The previous column in this series analysed the condition of the highly dispersed al-Qaida movement, and focused on the Boko Haram paramilitary group in Nigeria (see “Al-Qaida franchise: the Nigerian case”, 25 August 2011). The column noted that the “movement has spread with some speed - and the robust and violent response to its campaign from the Nigerian authorities may well be proving counterproductive by assisting rather than subduing it”.
By coincidence, a day after the column was published Boko Haram showed its capabilities to costly effect in bombing the United Nations offices in Abuja; the attack killed twenty-three people, including eleven UN staff, and injured dozens more.
The column concluded that the rapid development of Boko Haram supported the idea that al-Qaida may have been weakened, but “as a decentred network rather than a centralised movement...(it) still has much life in it.” This conclusion, coming as it does after ten years of war. is uncomfortable. But it is reinforced by a concentrated series of incidents across north Africa, the middle east and south Asia in recent days:
* in Algeria on 28 August 2011, a twin suicide-bombing of the Cherchell military academy that killed eighteen people (sixteen officers and two civilians) and injured twenty-six others (see Beatrice Khadige, “Al-Qaeda branch says responsible for Algeria bombing”, AFP, 29 August 2011). A group known as “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” claimed responsibility; this heightened Algeria's sensitivity to any indication of jihadi paramilitaries among the Libyan rebels (a factor that underlies its reluctance to recognise the rebels, and helps explain its provision of sanctuary to some of Colonel Gaddafi's relatives)
* in Baghdad on the same day, a suicide-attack on the Umm al-Qura mosque killed twenty-eight people and injured many more. The victims included a member of Iraq’s parliament, Khaled al-Fahdawi, who had opposed Sunni paramilitary groups loosely allied to al-Qaida; one such group said it had perpetrated the bombing and that the purpose of the attack had indeed been to assassinate al-Fahdawi (see Dan Murphy, “Death comes again to Iraq's 'Mother of all Battles' mosque”, Christian Science Monitor, 29 August 2011)
* in Quetta, southern Pakistan on 30 August, a Sunni paramilitary group is suspected of car-bombing a Shi'a mosque; ten people died and many more were injured (see Salman Masood, "Deadly Blast Strikes Near a Mosque in Southwestern Pakistan", New York Times, 31 August 2011).
It's true that none of these incidents - whether in Nigeria, Algeria, Iraq or Pakistan - is being ascribed to a centrally organised or even coordinated al-Qaida offensive. Indeed, the movement suffered a further reversal on 27 August with the reported killing of its suspected operations chief, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, in a United States drone-attack in Pakistan’s North Waziristan (see Mark Mazzetti, "C.I.A. Drone Is Said To Kill Al Qaeda's No. 2", New York Times, 27 August 2011).
US sources frequently claim that escalating drone-assaults on the al-Qaida leadership in northwest Pakistan have been hugely effective, and this operation is being used to support the case. There may be some force in it, though the movement does seem able readily to replace assassinated leaders - and often with younger and more radical people with recent combat experience (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge", 23 June 2011).
This replenishment, however, is but one challenge to the architects of the “war on terror”. More significant, and connecting the four recent incidents, is the capacity of the entity known as al-Qaida to develop into a strikingly diffuse movement that nonetheless is able to retain a certain commonality of purpose. There are internal variations, within an overall approach where the main targets are west-leaning governments of Muslim countries and western influence in general, Shi'a Muslims, and Sunni deemed close to the west).
The marginal world
In Nigeria, however, there are two specific factors fuelling the insurgent campaign that are echoed in events elsewhere. The first is the government’s hardline response to Boko Haram. The harsh repression by army and police units drove the movement underground from 2009, only for it to resurface with renewed vigour. Boko Haram is now carrying out attacks in northeastern Nigeria on an almost daily basis, using operatives with experience in Somalia and bomb-technology that appears to have been learned from al-Qaida affiliates in north Africa (see “Sounding like the Middle East”, Economist, 27 August 2011). The state’s strategy thus has proved counterproductive, to the extent that western diplomats are urging a change of policy (see Adam Nossiter, “Western Officials Seek Softer Approach to Militants in Nigeria”, New York Times, 30 August 2011).
The second factor is that Boko Haram is active in a region of great poverty. In general there is little evidence for the oft-expressed view that terrorism and political violence originates among the poorest (not least as people in this category are preoccupied with basic survival). But Nigeria does illustrate that large-scale marginalisation does provide a fertile environment for radicalism to grow (see "Understanding Nigeria's Boko Haram Radicals", Irin News, 18 July 2011).
The country’s endemic financial and political corruption ensures that most of the wealth from the southern oilfields remains among a privileged elite in that area. Incomes in the northeast are half of those in the south, and literacy-rates a third of those in Lagos. Yet many young men in the north have received a basic education, which makes their worklessness and lack of options amid widespread corruption even more frustrating. In such conditions the message of a radical group that promises to resist and overcome such conditions has an obvious appeal.
The Nigerian marker
A situation where, as in northern Nigeria, a radical Islamist group is offering succour to the marginalised has relevance to the middle east. An active ingredient of mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere has been the experience and perception of exclusion. At the same time, these movements are hitherto predominantly secular in nature rather than pervaded by a hardline Islamist worldview. That is bad news for al-Qaida, whose perspective demands that its affiliates inspire the overthrow of corrupt regimes (see Khaled Hroub, "The Arab revolutions and al-Qaida", 23 May 2011).
The implication is that if the leading elements in the Arab awakening are successful in producing better governance, greater equity and emancipation, then the al-Qaida movement will suffer a damaging reversal. If, by contrast, the awakening falters - either by failing to deliver better governance, or by allowing such governance to fall short of its promise - then the “idea” of al-Qaida will resurface with a vengeance.
In such circumstances, events in west Africa’s giant offer a clear lesson. The success of the Arab awakening, still by no means assured, is hugely important. What is happening in northern Nigeria is a marker for the consequences of failure.