Think GLOBAL, act LOCAL — Al-Shabab and the protean spread of Islamic radicalism

Greg Sheridan, in The Weekend Australian, 28 September 2013

AL-QA’IDA is back. Terror is on the march, geographically, organisationally and ideologically, winning a place in the hearts of tens of thousands of young Muslim men. The Arab Spring is dead. The Islamist spring has taken its place. The liberalism of the Arab Spring is gone. The intolerance of al-Qa’ida is resurgent.

al-shababWho won the Arab Spring? Al-Qa’ida. The terrorist murders in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi should not be seen in isolation. During the same week, Islamist terrorists in Pakistan blew up a church, killing 70 people. Last month, the US closed more than 20 of its diplomatic missions across the Middle East because it had intercepted a communication from al-Qa’ida’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, suggesting an attack was likely.

This year al-Qa’ida in Iraq has killed thousands of people, in violence that rivals the worst days of the post-invasion insurgency against the US. Several months ago a British soldier was hacked to death in Woolwich by extremists inspired by al-Qa’ida. The Nairobi killings were carried out by the Somali al-Qa’ida affiliate, al-Shabab.

The venue, symbolism and theatre of the attack were highly choreographed, and borrowed stylistically from the deadly terror attacks in Mumbai three years ago. This was a low-tech, high-impact operation. One of the victims was an Australian.

A very small number of Australians of Somali background have travelled to Somalia to train and fight with al-Shabab. There are unconfirmed reports from the Kenyan government that American and British Somalis were involved in the Nairobi killings.

The choice of a shopping mall was deliberate. These centres are symbols of the new Africa. They were the one place where Kenyans of all racial and religious backgrounds, and of widely diverse economic means, mingled and mixed easily together.

What does all this say about al-Qa’ida? US President Barack Obama declared after the death of Osama bin Laden that al-Qa’ida was all but defeated. The war on terror, he has said, is no longer a defining factor in US policy. Julia Gillard’s defence white paper made a similar judgment. The war on terror era was over. Obama and Gillard were both wrong.

Al-Qa’ida is now stronger and bigger than it was when it mounted the 9/11 terror attacks. But it is not your grandfather’s al-Qa’ida. It is a changeling, protean, adaptable.

America is a mainframe power, but today’s al-Qa’ida is a cloud technology movement. America is IBM, al-Qa’ida is Google. American power is like the clunky automobiles of Detroit. Al-Qa’ida power is akin to the hand-held tablet, decentralised among multitudes of customers.

America has attacked relentlessly, and with great effect, the vertical structure of al-Qa’ida central. In response, al-Qa’ida has become a horizontal organisation, operating mainly through its franchises.

GazaChildren-2Al-Qa’ida is a brand, loosely connected to the centre, a centre that is still important, still intact. It has vastly more geographical spread than ever, with more dedicated adherents.

Its affiliates operate autonomously. But they are all hooked up to al-Qa’ida’s global ideology and purposes. They think global and act local. Their roots in their local society make them all the deadlier and are no barrier to an easy flow of international co-operation and recruitment.

In more than a decade of the war on terror, the US and its allies have had their feet on al-Qa’ida’s throat. This has been important. Al-Qa’ida has not been able to repeat its 9/11 mass atrocities in the West. But it has spread its ideology, its interpretation of the world, its operating systems and its geographical reach.

Today there are tens of thousands of people who regard themselves as affiliated to al-Qa’ida, many more than was the case at the time of 9/11, and they threaten the viability or security of many more states, some of them key Western allies. That is a remarkable success for al-Qa’ida.

Al-Shabab is a case in point. It emerged from the vicious collapse of order in Somalia. It derived from a group calling itself the Islamic Courts Union and was devoted to sharia law. It was the militant youth wing of this movement. Somewhat like the Taliban in Afghanistan, at first it achieved some popularity by bringing some order to a scene of naked anarchy, of war of all against all. It put warlord thugs through Islamic boot camp and gave them identity and purpose.

But it was always extreme and addicted to extreme violence. Western policymakers took some comfort in the idea that it was interested only in nationalistic Somali goals. It took control of much of Somalia’s territory, including parts of Mogadishu and the port town of Kismayo.

But Ethiopian, later African Union and eventually Kenyan troops intervened to drive al-Shabab from power. It still controls chunks of Somali territory, but much less than before.

Despite intense and bloody internal splits, al-Shabab undertook a courtship of al-Qa’ida central and finally last year declared its allegiance to al-Qa’ida and to its global agenda. Al-Shabab still has several thousand, perhaps as many as 8000, active fighters.

But al-Qa’ida has had numerous organisational successes elsewhere. Syria is the standout. The al-Nusra Front is an al-Qa’ida franchise, fully committed to al-Qa’ida organisationally and ideologically. It is by far the strongest fighting force in the Syrian opposition. It commands at least several thousand fighters. There is another al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Syria demonstrates the limits of US influence. After a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is weary of war and reluctant to get involved in the Middle East. That is understandable. But in the early days of the Syrian conflict the US might have acted in two effective ways. It might have stopped Bashar al-Assad from being so brutal in his treatment of the Syrian people. Or it might have supported decisively the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.

It did neither. This was understandable. But inaction has its costs, just as action does. The choice in Syria now is between a dictator who uses chemical weapons on his own people, and an opposition dominated by al-Qa’ida loyalists. The liberal ideas of the Arab Spring are nowhere.

More than that, Syria is the new Afghanistan. Volunteer jihadis are flocking in from all over the world, including Australia. An Australian recently died fighting with al-Nusra. Something in the order of 70 Australians, though figures are very imprecise, are believed to be in Syria supporting al-Nusra, with perhaps 200 Australians overall offering some support.

When Western jihadis return to their Western societies they will do so blooded in battle, trained in terrorist and weapons techniques, and formed in the most extreme ideology. Already the Syrian alumni are beginning to come back to Australia, so far in very small numbers, a handful at most at this stage.

Another al-Qa’ida affiliate, Ansar al-Jihad in Sinai, has used the collapse of central Egyptian authority to turn the Sinai desert, which borders Israel, into a lawless zone of jihadi extremism. The new military government of Egypt is working hard to restore order in the Sinai.

Meanwhile al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula continues to hold substantial sections of territory in Yemen and is considered one of the most operationally sophisticated and deadly al-Qa’ida branches. Thus a threat involving this group in dialogue with Zawahiri, led to the closure of US embassies in the Middle East in August.

One of the most successful franchises, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, took possession of a large part of Malian territory and had to be beaten back by the insertion of French troops. It operates not only in Mali but in Libya, Algeria, Eritrea, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and other neighbouring countries. It has benefited from the chaos in Libya. Much of Libya is now in the hands of rival war lords and tribal clans. Huge quantities of Libyan weaponry are now in al-Qa’ida hands.

Boko Haram, al-Qa’ida’s Nigerian affiliate, has killed hundreds of innocent civilians and mainly targets Christians.

Al-Qa’ida itself still shelters in the tribal areas of Pakistan. A number of powerful Pakistani jihadist groups, such as the Haqqani network and elements of the Pakistan Taliban, co-operate with it.

When Western troops leave Afghanistan the country will almost certainly splinter into semi-autonomous zones controlled by different war lords and factional groups. Some of the still powerful Afghan Taliban have rejected al-Qa’ida, some remain in close cooperation. That co-operation is likely to increase when Western troops are gone.

Al-Qa’ida still has a relationship with Iran, notwithstanding the Sunni-Shia hatred that should preclude co-operation. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And al-Qa’ida and Iran have lots of enemies in common.

There are numerous other al-Qa’ida affiliates. Of course, the organisation’s limitations must be recognised. None of these groups looks like attaining state power. None looks like getting its hands on nuclear weapons, though al-Nusra could conceivably get chemical weapons in Syria. Western security agencies have prevented large-scale terror attacks in the West. But in Africa and the Middle East it is becoming extremely dangerous to be a friend of the West.

Three giant, unpredictable dynamics are flowing through the Middle East.

The first is the epic Sunni-Shia conflict, the second the dramatic decline of US influence. On two of the biggest immediate issues facing the region, Egypt and Syria, the US has almost no significant influence. On the third, Iran, there is every reason to fear the Iranians will seduce the Obama administration into some relaxation of sanctions while not giving up their nuclear weapons program.

The third giant regional dynamic is the collapse of the liberal promise of the Arab Spring.

There are small pockets of good news. No country has handled the Arab Spring better than Morocco. It has liberalised and democratised a bit more but remained stable and moderate. Tunisia hangs in the balance.

The dynamics of Syria are working against Hezbollah. It is seen increasingly as a cat’s paw of Iranian power in Syria rather than an Arab resistance group against Israel. It is also seen as importing Syrian sectarian tensions into Lebanon.

The situation in Egypt is exceptionally complex. The liberalism of Tahrir Square is all but dead. The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood was a colossal failure. The military has reasserted order and tackled the jihadists in Sinai. It also has effectively outlawed the Brotherhood. Washington’s advice is no more than calling for meetings between the government and the Brotherhood. The reversion to military rule in Egypt is a reversion to an old method of dealing with jihadist extremism. Can it work long term?

In his strange speech to the UN this week Obama pledged the rest of his presidency to negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran and seeking a Palestinian state. Both are unobtainable. They should not be linked. The speech all but ignored the roiling and central issues in the greater Middle East today.

But there was one passage of profound truth. Obama declared: “The danger for the world is that the US, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”

Is this a future prophecy or a present description? Either way, Obama never said a truer word.

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