Officials from the United States have argued time and again that al Qaeda has been globally weakened. The world rejoiced bin Laden’s death, handing Obama a second presidential term on a platter for fulfilling the one core promise of his first electoral term: bringing al Qaeda to its knees. Mr President stated on 05 November 2012, a day before presidential elections, that ‘the war in Afghanistan is ending. Al Qaeda is on the run. Osama bin laden is dead.’ Nothing has been more tragically misinterpreted and misleading.
Al Qaeda’s hierarchical structure dissolved ten years ago, when the organisation decentralised after US focus and manpower began relocating from Kabul to Baghdad, from Mullah Omar and bin Laden to Saddam Hussain. It was perhaps the most sensible and timely restructuring of a global terrorist organisation, in line with shifting war zones and the rise of the one medium that was to sustain and expand the network’s reach: the Internet. It has been the most flabbergasting and talked-about transformation of ‘Old Terrorism’ to ‘New Terrorism’ in contemporary history.
And still, the US appears to have learned so little. It still appears to be fighting the al Qaeda that was, rather than the al Qaeda that is, by applying the same tactics in countering its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) affiliates as it did in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s so-called transfer of the circus of terror to Yemen is not a new development. It also, by no means, implies that the organization is on the run. It simply realises its evolution over the years and, most disturbingly, provides the US a new front on the War on Terror.
From Pakistan to Sana’a
On 11 August this year, al Qaeda marked its 25th anniversary. Contrary to American claims that the organization was dying, the threat of an ‘imminent attack’ suddenly emerged leading to the closure of 19 embassies around the world, followed by an unleashing of death upon Yemenis through America’s favourite counter-terrorism technology, drones.
Despite nearly four years of bombing raids that have killed at least 600 according to recent estimates, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains unhindered, more than tripling in membership. In 2009, AQAP’s membership was estimated to be 300. Today, it is considered to be well over a thousand. The turning point in the current conflict in Yemen came when al Qaeda appointed AQAP’s head, Nasser al Wuhayshi as the general manager of the umbrella organization. Wuhayshi, who broke out of a Yemeni jail in 2005 and has received training in Afghanistan, is now included in al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
The embassy closures came soon after intercepted communication apparently revealed Ayman al Zawahiri communicating with Wuhayshi from Pakistan. Participating in this conference call were eleven other wanted jihadis, including some from Pakistan. The intercepted communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi paints a grim picture.
According to some analysts, al Qaeda’s core has shifted to Yemen and its fighters and affiliates are no longer in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a gross underestimation. While Wuhayshi is in fact the second-in-command, Zawahiri still remains the primary intellectual and inspirational support for al Qaeda. His presence in Pakistan states that this is not a shift of al Qaeda’s core from Pakistan or Afghanistan to Yemen, but it is a proof of the core’s expansion.
It would be insensible for al Qaeda to relocate its core from areas surrounding the Durand Line because, should Afghanistan erupt into a civil war, surrounded by the havens across the porous border, the region could provide this specific network the ideal sanctuaries needed for survival. That said, having a base in Yemen is a strategically planned move on al Qaeda’s part in its war against the US. Geographically, the country is ideally between North Africa and the Middle East, connecting al Qaeda across two continents. While Yemenis are a peace-loving and tolerant people, their fragmented society and a security vacuum within the country have created an ideal environment for the group’s internal existence.
Another interesting point to note is that the roads leading from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen appear to be running through Saudi Arabia, with AQAP is present across the border. Saudi royals had recently expelled AQAP members from their country, the same way they expelled bin Laden before he set up his ‘base’ in Afghanistan. However, this has not prevented Saudi nationals from crossing over into Yemen, providing logistical support and swelling the ranks of AQAP. Recent reports from Yemeni officials raise concerns about al Qaeda’s ability to recruit ‘tech-savvy and well-educated Saudis’.
The Wahabi-Salafi ideology that binds Yemen with Saudi Arabia resonates of the very ideological bases binding militants in Pakistan to militants in Saudi Arabia. The US is still dealing with the symptoms of terror, not its causes, one of which is the exportation of Wahabi-Salafi ideology across the Middle East, emanating from Saudi Arabia. Instead of stopping Saudi from funding, arming and influencing militants in Yemen, the US counters with drone attacks that do nothing to quell al Qaeda.
Pakistani militants, too, have reportedly been making their way into this new arena. Proof that AQAP is utilising its regional base from Afghanistan and Pakistan came when Ragaa bin Ali, a well-known Pakistani bomb-maker was allegedly killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Following news of Pakistani fighters being sent to Syria, reports of their transportation to Yemen have started emerging as well.
What all this leads to, though, is a flawed counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen. US approach to fighting AQAP is inspired largely by what ‘worked’ for them in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the war in Yemen, unlike that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is not against foreign jihadis training and operating in the country. It is against Yemenis themselves who have chosen to join AQAP ranks, believing their country to be under attack from the West.
This is a defensive jihad on their part, unlike the offensive one undertaken by al Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is an angle that will sell locally should the US continue its trend of drone warfare. Part of this defensive jihad is the concept of ‘al thar’ (revenge), akin to the principle of badla in the Pashtunwali code. Because AQAP consists of local Yemenis chosen from a close-knit society, thar has encouraged recruitment and retaliation.
To an extent though, US policy in Yemen appears to be even harsher than that employed in Pakistan: drone first, question later. Gregory D. Johnson, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, recently stated for a British newspaper, ‘The US doesn’t seem to have good human intelligence [in Yemen]. It’s essentially bombing and hoping, which is neither sustainable nor wise. It doesn’t seem to have an impact on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’. It is a policy, the only one the US appears to have in Yemen, which is likely to backlash severely in the face of the War on Terror.
The Business of War
‘However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say let’s just step back, let’s just pause for a moment, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control. As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.’ – Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only member of either house of Congress to challenge the authority of President George W. Bush and vote against the use of force following September 11 attacks.
Although US technology has vastly improved over the years, civilian casualties on ground have anything but decreased. Access to high-tech military weaponry and ammunition that slaughters people is not morally superior to attacking the enemy by strapping on explosive vests. Weapons that the US had hoped would reduce casualties because of their ‘degree of precision’ have been marketed to validate going to war. In the First World War, 10% of all casualties were civilian; 50% in the Second World War; 70% in the Vietnam War, and, according to some estimates, 90% civilian casualties occurred during the War on Iraq.
Yet, over the past five decades, the world has witnessed how Western interventions and long-term occupations, from one presidential term to another, have cost the lives of innocent people around the world. One way to see it is that al Qaeda has stopped running. It has also stopped hiding. It is living up to its name by establishing ‘bases’ in various Muslim countries. It is also learning propagandist tactics employed by the United States and using it against them. With every US attack, invasion, and occupation, al Qaeda multiplies its minions and justifies its modus operandi.
As media attention diverts from Afghanistan to MENA, worrisome developments may be ignored or overlooked in South Asia. Afghanistan, like Iraq, may be left in shambles, leaving all stake-holders in the region to pick up its pieces. Instability and turmoil from Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iran, may even trickle down back to Kabul and Islamabad. Sectarian and ethnic tensions could further descend into chaos. And all these possibilities arise because, ultimately, war is business. It is creative propaganda architectured by both governments and media agencies. It manufactures socially-constructed and culturally-specific ideological, political, ethnic and economic products. It sells paranoia, fear, insecurity and hope. And we, The Common Man, are its biggest consumers.
Zoha Waseem is from Karachi and has a post-graduate from King’s College London in Terrorism, Security and Society.