Al Qaeda in 2008: The Struggle for Relevance

MIN READDec 19, 2007 | 18:14 GMT

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On Dec. 16, al Qaeda's As-Sahab media branch released a 97-minute video message from al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the message, titled "A Review of Events," al-Zawahiri readdressed a number of his favorite topics at length. This video appeared just two days after As-Sahab released a 20-minute al-Zawahiri message titled "Annapolis — The Treason." In that message, al-Zawahiri speaks on audio tape while a still photograph of him is displayed over a montage of photos from the peace conference in Annapolis, Md. As the title implies, al-Zawahiri criticizes the conference. Although the Dec. 14 release appeared first, it obviously was recorded after the Dec. 16 video. Given the content of the Dec. 14 message, it most likely was recorded shortly after the Nov. 27 Annapolis conference and before the Dec. 11 twin bombings in Algeria. The two latest releases are interrelated, however, given that the still photo of al-Zawahiri used in the Dec. 14 message appears to have been captured from the video released two days later. After having been subjected to two hours of al-Zawahiri opinions in just two days, we cannot help but wonder whether anyone else is listening to this guy — and, if so, why? This question is particularly appropriate now, as we come to the time of the year when we traditionally prepare our annual forecast on al Qaeda. As we look ahead to 2008, the core al Qaeda leadership clearly is struggling to remain relevant in the ideological realm, a daunting task for an organization that has been rendered geopolitically and strategically impotent on the physical battlefield. Devolution The theme of our 2007 al Qaeda forecast was the continuation of the metamorphosis of al Qaeda from a smaller core group of professional operatives into an operational model that encourages independent "grassroots" jihadists to conduct attacks, or into a model in which al Qaeda provides the operational commanders who organize grassroots cells. We referred to this shift as devolution because it signified a return to al Qaeda's pre-9/11 model. We noted that the shift gave al Qaeda "the movement" a broader geographic and operational reach than al Qaeda "the group," but we also said that this larger, dispersed group of actors lacked the operational depth and expertise of the core group and its well-trained terrorist cadre. Looking back at the successful, attempted and thwarted attacks in 2007, this prediction was largely on-target. The high-profile attacks and thwarted attacks were plotted by grassroots groups such as the one responsible for the attacks in London and Glasgow, Scotland, or by regional affiliates such as al Qaeda's franchise in Algeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The core al Qaeda group once again failed to conduct any attacks. British authorities have indicated that the men responsible for the failed London and Glasgow attempts were linked in some way to al Qaeda in Iraq, though any such links must have been fairly inconsequential. The al Qaeda franchise in Iraq has conducted hundreds of successful bombings and has a considerable amount of experience in tradecraft and bombmaking, while the London and Glasgow attempts showed a decided lack of tradecraft and bombmaking skills. Regional Franchises The al Qaeda nodes in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula and Indonesia were all quiet this year. The Egyptian node has not carried out a successful attack since announcing its allegiance to al Qaeda in August 2006. Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda's Indonesian franchise, has not conducted a successful attack since the October 2005 Bali bombing, and the Sinai node, Tawhid wa al-Jihad, did not conduct any attacks in 2007. Its last attack was in April 2006. The Saudi franchise conducted only one successful operation in 2007, a small-arms attack against a group of French and Belgian nationals picnicking near Medina, which resulted in the deaths of four Frenchmen. This is a far cry from the peak of its operational activities during the summer of 2004. The Yemen node also conducted one attack, as it did in 2006, a July 2 suicide car bombing against a tourist convoy that resulted in the deaths of eight Spaniards. The Moroccan element of AQIM attempted to carry out attacks in March and April, though the group's inept tactics and inadequate planning resulted in the deaths of more suicide bombers than victims. These regional nodes largely have been brought under control by a series of successful campaigns against them. Police operations in Saudi Arabia, the Sinai and Indonesia have provided some evidence that the groups have been trying to regroup and refit. Therefore, the campaigns against these regional nodes will need to remain in place for the foreseeable future to ensure that these organizations do not reconstitute themselves and resume operations. We noted in our 2007 forecast that AQIM had not yet proven itself. However, the series of attacks by AQIM this year demonstrated that the group is resourceful and resilient, even in the face of Algerian government operations and ideological divisions. In fact, AQIM was the most prolific and deadly group in 2007 outside of the active war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. With al Qaeda in Iraq facing serious problems, AQIM is in many ways carrying the torch for the jihadist movement. With other regional nodes seemingly under control, the U.S. and other governments now can pay more attention to AQIM. Throughout the coming year, the Algerian government likely will receive much more assistance from the United States and its allies in its efforts to dismantle the group. AQIM — the former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) — has existed since the early 1990s and its dedicated cadre has survived many attempts to eliminate it — though it likely will be pressed hard over the next year. In a Nov. 3 audio message, al-Zawahiri said the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) had formally joined the al Qaeda network. This came as no real surprise, given that members of the group have long been close to Osama bin Laden, and al Qaeda has a large number of Libyan cadre, including Abu Yahya al-Libi, Anas al-Libi and Abu Faraj al-Libi (who reportedly is being held by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.) The LIFG-al Qaeda link became apparent in September 2001, when the U.S. government identified the LIFG as a specially designated terrorist entity (along with the GSPC and others.) Although Libyans have played a large role in al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement, the LIFG itself has been unable to conduct any significant attacks. Historically, Libyan security forces have kept the LIFG in check to the point that most high-profile Libyan jihadists operate outside Libya — unlike the AQIM leadership, which operates within Algeria. It will be important to watch this new node to see whether it can ramp up its capabilities to conduct meaningful operations inside Libya, or even in other countries where the group has a presence — though we doubt it will be able to pose a serious threat to the Libyan regime. Another relatively new jihadist presence appeared on the radar screen Feb. 13, when the Fatah al-Islam group bombed two buses in the Lebanese Christian enclave of Ain Alaq, killing three people. Following the Lebanese army's efforts to arrest those group members believed responsible for the bombing, the group holed up in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, where it endured a siege by the Lebanese army that began in March and lasted until early September. Shaker al-Abssi, the leader of Fatah al-Islam, is said to have links to former al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Along with al-Zarqawi, al-Abssi was sentenced to death in Jordan for his suspected involvement in the 2002 killing of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. He served a three-year jail sentence in Syria and then moved into Nahr el-Bared to establish Fatah al-Islam, which is believed to be controlled by Syrian intelligence. While Fatah al-Islam lost many of its fighters during the five-month siege, we have received intelligence reports suggesting that the Syrians are helping the group recover. The intelligence also suggests that the more the Syrians cooperate with U.S. objectives in Iraq, the more they will press the use of their jihadist proxies in Lebanon. In pursuing such a course, the Syrians are playing with fire, which may well come to haunt them, as it has the Saudis and Pakistanis. Iraq's Contribution Events in Iraq likely will have a significant impact on the global jihadist movement in the coming year. Since the death of al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq's operational ability steadily has declined. Furthermore, the organization appears to be losing its support among the Iraqi Sunnis and apparently has had problems getting foreign fighters into the country as of late. This could indicate that there will soon be an exodus of jihadists from the country. These jihadists, who have been winnowed and hardened by their combat against the U.S. military, might find the pastures greener in the countries they enter after leaving Iraq. Like the mujahideen who left Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, they could go on to pose a real threat elsewhere. Additionally, since 2003 Iraq has been a veritable jihadist magnet, drawing jihadists from all over the world. If there is no possibility of seeking "martyrdom" in Iraq, these men (and a few women) will have to find another place to embrace their doom. The coalition's list of foreign jihadists killed in Iraq shows that most of the fighters have come to the country from places such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco, but jihadists also have come from many other countries, including the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. Jihadists in these places might opt to follow the example of the July 2005 London bombers and martyr themselves in their countries of residence. Jihadists in Iraq have had the luxury of having an extensive amount of military ordnance at their disposal. This ordnance has made it relatively simple to construct improvised explosive devices, including large truck bombs. This, in turn, has made it possible to engage hard targets — such as U.S. military bases and convoys. Jihadists without access to these types of weapons (and the type of training they received in Iraq) will be more likely to engage soft targets. In fact, the only group we saw with the expertise and ordnance to hit hard targets outside of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 was AQIM. As we forecast for 2006 and 2007, we anticipate that the trend toward attacking soft targets will continue in 2008. Afghanistan and Pakistan Despite U.S. and NATO forces' repeated tactical victories on the battlefield, al Qaeda's Afghan allies, the Taliban, continue to survive — the critical task for any guerrilla force engaged in an insurgent war. Following a pattern that has been repeated many times throughout Afghan history — most recently in the war following the Soviet invasion — the Taliban largely seek to avoid extended battles and instead seek to engage in hit-and-run guerrilla operations. This is because they realize that they cannot stand toe-to-toe with the superior armaments of the foreign invaders. Indeed, when they have tried to stand and fight, they have taken heavy losses. Therefore, they occasionally will occupy a town, such as Musa Qala, but will retreat in the face of overwhelming force and return when that superior force has been deployed elsewhere. Due to the presence of foreign troops, the Taliban have no hope of taking control of Afghanistan at this juncture. However, unlike the foreign troops, the Taliban fighters and their commanders are not going anywhere. They have a patient philosophy and will bide their time until the tactical or political conditions change in their favor. Meanwhile, they are willing to continue their guerrilla campaign and sustain levels of casualties that would be politically untenable for their U.S. and NATO rivals. The Taliban have a very diffuse structure, and even the loss of senior leaders such as Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Obaidullah Akhund has not proven to be much of a hindrance. Just over the border from Afghanistan, Pakistan has witnessed the rapid spread of Talibanization. As a result, Islamabad now is fighting a jihadist insurgency of its own in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North-West Frontier Province. The spread of this ideology beyond the border areas was perhaps best demonstrated by the July assault by the Pakistani army against militants barricaded inside the Red Mosque in Islamabad. Since the assault against the mosque, Pakistan has been wracked by a wave of suicide bombings. Pakistan should be carefully watched because it could prove to be a significant flash point in the coming year. As the global headquarters for the al Qaeda leadership, Pakistan has long been a significant stronghold on the ideological battlefield. If the trend toward radicalization continues there, the country also could become the new center of gravity for the jihadist movement on the physical battlefield. Pakistan will become especially important if the trend in Iraq continues to go against the jihadists and they are driven from Iraq. The Year Ahead Given the relative ease of getting an operative into the United States, the sheer number of soft targets across the vast country and the simplicity of conducting an attack, we remain surprised that no jihadist attack occurred on U.S. soil in 2007. However, we continue to believe that the United States, as well as Europe, remains vulnerable to tactical-level jihadist strikes — though we do not believe that the jihadists have the capability to launch a strategically significant attack, even if they were to employ chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Jihadists have shown a historical fixation on using toxins and poisons. As STRATFOR repeatedly has pointed out, however, chemical and biological weapons are expensive to produce, difficult to use and largely ineffective in real-world applications. Radiological weapons (dirty bombs) also are far less effective than many people have been led to believe. In fact, history clearly has demonstrated that explosives are far cheaper, easier to use and more effective at killing people than these more exotic weapons. The failure by jihadists in Iraq to use chlorine effectively in their attacks has more recently underscored the problems associated with the use of improvised chemical weapons — the bombs killed far more people than the chlorine they were meant to disperse as a mass casualty weapon. Al-Zawahiri's messages over the past year clearly have reflected the pressure that the group is feeling. The repeated messages referencing Iraq and the need for unity among the jihadists there show that al-Zawahiri believes the momentum has shifted in Iraq and things are not going well for al Qaeda there. Tactically, al Qaeda's Iraqi node still is killing people, but strategically the group's hopes of establishing a caliphate there under the mantle of the Islamic State of Iraq have all but disappeared. These dashed hopes have caused the group to lash out against former allies, which has worsened al Qaeda's position. It also is clear that al Qaeda is feeling the weight of the ideological war against it — waged largely by Muslims. Al-Zawahiri repeatedly has lamented specific fatwas by Saudi clerics declaring that the jihad in Iraq is not obligatory and forbidding young Muslims from going to Iraq. In a message broadcast in July, al-Zawahiri said, "I would like to remind everyone that the most dangerous weapons in the Saudi-American system are not buying of loyalties, spying on behalf of the Americans or providing facilities to them. No, the most dangerous weapons of that system are those who outwardly profess advice, guidance and instruction …" In other words, al Qaeda fears fatwas more than weapons. Weapons can kill people — fatwas can kill the ideology that motivates people. There are two battlegrounds in the war against jihadism: the physical and the ideological. Because of its operational security considerations, the al Qaeda core has been marginalized in the physical battle. This has caused it to abandon its position at the vanguard of the physical jihad and take up the mantle of leadership in the ideological battle. The core no longer poses a strategic threat to the United States in the physical world, but it is striving hard to remain relevant on the ideological battleground. In many ways, the ideological battleground is more important than the physical war. It is far easier to kill people than it is to kill ideologies. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on the ideological battleground to determine how that war is progressing. In the end, that is why it is important to listen to hours of al-Zawahiri statements. They contain clear signs regarding the status of the war against jihadism. The signs as of late indicate that the ideological war is not going so well for the jihadists, but they also point to potential hazards around the bend in places such as Pakistan and Lebanon.

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