The rise of al-Qaeda's franchises
By Sreeram Chaulia
The recent series of deadly bombings in Baghdad and Damascus
that killed scores of civilians and agents of state have
brought the phrase "al-Qaeda" back into the reckoning.
The attacks occurred at the tail-end of 2011, a year in
which the organization's original kernel was deemed
pulverized to irrelevance through American-led global
military and financial efforts.
The United States military-bereft Iraqi government blamed
"al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" for ghastly serialized explosions
that killed scores of citizens, mainly Shi'ites, on December
Syrian authorities labeled the suicide car blasts, which
claimed over 40 lives and ripped apart top intelligence
offices manned by Alawite Shi'ite elites on December 24, as
the handiwork of "the al-Qaeda terrorist network".
These incidents, along with evidence of ongoing acts of
violence being perpetrated by other radical Sunni Islamist
outfits that carry the al-Qaeda tag such as "al-Qaeda in the
Arabian peninsula' (Yemen and Saudi Arabia) and "al-Qaeda in
the Islamic Maghreb" (Mali, Mauritania, Libya and Algeria)
suggest that the franchises spawned from the slain Osama bin
Laden's original unit are rising, not losing.
While there is reason to doubt the attribution of terrorist
attacks in some countries to phoney "al-Qaedas", it would be
strategic blindness to assume that the real al-Qaeda's
vision and appeal are passe just because of the Arab Spring.
Complete democratization in the Muslim world is far from
achieved, leaving fertile ground for jihadi elements to
recruit and terrorize.
Al-Qaeda-inspired and affiliated terrorist groups such as
the al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Haqqani network and the
Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban and the
Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in Pakistan are not just pinpricks with
nuisance value but flourishing entities commanding vast
political economies of societal and state support. They are
capable of capturing political power or even nuclear weapons
systems in some fragile states.
The assessments emerging from various US governmental
agencies last year stressed how much al-Qaeda's core body
had been "severely weakened" (Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta) and was "on a path of decline" (State Department
Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin).
But it is obvious now that the so-called al-Qaeda of the
peripheries is on the ascendant and presents a much more
obstinate challenge to peace and security than the tight
knit al-Qaeda parent pioneered by Egyptians and Saudis such
as Ayman al Zawahiri and Bin Laden.
That progenitor al-Qaeda had a global vision of rolling back
US and Israeli imperialism in the post-Cold War era, but the
offshoots which are now causing havoc are more localized in
their grievances and hit lists.
The latter derive support from longstanding territorial
disputes, illegitimate regimes, sectarian hatreds and
regional rivalries that predate Bin Laden's internationalist
grudges and are rooted in local histories. If the US can
take credit for downgrading the strike capabilities of "al-Qaeda
central" in one decade, no state or even alliance of states
is today in a position to eviscerate Sunni jihadi poisons
that are flavored in specific hues and shades of different
parts of the world.
Al-Qaeda's franchises and branches in North Africa, West
Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia share broad Salafist
ideological tenets and often train and practise coordinated
terrorist attacks, but they can ultimately be tackled only
at the grassroots in their respective societies and regions.
Broad multilateral cooperation at the international level is
still required to confine them to their points of origin,
but the main solution has to come from societies and states
that face their own respective jihadi demons.
In cases such as Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, the
existence of regimes that are democratic and politically
free could be the sole condition needed for local al-Qaeda
franchises to be snuffed out. The idea of armed resistance
for an Islamist-defined "just cause" is a powerful one that
Bin Laden bequeathed to inspire would-be terrorists.
The al-Qaeda branches ramming car bombs into the sanctum
sanctorums of state institutions of authoritarian regimes
and socially vulnerable urban neighborhoods cannot be
reduced to pulp through force. They will arise again and
again in one form or the other, giving the al-Qaeda
franchises an eternal, "never-say-die" character, unless
political freedom and social equality dawn in tyrannical
Another type of al-Qaeda branch and affiliate is that which
is nurtured and coddled by states like Pakistan and aimed at
democracies like India and fledgling states like
Afghanistan. Such terrorist outfits are conservative, not
radical, in the sense that they are pawns of
military-dominated state establishments.
Their targets are not politically repressive regimes, but
enemies designated by their paymasters, who are ironically
undemocratic and sometimes un-Islamic in their alliances.
How can al-Qaeda branches dotting the urban and rural length
and breadth of a volatile country like Pakistan be made to
close shop? Here, the onus falls not on changing the
democratic and pluralistic "infidels" like India, whom the
jihadis keep wounding through spectacular terrorist attacks
such as the "26/11" attacks in Mumbai in November 2008.
Rather, the way out lies in regime transformation in the
power centers that sponsor and harbor al-Qaeda sympathizers
as instruments to advance strategic state interests.
Can there be concerted multilateral as well as local
exertions to democratize an epicenter of al-Qaeda franchises
like Pakistan? The acceptability of radical Islam as a
mainstream philosophy of life and a guide for militant
action is at its pinnacle in Pakistan today.
This is quietly abetted by the country's almighty military
and intelligence apparatus. A whole generation of Pakistanis
has grown up believing that Sunni jihadists are "freedom
fighters" and anti-imperialists, although the reality is
that these terrorists are byproducts of a repressive
Admittedly, some terrorist organizations in Pakistan have
morphed into Frankensteins that are targeting the military
for allying with the United States, but this is likely to be
a temporary phenomenon. Once Washington downsizes its
operations in Afghanistan after 2014, the Pakistani
military-intelligence establishment will wear no Scarlet
Letter of sinful collusion with "Judeo-Christian" powers.
All Sunni jihadi outfits will then revert to the protection
and munificence of the Pakistani military and continue to
remain a menace in South Asia and beyond.
Al-Qaeda's reincarnations in franchises connected to
specific, parochial issues mean that local wars and disputes
are going to be more lethal in the future. The manipulation
of terrorist minds and bodies by some vicious state
apparatuses has outlived the American "war on terror" and is
increasing the impunity with which jihadis are conducting
daring attacks that claim scores of lives.
Just because the US has survived without a successful
terrorist attack on its soil in the past 10 years does not
permit writing off al-Qaeda as a red herring or an illusion.
Its offspring and ancestors are both in the reckoning due to
regional insecurity spirals.
Full democratization and sweeping regime replacements in the
Middle East and South Asia are antidotes to the hydra-headed
phenomenon of al-Qaeda.
While it is fashionable both in the US and elsewhere to tout
"political solutions" over military ones to terrorism in the
Af-Pak theater, the scope of political solutions has been
limited to power-sharing deals with leaders of terrorist
This discourse has not moved to more drastic terrain such as
ushering out conservative, illegitimate and despotic
regimes. But the obstinate persistence of the al-Qaeda brand
of terrorism shows that token "political solutions" that do
not alter ruling dispensations are doomed.
Besides democratization of ruling systems, solutions also
lie in painstaking attitudinal changes in jihad-saturated
societies, which cannot happen overnight or fall in our laps
without sacrifices. In the coming decade of long struggle
with al-Qaeda's branches, we may have to just learn to live
with routinised terrorist violence until new political
orders slowly supplant old one.
Sreeram Chaulia is
a Professor and Vice Dean at the Jindal School of
International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the first ever
B Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the strategic
affairs think-tank, the Takshashila Institution. He is the
author of the recent book International
Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and
Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (IB
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