In the tenth year of the “war of terror”, and almost fifteen years after a deadly bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in June 1996 announced the arrival of a new Islamist armed nucleus in the middle east, what are the condition and prospects of the al-Qaida movement? Three developments in different parts of “greater west Asia” and beyond offer valuable evidence on which to make an assessment.
The first is in Yemen, where a group that has long claimed association with al-Qaida - the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA) - now declares its intent to establish a substantial militia that aims to overthrow the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh (see Associated Press, 12 October 2010). There may be an element of hubris in the assertion, but Yemen’s fraught circumstances - much of the country is effectively out of the control of the central government, and there is deep poverty and insecurity - make it at least worthy of being noted (see Fred Halliday, "Yemen: travails of unity", 3 July 2009).
A number of major paramilitary assaults have already taken place in Yemen or its coastal waters - from the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour in October 2000 which killed seventeen American sailors, to the firing on the Japanese super-tanker M. Star in June 2010 (see "Al-Qaida: the Yemen factor" [2 January 2010] and "Al-Qaida's business jihad" [12 August 2010]). A rising curve of militancy has marked Yemen’s turbulent political evolution since 2007, and the ambition of the AAIA is a further indicator that the al-Qaida “franchise” continues to extend itself to fresh outlets.
The second development is the warning issued by the United States on 4 October 2010 about the possibility of commando-attacks in western Europe (with France, Germany and Britain regarded as possible targets) which might follow the pattern of the Mumbai operation in November 2008 (see Saskia Sassen, "Cities and new wars: after Mumbai", 29 November 2009). The suggestion from Washington is that the originating source of this danger is western Pakistan, but for the security forces in France at least the current concerns are more focused on north Africa, and especially Algeria (see Matthew Saltmarsh, “France Faces Terror Threats At Home And Abroad”, New York Times, 11 October 2010). This follows the kidnapping of seven workers, including five French expatriates, at uranium-mines in northern Niger; in turn this is part of a pattern of spreading militancy across parts of the Sahel (see Stephen Ellis, "The Sahara's new cargo: drugs and radicalism", 14 April 2010).
The third development is a drone-strike in the North Waziristan region of north-west Pakistan that, according to a usually reliable source, had targeted other people but in the event killed Mohammad Usman, one of al-Qaida's most significant (if little-known) leaders (see Syed Saleem Shazad, "Al-Qaeda takes a big hit", Asia Times, 9 October 2010). Most of the senior figures in al-Qaida have until recently come from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and other points west, reflecting the ideological and military currents that gave birth to the movement. Usman, by contrast, belonged to a new and young generation of non-Arab al-Qaida leaders born in Pakistan which is attempting to forge links with radicalised Pakistanis.
The cost of success
Together, these three developments illustrate the diversification of the notably loose entity referred to as “al-Qaida”. What it has been plausible to describe as the group’s heartland of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan has since 2008 been under even more intense pressure from multiple raids by pilotless US drones operated largely by the CIA.
The fact that these missions have regularly hit civilians as well as their militant targets has helped to make them very unpopular in Pakistan as well as provoking further resistance, as the closure of Nato-Isaf’s tanker supply-routes and the fire-bombing of convoys in early October 2010 indicate (see “The AfPak endgame”, 7 October 2010). But there is no doubt that the drone-raids have had a serious impact in forcibly dispersing what some call “al-Qaida central”, and sending the key leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri into deep cover.
But the other side of the “dispersal” coin is al-Qaida’s ability to survive, adapt, evolve - and where necessary relocate - amid pressing circumstances. This has been necessary not just in response to the challenge of the “far enemy”, the United States, but in relation to internecine conflicts among radical Islamist movements operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The al-Qaida leadership has generally been careful to maintain a degree of neutrality here, though this too carries a cost in that its influence in Afghanistan (where it was never as dominant as may have appeared around the time of the 9/11 attacks when the Taliban was in power in Kabul) is now even more limited.
The Taliban and related fighting groups in Afghanistan have in the course of the war become motivated more by a broadly nationalist, anti-foreign agenda than by the notion of a long-term global jihad aimed in the first instance at ejecting “corrupt” and “anti-Islamic” rulers across the middle east and southwest Asia - nor even of crippling the United States (other than forcing it to leave Afghanistan). Here is a genuine faultline, for al-Qaida’s ultimate aspiration - to recreate a global caliphate based on rigorous Islamist doctrine - sits uneasily with the more conventional aspirations of a (mainly Pashtun-based) insurgency.
It is not clear whether al-Qaida can keep this idea alive and in what form. But what does seem to be happening is that paramilitary Islamist cells which evolve relatively independent of each other and in different areas - Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, parts of the Sahel (and even to an extent Somalia) - combine an intense focus on their local cause with the sense of partnership in a common vision of which “al-Qaida” is a principal signifier.
In overall terms these groups are holding their own without necessarily posing a more active threat (though the western security agencies’ reaction to Washington’s warning reveals a degree of nervousness). Indeed, for western states here is the difficulty: the US may be able to inflict damage on “al-Qaida central” in Pakistan, but this very “success” carries a material cost in terms of increased public anger (and thus possible radicalisation) and dangerous if small-scale proliferation.
The weapon of change
The core political element is that the now decentred and amorphous al-Qaida movement most certainly gains from being attacked by the United States and its coalition partners. In this respect, many western analysts routinely forget the impact of modern media when it publicises (for example) the deaths and injuries that result from military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and (rising up the agenda) Yemen and Somalia.
The stories themselves may be presented in a fragmentary way, but they provide rich material for skilled and sophisticated propagandists to select from the paraphernalia of the digital age to present a relentless and (to many, including diasporas in the west) highly plausible narrative of Islam under attack.
Al-Qaida is at root, to an extent which is rarely recognised, a reactive rather than a proactive entity which relies consistently on western actions to give it more vitality and purpose. The positive aspect of this reality from a western perspective is that a substantive change of policy - towards a full military evacuation from Iraq, a negotiated withdrawal from Afghanistan, and (not least) genuine progress on a just settlement for the Palestinians - would place even the devolved and localised al-Qaida in very serious and possibly even terminal difficulty.
The George W Bush administration was always blind to this logic - indeed, even to articulate it was seen as deeply suspect. Barack Obama, and some of the people around him, may recognise the force of this analysis; but the anti-incumbent domestic mood and the toxic legacy of his predecessor mean that the president may prove unable to move beyond the practice (as opposed to the terminology) of “war on terror”. Therein lies the best prospect for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their decentred yet still active movement.