A threat assessment of Al-Qaeda’s strength and weaknesses-IV
December 23, 2011
A threat assessment of Al-Qaeda’s current status looking into its capabilities, intentions and opportunities would reveal that currently it clearly lacks capabilities and has fewer opportunities at its disposal; however, it still has the intentions to carry forward its agenda of transnational jihad. Effective and efficient responses to Al-Qaeda’s threat at political and ideological level have isolated the terror network. As mentioned in previous pieces Al-Qaeda’s staunchest ally, the Afghan Taliban, have distanced themselves from its ideology of global jihad and portray themselves as nationalist resistant movements. Currently, Al-Qaeda’s closest ally in Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is also suffering desertions and dissentions. Internal divisions are quite visible within the TTP ranks and it is finding it difficult to keep its act together. In such a scenario, it will be doubly difficult for the TTP to protect and shelter Al-Qaeda in Pak-Afghan tribal region.
Starting with capabilities, Al-Qaeda does not possess both manpower and firepower to carry out large-scale terror attacks against its target. It is weak at the center but strong at the fringes. Out of the network’s 10 main leaders listed after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, only two are still alive: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s one-time deputy who took over after his boss was killed in May; and Abu Yahya Al-Libi. However, due to continuous threat of CIA-led predator drone strikes and fear of being spotted they remain underground. Most of the time their focus is on how to survive and keep themselves alive and, every now and then, to appear in a video message to address their followers and operatives. This in turn weakens their ability to manage operational matters of Al-Qaeda and actively coordinate with its world-wide cells. Even before his death former Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden was also leading life of a recluse and he was hardly in touch with the leadership of his group.
After 9/11 Al-Qaeda has failed to target any major attacks beyond Gulf. Most of its terror plots were foiled or averted by the security agencies. According to a research carried out by the Heritage Foundation since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 at least 39 terror plots against the United States have been foiled. Moreover, few lone-wolf style terror acts by Al-Qaeda operatives were also unsuccessful. The abortive attempts of Richard Reid and Faisal Shahzad are two cases in point. Richard Reid abortively tried to light a fuse protruding from his shoe on a Paris bound American Airlines Flight No. 63. Reid was overpowered by fight crew and passengers and the flight was diverted to Boston. While Faisal Shahzad, who tried to blow up a car bomb in New York’ Time Square, failed to detonate the explosive material and was arrested by security authorities.
Looking at intentions the group still harbors its espoused vision of global jihad and target its enemies around the globe. However, it has not been able to recover from various setbacks it has suffered in the last decade. Various attempts, abortive or otherwise, establish this fact beyond any doubt that against all odds and difficulties Al-Qaeda has not given up on its stated goals and objectives. The like-minded terror networks which Al-Qaeda has built, highlights its aims. A worrying factor in this regard is the breakdown of state institutions in different Muslim countries of Africa and Middle East as well as spread of radicalization in Muslim Diaspora communities of the West and US. Al-Qaeda has thrived in failed or failing Muslim states. The erosion of incompetent and corrupt Muslim leaders and poor governance created huge vacuums which Al-Qaeda masterly exploited and furthered its own interests. Currently, the abysmal state of affairs in several Muslim countries provides an ideal opportunity to Al-Qaeda and its like-minded groups to re-cultivate their influence.
A heartening thing to notice in Arab Spring was ‘minimal’ to ‘no’ Al-Qaeda influence in these movements. Though these protests varied from country to country in their agendas and motivations, one thing common in these mass movements was that they sprouted from their own set of problems in local contexts. The major demands in these movements were better job opportunities, right to elect their representatives and end to decades of dictatorial rules and monarchies. None of these moments attributed the ills to external forces (read America) and demanded solutions which do not provide Al-Qaeda any groundswell. However, a concerning thing in this situation is the transition phase. If the public mandate is not respected and peaceful transfer of power to elected public-representatives is not facilitated by interim set-ups then prolonged transition phases can provide Al-Qaeda with an opportunity to inject its influence to manipulate the process of power transition from old to new setups.
Another lesson learnt from Arab Spring is the rise of Islamist forces in elections. Any attempt to sideline these Islamist forces would pave way for Al-Qaeda to manipulate the circumstances to its benefit. A case in point is suppression of Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria by Algerian military which over the years brought Algeria’s Islamists closer to Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) grew out of a conflict in Algeria between the government and Islamist militants.
Furthermore, the decision of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to tone down its ideological rhetoric and show up a moderate face in the form of Justice and Development Party indicates its willingness for political compromises and accommodations. Previously, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Al-Fateh in Palestine have transformed from an armed-resistant movements to political organizations. Currently, Afghan Taliban movement in Afghanistan is undergoing the same transformation as well. Efforts should be made to engage and work with these Islamist forces, if voted to power, in the Muslim World instead of any efforts from outside to sideline them. In turn, it will deprive Al-Qaeda of any ground to cultivate its influence.
Most significantly, amicable solutions to the longstanding issue of Palestine, Indian Occupied Kashmir and other occupied Muslim territories should also be explored. In the absence of judicious solutions to these problems the issue of transnational militancy and terrorism cannot be resolved.