By Jahangir Arasli
What is the current state and the potential future role of Al-Qaeda? (AQ) More specifically, how deep did the Arab turmoil and the death of Osama bin Laden (OBL)– affect AQ in the emerging environment? Clearly, in order to survive AQ needs to rebrand, regroup and retarget (R3). Is there any evidence emerging of a possible R3?
The elimination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last May and the lack of activity of his entourage have proved what many observers already suspected for a while: AQ-Central is not a major factor anymore. It has declined after its leadership was driven into remote hideouts by the sustained U.S. intelligence operations and the 24/7 drone presence in the sky. By doing that, AQ-Central gave up operational control in exchange for operational security, or, in more simple terms, its own physical survival. It still retained a strong ideological appeal created by the “fame” of the 9/11 attack and the residual charisma of OBL. The recurring terrorist attacks and plots by the regional affiliates and the grassroots jihadi wannabes in the West created a picture of the sustained activities guided by the AQ-Central, while in reality the latter was effectively paralyzed and disconnected.
This suggestion was particularly proved by the patterns of AQ-Central reaction on the Arab turmoil – the vague messages that lagged the real events for weeks, the distorted analytical picture, and unrealistic appeals. For instance, Abu Yahya al-Libi’s statement on the uprising in his homeland followed on March 13, more than three weeks after the beginning. In winter and spring 2011 AQ-Central proved to be very reactive rather than proactive: You cannot use recorded VHS tapes carried by messengers. It was just a show of flag, not participation. The control shot into the head of the ageing man burdened by several wives and children, the porn archive, and the global jihad concept, brought the bugbear down – almost.
However, the decapitation is not a game changer. AQ still remains a threat. But the modalities would likely to shift. Now the entity is likely to suffer from the identity crisis generated by the Arab turmoil and OBL’s death. The fall of the “apostate” regimes deprives AQ from one of its basic causes. But crisis is not a challenge only but also an opportunity. To overcome and remain afloat, the jihadis need a fresh narrative to upkeep their own raison d’être. Adapt or vanish. It will take time and the success is not guaranteed. Still, two factors should be taken to account.
First, the AQ regional associates remain intact. In the short- and midterm period AQIM (Mahgreb), AQIZ (Iraq) and AQAP (Arabian Peninsula), not to mention the AFPAK cluster, will try to marry the heritage of UBL – Alqaedaism (akin to Marxism or Maoism) as an ideology of the global jihad – with the local agendas which are getting hot given the unfolding events in their respective regions. Despite of such hybridization, since the local agendas are more pressuring but still different in such disparate places like Libya and Yemen, the AQ associates may lock themselves, at least for a period of time, to a relatively limited set of objectives. Which, nonetheless, will include Western targets of opportunity primarily oil and gas export facilities and routes.
Second, homegrown terrorism in the West remains the issue which will sustain the threat projection and fill a void in operational activity which may be politically interpreted by the followers and sympathizers as a sign of decline. The self-radicalized grassroots cells, low-tech-equipped and poorly trained, would be less successful in conducting high-profile mass-casualty attacks in the tense Western security surveillance environment, but to continue to search for windows of vulnerability constantly. Suffice it to mention that the role of the native Westerners – the violent converts to Islam – will apparently grow in this regard.
It is hard to say now, if AQ would be able to complete the R3 track or succeed in the future by other Islamist networks. Yet, tracing the history of this entity since its mere creation reveals a remarkable trajectory performed by the AQ from the status of the group (in the late 80s) to the organization (in the 90s) and then to the movement (post-9/11), combining the features of the terrorism, insurgency, business corporation and “agitprop” machine. Throughout all those stages AQ demonstrated notable adaptability, stamina and opportunism.
If the narrative is re-written, the new version of AQ would likely to refocus its strategy too. While the outcome of the Arab turmoil is far from being clear and it is hard to intercept an agenda, the “close enemy” (the regimes) will lose the targeting preference to the “far enemy” (the West). Some indicators are already popping-up. As early as on February 23, 2011 amid the developing Egyptian events, Ayman al-Zawahiri, than AQ’s second-in-command and now current leader, issued an appeal to launch “mega-terrorist attacks” against the U.S. and the West. The strategy behind it is quite reasonable – to try to exhaust the foe by the mere shadow of threat forcing it to funnel billions of dollars into the crater of counterterrorism in the time of the severing economic crisis. Both abovementioned tracks – the activity of the regional affiliates and the Western homegrown jihad wannabes – meet this requirement. Taking to account all said it would be wise to consider the AQ burial postponed for a while and to prepare for the continuation of fighting a newer AQ.
Jahangir Arasli, Non-Resident Scholar, INEGMA