Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Rise, Fall and Rise of Al Qaeda

An absolutely fascinating look at Al-Qaeda in this month's Foreign Affairs magazine. By far and away the most informative piece on AQ i have ever read. In particular, read the recommended course of action that the US must adopt to deal with this growing force.

Here's the key points.

Bases of Operation

Thanks to Bush's ill conceived diversion in Iraq, AQ has gained a new base in the Waziri lands of Pakistan and Western Iraq, despite losing its former base in Afghanistan. Government-led crackdowns on AQ in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have proved successful, demonstrating that AQ thrives in failed states alone. AQ is now exploring Lebanon as a possible next option as well as Yemen, Bangladesh and Gaza. Africa is also being investigated by AQ as a source of operations. AQ-sponsored terrorists are fighting the Christian Ethiopians in Somalia and after a setback at Christmas, have since regained the upper hand. In Algeria, AQ is aiming to revive a civil war that killed 100,000 people in the 1990s. The GSPC , a Salafist terror group that carried out a deadly attack in April killing 30, has since been renamed 'AQ in the Islamic Maghreb' on the orders of Bin Laden.

AQ Strategy

Bin Laden's strategy is to 'provoke and bait' the US into 'bleeding wars' throughout the Islamic world. He believes he can bankrupt the US, in the same way he bankrupted the Soviet Union and he is now actively trying to trigger a war between Iran and the US. Between 2002 and 2004, AQ's strategy was one of survival, building a new base in Quetta, in Pakistan, but in 2007 it is resurgent in every aspect.

In 2006, AQ upped the propaganda efforts, quadrupling its video production and distributing these through a network of some 4,500 Jihadi websites.


The key to the fall of Afghanistan was not the assassination of Mullar Omar, the Taliban leader, but the defection of Pakistan to the US. Up until then, 60,000 Pakistani volunteers had seved in Omar's army providing military expertise and political patronage.

By 2006, the Taliban had re-grouped and prepared to retake Kandahar. They imported new tactics from Iraq, such as suicide bombings and better explosive devices. Talliban attacks rose from 1,632 in 2005 to 5,388 in 2006. They also forged new alliances with Kashmiris groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, joining forces to launch a deadly attack on Mumbai last July.


Before 9/11, AQ had no presence in Iraq, but in Feb 2003, Bin Laden ordered thousands of Arab insurgents into the country and demanded they join forces with the Baathists, "the socialist infidels" as he called them.

In late 2002, Abu al-Zarqawi established operations in Iraq. He adopted a two-pronged policy. First to isolate US forces by scaring other Western countries from commiting troops and second to focus on the fault line in Iraq - the Sunni/Shia divide by pushing for a civil war. To this end, he orchestrated a number of attacks on sacred Shiite sites, such as those in Najaf, Baghdad and Samarra.

AQ's No 2, Zawahiri, privately disagreed with Zarqawi's policy of pitting Muslim against Muslim, but Zarqawi had the support of Bin Laden, who declared him in Dec 04, "the prince of AQ in Iraq". Despite the death of Zarqawi, desrcibed as the most vicious of all the AQ operatives, his group declared a Sunni state in Iraq, "the Islamic State of Iraq" in Oct 06, declaring opposition to the Shiites in the South and the Kurds in the North.

The UK - Centre of AQ operations in The West

AQ's new base in Pakistan opened up a new route to the West via the UK and its large Pakistani population. Pakistani-born Britons can travel easily between the two countries, facilitating recruitment, communications and training. Pakistan received 400,000 visits from British residents in 2004 alone. With entry to the US made more difficult by homeland security measures, the UK has become the focal point for AQ's activities in the West. In Nov 06, Eliza Manningham-Butler, the Head of MI5, said that some 200 networks of Pakistani Brits were operating and being monitored in the UK. Over 30 plots have been attempted on UK soil alone, all but one being disrupted. The attempt to destroy ten commercial planes en route from the UK to the US last summer was also tied back to the Pakistani-British network.


The biggest headache for AQ, though, remains Shia Iran. AQ is worried about the future of the Sunni minority in Iraq once the US troops have gone. In an ominous statement last November, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Zarqawi's successor, warned that the US invasion had "revived the old Persian Safavid Empire". He annouced that he eagerly anticipated an American attack on Iran and AQ has already told Sunnis living in Iran to evacuate towns close to nuclear installations, in anticipation of an imminent attack. The article warns that an attack on Iran would be catastrophic for the West, as it would lead the field wide open for complete AQ dominance, by simultaneously weakening Iran and the US, and by increasing Muslim support for jihad against The West.

What To Do?

1. Focus on taking out the leadership of AQ. Killing Bin Laden must be the top priority.

2. Do not attack Iran.

3. Enhance the commitment to Afghanistan by providing more troops to the country (NATO countries in particular must start to contribute) and a lot more money for infrastructure.

4. Pull the troops out of Iraq. The civil war is already raging and there is no place now for US troops. They should be diverted to Afghanistan.

5. Encourage the partners in the Meditarrean Dialogue - Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco - to contribute to the stabilisation of Afghanistan.

6. Secure Afghanistan's 1,500 mile border with Pakistan. Include Iran in this process.

7. Reach out to India for help in Afghanistan. New Delhi has already provided $500 million in aid for Afghanistan, and the country has a national interest in defeating Islamist terrorism.

8. Take a much firmer stance with Pakistan and enlist its help in tracking down the AQ leaders. President Musharraf has promised much but delivered little in return for the $10 billion it has received from Washington since 9/11.

9. The US must understand it is engaged in a war of ideas. It must step up and improve its woeful propaganda machine. There must be no more Abu Ghraib's or Guantanamo Bay's.

10. The President must be seen to do more in attempting to broker a peaceful agreement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in Kashmir.