Saturday, May 14, 2011

Is there an Al Qa'ida 2.0?

Moisés Naím in Al Qaeda 2.0 El País 08.05.2011 gives a picture of the status of Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida organization that is very similar to that I heard recently from Anatol Lieven a month ago. Naím writes of the post-Bin Laden Al Qa'ida, "la nueva Al Qaeda es más una inspiración que una organización que actúa siguiendo órdenes emanadas de una sede central." (the new Al Qa'ida is more an inspiration than an organization that acts in accord with orders emanating from central authority.)

Anatol Lieven also thought there was not much left of Bin Laden's group in the sense of a cohesive, command-and-control type organization. While he thought it would be a great morale booster for the West to kill or capture Bin Laden or his deputy Zawahiri, he also believed it would not likely make much difference in terms of the actual terrorism threat for the United States.

Naím cautions, "Esto no significa que la vieja Al Qaeda haya desaparecido. Osama bin Laden seguía planeando ataques terroristas desde su guarida en Abbottabad." (This doesn't mean that the old Al Qa'ida has disappeared. Osama bin Laden kept on planning terrorist attacks from his refuge in Abbottabad.)

Lieven sees the terrorism threat from radical jihadists as being a loosely connected network of groups, some of which use the name "Al Qa'ida" (like Al Qa'ida in the Magreb) and may have had some direct connection to Bin Laden's group at some point, and others of which are radical Salafi jihadists with similar ideas but no direct connection to the original group. He said that some of the connections between such groups are like nodes in a computer network, with others are more diffuse like (he used a literally cosmic example) intergalactic gases clumping here and there.

But he also told an interesting story about a group of Baluch smugglers who got busted in Pakistan within the relatively recent past. This was a group who had worked closely with Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida smuggling Qa'ida fighters back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistan border. It emerged that they were smuggling a variety of international fighters into Afghanistan to work with the Afghan Taliban, including a group of Muslim doctors from Russia. (I believe he said Russia and not the former Soviet Union.) Lieven concludes from this that some remnant of Bin Laden's group is using that loose international network to act as personnel "headhunters" for the Afghan Taliban. But he stressed that this was not in the sense of a centralized organization with officals like a "station chief in Karachi" or whatever. But rather a dispersed network where word gets passed along that the Afghan Taliban is looking for certain kinds of specialists, like medical personnel and they arrange for them to be smuggled in.

Naím points out that the biggest challenge for the current jihadist movement, or "Al Qa'ida 2.0", are the democratic upheavals in the Arab world. Those movements are not demanding theocracies, much less a new Islamic caliphate, the nominal goal of Bin Laden. He also notes that the "Al Qa'ida 2.0" movement will have trouble rescuing their "brand." Organizations fighting under the "Al Qa'ida" name have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslim Americans or Europeans. Such an organization "tiene mucho que explicar" (has a lot to explain).

Lieven's pointing to evidence of Bin Laden's original organization still having a dispersed network that worked together with the Afghan Taliban is consistent with observations that Juan Cole makes about the post-Bin Laden quick withdrawal of Taliban fighters from some areas (Taliban, al-Qaeda Flee N. Afghanistan as Morale Collapses with al-Qaeda admission of Bin Laden’s Death Informed Comment 05/07/2011):

Pajhwok News Agency is reporting that in the wake of the death of Usama bin Laden at the hands of US Navy SEALs, Taliban guerrillas in the northeastern Afghan province of Qunduz are fleeing the province.

It appears that the Taliban were still linked to, and perhaps taking direction from, al-Qaeda, more than most analysts had suspected. It also appears that Bin Laden had more of an operational, strategizing role than we had thought.

If it is true that radicals are fleeing Qunduz, and indeed other provinces as well, and heading for safe havens in places like North Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, it is likely primarily because they had direct contact with Usama Bin Laden and now fear that information about them is in American hands, since the SEALS captured his hard drives and thumb drives.

The Taliban and a few Arab al-Qaeda started being active in Qunduz about three years ago, in part in an attempt to block supplies for NATO and the US coming through Tajikistan.

Qunduz, with a population of about 800,000, is said to be about one third or more Pashtun in ethnicity, despite being in the north where most Afghans speak Persian. Qunduz city was among the Taliban’s last outposts in the north when they were forced to withdraw to Qandahar in late fall, 2001 as a result of the US air support to the Northern Alliance. Talibanism in Afghanistan has virtually no audience outside the Pashtuns or Pashto-speakers, who are Sunni Muslims, though it is also true that a majority of Pashtuns reject the Taliban and support the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai (a Pashtun) instead.

The strategic and anti-logistics character of the Taliban campaign in Qunduz raises questions about whether Bin Laden and some lieutenants were not actively directing a war against the US, NATO and Karzai.
That observation in the last paragraph strikes me as unlikely from what we know about how Bin Laden was concealing himself. One of the reports that has been consistent is that he didn't have Internet connections or telephone landlines in his hideout house. He was relying on an individual courier to carry messages. I suppose the fact that he was using a courier shows that he had his fingers in something, or at least hoped to. But the idea that he himself could be playing any kind of central command role in the Taliban's war against NATO seems far-fetched. Not impossible, but really far-fetched. For the same reason, one has to wonder just how much usable information is likely to be found on the hard drives and computers disks seized during the raid.

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