Edition 21 Volume 7 - June 04, 2024

What happened to al-Qaeda?

The terror phase is approaching its end -   Mohamed Abdel Salam

We can no longer say accurately what al-Qaeda stands for.

Why hasn't al-Qaeda attacked again? -   Yoram Schweitzer

In spite of its losses in recent years, AQ has not been neutralized.

Al-Qaeda in the crosshairs -   Greg Bruno

Amid the competing assessments is a dearth of options for rooting out al-Qaeda.

Exploiting al-Qaeda's vulnerabilities -   Anouar Boukhars

America's global war on al-Qaeda has dragged into its eighth year and the results are still not conclusive.

The terror phase is approaching its end
 Mohamed Abdel Salam

The world has probably begun to move beyond the "al-Qaeda wave" that led all terrorist acts over the past decade. But that does not mean the risks have disappeared. A new wave of more serious violence, "armed insurgencies", has been initiated by the military wings of extremist organizations. They threaten national capitals and central governments or control part of the national territory in the form of small "Islamic emirates"--in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. But what happened to al-Qaeda?

Mainstream terrorism experts assert that al-Qaeda is still around and is still capable of launching major attacks. The Middle East/South Asia region has recently experienced a new series of simultaneous suicide bombings carrying the traditional fingerprint of al-Qaeda. This has generated assertions that al-Qaeda has regrouped its capabilities and returned to action and that it may even become more robust in the next phase. This assessment is based on a number of indications:

* The organization has reportedly been able to restructure its safe haven in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, relying on both its traditional alliance with the Afghani Taliban and new alliances with other Taliban in Pakistan.
* Elements belonging to al-Qaeda have reportedly reorganized in large numbers in Yemen, Somalia and other parts of East Africa, Africa south of the Sahara and the remote border triangles in the Arab Maghreb.
* Questions have been raised regarding the problematic issue of countries like Iran that allegedly support al-Qaeda terrorism and/or harbor its leaders.
* Al-Qaeda cells have allegedly been converted into roaming swarms or sleeper groups that could emerge suddenly anywhere, reactivate communication networks and launch suicide strikes.

Some additional recent developments, such as US attacks on the border areas of Pakistan, the expansion of US intelligence activities in the Horn of Africa and the intensification of security contacts with the Arab Maghreb countries under the aegis of the US Africa Command appear to reflect an assessment that al-Qaeda Central has reemerged.

Nevertheless, assessments regarding al-Qaeda's survival or comeback remain quite uncertain. We can no longer say accurately what al-Qaeda stands for. One prevailing inclination is to assert that al-Qaeda has turned into a "mode" or "reference" for a vast network of local organizations operating in diverse Muslim and Arab countries. These local organizations are independent in their tendencies and goals and sometimes in their ideas and there is no regular contact between them and the remnants of the main organization's leaders.

Indeed, successive waves of attacks that occurred at intervals throughout 2024-2009 probably have nothing to do with an "al-Qaeda comeback". Certainly, al-Qaeda is no longer able to work as it once did--one analyst has compared it to the queen ant that plays no role except to lay eggs. Rather, this wave of attacks should be associated with the unprecedented growth in the size and strength of radical religious groups in a large number of Arab and Muslim countries, irrespective of the presence or absence of al-Qaeda.

Most of these groups belong to regional networks that al-Qaeda once divided into sectors using old geographic names such as Mesopotamia, the Arab Peninsula, the Levant and the Islamic Maghreb. Some, like al-Qaeda in Maghreb, have strong ties with sister organizations or--al-Qaeda in Iraq--with remnants of the main organization. Nevertheless they are in the end local groups, working on their own, according to the theory of "franchising".

Yet it is difficult to consider what is taking place as being entirely of a local nature. What happens in Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and sometimes Morocco and Sinai and what is taking place in Iraq bears trans-border features and is driven by external influences; indeed, many operations appear to be directed against "outside" or foreign interests. But what is relatively new is that there are often clear local dimensions as well.

Thus, in assessing what has happened recently to al-Qaeda, three issues appear to be relevant. First, the original organization formed by Osama bin Laden has cracked under the pressure of security strikes and is no longer able to conduct major operations like the historic 9/11 attack. Aiman al-Zawahiri now appears to be the organization's supreme guide. Worst-case analyses focus currently on the possibility that al-Qaeda could engage in nuclear terrorism.

Second, international strategies to combat terrorism succeeded in curtailing al-Qaeda's activity in the West after it had carried out large operations in the United States, Spain and Britain--even though these operations are the foundation of its legitimacy from the viewpoint of its leaders. This development has caused international terrorism to turn to regional and even local operations.

Third, in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan and Morocco, local in-country terrorist groups have begun to encounter increasingly professional national security establishments with the capacity to stop them without incurring excessive political costs. But this is not necessarily the case in Yemen, Somalia, Algeria and Mauritania, as well as what happened in Lebanon and what is going on in the Gaza Strip.

The recent course of events thus indicates that there is no central al-Qaeda leadership; al-Qaeda has become a local or regional rather than international organization. There still is some credence to the idea of an al-Qaeda comeback; al-Qaeda Central could still surprise the world with operations launched from caves. Nevertheless, the current wave more generally involves groups that use the name of al-Qaeda and are loyal to the idea, adopt the style and maintain an alliance with the "network". Most no longer think much about a distant enemy. Their websites indicate that they will target any "infidel" who treads on their lands. Their problems with the "apostates" within their own countries have escalated, leading to destructive operations.

There are strong indications that everyone else has begun to turn against these groups. The terror phase of al-Qaeda is approaching its end.- Published 4/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mohamed Abdel Salam heads the Regional Security Program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Why hasn't al-Qaeda attacked again?
 Yoram Schweitzer

Media reporters and analysts as well as some counter-terrorism experts, including well respected scholars, are deliberating the fate of al-Qaeda Central. They wonder whether the group has faded away and morphed into a mere iconic symbol that inspires followers from the global jihad network who now carry the torch less successfully. Those who hold this perception have based their thesis on the seeming absence of extravagant operations in major western cities and the conspicuous failure to carry out another attack on American soil of 9/11 caliber.

In order to understand the relative diminution in AQ's international terror operations, one has to internalize the basic fact that AQ, for all its omnipotent image, is not a superpower but rather a sub-state actor. It possesses supra-national connections and global aspirations, to be sure, yet its resources and capabilities are limited. This organ, as well as cohorts from the global jihad movement that are affiliated with but not fully subject to AQ, have been under heavy international pressure for more than a decade--all the more so after the global manhunt launched against AQ following the 9/11 attack.

The external command apparatus' chieftains and combatants who were responsible for AQ's international terror attacks have either been killed or arrested in many places around the globe. This has crippled AQ's capabilities to operate extensively abroad. Still, since the 9/11 attacks AQ has managed to execute some spectacular operations in Istanbul (2003), London and Amman (2005). It also planned another major attack aimed at destroying seven to10 airliners in the air over the Atlantic that was foiled at the last minute due to an excellent intelligence performance by British security forces.

In any case, according to AQ's philosophy the organization's task is to carve out the right path toward accomplishment of the destined goal of global jihad and to serve as an avant-garde that pioneers the desired modus operandi by executing several--not necessarily too many--boutique operations to be emulated and even perfected by its partners. One has to remember that AQ does not measure the time that passes between the spectacles it executes by western norms and time-tables but rather through the prism of an historical process and the Islamic norm of "saber" (patience).

In order to evaluate AQ activities and priorities, it is important to realize that AQ has been occupied in the last five years with two major zones of extensive combat, Iraq and (mainly in the FATA border regions) Afghanistan-Pakistan. In Iraq, AQ has supported its affiliates from the global jihad that were heavily involved in terror activities there under the direction of the infamous Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, who in 2024 formed, with the blessing of Bin Laden, "AQ in Iraq". In Pakistan and Afghanistan and the uncontrolled FATA territories, AQ has cooperated closely with Taliban forces. There it has established its headquarters with its supreme commanding cadre and has reconsolidated organizational strategic cohesion while playing an active role in the fighting against Afghani and Pakistani forces along with NATO and American fighting units.

Afpak is now AQ's main theater of operations and its base for future plans to reemerge as an influential transnational player. AQ is planning to survive the military campaign that is being planned by US/NATO forces against its strongholds and Taliban associates. Afterwards, or even in parallel, AQ will probably try to reenergize its battered international apparatus based on well-trained and experienced manpower from this theater as well as Iraqi alumni, including European Muslims, and launch new large-scale operations in the West.

Without underestimating the contribution of improved intelligence preparedness and cooperation in limiting the successes of AQ and its accomplices in executing terror operations in the West, it is important to remain vigilant and not to assume that lack of success is a sign of weakness or of a desire on the part of AQ and global jihadists to abandon terrorism due to their inability to reenact their earlier achievements. The same applies to seeming defeats in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and other Arab countries. For AQ and its close associates, tactical defeats are minor, necessary hurdles on their path toward guaranteed victory.

Thus, in spite of its losses in recent years, AQ has not been neutralized. It is still a solid player in the odyssey of global jihad and its role as an active and significant player in the international terror arena is far from over. Bin Laden and his industrious, articulate deputy seem still to be leading the organization toward ambitious goals. Therefore it is imperative to chase them down until they are either brought to justice or killed. Yet even their disappearance will not mark the end of AQ as an active player but rather a single step, albeit an important one, toward its gradual demise.- Published 4/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yoram Schweitzer directs the Terrorism and Low Intensity Warfare Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, is a counter-terrorism consultant for NATO and heads LABAT Strategic Consulting.

Al-Qaeda in the crosshairs
 Greg Bruno

In March, when President Obama ordered the reorientation of American military attention to Afghanistan--and away from Iraq--he invoked the threat of al-Qaeda. Echoing the rhetoric of his predecessor, Obama warned that "al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the US homeland from its safe-haven in Pakistan." For the American people, the president went on, "this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world." On its face it was an immoveable assessment, black and white, a view repeated often in the eight years since 9/11. But as analysts and regional experts ponder the president's posture, shades of gray are coloring the White House's assessment.

There is a healthy debate among terrorism analysts as to the strengths, weaknesses and possible vulnerabilities of al-Qaeda and its loosely connected cousin, al-Qaeda in Iraq. In a recent National Journal online debate, Michael F. Scheuer, an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University, argued that Obama is correct in refocusing attention on al-Qaeda because after seven years of the Bush administration, the organization is stronger than ever. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute offered a somewhat different assessment: "Al-Qaeda has been crushed," he wrote; the Bush administration deserves credit "for destroying a terrorist threat that was allowed to fester before they took office."

Brian Fishman, director of research at the US military's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, says it's incredibly difficult to know who's right. "One of the things that [al-Qaeda] has done very successfully in Pakistan and Afghanistan is they haven't been at the forefront" of violence, making it difficult to ascertain the group's strength. "You don't see a lot of al-Qaeda attacks," Fishman says. "You see Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Hekmatyar, whoever they are. AQ has connections to all of those groups, but they've built a role for themselves there that is secondary in the local context."

But even this assessment is debated. Seth Jones, a counter-terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, says al-Qaeda is not willingly taking a back seat. While American air strikes from Predator and Reaper drones have damaged al-Qaeda leadership (though the State Department acknowledges it is impossible to gauge current numbers), Jones says a more significant reason for the group's decline is competition for space and funding from groups like the Taliban. "It is essentially being out-competed," Jones says. Al-Qaeda has "had trouble getting funding from traditional donors; their training camps are in much worse shape; and there is a lot of evidence that senior and mid-level operatives are bitterly complaining now that they don't have the funds to carry out these attacks."

Assessing the strength and ambition of al-Qaeda in Iraq is made somewhat easier by the group's relative lack of a safe haven; unlike in Afghanistan and Pakistan, American soldiers can directly engage the Iraqi variant. Gen. David Petraeus, then the top commander in Iraq, declared in July 2024 that the Sunni extremist group was shifting focus to Afghanistan. But Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the group still has plans for Iraq.

AQI "was definitely on its back heels, its back foot" during the surge of American troops, but "it was never eliminated totally," Katzman says. "I think it's just sort of coming out of hiding now." Fishman, who authored a March 2024 report on the state of AQI, agrees that the group may be on the march, if subtly so. "AQI today is settling into sort of a new kind of role that I think is more sustainable, and I think they're finally trying to learn some of the lessons from their own failures," Fishman says. "AQI still can't control its own destiny; it exists where it is useful to local players that are vying for political power," like Mosul. But there are indications AQI is lowering its public profile while supporting other group's in a bid to remain relevant, Fishman says.

Amid the competing assessments is a dearth of options for rooting out al-Qaeda. In Iraq, political and ethnic divisions--between Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Mosul, for instance--have provided operating space for jihadist groups. And the Iraqi government's mishandling of the capture of the alleged leader of AQI has only strengthened the jihadists' hand, observers say. Much will hinge on how the Iraqi government addresses the threat.

On the Afghan-Pakistan border, options are fewer still. Aerial bombardments have been the method of choice, but the assaults have alienated large segments of the indigenous population. Jones says Pakistan's tribal regions must be physically cleared of militants, either by encouraging engagement of local sub-tribes to conduct operations; bolstering indigenous security agencies; or coordinating air strikes with Pakistan. Economic incentives and development aid will have little long-term impact until territory infiltrated by al-Qaeda and other militant groups is cleared, he says. But that will take the full cooperation of Pakistan's government. And as Fishman notes, unless Islamabad is on board, President Obama's call will likely go unanswered.- Published 4/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Greg Bruno is a staff writer for CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Exploiting al-Qaeda's vulnerabilities
 Anouar Boukhars

America's global war on al-Qaeda has dragged into its eighth year and the results are still not conclusive. Al-Qaeda, an amorphous movement, incurred serious setbacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia but is regaining strength in Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan and making inroads into other swathes of undergoverned areas in Yemen and the Western Sahara desert. Its global brand has also suffered damaging ideological backlash from repented violent extremists, prominent religious leaders and an overwhelming number of Muslims who feel horrified by the movement's wanton killings; but a small number of angry young Algerians, Moroccans and other Muslims are still attracted to al-Qaeda's powerful narrative that Islam is under attack by US militarism and Israeli aggression.

The stunning election of Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American with Muslim roots, has also challenged al-Qaeda's core message. The new president has distanced himself from the dogmatic and bellicose operating environment that characterized his predecessor's foreign policy. He has so far shown pragmatism, realism and an acute understanding of the causes that fuel the trail of violent militancy. The latter can never be defeated by the spectacular displays of American military force. The imposition of a regime of shock and awe has failed to affect the will and perception of al-Qaeda and its like-minded groups worldwide. This of course does not mean that violent militants should not be denied sanctuary. Neutralizing al-Qaeda's top leaders and strengthening international sharing of intelligence is necessary as is the US temporary military presence in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the struggle against al-Qaeda can be won only if its compelling message and ideology are undercut. As long as the Palestinian predicament drags on and America's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan persists, al-Qaeda will continue to garner widespread Muslim sympathy for its claim to speak on behalf of the "weak and oppressed." Occupation of Muslim lands, as America's National Intelligence Assessment on terrorism concluded in the context of the Iraq occupation, breeds "a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world" and cultivates "supporters for the global jihadist movement." For so long, violent radicalism was believed to be generated by religious orientations, not political ones. Islam was seen as the root cause of terror and the breeder of a subculture of rebellion and violence. The Bush administration and its intellectual backers in Washington embraced confrontational militarism and refused to address the grievances that fuel the fires of radicalism, rebellion and violent resistance.

Eventually, al-Qaeda is doomed to disappear. Its excesses as exemplified by its intransigence, indiscriminate brutality and dismissal of politics as perversion of religion automatically banish it to the fringes of Muslim societies. Al-Qaeda's hostility to powerful Islamist movements like Hamas and Hizballah, which derive their powers from the ballot box, deprives it from potentially broadening its alliances. Its categorical opposition to democracy alienates it from the overwhelming majority of Muslims who support such a system whenever given the opportunity. Such are the many vulnerabilities of al-Qaeda and its loose groups of die-hard followers.

In Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda's weaknesses have already been exposed. A number of surveys have shown support for al-Qaeda and suicide bombings dropping significantly. In Morocco, major figures and theoreticians of the Salafiyya Jihadia like Mohamed Rafiki, alias Abou Hafs, Mohamed Fizazi and Hassan Kettani have publicly renounced terrorism and denounced its perpetrators as non-Muslim. In Egypt, one of Al-Qaeda's founders, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, who goes by the nom de guerre Dr Fadl, launched a fierce ideological attack against Bin Laden. Saudi Arabia has also seen its share of religious intellectual revolt against al-Qaeda's extreme radicalization and gruesome methods.

President Obama's policies are geared toward capitalizing on and accelerating al-Qaeda's internal divisions and continuing loss of Muslim support. His emphasis on tackling the main grievances that al-Qaeda thrives on is a good starting point. Of course, it will all depend on policy execution but the president's emphasis on reasonable negotiations with Iran rather than belligerent militarism and his early engagement in the Arab-Israel conflict have certainly muddied Al-Qaeda's audio, video, and internet messages, at least for now. The new administration's military and increased economic aid to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other weak governments is also critical in helping them extend their writ over large swathes of their ungovernable and undergoverned areas. The president and his team seem to understand that al-Qaeda can only be defeated if its narrative is shattered and legitimate Muslim governments are empowered to provide for their citizens and police their borders.

America's support for then-military dictator Pervez Musharraf was short-sighted. Authoritarian regimes might deliver short-term stability but in the long-run they create the seeds of political radicalism. Democracy might not always produce results to the liking of the United States, but it does have a moderating effect on those who use religion as a reference (Morocco's Islamists) or ideology (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Islamists that are constantly harassed or thwarted by governments supported by the United States will adopt uncompromising ideological positions. Some, as have already happened in Egypt and also Algeria, will ultimately resort to violence locally, then internationally.

President Obama's much anticipated Cairo speech to the Muslim world will be carefully watched by tens of millions of people in the Middle East and beyond. From Morocco to Indonesia, Arabs and Muslims are hopeful that the new president will deliver on his promises to tackle the main root cause of terrorism: Occupation of Arab/Muslim land.

"Occupation breeds terror," declared former Israeli soldier Seth Freedman. "Every incursion, every raid, every curfew and collective punishment, drives the moderates into the welcoming arms of the militants, who promise to return their honor and their wounded pride by fighting the oppressors' fire with fire of their own." Prodding Arab regimes towards political reform that is inclusive of Islamist participation is the second most effective antidote to political radicalism.- Published 4/6/2009 bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College. He is also a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

Email This Article

Print This Article