Al Qaeda’s Global Reach

By Rachel Ehrenfeld, Jonathan Halevi
Tuesday, May 7th, 2013 @ 1:08PM

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During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89), the Russian military attempted to thwart the mujahedeen’s ability to fight by exposing their mules, horses and donkeys to the biological agent Burkholderia mallei. The bacteria causes a highly infectious disease known as glanders. No vaccine is available: its spread can only be halted by identifying and eliminating the sources of infection. “Horses get glanders by close contact with other infected horses, especially through shared water and feed…as well as by nuzzling.”  Al Qaeda spreads among vulnerable groups similarly, by contaminating societies that drink from and feed on the same radical Islamist ideology. Like glanders, al Qaeda and its affiliates contamination could be stopped if identified and eliminated early on.

The “Arab Spring” has weakened states that were ruled by strongmen, such as Libya and Egypt. The opportunistic al Qaeda was quick to infest them. Al Qaeda groups aren’t fussy about whether the wherewithal to operate comes from Sunnis or Shiites.

In mid-April, purportedly “expert” analysts were surprised to hear the Canadians’ announcement that would-be jihadist train bombers Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser had ties with al Qaeda in Iran. Tehran may be keeping al Qaeda figures under “house arrest. That however, doesn’t mean that they aren’tallowed to operate abroad when it suits Iranians’ interests. We have seen Tehran using al Qaeda as it does Hezbollah, for example, in its ongoing low-level conflict with Azerbaijan.

There is also substantial evidence that al Qaeda and Hezbollah have cooperated in the past. No reason why they shouldn’t do it again. Does this mean that Iran is “running” al Qaeda as well as Hezbollah? No. As the opportunistic deadly glanders, al Qaeda will use whatever channel is available and cause harm.

But American policy makers and mainstream media outlets are sill fixated on the idea that non-hierarchical terrorist organizations are less dangerous than Osama bin Laden’s version of al Qaeda.

From the beginning, Al Qaeda, as the name attests, was always the base for the radical Salafis.  Almost all al Qaeda groups have leaders that served or trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They in turn have trained others. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula shares fighters and intelligence with al Shabaab in Somalia.  Yemen’s branch has tried to open an Egyptian subsidiary.  Egyptian al Qaedist Muhammed Jamal Abu Ahmad got financing in Yemen and then took part in the Benghazi attack.

And on it goes.  Al Qaeda’s many versions are a global Islamist operation. In Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, is a leading force in fighting Bashar Assad. Most of its fighters came from al Qaeda in Iraq, where it is seeking the overthrow of Maliki’s Shiite government. The Sunni Saudis, Qataris, and Turks support and arm al Nusra. In the meantime, al Qaeda groups are threatening Jordanian King Abdullah, who is related to the Saudi royal family.

As with the Muslim Brotherhood, fighting it cannot simply be a matter of “decapitating” its leadership. What is needed is not a U.N. terrorist designation, or a ready supply of drones, or “boots on the ground.” Rather, eliminating it requires real pressure on states in which it flourishes and “intelligence on the ground.”  Both these policies are not in the U.S. playbook.

Disturbingly, the U.S. doesn’t seem to have an effective strategy for dealing with international terrorism. When a terrorist attack happens, the administration obfuscates and changes the subject, as it has done with Benghazi’s embassy attack, or with the Boston Marathon bombing. We are told by the Administration to be patient, not to rush to conclusions, because “We don’t know all the facts yet.” It clearly relies on public’s short attention span. The next Hollywood or Wall Street scandal, the Administration hopes, would fade the memory of Benghazi. One hopes that Bostonians legendary long memory will stay on the case and will pay more attention to al Qaeda look-alike neighbors.

In the Middle East:

Al-Qaeda’s Branch in Gaza Set to Escalate Anti-Israeli Terror, by Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi*

The “Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem” has taken responsibility for a series of missile firings at Israeli targets from Gaza and Sinai, which is under Egyptian sovereignty, including:

17 April 2013 – Firing of two Grad missiles at Eilat from Sinai.
3 April 2013 – Firing six missiles at Sderot from Gaza.
2 April 2013 – Firing three missiles at the Kissufim military base and two missiles at the Nir Oz community from Gaza.
21 March 2013 (during President Obama’s visit to Israel) – Firing a number of missiles at Sderot from Gaza.

The Shura Council is ideologically identified with al-Qaeda, including its goals and forms of activity, and the organization views “political Islam,” as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as a deviation from the path of proper Islam.

Relations between the Hamas regime in Gaza and this extreme Salafi organization have had their ups and downs over the past six years since Hamas seized control in Gaza. The Shura Council, like other Palestinian terror organizations ideologically identified with al-Qaeda, has not been outlawed. But when the organization’s activities have harmed the interests of the Hamas regime or challenged its rule, Hamas has cracked down with violent suppression, arrests, and torture.

Hamas’ current strategy focuses on strengthening the status of the government in Gaza as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, on opening channels of dialogue with European states, on fortifying Hamas’ rule including from an economic standpoint, and on building up its military capabilities for the day of reckoning in the near future.

Hamas’ policy on terror from Gaza is subordinate, then, to certain considerations, including: keeping terror from Gaza on a low flame for the time being (so long as there is no direct, frontal clash with Israel), using other organizations as surrogates for terror, using Hamas forces for belligerent acts only within the territory of Gaza, and imposing – violently when necessary – the rules of the game on all organizations operating in Gaza.

The Shura Council totally dismisses the Hamas regime’s “political” considerations in implementing its jihad policy. Aware, though, of the regime’s power with its base in the Al-Qassem Brigades, the council strives to play by the rules while sometimes testing the limits with acts that create tension with Hamas.

The Arab Spring – or more accurately, Islamic winter – that has swept the Middle East has bolstered the status of the Hamas government, which is getting support and aid from the new regimes brought to power by the popular revolutions that were led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent movement of Hamas.

Along with the rise of the Brotherhood, however, the power of the Salafi Islamist organizations has also grown, giving them a sense of a historic moment of opportunity in which the Islamic Revolution in its al-Qaeda version can be advanced on the way to reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate.

This sense of power, which is also drawn from the successes of Jahbat al-Nusra, the Syrian rebel organization identified with al-Qaeda, and other Islamic rebel organizations in Syria, has led the Shura Council in Gaza to consider ways of extending its activities in the realm of jihad and further winning sympathy among the Palestinian population.

Sheikh Abu Bilal al-Shami, a member of the Sharia Committee of the Shura Council, recently published a document that presents the organization’s current strategy, which is attuned to the new circumstances and opportunities facing Salafi Islam in the wake of the Islamic revolts.

An analysis of the document reveals the following main features of the Shura Council’s policy:

*To regard the Hamas regime as a rival and enemy that seeks to undermine the jihad out of foreign and invalid considerations.
*To seek an uncompromising struggle against democracy (including the Hamas version), nationalism, communism, and Shiism.
*To exploit the atmosphere in the new Middle East to provoke the masses in Gaza and the neighboring countries to support the path of “jihadi Salafism,” and to demand that Hamas stop persecuting its activists on the pretext of maintaining the truce with Israel.
*To opening additional jihad fronts against Israel from the territory of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt based on the new circumstances, geographic features, and populations.
*To escalate jihad activities in every way, whether through missile firings, suicide attacks, electronic warfare, and the like, with no connection to the policy of Hamas.
*To damage Israel’s economy both through military attacks and cyber attacks.
*To strengthen the links between the mujahideen in Gaza and those active in other parts of the world so as to create worldwide jihad organizations
*To try to persuade the Islamic actors to support and financially assist the Salafi jihadi elements instead of Hamas
*To unify all the mujahideen forces in Gaza under the aegis of the Shura Council.
*To develop a dawa (proselytizing) capability and adopting a pro-jihad dawa program in Gaza aimed at inculcating the Salafi ideological platform among the society as a source of strength for the organization.
*To try to get Hamas activists to desert to “jihadi Salafism,” with an emphasis on the duty of the Muslim to be loyal to Allah alone, and portraying loyalty to a party as a form of jahiliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance).
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior ACD fellow, and a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Further Reading:

Bruce Hoffman, Mary Habeck, Aaron Y. Zelin, and Matthew Levitt: Is al-Qaeda Central Still Relevant?  
Bruce Hoffman: Al Qaeda Rises in Yemen’s Chaos

Frederick W. Kagan: US lacks an al Qaeda strategy

Reuters: Israel bombs Hezbollah-bound missiles in Syria: official

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, U.S. Policy

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