Going for the Brain: Why al-Qaida Attacks Yemeni Intelligence Buildings & Personnel


(Admin note: This article was first published in October 2015.  While the attack information is dated, the trends and lessons learned are not.)

I haven’t been keeping up with the four-sided war in Yemen probably as much as I should be. One thing I’ve noticed about the fighting, however, is a concerted effort by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP; aka Ansar al-Sharia) to attack military intelligence targets across Yemen. (While everyone’s been focused on the global proxy war in Syria, the Saudis have been bombing Yemeni markets and mosques used by Houthi guerrillas and no one bats an eyelash. Probably didn’t hear about the Saudi plane that was shot down over Yemen or the Scud missile that was launched into Saudi Arabia, either.)

Currently Yemen is split into two legitimate factions: pro-Hadi Sunnis (current president) and pro-Saleh Shiites called the Houthis (they support the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh). Don’t get confused because it’s not that important – just remember that it’s Shia versus Sunni. (Surprise, surprise.) The most important thing is what AQAP is doing to exploit the security situation.

Friday’s attack against the Fifth Military District HQ in al Hudaydah is a continuing trend in AQAP’s fight against the Yemeni government, specifically targeting military intelligence facilities. According to Xinhua, AQAP fighters killed ten soldiers and destroyed the building on 16 October. During the complex attack, a car bomb exploded at the rear gate and then the main gate was attacked by gunmen who raided the building, which is a very common tactic used by insurgents and terrorists across the Middle East.

Here’s a list of known attacks against intelligence targets:

– In March 0f 2014, AQAP conducted an attack with a car bomb that destroyed a military intelligence headquarters building (at the Fourth Military District HQ) in the port town of Aden.

– In February, 2014, a bomb planted in an Yemeni intelligence officer’s vehicle explodes, killing the officer and wounding three others in Sanaa.

– In April of 2012, AQAP fighters kidnapped a senior Yemeni military intelligence officer from his vehicle. After a shootout, Yemeni police found the officer with his throat cut open. In the same month, AQAP failed in an attempted attack against an intelligence office in Mansoura, apparently due to a car bomb’s premature detonation.

– In January, 2012, AQAP militants ambushed a vehicle carrying Yemeni intelligence officers, killing one and wounding five.

– In April, 2011, AQAP successfully captured a military intelligence headquarters in Abyan Governorate.

– Also in April, 2011, AQAP fighters assassinated a Yemeni intelligence officer with his son in the front yard of his home.

(There are likely to be numerous other attacks not listed here.)


Why Attack Intelligence?

A good intelligence analyst covering a specific area of operations (AO) is irreplaceable. Analysts who spend years or decades covering a single nation, province or topic have accumulated the knowledge and experience to significantly contribute to operational support. Whether it’s knowing the bad guys in this area or tribal dynamics or quality of life of that town, a good analyst is able to provide insight to military commanders, who ultimately are better able to make more informed decisions.

In SHTF Intelligence, I write a bit about the OODA Loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. If you observe a house fire but can’t orient yourself to the situation; if you can’t determine whether or not there are people inside, whether or not you can risk going in, whether or not you can do anything to extinguish the fire, then you will not make good decisions and you are much, much more likely to fail the mission.

Now let’s apply the house fire to Yemen. Not only are intelligence personnel orienting military commanders and government leaders to the fire in their country, but they’re also on the phone coordinating with other nations, whether it’s Saudi Arabia (Sunni) or Iran (Shia). A colonel, like the one assassinated April 2011, has a two decades’ worth of contact information and relationships in his mental rolodex. He knows how things work, he’s been successful in performance or politics (to include tribal politics) in order to achieve that rank, and his loss as a staff member means bringing someone else on, unexpectedly.

In the three years I spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had three changeovers where a new analyst came in to replace me. From my experience, it takes a new analyst about three months to really get comfortable in the job. If you had a good train-up or are rotating into an Area of Responsibility where you’ve been able to keep up stateside (if you’re reading the daily battle update briefs and white papers), then you may have a better handle on it. But getting used to the battle rhythm and really getting into the zone where things become intuitive and second-nature is still a month or more away. If you’re deployed for a year (my deployments were 10 months, 11 months, and 18 months), then at about the eighth or ninth month, you start getting into ‘cruise control’; call it senior-itis, if you will. You start counting down the days until the advance party comes and then you await your replacement after that. If you’re lucky, you can make contact with your replacement, who is still stateside, and begin pushing current intelligence reporting to him; steer him into the gold mine databases early on. (That’s if he already knows what he’s doing. My last replacement was a former Air Force analyst and current contractor who not only never had a single deployment, but was also hired despite not having any ground intelligence experience. He could tell you the make, model and tail numbers of Iranian jets, but didn’t know the first thing about breaking down an IED cell.) Once he arrives, you might have two solid weeks with him. On my Iraq tour, some intelligence cells had a five-day turnover. That’s nothing.

So why target intelligence? Try a zero-day turnover for folks whose responsibility it is to track the enemy. Everything that one analyst knows about an organization – in this case the years of collected intelligence information from Yemeni intelligence officers on al-Qaida fighters and groups – is now gone and replaced with much less, if he’s able to be replaced at all. Intelligence is not a two-week train up. You can’t take someone who’s never done intelligence work and expect them to be competitive at it. You can call yourself an intelligence analyst — just like you can call yourself a rifleman, electrician or a chef — but if you don’t have the knowledge and experience that goes along with that title, then you’re not going to be very good at your job. If you want to call yourself any of these things, then remember that a little bit of training can go a long way.

When you target intelligence, you’re targeting the brain of an organization, whose responsibility it is to find and kill you. That brain surveys many different observations of you, makes sense of those observations, and then it relays what’s accurate about you to decision makers, who get to decide how to kill you. Without observation (data and information), there’s no orientation (intelligence). Without intelligence, there are no operations. You absolutely must have both collection and analysis in order to make well-informed decisions. Targeting intelligence personnel degrades the Decide and Act phases of the OODA Loop, thus significantly degrading mission effectiveness.

Bottom line: if your adversary can’t find you on the battlefield, then they’re going to have a much harder time fighting and killing you. If you neutralize enemy intelligence, you save your organization.


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