the Pak army will be in a heightened state of agitation.

The prime minister promised to continue development assistance and much else. So far so good. Tucked away in the joint declaration is a mention of Afghanistan’s “security” concerns. Immediately comes a riposte from a Pakistani journalist I know too well. “Why must you poke your nose in Afghan security?

This is paranoia, but let it pass. Let us, for the sake of argument, give Gen. Hamid Gul his favoured turf – Afghanistan. In preparation for this transfer of influence, I suggest Pakistan’s Geo TV (or any other channel) to organize a discussion between Hamid Gul and former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdus Salaam Zaeef, follower and friend of Mullah Omar, who spent four years in Guantanamo Bay. What he told me some months ago in Kabul is what he will tell Hamid Gul. “Pakistan simply has no role in Afghanistan.” Why this anger with Pakistan?

“For four years I was in Guantanamo where human rights violations are not as bad as they are in Pakistan: for seven years our boys languished in Pakistan prisons without trial.”

Well, assuming Zaeef is a spent force, let us consider Serajuddin Haqqani as a Pakistani asset among the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai will thump the table hard. “Haqqani is the worst of the lot” he will exclaim.

Quite ironically, the day Pakistan was in convulsions over the seventeen hour siege of its important naval base in Karachi, businessmen, including some Indians, were being flown by the government in Kabul to far flung parts of Herat in search of business, trade, joint ventures.

This is not to suggest that peace has enveloped Afghanistan. But it does confirm the other reality: the Af-Pak conflict’s center of gravity has over the past five years shifted decisively to the very heart of Pakistan.

Does all of this still leave Pakistan with a hand to play? Yes, ofcourse. The ultimate ace up its sleeve is to search seriously for peace with India, step by step, but sincerely. The incantation of Hindu India, Hamsaya Dushman has begun to pall, even on Hillary Clinton who visits Islamabad next week.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Letter to PM on Cairn-Vedanta deal

Date: 25/5/2011


The Prime Minister of India

The Minister of Petroleum and Gas

The Finance Minister

The Minister for Commerce and Industry

The Minister for Law and Justice

The Chief Vigilance Commissioner (Acting)

The Director of Central Bureau of Investigation

Respected Sirs,

Kindly refer to my complaint dated 5/3/11 relating to the government and the ONGC overlooking the clause of the right of first refusal (ROFR) and not exercising the right in order to cause a loss of hundreds of billions of dollars to the people of the country and a corresponding gain to Vedanta and its owner Anil Agrawal.

In this connection my RTI application with the ONGC regarding the details of the agreement on the right of first refusal and the opinion of the Solicitor General was not replied in time and the information arbitrarily refused to enable the corrupt deal to go through.

In my earlier complaint, among other grounds on the value of the deal etc, I had stated the following:

“It also needs to be pointed out that Vedanta is leveraging on the iron ore mineral assets of SESA GOA in which it has a controlling stake to raise loans to finance the Cairn deal. The iron ore reserves of Sesa Goa are worth two lakh crores and  ironically is owned by people of the country.

The company is leveraging on one natural asset, the ownership of which is with the people of the country to buy another asset also owned by the people. Viva la crony capitalism!”

Unfortunately, the warning has not only turned out to be prophetic but much worse: Mr Agrawal of Vedanta is not only leveraging national assets of iron ore leased to Sesa Goa but also stealing national assets to finance the Cairn deal. The newspaper reports in the print media on 22/5/11 attributed to PTI states:

Corporate fraud investigation body, Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO), has recommended prosecution against mines major Sesa Goa on nine grounds, including over and under-invoicing of export/import of over Rs 1,000 crore. After an investigation, which spanned over one-and-a-half years, the SFIO has found that iron-ore exporter has over-invoiced import receipts of coking coal by Rs 14.6 crore and also the sale of iron-ore by Rs 42.51 crore, while under-invoicing exports by Rs 1,002 crore.

Under-invoicing is normally done to avoid paying tax. Under the practice, companies mention in their records an amount less than what was actually delivered and pocket the difference. The SFIO has also recommended prosecution against Sesa Goa’s managing director and the company secretary for the violations under the Companies Act, 1956. Sesa Goa, which is now owned by NRI billionaire, Mr Anil Agarwal, was unavailable for comment.

The SFIO has also alleged that Sesa Goa made excess payment of agency commission to sales agents amounting to Rs 40.6 crore to facilitate its exports of iron-ores to foreign buyers. “Such sales agents included Mitsui & Co (of Japan and Hong Kong), Nissho Iwai Corporation (Japan), Ahmed Jaffer & Co (Pakistan), and Arim Peks (Turkey),” the SFIO report said. The report also accused the company’s independent directors and statutory auditor of non-cooperation with the investigations, and has also recommended prosecution on this basis. In 2009, the SFIO was asked to investigate the affairs of Sesa Goa, following a report of the Registrar of Companies (RoC), which ‘prima facie’ found the company guilty of fudging invoices. Allegations against the company also included diversion of funds, which, the SFIO reports rejected.

The RoC had been looking into Sesa Goa’s case since 2003 when the firm was majority-owned by Mitsui Co. Vedanta Resources acquired 51 per cent stake in Sesa Goa in 2007 from the Japanese firm for $981 million.

It is the allegation of the complainant that Vedanta is being allowed to corner natural resources of the country – the oil and gas fields leased to Cairn India – worth a few hundred billion for a pittance when ONGC has the right of first refusal and should have exercised the option in national interest..

It appears that the new owner of Cairn field is purchasing the consent by the wealth stolen from the iron ore fields of Sesa Goa.

Further if Sesa Goa has been responsible for fraud manifesting in the undervaluing  of natural resources belonging to the people of the country so that it can misappropriate the profit by not paying taxes and pocket the gain to personal accounts, then such fraudulent companies and their owners deserve to be permanently blacklisted. The fact that the same is not being done speaks for itself.

The complainant intends to challenge the deal, if the same is approved, under section 13 (1) (d) (ii) and (iii) of the PCA and hold the decision makers accountable.

As the EGOM is to meet to clear the deal on 27/5/11, the letter is being sent by email to all the parties involved in the decision making process.

Yours faithfully,

A K Agrawal

Cc to Chairman of ONGC for being responsible for facilitating the deal and denial of data on the ROFR with Cairn India so that the deal can go through.

(Arun Agrawal is the author of the book Reliance: The Real Natwar)

Commissions, omissions in Obama’s speech


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requires astrological consultations, preferably in Varanasi, to free him from an unfortunate conjunction of stars. President Obama’s blueprint for Middle East could not have come at a worse moment. Bibi was planning a virtuoso performance before a joint session of US Congress.

It is commonly recognized in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, that the Likud PM nurses an adversarial chemistry with the US President. He went ahead with jewish settlements in a most insulting reception to US Vice President, Joe Biden. That was precisely what Biden had come to prevent.

Pushed to a corner and isolated, who can blame Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas endorse a resolution to be placed before the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize the state of Palestine.

Just as Netanyahu’s men set about plotting their move, the Arab Spring knocked out the interlocutor Israel had grown accustomed to – Mubarak. This strengthened the Israeli lobby which argued: “who do we discuss peace with; what will be the face of the emerging Mid East?” Obama comes down firmly on this stance.

“I disagree” he says. “At a time when people of the Middle East are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace…… more urgent than ever.” The status quo, he said, is simply “not sustainable”.

Why is the timing of Obama’s speech embarrassing for Netanyahu? As I have said, the Arab Spring took Israel by surprise. Poor anticipation exposed poor intelligence. To escape constant nagging by Senator George Mitchell, Netanyahu’s friends in Washington fetched for him an invitation to address a joint session of Congress in May.

The PM’s men fell into deep thought. Should the speech invite Mahmoud Abbas as a partner in quest for peace, or announce a peace plan?

Just then came the biggest shock of all. Again, Israeli intelligence knew nothing about Palestinian interlocutor Mustafa Barghouti shuttling between Ramallah, Damascus and Cairo, arranging meetings in Cairo between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, all under the new Egyptian Intelligence chief, Mourad Mowafi and Foreign Minister Nabil al Araby.

Egypt was once again center-stage, playing its role as Arab leader. This is most disconcerting for an Israel used to dealing with a rubber stamp despot for over three decades.

With circumstances so altered, what will Netanyahu say on the Capitol Hill on May 24? Of course, he will go hammer and tongs on Iran’s nuclear ambition. But that may not be enough to keep the Congressman riveted.

Before the PM’s team could produce that magical speech, President Obama, looking good after concluding the Osama bin Laden saga, took the wind out of their sails with his speech. It is the most comprehensive speech yet made by any world leader on the theme.

There is a degree of thoroughness in the manner in which this speech of Obama’s has been prepared. Not only is there fulsome praise for Hillary Clinton who “will go down as one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history” but there is an imprimatur of professional diplomacy throughout the speech.

For instance a somewhat tired Senator George Mitchell has been replaced by young David Hale as Mid East Envoy. He has first hand knowledge of almost every Mid East station mentioned by Obama, including Bahrain.

In an all important paragraph on Bahrain, Obama chastises those responsible for “mass arrests and brute force.” The leadership in Manamah would know exactly where the President’s barbs are directed.

One spots US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman’s hand in this paragraph. Feltman had painstakingly helped draft a six point power sharing agreement to which Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Khalifa and Moderate Shia leader Shaikh Ali Salman committed themselves. Much to Feltman’s disappointment, the Prince’s uncle (King’s brother) Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman al Khalifa and his coterie of hardliners, scuttled the agreement. It was then that Saudi armoured Personal Carriers rolled in.

Obama mentioned reforms in Bahrain and Yemen as being important for “America to be credible”. In which case Bahrain may have to pick up the thread where Feltman left it.

Since Obama names almost every Arab country which is reforming or needs reform, the omission of Riyadh places Saudis beyond all critical examination as the perfect society, Peace Be Upon It!

Incidentally two important West Asian countries have watched the Arab spring with doubt, even some anxiety –Saudi Arabia and Israel. To the extent that both are fearful of Iran, a sort of unstated common purpose binds them. Since Jerusalem and Riyadh have clout in Washington far in excess of anything that all the Arab countries can jointly claim, there is in place a very powerful troika.

The troika would have been even more imposing had the Libyan misadventure not created a rift in the Atlantic alliance on whether the group in Benghazi should be recognized as the legitimate government of Libya. David Cameron, the latter day, would-be Winston Churchill, rushes in where Obama fears to tread.

There is another aspect which worries Riyadh as much as it worries Jerusalem: New Egypt’s approach to Iran. For Egypt, Hamas and Hezbullah are of greater concern than meditations on Iran’s nuclear ambition.

Demonstrations in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain all the way around to Yemen has produced paranoia in Riyadh about an encirclement by Shias who will, they fear, eventually have Iranian support.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Al Qaeda’s leadership in Yemen


On May 5, a Hellfire missile fired from a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) struck a vehicle in the town of Nissab in Yemen’s restive Shabwa province. The airstrike reportedly resulted in the deaths of two Yemeni members of the Yemen-based al Qaeda franchise group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and injured a third AQAP militant. Subsequent media reports indicated that the strike had targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born member of AQAP, but had failed to kill him.

The May 5 strike was not the first time al-Awlaki had been targeted and missed. On Dec. 24, 2009 (a day before the failed AQAP Christmas Day bombing attempt against Northwest Airlines Flight 253), an airstrike and ground assault was launched against a compound in the al-Said district of Shawba province that intelligence said was the site of a major meeting of AQAP members. The Yemeni government initially indicated that the attack had killed al-Awlaki along with several senior AQAP members, but those reports proved incorrect.

In 2009 and 2010, the United States conducted other strikes against AQAP in Yemen, though most of those strikes reportedly involved Tomahawk cruise missiles and carrier-based fixed-wing aircraft. Still, the United States has reportedly used UAVs to attack targets in Yemen on a number of occasions. In November 2002, the CIA launched a UAV strike against Abu Ali al-Harithi and five confederates in Marib. That strike essentially decapitated the al Qaeda node in Yemen and greatly reduced its operational effectiveness for several years. There are also reports that a May 24, 2010, strike may have been conducted by a UAV.

However, that strike mistakenly killed the wrong target, which generated a great deal of anger among Yemen’s tribes, who then conducted armed attacks against pipelines and military bases. The use of airstrikes against AQAP was heavily curtailed after that attack.

All this is to say that a UAV strike in Yemen is not particularly surprising — nor is a strike targeting AQAP or al-Awlaki. Indeed, we noted in January our belief that AQAP had eclipsed the al Qaeda core on the physical battlefield due to the efforts of its tactical commanders and on the ideological battlefield due to the efforts of its propaganda wing, Al-Malahem Media.

One thing that has struck us as odd about the May 5 airstrike, however, is the way al-Awlaki has been characterized in the press. Several media outlets have referred to him as the leader of AQAP, which he clearly is not (he is not even the group’s primary religious leader). Other reports have even speculated that al-Awlaki could be in line to become the global leader of the jihadist movement following the death of Osama bin Laden. In light of such statements, it seems a fitting time to discuss once again the leadership of AQAP and to examine al-Awlaki’s role within the organization.

Stepping into the void

Yemen became a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts following the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen; the 9/11 attacks; and the October 2002 bombing attack against the oil tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast. As noted above, following the November 2002 UAV strike that killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, the jihadists in Yemen entered a period of disorganization and operational dormancy. This period was also marked by the arrests and imprisonment of several important Yemeni jihadists. There remained many jihadists in Yemen, and many more sympathizers, but the movement in Yemen lacked effective leadership and direction.

This leadership void was filled by a man named Nasir al-Wahayshi, who is also known by the honorific name, or kunya, Abu Basir. Al-Wahayshi is an ethnic Yemeni who spent time in Afghanistan while allegedly working closely with Osama bin Laden. Some reports even indicate al-Wahayshi was bin Laden’s personal secretary. Al-Wahayshi fled Afghanistan following the battle at Tora Bora and went to Iran, where he was arrested by the government of Iran in late 2001 or early 2002. Al-Wahayshi was repatriated to Yemen in 2003 through an extradition deal with the Iranian government and subsequently escaped from a high-security prison outside Sanaa in February 2006, along with 22 other jihadists. Other escapees in the group included Jamal al-Badawi, who is wanted by U.S. officials for his alleged role as the leader of the cell that carried out the suicide bombing of the USS Cole, and Qasim al-Raymi, who became AQAP’s military leader. Al-Raymi is said to be an aggressive, ruthless and fierce fighter (some have likened him to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). Al-Raymi has also been unsuccessfully targeted by an airstrike.

Following the 2006 prison break, there was a notable change in jihadist activity in Yemen. In September 2006 there was an attack involving dual vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) against oil facilities. This was the first use of VBIEDs on land in Yemen (large IEDs in boats had been used in the USS Cole and Limburg attacks).

Al-Wahayshi was able to establish control of Yemen’s ramshackle network of jihadists by mid-2007, bringing a resurgence to jihadist operations in Yemen. By January 2009, the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda franchise had fled Saudi Arabia for Yemen and declared their loyalty to al-Wahayshi. It is notable that the Saudi contingent swore allegiance to al-Wahayshi because it indicated that the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni jihadist entities was not a merger of equals. A hierarchy had been established for AQAP with al-Wahayshi at the top, a testament to his leadership.

At the time of the merger, Saudi national (and former Guantanamo detainee) Said Ali al-Shihri was named as al-Wahayshi’s deputy. Another notable Saudi who joined the group during the union was Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, who has become AQAP’s chief bombmaker and the mastermind behind the innovative IEDs used in AQAP’s attacks. Also joining AQAP at this time was a Saudi cleric named Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, who reportedly earned a degree in Islamic law from Muhammad Ibn-Saud University and would become the group’s mufti, or religious leader. Al-Rubaish fought with bin Laden and al-Wahayshi at Tora Bora, and shortly after the battle he was arrested and detained at Guantanamo Bay until 2006, when he was returned to Saudi Arabia. After completing the Saudi rehabilitation program, al-Rubaish fled to Yemen, where he joined AQAP. The relationship between AQAP figures such as al-Wahayshi and al-Rubaish and bin Laden helps explain why AQAP has been the franchise jihadist group that is the closest ideologically to the al Qaeda core.

Al-Awlaki’s path to AQAP

This review of AQAP’s formation demonstrates that Nasir al-Wahayshi is clearly the leader of AQAP. However, that does not mean that al-Awlaki plays an insignificant role in the group. He has come to be an important ideologue and spokesman — especially to English-speaking Muslims. Even in the years before he was well-known, al-Awlaki was long suspected of being an al Qaeda supporter. The 9/11 Commission Report even noted that he had had close contact with 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who attended his mosque in San Diego. After al-Awlaki moved to a mosque in northern Virginia, Alhamzi reportedly visited him with another 9/11 hijacker, Hani Hanjour.

In 2002, under increasing law enforcement scrutiny during the 9/11 investigation, al-Awlaki left the United States. After living and preaching for just over a year in London, he returned to Yemen in early 2004. It is important to remember that in early 2004, the jihadists in Yemen were off balance and directionless. While al-Awlaki was able to establish himself as a leading online English-language jihadist preacher, he was always somewhat circumspect in his choice of language in public and did not directly espouse attacks against the United States and the West, probably because he was undergoing a slow transformation from being an American Salafi to becoming a transnational jihadist, and it takes time for ideas to crystallize.

Although al-Awlaki’s prominence as an English-language preacher increased dramatically during this time, it is noteworthy that al-Awlaki was not able to provide the leadership required to organize the jihadist movement in Yemen, which would continue to struggle until al-Wahayshi escaped from prison and assumed control. Al-Awlaki is an ideologue, not an organizer.

Al-Awlaki was arrested by Yemeni authorities in August 2006 and held in custody until December 2007. Between the time of his arrest and the time of his release, there had been a tectonic shift in the Yemeni jihadist landscape under the leadership of al-Wahayshi, which had once again become active and deadly, as evidenced by the July 2007 suicide attack that killed eight Spanish tourists and their two Yemeni guides. Following his release from prison, al-Awlaki’s public rhetoric indicated an increased degree of radicalism.

However, despite the increasing radicalism in his sermons and statements, al-Awlaki remained somewhat ambivalent regarding his association with AQAP. Even following the above-mentioned Dec. 24, 2009, airstrike in which he was supposedly targeted, he denied being associated with AQAP in an interview with a Yemeni reporter. This position was becoming increasingly untenable as reports of his links to Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan and Christmas Day bombing-attempt suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab were revealed.

Al-Awlaki’s role

By early 2010, al-Awlaki finally began to publicly acknowledge his affiliation with AQAP, a relationship that he openly admitted in the first edition of AQAP’s English-language Inspire magazine. Al-Awlaki has been a regular contributor to Inspire, and a review of his contributions clearly displays his role in the organization as a religious leader and propagandist. In the first edition of Inspire, al-Awlaki wrote the theme article for the edition, “May Our Souls Be Sacrificed for You,” which provided a religious justification for attacks against the individuals involved in the Mohammed cartoon controversy. A list of individuals to be targeted was also included.

The second edition of Inspire contained a lengthy article by al-Awlaki that was intended to refute a declaration made by a group of mainstream Islamic scholars called the New Mardin Declaration, which undercut several key tenets of jihadism such as the practice of takfir, or declaring another Muslim to be an unbeliever. The scholars also condemned the practice of terrorism and attacks directed against Muslim rulers. The fourth edition of Inspire contained a fatwa by al-Awlaki entitled “The Ruling on Disposing the Unbelievers Wealth in Dar el Harb,” which provides religious justification for stealing from unbelievers in the West. Then in the fifth edition of Inspire, al-Awlaki wrote an article titled “The Tsunami of Change,” which was intended to refute claims that the ideology of jihadism had become irrelevant in the wake of the uprisings occurring across the Arab world over the previous few months.

Al-Awlaki’s in-depth refutation of the New Mardin Declaration clearly displayed how seriously jihadists take any attack against their ideology, a trend we have noted in the past by discussing the efforts of core al Qaeda ideological figures like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi to vigorously defend the key doctrines of jihadism against assault from mainstream Islamic scholars. In the words of al-Libi, the jihadist battle “is not waged solely at the military and economic level, but is waged first and foremost at the level of doctrine.”

To a movement that is based upon ideology, especially an ideology that embraces “martyrdom,” the largest threat is not physical force — which can kill individuals — but rather ideological attacks like the New Mardin Declaration that can tear down the ideological base the movement is founded upon. This is something jihadists fear more than death.

Therefore it is important for the movement to have ideological leaders who not only expound and propagate the ideology, using it to recruit new members, but can also act as ideological watchdogs or apologists to defend the theology from ideological attack. This is one of the roles that al-Awlaki is currently playing for AQAP, that of an ideological guardian. He preaches the doctrine of jihadism in an effort to attract new recruits, provides religious rulings as to whether it is religiously permissible to attack particular targets and conduct specific types of operations and vigorously defends the doctrine of jihadism from attack.

However, it is important to understand that al-Awlaki is an ideological leader in AQAP and not the ideological leader of the organization. As noted above, the actual ideological leader (mufti) of AQAP is a Saudi named Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, who, unlike al-Awlaki, fought with bin Laden at Tora Bora, was captured and is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. In addition to this cachet of having fought side by side with bin Laden and maintained his faith through Guantanamo, al-Rubaish has also been formally educated in Shariah (al-Awlaki has degrees in civil engineering and education and worked toward a degree in human resources development, but he has no formal theological training). Al-Awlaki and al-Rubaish are also joined by another AQAP ideological leader, Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab, a Yemeni imam who, according to some reports, chairs AQAP’s Shariah Council.

So, while Al-Awlaki is an American citizen, speaks native English and is an accomplished communicator (especially in appealing to English-speaking Muslims), he is not the emir of AQAP or even its primary religious authority. Therefore it is unthinkable that he could possibly replace Osama bin Laden as the leader of the worldwide jihadist movement instead of a far more significant jihadist figure such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The second and clearly most significant role that al-Awlaki plays for AQAP is that of the group’s foremost preacher to English-speaking Muslims. Starting in 2008, al-Wahayshi and the AQAP leadership made a strategic decision to encourage radicalized Muslims living in the West to adopt a leaderless-resistance form of jihadist militancy. This operational model meant instructing radicalized Muslims to conduct simple attacks using readily available means where they live, instead of traveling to places like Yemen or Pakistan to obtain training. This appeal was evidenced not only in the group’s online Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahem but also in the founding of the group’s English-language online magazine Inspire.

Because of counterterrorism measures undertaken in the West, it has become more difficult for terrorist operatives from the al Qaeda core and franchise groups like AQAP to travel to the United States or Europe to conduct terrorist attacks. This is the reason that AQAP (and later the al Qaeda core) chose to focus on recruiting and equipping grassroots operatives. These efforts have paid dividends in attacks like the Fort Hood shooting, which killed more Americans than any attack conducted by AQAP itself. So, while al-Awlaki’s role in reaching out to the English-speaking Muslim world may not seem all that significant as far as AQAP’s internal operations are concerned, it allows the group to project power into the heart of the West, and it is a critical component of the group’s effort to take the fight to their enemy’s homeland. Al-Awlaki is important, just not in the way many in the press are portraying him to be.

(Al Qaeda’s Leadership in Yemen is republished with permission of STRATFOR)

Visegrad: A new European military force


With the Palestinians demonstrating and the International Monetary Fund in turmoil, it would seem odd to focus this week on something called the Visegrad Group. But this is not a frivolous choice. What the Visegrad Group decided to do last week will, I think, resonate for years, long after the alleged attempted rape by Dominique Strauss-Kahn is forgotten and long before the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved. The obscurity of the decision to most people outside the region should not be allowed to obscure its importance.

The region is Europe — more precisely, the states that had been dominated by the Soviet Union. The Visegrad Group, or V4, consists of four countries — Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary — and is named after two 14th century meetings held in Visegrad Castle in present-day Hungary of leaders of the medieval kingdoms of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia. The group was reconstituted in 1991 in post-Cold War Europe as the Visegrad Three (at that time, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were one). The goal was to create a regional framework after the fall of Communism. This week the group took an interesting new turn.

On May 12, the Visegrad Group announced the formation of a “battle group” under the command of Poland. The battle group would be in place by 2016 as an independent force and would not be part of NATO command. In addition, starting in 2013, the four countries would begin military exercises together under the auspices of the NATO Response Force.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the primary focus of all of the Visegrad nations had been membership in the European Union and NATO. Their evaluation of their strategic position was threefold. First, they felt that the Russian threat had declined if not dissipated following the fall of the Soviet Union. Second, they felt that their economic future was with the European Union. Third, they believed that membership in NATO, with strong U.S. involvement, would protect their strategic interests. Of late, their analysis has clearly been shifting.

First, Russia has changed dramatically since the Yeltsin years. It has increased its power in the former Soviet sphere of influence substantially, and in 2008 it carried out an effective campaign against Georgia. Since then it has also extended its influence in other former Soviet states. The Visegrad members’ underlying fear of Russia, built on powerful historical recollection, has become more intense. They are both the front line to the former Soviet Union and the countries that have the least confidence that the Cold War is simply an old memory.

Second, the infatuation with Europe, while not gone, has frayed. The ongoing economic crisis, now focused again on Greece, has raised two questions: whether Europe as an entity is viable and whether the reforms proposed to stabilize Europe represent a solution for them or primarily for the Germans. It is not, by any means, that they have given up the desire to be Europeans, nor that they have completely lost faith in the European Union as an institution and an idea. Nevertheless, it would be unreasonable to expect that these countries would not be uneasy about the direction that Europe was taking. If one wants evidence, look no further than the unease with which Warsaw and Prague are deflecting questions about the eventual date of their entry into the Eurozone. Both are the strongest economies in Central Europe, and neither is enthusiastic about the euro.

Finally, there are severe questions as to whether NATO provides a genuine umbrella of security to the region and its members. The NATO strategic concept, which was drawn up in November 2010, generated substantial concern on two scores. First, there was the question of the degree of American commitment to the region, considering that the document sought to expand the alliance’s role in non-European theaters of operation. For example, the Americans pledged a total of one brigade to the defense of Poland in the event of a conflict, far below what Poland thought necessary to protect the North European Plain. Second, the general weakness of European militaries meant that, willingness aside, the ability of the Europeans to participate in defending the region was questionable. Certainly, events in Libya, where NATO had neither a singular political will nor the military participation of most of its members, had to raise doubts. It was not so much the wisdom of going to war but the inability to create a coherent strategy and deploy adequate resources that raised questions of whether NATO would be any more effective in protecting the Visegrad nations.

There is another consideration. Germany’s commitment to both NATO and the EU has been fraying. The Germans and the French split on the Libya question, with Germany finally conceding politically but unwilling to send forces. Libya might well be remembered less for the fate of Moammar Gadhafi than for the fact that this was the first significant strategic break between Germany and France in decades. German national strategy has been to remain closely aligned with France in order to create European solidarity and to avoid Franco-German tensions that had roiled Europe since 1871. This had been a centerpiece of German foreign policy, and it was suspended, at least temporarily.

The Germans obviously are struggling to shore up the European Union and questioning precisely how far they are prepared to go in doing so. There are strong political forces in Germany questioning the value of the EU to Germany, and with every new wave of financial crises requiring German money, that sentiment becomes stronger. In the meantime, German relations with Russia have become more important to Germany. Apart from German dependence on Russian energy, Germany has investment opportunities in Russia. The relationship with Russia is becoming more attractive to Germany at the same time that the relationship to NATO and the EU has become more problematic.

For all of the Visegrad countries, any sense of a growing German alienation from Europe and of a growing German-Russian economic relationship generates warning bells. Before the Belarusian elections there was hope in Poland that pro-Western elements would defeat the least unreformed regime in the former Soviet Union. This didn’t happen. Moreover, pro-Western elements have done nothing to solidify in Moldova or break the now pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Uncertainty about European institutions and NATO, coupled with uncertainty about Germany’s attention, has caused a strategic reconsideration — not to abandon NATO or the EU, of course, nor to confront the Russians, but to prepare for all eventualities.

It is in this context that the decision to form a Visegradian battle group must be viewed. Such an independent force, a concept generated by the European Union as a European defense plan, has not generated much enthusiasm or been widely implemented. The only truly robust example of an effective battle group is the Nordic Battle Group, but then that is not surprising. The Nordic countries share the same concerns as the Visegrad countries — the future course of Russian power, the cohesiveness of Europe and the commitment of the United States.

In the past, the Visegrad countries would have been loath to undertake anything that felt like a unilateral defense policy. Therefore, the decision to do this is significant in and of itself. It represents a sense of how these countries evaluate the status of NATO, the U.S. attention span, European coherence and Russian power. It is not the battle group itself that is significant but the strategic decision of these powers to form a sub-alliance, if you will, and begin taking responsibility for their own national security. It is not what they expected or wanted to do, but it is significant that they felt compelled to begin moving in this direction.

Just as significant is the willingness of Poland to lead this military formation and to take the lead in the grouping as a whole. Poland is the largest of these countries by far and in the least advantageous geographical position. The Poles are trapped between the Germans and the Russians. Historically, when Germany gets close to Russia, Poland tends to suffer. It is not at that extreme point yet, but the Poles do understand the possibilities. In July, the Poles will be assuming the EU presidency in one of the union’s six-month rotations. The Poles have made clear that one of their main priorities will be Europe’s military power. Obviously, little can happen in Europe in six months, but this clearly indicates where Poland’s focus is.

The militarization of the V4 runs counter to its original intent but is in keeping with the geopolitical trends in the region. Some will say this is over-reading on my part or an overreaction on the part of the V4, but it is neither. For the V4, the battle group is a modest response to emerging patterns in the region, which STRATFOR had outlined in its 2011 Annual Forecast. As for my reading, I regard the new patterns not as a minor diversion from the main pattern but as a definitive break in the patterns of the post-Cold War world. In my view, the post-Cold War world ended in 2008, with the financial crisis and the Russo-Georgian war. We are in a new era, as yet unnamed, and we are seeing the first breaks in the post-Cold War pattern.

I have argued in previous articles and books that there is a divergent interest between the European countries on the periphery of Russia and those farther west, particularly Germany. For the countries on the periphery, there is a perpetual sense of insecurity, generated not only by Russian power compared to their own but also by uncertainty as to whether the rest of Europe would be prepared to defend them in the event of Russian actions. The V4 and the other countries south of them are not as sanguine about Russian intentions as others farther away are. Perhaps they should be, but geopolitical realities drive consciousness and insecurity and distrust defines this region.

I had also argued that an alliance only of the four northernmost countries is insufficient. I used the concept “Intermarium,” which had first been raised after World War I by a Polish leader, Joseph Pilsudski, who understood that Germany and the Soviet Union would not be permanently weak and that Poland and the countries liberated from the Hapsburg Empire would have to be able to defend themselves and not have to rely on France or Britain.

Pilsudski proposed an alliance stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and encompassing the countries to the west of the Carpathians — Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In some formulations, this would include Yugoslavia, Finland and the Baltics. The point was that Poland had to have allies, that no one could predict German and Soviet strength and intentions, and that the French and English were too far away to help. The only help Poland could have would be an alliance of geography — countries with no choice.

It follows from this that the logical evolution here is the extension of the Visegrad coalition. At the May 12 defense ministers’ meeting, there was discussion of inviting Ukraine to join in. Twenty or even 10 years ago, that would have been a viable option. Ukraine had room to maneuver. But the very thing that makes the V4 battle group necessary — Russian power — limits what Ukraine can do. The Russians are prepared to give Ukraine substantial freedom to maneuver, but that does not include a military alliance with the Visegrad countries.

An alliance with Ukraine would provide significant strategic depth. It is unlikely to happen. That means that the alliance must stretch south, to include Romania and Bulgaria. The low-level tension between Hungary and Romania over the status of Hungarians in Romania makes that difficult, but if the Hungarians can live with the Slovaks, they can live with the Romanians. Ultimately, the interesting question is whether Turkey can be persuaded to participate in this, but that is a question far removed from Turkish thinking now. History will have to evolve quite a bit for this to take place. For now, the question is Romania and Bulgaria.

But the decision of the V4 to even propose a battle group commanded by Poles is one of those small events that I think will be regarded as a significant turning point. However we might try to trivialize it and place it in a familiar context, it doesn’t fit. It represents a new level of concern over an evolving reality — the power of Russia, the weakness of Europe and the fragmentation of NATO. This is the last thing the Visegrad countries wanted to do, but they have now done the last thing they wanted to do. That is what is significant.

Events in the Middle East and Europe’s economy are significant and of immediate importance. However, sometimes it is necessary to recognize things that are not significant yet but will be in 10 years. I believe this is one of those events. It is a punctuation mark in European history.

(Visegrad: A New European Military Force is republished with permission of STRATFOR)