Al-Qaida: a question of leadership

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 November 2005

Three months ago, on 19 August 2005, a Katyusha rocket attack was fired at United States warships anchored at Aqaba in Jordan. The missiles missed their main targets, but killed a Jordanian guard on duty outside a warehouse containing US supplies. As a result, and even though they exposed the US navy’s error in assessing Aqaba as a safe haven for its ships, the attacks received minimal coverage in the western media.

The Aqaba attacks seemed to suggest too that Jordan as a whole was not as safe from paramilitary action as had been supposed (see two columns in this series, “Iraq’s burning month” and “Jordan catches Iraq’s fire”) – something confirmed by the costly bombings of three hotels in Amman on 9 November. In this sense the Aqaba incident was a marker for something bigger. Is this also the case for the 15 November attack in Karachi.

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The Pakistani city has not been immune from previous incidents – in May 2002, a bus bombing killed fourteen people, including eleven French naval technicians; the following month an attempted bombing of the US consulate took the life of eleven people and injured at least forty-five.

Those two attacks attracted substantial media interest and it is odd that the Karachi incident – which killed three people and injured many more – did not do so, at least outside the immediate region. Brief reports in the British media said that a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet had been targeted, and some sources referred to claims by an organisation calling itself the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) that the bomb had been intended for the offices of the Pakistan Petroleum Company, accused by the BLA of stealing the region's resources.

Analysts in Pakistan doubt this, since the BLA rarely operates outside Baluchistan; it is also worth remembering that another KFC outlet and a McDonald's branch were bombed only two months ago. In any case, the more significant aspect of Tuesday's attack was its size, location and timing.

The bomb was unusually powerful. As well as the human casualties it inflicted, it virtually destroyed the KFC outlet, which was housed in a government building; two nearby hotels, the Sheraton and the Pearl Continental were also damaged. Moreover, all these buildings lie in a high-security zone that includes the houses of the chief minister and governor (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Terror from Amman to Karachi”, Asia Times, 15 November 2005). The net result is that a single bomb sends a symbolic message that government facilities and companies with US links are still targets, even when they are in secure areas.

The attack also coincided with the first day of an appeal hearing in a Karachi court against the death sentence for Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted in July 2002 of kidnapping and murdering the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Almost all the recent bomb attacks in Pakistan have been attributed to local radical religious groups rather than any cell with transnational connections. The sophistication of the Karachi operation makes it more difficult to fit into this framework. It also coincides with a notable cluster of activity by groups loosely associated with the wider al-Qaida movement: the multiple bombings in Sharm al-Sheikh and London in July, the Aqaba attack in August, the Bali explosions in October, and the coordinated hotel bombings in Amman on 9 November.

Between Jordan and Iraq

Some well-informed analysts argue that the recent Amman bombings will prove counterproductive to al-Qaida in the long term, not least because of the very strong public reaction to the atrocities in Jordan. This may be the case in Jordan itself but it is by no means clear whether this is true in the wider world, where Iraq is an ever-increasing focus for young jihadis.

There is certainly some evidence that the al-Qaida orientation has grown stronger among insurgents within Iraq. This trend is likely to survive even the death from leukaemia of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a close Saddam Hussein confidant, former Iraqi vice-president, a key organiser and financer of the insurgency in the initial months after the fall of the Saddam regime.

The insurgency remains a complex mixture of neo-Ba'athists, nationalists, Iraqi Islamic radicals and paramilitaries from abroad. The most recent indications are that the last group are becoming more significant. What is not yet clear is whether its influence includes an increase in the power-base of the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A number of western and regional intelligence agencies certainly believe that it does (see Craig Whitlock, "Amman Bombings Reflect Al-Zarqawi's Growing Reach", Washington Post, 13 November 2005), but it is wise not to rush to judgment. After all, a feature of much of the early analysis of al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks was an over-emphasis on leadership. Osama bin Laden quickly became “public enemy number one", followed closely by the Taliban figurehead Mullah Omar. Both could now be described as constrained – very little is heard of Mullah Omar, and bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri has been more prominent recently – but this has not limited the transformation of al-Qaida into a much broader movement, with new leaders emerging to replace those killed, captured or restricted to limited territorial bases.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers’s Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

Today, there is a media and security tendency to elevate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the main adversary, implying that if he is killed or captured the insurgency in Iraq will decay and the wider al-Qaida movement will be damaged. This view may be seductive, but it should be treated with great caution, for three reasons.

The first is that the Iraq insurgency is very much wider than al-Zarqawi's group, however skilled his associates are at publicising what they do. Moreover, the persistent US military use of massive firepower – the controversy over the use of “white phosphorus” bombs is only one small aspect – continues to arouse deep resentment in the Sunni areas of Iraq as well as the wider middle east. The killing or capturing of al-Zarqawi could have a short-term effect, but it may turn out to be no more important to the insurgency than the deaths of Qusay and Uday Hussein in July 2003 or the capture of Saddam Hussein himself in December.

The second is that the broader al-Qaida network oversees activities stretching far beyond any zone of influence maintained by al-Zarqawi – as recent attacks in Britain, Indonesia and Pakistan indicate. Pakistan could be particularly significant if the Karachi bomb turns out to be the first of a number of operations of similar intensity.

The third and perhaps most important element is the question of timescale. The al-Qaida movement has multiple aims, including the expulsion of foreign troops from the middle east; termination of the House of Saud (if not the House of Windsor) and other elitist and pro-western regimes across the region; the elimination of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state; and support for insurgents in other regions of the Muslim world such as southern Thailand. In the much longer term, the aim is the re-establishment of a caliphate. The caliphate project is seen as requiring many decades to achieve, and even al-Qaida’s short-term aims are likely to be measured in periods of one or two decades.

In such a context, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a temporary phenomenon, of no great significance in the overall scheme of things. Al-Qaida’s belief is that long after George W Bush and Tony Blair are footnotes to history, it will still be waging the greater struggle. The occupation of Iraq is an unexpected bonus – and al-Zarqawi a welcome man of the moment – along the path, not least because the Iraqi theatre may well ensure combat training for thousands of militants belonging to a new generation of jihadis. But the movement is bigger than one man or one country. Once again, the readiness to concentrate on individuals makes it easier to misunderstand the wider picture.

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