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What is 'Al Qaeda' Today?

GB Geo-Blog

What is 'Al Qaeda' Today?

Recent pronouncements by Al Qaeda of intentions to acquire control of, and to use, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons beg the question, eight years after the attacks of 9/11: what is Al Qaeda today? We are told that, at one extreme, the ‘Al Qaeda network’ is an existential threat to a number of democratic or secular governments. At the other extreme, we are told that Al Qaeda does not even exist. What is the actual reality of this network? How widespread is it, and how many groups have joined Al Qaeda or at least try to follow its ideology?

The reality lies in between the two extremes. When we talk about Al Qaeda as an organization, there are three groupings to be considered: ‘core’ Al Qaeda, six affiliated groups and, finally, some twenty-two other groups that can be considered associates. An affiliated group is one that has a direct allegiance to Al Qaeda, having changed its name and operational direction to support that allegiance. An associated group is one that has a world view similar to that of Al Qaeda, but does not claim a direct allegiance to Al Qaeda. These affiliated and associated groups might have carried out or supported attacks at the behest of Al Qaeda, and might do so in future. But each of these groups operates with its own distinct set of objectives. Many of them also predate Al Qaeda. And there is a visible bias among these groups in favour of pursuing ‘local’ goals rather than the ‘global jihad’ goals espoused by core Al Qaeda. In most cases, the goal of the groups is to establish a separate homeland by secession of territory from within a particular country. This is defined as the ‘near’ enemy (in Al Qaeda’s parlance), and not the ‘far enemy’ on which core Al Qaeda is often focussed.

Core Al Qaeda

At its peak in 2000 and 2001, Al Qaeda had some three to five thousand members. The group was able to operate in the relatively benign environment of Afghanistan with a stable financial structure to support its operations. Now, in 2009, core Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self. The membership has been decimated by war, arrests and dislocation. Estimates of the remaining membership vary from a low of only eighty members (Pakistani intelligence estimates) to a high of some three hundred members (Dr. Rohan Gunaratna of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). Whatever the actual figures, core Al Qaeda is now operating in a hostile environment with one-tenth of its original membership. Its finances are in ruins and even the leader of Al Qaeda’s affiliated group in Afghanistan has appeared in a video asking for money as his forces are idle due to a lack of supplies.

The Six Affiliated Groups

Currently, six groups have claimed that they area allied to Al Qaeda (see Figure One below). It should be noted that only three of them have recently demonstrated an operational capability, while another one may have some growth potential. The others appear to exist in name only or have only the most limited capabilities or structures. In descending order of interest, these six groups are:

1. Tanzim Qaedat bi-Bilad al-Maghrab al-Islami (The Al-Qaeda OrganiZation in the Islamic Maghreb or North Africa). While having its own problems and under stress from the Algerian government, this group can carry out operations and has done so recently, including an involvement in kidnappings of foreign officials, such as Canadian Robert Fowler. Of all the Al Qaeda affiliates, this one may have the greatest potential for future violent activity, as it has both local and regional ambitions.

2. Tanzim Qaedat fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers, Iraq). This group is increasingly in disarray, largely because of its early focus on attacking Shia Muslims, as well as an increasingly sophisticated US Special Forces response that began in Anbar Province in 2004. Its future appears bleak, as was predicted by its former (now deceased) leader Zarqawi in his 2005 letter to Osama bin Laden.

3. Tanzim al-Qaeda al-Jihad fi al-Khorasan (The Al-Qaeda Organization in Afghanistan). Despite its location close to core Al Qaeda and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, this group appears to be having trouble as well. Unlike the various Taliban factions, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is having financial and operational problems. Its leader, Mostafa Abul Yazid (responsible for the recent comments about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal), is believed to have been responsible for handling the financial aspects of the 9/11 operation. But now he is seen on a video asking for money as Al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan falter.

4. Tanzim Qaedat fi al-Jazeeratul Arab (The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula). The Saudi government began a remarkable push-back against Al Qaeda in their kingdom in 2003, using both hard and soft measures. The push-back has been so successful that the remnants of the organization have now migrated to Yemen and are trying to regroup there. The last successful attack by the group was in 2003, and the last major attempted attack was in 2006. A weak government in Yemen and ongoing internal tribal conflicts there may allow for some recovery, but the organization has not accomplished anything since its move, other than releasing videos. Violence among the tribes and the central government is longstanding and does not necessarily represent an increase in influence from Al Qaeda.

5. Tanzim al-Qaeda al-Jihad fi Ard al-Kinnanah (The Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of Kinanah – Egypt and Palestine). This group appears to exist now in little more than name. It has not been able to carry out a successful attack or maintain a public profile in several years. This was the group that claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

6. Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad (Al-Qaeda Organization in the Malay Archipelago – Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.) This group should not be confused with Jammah Islamia. Little is known about this group beyond a declaration that the group exists and is the representative of Al Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago. The group is headed by Noordin M. Top from Malaysia. It appears that this group is little more than a cast-off from Jammah Islamia, and that it does not, as a consequence, represent the formation of a new group.

The Associated Groups

Creating a list of associated groups is more difficult, due to the nebulous nature of the groups and their changing capabilities and intentions (see Figure Two below). For instance, should the Abu Sayyaf group from the Philippines be included? This group was originally formed under the leadership of Abdurajak Janajalani, with a very distinct ideology that resembled that of Al Qaeda. However, several changes in leadership later, the group is now sometimes described as being little more than a group of thugs who kidnap and steal for profit only. While they are a distinct threat at the local level, their future is decidedly unclear as a ‘global jihadist’ group. Much the same can be said of several other groups.

Other groups are much clearer, however, in both their intents and capabilities. One of the most dangerous groups is Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT). The LeT is the militant arm of the Markaz Dawa ul Irshad (MDI). The objectives of LeT are the liberation of Jammu and Kashmir and the creation of three separate independent Muslim homelands within India. The LeT has organizational links to both the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as to ‘core’ Al Qaeda, and may have provided some financial and logistical support to Jammah Islamiya as well. It remains a very independent organization, however, and is not perceived to be under either the operational control or the general influence of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. The LeT has carried out a number of successful operations, including the sensational November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

The Future

Both the core Al Qaeda organization and its ideology are at present under sustained attack. There are serious and ongoing (‘internal’) debates about the utility of the use of violence by Al Qaeda and its inspired followers, typified by the acrimonious ‘conversation’ between Al Qaeda’s number-two man (Ayman al Zawahiri) and former Al Qaeda shoura council member Sayyid Imam (also known as Dr. Fadl.) Other leading jihadist figures, such as Mustapha al Suri, have been openly critical of the leadership of Osama bin Laden and his violent methods.

While Al Qaeda had hoped to fuel a global movement under its ideological leadership, the results at this point are decidedly mixed. True, there are six organizations that claim an affiliation to Al Qaeda, but their effectiveness is, at best, inconsistent, and their future is far from clear. Al Qaeda’s ‘brand’ was distinctly popular among many groups in Asia and Africa, but it appears to be having trouble gaining traction beyond these regions as groups discover that being associated with Al Qaeda is often more trouble than it is worth; that is, a short period of high-profile attention or ‘prestige’ is often followed by high-intensity investigations and crackdowns by domestic and international law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

FIGURE ONE: THE AFFILIATED GROUPS   

Affiliated Group   

High Threat

Medium Threat

Low Threat

1. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

X

 

 

2. Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq)

 

X

 

3. Al-Qaeda in Khorasan – Afghanistan

 

X

 

4. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (now mostly in Yemen)

 

?

X

5. Al-Qaeda in the Land of Kinanah (Egypt and Palestine)

 

 

X

6. Al-Qaeda organization in the Malay archipelago  (not the JI)

 

 

X

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIGURE TWO: THE ASSOCIATED GROUPS

 

Associated Groups

High Threat

Medium Threat

Low Threat

1.  Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) –Philippines

 

 

X

2. East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – China/Pakistan/ transnational

 

X

 

3. Egyptian Islamic Jihad  (EIJ) – Egypt/ transnational

 

X

 

4. Armed Islamic Group (GIA) – Algeria

 

 

X

5. Dhamat Houmet Daawa Salafia (DHDS) – Algeria

 

 

X

6. Al-Itihaad al-Islami  (AIAI)   Somalia

?

X

 

7. Ansar al-Islam – Iraq/transnational. (Now Jaish Ansar al-Sunnah)

 

 

X

8. Harakat-ul-Jihad-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) – Bangladesh/ transnational

?

X

 

9. Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) – Pakistan/Kashmir/transnational

 

X

 

10. Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM)  Pakistan/Kashmir/transnational

 

X

 

11. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) Southeast Asia/transnational

?

X

 

12. Laskar-e-Jhangvi  – (LeJ) – Pakistan

 

X

 

13. Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT) –  Pakistan/Kashmir/transnational

X

 

 

14. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)  Pakistan

 

 

X

15. Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) –  Tunisia

 

 

X

16. Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIGF) – transnational

 

 

X

17. Moro Islamic Liberation Front  (MILF) – Philippines

 

?

X

18. Salafiya Jihadia  (SJ) – Morocco

 

 

X

19. Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) – Pakistan

 

 

X

20. Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) – Pakistan

 

X

 

21. Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) – Pakistan

 

 

X

22. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)

 

 

X

 

bioline

Dr. Arabinda Acharya is a Research Fellow and Manager, Strategic Projects, International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnan School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 

Thomas Quiggin is a Senior Research Fellow, Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, Normal Patterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, and a court-qualified expert in Canada.

           

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