‘Because of the service and sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is ending. Al Qaeda is on the run. Osama bin Laden is dead’ – President Barack Obama during his last electoral campaign speech in Iowa (05 November 2012). He concluded by claiming how ‘the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth’.
Is Al Qaeda weakened already?
Obama is but one of many US officials who have argued with relentless zeal that al Qaeda has been globally weakened. Their narratives grossly exaggerated the negative impacts of bin Laden’s death on the organization; helped put Obama’s administration back in the White House a second time around; and justified on-going operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that were becoming increasingly unpopular within the American masses. Nothing could be more misleading if we consider the evolution of al Qaeda over the years.
On 11 August 2013, al Qaeda observed its silver jubilee. In its 25 years, al Qaeda has transformed from a hierarchically structured combatant group to a flexible, decentralised global ideology. Despite bin Laden’s death, it has now expanded exactly the way its founder had dreamed, a worldwide Islamic ‘revolution’ for which Zawahiri provides theological rhetoric and oversight.
AlQaeda’s new structure:
Its structure was dissolved ten years ago when US diverted focus from Kabul to Baghdad, allowing al Qaeda fighters to regroup, reorganize and rid themselves of their dependence on bin Laden. It was the most sensible and logical enhancement of networking, in line with globally evolving war fronts and the technological advancements introduced by the Internet. It was to be the most flabbergasting transformation of old terrorism to new terrorism.
And still, the US and President Obama appear to have learned so little about tackling ideological terrorism. Al Qaeda’s so-called transfer of terror to Yemen is not a new development. It also cannot imply that central al Qaeda is on the run. It simply provides the organization and the US a new battleground in the War on Terror, where the US has decided to implement another faulty counter-terrorism strategy: employing its beloved drones.
From Pakistan to Yemen:
Four years of bombings have killed over 600 people in Yemen, while al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the organization’s several international affiliates, remains undeterred. This month’s unleashing of death by drones came shortly after the closure of 19 embassies in response to Zawahiri’s communication with Nasser al Wahayshi (AQAP’s head, now al Qaeda’s general manager). The conference call included eleven other ‘jihadis’, some from Pakistan. The interceptions paint an intimidating picture.
Firstly, Zawahiri’s continued presence in Pakistan implies no geographical shift in al Qaeda’s core to Yemen; it merely demonstrates the expansion of its core. Shifting this core from areas surrounding the Durand Line in current circumstances would be insensible. Should Afghanistan erupt into a civil war post-withdrawal, the region could continue providing the network the ideal environment and landscape necessary for survival and manoeuvre.
Why is Yemen a strategic operational Point?:
Secondly, having a base in Yemen and maintaining close ties with Wuhayshi is a strategically planned move on al Qaeda’s part in its war against the US. Yemen is ideally located between North Africa and the Middle East, connecting the network across two continents and various terrorist groups within. It consists of a fragmented society which operates in a security vacuum, desirable conditions for al Qaeda fighters.
Across the border we have Saudi Arabia. While Saudi royals recently expelled AQAP members from their country (the way they ousted bin Laden before his departure for Afghanistan), Saudi nationals have been crossing over to Sana’a to provide logistical support. Recent reports have indicated how al Qaeda has been recruiting well-educated and ‘tech-savvy’ Saudis.
Interestingly, the Wahabi-Salafi ideology that binds Pakistan to Saudi Arabia is the very ideology that binds Saudi Arabia to Yemen. This is exactly the school of thought counter-terrorism officials need to focus on. Else, you are at war with the symptoms of this disease, not the cause, and droning its supporters will only breed more followers hungry for a so-called defensive jihad clouded by the concept of ‘thar’, (‘badlaa’ or revenge).
Because of this ideological bond, Pakistani militants, too, are reportedly travelling to this new arena. Raga bin Ali, a well-known Pakistani bomb-maker was recently killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Following news of Pakistan militants being sent to Syria, their entrance in Yemen is daunting but unsurprising.
Run, Baby, Run
Do you know who else once said al Qaeda is on the run during a period of mid-term elections? Former US President George W. Bush, on 25 October 2006. ‘Absolutely, we’re winning. Al-Qaeda is on the run. We’re winning, and we will win unless we leave before the job is done. And the crucial battle right now is Iraq.’ Just a year later, American intelligence community released a grossly different estimate that al Qaeda ‘has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability’.
Then they left Iraq, without winning. Next year, they will be leaving Afghanistan, without having won. God bless the Yemenis.
Al Qaeda’s propaganda and America’s propaganda are two sides of the same coin. They manufacture socially-constructed and culturally-specific ideological, political, ethnic and economic products. Both sides are fully aware that war sells. It sells paranoia, fear, insecurity, and hope. And We, the People, are its biggest and most loyal consumers.