From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s London Correspondent
After the initial relief and celebration at the death of Osama Bin Laden in May, many people have raised the question, “What next?” Will Al Qaeda be able to continue without its influential founder? Is this the beginning of the end for Al Qaeda and its base in Pakistan? Or will the new leader of Al Qaeda seek revenge against the United States for Bin Laden’s death and strive to create a new legacy of terror for himself? Unfortunately, according both to the words of new Al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri and to government officials, Al Qaeda might be losing ground in Pakistan, but the movement is far from cowed by recent events.
According to Michael Vickers, the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Al Qaeda’s ability to operate from its Pakistan base could be eliminated within the next two years. This optimism is based, in part, on the great success that the U.S. military has had with finding and eliminating top Al Qaeda members over the past year. As well as killing Osama Bin Laden in his home in May, the U.S. military eliminated his second-in-command, Atiya Abdul Rahman in August and captured Younis Mauritani, a senior planner of operations, in September. In response to these events, CIA Director David Petraeus declared that these heavy losses to the Al Qaeda leadership have created “an important window of vulnerability” for Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Petraeus also noted that Bin Laden’s successor, al-Zawahiri, is a “less compelling” leader, who will struggle to keep the group cohesive under this growing strain. With a continued focused effort from the U.S. military, these experts appear confident that Al Qaeda could be severely crippled, if not utterly unable to continue operations out of Pakistan, in the relatively near future.
However, some experts fear that the metaphorical beheading of Al Qaeda’s system of power will only increase the threat posed by the extremist group, by spreading its resources and passionate members out to strengthen its affiliate groups. Al Qaeda was founded by Bin Laden in 1988 with the goal of overthrowing the US-dominated world order and remained relatively unknown until the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., but its gain in notoriety, combined with increasing anti-American sentiment as a result of the war in Iraq, inspired many other groups in the Middle East to take on the same global cause. These groups, including the TTP, LeJ, JeM HujI and the Haqqani Network, currently receive support from Al Qaeda in terms of financing and logistical knowledge, as well as the use of the “brand name” of Al Qaeda, in order to further their similar ideological goal of waging holy war in the United States.
Inspired by Al Qaeda’s own attempts, and encouraged to act by the increasingly dispersed members of Al Qaeda after the group lost its base in Afghanistan, these terrorist groups are responsible for several failed and successful attacks in recent years. The TTP, for example, planned a suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan, killing several top agents, in 2009 and attempted to bomb Times Square in 2010, its first acts of terrorism outside of Pakistan in its 11 year history. Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan claimed that the group was “virtually indistinguishable” from Al Qaeda. If, as government experts suggest, U.S. efforts in Pakistan manage to destroy the leadership structure of Al Qaeda, it seems highly probably that passionate members of the group will simply take their knowledge and expertise elsewhere.
Others have pointed out that government officials may be vastly overstating their success in taking down Al Qaeda. Since September 2001, the U.S. and its allies claim to have killed or captured over 75% of senior Al Qaeda members, but the frequency of terror attacks attributed to Al Qaeda in the world has actually increased compared to the world pre-9/11. This may be partly because of the Al Qaeda “brand name,” which gets attributed to many terrorist attacks, whether or not Al Qaeda was directly involved, as Al Qaeda is unlikely to deny involvement in any anti-Western terrorist activity, and partly due to Al Qaeda’s increasing involvement in similar terrorist groups throughout South Asia and the Middle East. However, although the U.S. is finally finding success in locating Al Qaeda bases in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, some experts suggest that these discoveries are too late, and that much of Al Qaeda’s activity has already moved to other countries in the region. Although the U.S. insists that new Al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri is still in Pakistan, he is known to be constantly moving, and others have suggested that he may have escaped the region to Yemen or Somalia, both of which are growing Al Qaeda bases in their own right.
The Al-Qaeda linked militant group Al Shabaab, for example, are gaining influence in the already turmoil-filled Somalia, while counterterrorism chief John Brennan has suggested that, since opposition to the Yemeni president Ali Abdulla Saleh broke out in March, Al Qaeda has gained control of the port city of Zinjibar and other areas in the South. As the Yemeni government deals with the current political difficulties, its ability to confront the growth of Al Qaeda in the region has become limited, and the CIA now sees the Al Qaeda offshoot in this region as an urgent threat to security. Even if the U.S. military attempts to disrupt or even destroy Al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan, the group seems to be ever-moving and ever-growing, and it will take significantly longer to locate and eliminate the operations of its other bases and the bases of its close allies.
Al Qaeda is a multi-headed monster; as soon as one head is cut off, two more seem to appear. If it were easy to predict the group’s next move, or where its key bases will be located, the U.S. would have eliminated it years ago. Despite the U.S.’s noteworthy successes in its war on terror this year, and despite its optimism about the future, Al Qaeda therefore remains a significant and unpredictable threat, whether acting under its own name or spreading out to support the many other groups that have sprung up in its image.