Al-Qaida: an open endgame

There is powerful evidence for the argument that the al-Qaida movement is in decline. But there are other processes at work - including in United States presidential politics - that could yet create a different outcome.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 January 2012

The most recent report from those friendly management consultants at the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics in Wana advises al-Qaida's Strategic Planning Cell that "your movement is weaker yet your ideas are not" (see "The SWISH Report [20]", 5 January 2012). Indeed, their conclusions have been echoed in parts of the media, where the contention that al-Qaida's is in a downward spiral have taken hold.

Are they right: is the movement really on the way out or will it succeed in transforming itself?

The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 is the most powerful evidence in the argument for al-Qaida's decline. It's true that his role had already been reduced from active strategist to more that of a figurehead. Yet his very survival carried a potent message: that he continued to defy the United States and expose its inability to track him down, and that he was still al-Qaida's main focus and could maintain the organisation as a viable entity.

The challenges

Now there are credible reports that al-Qaida - under the leadership of bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri - is facing three internal challenges. The first is money. Osama bin Laden spent almost twenty years cultivating funding sources and building connections in the Gulf states, which al-Zawahiri - much more the thinker within the movement - cannot match. It may be that his Egyptian origins (in contrast to the leader's Saudi and Yemeni links) constrain his ability to win support from al-Qaida's previous funders in the Gulf (see "Al-Qaida 'struggling to survive'", Courier-Mail/AFP, 11 January 2012).

The second is that the middle levels of al-Qaida's leadership have been severely hit by the US's numerous armed-drone attacks, especially in north-west Pakistan. So serious is the depletion that many foreign paramilitaries in the region have reportedly moved on, in some cases to join Afghan armed groups such as the Haqqani network (see Sami Yousafzai & Ron Moreau, "Al Qaeda on the Ropes: One Fighter's Inside Story", Newsweek, 9-16 January 2012).

The third challenge is the character and potential impact of the Arab awakening, where mass public action has led to the fall of two hated regimes - a model of change that greatly contrasts with the al-Qaida vision of radical Islamists inspiring a violent revolutionary process.

The counter-trends

This combination of elements does suggest that al-Qaida may indeed now be a much-weakened organisation. At the same time, three other aspects of the current situation should be factored in. The first is that from the very outset of al-Qaida, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri - impelled by a deep religious-ideological conviction in ultimate success - envisaged the group working on a multi-decade timescale and anticipated the risk of major setbacks along the way.

The second is a change of target amid a continuity of action, such as in Iraq. There, the American ("far enemy") forces have largely withdrawn, making a reactive campaign of violence less easy to project; but groups loosely allied to al-Qaida have actually increased their attacks within the country, which are now mainly directed at the Baghdad government and members of the Shi'a community.

The third aspect is that the drone attacks, with all their deadly effect (including on many civilians), have also had to be curtailed in Pakistan after causing huge controversy there. The almost complete suspension of attacks since November 2011 has provided a breathing-space for the remaining al-Qaida and allied Pakistani paramilitaries, allowing them to recharge their efforts against coalition forces (see Eric Schmitt, "Insurgents regroup amid a U.S. lull in drone strikes", New York Times, 7 January 2012).

True, even these factors leave a movement operating far below the level (say) 2005-06, and on this basis an objective analysis would indicate that it is in decline. But by the same criteria very little attention was then being paid to affiliates of al-Qaida operating in Yemen or Somalia, and none at all to Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Moreover, a further aspect of the post-2003 years needs to be included in an overall assessment. In 2003-08, many hundreds of young paramilitaries joined the fight against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Many died, but most of those who survived eventually returned to their home countries (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya and Algeria among them).

In the process of fighting in Iraq, these combatants acquired skills and experience in contesting territory against well-trained and very well-equipped western forces in urban environments. Many also underwent a more technical learning experience in the context of the development and application of new and more sophisticated explosive devices.

There is no evidence yet of Nigerian-origin Boko Haram cadres having fought in Iraq, yet technologies are being used in the group's campaign that are a source of considerable surprise to the authorities. A case in point is the attack on the United Nations offices in the capital city of Abuja in August 2011 which killed twenty-three people and injured over seventy; the car used in it was fitted with shaped-charge explosives designed to maximise damage, a technique that suggests a level of external expertise at some stage in the operation.

In the context of all these processes, it is plausible to argue that the Arab awakening, the drone campaign, and the loss of a primary enemy in Iraq have together indeed weakened al-Qaida - yet that the movement is still able to transmute into something else, and thus stay alive and active.

The balance

What would have to happen for this potential reinvention to be aborted, and for al-Qaida to be more comprehensively undermined? Three developments above all would tend to have this effect. First, the re-election of Barack Obama followed by a steady withdrawal from Afghanistan. True, that might result in a strengthening of the Taliban, but it would largely remove the "far enemy" from another zone of conflict.

Second, the success of the Arab awakening (especially in Egypt) in delivering steady change towards emancipation and democracy. Third, for Nigeria to address the underlying social and economic problems that fuel Boko Haram, and adopt a strategy that avoids relying on sustained force and an intensification of the country's related conflicts.

The idea of al-Qaida remains potent in some quarters, yet the movement behind it does look far more fragile than it was. It is too early to celebrate, however. The combination of a failed Arab awakening, a more unstable Nigeria, and a President Mitt Romney could make prospects look very different by the end of 2012.


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