For some time now the received wisdom has been that if any terrorist attack was to take place in the United Kingdom it would have been conducted by someone affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ISIL or Dā’ish as political leaders now prefer to call them. Events in Paris have changed that discourse.
Under pressure from drone attacks mounted by the United States and by military operations designed to reduce their freedom of manoeuvre Al Qaeda’s leader has been thought to be on the verge of annihilation. Certainly it was thought that its ability to plan and conduct terrorist attacks in the west had been thought to have been reduced to almost zero. It is some time now since Al Qaeda could claim an attack as its own. The heady days of fame post September 11 were thought to have been long gone. For some American military and political leaders Al Qaeda was a shadow of its former self.
The imminent demise of Al Qaeda has been signalled on a number of occasions. Various obituaries had been written that had tracked the organisation from its creation in Pakistan as a means of challenging the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan to the various failed attempts to conduct attacks in the west. In the last few years western intelligence agencies had seemed to have Al Qaeda under some kind of magic eye. Every time they tried to move they failed. Their much vaunted desire to achieve three September 11 attacks a year in the west had long since been lost in the mountain of rhetoric that has since emerged.
But Al Qaeda has shown itself on many occasions to be a resilient organisation. Perhaps Osama Bin Laden’s degree in business studies had given him insights into how to build a robust organisation that could survive his passing. Certainly the move towards creating over seventy franchises spanning a geographical area from the Western Sahara to South East Asia gave Al Qaeda some ability to resist the attentions of western intelligence agencies. So frustrated did they become at one point with the difficulties of trying to defeat Al Qaeda that the phrase multi-headed Hydra became adopted as a metaphor for its structure. Drawing on Greek mythology may seem odd but the idea of an organisation that was able to function no matter which head was cut-off seemed a good analogy.
Enormity of the task
The Americans went a little further in describing the efforts to defeat Al Qaeda as being like the problem of trying to ‘whack a mole’. Every time one of the mole hills was attacked another one would emerge somewhere else. The only problem with this vision is that it was not simply in the back garden. It was across the globe. Al Qaeda was a franchise that spanned the planet. One of these came close to toppling the government in Mali until the French intervened in January 2013. The sheer scale of the French response was sufficient to tip the balance and to prevent the capital of Mali from falling. Since then the groups involved have remained under sustained pressure operating from enclaves in southern Algeria and Libya. This has significantly reduced their military effectiveness and they are now limited to the occasional attack on United Nations forces operating in northern Mali.
Despite the enormity of the task involved in trying to defeat this global brand some progress had been made of late. In Somalia the activities of Al Shabab had been curtailed. When terrorist groups come under pressure they often lash out to show they remain relevant. The attack at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi was as much about Al Shabab’s strengths as its weaknesses. In Pakistan the major land operation mounted by the Pakistani Army with support from its air force has driven those surviving core leaders of Al Qaeda further into the depth of the Federally Administered Tribal areas away from their previous stronghold in North Waziristan, with some reporting to be trying to regroup in Mane Kumar.
In anticipation of the Pakistani effort reporting has emerged suggesting that the leader of Al Qaeda Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri had ordered some of his most important commanders and expert bomb makers to leave their various sanctuaries and to meet up in Syria. This, it has been suggested, was going to be a launch pad – possibly via Turkey – for a new wave of Al Qaeda attacks in the west. These would, once again, disprove the theory that Al Qaeda was a group beyond its sell-by date. So worried were the Americans by this development that on the first night of their military operations directed primarily against Dā’ish in Iraq to try and halt its advance towards Baghdad that it sent its most advanced aircraft, the F-22, into Syria to bomb this new grouping of Al Qaeda leaders which is called the Khorasan Group.
While the Americans focused on this new group in Syria and their potential to move quickly to attack the west Al Qaeda’s most resilient franchise continued its activities. Despite the reversals in Somalia, Mali and Pakistan Al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen has remained effective. The situation in Yemen is more complicated than elsewhere and the Yemeni Army has had to dilute its efforts against two secessionist movements as well as Al Qaeda.
In such an environment the AQAP franchise has been able to function even though it too has lost a number of its key leaders in drone strikes mounted by the United States. It was therefore almost inevitable that if Al Qaeda was to be able to mount a spectacular attack in the west it would have been AQAP that would have been behind it. Sadly the events in Paris have shown that the enduring problem of Al Qaeda has not gone away. Far from being consigned to history Al Qaeda is alive and quite able to plan further attacks in the west.