Al-Qaida’s fresh horizon

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 April 2007

The continued elusiveness of Osama bin Laden as he reached his 50th birthday on 10 March 2007 engendered much reflection among security officials about the condition and prospects of al-Qaida. The Pentagon chose to mark the moment with a diversion: the release of details of the interrogation of the group's operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The fact that whatever importance he once had to al-Qaida must have been diminished by his incarceration since 2003, and by the evidence of al-Qaida's continued activities since then, was lost in most commentary (see "Al-Qaida's standing", 22 March 2007).

Landmark birthdays and leaked interrogation reports aside, any assessment of how well al-Qaida is doing today must take account of a range of factors: the growth of the movement in Iraq (where it has been recruiting more Iraqis rather than relying on paramilitary recruits from abroad), the pressures of conflict in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands, and the impact of the damage (civilian casualties, detentions, rendition and prisoner abuse) of the "war on terror" launched by the United States after 11 September 2001.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The Pakistani arena

The international media dimension is important; in this connection al-Qaida is and has from the beginning been a movement deeply attuned to the global spectacle (see Faisal Devji, "Spectral brothers: al-Qaida's world wide web", 19 August 2005). The coverage of its activities, and of the wider conflict - via sophisticated propagandistic material on websites, DVDs and mobile technologies as well as highly professional outlets such as al-Jazeera - has fuelled further an already marked anti-American mood across the middle east.

But there is a reality behind the spectacle. Al-Qaida has been aided by its current freedom of movement in much of western Pakistan to implement significant changes in its internal operation. This may not be evident at first glance, and indeed there is an argument that al-Qaida in some of the areas bordering Afghanistan is in retreat. The Pervez Musharraf regime hails the fighting in North Waziristan in March-April 2007 between local Pashtun tribesmen and Uzbek jihadis long active in the area as evidence of such a trend, which it attributes to Islamabad's pact with tribal leaders in September 2006.

This is not how it is seen by several influential United States commentators, who frequently berate Musharraf for his pusillanimity in face both of al-Qaida and the Taliban (see Bill Roggio, "Al Qaeda's Pakistan Sanctuary: Musharraf appeases the Taliban", The Weekly Standard, 2 April 2007). Bill Roggio, a frequent commentator in the neo-conservative house journal, is bitterly critical of Musharraf for concluding a further agreement with jihadi elements, this time in Bajaur in North West Frontier Province (neighbouring North Waziristan). US sources fear that both the earlier and latest pacts have had the opposite effect to the one claimed by Musharraf: that of ceding territory to Islamist elements to such an extent that Taliban and al-Qaida supporters have even greater freedom of manoeuvre in the region.

The US air-force has itself staged raids into parts of northwest Pakistan and even fired artillery shells across the border, with minimal apparent effect in limiting jihadi activity (while carrying the likely cost of increasing anti-Americanism across the country). For Bill Roggio and his fellow analysts, the dilemma for the US is that the Bajaur agreement extends the territory that is not under Islamabad's control, yet the United States cannot take more forceful military action without risking the destabilisation of the Musharraf regime. As Roggio concludes:

"The United States smashed al Qaida's base of operations in Afghanistan in 2001, only to see it transferred to northwestern Pakistan. The refusal of the Musharraf regime to deal with this situation, and the active participation of elements of the Pakistani military, intelligence, and political elites in supporting our enemies, are worrisome for our efforts in the war on terror - and threaten the very existence of a non-jihadist Pakistani state."

The point that Musharraf's domestic political actions (such as the suspension of the supreme-court's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, on 9 March) seem to be doing the job of destabilisation very well may be left aside. More relevant is the point that the emphasis on Pakistan's role, or conflict in its borderlands, means that the significant wider organisational changes within the al-Qaide movement are being missed.

A five-faced movement

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was rapidly terminated in a victory that was at the time presumed to be complete and definitive - so much so that the Bush administration could move over almost immediately to terminating the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. In practice, the original assessment was thoroughly misleading, on two counts.

The first is that Taliban militias systematically melted away in the face of formidable US airpower and a newly rearmed Northern Alliance. In one sense the militias were obviously defeated, but it was much more a matter of dispersal - moving back to towns and village, often with weapons and equipment intact. The second point is that many of the al-Qaida paramilitaries in Afghanistan also disappeared from sight; it is worth remembering the many occasions in which US troops deployed to al-Qaida training-camps only to find them deserted.

It is still valid to say that the al-Qaida movement was seriously affected by the events of October-November 2001. Some key leaders were killed and a few others, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself, were captured. Many escaped to Pakistan, however, and indeed the very fact of the dispersal was instrumental in the gradual transformation of the whole movement. Al-Qaida had never been narrowly hierarchical, even before 9/11, though (especially when there were secure bases in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 1996) there was a degree of central organisation. What has happened since 2002, though, is that a new generation of middle-ranking leaders and organisers has emerged (see Jason Burke, "Al-Qaeda: the second coming", Observer, 11 March 2007).

Some members of this new generation are known to western agencies but many are not. One who has been identified is an Egyptian national, Abu Ubaidah al-Masri; he was previously thought to have been involved in operations in Afghanistan but is now believed to direct specific operations from western Pakistan, including the plan to attack transatlantic air routes out of London in summer 2006 (see Mark Mazzetti, "New leaders direct Qaeda resurgence", International Herald Tribune, 3 April 2007). Others have not been identified, but it is believed that responsibility for operations is shared by a number of people. They may have collectively replaced Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, although there remains some doubt that he was ever as significant as the Pentagon claims.

More generally, a picture is now emerging of the al-Qaida movement as having five main components. The first is the original leadership of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri; the former is primarily more of a figurehead, while the latter is (as he has been for a long time) important in its strategic planning.

The second is a fairly strong concentration of activity in northwestern Pakistan, including training-camps. This activity maintains informal links with the third element, a series of "hubs" in other countries where a dispersed local leadership retains links with the core group that is centred largely in Pakistan. Such hubs may be small, they may communicate largely through personal contact and the use of messengers, and they may have quite loose connections with groups in their own countries. A number of them (such as the separatists in southern Thailand) have their own agendas, and may work almost entirely on their own while embracing some of the long-term aims of the movement.

The fourth component is a major theatre of armed activity in the form of the al-Qaida movement in Iraq. This is proving to be one of the movement's most valuable assets, and its value is if anything strengthened by its large measure of autonomy from anything happening in Pakistan. Robert Richer, an associate director of CIA operations in 2004-05, says: "The jihadis returning from Iraq are far more capable than the mujahideen who fought the Soviets ever were. They have been fighting the best military in the world, with the best technology and tactics."

The fifth component of the new al-Qaida, which encompasses all the above, is a more general base of support which stretches across Muslim communities in many parts of the world. This has been highlighted by recent developments in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and, especially, the Horn of Africa. In the wake of its intervention in Somalia since December 2006, the Ethiopian government is reported to have detained people from several countries and allowed US officials into its prisons to question them (see Anthony Mitchell, "U.S. interrogating terror suspects in Ethiopian prisons", International Herald Tribune, 4 April 2007).

This is but a small part of the assimilation of Somalia's domestic conflict into the war on terror's global framing. The United States's broader response on the continent has been to set up the new Africa Command, along the lines of Central Command (Centcom), responsible for military operations in recent years from Somalia through the middle east and south Asia to Pakistan (see "The United States and Africa: eyes on the prize", 15 March 2007). This scale of response in its own way is acknowledgment of al-Qaida's reinvention.  

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

Paul Rogers's new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

In the foothills

When the United States administration looks at the world, it is hardly surprising that it focuses so much on Pakistan. With the need to identify a future course of action, what better than to view Pakistan as being the main problem? The difficulty is that US options there are greatly limited by its degree of political dependence on the survival of a tottering Musharraf regime, and inhibited by fear of his replacement by a government favourable to Islamists and hostile to American interests.  

But the real issue is the failure to see al-Qaida as a movement rather than an organisation. Just as the immediate post-9/11 response was to focus on bin-Laden as "public enemy number one", and the fall of Saddam Hussein was followed by the famous "deck of cards" of wanted Iraqis, so the concentration on Pakistan's role is an evasion of the much greater problem. The present nature of the movement is such that even if al-Qaida suffered a serious setback in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq could acquire a more prominent position (see Ahmed Rashid, "How a battered al-Qa'eda was rebuilt", Daily Telegraph, 9 March 2007).

The war on terror is still seen as essentially a military matter backed up by traditional counter-terrorism operations. As that war moves towards its seventh year, its architects and planners are giving little evident thought to the persistently counterproductive effects of the current policy approach. Even more important, they show few signs of registering the underlying aims of the al-Qaida movement and how effectively to counter them.

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