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Leah Farrall posts on culling elephants and AQ

[ by Charles Cameron — Abu Yahya al-Libi, targeted killings, impact on terrorism ]


My (ex, late, respected) father-in-law Donald Atwell-Zoll co-wrote the book on Managing Elephants, so I suppose you could say it’s a matter of family interest. In any case, I thought these were pretty neat opening paras from an LA Times article a while back, with a dateline from S Africa:

Some teenagers are raising hell in the untamed bush here, tormenting the wild animals and giving tourists a terrible fright.

Such rowdiness may sound typical for adolescents, except these delinquents are running amok in one of South Africa’s most popular game reserves. They have killed rhinos. They have charged cars of safari-goers. And to make matters worse, they are elephant-sized — well, to be precise, they are elephants.

That’s the problem, here’s what they figured out:

“There appears to be a discipline problem among the young elephant bulls,” said Douw Grobler, veterinarian at Kruger National Park, where many of the elephants at Pilanesberg once lived. “There is a missing link in the elephant population at Pilanesberg. There is a need for the presence of adult elephant bulls. They act as the disciplinarians.”

Okay, got that? Let’s get down to business.


Today my twitterfeed briefly buzzed with speculation that Abu Yahya al-Libi had been targeted and killed in a drone strike. The tweets were pleasantly sprinkled with humor — but when the talk got serious, sometimes enthusiasm got the better of caution.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, level-headed as usual, was among those to make it clear that the initial reports — including an anonymous US official confirmation — of al-Libi’s deaths came with no guarantee of accuracy. But he also noted his willingness to rethink his picture of the overall continuing strength of AQ if al-Libi does in fact turn out to have been killed. With, say, confirmation from an official AQ media channel.

Aby Yahya al-Libi is certainly a significant figure in AQ, as Jarret Brachman‘s many posts and Foreign Policy piece on the man attest. His one sentence summary:

If true, a cataclysmic blow to the future of al-Qaida’s General Command.

But it was Leah Farrall who (IMO) got the bigger picture. And in doing so, she was reminded of those young elephants going on the rampage, and the “need for the presence of adult elephant bulls” to calm them down and give them some discipline.

From Leah’s blog entry, Some quick thoughts on reports Abu Yahya al-Libi has been killed, then:

First, I’ll believe it when al Qaeda acknowledges it.

This of course won’t stop the chest beating celebrating his killing.

And if he has in fact been killed, I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally) have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu. And yes, given his teachings I do note a certain irony in this, but sadly, it’s true.

What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.

Leah continues — I’ve made only a minor cut between paras here —

I’m working on a more detailed, research driven piece on this. But in the meantime, the best way of summing up the consequences of a strategy of killing off leadership instead of using a criminal justice approach lies with what happened in a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa many years ago.

A culling program was implemented to kill off all the older generation elephants owing to overcrowding. Juveniles were spared. However, without the presence of the older elephants they then proceeded to go on rampages, killing other animals and causing such havoc that the rangers thought they’d have to cull them too. Until that is, someone chanced upon the idea of bringing in older elephants from another wildlife park, who ended up bringing the juveniles into line and enforcing discipline, something that had been missing since the cull of the older generation.

Right now you’re probably scoffing at this. Scoff away, because this example has come up time and time again in conversations I’ve had with folks who know this milieu very well because they’ve lived in it. Along with it has been concern expressed for the future, for what will happen when authoritative voices who can restrain the actions of those left and, importantly, those newer folks still seeking to join the cause, no longer exist. When indiscriminate becomes the norm.

So before anyone goes off celebrating another “number” in the death count, it is worthwhile remembering there will be consequences from this short sighted and reactionary path chosen to deal with threat…


It’s not hard to find evidence of that “moderating force within a far more virulent current” that Leah mentions.

From West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center alone, we’ve had the recent Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? with bin Laden expressing displeasure at Faisal Shahzad having broken his citizenship oath in attempting to attack the United States, and warning Yemeni leaders against using Americans who have taken the oath in that way.

Even more recently, in her comments on Fadil Harun’s memoirs, Beware of Imitators: Al-Qa`ida through the Lens of its Confidential Secretary, Nelly Lahoud discusses what she calls “a jus in bello-like framework devised by [AQ’s] Legal Committee”, noting:

The spirit driving Harun’s manuscript is the desire to produce a corrective history of al-Qa`ida distinguishing it from jihadi groups acting in its name. He believed that unlike al-Qa`ida, many jihadi groups have deviated from the true path of jihad. In his opinion they lack a sound ideological worldview and many of their operations, particularly those which involved resorting to “tatarrus” (i.e., the use of non-combatants as human shields), are in breach of what he deems to be “lawful jihad.” He therefore decided “to write about al-Qa`ida… to make clear to everyone the sincerity and uprightness of its path with respect to jihad and other religious, worldly and political issues.”

and further:

it is evident that Harun’s sentiments were not isolated. The internal communication between a number of well-known al-Qa`ida figures [gathered at Abbottabad and recently released to CTC] indicate that they too were alarmed by the conduct of regional jihadi groups and their indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Bin Ladin in particular was distressed by their conduct and, like Harun, was dismayed by their irresponsible understanding of “tatarrus,” which led to the unnecessary deaths of civilians and tainted the reputation of the jihadis.

So there you have it: the older bull elephants don’t like the undisciplined ways of the youngsters…

And what do we do? We cull the ones who are calling for restraint…


How does Leah conclude her analysis? You’ll remember she said, “there will be consequences from this short sighted and reactionary path”? Here are her almost-final words — and whether you agree fully with her analysis or not, they are words to be considered seriously by those rethinking strategy and making policy decisions:

These consequences will not play out in areas where extrajudicial killings take place, but in indiscriminate attacks in capital cities in the west. I wonder then how those who advocate the current policy plan to deal with this and the implications it will pose for the social contract.

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