Magazine article The Middle East

Al Qaeda's Most Toxic Generation?

Magazine article The Middle East

Al Qaeda's Most Toxic Generation?

Article excerpt

Despite American officials' claims that Al Qaeda no longer poses a major threat to the continental United States, the jihadist network remains a serious menace. A survey of its widening operations across the Middle East and Africa shows the reach of what one veteran CIA officer says could be the deadliest jihadist generation yet. Ed Blanche reports from Beirut.

TWO YEARS AFTER OBAMA BIN LADEN was assassinated in his Pakistani hideout by US Special Forces, Al Qaeda has re-emerged as the world's most dangerous terrorist organisation.

Although right now it may not be able to mount another catastrophic attack on the United States, or western Europe which is more likely, it is lethally resurgent across the Middle East and North Africa, and moving south into the seething heart of the troubled continent.

"Despite Bin Laden's death, Al Qaeda has exploited the Arab Awakening to create its largest safe havens and operational bases in more than a decade across the Arab world," observed Bruce Riedel, a veteran Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst who advised four US presidents on counter-terrorism.

Riedel says Al Qaeda's third generation, the successor to those jihadists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1979-89 and those who hurled themselves at the Americans in Iraq in 2003-11, "may prove to be the most deadly Al Qaeda yet."

Al Qaeda 3.0 has its own defining battlefield: Syria, from where it may destabilise the entire region.

But it is also resurgent in Iraq, where increasingly it is merging with Al Qaeda in Syria, to the point that it is becoming hard to tell them apart. In mid-April Al Qaeda in Iraq announced it had unified with the Al Nusra Front in Syria, with the new group operating as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The situation is seriously threatening the fragile Iraqi state the Americans left when their forces withdrew in December 2011, and challenging Iran, which wants its old enemy Iraq firmly in its embrace so it can never threaten the Islamic Republic again.

In North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), once considered Al Qaeda's weakest branch, is fighting the French and its African allies in the mountains of Mali, while causing mayhem in Algeria and lawless Libya, as well as in Tunisia, cradle of the Arab Reawakening in January 2011.

The jihadists are smouldering in the Sinai Peninsula to threaten not just Israel but post-Mubarak Egypt itself.

In Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the only jihadist affiliate outside of Bin Laden's core group to mount attacks against the continental United States, is regrouping after a battering from a US-assisted military offensive, but remains as deadly as ever.

Nigel Inkster, a former senior official with Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, observed: "When Al Qaeda was largely holed up in the badlands of Pakistan and the tribal areas, the US had the capability to deal with them in a much more focused way through drone attacks.

"But now we have a far more disaggregated threat that no one country has the capability to tackle."

Riedel says of Al Qaeda 3.0: "It's an adaptive organisation and it has exploited the chaos and turmoil of revolutionary change to create operational bases and new strongholds ... It is "a complex and decentralised enemy that requires strategies tailored to each franchise. There's no one answer to each challenge. There's no 'strategic defeat' of Al Qaeda in sight ..."

Battleground Syria

Syria is the key battleground now because the swelling jihadist forces, spearheaded by the increasingly effective Jabhat Al Nusra, or Al Nusra Front, are taking territory from the hard-pressed Damascus regime of President Bashar Assad.

It seems increasingly inevitable that once the Assad dynasty is vanquished, the jihadists, reinforced with fighters from across the Muslim world and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will have to fight the more secular Sunni nationalists led by the Free Syrian Army to decide who will rule. …

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