It may be comforting to learn – once again thanks to WikiLeaks – that the United States State Department knows as much as any AfPak informed observer has known for years; that private donors, nongovernmental organizations, madrassas and businesses from Saudi Arabia are ATMs for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

But this being a very sensitive oil-for-security “special relationship,” naturally the Saudis also had to be credited with “significant progress” – under Washington pressure – in their efforts to smash al-Qaeda’s cash fest. Yet not much, according to leaked cables, seems to be evolving in the Taliban/Lashkar front (and it won’t, because virtually all these funds transit through the informal hawala system.)

Other Sunni-axis “friends of America” also do not fare so well. Kuwait is blamed for not criminalizing the financing of terrorist groups; Qatar is “passive”; and the United Arab Emirates is “vulnerable” – euphemism for it being a merry arena of fund-transfer to both the Taliban and the Haqqani networks.

Meet low-cost al-Qaeda

Now let’s put this information in the context of the new al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) strategy of inflicting “death by a thousand cuts” to the US.

Here’s al-Qaeda’s list of expenses for last October’s toner bomb (or “Operation Hemorrhage,” in al-Qaeda-speak, averted because of Saudi intelligence): two Nokia phones at US$150 each, two HP printers at $300 each, and transport expenses for a total of $4,200, plus the working hours of six people for three months – according to the website Inspire, “inspired” by American imam Anwar al-Awlaki.

It’s crucial to note that the advent of what could be dubbed “low-cost al-Qaeda” happened just as Washington turbo-charged its offensive in Yemen. Washington had wanted to take out Awlaki since last spring, coupled with the head of Inspire, Samir Khan, a Saudi-born US citizen who grew up between Queens and Canada. A look at Interpol’s new al-Qaeda Top 5 list reveals that, yes, Yemen is now the name of the game. Forget about the old-school iconography of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Here’s the Top 5 list. US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, 39; Yemeni Nasir al-Wahishi, 34; Yemeni Qassim al-Raimi, 31; Saudi Said al-Shiri, 37; and Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, 40. (No, Julian Assange is not on the list – to the despair of US rightwing nut jobs).

With a new list comes a new narrative among Atlanticist intelligence agencies. The narrative is that these people are responsible, among other acts, for the Chicago toner bomb, the failed Northwestern flight 253 Amsterdam-Detroit plot, the constant threats to the Eiffel Tower, and the ongoing plot against the Reichstag in Berlin, revealed by German weekly Der Spiegel.

New list, new narrative – and new language. Gone is the talk of a caliphate; instead the password is “re-Islamization” of Muslims living in the West. To round it off, a (not so new) strategy; further delocalization, something that has implied a proliferation of al-Qaeda acronyms – from AQIM (in the Maghreb) to AQY (in Yemen) to AQAP (in the Arabian Peninsula). And new tactics: “leaderless resistance” – as in attacking the Atlanticist heart with an “Army of One.”

Blame it on the net

This new Facebook/Youtube al-Qaeda story may start in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Anwar al-Awlaki was born in April 1971 of Yemeni parents. His father, Nasser, future minister and president of the University of Sana’a, is a Fulbright fellow at the University of New Mexico; the son grows up in the campuses of the University of Nebraska and Minnesota, where Nasser labors to get his agronomy diploma. Later, Anwar is back in the US when he’s 20, to get his engineering degree at Colorado State, a master in pedagogy in San Diego and a doctorate in Georgetown that never happens.

Anwar is a hardcore Wahhabi; he marries a cousin and has five children. In the months prior to 9/11, he’s in San Diego, friend and spiritual mentor to Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar – two of 9/11’s “martyrs”. On 9/11 he’s the imam of Falls Church, in Washington suburbia. In 2002, he moves to London, getting very close to Sheikh Omar Bakri. He hits Youtube with a vengeance – not to mention Facebook. His DVD boxes and CDs are all the rage in the markets of “Londonistan”. One of his Youtube followers is Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber.

In 2004, Anwar is back – in hiding – to southeast Yemen, where he becomes the mentor of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Somalian who wanted to blow up Northwestern 253 in the skies over Detroit. And in March, in a video sent to CNN, Anwar advocates for himself the mantle of leader of the anti-US jihad. In Yemen, Anwar allies himself with local emirs; the CIA master narrative asserts that the house of al-Qaeda should now be considered to be in the south of the Arabian peninsula.

Anwar’s trajectory intersects with Nasir al-Wahishi, Said al-Shiri and Qassim al-Raimi. Nasir for years had been bin Laden’s very young and trusted personal secretary in Afghanistan. They only parted ways in 2001, when Nasir was still 23. He was captured by Iranian intelligence and extradited to Yemen, where he spent five years in a maximum-security prison in Sana’a, from where he escaped in February 2006 along with 23 other al-Qaeda military leaders.

It is Nasir who has come up with the AQY (al-Qaeda Yemen) acronym. Three years later, in 2009, he is solemnly enthroned by al-Zawahiri via a video sent to al-Jazeera, where it is announced the merger of AQY into AQAP. Nasir is the new leader. He also hits the net with a vengeance with Inspire – al-Qaeda’s first English-language online publication, as well as Sada al-Malahem, “Echo of the Epics”, an Arab-language digital magazine. These reflect the strategy of urging a large Internet audience to sustain jihad through small, autonomous and “easy” attacks to “soft targets”. Nasir is in charge of the web while two of his commanders take care of the military front.

Nasir bears a direct connection with Saudi Said al-Shiri and Yemeni Qassim al-Raimi; Qassim evaded Sana’a prison with him. Said al-Shiri fought in Afghanistan and was captured in December 2001. He was one of the first jihadis to sport an orange jumpsuit and go to Camp Delta – Guantanamo. He leaves Guantanamo only in November 2007, repatriated to Saudi Arabia for a “rehabilitation” program – which he follows; but afterwards he goes underground to Yemen. On April 2009, he publicly calls Somali pirates and the “boys” from al-Shabaab to engage in jihad “against the crusaders.”

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) badly wants Said along with Qassim al-Raimi, the alleged brains behind the toner bomb. Qassim had more or less announced in January the new al-Qaeda strategy online, on the Sada al-Malahem magazine, exhorting chemists, physicists and electronic wizards to join al-Qaeda by conceptualizing the battle between the US and all the tribes in the Arabic Peninsula.

From a CIA point of view, there could not be a more perfect match than to unite al-Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula with the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia, and then tie the knot with the Maghreb.

The “excuse” goes by the name of Abdelmalek Droukdel, an Algerian born in Meftah. He is an emir, self-described “disciple from martyr al-Zarqawi” who has cannily harnessed the heritage, the ferocity and the strength of the notorious Salafist Group for Predication and Combat (GSPC, as in the original French acronym) – which has been turned into AQIM in 2007. Abdelmalek hates France with his guts and operates a thriving kidnapping industry (French, Spanish and Italians have already been victims) in the deserts of Mauritania. Paris is terrified; Droukdel has made it clear how al-Qaeda may be getting closer and closer to the Mediterranean.

There’s an additional gang that is not even included in the Top 5. These would be 16 al-Qaeda members who spent eight years in detention in Iran, and were recently released. They include Saad bin Laden (one of Osama bin Laden’s sons), Saiful Adil, Suleman al-Gaith and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani.

Unlike the Top 5, this bunch decided to settle in the AfPak tribal areas and by now are believed to be fully back on the operational side. Saiful Adil is bound to be the top AfPak-based al-Qaeda strategist in 2011 – operating from North Waziristan and connecting the dots to Somalia, Yemen, Turkey and beyond towards Europe. There’s no evidence US intelligence has a clue where he is hiding.

Between a toner and a pipeline

Now combine these crucial “low-cost al-Qaeda” developments with another, explosive WikiLeaks cable – the Washington list of key infrastructure nodes around the world that could wreak havoc to US national security if they were subjected to a terrorist attack.
It’s highly improbable that acronym-feast al-Qaeda has failed to notice the possibility of attacking, among other targets, the critical shipping lane at the Bab al-Mendeb; the import and offloading export terminals at the Suez Canal; the Basra oil terminal in Iraq; the Mina’ al-Ahmadi export terminal in Kuwait; the Strait of Gibraltar Maghreb-Europe (GME) gas pipeline in Morocco; the Trans-Med gas pipeline in Tunisia; the Ras Laffan Industrial Center in Qatar (which soon will be the largest source for the US of imported liquefied natural gas, LNG); or the Jabal Zannah export terminal in the UAE.

And what about juicy targets in Saudi Arabia such as Abqaiq (the largest crude oil-processing and stabilization plant in the world); the al-Ju’aymah export terminal; the As Saffaniyah processing center; the Qatif pipeline junction; the Ras at Tanaqib processing center; the Ras Tanura export terminal; and the Shaybah central gas-oil separation plant?

Crucially, among all the sensitive sites for the US in the arc from the Middle East to Central Asia, there’s not a single one in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon/North Atlantic Treaty Organization, according to the official cover story, are fighting “al-Qaeda.”

A February 2009 US State Department cable admits that an attack on any of these sites “could critically impact” the US’s public health, economic life and national security. As if al-Qaeda would not have processed this kind of information by now. But if “al-Qaeda” is really this larger than life evil monster that the US intelligence agencies would like the world to fear – a monster that is fought by hundreds of billions of dollars of US taxpayer funds – how come they are investing in toner cartridges from hell instead of paralyzing the Bab al-Mendeb?

The great Italian writer Umberto Eco, in an essay in the French daily Liberation, has pointed out how WikiLeaks has revealed that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s secrets are in fact empty secrets – thus stripped of their power. As much as WikiLeaks has revealed that the emperor is naked when the empire cannot even maintain its own secrets, it is legitimate to add it remains naked as it also cannot maintain its lies. Onwards with “death by a thousand cuts.”

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