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    Middle East
     Jan 6, 2012


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 22. 

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 lands. 

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 military-intelligence state. 

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 movements. 

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 Tauris, London). 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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