Read Richard Whelan on Al Qaeda Resurgent, on how the Arab Spring and clumsy strategic responses by the West, have given radical Islamic terrorism the kiss of life – Village magazine Dec 2013-January 2014 issue www.villagemagazine.ie.
In May 1, 2011, when US Navy Seals and CIA agents tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan, President Obama immediately linked his death to the 9/11 attacks on America. Justice had been done; Al Qaeda had suffered a devastating blow, the president proclaimed.
Not so, unfortunately. Al Qaeda was not mortally wounded, though its figurehead Osama bin Laden was. Few mourned the passing of the Saudi-born religious fanatic, but the problem with the US attack on bin Laden, and the continuing drone attacks is that neither does significant damage to Al Qaeda.
The mistake lay in seeing Al Qaeda as having a command-and-control structure like a conventional army. Al Qaeda – as I pointed out in my book published in 2005 – is more of a franchise, a common ideology adapting to local circumstances, particularly throughout the Muslim world. Adherents to this ideology – Al Qaedaism – now control more territory, particularly in Mali, Somalia, the Maghreb, the Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria, and can field more militants than at any time since the ideology developed, 25 years ago. The irony is that unless the US realises this and changes direction dramatically, Barack Obama will leave office with Al Qaeda in a much stronger and more dangerous position than when he took over the presidency from George W. Bush.
The conflicts in Syria and Egypt, like that in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, are completing the re-emergence of Al Qaeda, but this time in a much more dangerous and explosive region for the world.
Take Syria first. Much more is going on there than the daily news bulletins of attack and counter-attack suggest. A country at the centre of the Arab world with a population of 21 million, host to a million Iraqi refugees and half a million Palestinians, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, is being destabilised by conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, promoted by Al Qaeda affiliates who are poised to fill the power vacuums. As Syria is torn apart, its neighbours Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, along with the smaller countries in the region, will increasingly be drawn into an escalating Sunni/Shia confrontation
Syria’s current agonies mirror the enabling environment in Afghanistan that provided Sunni radicals with the military training, religious indoctrination, and ideological justification for their original extensive terror campaign and insurgencies, culminating in 9/11. Based on an historical analysis of similar wars, it is likely that the Syrian civil war will continue for approximately another four years. Such a prolonged struggle will help fuel a strengthened terrorist campaign and generate further insurgencies, based on a strengthened Al Qaeda presence, located in the geographical heart of the Arab world, with an ever-growing cadre of battle-hardened militants available for action.
Although largely forgotten now, Afghanistan in the late 1960s was on the road to prosperity, modernisation, and democracy. The Afghan expression of Islam at that time was relatively moderate, and closely integrated into the traditional tribal structures. Following a communist coup in 1978, and the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan experienced an 11-year horrific conflict until the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. By then, out of a population of approximately 15.5 million, between 1.5 or 2 million, mainly civilians, had been killed, approximately 3 million wounded, 1.5 million internally displaced, and 5 million refugees displaced to miserable conditions in Pakistan and Iran. In summary, 75% of the entire population were killed, wounded, or displaced.
By 1989 Afghanistan had become a country in which war, radicalism, and violence had become central reference points. A major radicalisation of Islamic thinking and activities had occurred, and significant tensions had been generated between different ethnic groups. The subsequent conflict and the acquisition of power by the Taliban regime completed the provision of the perfect enabling environment for the consequent development and rise of Al Qaeda with which we are familiar. For most of this period, the international community, with the exception in later years of the US, stood idly by and allowed this appalling conflict to continue its bloody path.
The current ferment in Syria, already much more important in its strategic implications than the conflict in Iraq, is fertile ground for comparable Sunni radicalisation. If Sunni radicals continue with their free rein in Syria, the contagion will spread to other Arab countries, and Muslim-majority or Muslim-minority countries, with increasing terror and insurgent campaigns along the lines of those already occurring in the Yemen, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere.
Two major groups comprise the current Al Qaeda presence in Syria.
The longest active group, Jabat al-Nusra (The Victory Front) is clearly aligned with Al Qaeda – its leader Abu Muhammad al Jawlani, pledged his loyalty in April 2013 to the Al Qaeda central leadership in Pakistan, “to the Sheikh of jihad, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri”, – and explained his group’s goal as bringing “back the rule of God’s law on Earth”, standard Al Qaeda terminology, but has successfully downplayed these connections and its ultimate objectives particularly within Syria.
Jabat, composed mainly of foreign fighters, toughened veterans of the war in Iraq, including many Jordanians and Iraqis in their ranks, has demonstrated a range of fighting capabilities. It is now one of the most powerful Syrian opposition groups, well respected by many of the other opposition groupings, despite disagreement about their long-term objectives. They have a robust command-and-control network based on a substantial arsenal of weapons making it one of Al Qaeda’s best-armed affiliates in the world.
Between November 2011 and December 2012 it was involved in nearly 600 attacks in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Idlib, and elsewhere, claiming responsibility for many of these attacks in announcements on jihadist forums and on its Twitter page. It has established an advanced propaganda campaign led by its official media arm, the White Minaret Group, leveraging social-media forums such as Facebook Twitter, and YouTube to highlight and glorify its activities. It is known to have established bases in Deraa province, near the Jordanian border and in the capital Damascus as well as other camps in Syria providing weapons training, religious indoctrination, and explosives training to foreign fighters, including Westerners.
The other major Al Qaeda affiliate now active in Syria is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), (originally known as Al Qaeda in Iraq) and which started pushing into eastern Syria in April/May of this year. It is opposed to the more nuanced approach adopted by Jabat and is already replicating the tactical errors of past Al Qaeda campaigns in Syria and Iraq through its ruthlessness, aggressive sectarian campaigns, and its religious extremism. It is however a well disciplined, tough, and heavily armed and well-financed fighting force, intent on imposing its minority, sectarian views on the people of Syria.
There is now a growing contingent of foreign fighters, estimated in late 2012 at around 3,000-5,000, travelling to Syria to fight in the jihad there. A June 2013 fatwa issued by Sunni religious scholars in Egypt, declaring that it is a religious obligation for all Muslims to provide human, financial, and material support to the Syrian opposition, will boost that number. Based on a variety of sources (including martyrdom notices) foreign fighters from Jordan, Saudi Arabia Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Australia, Kuwait, UAE, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Belgium, France, Sweden, Spain, Morocco, Kosovo, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, and Norway, are currently active in Syria.
For Al Qaedaism, Syria is the gift that keeps on giving. Syria is the perfect target, and launching pad for subsequent conflicts. It borders three of their most hated enemies, Jordan, Iraq and Israel. As it gains control of elements of the Assad regime’s stock of conventional and unconventional weapons, a radical staging post is being built up for actions targeted on the Arab/Gulf area and Europe, both more accessible than from Afghanistan or Somalia.
Turning to Egypt – current developments there, and in particular the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to boost the already long list of foreign volunteers making their way to Syria. But Egypt too is in turmoil, following the army ejecting the elected Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi. Unfortunately the Muslim Brotherhood, in looking for possible solutions to their current difficulties, is likely to see part of the solution in the ideology of an earlier leader, Sayyid Qutb who died in 1966, hung by the Egyptian authorities. Qutb is one of the pivotal thinkers in the development of Al Qaedaism. He is still held in high esteem by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and many others, despite the disastrous impact on Muslims of his belief system, which is prepared to kill anyone, including Muslims, to achieve the supremacy of God’s law on Earth.
Muhammad Badie, the Brothers’ current Supreme Guide, knew Qutb well from the time they shared in prison in the 1960s. Egypt’s deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, a top lieutenant of Badie’s, described Qutb as a thinker who “liberates the mind and touches the heart”, and who offers “the real vision of Islam that we are looking for.” The current supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to move in one of three directions. Firstly, the more moderate elements – a small minority I believe – may join in the current political processes, one way or another. Secondly, many will simply return underground as before and continue their activities as they did for years under the Mubarak regime. Finally, more radical elements (including the hardliners, frequently described as Qutbists) will adhere to Al Qaeda and join the struggle in Syria and in Egypt and then worldwide.
Anyone who believes that the relatively benign inter-communal relations in Syria in the past will prevent radicalisation and sectarianism is forgetting the lessons of Afghanistan. Very negative divisions in Syria have developed over the last two and a half years, including increasing sectarian propaganda within Syria, and on the part of radical Muslim preachers abroad.
Every day the Syrian struggle continues increases the attractiveness of the ideology of Al Qaeda and provides increasing numbers of recruits for it. Muslim volunteers will continue to pour into Syria, from neighbouring countries and further afield. As we learned from Afghanistan and elsewhere, when Muslims in the West radicalise, they usually do not initially plot attacks on their “home” country, but instead travel to Islamic war zones. The vast majority of Al Qaeda operatives began their military careers as foreign volunteers in such war zones. Eventually most such volunteers end up as transnational jihadist terrorists and insurgents, only too willing then to attack their “home” country.
How should the major powers respond to the current conflict in Syria?
The worst approach is that currently being adopted. The longer this vicious civil war continues, the greater the human toll, the greater the spillover into neighbouring states, particularly those seen as prime enemies by Al Qaeda, and the greater the consequent increase in radicalisation and recruits. Already the numbers of those displaced in Syria are approaching the numbers displaced in Afghanistan at its peak. If the violence continues for the next four years or so, all these developments will worsen, equating Syria more and more with the radicalisation provided by the lengthy conflict in Afghanistan, building on an already rejuvenated Al Qaeda, based at the heart of the Arab world. The timing and location could not be worse.
Earlier this year Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama eventually put together a UN resolution to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons. It now makes political sense for the two leaders to put together an international coalition, through the UN, to resettle as close to home as possible the unfortunate Syrian refugees in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Both leaders also share the objective of curbing Muslim radicalisation. An international effort at meeting the immediate refugee crisis, building upon the September 27, 2013 UN Security Council presidential statement on humanitarian relief operations in Syria, could be the beginning of confidence-building measures aimed at bringing about an eventual ceasefire in that country. Alongside this, the Arab states with the capacity to do so need to take measures to halt the onward march of the radicalisation – mainly of the young – which is the life blood of the Al Qaeda cause. Otherwise the impetus will remain with Al Qaeda franchises intent on bringing even greater suffering to the region, and whose grandiose ambitions are targeted not only at the Arab and Muslim world but include places further afield in China, Russia, India, the West, and eventually the entire world. The purpose – to achieve the supremacy of God’s law on earth.
Richard Whelan is the author of Al Qaedaism the Threat to Islam the Threat to the World, published by Platin in Turkey and by Ashfield Press in Ireland: his website is www.richardwhelan.com . A high-resolution photograph of Richard Whelan can be downloaded from it.