Shadow Government

What do the Mali al Qaeda documents tell us about the group?

We now have another opportunity to gain some insight into the inner workings of al Qaeda through captured documents. The French military intervention in Mali apparently forced the insurgents to flee without their most confidential papers. In the chaotic aftermath, journalists found a large number of documents produced by al Qaeda's shadow government in Timbuktu. The documents demonstrate the extent of the bureaucracy erected in just a few months, and show just how seriously al Qaeda takes the political objectives that they have set for themselves.

Although the majority of the material seems to be routine court documents, two deserve closer attention:  a complex document that consists of a cover letter and a partial copy of minutes from a meeting of the Notables (A'yan), and a nearly complete document from the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): ‘Abd al-Malik Drukdal (also known as Abu Mus‘ab ‘Abd al-Wadud). The complex document has interesting things to tell us about the administrative and political organization of AQIM, and I will be discussing it in greater detail in another post next week.

It is the document from Drukdal that has the most significant implications, however. Of first importance is that it claims to be a set of Directives (Tawajihat) from a commander to his subordinates. Although his language is collegial, it is clear that Drukdal believes he has the authority to give orders to his "brother Emirs" and that they will obey. The entire document is, in fact, a case study of how much command and control al Qaeda has over its forces in the field, and specifically gives us new evidence about the relationship between AQIM and other jihadist groups in Mali (such as Ansar Dine). The evidence from this document suggests that Ansar Dine, and thus other groups, are in fact an integral part of AQIM and willing to obey orders from AQIM's emir. Thus Drukdal tells the other emirs to make a peace deal with the nationalist Tuareg movement (the MNLA), and Ansar Dine followed through, signing an accord with the MNLA in December 2012. He also instructs commanders to stop imposing al Qaeda's version of sharia in a harsh manner in order to win over more Malians to their cause. In November 2012, Ansar Dine again followed through, publicly announcing that it would no longer seek to impose sharia as aggressively throughout Mali.

Just as interesting is the fact that the emir of AQIM admits his group uses the pretense of a local focus as a cover for its real nature as a global jihadist, al Qaeda organization. He tells his commanders to "adopt mature and moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms. To do so, you must avoid any statements that are provocative to neighboring countries and avoid repeated threats. Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic' movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no call for you to expose that we have an expansionist, jihadist, al Qaeda project or anything like that." In one short paragraph, in other words, Drukdal explains how to confuse current analysis not just of AQIM, but also of al-Qaeda's branches worldwide.

Finally, the pragmatic nature of al Qaeda's political strategy comes through in this document, providing a strong counterpoint to the group's commitment to ideological purity. This is evident in Drukdal's decision to back away from an immediate and rapid imposition of every sharia statute. His reasoning is entirely based on "interests": the new Islamic state is still in its infancy and therefore the group needs to be flexible and pragmatic in order to win over the people first. He even recommends that commanders on the ground begin with da'wa toward the people of Mali, a process of convincing people to join the movement through argumentation, which al Qaeda has traditionally avoided. In the end, however, he remains committed to imposing al Qaeda's extremist version of sharia, just waiting until the state passes through "infancy" and is an "adolescent" -- one strong enough to stand on its own.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Conservatives, be careful what you wish for

No doubt many Republicans in Washington are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude over the controversies swirling around the newly installed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez. He is a bare-knuckled partisan who never backs down from a political brawl. So investigations into his alleged advocacy on behalf of a major donor -- including a salacious sidebar of unsubstantiated allegations about underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic -- have not surprisingly stirred some to try and fan the flames of what they hope to be the Senator's immolation.

For example, a group called the American Future Fund (touting itself as, "Advocating Conservative, Free Market Ideals") published a full-page ad in Politico this week with the subtle title: "Senate Ethics Committee: Meet Your New Chairman of ‘Foreign Relations.'"  Har har. 

Of course, if the worst of the accusations turn out to be true, then no one disputes the fact that the Senator should immediately resign and face the consequences. But there are ample reasons to hope that they are not -- first and foremost, for the sake of the alleged victims. Secondly, conservatives reveling in the senator's current predicament may want to stop and consider what Menendez's possible fall from grace would mean for U.S. national security interests.  

That's because on key foreign policy issues during his career -- pressuring Iran, defending Israel, and promoting regional security -- Menendez has been stalwart and, indeed, much more hard-line than his predecessor as chairman of SFRC, John Kerry, and, more importantly, than the next two Democrats in line of succession should he lose the chairmanship: the uber-liberal California Democrat Barbara Boxer and the nondescript, party-line Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. 

As just one example, Menendez recently bucked White House opposition by winning Senate passage of increased Iran sanctions in the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, as well as authoring Iran sanctions provisions in recent defense authorization bills.

Soon after assuming the SFRC Chair, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I'm looking forward to working very closely with the administration, but I will always have my degree of independence on the things I care about." And those of us who have worked with him over the years know he cares about the right things: freedom, human rights, and taking the fight to America's enemies. 

No, Menendez is not warm and fuzzy, and more than a few fellow Republicans have borne the brunt of his ire. But looking out over the international landscape, with the U.S. facing myriad challenges in Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, and North Africa, the country can certainly use an SFRC chairman who is unabashed and unapologetic about defending U.S. interests abroad.

Whatever is going to happen with ongoing investigations is going to happen. Conservatives should just let the process play out, without the bells and whistles. If he is found guilty, then he will have to be held accountable. But one thing is certain: If Menendez loses his chairmanship of SFRC, it is not just his loss and the Democratic Party's loss, it is America's as well.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images