The Geographic Spread of Al Qaeda

Dr Dave Sloggett looks at how Al Qaeda is changing its shape as an organisation and adapting to the security environment in which it now finds itself

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Dr Dave SloggettTime was when Al Qaeda’s footprint on the ground consisted of a recruiting office in Peshawar in Pakistan and a number of people fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. The parallels with the international bridge fighting alongside the communists in Spain in the late 1930s are obvious.

People travelled from all over the world to be part of the fight against fascism and the Republicans. In Afghanistan of course the chance of joining Jihad against the non-believers from the communist Soviet Union was the draw from a new form of international brigade drawn from the wider Ummah, or peoples of Islam around the world. With an estimated 1.6 billion adherents to the faith (around 25% of the world’s population) they had a large community on which to potentially draw.

When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan the newly emergent Al Qaeda was able to claim that it had made some contribution to the outcome. Of course what they actually contributed is difficult to discern. But the one thing Al Qaeda has never lacked is an understanding of how to pull the strings of the media and gain their attention, especially news outlets in the Middle East.

The emergence of Al Qaeda with some credit for the defeat of the Soviets came at a convenient time. In several other locations around the world, such as in South East Asia, a number of on-going campaigns to rid areas of government’s deemed unfriendly to the kind of extremist form of Islam advocated by some who followed the Wahhabi school of Islamic thinking. Al Qaeda’s apparent victory against the Soviets emboldened many other insurgencies aiming to create areas in recognised states that would be run under their particular interpretation of Sharia Law.

The events of September 11 of course catapulted Al Qaeda, and its leader Osama Bin Laden, to international fame. Even though the organisation was initially reluctant to claim their involvement in the atrocities that occurred on that dreadful day eventually through a policy of what might be described as a ‘nudge and a wink’ it became clear that Al Qaeda was indeed behind the attacks.

History shows that the Americans and their allies were quick to respond and the relatively swift military defeat of the Taliban occurred. Al Qaeda’s leadership escaped from the mountainous Tora Bora region in Afghanistan slipping quietly away over the border into Pakistan. It was here, exploiting the fundamental security weaknesses and lack of governance in the North West of Pakistan, where the leadership of Al Qaeda sought sanctuary in order to continue its global campaign.

9/11 Catalyst to Unite

The success of the attacks in America became a catalyst to unite what had previously been disparate groups of uncoordinated activities and uprisings against states into a social movement. Creating such an entity requires three things. These are a narrative, resources and a window of opportunity in which to make progress with an agenda. For Al Qaeda all of these things came together in the immediate aftermath of September 11.

Overnight Al Qaeda became a name on the lips of people in the security apparatus of the west. The question was how to deal with a social movement whose initial tentacles had spread into the heart of a number of friendly nations.

Al Qaeda’s rise in Saudi Arabia was also spurred on by the invasion of Iraq. That became a country, like Syria today, that was a magnet for people from the Ummah. While it took time for the Saudi authorities to come to terms with the scale of the security problem they faced in time their response ensured that the remnants of the organisation had to flee into Yemen. This remains a country that also has a huge problem with a lack of governance in areas such as the desolate areas of the Hadramaut in eastern Yemen.

These and other parts of the Yemen provided a fertile base from which to develop a new arm of Al Qaeda. In 2004-2005 Al Qaeda had started to expand its geographic presence. The base, as the organisation likes to be known, now had a foothold in several countries where local governance was weak. After a faltering start in Somalia, when Al Qaeda upset local Sufi followers of Islam by destroying the graves of their forefathers, the rise of Al Shabab provided a perfect backdrop to create a new franchise for Al Qaeda.

The concept of Al Qaeda creating franchises in order to spread their influence appealed to western analysts. They were looking to offer an easy way to understand how the organisation was developing. The notion of franchises would also have appealed to Osama Bin Laden. Before he had become involved in Al Qaeda he had graduated in business studies from Riyadh University. Any objective analysis of the rise of Al Qaeda can see the fingerprints of business acumen all over its activities. Al Qaeda even has disaster recovery plans.

It was at this point that Al Qaeda’s development hit a hiatus. Strikes by unmanned aircraft against specific members of the leadership in Pakistan began to have an impact, disrupting the organisations activities. Once the success of these attacks became apparent it was obvious they would spread to the Yemen. Al Qaeda’s presence in both of these countries now came under sustained pressure.

Changing Strategy to a Hybrid Model

As with any good business organisation Al Qaeda was bound to respond to the increased activity by American unmanned aircraft. Using its on-line magazine Inspire a series of articles appeared that suggested that instead of acolytes travelling to Pakistan, Yemen or indeed Somalia for terrorism training that these individuals should stay at home and become individual jihadists or forge links with others to create small groups capable of carrying out attacks. This was the point at which Al Qaeda morphed from a centralised hierarchy into a flatter organisation giving responsibility to those at the edge of the growing number of tentacles. This mirrored business practises being developed at the time.

Al Qaeda’s approach was now based on a hybrid model. Individual jihad was to be conducted by anyone who felt the urge to martyr themselves for the cause. These, as events in Woolwich and Boston showed, provide a great deal of high profile media coverage – essential for a social movement that depends for its very survival on getting its narrative heard by potential recruits.

While this tactic did have some notable high profile successes, such as the Fort Hood massacre and the attempt on the life of the Member of Parliament Stephen Timms in London there was no Tsunami of events which is presumably what Al Qaeda’s leadership had encouraged. Some attempts were a complete failure, such as attacks conducted by lone wolfs in New York and Stockholm.

Indeed it can be argued that the idea of individual jihad carried out by lone wolfs operating below the radar horizon of the security services did not really catch on. Meanwhile the security services across Western Europe and North America continued to focus on disrupting the activities of small groups or cells of adherents planning their own attacks. The arrests of four individuals in London in October follow this pattern.

This change of tack showed that Al Qaeda is a protean organism, capable of changing shape very quickly. Despite many leading political figures writing the obituary of the organisation it remains viable, as the reaction of the Americans to what was seen to be a credible threat to attack one of their facilities in the Middle East showed.

The AQ Threat Remains

Events in Benghazi, which saw the American Ambassador to Libya killed as a group of people thought to be allied to Al Qaeda stormed the diplomatic compound in the city, provided enough evidence that such threats should not be taken lightly. The fallout from that incident with recriminations flying around Washington and nearly landing on the lawn of the White House suddenly made a lot of people who had wistfully believed Al Qaeda to be finished to stand back and pay attention. This incident was compounded by the attacks in Boston and in Woolwich in London. They have shown that some are prepared to listen to the messages put out by Al Qaeda.

It remains wishful thinking to suggest the organisation is finished. Indeed it is fair to say at this moment that with new franchises springing up all over the Middle East and North Africa that Al Qaeda has never had such a geographic spread. From South East Asia to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean on the African continent Al Qaeda’s spread of influence has moved to a new level. Despite the obvious initial success of the French forces in January and February countering the activities of one of the franchises that had established itself in northern Mali recent activity in neighbouring states suggest the French intervention has merely displaced the remnants into equally vulnerable states such as Niger, Libya, Algeria and Mauritania. In Tunisia Al Qaeda is also gaining a greater footprint.

Is Syria the New Iraq for AQ?

If these developments were not alarming enough the magnet that Syria has become to new acolytes threatens to exceed even the most difficult days in Iraq in 2005 to 2007. During that period the Syrian border with Iraq became a channel through which people were funnelled through the Tigress and Euphrates river valleys into Baghdad and northern Iraqi cities.

These so-called ‘rat runs’ provided a steady flow of volunteers into Iraq from across the world. The international brigade of jihadists saw what was happening in Iraq and decided that was where they needed to fight. Today the Al Qaeda franchises in Iraq and Syria are the most deadly. If anything the ‘rat runs’ are now operating in both directions. The daily reporting of sectarian attacks in both countries shows the degree to which Al Qaeda has re-established its footprint in the area.

Fears that Egypt may go the same way are perhaps premature. The Egyptian Army has recently mounted large-scale operations in the Sinai Desert to root out nascent Al Qaeda training camps in the area. While the Sinai like areas in Yemen and Somalia offers many hiding places the Egyptian military, unlike their counterparts in other countries where Al Qaeda has established a presence on the ground, can bring significant combat power to bear against any training camps and facilities. However somewhat ironically Egypt might be the one bright spot in what otherwise is a very gloomy picture at present.

Further Strife Ahead

Standing back at looking at the deteriorating situation across the Middle East and North Africa it is difficult not to conclude that with so many places now available for Al Qaeda to offer training to its adherents that soon its operating model may change yet again. While the concept of individual Jihad may not prove to be quite so attractive to vulnerable people in the west that the Al Qaeda leadership had hoped soon they will be able to offer a whole new range of destinations for would-be terrorists to visit and get training. For the security apparatus in the west, already struggling to cope with the previous incarnation of Al Qaeda, the next few years are unlikely to get any easier.


About the author:

Dr Dave Sloggett is a provider of training to the Emergency Services fraternity and the MoD on the nature and direction of international terrorism. Dr Sloggett has over 40 years of experience in the international security sector. He is a speaker, author and researcher working in the field of counter terrorism. Historically Dr Sloggett led the teams implementing the ANPR systems and pioneering work in the e-Borders field. He delivers a range of lectures for all branches of the Emergency Services providing insights into the current trends and future direction of domestic and international terrorism. He is also a specialist in the CBRN field having written numerous papers on the threat from WMD for a range of publications to which he contributes. He also provides advice to the MoD and is a frequent visitor to theatres of conflict.