Terror Retooled: Al-Qaida Thinks Globally But Acts Locally

By Christoph Reuter

Photo Gallery: Al-Qaida Goes Local Photos
DPA

The new warning last week of possible imminent attacks by al-Qaida fueled fears far beyond America's borders. But the movement founded by Osama bin Laden has long since shifted from mass international attacks to local battles -- with success.

Osama bin Laden didn't make telephone calls. During his years in Abbottabad, Pakistan, he avoided anything that might have put intelligence agencies on his track, communicating only via messengers. But reporting published last week by two journalists at the US news website The Daily Beast suggests that al-Qaida's current leadership has abandoned such precautionary measures.

It appears the reason for the closing of 21 American embassies from Yemen to Pakistan was an intercepted online conference call among the terrorist organization's Top 20. According to the article, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri took this opportunity to name Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of the organization's Yemen branch, as his official second-in-command. Also participating in the call were al-Qaida leaders from Iraq, North Africa and Uzbekistan, as well as Pakistan's Taliban, Nigerian group Boko Haram and a representative of the emerging al-Qaida group in the Sinai Peninsula.

"This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom," one of three US intelligence officers interviewed by The Daily Beast told the site. During the virtual meeting, the article continued, the al-Qaida operatives also discussed future targets for attack and mentioned that one or several teams were already in place for such attacks.

For the world's most wanted terrorists to meet for an online briefing precisely at the same time as the NSA scandal would seem to amount to a break with all the rules to which someone like al-Zawahiri owes his survival after two decades of being sought by US intelligence agencies.

But there was also some astonishment over the US government's announcement it would close so many embassies. "It's crazy pants," former State Department counterterrorism adviser Will McCants told reporters. The US government, meanwhile, declined to comment.

The article also presents a further inconsistency by assuming that al-Qaida remains a centrally run organization -- and al-Zawahiri a leader everyone obeys -- despite internal tensions and the pressures of being wanted by intelligence agencies.

In reality, the portrayal contradicts developments observed in recent years, including an August 7 United Nations analysis of al-Qaida and its associates -- the 14th report of its kind to be released. It states that "Al-Qaida's decimated core has seen no revival of its fortunes over the past six months. A degraded senior leadership based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region continues to issue statements, but demonstrates little ability to direct operations through centralized command and control."

Al-Zawahiri, the report continues, "has demonstrated little capability to unify or lead al-Qaida affiliates." In fact, it says, more of a threat is posed by individuals who commit attacks after self-radicalizing through online terrorist propaganda, such as the two Chechens who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon this spring. An additional danger, says the report, is that al-Qaida will take advantage of new conflicts such as the current war in Syria, which has given the terrorist organization "a significant boost."

Is Turkey Doing Too Little to Stop Jihad Tourists?

European intelligence services take the same view. Syria has become the preferred destination for jihadists, who have arrived in the war-torn country by the thousands over the last 12 months. These fighters are the only ones coming to rebels' aid against the military machinery of the regime, which gives them devastating power.

And no one seems to want to stop them. On domestic flights to Hatay, in southern Turkey, bearded passengers from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Russia's Caucasus republics sit side by side. They travel into Turkey unchallenged, then meet with comrades who bring them over the nearby border into Syria. Meanwhile, similar figures are lined up at Hatay's departure gates, carrying little luggage and often with the red dirt of northern Syria still clinging to their shoes.

Turkish authorities seem unbothered by these jihad tourists. At the border crossings, smugglers openly advertise their services. It's certainly strange in a way, a former Syrian follower of "Emir" Asadullah al-Shishani said in June from the jihadist stronghold of Atmeh, near the Turkish border. "A month ago, a dozen Chechens flew back home from Hatay unchallenged, even though they'd told us they were all wanted by Interpol."

Al-Qaida's diffuse ideology of perpetual warfare gives the organization the tactical advantage of being able to be present at various conflicts simultaneously. Its individual branches feed like parasites off a variety of opponents. In Yemen, they fight against the government's army and the United States; in Syria against Bashar Assad's Alawite dictatorship and the Kurds; in Mali against the government and the Tuareg; in Iraq primarily against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government.

Bin Laden's one-time maxim of meeting the "distant enemy" in the United States and Europe has been replaced by the principle of appropriating local conflicts of many different kinds.

'Limits of Al-Zawahiri's Authority'

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Iraqi al-Qaida leader who has since been killed, recognized this sectarian war against the Shiites as a convenient opportunity to turn an already smoldering conflict to his own goals. At the time, bin Laden tried to stop him, but today the terrorist organization is once again on the rise in Iraq, benefitting from the prime minister's policy of systematically pushing Sunnis out of important posts in favor of supporters from his Shiite power base.

The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has become al-Qaida's most powerful branch, gradually taking over fighters and bases belonging to the Al-Nusra Front, which once served as a gathering place for jihadists in Syria. Here, though, al-Qaida's leaders have little say. "The unsuccessful attempts of … al-Zawahiri to mediate internal conflicts between al-Qaida and (the Nusra Front) point to the limits of al-Zawahiri's authority," the UN report suggests.

Al-Zawahiri's weak leadership position led Washington Post writer Max Fisher to develop an entirely new speculation as to why al-Qaida's leader would talk so openly during the purported conference call. "For Zawahiri, merely the appearance of ordering a big operation could help him with internal al-Qaeda politics," he wrote.

Washington's hectic reaction to the intercepted call -- half a dozen drone attacks in Yemen and a global travel warning for Americans -- must have pleased al-Zawahiri, seeing as it showed he had achieved the effect he intended. Assuming, that is, that the story of the conference call is true.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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1. Nothing Has Changed
Jim in MD 08/13/2013
Al-Qaeda always was a network of like-minded groups. Al-Zawahiri presumably offers money and technical support rather than command and control. Just because they haven't pulled off a big terrorist operation in the West, doesn't mean that they wouldn't like to. They may just be consolidating their position in the new order of the Middle East.
2. A symbiotic relationship between Al Qaeda and USA
titus_norberto 08/14/2013
After 12 years of war Al Qaeda is still with US, thus, it will still with US forever… In fact they both need each other; terrorism is an excellent excuse for REGIME CHANGES Pinochet or Egypt style as well as invasions of resources rich nations. Al Qaeda justifies violating other nation’s sovereignty, and the principle of jurisdiction since a GLOBAL CHALLENGE demands a GLOBAL RESPONSE combined with hefty military and diplomatic budgets, an most important, a clout on NSA – CGHQ and Tempora project activities around the world for non-well defined purposes…
3. Israel Palestine talks in Washington
anthonybellchambers 08/14/2013
The Israeli trade minister will be well aware that if his government make further announcements about extending illegal settlements, then the EU will almost certainly limit Israel's access to European Union markets, without which Israel's economy would collapse. That is reason enough for the Knesset to tread very carefully indeed. If the talks break down again due to Israeli intransigence then the Netanyahu government might need to find new markets very quickly for its software and re-exported diamonds, in order to maintain its economy and avoid complete dependence on the US for its economic survival. And that would effectively make it the (nuclear) arm of the US in the Middle East with a future Knesset effectively subject to the will of Congress. Maybe it would be preferable for Obama to replace Netanyahu as political head - if that brings peace and an end to Israel's political posturing and illegal settlements.
4. optional
mirageseekr 08/15/2013
I do not think Obama is suited for making peace anywhere. He is every bit as bad as Bush, and in terms of civil liberties in the states -- worse. Check out American message boards about NSA and congress right now. The American public is waking up to the fact our government has been hijacked and they are not happy at all. If they want Obama I am sure most Americans would not object to gladly sending him there far far away from us.
5. Birthrates
spon-facebook-10000167216 08/15/2013
There is perhaps nowhere better than the German countryside to see the looming impact of Europe’s plunge in fertility rates over the decades, a problem that has frightening implications for the economy and the psyche of the Continent. In some areas, there are now abundant overgrown yards, boarded-up windows and concerns about sewage systems too empty to work properly. The work force is rapidly graying, and assembly lines are being redesigned to minimize bending and lifting. In its most recent census, Germany discovered it had lost 1.5 million inhabitants. By 2060, experts say, the country could shrink by an additional 19 percent, to about 66 million. Demographers say a similar future awaits other European countries, and the issue grows more pressing every day as Europe’s seemingly endless economic troubles accelerate. But bogged down with failed banks and dwindling budgets, few are in any position to do anything about it.
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