A surge of widespread Islamist attacks provokes western alarm about al-Qaida's revival. But it is Syria above all where the future of paramiltarism is being forged.
The last two weeks of September 2013 saw a surge in radical Islamist actions across the middle east and east and west Africa. This has included the attack on the Westgate shopping-mall in Nairobi by the Somali group al-Shabab, which killed at least sixty-seven people; the assault on an agricultural college in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, in which scores of students died; and an escalation of the already intense targeting of government facilities and Shi'a communities in Iraq. The most destructive incident was on 30 September, when at least forty-seven people were killed and over a hundred injured in multiple bomb-attacks in Baghdad; in each of the last three months in Iraq, over 900 people have been killed.
In parallel, a number of Islamist rebel groups in Syria has continued to refine their operating capacity. They now constitute by far the most effective elements in the overall insurgency against Bashar al-Assad's regime. Moreover, evidence is emerging of close links between some of these groups in Syria and Sunni paramilitaries in Iraq; an axis connecting the two countries appears to be emerging.
The extent of these developments has prompted serious consideration of the current status of the al-Qaida movement, in sharp contrast to the growing belief in 2012 that it was close to collapse. The Economist, for example, writes: “It may be shunned by some with similar ideologies, and its affiliates may increasingly ignore its ageing leadership. But the Salafi jihadist view of the world that al-Qaida promotes and fights for has never had greater traction” (see “The unquenchable fire”, Economist, 28 September 2013).
An enduring pattern
The fact that the Westgate attack was clearly aimed at expatriates, especially the diplomatic community, has attracted much media attention in the west. There are suggestions that this marks a change of the strategy pursued towards the “far enemy” of the west since 9/11. This may prove to be the case; but a closer look shows that throughout these twelve years a thread of Westgate-type actions has persisted, many of them perpetrated by local groups with little connection to “al-Qaida central”.
A very selective list would include:
* 2002: attacks on German tourists in Tunisia; French naval technicians and the United States consulate in Karachi; Israeli tourists in Kenya; the Sari nightclub in Bali frequented by Australians; and the Limburg tanker off the coast of Yemen
* 2003: multiple attacks on western targets in Casablanca; western compounds in Riyadh, the Australian embassy in Jakarta; and two synagogues, the HSBC Bank, and the British consulate in Istanbul
* 2004-08: the Madrid and London bombings; attacks on the USS Kersage in Aqaba harbour; on western-owned hotels in Jakarta, Amman, Islamabad and Sinai; on US embassies in several cities; and on Mumbai.
Most of the groups responsible for these actions had little contact with the al-Qaida leadership in northwest Pakistan, yet they share in common an enduring anti-western outlook - clearly echoed in the al-Shabab assault and Boko Haram's bombing of the UN building in Abuja in August 2011. Perhaps this does confirm the Economist's assessment of a persisting, potent campaign fired by aggressive salafist ideology.
At the same time, the approach is not uniform across the region. There is a contrast between the actions of al-Shabab and Boko Haram in east and west Africa and those of jihadist paramilitaries in Iraq and Syria. The former include western targets in their range whereas the latter focus almost entirely on immediate local conflicts. Which of these is more significant in the long term is open to question, but in the case of Syria-Iraq especially a vital aspect is the acquisition of combat experience.
A glimmer of change
Some context is relevant. During the 1980s, Afghans and their foreign supporters gained huge expertise fighting against Soviet conscripts in a bitter eight-year conflict that left a battle hardened cohort of people who went on play significant roles in the al-Qaida movement in the 1990s. They included young paramilitaries who had come from across the middle east.
In the mid-2000s, this experience was repeated in Iraq, this time against well-trained and well-armed professional US troops and marines. This resulted in another swathe of determined young men, some of whom lent their experience to new recruits flooding into Syria, and others into Iraq.
What this means is that the longer the intense fighting in Syria continues, and the more the internal violence in Iraq escalates, the pattern will be repeated - with a new generation of young men achieving a high level of military training. This makes it even more important to work towards ending both conflicts.
In Iraq, progress requires Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'a-led government being prepared to cede some power to the Sunni minority.In Syria, the double-proxy element (regime/Iran/Russia vs rebels/Saudis/US) makes things even more complicated. But here, an important new development offers a small degree of hope: the fact that both Russia and the United States now have a direct interest in the war being scaled down.
America is greatly concerned that Islamists may have considerable power in a post-Assad Syria, while Russia's support for Damascus ensures that jihadist rebels see it as essentially anti-Islamist and even part of the "far enemy". This is not a good situation for Moscow as it tries to control violent dissent in the Caucasus in the run-up to the winter Olympics in nearby Sochi in February 2014 (see "Syria, war and negotiation", 19 September 2013). Syria is the most potent source of trained rebels that could go on to operate elsewhere across the region and beyond, and this should concentrate the minds of the United States and its allies.
It is understandable that the Kenyan and Nigerian incidents fuel talk of an al-Qaida revival. The bitter conflicts in Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen will have to be met largely by attempts to undermine the basis of paramilitary support, which must include an emphasis on economic development and greater social equity. The greater chance of a shift of policy, however, might just come in relation to Iraq and Syria, where Russia's stance offers at least modest hopes of much-needed diplomatic progress.