Saturday, December 4

Flashback 9/11: Al Qaeda is back more powerful than ever



With headline-hunting brutality, Islamic State may have captured global attention but it’s al-Qaeda that’s quietly rebuilding its infrastructure, adding to its ranks from Afghanistan to Libya

The day that would change the world was drawing inexorably closer. And as it did, explosives expert Muhammad Salah al-Din al-Zaidan sent furious messages from his home in Kabul’s Kart-i Parwan to Osama Bin Laden, calling the 9/11 plot a rash act that would endanger al-Qaeda’s infrastructure inside Afghanistan, and choke Islamist groups worldwide.

The head of al-Qaeda’s shari’a committee, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, joined this dissent. The US would level the Taliban’s Emirate, and the loss of the world’s one Islamic state would cripple jihadist movements everywhere, he argued.

9/11 proved them right: the destruction was a vanity, not a strategic act. Inside six months, the group’s infrastructure in Afghanistan had been levelled, and much of its cutting-edge leadership killed or arrested.

But 15 years after 9/11, al-Qaeda is back, more powerful than ever. That day in 2001, it existed at a few homes in Kabul, at the Tarnak Farms base in Kandahar and at a smaller facility near Herat. Today, even as the world’s eyes are focussed on Islamic State, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have thousands of jihadists on territory stretching half-way across the globe.

This spring, Mosul is expected to fall to a long-planned Iraqi offensive. This will open the road to the Islamic State’s last redoubt at Raqqa. In that destruction, military experts say, al-Qaeda is destined to be resurrected.

Drawing on 9/11

Figures like Zaidan, the 9/11 dissident, are now by the side of Ayman al-Zawahiri, at the head of al-Qaeda’s leadership.

The commanders have drawn on lessons learned in the years of crisis to rebuild the organisation in a new mould. In September, 2013, al-Zawahiri distilled this experience into a manifesto known as the General Guidelines for Jihad, ordering an end to terrorist acts in markets and mosques, violence against non-Sunni sects, and hasty imposition of shari’a law.

Most important, the General Guidelines called for collaboration with sister groups. Al-Qaeda’s front in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has even renamed itself the Jabhat Fath al-Sham, allowing it to collaborate with West-backed groups uncomfortable with the al-Qaeda label.

Al-Zawahiri’s popular front strategy has shown its most significant success in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda has succeeded in building deep ties with Taliban units on the ground, notwithstanding the bitterness left behind by 9/11.

The relationship is key: Afghanistan provides al-Qaeda with safe havens for training and transnational operations, and a base for expansion into South and East Asia.

Since 2012, United Nations Security Council documents state, al-Qaeda operative Nayef al-Hababi has “directed the delivery of funds and weapons to Taliban associates in Afghanistan for use in future attacks”.

Last year, in October, US special forces stumbled across an al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) establishment that American Gen John F Campbell described as “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war”.

Sprawled across over 50 sq km in Kandahar’s Shorabak district, the facility is believed to have been training hundreds of fighters from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Sana-ul-Haq, the Indian-born chief of AQIS, is believed to be based in the Pakistani town of Miranshah, accompanied by several jihadists once linked to the Indian Mujahideen. His organisation has begun publishing material in several new Indian languages, notably Tamil, and has set up encrypted chat channels for potential recruits.

In December, the Intelligence Bureau uncovered evidence that AQIS had set up networks within India, arresting Sambhal resident Mohammad Asif and Cuttack-based cleric Abdul Rehman on charges of recruiting cadre for the group.

The network, investigators told The Indian Express, had strict instructions not to attempt acts of violence, unlike nascent Islamic State cells that have betrayed themselves by attempting amateur strikes. “The orders were to recruit, and await opportunities for training,” said an intelligence officer.

Elsewhere, too, al-Qaeda is acting in a similar manner. In Syria, the organisation’s drawn on board powerful actors like China’s Turkestan Islamic Party, as well as several minor jihadist groups, allowing it to hold substantial territories in the belt along the Turkish border, from Aleppo to Idlib and Jisr el-Shughur.

In Yemen, al-Qaeda has territorial control of parts of Abyan, al-Bayda, Ma’rib, Shabwah, and Lahij; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has beaten back French-backed local forces; in Somalia, its affiliates still have a chokehold on the countryside.

Put simply, al-Qaeda is playing the long game: its aim to replace the Islamic State it lost after 9/11, not made-for-television pyrotechnics.

Slow and steady

Few observers have grasped this reality. Though the Islamic State’s successes did impact al-Qaeda’s growth early on, it has quietly reestablished itself on ground — without advertising its success. In Somalia, al-Shabaab’s feared intelligence service, Amniyat, slaughtered cadre loyal to Abdulqadir Mumin, whose faction joined the Islamic State, leaving it with a tiny hold only in the Puntland region.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, whose al-Murabitun group broke with AQIM to join the Islamic State, has seen his rank and file decimated by the legendary jihad commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Key to al-Zawahiri’s success were lessons learned from the story of al-Qaeda in Iraq — the organisation that grew into the Islamic State. The organisation had its genesis, interestingly, with Zaidan. In a book by the Jordanian journalist Fuad Husain, Zaidan recalls al-Zarqawi arriving in Afghanistan in 1999, seeking military assistance.

Al-Qaeda set up a camp for the jihadist in Herat, which drew 42 fighters and their families before it was overrun by the Northern Alliance in the wake of 9/11.

Al-Zarqawi fled to Iraq, through Kandahar, leveraging Shi’a-Sunni tensions to fan a successful insurgency. His brutality and sectarian tendencies, evident to Zaidan even in 1999, soon concerned al-Zawahiri.

In the summer of 2005, while al-Zarqawi was at the peak of his success, al-Zawahiri thus warned him to “avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve”.

Later that year, senior al-Qaeda leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman wrote another letter urging al-Zarqawi not to alienate the Iraqi population, warning of the consequences of turning them “into enemies”.

The warnings, though, went unheeded — leading, eventually, to an uprising that would evict al-Qaeda in Iraq from its heartland. Al-Zarqawi then broke with al-Qaeda, and his group went on to form what is now known as the Islamic State.

Like the Islamic State, Zaidan wrote, al-Qaeda seeks “to reintroduce the Islamic way of life by means of establishing the state of Islam”. But this, he argued, “will never be achieved unless the nation possesses the necessary means”. Islamic State magazine Dabiq, in its first, July 2014 issue, did not dispute al-Qaeda’s ends, and claimed Bin Laden’s heritage. Instead, it charged its leaders with being “frozen in the phase of nikayah [physical injury] attacks, almost considering the attainment of power to be taboo…”

Like al-Qaeda 15 years ago, though, overreach and hubris have led the Islamic State to annihilation. From the Paris attacks to Indonesia, Islamic State and al-Qaeda cadre have collaborated on operations, the differences of their leaders notwithstanding. Now, as the Islamic State’s caliphate disintegrates, experts say they will likely unite again, under a familiar banner al-Qaeda.