The Yemen-related security alert that has led to a western diplomatic shutdown in the middle east and north Africa highlights an enduring feature of the United States's jihadist adversary.
The bombings of the United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, on 7 August 1998 prompted a review of security at the country's diplomatic missions throughout the world. Another such process was implemented after 9/11, and again when the US consulate in Karachi was bombed in June 2002. Attacks on the diplomatic missions of the US's allies, such as the British consulate in Istanbul in November 2003 and the Australian embassy in Jakarta in September 2004, prompted further reassessments. More recently, the killing of Washington's ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three of his colleagues in September 2012 led to yet more stringent security upgrades.
Most diplomatic sites are now heavily protected and some resemble fortresses. This makes it even more significant that the US state department has withdrawn diplomats from its embassy in Sana'a, Yemen, as well as intensifying its drone-operations and deploying special forces to the country to counter a presumed threat from paramilitaries linked to al-Qaida. A swathe of diplomatic missions across the Arab world has also been temporarily closed.
The whole episode may have an ancillary use in the context of the trial of Bradley Manning and the pursuit of Edward Snowden, since it reminds domestic audiences of threats from abroad and implies a need for sustained surveillance. This factor, though, does not wholly explain the extent of the security measures.
To a great extent, these stem from a reported link between what is termed “al-Qaida central” in north-west Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This seems anomalous in light of the accepted wisdom that al-Qaida central has become a shadow of its former self as a result of repeated armed-drone attacks as well as actions by US special forces, and is in retreat as a narrowly centralised entity.
True, the same consensus recognises that al-Qaida remains potent as an idea - which resonates across southern Asia, the middle east, the Caucasus and much of Africa, including among very active movements in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Niger and Mali, as well as underpinning activity in many other regions such as the “Swahili” coast of Kenya and Tanzania.
The surprise of the security alert, therefore, lies in the conclusion that the Pakistan-Yemen link suggests al-Qaida's return to a more hierarchical organisation of al-Qaida, as existed both before and after the 9/11 attacks. This line of thinking holds that al-Qaida central was essentially dismantled from 2007 onwards, not least by “remote control” - the use of armed drones and special forces - but is now getting a worrying new lease of life.
The problem with this interpretation is its failure to realise that, in fact, al-Qaida never was a tightly centralised and hierarchical movement; indeed, even the 9/11 atrocities stemmed mainly from the activities of the largely independent Frankfurt cell.
Under the radar
Instead, look at the issue from another perspective and consider what happened in the years after 9/11 when the "war on terror" was being fought against an apparently organised and cohesive transnational movement. Even leaving aside the aforementioned assaults on western diplomatic missions, consider the attacks in the four years after 9/11:
* 2002 - An attack on church worshippers in Islamabad, killing five people and injuring forty-six; the bombing of an historic synagogue in Tunisia, killing German visitors; the killing of eleven French naval technicians in Karachi, injuring twenty-three people; the bombing of the Limburg tanker off Yemen; the bombing of the Sari nightclub in Bali; the attack on the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa, and the attempt to bring down an Israeli tourist jet taking off from the nearby airport
* 2003 - The quadruple bombings of western targets in Casablanca; the bombing of two synagogues and the HSBC Bank in Istanbul; the bombing of western compounds in Riyadh; the bombing of the Jakarta Marriott Hotel; the multiple bombing of trains in Madrid
* 2004 - The bombing of the Taba Hilton, Egypt; the attack on Israeli tourist camp
* 2005 - The London transport bombings; the hotel bombings in Sharm-al-Sheikh; the missile attack on USS Kersage in Aqaba harbour; the bombing of the resort of Kuta, Bali; the bombing of three western-owned hotels in Amman; the bombing of a KFC outlet and international hotels in Karachi.
The list could be extended, since there have been many more attacks since 2005, including large numbers in the Caucasus and the much greater violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the main point about this itemising of paramilitary violence is that it speaks much more of individual groups in particular countries, with loose connections to any notional core, than of a centralised al-Qaida movement able to dictate strategy and tactics across the world.
In this context, the current security alert in Yemen has two implications. The first is that it does not mean a return to an orchestrated strategy centred on north-west Pakistan, because that never really existed. The second, which partly follows, is that even after twelve years of a military response to 9/11, there has been hardly any progress in understanding the motivations of the numerous groups across the world that owe allegiance to the spirit of the al-Qaida movement, even if they have little direct connection with what remains of it in a physical form. As long as this persists, the best security precautions in the world can go only so far.