What's Really Fueling Al-Qaeda?

A branch of Al-Qaeda clamed responsibility for the foiled bombing attack of Detroit-bound Delta Airlines Flight on Christmas Day. The Al-Qaeda offshoot at the center of the controversy is based in Yemen. Arsalan Iftikhar, a civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com and legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Ben Venzke, who monitors terrorist groups, talks about the current known state of al-Qaeda �" its reach, function and aggressive agenda.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment, the latest in our Conscientious Spending series. Let's say you actually have some cash to give away. How do you find the right organization to which to donate that hard earned money? Our money coach Alvin Hall is with us and he will give us some guidance. That's just a little later.

But first, we want to talk more about the terror network at the center of that alleged failed terrorist attack Christmas Day: al-Qaida. Yesterday, an al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen claimed responsibility for that attempt to blow up a passenger plane en route to the U.S. from Amsterdam. In a statement posted on several online forums, the group said it planned the attack to avenge U.S. attacks on al-Qaida in Yemen. The group, known as al-Qaida In The Arabian Peninsula, boasts of supplying Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with explosives.

The incident has drawn greater attention to the spread of al-Qaida. But we wanted to talk more about its reach. Who is attracted to this organization? What message is this group imparting to attract young men - privileged young man like that Nigerian student to its cause? So, we've called our regular contributor, Arsalan Iftikhar. He is a civil rights attorney. He is founder of themuslimguy.com and he is a legal fellow for the Institute For Social Policy and Understanding. Also Ben Venzke, he's CEO of IntelCenter, that's a company that monitors terrorist groups. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Thank you, Michel.

BEN VENZKE: Good to be here.

MARTIN: Bernie, if you could start with us and tell us what we know about this group al-Qaida In The Arabian Peninsula. Does it - how big is it? How long has it existed?

VENZKE: Well, it's a regional arm of al-Qaida. So, it's part of the sort of main infrastructure of al-Qaida that we know and have been hearing about for a long time. It recently merged with another regional arm of al-Qaida that was in Saudi Arabia. It used to be al-Qaida In The Southern Arabian Peninsula and then they merged with al-Qaida in the Land of Two Holy Places, which was in Saudi Arabia, and took the name al-Qaida In The Arabian Peninsula.

It has always conducted operations pretty much just within the realm of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. And it never really reached out to do something abroad or especially in a place like the United States or in Europe. So, this is a significant increase for them in terms of their operational activities and is raising them to a higher profile. But in terms of conducting attacks in and around that region against foreign tourists, U.S. embassy, other targets like that including the Saudi government, they've been fairly active over the years.

MARTIN: And what do they want? What's their goal?

VENZKE: Well, it's very much the same as core al-Qaida, which we hear from, you know, Osama Bin Laden and others, except that they've always been focused fairly regionally. And, in fact, they still are. It just seems that they've come to the opinion that they can achieve some of their local goals by conducting attacks outside of that and that is essentially trying to establish an Islamic state by their definition in that region, in that part of the world and fighting against the Western crusaders, as they see them.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you've been writing about what you call Jihadi cool?

IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What is that? And what do you think these young men - I think a lot of people are very intrigued by the profile of this young man. Very wealthy young man, very privileged, given access to a lot of opportunities a lot of people around the world would love to have and renounced it all, told his family he was renouncing it all. Actually kind of sounds like Osama Bin Laden, who also comes from a family of wealth and went on in this. So, what's Jihadi cool? And what do you think the appeal is?

IFTIKHAR: Well, Jihadi cool is a term that was originally coined by Dr. Marc Sageman, who is a former CIA forensic psychiatrist, to sort of encapsulate this new sort of phenomenon of the al-Qaida's reach within cyberspace. So, the new Jihadi cool is essentially rogue vigilantism. It's essentially where young politically disenfranchised, you know, Muslim males, you know, so not necessarily economically disadvantaged, but sort of politically disenfranchised Muslim males who are essentially resorting to become wannabe thugs, you know.

And so, what we've seen now is the new sort of front on the war on terror has become cyberspace. You know, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, electronic media where essentially people can hide behind, you know, electronic aliases and essentially give in or propagate this sort of vile propaganda.

MARTIN: Well, this - but this kid wasn't politically disenfranchised or economically disenfranchised. His father was one of the most influential business people in Nigeria.

IFTIKHAR: Right. And so, you know, again, it's not necessarily poor, economically disadvantaged people, but people who, you know, have a world view where they see, you know, the monolithic Muslim world being under siege. You know, whether you look at the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay. You know, it's playing in - it's pandering to, you know, the people's politics of despair and politics of rage.

And so, essentially al-Qaida uses its vile propaganda to reach out to young impressionable Western and non-Western Muslim youths to try and essentially, you know, brainwash these people to become pawns for their schemes.

MARTIN: Well, there's an interesting story in The Washington Post today where the Post was able to get access to messages that - a large number of messages that he posted on his Facebook, that Abdulmutallab had posted over the course of the years, where he described a sense of kind of loneliness as a devote student living in the West, looking for a kind of connection with people.

Ben Venzke, I wanted to ask about you, what messages are you seeing from these groups? Is that - are they - do you credit Arasalan's point of view they are sort of playing on a - a sense of victimization, a sense of outsiderness?

VENZKE: Well, it's multifaceted. I mean, we see, you know, a variety of different messages coming from them that are designed to resonate with different groups. When they're local regional arms of al-Qaida or affiliates, they tend to focus more on sort of the core issues that are going on there. When you talk about the larger core al-Qaida group, they tend to be much more global, much more big picture and strategic.

But we've seen - what we have seen is an increasing sophistication, I'd say, especially in the last two, three years where in terms of their messaging, the videos they produce, the magazines they put out, their book productions, where they're spending a lot more energy and resources translating stuff more than ever before into the local languages, even choosing graphics based on who the local audience is going to be and switching them for different audiences.

And we - with the more sophisticated recruit material we've seen coming out directed towards Americans has been out of Somalia by a group called Al- Shabaab. And they're speaking in basic, simple terms about - that it's difficult participating in Jihad. You know, you don't have all the creature comforts of life. They're putting sort of rap songs and stuff into their videos. So, they're still taking about all of the religious justifications and everything else, but they're also talking in much simpler terms. And it shows that they are actually paying attention to see what their demographic response to and what they connect with.

MARTIN: Arsalan, Ben Venzke pointed out that this group - in Yemen seems to have consolidated with another group. This seems counter to what you and others have been telling us over the years about these groups actually dispersing, that they become more kind of localized...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...so how do you square that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, as Ben pointed out, essentially al-Qaida has become sort of a global franchise. And so, essentially, you know, when you see al-Qaida in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Levant, al-Qaida in Iraq, which is led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi before he was killed in the July 2006 air strike, they've essentially become decentralized franchises. So, you know, you're not necessarily getting pecking orders from Osama Bin laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri from their, you know, caves in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

You essentially have, you know, regional conduits, regional franchises that are not only speaking to the grievances within that local region or, you know, area, but also to sort of the greater global franchise of al-Qaida. It doesn't necessarily mean that, you know, it's as centralized as it may have been, you know, on September 10th, 2001.

MARTIN: Ben Venzke, final thought from you. What worries you most about this latest incident? What do you think your clients should draw most from this incident, as you advise them about how to think about it?

VENZKE: Well, one of the things that we're deeply concerned about is the fact that when we were working just under the idea that we would be dealing with an attack from core al-Qaida in the United States, there was a sort of a framework to that. We knew that they would try to do something very big. It would have to be equal to the scale of a 9/11 attack or greater as they tried to with the airline plot in 2006 to blow up airlines coming from Europe. But that they wouldn't do smaller, you know. And that gave us some things to work with.

The problem is, a group like this, al-Qaida In The Arabian Peninsula, or any of the other regional arms or affiliates around the world, if they're going to now try and do things within the United States, they don't have that same bar. So, the number of resources, the amount of time it would take to do such an attack is much less. And so, it's complicated the threat picture within the United States.

MARTIN: Ben Venzke is CEO of IntelCenter, that's a group that monitors terrorist activity and organizations. He joined us from his office in Virginia. We were also joined by Arsalan Iftikhar, he is one of our regular contributors. He is a civil rights attorney, the founder of themuslimguy.com and a legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He was here with me in Washington. Gentlemen, I thank you both. My best wishes to you for a happy new year.

IFTIKHAR: Happy new year to you, too, Michel.

VENZKE: Thank you.

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