After Bin Laden, what is left of al-Qaida?
18 May 2012
Anthony Tucker-Jones assesses Letters from Abbottabad and says that after a decade in the wilderness Bin Laden became redundant as the poster boy for the world's jihadists
Can it be that the feared al-Qaida and its affiliates hated each other as much as they did the West? While many saw the evolution of al-Qaida culminating in 9/11, the decade that followed showed although it was no longer a global force to be reckoned with, regionally it remained a powerful and dangerous rallying cry.
The recent report 'Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?' issued by the US Combating Terrorism Center portray al-Qaida Central (AQC - exemplified by Osama bin Laden and his immediate cohorts) as not only increasingly side-lined but indeed irrelevant to other jihadist groups.
Many Sunni jihadists, especially in Iraq and Pakistan, devoted their energies to attacking their Shia co-religionists. This escalating sectarian violence dissipated the jihad against the infidel West, in particular America.
During Neptune Spear, the operation to kill or capture Bin Laden last year, under a process known as F3EA (Find, Fix, Finish Exploit and Analyse) US Navy SEALs seized over 6,000 documents from Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. What is unclear is whether the 17 declassified documents amounting to 175 pages are the cream of the crop.
Clearly publication of the proverbial tip of the intelligence iceberg on the first anniversary of the death of bin Laden on 2 May 2011 served many purposes other than to just inform the public. To old hands in the intelligence community it will smack of a psy-op or psychological warfare operation.
What they show is that AQC was not acting in concert with al-Qaida in-Iraq (AQI), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb AQIM), the Pakistani Taliban and the Somali al-Shabaab.
There was no unified global network with Bin Laden sat at the middle. These groups paid little heed to Bin Laden's dream of restoring the Islamic caliphate.
Bin Laden felt that these groups were spending far too much time killing fellow Muslims rather than attacking the West. He also deduced that Muslims were being alienated by the ideology of jihad or Holy War. AQI's campaign was so brutal with televised beheadings that Bin Laden and his immediate supporters were quick to denounce their alliance.
It is also notable that Bin Laden was alarmed by the prospect of AQAP antagonising Saudi Arabia by declaring an Islamic state in Yemen. This could have resulted in the Saudis mobilising the Yemeni tribes to fight al-Qaida. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Shia Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen whereby the Saudi armed forces assisted the Yemeni government to crush the revolt.
While bin Laden did not know of the Pakistani Taliban's failed bomb attack on New York's Time Square by Faisal Shahzad in May 2010 – subsequently, and bizarrely his greatest concern, was that Shahzad had broken his oath of American citizenship, indicating that jihadists were oath-breakers.
In the case of al-Shabaab he did not like their rigid approach to Islamic Law, he also probably realised that they did not have the wherewithal to reunite a divided Somalia.
All these criticisms of the AQC affiliates perhaps indicate a man with time on his hands who was resentful of their actions.
While Bin Laden acknowledged the Arab Spring as a 'formidable event' AQC's dismissal of the Muslim Brotherhood, because it chose to pursue its objectives through the electoral process, made Bin Laden's organisation even more redundant. Most young Muslims in the Arab world were clamouring for democracy, not jihad.
Now that Bin laden is dead we will never know if he was taking the moral high ground with the AQC affiliates in the full knowledge that he was simply no longer in a position to influence events on the ground.
What is apparent it that Bin Laden's broader global goals had been derailed by the regional interests of his affiliates and he evidently did not like this turn of events.
Ultimately al-Qaida had outgrown its creator and he had no love for its bastard children.
With the benefit of hindsight it is clear from the actions of the 'lone wolves' inspired by Bin Laden and the AQ affiliates that AQC peaked with 9/11, but only time will tell if al-Qaida is to be completely consigned to the margins of history.