An Al-Qaeda Resurgence? / Iraq Deteriorates

Aug 9, 2013

An Al-Qaeda Resurgence? / Iraq Deteriorates

Update from AIJAC

August 9, 2013
Number 08/13 #03

Today’s Update discusses the apparent resurgence of al-Qaeda after 22 US diplomatic missions across the Middle East were forced to close due to intelligence of a serious al-Qaeda plot allegedly originating in Yemen and ordered by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It goes on to discuss the deteriorating situation in Iraq – in part due to al-Qaeda’s increasing efforts there.

First up is a discussion of al-Qaeda’s apparent comeback from former senior FBI counter-terrorism official Ali Soufian. Soufian argues that successful efforts to weaken the core al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has led to the organisation’s shift into affiliated groups – to which not enough attention has been paid. He argues that while the US was correct to shutdown embassies in response to the terror threat, more such alerts are likely unless more is done to tackle affiliates in Africa, the Arabian peninsula and Iraq – several of which have been strengthened by recent prison breaks. For the rest of his analysis of the problem, CLICK HERE.

Tackling the same problem from a slightly different perspective is noted Israeli academic and diplomat Dore Gold. Gold focuses on the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, especially in the wake of that prison break last week, as well as the growing dominance of the Syrian opposition by the al-Qaeda-affilIated al-Nusra front. He goes on to discuss two specific threats Israel must prepare for – cross-border attacks from Syria, and growing al-Qaeda pressure on the Jordanian monarchy. For his discussion in full, including an assessment of Israel’s abilities to cope with these difficulties, CLICK HERE.

Finally, noted American strategic analyst Kimberley Kagan looks at the situation in Iraq – and sees a deteriorating situation and renewed ethnic conflict. She explores the growing violence  and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni Islamist groups there, and the transformation of peaceful Sunni protest groups into violent ones thanks to mishandling of the situation by the Maliki government. She also looks at the increasing level of extrajudicial killings by Shi’ite militias and discusses how the US should be relating to the Maliki government in view of the current, worsening situation. For this complete, grim assessment, CLICK HERE.

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How Al Qaeda Made Its Comeback

The U.S. regarded the terrorist group’s affiliates as local problems—instead of fighting their potent Islamist ideology

Ali Soufan

Wall Street Journal, August 7

Al Qaeda is a group that prizes symmetry and symbolism. When I interrogated Osama bin Laden‘s personal propagandist and secretary, Ali al Bahlul, at Guantanamo Bay in 2002, he confessed that they take great care with timing to ensure maximum publicity. So it comes as no surprise that U.S. intelligence recently intercepted communications among senior al Qaeda operatives suggesting that they are planning attacks this month on embassies and other Western targets.

August is full of symbolic importance for al Qaeda. This week is the anniversary of the Aug. 7, 1998, twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania—al Qaeda’s first overt and successful attack against the U.S. August is also significant because during the last few days of Ramadan falls Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Destiny, which is when the Prophet Muhammad is said to have received the first of his divine revelations.

The reasons why this period is auspicious for al Qaeda are clear. What should be questioned is why, more than a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda is still deemed to have high enough capability to force the U.S. to close its embassies and consulates. This seems to be at odds with America’s military and counterterrorism successes, and with the declarations of U.S. officials, including President Obama, that al Qaeda has been nearly destroyed.

The disconnect lies in our failure to appreciate that while al Qaeda central has been badly weakened by U.S. counterterrorism efforts, the group was never close to being extinguished. It adapted. It gave greater power to semi-independent affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and to more loosely connected groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria.

The West made the mistake of failing to effectively tackle these affiliates and their propaganda, dismissing them as local problems irrelevant to the war against al Qaeda. While groups like AQAP and Boko Haram initially did focus their violence locally, terrorists who endorse Osama bin Laden’s jihadist message inevitably move on to the global war against the West. That’s a key lesson that I and my colleagues in law-enforcement and intelligence learned by tracking al Qaeda in the 1990s.

Bin Laden himself started out by focusing on a local issue: U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, his homeland. Initially the FBI and others in the intelligence community had to battle higher-ups eager to ignore him. He was “just a Saudi financier,” we were told.

Over the past seven years, AQAP has very effectively pursued a populist course in Yemen. The group has focused on populations in the south and east of the country long ignored by the ruling elite of the north, providing them with social services, such as teachers, and much-needed water. This has proved a savvy method for recruiting new members eager to attack Western targets. AQAP is at the center of increased threats against U.S. interests: On Wednesday, the Yemeni government, aided by U.S. drone attacks, reportedly foiled AQAP plots to take over strategic ports and to attack oil pipelines.

Because the connection between al Qaeda and its affiliates was neglected by the West, these terror groups have thrived. So despite all the successes in the war on terror, al Qaeda has maintained a steady stream of new recruits, replacing the members that have been killed or captured by the U.S.

Al Qaeda has also been greatly helped by the Internet and social media, which enables recruitment to take place in chat rooms rather than just in underground guesthouses. The narratives used by al Qaeda and its affiliates all follow the same pattern: Recruiters prey on local grievances, young men’s lack of purpose, and their feelings of anger, humiliation, and resentment. The recruiters combine this with distorted religious edicts, along with conspiratorial messages that blame the U.S. and the West for their problems. With these seemingly clear explanations for their problems, recruits feel empowered and embrace the jihadist mission.

The al Qaeda ideology—blaming the West for the Muslim world’s problems, rejecting anyone who doesn’t follow al Qaeda’s specific beliefs and claiming that terrorism is the only way to deal with opponents—was previously found mainly in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. Now it has spread, from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Combating the group’s ideology in an effective manner has been the weak link in the West’s counterterrorism strategy.

How to combat al Qaeda’s recruiters? Give vulnerable communities the proper tools to stand up against the group and its affiliates. This means not only military and intelligence aid from the U.S., but also targeted educational tools to rebut false religious messages. The West also needs to provide political and economic support, tailored to counter the power vacuums that terrorists exploit.

Last week, according to press reports, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri promoted Nasser al Wahishi—a one-time bodyguard for bin Laden and later head of AQAP—to be al Qaeda’s general manager. Al Wahishi had been arrested by the Yemenis in 2003 as part of a U.S. offensive to disrupt an al Qaeda plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and to assassinate the American ambassador.

In February 2006, al Wahishi and 22 other prisoners escaped from a maximum-security Yemeni jail by digging a 140-foot tunnel to the women’s bathroom of a nearby mosque. Among the escapees was Jamal al Badawi, who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list for his role in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. That 2006 escape was a turning point for the group. Al Wahishi and AQAP have been responsible for several attacks in Yemen, including one in 2008 on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, killing 19 people.

To top it all off, al Qaeda’s ranks have also been bolstered in recent weeks by brazen, large-scale prison breaks linked to the group in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. Reports estimate that as many as 500 inmates escaped in Iraq, 1,000 in Libya and 248 in Pakistan.

The U.S. and others governments have been right in recent days to declare a high terror alert and to close embassies. But it shouldn’t have come to this. Until the U.S. starts combating the narratives that allow al Qaeda and its affiliates to continually recruit and retain members, these types of shutdowns and panics will become more routine.

Mr. Soufan, an FBI supervisory special agent from 1997 to 2005, is chairman of the Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence consultancy. He is the author of “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al Qaeda” (Norton, 2011).

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The Return of al-Qaida

Dore Gold

Israel Hayom, August 2

Anyone who delivered a eulogy for al-Qaida in the Middle East has been proven wrong by recent developments • Israel can deal with the renewed regional threat of jihadist organizations involved in Syria, but must retain all elements of its capabilities.

In the Daily Beast last week, Bruce Riedel, who served for years as a CIA analyst on the Middle East, wrote an important article with the dramatic headline, “Al-Qaida is back.” Riedel, who today works for the Brookings Institution, was taking a position against the conventional wisdom, that was widely heard in Washington prior to the 2012 elections, that the U.S. had al-Qaida “on the run”. Riedel’s claim was based on his examination of the outcome of a coordinated attack by al-Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate against two high security prisons, which led to the escape of at least 500 al-Qaida members.

In breaking into the Abu Ghraib and Taji Prisons, al-Qaida used mortars and suicide bombers. According to its own account, its forces detonated 12 car bombs. The Iraqi Army proved to be useless as it failed to stop the assault. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey was quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying that if al-Qaida could “take down Abu Ghraib,” it could also “take down the Green Zone in Baghdad”, where the U.S. Embassy was located.

In the meantime, internal security in Iraq has been deteriorating with about 80 car bombs and suicide bombing attacks employed. Over 1,000 Iraqis have been killed in May, the highest number in five years. Understanding that the escape of al-Qaida operatives from an Iraqi prison had broader implications beyond Iraq itself, Interpol issued an alert that the escape constituted a “major threat to global security.” The New York Times ran an editorial on July 29 with the title “Al-Qaida in Iraq scores big,” which reached the conclusion that the “attacks showed the fearsome and growing strength” of the organization.

Al-Qaida in Iraq was once a formidable terrorist organization, but until this year it appeared to be in decline. It was established in 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who had fought in Afghanistan, who was picked by Osama bin Laden to lead al-Qaida in Iraq. Zarqawi’s focus had always been broader and included the surrounding countries; the name of his first organization that he set up in Afghanistan was Jund al-Sham (the Army of the Levant) whose name gave away his territorial interests. His goal had been to support the emergence of a single Islamic state across the countries of the Levant. Zarqawi had been eliminated by U.S. forces in 2006. His organization was severely weakened when the U.S. increased its force levels with the “surge” in 2007, under Gen. David Petreaus, at which time it increased the pace of its operations in western Iraq.

The U.S. withdrew the last of its combat units from Iraq in 2011. The situation on the ground could not remain static. Moreover, with the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, a new opportunity for al-Qaida in Iraq was created. According to Riedel, al-Qaida in Iraq sent one of Zarqawi’s protégés, who used the nom de guerre Muhammad al-Golani, to set up Jabhat al-Nusra La’al al-Sham (the Assistance Front to the Residents of Greater Syria, known as Al-Nusra Front) as al-Qaida in Iraq’s Syrian affiliate. According to American and British analysts, al-Golani is believed to be a Syrian jihadist who fought in Iraq but did not go back to Syria until he was sent to lead Al-Nusra Front. Another emerging leader has been Zarqawi’s Jordanian brother-in-law, known as Abu Anas al-Sahaba. The same source asserts that Iraqis and Jordanians represent the largest component of foreign jihadists fighting for Al-Nusra Front in Syria.

Al-Nusra Front quickly became the leading military force fighting the regime of Bashar Assad. It was responsible for the most daring bombing attacks in the heart of Damascus, like its use of car bombs against the headquarters of Syrian Air Force Intelligence in March 2012 and the July 2012 bombing attack that killed Syria’s security chiefs, including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assaf Shawkat. While the West remained indecisive about supplying weapons to the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, Al-Nusra Front was backed by al-Qaida in Iraq with arms, money and manpower. At one point the two organizations disagreed about their relationship with each other, since Al-Nusra Front sought more independence. Today both of them stress that they are united and work as one.

The revival of al-Qaida in Iraq is part of a global growth of the organization’s military capabilities. Much was written last year about al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its operations in Algeria, Mali, and Libya. In Pakistan this week there was another prison break releasing jihadists from the Taliban and one of the most dangerous militant groups. It is no wonder that the U.S. decided this week to close American diplomatic missions across the Middle East in light of “credible” intelligence it received of new al-Qaida threats.

There are two important implications for Israel that come from al-Qaida in Iraq reconstituting its power. First, since it was formed, al-Qaida in Iraq has been a direct threat to Jordan. In November 2005, al-Qaida in Iraq attacked three Jordanian hotels in Amman, killing nearly 60 people. Zarqawi then issued an audiotape threatening King Abdullah personally. A year earlier, an associate of Zarqawi confessed to planning an attack by using chemical weapons near the headquarters of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate.

This anti-Jordanian orientation of al-Qaida in Iraq and its Syrian affiliate is continuing. Both organizations use names that indicate that their aspirations extend to the area of Greater Syria, ignoring present-day borders. The Jordanians are clearly aware of the threat they face along their northern border; in October 2012, they arrested eleven Jordanians who had infiltrated from Syria and previously been trained by al-Qaida explosive experts in Iraq. They planned to launch suicide bombing attacks in two shopping malls in Amman and then move against a prosperous district where many foreign diplomats were located. A few days earlier, the Jordanians stopped two cousins of Zarqawi, who were crossing the border returning home from the war in Syria.

Second, the revival of jihadist organizations in Syria, like Al-Nusra Front, can evolve into a challenge for Israel. In a speech to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on June 18, Major General NItzan Alon, head of the IDF Central Command disclosed that the organization Al-Nusra Front had in fact tried to infiltrate Jordan. He explained that part of his mission was to make sure that the organization did not go through Jordan and enter the West Bank. The idea that an al-Qaida branch in Syria or Iraq could become a threat to Israel is not new. In 2005, al-Qaida Iraq set up a forward position in the Jordanian city of Irbid and from there it sought to recruit West Bank Palestinians. One such attempt was thwarted by Israeli security services back then. There is reason to believe that this remains the intention of al-Qaida’s Syrian and Iraqi affiliates. A book in Arabic outlining the plan of action of Al-Nusra Front, called the “Regional War Strategy for the Land of the Levant” stresses that “Syria is the key to a change in the Levant, including in occupied Palestine, and the Levant is the key to change on the Arab world and afterwards the Islamic world.”

Israel has the capabilities today to deal with a renewal of the rising regional threat of jihadist organizations involved in the Syrian conflict. But it must retain all elements of those capabilities and not assume that they are no longer needed. This observation holds for both the debate over Israel’s defense budget and its territorial requirements in any peace arrangement with the Palestinians. The return of al-Qaida is just another reminder how the security environment along Israel’s borders can rapidly change. Anyone who delivered a eulogy for al-Qaida in the Middle East has been proven wrong by recent developments. The point to be internalized is that what is going on in Iraq and Syria today can be consequential for Israel, even if it appears to be happening far off over the horizon.

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The Iraq War Is Not Over

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