LONDON (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden would not have approved.
Spinoff groups from al Qaeda have become increasingly engrossed in insurgencies in Africa and the Middle East, inflicting death and mayhem on local communities. But this emphasis on the pursuit of the enemy nearby has cast doubt on their commitment, in practice, to bin Laden’s war on the “far enemy” - the West and the United States in particular.
More than a year after U.S. forces killed bin Laden, some groups such as the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) undoubtedly remain a menace to the West.
Turmoil in Syria, Somalia and parts of Libya, Mali, Iraq and Nigeria has also allowed Islamist militias to recruit, train, arm and organise. And yet their targets have been overwhelmingly close at hand, rather than in Europe or the United States.
“Al Qaeda has become a useful label for any group that essentially pursues local aims but wishes to exaggerate its reach and sophistication,” said Richard Barrett, Coordinator of the Al-Qaida-Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations.
“Al Qaeda has lost much of its reputation as the vanguard of a global cause, and as the activities of its affiliates result in more and more death and destruction for local communities, this process will accelerate,” he told Reuters.
Boasting newly-acquired weapons, kidnap ransom funds, territorial gains in remote regions and a coterie of radicalised Western volunteers, many groups appear to have the wherewithal for viable plots within Western borders, Western officials say.
AQAP, formed in 2009 when militants driven out of Saudi Arabia joined the Yemeni al Qaeda, is under particularly close watch internationally because of its failed but audacious bombing attempts against U.S. targets.
It claimed responsibility for an attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day that year, and for a plot to send two air freight packages containing bombs to the United States in 2010. Western officials say they disrupted an AQAP plot to bomb another airliner this year and suspect it is only a question of time before the group tries again, as it has threatened to do.
Yet swathes of al Qaeda’s multi-ethnic armed following appear to be more interested in subjecting local communities to harsh forms of Islamic rule after eliminating any opposition.
CENTRALLY-DIRECTED MENACE NO MORE
Today, al Qaeda is no longer the centrally-directed, hierarchical network of plotters that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 under bin Laden’s leadership.
Nevertheless it has determined offshoots apart from AQAP. In north Africa and the Sahara, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been responsible for kidnappings and murders of Westerners as well as Africans, while Islamists in Mali are systematically destroying the cultural treasures of Timbuktu.
In Somalia, al Shabaab has battled African Union forces and staged attacks on neighbouring Kenya, while in Nigeria Boko Haram has targeted local Christians as well as the government and United Nations.
Grassroots conflicts disrupt trade and transport links, opening opportunities for international plots and giving militant novices paramilitary training. Nevertheless, bin Laden regarded local insurgency as a dangerous distraction from al Qaeda’s defining goal of attacking inside American territory.
Some wonder if bin Laden’s views have been politely ignored.
London-based Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih told Reuters the offshoots shared common methods and strategy, but “there is not one organisation. There are independent structures here and there in terms of military and operational tactics”.
Others suggest a fundamental localism is at work.
“The global jihadist genie has not been put entirely back in the bottle, but militancy is returning to its roots in local-level campaigns driven by local factors,” said Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“You no longer have one driving focus behind al Qaeda after the death of bin Laden,” a leading Western counter-terrorism official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “The overall threat is marginally less.”.
“Instead there’s a lot more chaos and more militant capability linked to regional politics and crises.”
What communication there is between the affiliates and al Qaeda’s core has become less effective. Senior leaders in Pakistan cannot follow local conflicts in detail and therefore find it difficult to direct or influence events, Barrett said.
Peter Neumann, Professor of Security Studies at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, said understanding the increasing variety of militant groups and their local conflicts was vital to fashioning a more nuanced counter-terrorism response. “If you call everything al Qaeda, you’ll end up with a backlash, and negative outcomes. We need to disaggregate this threat,” he told Reuters.
Muscular responses to al Qaeda in the early years after September 11, 2001 divided opinion in the West. Supporters said military action in Muslim lands and use of military justice was proportionate. Critics argued it played into al Qaeda’s hands by giving it a spurious status as a monolithic, existential threat.
Some of the al Qaeda affiliates have joined forces with other paramilitary groups whose separatist, sectarian or economic interests overlap with theirs.
A sense that some of the spinoffs are increasingly unable or uninterested in striking the “far enemy” was shared by bin Laden in the years before he died, some of the letters captured by U.S. forces from his Pakistani hideout suggest.
The documents, 17 of which were published in May, show him worried that groups operating in al Qaeda’s name were wasting energy by trying to set up local administrations and angering local Muslims by killing Muslim civilians.
He admired the Arab Spring as a “formidable event” and urged local people to join it, but al Qaeda allies such as AQAP, he suggested, should concentrate on attacking America.
“The focus must be on actions that contribute to the intent of bleeding the American enemy,” he wrote in about May 2010 in one of the letters posted online by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research unit at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. (http:www.ctc.usma.edu)
“As for actions that do not contribute to the intent of bleeding the great enemy, many of them dilute our efforts and take from our energy,” wrote bin Laden.
In the back of his mind, analysts speculate, was the danger of a repeat of al Qaeda’s experience in Iraq, where his affiliates antagonised local people with a series of massacres. This led to Sunni tribal militias turning on al Qaeda, helping U.S. occupation forces to gain the upper hand against the insurgency.
Bin Laden’s view, however, differed from that of his successor, Ayman al Zawahri, who has usually taken a more indulgent view of allied groups in Africa and the Middle East.
While urging them to “pursue America”, Zawahri also asks them to cooperate with each other as they pursue their local campaigns, and that is what they sometimes appear to be doing.
Robert Fowler, a former U.N. Special Envoy to Niger who was held hostage by the Algerian-led AQIM for 130 days in 2008-09, said after his release that his captors were the most focused group of young men he had ever encountered.
Addressing Britain’s Chatham House think tank in 2011, he said his captors told him they wanted to “turn the Sahel into one vast, seething, chaotic Somalia”.
Speaking to Reuters this month, Fowler said that for his captors, local enemies were “very much within their sights”.
Fowler is a witness to the tie-ups between militant groups.
“The debate about whether Boko Haram is primarily a regional separatist organisation or an international one seems sterile. The fact is that one of my captors was from Kano in Nigeria. He was in effect an ‘exchange officer’. There is no doubt that these links are being made and the agenda is ever more shared.”
“When we get to the ‘far enemy’, there is less clarity on this issue,” Fowler said. “I think it’s fair to say that there is a discussion among them as to how best to do that, and in what proportion and with what kind of priority.”
Connections continue to evolve. General Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said in June that Boko Haram, al Shabaab and AQIM were sharing funds and swapping explosives in what could mark a rise in the security threat on the continent.
How much these links are fostered by al Qaeda’s much reduced core leadership on the Afghan-Pakistan border, and whether the shared agenda cited by Fowler extends to attacking inside the borders of the West, is unknown.
Nelly Lahoud, a scholar at the West Point CTC, told Reuters that “at least in form” the affiliates were part of a global al Qaeda network because al Zawahri had publicly admitted most of them into the fold.
“However it is difficult to discern whether al Zawahri’s directives carry any meaningful weight with the affiliates or whether he simply admits regional groups into al Qaeda’s fold to give the impression that al Qaeda is growing,” she said.
Apart from Zawahri, remaining core leaders still at large include veteran military commander Sayf al Adl, an Egyptian, and Guyanese militant Adnan al Shukrijumah, a planner of a 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway.
Yet neither of these men has the influence of bin Laden or the authority of the most recent high profile loss, top ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was reported killed by a drone strike in Pakistan on June 4.
He tried to lay down a coherent line to the offshoots about the need for militants to wage pitiless attacks against the United States, Israel and “apostate” Arab regimes.
“Abu Yahya was the last remaining ideological traffic cop for al Qaeda ... He was the only one who could herd all these cats,” said Jarret Brachman, a U.S. counterterrorism specialist. “Without him ... we start getting a set of parochial, inward- focused insurgencies and militants who may have the stylising of al Qaeda but do not follow the rules of the road.”
Libi’s most menacing legacy in Western eyes may be the appeals he and Zawahri made in recent months for militants to go to Syria to join the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
An influx into Syria of fighters hardened by attacking U.S. troops in Iraq has alarmed Western governments. They also fear that sophisticated weapons may fall into the hands of rebel groups, including al Qaeda, that may threaten Western interests.
But the influx has also prompted some analysts to raise the prospect of a repeat of al Qaeda’s experience in Iraq.
“I see the same thing happening in Syria,” said Camille Tawil, a historian of Islamist armed groups and writer for al-Hayat newspaper. He said a shadowy militant group called Jebhat al-Nusra, which has claimed mass killings, was alienating the majority of the Syrian opposition.
While AQAP appears to be the least clumsy player of tribal politics, most al Qaeda militants appear to have few skills in public administration, believing that Islamic rule is about pleasing God rather than people.
“While imposing order through amputation and murder may be effective against petty crime, it does not provide employment, services or economic development,” Barrett said.
“Where al Qaeda attempts to eradicate or by-pass centuries of tribal tradition or other well-established cultural norms, it faces the same build up of resentment as any other outsider.”
Will McCants, an analyst at CNA, a U.S. non-profit research institution, says that the only land that can be “conquered” by al Qaeda is in countries where the state is weak and tribal politics are paramount. Therefore, al Qaeda groups become vulnerable to shifting tribal loyalties.
“Al Qaeda’s refusal to renounce its war on the world means it can provide no lasting security in the territory it holds — a reality that will, over time, wear on its local allies,” he wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine.
Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, a U.S. think tank, wrote in the Atlantic magazine that the growing number of Islamist armed groups now active “confound easy attempts at labelling”, combining elements of insurgencies, terrorist movements and local concerns.
These affiliate groups were a serious threat in the regions, but they did not pose the same menace that al Qaeda once did, he told Reuters. New thinking was needed on how to combat them.
One indication of the leadership’s weakness is its reliance on lone wolves, or homegrown sympathisers in the West, who tend to be incompetent. AQAP has sought to portray solitary operators as a strength, arguing that their “do-it-yourself” attacks, no matter how small, are effective because they frighten the West.
But al Qaeda would prefer to recruit and run cells in Western countries rather than rely on lone wolves, if only it could, Barrett said. “Its future is bleak,” he said.
Reporting by William Maclean; editing by David Stamp