With his freshest propaganda video, Ayman Al-Zawahiri opened the latest act of a standing debate on al-Qaeda’s status: "Today, I have glad tidings for the Muslim Ummah that will please the believers and disturb the disbelievers, which is the joining of the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to al-Qaeda.”
The formal “merger” of al-Shabaab into al-Qaeda’s operational core left many involved actors and observers to speculate on the timing of Al-Zawahiri’s announcement. al-Shabaab’s commanders first declared their loyalty to Osama bin Laden after Navy SEALs eliminated local AQ commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in September 2009, so the two groups could be staging a new pledge after undergoing leadership changes. However most observers believe that propaganda is outweighed by a heavier factor.
"Zawahiri's announcement just formalizes what everyone already knew: al-Shabaab is an affiliate of al Qaeda," one anonymous U.S. official told ABC News. "This doesn't change the fact that al Qaeda's core is still suffering and trying to remain relevant."
al-Qaeda’s structure has weakened according to the most visible metrics. Its first-generation leadership, from the head of Osama bin Laden to his numerous deputies and field commanders, has been decimated by U.S. drones and Special Forces raids. While the network remains vaguely operational in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the region no longer provides sanctuary to train and plot in the open. al-Qaeda’s violent ideology also began to stagnate before the Arab revolutions, impairing its financial and personnel recruiting, but the Middle East’s democratic groundswell is threatening to extinguish bin Laden’s narrative. The vast majority of the Muslim nation (Ummah) couldn’t care less about joining al-Qaeda.
Yet judging the “weakness” of an asymmetric network - the inherently weak actor in a protracted conflict - can be a misleading task. al-Qaeda’s original core wasn’t never designed to sustain a direct attack or wage a guerrilla war, only lure U.S. armies into occupation and multiply the force of local Islamic movements. Although 9/11 and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan resulted in the network’s informal demise, “al-Qaeda 2.0” is growing by Washington’s own admission and re-orienting itself for the next decade.
Africa is officially “in.”
Whether by design, opportunity or the likely combination of both factors, diversity is instrumental to countering al-Qaeda’s regional decline in South Asia. Those branches cultivated in the early 2000s are now sustaining the organization as a whole, breaking up its territory and leadership to prevent total decapitation. Washington’s group-think has dubbed al-Qaeda’s new realm, a patchwork of hotspots that spans the 4,000 miles between Mauritania and Yemen, as the “arc of instability.” These belt combines the sub-networks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s al-Shabaab and Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to dissipate damage against a global network. Nor can one underestimate the ongoing activity of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, spawned in the process of removing Saddam Hussein, as U.S. officials begin to warn of Syrian bleed-over.
Joining ranks, while a potential sign of desperation, is a natural development of asymmetric netwar. In retrospect Afghanistan and Pakistan functioned as the original hub, a training ground for many of al-Qaeda’s future international commanders.
This evolution in strategy and organization is far from impervious, and al-Qaeda can be theoretically destroyed with the correct policies. AQIM’s heyday has reached a vicious end as Sahel states increase their military cooperation against the group; Washington and European capitals also fund a string of desert bases in North Africa. AQIM’s leaders must now adapt to tighter security conditions or face a slow degeneration, however the group’s expansive territory continues to provide a long-term strategic crux. al-Shabaab isn’t so fortunate. After coming under simultaneous attack from three powers (the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia), Somalia’s militancy is suffering a gradual decline that al-Qaeda’s formal allegiance cannot arrest. The two networks are already intertwined, limiting any tangible ideological or recruitment boost, and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) seized on Al-Zawahiri’s announcement to produce its own counter-propaganda.
Addressing a recent anti-terrorism demonstration in Mogadishu, President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told the crowd, "This country is for Somalis and not for foreign fighters like al-Qaeda – we do not tolerate their violence any longer."
Al-Zawahiri’s video also holds the potential to further divide al-Shabaab’s national and transnational elements, who remain split on their vision of an Islamic caliphate. Lost amid the speculation of Al-Zawahiri’s timing is a corresponding oath of loyalty from Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair, al-Shabaab’s former leader and current factional warlord. Also known as Abdirahman “Godane,” the transnationally-oriented northerner from Somaliland was ejected from the group’s leadership in December 2010 (by al-Qaeda’s council, no less) and replaced by an ally of Muktar Ali Robow, al-Shabaab’s nationalist deputy. However Godane continues to guide Somalia’s foreign militants and spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahamud Rage later declared an alliance with AQAP.
“You know Harakat Shabaul Mujahidin HSM in Somalia has joined directly to Al-Qaeda brothers which means we are part of them. We will work with other brothers of AQAP in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the world and we are part of them. We are the branch of AQAP in Somalia.”
U.S. military officials also link al-Shabaab to Nigeria’s Boko Haram, another religiously-minded militancy on the upswing, as a series of high-profile bombings and shootings rocks the country. Conclusive proof of links between AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab has yet to be made public, generating suspicions over Washington’s post-bin Laden narrative: the U.S. also seeks to expand in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive though, and AFRICOM’s General Carter Ham concedes that AQIM and Boko Haram have only exchanged ideological and technical support (similar to al-Shabaab and AQAP). This relationship could increase throughout the decade or go dormant; netwar can function on either level.
"What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts," Ham said in August 2011. "I'm not so sure they're able to do that just yet, but it's clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that."
Meanwhile in Yemen, U.S.-Saudi hegemony and drones provide indefinite fodder for AQAP’s ideological narrative of corrupt Western stooges. Despite receiving the most military attention of any offshoot, AQAP “remains the node most likely to attempt transnational attacks,” according to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. The vast majority of Yemenis reject al-Qaeda’s presence in their country, and many hold former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his U.S. military partners responsible for its growth. This reality, which Yemenis and observers have cautioned against for years, was made abundantly clear by the latest investigative report from The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill.
Now the Obama administration has prepared an undemocratic “transition” with the Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in order to reestablish counter-terrorism operations. Their looming mock election will install Saleh’s vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, on February 21st and rubber stamp al-Qaeda’s political message in the process.
The possibility that AQAP continues to flourish remains high.
Yemen offers a vivid example of why counter-terrorism is insufficient to destroy the concept of al-Qaeda. Drones and raids can only accomplish a limited set of military tasks and do nothing for the local populations being subjected to overflights and bombardment. Key leadership is removed and potentially divided while leaving the conditions of instability intact; drones reduce America’s military footprint but give nothing back to society. This curve may accelerate in the future, but U.S.-supported governments currently lack the means to fill the non-military vacuum left by counter-terrorism. In cases such as Yemen, supporting an autocratic government impairs any comprehensive strategy against terrorism.
Many U.S. military officials do make this point before jumping into the positives of “CT”: COIN principles still apply. Unfortunately the former is pushing too far ahead in America's foreign policy to defeat al-Qaeda in the long-term. Bin Laden always intended to wage a politico-economic war, and America and its allies must fight with the same mindset.