/ 18 June 2008

Al-Qaeda: new fronts feared

Iraqi security forces inspect the scene of a suicide bomb attack in Albu Mohammed, 150km north of Baghdad.
Iraqi security forces inspect the scene of a suicide bomb attack in Albu Mohammed, 150km north of Baghdad.

Last month an Arabic satellite TV channel broadcast a chilling video of a group of Iraqi teenagers called the ”Youths of Heaven” — their faces masked and brandishing Kalashnikov rifles, chanting ”Allahu Akbar” and vowing to blow themselves up with ”crusaders and apostates”.

The film of these aspiring suicide bombers, all said to be under 16, was produced by al-Furqan, the media arm of the Islamic State of Iraq, aka al-Qaeda. But such material is rare these days, with film coming out of Iraq looking suspiciously like posed training sessions with little of the live action of ambushes that has been the staple fare of jihadi websites.

Two weeks ago General Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, made waves when he said that al-Qaeda has suffered ”near-strategic­ defeat” in Iraq. To many observers it was a surprisingly upbeat view just a year after gloomy assessments of the dangers that Osama bin Laden still posed. But few security sources — including key counter-terrorism officials canvassed by The Guardian — and independent experts disagree, though the United States military is more circumspect.

Nor does anyone dispute the key fact that al-Qaeda has lost three senior commanders in its refuge in the Pakistani tribal areas even if its ”core leadership” of Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a couple of dozen other Egyptians and Libyans remains at large.

Evidence of al-Qaeda’s problems in Iraq is weighty and convincing. It has been badly hit by the fightback from the American-backed Sunni ”Sons of Iraq” and the US troop ”surge”. Western intelligence agencies estimate that the number of foreign fighters is down to single figures each month. The border with Syria is now harder to cross.

Iraq-watchers point, too, to financial strain caused by the arrests of al-Qaeda sympathisers in Saudi Arabia, mafia-like disputes over alcohol licences and difficulties in recruiting the right calibre of people. Last month, a sympathetic website carried a study showing a 94% decline in operations over a year.

The Islamic State of Iraq claimed 334 operations in November 2006 but just 25 a year later. Attacks dropped from 292 in May 2007 to 16 by mid-May this year.

Dia Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on radical Islamists, says recent al-Qaeda propaganda footage from Iraq is old and cannot mask the crisis it is facing.

Nigel Inkster, former deputy head of MI6, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees: ”Al-Qaeda is starting to prepare their people for strategic failure in Iraq.”

Al-Qaeda is also perceived as being ”on the back foot” because of attacks by Muslim clerics on its takfiri ideology and revulsion at the killing of innocent Muslims. Participants in Zawahiri’s recent ”open dialogue” on Islamist websites compared al-Qaeda’s performance unfavourably with the successes of Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Challenges to the use of violence by Sayid Imam al-Sharif, founder of the Egyptian Jihad group, have rattled Zawahiri, says Rashwan. Influential Saudi clerics have helped undercut al-Qaeda’s theological arguments. How far such rarefied debates affect radicalised Muslim youth in Bradford or Madrid is a different question.

European security sources say there is no evidence that al-Qaeda is losing its influence among target or vulnerable groups. Officials say the number of British-born suspected al-Qaeda sympathisers travelling to Pakistan has remained constant.

Key will be the relations between al-Qaeda, tribal leaders of north-west Pakistan and figures such as Baitullah Mehsoud, accused of being responsible for the death of Benazir Bhutto last year. But al-Qaeda’s influence in southern Afghanistan is said to be diminishing, disrupted by Nato, the US, military activity and money.

Officials talk about the appeal of an ”attractive area of ungoverned space”. This is Somalia, described as an increasingly popular destination for ”Western jihadists”, though al-Qaeda is playing only a small part in the violence there, Western intelligence officials suggest.

Of more immediate concern is north Africa. Algeria is a growth area a year after the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Five bombings in the last week alone have been troubling reminders that it is far from being defeated. Experts are divided about the link between local and wider factors but there is evidence of internet and telephone connections with the ”core leadership” in Pakistan, with Zawahiri taking ”a close interest”.

There is concern, too, about a possible ”blowback” effect as al-Qaeda leaders encourage supporters in Pakistan and ”veterans” of Iraq and Afghanistan to return to their home countries. Not everyone agrees al-Qaeda has suffered ”near defeat” in Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden’s homeland. The Saudis have created a successful counter-radicalisation programme that has ”turned” returning jihadis. But fears are growing about al-Qaeda in Yemen, a weak and tribal state on the tip of the Arabian peninsula that may become a new ”back door” into the oil-rich kingdom.

The mood of al-Qaeda watchers is cautious. ”We are in a theological war, so if the frame of reference is changing, that’s good,” says one counter-terrorist expert. ”But look: Bin Laden called for action against Denmark because of the Muhammad cartoons and pulled it off by bombing the Danish embassy in Islamabad. The message got across efficiently. People say, ‘Don’t overreact to what Bin Laden says.’ But actually he says he’s going to do something and usually it’s done. So long as that remains the case we have a problem.”

A recent posting on a jihadist website threatened an attack bigger than 9/11 before George W Bush leaves office. No one is yet writing obituaries for Bin Laden or al-Qaeda.

Rashwan says Hayden is wrong to play down al-Qaeda’s strengths in Afghanistan and Algeria. ”Just because the CIA says al-Qaeda has been defeated it’s not thanks to the efforts of the Americans. The al-Qaeda idea will not die if American foreign policy remains the same in the Middle East and the Muslim world. If there is another administration like Bush in Iraq and a new war in Iran, it will get a new lease of life.” —