August 27, 2013: Strategy Page
Al Qaeda has survived by becoming regional, rather than international. The original al Qaeda is back where it was founded three decades ago, in the tribal territories of northwest Pakistan. Here, about a thousand members (many of them married into local tribes and semi-retired) manage to protect supreme leader Ayman al Zawahiri, along with a shrinking network of training camps and safe houses. About ten percent of these al Qaeda men are actually in eastern Afghanistan but are even less active. Al Qaeda is tolerated by the Pakistani government as long as it does no (or very little) violence inside Pakistan. Thus, the relatively large number of al Qaeda operatives “retiring” to the tribal territories. Many did this to survive growing hostility from local tribes against the largely foreign al Qaeda members. In the last decade over a thousand foreign al Qaeda men (mainly Arabs and Central Asians) have been killed by local tribesmen for, well, not getting along with the locals. Many al Qaeda members fled and this played a part in the development of the two major operational branches that emerged over the last decade in Yemen and North Africa.
AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has suffered heavy losses in the last year. AQAP was formed in 2009, after the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part time members) fled to Yemen and merged with the Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Growing unrest in Yemen (against the long-time Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and take over several towns in the south by 2011. Then the government launched a counteroffensive last year and AQAP got hurt very badly. That offensive continues, along with the growing use of American UAVs in Yemen. At the same time there are few other places for defeated al Qaeda men to flee to. The sanctuary in Mali was destroyed earlier in the year by a French led offensive. The sanctuary in Pakistan (North Waziristan) is hostile to active al Qaeda and mainly for local Islamic terrorists. Surviving al Qaeda men are increasingly operating in isolation and under heavy attack. Sometimes, as is happening now in Syria, they attack each other. While the al Qaeda situation is desperate in Yemen, AQAP is still al Qaeda’s most capable branch and the only one that has shown any ability to support attacks (few successful) in the West.
In North Africa there are three major Islamic radical groups, as well as some smaller ones. Ansar Dine was originally from Mali and led by Tuareg Islamic radicals. MOJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) is from neighboring Mauritania. It is largely composed of black African Islamic radicals and led by Mauritanians. The largest of the three is AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which has members from all over North Africa but mostly from Algeria. MOJAO is basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM and there continues to be some ethnic and racial tension between the two groups. AQIM has the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other two major radical groups (who outnumbered AQIM in Mali). AQIM and MOJAO are sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge in Mali because it is Malian. Until late 2012 all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of northern Mali. Then Ansar Dine began negotiating with the Mali government for a separate peace and some kind of compromise over Tuareg autonomy in the north. In part this was because MUJAO and AQIM were bringing in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened to reduce the area Ansar Dine controlled. Ansar Dine saw itself as the only Malian group in the Islamic radical government up north and was determined to defend Tuareg interests against the many foreigners in MUJAO (which also has some Malian members) and especially AQIM (which wanted to run everything). Ansar Dine saw AQIM as a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. With the high unemployment in the north and the daring image of Islamic warriors, working for AQIM was an attractive prospect for many young men. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French in January 2013. The Tuareg members of MUJAO and Ansar Dine could find locals in the north to shelter them while the foreigners (mainly from AQIM) had to flee because they were too easily spotted by Mali civilians and pointed out to the French, Malian, and other African troops who now occupy the north. The French led invasion was a crushing blow to AQIM, just like the Yemen offensive last year was to AQAP.
In the wake of the Mali disaster, Islamic terrorists in North Africa have reorganized. AQIM has relocated to southern Libya while Ansari Dine, especially the Tuareg leadership, faded back into the many Tuareg living in the Sahel (the semi-desert region between the Sahara Desert and the tropical forests to the south). Recently two North African Islamic terrorist factions merged to create a new group: Al Mourabitoun. The new group has already been operating, largely in Niger, where it recently carried out several daring attacks (including a prison break in June and twin bombings in May). One of the merger partners is an al Qaeda splinter group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (the planner of the January natural gas facility attack in southern Algeria that got 37 workers and 32 terrorists killed). Belmokhtar has a reputation for always escaping the many efforts to kill or capture him. Belmokhtar was number two or three in the North African al Qaeda organization (AQIM) but formed his own splinter group in late 2012. Belmokhtar’s faction survived the French invasion. The other component of Al Mourabitoun comes from MOJWA.
This merger was another aftereffect of the French led invasion that began last January. Within months hundreds of experienced Islamic terrorists scattered and slowly reorganized via email, cell phones and hand-carried documents. Recruiting took a big hit as the operations in Mali this year showed once more that Islamic radicals cannot stand up to professional soldiers and their governing methods tend to turn the population against them. This caused over a thousand AQIM members to desert while nearly 500 were killed in the Mali fighting. Hundreds of local Islamic terrorists (Tuaregs, MOJWA, and other black Africans from countries in the region) stayed in northern Mali and continue to try carrying out terrorist attacks. There are a few larger groups of these Islamic terrorists still wandering around the far north but they were hunted by French aircraft and hit with smart bombs until most fled to neighboring countries. Some of these Islamic terrorists have renounced their alliance with al Qaeda and sought to evade attack by just being another group of Tuareg separatists. Most of the still functional Islamic terrorists have reformed in Niger, Tunisia, and Libya. Many individual terrorists made their way to Syria, which is the next-big-thing for murderous religious radicals.
Despite the senior leadership remaining in Pakistan, the most active, and dangerous, international terrorism operations are coming out of AQAP. AQIM survives by becoming a drug gang that smuggles various narcotics to North Africa and Europe. As a result of this, al Qaeda is urging Islamic radicals everywhere to try and organize and carry out terrorism operations wherever they are. Thus, even some large al Qaeda organizations (like the ones in Iraq and Syria) are devoting all their energies to killing people (mostly fellow Moslems) where they are and not in the West (which al Qaeda Central would prefer).