Al Qaeda is unpopular, yet takes advantage of failed governance, chaos throughout Muslim world

By Bruce Riedel

Resurgent Al Qaida: Affiliates attack the US consulate in Benghazi (top); Ansar al Dine insurgents on the move in Mali (below)

Last year on the day after US forces killed Osama bin Laden, the group he founded was seen by some as on its last legs. No more. While under siege by drones in Pakistan and increasingly in Yemen, Al Qaeda not only received a new lease of life from the Arab Awakening, but has created its largest safe havens and operational bases in more than a decade across the Arab world. It’s not a popular movement, but its ideology, organization and lethal power promise to be a long-term challenge to the world.

Since President Barack Obama came to office in 2009, there have been almost 300 lethal drone strikes in Pakistan flown from bases in Afghanistan, most of which targeted Al Qaeda operatives. Along with the raid on Abbottabad, the offensive has decimated the group’s leadership in Pakistan, putting it on the defensive. Its new leader, Ayman Zawahiri, works from hiding and is fighting to survive.

But Al Qaeda is not alone. Allies in Pakistan, like Lashkar e Tayyiba, the group that attacked Mumbai in 2008, or the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, are under little or no pressure. LeT and the Afghan Taliban, focused as they are on non-Pakistani targets, still enjoy Pakistani intelligence patronage, even as the ISI fights the Pakistan Taliban. The capacity of some of these groups, especially LeT, to cause global mischief, even provoke a war in South Asia between India and Pakistan, is undiminished. Three of the five most wanted on America’s terrorist list, Zawahiri, LeT’s founder Hafeez Saeed and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are in Pakistan. Only Zawahiri is hiding, the other two enjoy the ISI’s backing. Zawahiri, too, likely has powerful protectors.

Like the rest of the world, Al Qaeda was surprised by the revolutions that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Its ideology of violence and jihad was initially challenged by the largely nonviolent revolutionary movements that swept across North Africa and the Middle East. But Al Qaeda is an adaptive organization. It has exploited the chaos of revolutionary change to create operational bases and new strongholds from one end of the Arab world to the other.    

In North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, a franchise of the Al Qaeda global terror organization, has successfully aligned itself with a local extremist group in Mali named Ansar al Dine, or Defenders of the Faith. Together they’ve effectively taken control of the northern two thirds of Mali. Now they’re destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as Al Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s historical treasures in the years before 9/11. Read more…

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

As published by Yale Global on October 22, 2012.


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