A year after the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the US Navy Seals at Abbottabad in Pakistan on May 2 last year, the central command and control of Al Qaeda based in Pakistan continues to be in a state of disarray.
It has not been able to recover from the severe leadership losses inflicted on it by the US Drone (pilotless plane) strikes after the death of OBL. The lack-lustre leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new Amir of Al Qaeda, who is also believed to be operating from hide-outs in Pakistan, has not been able to restore the elan and the motivation of its central command and control.
The disruption of its central command and control appears to have affected its ability to plan and launch catastrophic terrorist strikes in far way places like the US Homeland. However, its affiliates like the Talibans of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network of Afghanistan, the Lashkar-e-Toiba ( LET) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) of Pakistan, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, based in Algeria and Mali; al Shabaab of Somalia; and Boko Haram, of Nigeria have maintained their capability for sporadic acts of terrorism involving mass fatalities in their respective areas of operation.
While the global reach of Al Qaeda has been affected due to the inability of its present leadership to plan and carry out terrorist strikes on a global scale, its regional command and control, regional cadres and regional ability to carry out strikes remain unimpaired.
The affiliates of Al Qaeda continue to use the multi-modus operandi and multi-target operations that they had learnt from Al Qaeda. This was evident from the recent commando style attacks on different targets in Afghanistan by the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Mass casualty terrorist attacks carried out during the last one year by affiliates of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Nigeria highlight their continuing motivation and ability to strike when an opportunity presents itself.
The death of OBL has not only weakened the lethality of the central command and control, but it has also blunted its Net-based PSYWAR campaign on which Al Qaeda was dependent for winning new recruits and for imparting online training and for disseminating online instructions. As a result, there has been a decline in the flow of Arab recruits with a capability for global attacks and in attacks launched by Net-motivated “lone wolf” jihadis.
There are also indications that after the death of OBL, who was a Saudi of Yemeni origin with influential family connections n Saudi Arabia, there has been a decline in the flow of funds to Al Qaeda from so-called charity organisations and affluent Saudi families. The shortages caused by this decline have not been made good by the money earned from narcotics smuggling.
The weakening of Al Qaeda as a global terrorist organization should not be taken to mean that dangers of a catastrophic or mass casualty act of terrorism of the kind practised by Al Qaeda before the death of OBL are less likely now. The dangers will remain high so long as the intelligence agencies of the world are not able to identify and neutralize the operatives of Al Qaeda trained and placed in sleeper cells in different parts of the world by OBL when he was alive.
The central command and control of Al Qaeda has been disrupted, but not its global network of sleeper cells. If a new leader emerges who is able to rally them around and motivate them to act, we may still face new acts of mass casualty terrorism.
So long as Al Qaeda’s global network of sleeper cells is not disrupted, dangers of maritime terrorism, acts involving weapons of mass destruction material and mass disruption of the internet have to be guarded against through international co-operation in intelligence collection and sharing and physical security.
The 9/11 strikes by Al Qaeda in the US Homeland led to a decade of close international co-operation against global terrorism. We cannot afford to let this co-operation weaken till Al Qaeda is decimated beyond recovery. Al Qaeda has presently been weakened, but not decimated.
India has to maintain a high state of vigilance and preparedness against commando-style, complex terrorist strikes of the kind launched by the LET in Mumbai on 26/11 and by the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan recently. The LET has not repeated its 26/11 style terrorist strikes in Indian territory after 2008. But, its training camps in Pakistani territory have been as active as ever and the anti-India radicalization of its leadership shows no signs of abating.
There are no indications of any change in the use of terrorism as a strategic weapon against India by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
If the US and other NATO forces carry out their plans to thin out their presence in Afghanistan in the coming months, the US is expected to transfer its holdings of arms and ammunition to the Afghan Security Forces. There will be dangers of the leakage of some of them into the hands of the jihadi terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region.
With the thinning down of the NATO presence, the jihadi terrorist organisations now operating in Afghanistan will find at their disposal surplus jihadis well-trained and motivated. India has to be prepared to the possibility of some of these cadres and weapons being diverted to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) to re-kindle terrorism and the Pakistan-sponsored proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir.
At a time when there is an urgent need for revamping our intelligence collection , follow-up action and physical security capabilities through close co-operation between the central agencies and the State Police and through fresh instruments such as the proposed National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), it is worrying that the differences between the Centre and the States on the NCTC are threatening to come in the way of the exercise to strengthen our counter-terrorism capability.
Stability in the Af-Pak region is years away. Till a modicum of stability is established, the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan will continue to be the epi-centre of the attempts to revive global terrorism and to keep India bleeding. The international community—and particularly India and the US, which face the maximum threats from the terrorists based in the Af-Pak region—cannot afford to slacken their vigilance.
Written at the request of the “Hindustan Times”. An edited version of this was carried by it on May 2,2012 at http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/Chunk-HT-UI-ViewsSectionPage-TopStories/Down-but-not-out/Article1-849128.aspx)