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Resurgent Al-Qaeda far from defeated: analysts

"The pandemonium in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, are like a hothouse for al Qaeda," says CIA analyst Bruce Riedel

The site of a car bomb in the impoverished Baghdad district of Sadr City, on July 29, 2013 (AFP Photo)
The site of a car bomb in the impoverished Baghdad district of Sadr City, on July 29, 2013 (AFP Photo)

By Mathieu Rabechault (AFP) – A resurgence of bombings in Iraq. A new generation of jihadists flocking to the chaotic crucible of the Syrian conflict. Terror alerts in Yemen that prompted embassies to be shuttered.

US President Barack Obama may be correct in asserting that Al-Qaeda’s leadership has been “hammered” but recent events have proved the terror network remains a deadly threat, analysts say.

Addressing an audience of US Marines at a base in California on Wednesday, Obama stated that “the core of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the way to defeat.”

However, the US leader was careful to emphasize that “threats to our nation” remained, just days after the United States closed some 20 diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and Africa after intelligence suggesting a terrorist attack was imminent.

Obama’s administration has scored a string of victories over Al-Qaeda, locating and killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and sharply increasing the use of drones in targeted strikes against the network’s leaders.

Despite these successes, “the recent global terror alert illustrates that, 15 years after its first attacks on America, Al-Qaeda is thriving,” former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel wrote in a recent opinion piece.

“The pandemonium in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, are like a hothouse for al Qaeda, which is thriving just as it has in Somalia and Afghanistan,” Riedel added.

Seth Jones, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, noted that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates had adapted to the changing global conditions in the past decade.

“The State Department threat warnings are a reminder of the resiliency of al Qaeda,” Jones said.

“Over the past decade, there has been a net expansion in the number and geographic scope of Al-Qaeda affiliates and allies, indicating that Al-Qaeda and its brand are far from defeated.”

While the core leadership of the group has been weakened “tactically,” the overall network “absolutely has not,” added Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In Yemen, the recent uncovering of an ambitious plot to seize control of two cities, as well as an oil export terminal, showed that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remained highly active.

And the fact that the group had not struck in the United States since Christmas 2009 “did not mean they had stopped trying,” Zelin added.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, is believed to have been promoted to second in command of the global organization behind Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In Iraq, where Al-Qaeda has merged with a Syrian affiliate to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, attacks have spiked.

“Al-Qaeda is in a phase of reconquest (in Iraq),” one Western diplomat told AFP.

The mass breakout of more than 500 detainees — including many Al-Qaeda militants — from two Iraqi jails in July was likely to have a “huge” impact in the coming months, Zelin said.

The United Nations, meanwhile, warned in a recent report that Al-Qaeda was thriving in the battlegrounds of the Syrian conflict.

“The continuing civil war in the Syrian Arab Republic has seen the emergence of a strong Al-Qaeda presence drawing from Al-Qaeda in Iraq, attracting hundreds of recruits from outside the Syrian Arab Republic,” the UN reported.

According to Syrian NGO, 485 foreign fighters had been killed during the month of Ramadan.

Even if many of the groups battling Syrian forces are not Al-Qaeda affiliates, CIA number two Michael Morell raised the prospect of the group gaining access to the regime’s weapons arsenal.

Syrian weapons “are going to be up for grabs and up for sale” if the country collapses, Morell warned in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. A failed state in Syria could also end up becoming a safe-haven for Al-Qaeda in the way Afghanistan once was, Morell added.

This week’s revelation that al-Zawahiri had conducted a conference call with more than 20 top operatives across the militant group’s network also suggested that Al-Qaeda was rebuilding its capability to plan globally, despite the widely held view that Al-Qaeda’s leadership only communicated by courier.

Brookings Institution analyst Riedel, meanwhile, said the troubled aftermath of the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East — initially seen as a body blow to Al-Qaeda — was in danger of becoming a recruitment tool.

“The ill-starred Arab Awakening is fueling more anger and frustration in the Islamic world, converting more people to jihad,” he said.

“After 15 years, there is no end in sight to Al-Qaeda. And the new generation — AQ 3.0 — may be with us for years to come.”

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