The recent attacks in London and Egypt raise in a renewed form a question of burning interest to security agencies and citizens around the world: what is the real current strength of the al-Qaida movement?
The period from the Madrid and Tashkent bombings of March 2004 to the London tube and bus attacks of 7 July 2005 and the Sharm al-Sheikh car-bombings of 23 July was a relatively quiet one in the long campaign by al-Qaida and its associates against western, pro-western or Israeli targets.
The major incidents during this period included the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in September 2004, and of the Taba Hilton in Sinai in October. There were also some lesser assaults, among them two attacks in Cairo on western tourist targets (a bazaar bombing that killed four people, and an attack that wounded six people near an Egyptian museum).
The relative decline in intensity of attacks during these sixteen months led to suggestions among some security analysts that al-Qaida might be becoming less capable of mounting transnational operations, and/or more concerned with targeting American and other western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. If true, this might support the Bush administration's view that its Afghan and Iraqi campaigns were furthering one of its key aims to fight al-Qaida and the wider jihadi movement as far from the United States as possible.
In this light, the London attacks (including the abortive 21 July operation) and the coordinated bombings in Sharm al-Sheikh provide a strong rejoinder to the idea of a movement in retreat.
In Britain, it seems that at least two cells have been operating across the country in Leeds, Birmingham, north and south London and Aylesbury. Their members appear to come from two types of background: British-born people of Pakistani origin, and people from Somalia and Eritrea. The Egypt attack may largely have involved Egyptian nationals, though a Pakistan connection is possible. If the inspiration is purely local, it may signify that the states severe clampdown on dissident Islamic groups in recent years has failed.
A phantom enemy
Meanwhile, three other developments from central Asia, Pakistan, and north Africa offer evidence of the current condition of the loose movement or series of networks commonly termed al-Qaida.
First, the Tajikistan government has raised the possibility of seeking the United Statess withdrawal from the large base at Manas where 1,000 US troops are stationed. The strategic implications of such a move would be very serious for the US, including the risk of a knock-on effect for the US presence in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The Pentagon's concern at such a possibility is intensified by a joint demand in June 2005 from the states that form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Russia, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) for an agreed timetable for US withdrawal from the region. In the event, the combination of a visit from Donald Rumsfeld and the provision of substantial economic assistance has been enough for the moment to ensure that the bases will remain (see Eric Schmitt, "2 countries extend U.S. use of bases", International Herald Tribune, 27 July 2005).
The United Statess central Asian bases are part of its global war on terror or, as this weeks suggestion of a rebranding has it, its global struggle against violent extremism. They have an even greater longer-term importance as part of a strategy to secure oil supplies across the region while limiting Chinese and Russian influence. The problem for the US is that this long-term US presence will continue to provoke opposition, including from radical movements sympathetic to the aims of al-Qaida.
The second development involves the vigorous statement by President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan that al-Qaida is no longer a significant entity in the country. On 25 July, Musharraf told a press conference:
"Our military, police and other law enforcement agencies have completely shattered al-Qaida's vertical and horizontal links It no longer has any command, communication and propaganda structure in Pakistan"
(see Declan Walsh, "Musharraf's terrorist claims are dismissed", Guardian, 27 July 2005).
In western Europe and in Pakistan itself, these claims have been viewed with tellingly frank disbelief or even outright rejection. True, there have been numerous arrests in recent days, and major army actions in 2004 in the Waziristan area close to the Afghanistan border, but it is generally acknowledged that insurgents still move freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Musharraf's claims belie the fact that al-Qaida and its associates still regard Pakistan and its regions as of core importance to its activities.
The Pentagons new theatre
The third development relates to a largely new aspect of the US war on terror (or violent extremism), namely the Pentagons decision to greatly increase its operations across north Africa. The US military has had a significant presence there for the past two years, but it is now pursuing a sustained effort backed by investment of $500 million to train thousands of local troops to specialise in long-range desert and border operations, supported by satellite and other equipment the United States provides.
These north African training and equipment programmes cover Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia. They reflect the Pentagons view that a growing presence of radical groups in the region demands that the war on terror is extending into new areas and acquiring new dimensions.
Some observers, like Ann Scott Tyson, report that the initiative goes beyond these functions:
"The Pentagon is also assigning more military officers to U.S. embassies in the region, bolstering the gathering and sharing of intelligence, casing out austere landing strips for use in emergencies and securing greater access and legal protections for U.S. troops through new bilateral agreements
(see "U.S. Pushes Anti-Terrorism in Africa", Washington Post, 26 July 2005).
The three major incidents of July 2005 in London and Egypt suggest that al-Qaida and its affiliates are as active as ever. The concurrent developments in Pakistan and north Africa help put them in context, and avoid the temptation of seeing them as isolated incidents. Together, they suggest that the war however it is characterised in Washington is alive and well.