Today from Hiiraan Online:  _
Al-Qaida brand losing its global reach

Friday, November 23, 2012

The late Osama bin Laden (left) sits with his then-adviser Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian now reputed to be in command of the al-Qaida network. Photograph by: HO, REUTERS

In a speech on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pointed to a radical change in the al-Qaida terrorist network and its shrinking influence since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May last year.

He didn’t refer directly to the targeted attacks by missile-armed drones against core al-Qaida groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.

But Panetta said “al-Qaida’s leadership ranks have been decimated.”

However, “even with these gains,” he cautioned, “the threat from al-Qaida has not been eliminated. We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body.”

Indeed it has. But with the removal of bin Laden and his replacement by the singularly uninspiring and lacklustre Ayman al-Zawahri, the whole nature of the al-Qaida brand has changed.

Bin Laden’s strategy in attacking the U.S. and the West — “the far enemy” — was to remove support for Saudi Arabia — “the near enemy” — to enable al-Qaida to liberate the holy sites of Islam and install a puritanical religious administration.

But the strategy of “the far enemy” died with bin Laden.

No longer is al-Qaida a cohesive global network capable of mounting major and sustained terrorist attacks against the West.

It has become a loose collection of regional affiliates in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel region of West Africa, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt.

In most cases, these jihadist groups are inspired simply by local issues and pay little or no attention to al-Zawahri, whose attempts to produce a grand vision of holy war have fallen far short of what bin Laden was capable.

These days, the biggest threat al-Qaida poses to the West is home-grown terrorism by misguided people in Europe and North America.

There was a sharp illustration of this as Panetta was speaking to the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

On the other side of the continent in Los Angeles, a 77-page affidavit was released setting out the case against three California men who were arrested just two days before they were to set off for terrorist training in Afghanistan.

These were just the latest in a series of cases where U.S. residents have been arrested before they trained to launch an American jihad.

There is a steady stream of similar incidents in Europe. Spanish police last month arrested six people in Barcelona accused of sending stolen passports to jihadists in Germany and Greece.

As well as the death of bin Laden, last year’s Arab Spring has diminished the al-Qaida brand.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, these revolutions have brought to power by popular vote strongly Islamist administrations.

Democracy has also produced a religious regime in Iraq, and it may do the same in Syria when that civil war ends.

This seriously undermines the al-Qaida message that terrorism is the only route to an Islamic state.

Even in the lawless border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al-Qaida was born and thrived and where al-Zawahri is believed to be based, the group is very much subservient to the dominant local organizations such as the Taliban and the Haqqani family network.

Elsewhere, even though groups may attach the al-Qaida name to their own, it is the local issues that dominate.

The exception is Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, the homeland of bin Laden.

AQAP still manifests the objective of bringing down the Saudi Arabian monarchy and bringing the holiest sites of Islam under fundamentalist rule.

Al-Qaida in Iraq has become increasingly active in recent months, taking advantage of the unstable political situation in Baghdad to carry out, on average, 20 terrorist attacks a day. But it remains an organization fixated on local issues.

And what one leader has called Al-Qaida in East Africa is a misnomer. This is the Somali al-Shabaab group and other leaders have denied the al-Qaida affiliation, though there’s no doubt some al-Qaida figures from Pakistan have sought sanctuary there.

Even so, al-Shabaab has done more than its fair share to keep Somalia in the bloody chaos that has dogged the country for 20 years.

But now, al-Shabaab is close to defeat by a combined military force launched against it by the African Union with United Nations backing.

In retaliation, al-Shabaab has launched some terrorist attacks in Kenya and kidnapped some tourists from Kenyan beach resorts. But the general level of crime in Kenya is such that these incidents don’t make much impact.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has taken hold of northern Mali after a coup earlier this year left the Saharan nation in chaos.

There have been reports of jihadists from places like Pakistan and Yemen — where they are under threat of U.S. drone attacks — seeking safety in northern Mali.

But AQIM has its roots in the long and bloody civil war in neighbouring Algeria from 1991 to 2002, and which continues in some areas.

AQIM survives by kidnapping and smuggling. It is more a band of brigands than a jihadist group, and is suffering increasing casualties as the highly effective Algerian security forces take their toll in cross-border raids.

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