We should not assume that Al Qaeda is defeated. It still poses a threat to world peace, says Richard Whelan.
While the international media focus has been concentrated on Libya, Al Qaeda’s activities in Pakistan continue to pose a major threat to world peace. The death of its number two leader, the Libyan Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, coming soon after the killing of bin Laden in May this year is unfortunately not the end of Al Qaeda. Damage to the core group, though welcome, leaves untouched like-minded groups and individuals around the world.
US officials recently announced the killing of al-Rahman, the Libyan number two leader of Al Qaeda, in an unmanned drone strike in Pakistan on August 22. Rahman, who was in his 40s and from the coastal Libyan town of Misrata, had played a key role. Effectively he was the general manager, serving as a conduit between its leadership and various Al Qaeda affiliates. Some believe that in the last two years he was the key man keeping the core Al Qaeda group together. He obviously ignored or was unable to act upon the order of Al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who in response to the success of the unmanned drone and intelligence campaign against it, ordered all of its operatives to disperse into small groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, away from the tribal areas, and to cease most activities for up to a year to ensure the organisation’s survival.
The core Al Qaeda group, now numbering less than 300, and principally based in Pakistan, is now under significant pressure, with most of its activities seriously disrupted. It is seriously weakened and the successful killing of Al Zawahiri, which Western agencies must now think achievable, would weaken it even further. However after the removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, following on from 9/11, many predicted the end of Al Qaeda. This did not happen for a variety of reasons, including Western overconfidence and a diversion of attention to Iraq. Similarly, after a number of successes against Al Qaeda in 2005, the US and Pakistan, expected the core Al Qaeda group to collapse. The July 2005 attack in London, and other subsequent attacks and plots, disabused us all of that overconfidence.
A continuation of the successful intelligence/drone campaign against it on the part of the US and Pakistan could reduce the core Al Qaeda group to relatively low numbers with much less operational capability, making it in itself much less dangerous. However that would not eliminate the dangers posed by Al Qaeda terrorism and propaganda in vulnerable states in North Africa and the Yemen, for example.
Al Qaeda always has been in essence more a group of like-minded people, rather than a global “military” structure directed from a notional centre, more a franchise operation than a unitary paramilitary organisation like the IRA and ETA. Even if the core Al Qaeda group totally collapsed, its legacy will endure for a considerable time, firstly through the ideology it has helped spawn, and secondly through the various groups (and individuals) it was allied or affiliated to or whom it inspired.
This radical and exclusionist ideology, which blames the West for all the ills and failures of Islam, sees violence through militant jihad as the only way to achieve its aims of restoring the Islamic Caliphate of historic times, thereby enabling the ultra conservative, sharia-based form of Islam it espouses to take over the world. It is clear from Pew global attitude and similar surveys that very few Muslims share this ideology, which would return them to living in Islamic states along the lines of the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a regime that was widely criticised and derided by Muslims, Muslim NGOs etc, and that was only recognised by three Muslim states, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
This narrow ideology ignored the institutions of Islamic states, and believed that the popular will could not achieve its objectives by political means or through mass mobilisation, and focused on attacking the far enemy (the West in general and the US in particular), believing that with the downfall of the US, the Islamic regimes it supported would collapse like “paper tigers”.
The success to date of the Arab spring, and the relative success in Libya, gives the lie to much of this ideology. However, there are some Muslims who would like to see the Caliphate restored. This disaffected minority blames the West for much of the ills in the Muslim world. This view expresses itself in a significant number of active terror groups promoting jihad – against fellow Muslims as well as the West – as a legitimate means for the righteous to take what they identify as their proper place in the world.
One example is the terror groups in Pakistan. Even after the death of bin Laden, a recent analysis summarises the continuing threat: “Pakistan remains a major hub of international terrorism, especially for groups plotting attacks in the West. Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre identifies at least 16 active terrorist groups headquartered in Pakistan, with many more groups from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Africa cycling recruits through Pakistani training camps. Al Qaeda retains its central node in Pakistan and several of its most competent allies, including Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan and Lashkar-e -Tayiba, are based in Pakistan and present a significant threat to the West.” [The Terrorist Threat from Pakistan, Seth G. Jones, Survival, August-September 2011, the International Institute for Strategic Studies.]
The threat from Pakistan – a state with nuclear weapons – will not be eliminated any time soon. With many of its citizens believing that militant jihad by non-state actors is acceptable, – one of its own diplomats was honest enough to acknowledge that the state itself had “evolved into a strategic commitment to jihadi ideology” [Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Husain Haqqani, the Carnegie Endowment for International peace, 2005] – the enabling culture, and in many cases state and other support, is likely to leave Pakistan at the centre of many future terrorist atrocities.
If the Arab spring does not eventually lead to an Arab summer, the disillusionment will be expressed in many ways, including terrorism against those who are blamed for that failure. Recent comments by opposition figures in Syria indicate that the current conflict there may evolve in a more militant direction (because of the continuing clampdown by the regime and the absence of significant help from abroad) thus giving a significant opportunity to Al Qaeda to prove its continuing relevance. Al Zawahiri has always stated that the current Al Qaeda campaign began in 1966, and that one of the first battles in that campaign was the struggle against the Syrian regime headed up by the father of Syria’s current president. History may just repeat itself in Syria which is very much at the centre of the Arab world. If it does it will not be pretty, and the results would be quite destabilising.