By Manish Rai
As we begin 2014, it’s worth reflecting on where we stand in our fight against al-Qaida and global terrorism. Throughout 2012 and much of 2013, the Obama administration has toed the line that al-Qaida is on the path to defeat and with it, the terrorism is no longer the threat it once was. Nothing could be further from the truth. During his landmark counterterrorism speech in May 2013, President Barack Obama all but declared an end to the global war on terror. He said that al-Qaida was “on the path to defeat” the White House touted the death of Osama bin Laden as the death knell to al-Qaida. Pre-9/11, al-Qaida maintained large-scale operations in South Asia, complete with training camps and operational capabilities. Surely that capability of Al-Qaida is dented but it is far from over. Today, al-Qaida is a complex, adaptive, and resilient organization. The administration’s successes against high-value targets have fostered a false sense of security.
Right now, al-Qaida controls or operates in more territory around the globe that it did than at any point of time since its creation in 1988. Al-Qaida and its affiliates are resurgent in Iraq, a major player in Syria, a force in Yemen and Somalia, still active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, operational in the Caucasus, and in pockets throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This isn’t what I’d call success. Over the past several years, al-Qaida has developed a new strategy to foster affiliate groups that still maintain strong connections to the core. Take Syria for instance. A terrorist named Abu Khalid al Suri is fighting for a hardcore jihadist organization named Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar al -Sham does not self-identify as al-Qaida. Yet Suri is a leading figure in the movement and serves as al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s main representative in the Levant, according to the Long War Journal. So although al-Qaida may not have its name plastered all over the Middle East or publicly announce its affiliations and locations, it is always lurking beneath the surface. This doesn’t mean al-Qaida is weakened or on the verge of defeat, it means it has altered the way it conducts its terror campaign and spreads its roots. Burying our heads into the sand and pretending it isn’t so only increases al-Qaida’s likelihood of controlling territory or launching successful attacks.
Moreover, specialized training for a jihadist is no longer limited to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Syria, legions of al-Qaida acolytes from all over the world, including Europe and the United States, are joining its cause on the battlefield. Eventually, they will return home and continue their fight against freedom. But as this year ends, the jihadist group’s regional affiliates have dramatically reasserted themselves in multiple countries, carrying out spectacular attacks and inflicting increasing levels of carnage. Though it’s hard to come by reliable estimates of the deaths they caused, the number is certainly in the thousands, and more than half a dozen countries now view these affiliates, or foreigners who have joined their ranks, as their top national security concern. The affiliates’ regeneration became so apparent over the course of this year that President Barack Obama was forced to clarify that his administration’s various claims of al Qaeda’s decimation were limited to the core leadership in Pakistan alone. Let’s take a look at the activities of al-Qaida in various countries:-
Mali-The year began with France spearheading a military intervention to push back jihadist groups that had seized territory in northern Mali, an impoverished country in the bone-dry Sahel region of Africa. France’s operation achieved some success, but a brigade led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar who has pledged his loyalty directly to al Qaeda’s senior leaders seized more than 800 hostages in a retaliatory operation at Algeria’s In Amenas gas complex. At least 39 foreign hostages were killed during the operation. France’s war in Mali also showed how deteriorating conditions in Libya.
Libya – Where the new government has never been able to assert its authority, help the jihadist cause. Some of the In Amenas attackers reportly trained in southern Libya (where camps prepare militants for suicide missions among other things, and used the country as a staging ground for the hostage-taking operation. And as France advanced on the battlefield in Mali many jihadist fighters fled to southwest Libya, where they evaded pursuit by “blending with local militant groups,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Iraq– Iraq’s death toll mounted throughout the year, driven by al Qaeda’s blossoming capabilities. By the end of 2013, more than 6,000 Iraqis had died in violence, the highest level of fatalities since 2007, the peak year of Iraq’s bloody civil war. As U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq two years ago, American and Iraqi officials expressed concerned that al Qaeda was “poised for a deadly resurgence.” Rather than proving alarmist, these warnings likely understated the speed and magnitude of the organization’s rebound in Iraq.
Somalia– Another al Qaeda franchise surged this year that is the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, which once controlled more territory in southern Somalia than did the country’s U.N.-recognized government, had lost its last major urban stronghold of Kismayo to advancing African Union forces in October 2012. But Shabaab remained lethal. On Sept. 21, terrorists associated with the group launched a spectacular assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. The attack dragged on for four days, killing 67 and injuring at least 175. But even before that, there were signs that a complex operation like Westgate was possible, as Shabaab carried out increasingly sophisticated attacks throughout the year. These included an attack on a Mogadishu courthouse that killed 29, and a twin suicide bombing at Mogadishu’s U.N. compound that claimed 22 lives.
Syria– In Syria, jihadists built on the gains they had made in 2012. Extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) affiliates of al-Qaida have proven to be some of the country’s most effective rebel factions. As 2013 ends, jihadists have been able to gain full control over such cities and towns as Raqqa and Shadadi in the north. ISIS has become adept at the targeted use of violence against Raqqa’s citizens, for the purposes of dominating and intimidating them as it implements a harsh version of Islamic law. Further compounding concerns stemming from the Syria conflict, a recent study published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization found that up to 11,000 foreign fighters have flocked to the battlefield to fight Bashar Assad’s government, of whom around 2,000 are from Western Europe. This has sparked fears in their countries of origin that the fighters could pose a security threat if they return both radicalized and battle-hardened.
The motivating factors for Al-Qaida’s aspirants and supporters are still very much in place which is ensuring steady supply of cadres. There is a pervasive belief among extremists that a caliphate an Islamic state governed strictly by Sharia, or Islamic, law is possible and should be fought for. There is a real displaced aggression in this very fundamentalist, jihadist community. And that is that the west is responsible for everything that goes wrong we can expect to see more groups, more fundamentalists, more jihadists more determined to kill to get to where they want to get. Cruickshank points to the disappointment many young men felt over what they perceive as a failed arab spring. So, if we want global peace and stability to be safeguarded then we should take al-qaida and its affiliates more seriously than ever and dealt them with more determination.