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Al-Qaeda: Rebranding, Regrouping, Retargeting? – Analysis


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.

Zawahiri and Bin Laden
Zawahiri and Bin Laden

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

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INEGMA is a Free Zone Limited Liability Company based in Dubai Media City, in the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2001, INEGMA was set up to provide media organizations, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, militaries and governments of the Middle East, and international private companies with various services related to military and strategic affairs.

One thought on “Al-Qaeda: Rebranding, Regrouping, Retargeting? – Analysis

  • August 2, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Their goal and primary objective is the same as it was prior to 9/11 obtain a WMD. The 9/11 attacks via commercial aircraft was because they could not obtain a nuclear warhead, more than one.

    For years al-Qaida roamed the former Soviet block trying to acquire components to develop their own warhead.

    Mumbai tells us that they have decided theft is the only way they will obtain a warhead.

    The time line of the Mumbai attacks, the attempt to create a confrontation between India and Pakistan to get Pakistan tactical nuclear weapons out of secure storage into the field to be stolen during the chaos of a confrontation. Is the same time line as the 9/11 attacks which were planned the year before under the Clinton Administration and deployed under the Bush Administration. The latest attack was planned under the Bush Administration and was to be deployed under the Obama Administration it is the same time line.

    Now it is now that the ISI were involved in the Mumbai attacks, we know that LeT did not know why they attacked Mumbai.

    We know they A.Q Khan was released. Now if al-Qaida on it own developed a nuclear warhead or stole one independently they would attack the US, as a non state actor. The ISI know that if the US suspect that they were involved and Uranium signatory shows it is from Pakistan. The US is going to fire one back at them.

    This puts constraints on how al-Qaida could deploy a nuclear warhead, their target acquisition, with involvement of the ISI. As with OBL in a ISI safe house the ISI have some control over how al-Qaida would deploy, they are reliant on protection of the ISI.

    We knew the time line and it will be in the CBD fiscal district, that it will be cleanskins from the subcontinent, most probably on student visa’s. The warhead will be delivered via ship in a cargo container, after passing through three different countries on route. Likely increase in narcotics importation to increase the pressure on customs, so it is unlikely to be interdicted.

    A roller shutter truck will be used, hired. The attack would take place during a week day, after 9am before 12:30 in the said location.

    So they can put the CBD on the cover of their magazine. There were too many foreign students for the security services to monitor. So the numbers had to be reduced, this was done via bashing’s and murders and the Government tightening the student visa requirements. These measures reduced the number of foreign students from the subcontinent significantly, to a containable level that can be monitored.


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