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Al-Qaida: evolution, not comeback

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The intensity of armed assaults against western and pro-western targets in the last ten days is at its greatest since the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. The pattern that started with a series of bombings and shootings in expatriate residential enclaves in Riyadh, continued with similar operations against western interests in Casablanca, and included heightened security alerts in East Africa and the American homeland itself.

The police response has been immediate, with a number of arrests in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. On a wider security level, British Airways has withdrawn flights to Kenya as part of a general warning of possible imminent attacks against British interests across much of East Africa. A shared concern prompted the decision of the US and UK governments to close embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia, and led to a warning from Washington of a possible major assault on the continental United States.

From Kabul to Casablanca

Much recent media coverage has focused on the idea that al-Qaida is staging a ‘comeback’. This is thoroughly misleading, for two reasons. First, the group never went away. Second, it has in any case long been much more of a federation of like-minded groups with loose central coordination than a rigidly hierarchical organisation.

The latter point is pivotal. There is a pronounced tendency for western and local security agencies to mark any paramilitary attack as due simply to al-Qaida, and it is often convenient to blame foreign operatives rather than acknowledge local support and even direct involvement. Because of the group’s origins and personal connections in the country, the Saudi authorities have never been in a position to do this; but the immediate response of the Moroccan government was indeed to put the blame on foreign members of al-Qaida. Only later was it admitted that those responsible were apparently Moroccans, with many of them coming from the poorer districts on Casablanca itself.

The reality now appears to be that al-Qaida and its affiliated groups and supporters are well entrenched in many countries and have largely recovered from initial setbacks at the time of the Afghanistan war in late 2001. At the end of that war it was assumed that al-Qaida was hugely damaged if not about to wither away. This was always a flawed analysis.

Of course, it is likely that the core al-Qaida organisation did suffer considerable disruption and dispersal during the Afghan war, mainly because it had not taken into account the ability of the United States to use Northern Alliance forces as its ground troops. Al-Qaida and its Taliban allies had probably assumed that the US would put in its own ground troops – thus leading to a guerrilla war to be fought on its own terms. Instead, a combination of heavy use of air power and advancing Northern Alliance forces resulted in the termination of the regime within three months.

Even so, it was less a defeat than a retreat, with many of the Taliban and al-Qaida militia simply melting away with much of their weaponry intact. There is now abundant evidence of a continuing Taliban presence in the country, with the US committing 10,000 troops to a long-term war that even involves regular use of strategic bombing.

Al-Qaida itself lost a small proportion of its leadership, either killed or put into indefinite detention. But it retained its support in most countries, probably increased it in Pakistan and has since brought forward a new cohort of leaders and organisers, operating in a number of countries rather than principally in Afghanistan.

This evolution of al-Qaida is a major problem for western security agencies. A number of people in the al-Qaida leadership of two years ago were well-known to agencies such as the CIA. This even extended to a degree of personal knowledge built on the support offered them in the late 1980s when they were allies of the United States in the anti-Soviet campaigns in Afghanistan.

Such knowledge of the leadership, its outlook and capabilities, was an advantage in the first year or so of the US “war on terror” after 9/11, but it is fast diminishing as new people come forward who are unknown to the main security agencies of the US and its allies.

The key point in all of this, however, is that al-Qaida and its many affiliates and associates across much of the world are maintaining a sufficient degree of support and organisation to offer real threats to western interests in general and the US in particular.

The recent warnings relating to East Africa, and the threatening statement of Ayman al-Zawahiri (broadcast on al-Jazeera television), suggests that Britain (as well as the US, Norway, and pro-western Arab regimes) is an even higher priority target than before. This, possibly the result of its close support for the United States in its war on Iraq, raises the vital issue of whether that war is leading to increased support for radical Islamist anti-western movements such as al-Qaida.

The Iraqi quagmire

The answer to this is not so straightforward as it seems. Within Iraq itself, disorder, lawlessness and confusion persist at a remarkable level, reflecting the large-scale failure by the US forces to enable any kind of public cohesion. The British government’s “spin machine” has given the impression that British forces have done much better in Basra, but journalists on the ground indicate otherwise – with looting, shooting and endemic criminality a feature of the city’s environment more than a month after the end of the war.

In Iraq as a whole, the picture is depressing in the extreme. The Economist, which supported the war, comments in its current issue:

“Post-war reconstruction in Iraq is off to a dreadful start. Looters have plundered food warehouses. Convoys of World Food Programme trucks are shot at; many of the 44,000 UN food distribution points have been robbed and closed. There is little clean water, no telephone system and no reliable electricity in Baghdad. Banks refuse to open. Hospitals have been stripped of medicine and ambulances seized and sold in a section of the city that American soldiers call Looterville.” (The Economist – subscription only – 17 May 2003)

There were initial claims that Iraq would be returned to a modicum of self-rule in a matter of months, allowing the withdrawal of US forces. Now, coalition sources talk of one to two years, and a long-term US military presence seems a certainty.

Overall, the appearance of liberation has now been replaced much more clearly by an image of occupation by foreign powers, and even a weak UN endorsement will not legitimise this in the Arab world. The extreme brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime is confirmed by the discovery of mass graves; yet this is not enough to legitimize its successor in the eyes of the region’s people’s, where the endemic view is that the war was essentially concerned with the destruction of a potential threat to US control of the region’s oil resources.

An endless war

In itself, however, what is happening in Iraq is not sufficient to explain the increased support for al-Qaida and its affiliates, which has enabled it to coordinate the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and the presumed threats elsewhere. The timing is simply not right for such an explanation to hold.

The Riyadh and Casablanca bombings (and those in Chechnya too) were carefully planned and sophisticated operations requiring substantial numbers of people prepared to die, with logistical support from many more. Their preparation was probably initiated several months ago, before the war in Iraq had even started. It may well be that the bitter anti-western mood in the region, including a deep cynicism about US support for the Israeli-Palestinian “roadmap”, is leading to an inflow of funds and recruits, but this is too recent to explain the surge in operational activity.

The implications of such a conclusion are daunting. It suggests that al-Qaida and its affiliates already had the capability to develop and stage such attacks without the effect of coalition actions against Iraq. Yet this should not come as a surprise in the light of the many attacks and attempted actions across the world in the past year – from Tunisia and Pakistan, through to Singapore, France, Italy, Yemen, Kuwait, the Philippines, Bali, Kenya and Chechnya.

This operational capacity has now been supplemented by long-term occupation and control of a major Arab state by the United States and its partners. The probability is that this will lead to a substantial increase in support for paramilitary actions in the coming months and years. The occupation is still in its early stages, both on the ground and in terms of its positive effect on al-Qaida capabilities. On this basis, it seems clear that we do indeed face the prospect of a endless war, with the occupation of Iraq likely to prove a huge additional incentive to al-Qaida, its associates and supporters in many parts of the world.


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