The new National Intelligence Estimate caught the media’s attention in mid-July by discussing an aspect of the war on terror that some analysts have warned about for over a year: al Qaeda’s regenerated capabilities. This finding should not have taken observers by surprise, but sometimes our understanding of terrorist strategies and capabilities can be myopic. If we are to avoid future surprises, it is worthwhile at this point to take stock of how we came to the present situation, and to understand what al Qaeda has planned for the future.
Before 9/11, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan served as a safe haven for the terrorist group, a base of operations where it could train operatives and plan attacks. After the October 2001 U.S. invasion deprived al Qaeda of this safe haven, the group’s central leadership largely relocated to Pakistan. At the time, most analysts believed that al Qaeda’s leadership was on the run, incapable of effectively leading the organization. Further, most analysts thought the central leadership’s weakness would cause the group to become increasingly decentralized, and less dangerous. As Marc Sageman writes in Understanding Terror Networks:
The heightened vigilance of most governments eliminates mujahedin mobility, especially travel to Western nations from countries where they can maintain a refuge. Monitoring of communications by the West has already resulted in the arrest of multiple leaders who used cell phones to communicate with subordinates. The full-time pursuit of safety by the leadership prevents them from coordinating sophisticated large-scale operations with local cells around the world. Small-scale operations may never be eliminated because singletons with little training can execute them. Although such attacks may be lethal, they will not result in mass carnage . . . . Without any more spectacular successes, the appeal of the jihad will fade with time.
But two major developments have reinvigorated al Qaeda. The first is their gains in Pakistan: Pakistan’s military sustained so many casualties in its antiterror operations that Pervez Musharraf felt compelled to formally cede significant territory to extremists. The second is the Iraq war, which provided al Qaeda a prominent battlefield on which to engage the United States and thereby helped the terrorist group win funding and recruits. Al Qaeda is now on the move in both of these countries and elsewhere.
Iraq is the arena that we will hear the most about over the next couple of months. With a raging political debate over whether to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, the White House has placed so much emphasis on General David Petraeus’s September report to Congress that the insurgent factions we are fighting in Iraq have great incentive to step up operations — and attempt headline-grabbing spectacular attacks — in an attempt to push the U.S. out.
Al Qaeda’s prominence on Iraq’s battlefields increased after the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra. Before that, Baathist and nationalist groups comprised the bulk of the Sunni insurgency. But after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — ordered the bombing of the Askariya mosque, the insurgency was dramatically reshaped. Iraqi vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi likened that mosque attack to 9/11, and Shia reprisals for the destruction of their holy site were swift, devastating, and largely indiscriminate. These sectarian killings shattered the Baathist and nationalist insurgent factions because they made al Qaeda’s sectarian arguments seem sensible to rank-and-file Sunni insurgents for the first time. Today, the violence caused by the remaining nationalist groups is negligible compared to that caused by AQI.
After Zarqawi’s death, AQI’s leadership passed to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who has proven to be a more capable leader than Zarqawi. Although Zarqawi captured the imagination of many people throughout the Middle East, he was also a ruthless killer. His brutal videotapes, which showed the beheadings of not only Westerners but also Iraqis, opened a rift between Zarqawi’s foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents. This fact was not lost on al Qaeda’s central leadership, as the terror group’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri warned in a summer 2005 letter to “spare the people from the effect of questions about the usefulness of our actions in the hearts and minds of the general opinion that is essentially sympathetic to us.”
In contrast to Zarqawi, al-Masri has worked to build a coalition of insurgent groups, and has sought to incorporate Iraqi tribes under his banner. He also urged insurgents to “take care of our Sunni kinsfolk” and to “leniently call for the good and preach against evil especially since the infidel Baath party had confused the people vis-à-vis their religion.”
Although Al-Masri is more effective than his predecessor, he faces growing challenges. There is indigenous resistance to al Qaeda in the form of the Anbar Salvation Front, a collection of Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, and others who are united by the common goal of driving al Qaeda from their country. The Front’s model of resistance to al Qaeda’s brutality is now being replicated in other provinces. Even insurgents within al Qaeda’s ranks who are sickened by its tactics have been providing coalition forces with valuable information.
Regardless of setbacks on the ground, al Qaeda could beat the U.S. in Iraq if American political will collapses. Al Qaeda is keenly aware of the domestic political debate, and will do all they can to force a withdrawal by escalating violence in Iraq.
Al Qaeda is also on the move in Pakistan — a country that has proven critical to its regeneration. As previously mentioned, Pakistani military losses in the country’s tribal areas prompted Musharraf to formally cede significant territory to the terrorists and their allies — including North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, and Swat. These treaties have essentially given Taliban and al Qaeda forces sovereignty over the relevant regions. As part of the accords, the Pakistani military has agreed not to carry out air or ground strikes, and to disband its human intelligence networks. As a symbol of this sovereignty, Taliban clerics have enacted very strict forms of sharia law.
After the signing of the accords, cross-border raids into Afghanistan by Taliban forces accelerated. For example, a U.S. military official described a threefold increase in attacks shortly after the Waziristan accords were consummated. Suicide attacks have spiked.
Not only have these accords damaged U.S. interests, but they have also failed to provide Musharraf with the stability he was seeking. The recent standoff at the Lal Masjid — in Musharraf’s own capital city — was a humbling reminder of radicals’ strength within Pakistan. Though the showdown ended with a crushing defeat of the militants, reprisal attacks that quickly followed killed at least seventy people, most of whom were security personnel deployed to the tribal regions in the hope of quelling a backlash.
Musharraf’s grip on power is tenuous, with multiple crises hitting him simultaneously — including a surge in violence, an increasingly assertive supreme court, and plummeting public support (two-thirds of respondents in a recent poll said that he should quit). This governmental instability is particularly troubling in a nuclear-armed state where figures who are ideologically sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda — men like retired Gen. Hamid Gul and Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg — are prepared to vie for power. The geopolitical implications of such a succession would be dramatic and instantaneous.
Al Qaeda is also on the move in a third country, Somalia. Last year, most of Somalia was conquered by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group linked to al Qaeda. During this time, the seventeen operational training camps in the country saw an influx of terrorists from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Arabian peninsula. The ICU also received funding from traditional al Qaeda donors in the Gulf region. It implemented a harsh form of sharia law: examples include ICU forces shooting and killing a number of citizens for the crime of watching soccer, and arresting a theater full of people trying to watch Pretty in Pink.
In December of last year, the ICU was on the brink of destroying Somalia’s U.N.-recognized transitional federal government (TFG), which was confined to the south-central city of Baidoa. But as the ICU launched an assault, the Ethiopian military (which was protecting the transitional government) responded with greater force than expected. Ethiopia had been concerned about the ICU’s rise because the ICU’s predecessor, al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, had sponsored Islamic separatist groups in the Ethiopian border province of Ogaden. Ethiopia’s massive intervention succeeded in wresting Mogadishu from the ICU on December 28, and quickly reversing most of the militant group’s geographic gains.
Shortly after these setbacks, the ICU prepared an insurgency. That insurgency (the tactics of which have been influenced by the jihad in Iraq) has steadily gained steam, and today has largely plunged the country back into chaos. About 10,000 residents have fled Mogadishu in the past month alone. As violence escalates, all faith Somalis might have had in the TFG has disappeared.
The TFG, meanwhile, has been ineffective. It has been riven by internal rivalries and unable to present a credible face internationally. Its inability to win external aid means that the TFG faces a perpetual monetary crisis. Moreover, the ICU has exploited the TFG’s relationship with the Ethiopian military as a propaganda tool. It frequently uses the word “occupation” in its rhetoric, and has referred to Ethiopia as “the Israel in Africa,” thus likening its occupation of Somalia to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This rhetoric is designed not only to bolster the ICU’s standing in Somalia, but also to win over backers in the Middle East.
Al Qaeda is ready to exploit the TFG’s weakness. On multiple occasions, Zawahiri implored jihadists to flock to Somalia to help topple the TFG. Al Qaeda has traditionally been able to exploit weak or failed states to serve its operational objectives: Somalia may prove to be no exception.
As al Qaeda gains bases in which to operate in Pakistan and beyond, the terrorist group is more likely to be able to carry out another catastrophic act of terror like 9/11. The 9/11 Commission noted that a critical element in devising a catastrophic terrorist attack is a sanctuary that provides “time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work.” Al Qaeda now has that in Pakistan, and may gain it elsewhere.
An early sign of al Qaeda’s renewed vigor was the transatlantic air plot broken up last summer that was designed to blow up a number of flights simultaneously with liquid explosives. Estimates of the number of individuals involved in the foiled terror attack have been as high as 150. A terror cell this large does not form organically, without an outside hand — particularly for a plot like that, with a support network that stretched to Pakistan, the United States, and perhaps Canada. If successful, the transatlantic air plot would have crippled the airline industry — a chilling sign of al Qaeda’s reinvigorated capabilities. There are also other more recent indications, including an ABC News report of a video of teams of newly-trained suicide bombers being sent to perform missions in the West. At the same time, al Qaeda is enhancing its capabilities by consolidating its control over terrorist networks throughout the world — for example, in North Africa.
With an overstretched U.S. military and flagging public support for pursuit of the global war on terror, the West is likely to continue to lose ground in the short term. But if this happens, the least we can do is not lose sight of the moves that al Qaeda is making.
— Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.