By Imrane Binoual
With the recent announcement that Ayman al-Zawahiri would succeed Osama bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda, many are wondering what effect the new terror leader will have on the Maghreb.
Magharebia sat down with Moroccan geopolitical expert Dr Cherkaoui Roudani in Casablanca to discuss the impact al-Zawahiri will have on the global terrorist group and its regional affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. From Sahel instability to the situation in Libya, Roudani warns that al-Qaeda could take advantage of regional unrest.
Magharebia: How should the Maghreb interpret al-Zawahiri’s threats?
Cherkaoui Roudani: Ayman Al-Zawahiri was bin Laden’s right-hand man. His career path is identical to that of his predecessor in the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Ayman al-Zawahiri is regarded as the most radical man within the network, and the allegiance of his former terrorist organisation – Egyptian Islamic Jihad – to Osama bin Laden in 1998 created a symbiosis between the two men. From then on, Ayman al-Zawahiri was always the most influential man after bin Laden within the al-Qaeda leadership. The famous text co-written by the two men, “The International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”, shows that their common denominator was and will remain the same.
The two bombings in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998 were overseen by al-Zawahiri. This means that Bin Laden’s death can only influence the strategy, and perhaps the method, for carrying out terrorist attacks with different priorities.
Al-Zawahiri’s words show, first of all, that al-Qaeda’s ideology is not dead and that the risk of terrorist attacks is extremely great.
The situation of insecurity in the countries bordering the Maghreb region, and by this I mean the countries of the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, may favour the emergence of several small groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. The strong presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in this region may make it easier for al-Qaeda to decentralise its bases in the region, especially with the deterioration in security that has come about in several countries (particularly Algeria and Morocco). In this case, it is highly likely, especially given the situation in Libya, that al-Qaeda will transform the region into another Afghanistan.
According to several reports drawn up by the secret services in African and Western countries, AQIM has benefited from the dangerous situation in Libya by easily acquiring arms, in particular SA-7 surface-to-air missiles. This weapon is often used by the Taliban to attack coalition helicopters.
Al-Zawahiri’s words thus signal a new strategy for al-Qaeda. In fact, the countries of the Maghreb are more concerned than ever before about his statements. The presence of a weak link in the region’s security, which is Libya, combined with the worrying situation in the countries of the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, where the movement is beginning to position itself by engaging in several activities intended to finance its efforts, brings the risk of a terrorist storm in the Maghreb region. The implementation of a joint security strategy, especially on the part of Morocco and Algeria, is very important if this situation is to be addressed.
Magharebia: Do you think al-Qaeda will try to recruit residents of the Maghreb to exploit recent instability?
Roudani: The situation in Libya and its uncertain future, at least in the short term, and the apocalyptic situation of several countries bordering the Maghreb region make the adoption of a recruitment strategy more likely. The strong presence of AQIM and the Maghreb’s proximity to Europe could also lead to an increase in recruitment with a view to attacking the countries of the Maghreb and certain European countries. Al-Zawahiri’s words indicate that Al-Qaeda has adopted a new strategy for its attacks and operations.
It is highly likely that Ayman al-Zawahiri will try to promote the creation of several branches in Arab countries where Western countries have interests.
Magharebia: What affect does the threat of terrorism have on people’s religious beliefs and their susceptibility to extremist recruiting?
Roudani: It is clear that fear has a significant impact on people’s perception of religion. An environment where there is a kind of psychosis linked to insecurity restricts freedom, and this in turn weakens a religion’s influence on a person. However, in the Arab context, things are different. The deep economic crisis in several countries has created a society where there is social classification. Poverty and marginalisation have a lot to do with the extremism witnessed in some countries.
Another important point with regard to religious terrorism is that its actions are not limited to society; it seeks to influence the ideas, morals and spirituality of others. The aim is to seek support from a social category that has been lowered. In this set-up, without state oversight, a large proportion of society may end up falling into the trap of terrorist propaganda… easy prey for radicalisers.