Al Qaeda Strikes Back

October 23, 2009

Violence that has been defined as terrorism is usually perpetrated in relation to the political dynamics of a culture or society. Terrorism can thus be viewed as a mechanism of change used by those who feel powerless and seek to undermine the status quo or the understood power of a marked group. To recruit future members, dissident groups use shows of force, coercion, rhetoric, and iconography to utilize any radical discourse already existing within the social or political sphere of a given society. The terrorist network al Qaeda has effectively merged Islamist ideology and the Salafi movement to encourage religiously motivated militants into assisting their cause.

Al Qaeda has suffered setbacks since 9/11. It’s original figurehead, Osama bin Laden, has lost some of his influence within the network: The franchises in Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa have at times openly rebelled against his preferred strategies of attack. Others among the network’s top operatives are also politically impotent while they remain in hiding. Many of the most experienced have been killed. The network has thus far failed in its attempts to overthrow the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Perhaps most importantly, al Qaeda has seen the majority of its monetary assets frozen. Al Qaeda made four public appeals for money within the first six months of 2009. This tells analysts that al Qaeda’s ability to dominate the direction of insurgencies within Asia and the Middle East is waning. But does this mean the network is currently weak? In a word, no. The al Qaeda network is perhaps more dangerous than it has ever been.

New fighters are still joining al Qaeda’s ranks. But more significantly, al Qaeda’s financial and logistical problems have forced the network to strengthen its alliances with other groups such as the various Taliban franchises in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban, Balochi and Punjabi extremists, Saudi dissidents, Iraqi insurgents, and unaffiliated groups who profit from drug smuggling. This dependence on alliances has caused the network to become as close operationally with outside groups as it has ever been. With these new ties, al Qaeda has also been able to bond ideologically with other groups like never before. This adds a whole new dimension to the insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Al Qaeda’s goal remains the same. It aims to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” throughout the Islamic world. However, its strategies for doing so have changed with bin Laden’s waning influence within the network.

Abu Musab al Zarqawi was perhaps the first member of the al Qaeda network to openly challenge bin Laden’s methods. Zarqawi masterminded and oversaw the strategy that was originally used to destabilize Iraq and alienate Coalition forces. Zarqawi focused on the fault line in Iraqi society – the divide between Sunnis and Shia – with the intention to cause civil war. The ruthless attacks he launched against the Shia prompted criticism within al Qaeda; however, bin Laden was in no position to challenge Zarqawi publicly. Even so, Zarqawi’s intention to initiate a Muslim civil war caused bin Laden and his lieutenants to refer to Zarqawi as al Gharib (the stranger).

Bin Laden’s personal influence has only weakened in recent years. Groups unaffiliated with bin Laden, but touting the al Qaeda name, spring up daily. Like the name Taliban before it, al Qaeda is in danger of becoming a generic term for insurgents groups. And that could make al Qaeda more ideologically dangerous than it is now. As it currently stands, al Qaeda is focused on keeping the United States bogged down in conflicts with Muslim fighters. However, if al Qaeda as we know it today looses control of its ideological brand, any new al Qaeda that emerges could become a more dangerous force. This is because, as Economic theory of Competition explains, competitors encourage efficiency. Competition for the socio-politico-religious clout that comes from being associated with al Qaeda could encourage more ruthless, shocking, and devastating destruction. On the other hand, al Qaeda’s strengthening alliances with other groups could cause the network to loose its strict focus on U.S. interests. If this were to happen, al Qaeda’s still considerable resources could be unleashed on populations in new and unexpected ways.

As it is, al Qaeda is currently engaged with its allies in an effort to destabilize Pakistan. It is doing this to keep American troops in Afghanistan distracted as well as to make leaving Afghanistan all the more difficult for the U.S.

The latest violence in Pakistan sees the Pakistani Taliban and other extremists attacking soft targets in the larger cities as well as military instillations. Many interpret the attacks on the military as a warning meant to keep government forces out of the insurgent stronghold of Southern Waziristan. But for al Qaeda, it shows a two-pronged goal. It would be more difficult for a weakened Pakistan to physically challenge al Qaeda and the network’s new alliance of militant groups. More important, a weakened Pakistan goes against the interests of the United States, and further destabilizing of the region would just further embroil the the U.S. in regional conflicts.

It appears to be al Qaeda’s goal to further destabilize Pakistan by antagonizing Iran into conflict with the country through the use of the militant group Jundullah. Jundullah’s recent orchestration of a suicide attack on top Iranian military brass seems to have been accomplished with al Qaeda training.

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