Op-Ed by Emile Nakhleh —The Mark News —
The global significance and relevance of Al Qaeda has been questioned since the death of Osama bin Laden. Former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program Emile Nakhleh argues that “Al Qaeda central” has numerous regional affiliates across Africa and the Middle East of which the world should be wary.
Governments around the world have been lulled by the diminishing significance and reach of Al Qaeda central, especially since the death of Osama bin Laden and the capturing and killing of numerous senior Al Qaeda leaders. The threat from regional terrorist organizations connected to Al Qaeda, however, has grown significantly.
A terrorist crescent is casting its shadow across Africa and the Middle East, from Syria to Bahrain. This is due in large part to autocratic rule across the region, the repression of human rights, the suppression of political activity, and the promotion of sectarianism. Ignoring this threat would be detrimental to regional and global security and stability.
The seizure of the oil facility in Algeria earlier this year, the bloody conflict in Mali, and Al Shabab’s recent attack on the Nairobi mall demonstrate the regional reach of some of these groups.
The resurgence of groups such as Al Shabab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen is aided by their ability to recruit youth from abroad – often from Western countries – as well as by a lack of government accountability and political stability in the areas in which they thrive.
Drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia have successfully targeted terrorist leaders, but have also engendered fear, anger, and resentment among large segments of Muslim societies. Affected communities in some of these areas view the civilian deaths that have resulted from drone strikes as evidence of U.S. callousness toward the Muslim world.
Some interpret these “signature” and “targeted” strikes as a war on Islam. In their view, the now-defunct “Global War on Terror” has devolved into a bloody war against specific Muslim communities in areas like Yemen and Somalia. Government authority is practically non-existent in many of these tribal areas, making it impossible for civilians to turn to officials for help.
The fact that governments in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan deny having any prior knowledge of these drone or missile strikes has only fuelled Muslim anger toward the United States. [SM1] Perceptions of these American-led “dirty wars” against parts of the Muslim world make it difficult to engage mainstream Muslim communities, groups, NGOs, and political parties.
Regional terrorism has developed in North and West Africa and the Sahel countries through to East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant. In Africa’s Sahel, regional groups include Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar Dine in Mali, Harakat al Tawhid wa al Jihad in Niger, and Katibat al-Mulathameen in Chad. Of course, Al Shabab has operated for years in Somalia. In North Africa, groups include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Groups like AQAP in Yemen, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria now thrive in the Middle East.
Outside the Muslim heartland, bin Laden’s message continues to lure vulnerable youth in Western societies into terrorism. Many of these angry, alienated, gullible, unemployed or underemployed youth are first- or second-generation Muslim immigrants or asylum seekers. Others are converts to Islam.
These “lone wolf” recruits have not integrated well into Western societies. They are not well versed in the Koran or Islamic theology, however, and tend to accept the questionable religious justification of violent jihad. Some are driven by personal experiences, such as having a close friend or relative who was killed by a drone strike, or by the security services in their home countries, which they accuse of collusion with the United States. These young recruits begin to feel like part of a virtual community, or ummah, regardless of whether or not they or their families have had any connections to jihadist groups or causes.
These regional terrorist groups are not under the command and control of the original Al Qaeda group, and are often focused on local or regional agendas. But they do support bin Laden’s message of global jihad and its perennial battle with the West and mainstream Muslim governments, and some have declared allegiance to Al Qaeda central.
With Al Qaeda central’s approval, Al Qaeda in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra (and other jihadist groups) in Syria seem to be merging, with an eye toward setting up an umbrella group known as Al Qaeda in the Levant.
What is most worrisome is that a younger and more violent generation of leaders is emerging in the post-bin Laden era. It’s as if the “old guard” has passed on the mantle to a new set of fighters and ideologues. Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP, is one example.
It’s vital that terrorism analysts know whether or not Al Qaeda central is devolving into a loosely connected network of regional terror organizations operating out of different areas around the world.
Emile Nakhleh is former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at CIA and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.