Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The threat of Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda remains a top priority for all those fighting terrorism despite the recent focus on rival group the Islamic State, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

I will return to the 1967 War after a new series of articles, having spent the first days of the holidays leaning more about Al-Qaeda. I read a book edited by US academic Aaron Zelin entitled How Al-Qaeda Survived Drones, Arab Uprisings and the Islamic State, for example, which provides a recent and comprehensive overview of the situation and of the nature of the Al-Qaeda threat.

The picture is a gloomy one, and one figure in particular should count as a wake-up call: In Syria alone more than 30,000 fighters are members of Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, not counting those enrolled under the Islamic State (IS) banner. Al-Qaeda is also very much present in Yemen, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Somalia and East Asia. Its Yemeni branch may be the strongest in the world.

Al-Qaeda is not only composed of a bunch of dangerous terrorists. It is also, as stated by Katherine Zimmerman in the book, a global insurgency. It has links, most notably in North Africa, with organised crime and traffickers. This means traditional counter-terrorist tactics, for instance beheading the organisation by killing its leaders, are not enough and in some cases might be counter-productive.

A few years ago, pundits told us that the Arab Spring would “kill” the jihadist project, as many Arabs had renewed their hopes in the political process. This should be ranked as one of the most stupid forecasts ever made. Wherever the democratic process was a success, the jihadists were good at exploiting the new opportunities for preaching and recruiting. Tunisia may be a success story, but it also has the greatest contingent of jihadists in the Arab world on a per capita basis.

When the democratic process stalled and when some states collapsed, the jihadists were able to build bases in areas not controlled by the failing authorities. The civil wars that have broken out in the Arab world and the growing Sunni/Shia divide have also been a golden opportunity for them.

In 2005, a former top Western security official told me that “we are facing a serious problem. The list of failed states is growing, and it is clear that Al-Qaeda will seize any opportunity to gain a new stronghold. We cannot send troops in every time there is a problem,” he said. I guess this explains the US pressure on some of its partners, requiring them to develop greater projection capacity and rapid-intervention forces.

In recent years, the Western powers have focussed on the Islamic State group which created its so-called Islamic state in northern Iraq and launched terrible terrorist attacks against European capitals. Some officials say Al-Qaeda remained a top priority, but it is nevertheless clear that IS founder Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s men were for a time the top priority among top priorities.

Some 18 months ago, many observers, myself included, said that Al-Baghdadi’s move of reinstating the Islamic caliphate was a masterstroke. Its appeal was immense, and thousands of enthusiasts joined the battlefield under the IS black banner. It is easier to recruit people when they think they are defending a political entity that has the appeal of evoking the glorious past. I thought Al-Qaeda had committed a mistake with its “gradualist” approach, delaying the establishment of a caliphate for better days.

This assessment should now be corrected: While we were right about the caliphate’s tremendous appeal, we were wrong insofar as it provoked a strong international reaction that aimed at destroying it. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s cautiousness turned out to be smarter.

Contrary to the hopes of the United States and others, Al-Qaeda proved to be able to learn from its mistakes and to do many different things at the same time. The case studies collected by Zelin in his book tell the same story: In Syria, Yemen and North Africa, Al-Qaeda’s branches embedded themselves in local communities while maintaining links with each other and with the organisation’s central command.

More often than not, they succeeded in managing internal rifts and building coalitions with tribal leaders and/or with other Islamists or jihadist actors and militias. They tried to establish Islamic courts and participated in some territorial governance with some successes in Syria and Yemen and some terrible failures.

When their rigorist interpretation of Islam or their attempt to seize power alone backfired, they quickly back-pedalled. They knew how to adapt to the needs of the situation, in sharp contrast to the dogmatic inflexibility of IS. They knew when to hide their Al-Qaeda affiliation and when to show it, with, of course, some occasional missteps. In some areas they were able to portray themselves as the protectors of the Sunnis against an axis of Shia and “crusaders”. And they never stopped organising terrorist attacks against their foes, never renounced their ultimate objectives and never reconsidered their interpretations of religion.

It is safe to assume that the demise of IS will be a mixed blessing for Al-Qaeda: Many IS fighters will be recruited by the latter and will strengthen its ranks, though international efforts will now also refocus on the group. But this new focus will not be enough. First of all, if a proper recipe existed to eradicate the group, it would have been discovered by now. Assuming that a successful democratic transition is enough is belied by the Tunisian experience, and at least in the short term it could provide the jihadists with recruiting opportunities. Neither Belgium nor France, both targeted by the jihadists, is an authoritarian state. Counter-insurgency and nation-building are costly enterprises and success is not guaranteed.

Secondly, different states do not have the same policies with regard to the jihadists. I do not want to play the blame game, but it is clear that some states, Western and others, were or are tempted by the “free-rider” option or by some tacit accommodation with the jihadists. Others are, or may be tempted by the following diagnosis: That the jihadist movement is here to stay and that it is too late to eradicate it. That being the case, it may be better to manipulate it in order to direct it against common enemies.

Security experts in many countries have accused various states of adopting such strategies. And of course some states also clearly sponsor terrorism. These differences now need to be addressed.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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