The United States's "remote control" campaign against Islamist targets is intensifying. But behind the headlines, the transnational diffusion of al-Qaida's idea is just as potent.
The momentum in the global war against Islamist paramilitary groups can appear to be with the United States and its allies. The killing in a drone attack of a major Pakistani Taliban leader, Mullah Nazir, and his deputy, Ratta Khan, is a case in point. The attack early on 3 January 2013 took place in South Waziristan, well within Pakistani territory, and will thus be seen by many Pakistanis as yet another infringement of sovereignty. Pakistan's military, which regarded Nazir as something of an ally because of his close links with the Afghan Taliban, also has reasons to be disturbed; Islamabad's enduring need to maintain influence in Afghanistan after the western withdrawal in 2014 will add to the concern.
Yet the dominant view in Washington is that the operation is (like preceding strikes in Yemen) a further confirmation both of the value of drones and the utility of an aggressive military stance. Many analysts even believe that if al-Qaida and its closest local allies are still active in Pakistan, as a whole it is largely a spent force. Al-Qaida may not be “finished” but, this view proposes, it is a pale shadow of the global threat it was seen as representing in 2001.
A flaw in this line of thought is that it neglects key features of al-Qaida's character and development. The movement's leadership may have acted as a focal point, committed to reasonably clear-cut aims: opposition to “near-enemy” regimes such as the House of Saud and Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, to the "Zionist entity" (Israel) and to the “far enemy” of the United States and its partners. But it was a transnational revolutionary vision more than a narrowly hierarchical entity, a potent eschatological idea more than a conventional organisation. If such aspects are recalled, the state of al-Qaida looks very different - much more a case of evolution and even metamorphosis than terminal decline.
Within this picture, there are extensive regional variations and cross-cutting trends. In Yemen, for example, local groups have been damaged by drone strikes; in Somalia, loose affiliates of al-Qaida such as al-Shabab have experienced reversals. But elsewhere in east Africa, in Kenya and Tanzania, radical Islamist clerics have become a powerful focus of anger against central government (see “Contagion of discontent”, Economist, 3 November 2012).
In west Africa too, there have been major developments. In Nigeria, around 3,000 people have died since 2009 in the violence involving the Boko Haram paramilitary movement. The last, festive days of 2012 saw attacks on Christian churches by associates of the Islamist group; in response, vigorous action by the Nigerian joint task force, especially in the north-east city of Maiduguri, killing several Boko Haram suspects.
In Mali, the advance of Ansar Dine and other Islamist paramilitaries in the north of the country is gradually creating momentum among western and regional powers towards an armed response, which the French most prominently support (see "Mali, and the next war" [1 November 2012] and "Mali, preparing for war" [15 November 2012]). The Islamist militias are preparing for such an outcome: credible reports suggest they are consolidating their control and building up supplies in large underground bunkers in order to counter any assault (see Rukmini Callimachi, “While the world stands by, al-Qaeda claims new territory", Scotsman, 2 January 2012).
There are, in addition, two other areas - one much publicised in the west, the other invisible - where the al-Qaida phenomenon is undergoing significant development. In Syria, the increasing salience of Islamist fighters in the civil war is widely reported (see "Syria, endgame and blowback", 13 December 2012). Many are themselves Syrian, but they are now joined by others from across the middle east and south Asia. The latter include figures with combat experience against American and other coalition forces in neighbouring Iraq, some of whom retain close links to radical Sunni groups in Iraq; the more competent come to acquire leadership roles in the battle against the Syrian regime, at the head of militias whose members have little or no religious affiliation or motivation.
In the north Caucasus, the dynamics of conflict are relatively neglected, which makes an analysis by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies all the more valuable (see “Jihad in Russia: the Caucasus Emirate”, IISS Strategic Comments, 4 December 2012). The study contends that the Russian authorities “are engaged in a large-scale counter-terrorism campaign against the Caucasus Emirate (CE), a Salafist terrorist network with ties to al-Qaeda and other international groups. The CE's operations threaten the stability of the Russian North Caucasus, and could potentially impact further afield.”
Moscow is particularly concerned about possible security problems in the approach to the winter Olympics of 2014, which will be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Indeed, there is a suspicion that Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad's regime stems in part from its perception that radical Islamist groups in Syria could make common cause with the Caucasus Emirate.
The potency of the Caucasus network is considerable. The IISS report suggests that its active paramilitary membership may be under a thousand, but it has in recent years been able to launch over 2,200 attacks that resulted in the deaths of 1,550 state officials (the most common targets) as well as 400 civilians.
The theme that binds these disparate regional phenomena is, precisely, connections. True, the innumerable units involved - from Pakistan to Somalia, Nigeria to Yemen, Mali to Syria, Iraq to the Caucasus - are not manifestations of some unified entity centred on al-Qaida. They are not even branches of a consortium, franchise, or a defined (if diffuse) network. In that sense, if al-Qaida ever existed as a tightly controlled group, it no longer does.
The form in which it does exist now can best be described as an “idea” - one with myriad and ever-changing interlinkages. This makes it quite reasonable to argue that supporters of a cell in (for example) Mali, Nigeria, Yemen or Pakistan may be far more aware of what is happening in the north Caucasus than almost any official or analyst in Washington or London.
This, indeed, is the real legacy of Osama bin Laden as he recedes into history. Its power is the capacity to enter into and exert influence on local grievances in many diverse areas, often in unpredictable ways. Al-Qaida developed over the 1990s, and had its main direct impact in the 2000s. It may yet have its greatest effect, however indirect, in the next decade, the 2010s.