Al-Qaeda: Regional Menace Or Global Threat?

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Members of the hardline al Shabaab Islamist rebel group
Members of the hardline al Shabaab Islamist rebel group hold their weapons in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, January 1, 2010.

With a video camera rolling straight ahead and the black flag of al-Qaeda behind him, a one-eyed jihadist and cigarette smuggler named Mokhtar Belmokhtar spelled out his vision for the future of Islamist militancy on a global scale.

It was Jan. 17, during the four-day hostage crisis at a gas plant in the deserts of eastern Algeria, where workers of various nationalities were held hostage until national forces retook the facility. Up to 85 people died in the bloody showdown.

The video, released by the Mauritanian news outlet Sahara Media, marked a new phase in the conflict that's still raging in the northern reaches of the West African country of Mali. There, Islamist insurgents had established a haven for militants -- an unprecedented feat after years of sporadic clashes. At the request of the Malian central government, French forces swooped in with airstrikes and combat troops on Jan. 11.

Only days later, Belmokhtar and his newly formed cell seized the gas plant in Algeria in a clear indication that the insurgents’ ambitions reached far beyond Mali. Belmokhtar called the Western intervention a “crusade” and commended his own forces for their success.

“We did it for al-Qaeda,” he said in the video.

For many militants in North and West Africa, the language of jihad has global undertones. And Western powers are taking notice; the United Kingdom has sent hundreds of non-combat troops to Mali, and the United States has stepped up its logistical support for the intervention.

The resurgence of al-Qaeda in Africa has raised concerns about the international threat these militants pose. In the past decade, the global al-Qaeda organization has been weakened significantly. But new conflicts involving Western forces could influence the movement in more subtle ways, strengthening its power to influence lone operatives in far-flung corners of the world.

Deep Roots

Organizationally, al-Qaeda has undergone a sea change over the past several years. Western offensives -- including hundreds of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen -- have decimated the cadre of leaders who were behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil. When Osama bin-Laden was killed by American forces in May of 2011, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, took over. But Zawahiri has been less effective than bin Laden in terms of galvanizing the global movement; he has little of bin-Laden’s magnetism and scant experience on the battlefield.

Although the al-Qaeda's core leadership has been weakened, its affiliates are increasingly picking up the slack. The emergence of locally rooted groups has much to do with the Arab Spring revolutions; in countries like Egypt, Libya and Yemen, regime changes have left dangerous power vacuums, upended national security apparatuses and weakened border controls.

This was particularly important in Libya. In the build-up to the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the regime hired mercenaries to fight on its behalf. Those warriors-for-pay -- which included hundreds of nomadic peoples from the Sahara and the Sahel -- acquired weapons and training that would have been hard to come by without Libya's funding.

Andrew MacGregor, senior editor of the Jamestown Foundation Global Terrorism Analysis Program in Washington, D.C., says the rise in militancy in 2012 was partly a result of the  overflow of arms from the Libyan revolution.

“Simultaneous with the spread of arms throughout the region, you had a spread of radical Salafism [an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam],” he said. “Those two fed off each other, creating jihadist movements and threatening regional security. What we’ve seen lately is these movements trying to seize territory for themselves, now that they have the weaponry to do so.”

This empowered a branch of al-Qaeda that had hitherto been little more than a regional menace.

Weaving a Web

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, officially coalesced in 2007; its roots are Algerian, though it now includes militants from countries across North and West Africa.

It is not the only affiliate that has made gains in recent years. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, a combination of jihadist cells from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, came together in 2009. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, coalesced shortly after the American-led invasion of that country in 2003 and now focuses its attacks on government officials and civilians.

Other jihadist organizations with links to al-Qaeda include al-Shabaab in Somalia, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Still others may lack formal links, but they share al-Qaeda’s ultraconservative ideology and are sympathetic to its goals and methods.

These groups have had a major impact locally. In Mali, the enforcement of a harsh version of Shariah, or Islamic law, has led to executions, amputations and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. In Iraq, communities of Shi’a Muslims and moderate Sunnis have been targeted by extremist militants for years. In Yemen, national troops backed by the United States are engaged in a battle with militants who are launching retaliatory attacks against civilians.

But when we zoom out to assess the global threat of al-Qaeda and related groups, the picture blurs. The very fragmentation that has weakened al-Qaeda's core leadership has also made it much harder to pin down, and the regularly shifting alliances between various groups have confounded Western efforts to isolate the problem.

According to McGregor, that may be part of the plan. “When we talk about AQIM, for instance, we’re not really talking about any kind of united movement,” he says.

“There are many groups technically operating on their own, or else splitting off and congealing again. This is partly strategic; it tends to throw off intelligence agencies and analysts who wind up making too much of these splits. Sometimes there’s something behind it, but sometimes it’s just an effective way of keeping the opposition off guard.”

Going It Alone

Though al-Qaeda is far less centralized than it once was, regional branches cannot be discounted.

“While the leadership of the al-Qaeda core is on the ropes, local events from Syria to North Africa to Yemen can still help it regain traction,” says Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Moreover, these events have clearly empowered local al-Qaeda affiliates, making it likely that we’re already seeing the next iteration of the al-Qaeda threat, which is still transnational and targeting the West even as its roots tie in to more local conflicts.”

Those local conflicts are complicated. In Mali, for example, many aspects of the rebellion are rooted in ethnic rivalries, and disagreements abound as to the ultimate goal of the insurgency. But as long as the violent clashes retain their power to stir passions in militant communities around the world, al-Qaeda’s reach extends far beyond the blurry borders of its home bases.

For Western countries, lone wolf operatives -- individual actors who attempt to perpetrate attacks despite their distance from al-Qaeda’s core communities -- present the clearest danger. Networks of would-be militants around the world are linked by a vast online network of forums and chat rooms, and it is through these channels that al-Qaeda leaders often distribute videos to encourage their particular brand of jihad.

So while al-Qaeda may be fractured, militant aspects of its ideology can still thrive thousands of miles away.

The West got its most traumatic recent reminder of this phenomenon in last  March, when Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Islamist of Algerian descent, killed seven people in a shooting spree in the southern French city of Toulouse.

But lone wolves do not have a reputation for professionalism and have been repeatedly foiled by Western security forces, many of which have fine-tuned their counter-terrorism tactics over the past decade and now use questionable methods of surveillance and infiltration to target suspected terrorists.

“We have to remember that the bigger attacks, like the one we saw in Algeria, have to be planned weeks or months in advance. Lone wolf attacks are another phenomenon entirely; they are by nature unpredictable,” says McGregor, adding that it makes more sense to focus on larger organizations to observe trends and tendencies.

To prevent tragedies like the Algerian gas plant crisis from striking even closer to home, it is necessary for Western powers to walk a fine line: responding to threats quickly and intelligently without resorting to the divisive fear tactics that paint a heavily skewed picture of Islam and may further al-Qaeda’s own aims.

For now, the threat al-Qaeda poses is largely regional -- but with hundreds of thousands of people displaced, persecuted or cut off from resources in these various pockets of militant activity, that doesn’t make the problem any less serious.

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