Al Qaeda's Merger

Al Qaeda has joined forces with its Somali cousin, the insurgent-terrorist group al-Shabab.

Hundreds of Somalis gathered on the outskirts of Mogadishu on Feb. 13 to celebrate the union of al Qaeda with its Somali cousin, the insurgent-terrorist group al-Shabab. But the mainstream media hasn't quite figured out what to make of the news, first announced last week, that the two groups had officially merged.

Many reporters were already accustomed to thinking of them as the same group. Others grasped at straws to fit the news into the "al Qaeda is losing" narrative -- dominant ever since Osama bin Laden was killed last May.

They might have done better with a simple headline: "Dozens of Americans Join al Qaeda."

The disturbing truth is that al-Shabab has had more success recruiting Americans than any of al Qaeda's other franchises. The newest official addition to the terrorist network's family includes around 40 Americans, in addition to dozens more involved in support activities on U.S. soil, as well as those with more casual connections to the United States. That support network dwarfs the American presence in "al Qaeda Central," which was largely terminated after the 9/11 attacks.

Al-Shabab's numbers and its extensive support network mean al Qaeda is now better positioned to carry out strikes on the U.S. homeland than at any point in the last 10 years. The majority of al-Shabab's American recruits are ethnic Somalis -- first- and second-generation immigrants with still-fresh ties to their ancestral home -- but the group also enjoys significant support from radicalized Muslim converts from diverse backgrounds, who are attracted by its efforts to carve out a domain ruled by a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

The media's confusion about al-Shabab's relationship with al Qaeda is not surprising. The murkiness surrounding definitions of al Qaeda and its franchises can make it difficult, even for experts, to sort out what it means to be a member of the group, how they should be distinguished from a mere ally, and how much weight these different incarnations should carry. Once the definitions are resolved, you then run smack into the data problem. Estimates of the size and composition of jihadi groups abound, usually sourced to anonymous officials of various governments, but hard numbers are fleeting.

But incomplete data is better than no data, and what we do know suggests that al-Shabab's merger with the most infamous terrorist organization in history should be a source of concern. According to our best estimates, as of today there are now more Americans who consider themselves part of al Qaeda than ever before.

Some background: It's a commonly held myth that the number of Americans ensnared by jihadi ideology has risen sharply since the 9/11 attacks. Although their ranks have certainly increased, most discussions of this problem overestimate how many Americans are currently involved in jihadism, dramatically underestimate the number who got involved before 9/11, and conflate all jihadi activity with al Qaeda.

Since its founding more than 23 years ago, about 25 U.S. citizens have been documented as members or full-time employees of al Qaeda Central -- the organization that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 -- according to court records, intelligence reports, and al Qaeda's internal documents and propaganda videos. If one uses a broader brush, another 25 or so Americans received significant financial or logistical support from al Qaeda Central while serving as members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad or Gamaa Islamiya.

Al Qaeda today is no longer a single entity, but a collection of franchises. Although each franchise is focused on a different local scene, they coordinate with and take direction from the remnants of al Qaeda Central. They are parts of a whole. And with the addition of al-Shabab, the whole just became significantly more American.

None of al Qaeda's other franchises have enjoyed al-Shabab's level of success in attracting Americans to their ranks. Al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in and around the Sahel region of North Africa, have few or no American members, as far as we know.

Estimates for the number of Americans in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is primarily active today in Yemen, vary wildly. On the low end, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimated about three dozen U.S. citizens with prison records have traveled to Yemen to train with AQAP. Not all these recruits would necessarily have stayed with the organization and some have been killed or arrested, but it's probably a fair estimate that AQAP has, at minimum, 10 to 20 Americans in its ranks.

Al-Shabab was aligned with al Qaeda in meaningful ways even before the announcement of the merger, but the alliance will create new priorities, according to counterterrorism expert Leah Farrall, one of the leading authorities on al Qaeda's inner workings and a research associate at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre.

Al Qaeda "is going to push hard for Shabab to conduct external operations," Farrall tweeted after the news broke. She added later in an email that al-Shabab likely received significant financial considerations to offset any backlash that the merger might have caused. Although the Somali group has made a big show of praising bin Laden and has issued some sweeping statements about its global ambitions, it has not expanded its operations beyond its immediate neighbors.

The question now is whether any amount of money will be enough to overcome al-Shabab's deteriorating operational position. Al-Shabab may have a superior U.S. network and a significant number of American recruits, but it has problems of its own -- notably heavy military pressure on its home front from both African forces and U.S. drones.

It's one thing to have a loaded gun; it's another to pull the trigger and safely walk away. Al-Shabab might elevate its status in the jihadi world by hitting an American target on U.S. soil, but in doing so it would risk an even harsher crackdown on its bases in Somalia.

But then, al-Shabab has earned one more dangerous distinction: It is the only jihadi organization ever to convince Americans -- at least four, so far -- to serve as suicide bombers. It would not be wise to count on al Qaeda's newest affiliate to act in its own self-interest.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images


Obiang's Booby Prize

In France, UNESCO may finally reject the African dictator's vanity prize; in the United States, his high-spending son fights to keep feds from seizing a Malibu mansion.

For years, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has gamely sought to buy a UNESCO prize in his honor. Back in 2009, he was so confident of success that he sent a $3 million check to the organization to endow the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.

But last October, UNESCO for the second time delayed a decision on the prize in the face of protests from human rights and anti-corruption groups. Some countries, including the United States, also oppose naming a prize in honor of Obiang, who seized power in 1979 and was most recently "elected" three years ago with 95.4 percent of the vote.

The source of the $3 million is also at issue. During his three decades-plus as president, Obiang has somehow accumulated a fortune of $600 million, enough to place him at No. 8 on a list of the world's richest rulers. Some cynics suspect he and his family have misappropriated government revenues, which are largely derived from oil pumped by American companies like ExxonMobil and Hess Corp.

Last fall, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote UNESCO to ask that the organization reject the prize. The $3 million contribution to endow it was likely "the product of corruption or theft from the public treasury," he said.

An internal UNESCO working group is seeking to come up with a solution to the problem. To win approval, Obiang agreed to take his name off the prize and endow it in the name of Equatorial Guinea.

But as of now, it looks like even this desperate step won't be enough. While Obiang's regime is still desperately lobbying for the prize, sources say that the working group is leaning toward definitively rescinding it. As a face-saving gesture for Obiang, it would create a new UNESCO scientific award -- not named for either the dictator or his country -- that would accept contributions from any government, not just from Equatorial Guinea.

Continued concerns about the source of Obiang's $3 million contribution are one of the key issues blocking approval. Equatorial Guinea originally claimed that the endowment money would come from the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life, an entity that was, until then, entirely unknown. Nor was it clear whether the cash was coming from Obiang's government or his personal pockets -- a distinction that, based on his great wealth, the president does not generally recognize.

In fact, Foreign Policy has learned that the 2009 check didn't come from the president's mysterious foundation. Instead, it was drawn from a state account controlled by the president and sent from a bank in Equatorial Guinea to the First International Merchant Bank of Malta, which then transferred it to UNESCO via a cashier's check. (First International used Deutsche Bank Trust Company, at 280 Park Avenue in New York, as a correspondent bank on the transaction.)

It was a strangely circuitous route for what should have been a straightforward bank transfer and was an embarrassing reminder to UNESCO of the Obiang regime's shady record of dodgy financial dealings. That the Obiang government misled UNESCO about the funding has not sat well with the working group and is helping push delegates toward rescinding the president's long-sought prize. (A final decision is expected next month.)

Concerns about money laundering and corruption are also at the heart of the Obiang clan's problems in the United States.

Last October, the Justice Department unveiled an asset forfeiture complaint seeking to seize more than $75 million worth of property belonging to Obiang's son and heir apparent, Teodorin, whose holdings in the United States include a $30 million mansion in Malibu, various luxury sports cars, and several million dollars' worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including "one white crystal-covered 'Bad Tour' glove."

The Justice Department's complaint contends that an "inner circle" of powerful Obiang clan officials control political and economic power and have been "the near-exclusive beneficiaries" of Equatorial Guinea's natural resource wealth. Teodorin officially receives a modest salary of about $5,000 per month as his country's minister of agriculture and forestry, a level of pay the Justice Dept. deems "inconsistent" with his lavish spending habits.

The complaint says that in 1993, when Teodorin was 24 years old, his father began awarding him logging concessions on nearly 90,000 acres of rain forest. The following year, he was named minister of agriculture and forestry and subsequently formed joint ventures in partnership with foreign companies.

As minister, Teodorin demanded that international logging companies pay him to obtain concessions and receive permission to export logs, the complaint alleges. Teodorin "used his position and influence … to acquire criminal proceeds through corruption and money laundering, in violation of both Equatoguinean and U.S. law," it says. The Justice Department's action marks the first time that the U.S. government has moved to seize the assets of a sitting foreign government official for allegedly breaking the law in his or her home country.

To fight for his Malibu home and treasured Michael Jackson memorabilia, Teodorin has hired Mike DeGeurin, a highly regarded Houston lawyer. DeGeurin recently filed a motion stating that Teodorin's assets were purchased "with legitimate funds acquired through private ventures" and that none of his actions violated Equatorial Guinea's laws. The country, he explains in the motion, has sought to encourage "economic development by allowing government officials to have economic interests in private businesses," and though that might "seem unusual to American sensibilities," it was not illegal in Equatorial Guinea.

The case should be dismissed, the motion argues, because moving forward would "infringe Equatorial Guinea's sovereign right to create, interpret, and enforce its own laws and will significantly hinder the existing cooperative, friendly relationship" between the United States and the Obiang regime. The next hearing in the asset forfeiture case is tentatively set for March 12, in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, with Judge George Wu presiding.

Incidentally, Obiang clan members have also been targeted in corruption probes in Spain and France. Teodorin is at the center of the latter; last September, police seized 11 luxury vehicles outside his Paris residence, near the Champs-Élysées -- and on Tuesday, Feb. 14, police raided his apartment.

A Feb. 6 story in the Guardian said that the residence has been sitting empty since September, but when Teodorin stayed there in the past "passersby would see a parade of couturiers from Paris's top design houses, including Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Louis Vuitton, waiting to be admitted for fittings before returning with vanloads of made-to-measure clothes. Crates of the most expensive burgundy were another regular delivery."

Ironically, President Obiang last October named Teodorin as his country's deputy permanent representative to UNESCO, which is headquartered in Paris. The posting would give Teodorin diplomatic standing in France and looked to be a transparent effort to win his son legal immunity from the corruption charges there. But thus far, it seems that the lobbying effort to convince UNESCO to accept the allegedly ill-begotten millions is falling on deaf ears.