In line with the false assumption that the current unrest in the Mideast has been secular and pro-democratic in nature, a new video released by two of al-Qaeda’s top leaders offering praise and encouragement for the ongoing rebellions has been dismissed by some as a sign of the terror group’s “desperation.” However, a careful look at the reality of the region shows that this is anything but the case.
The hour-long tape stars, in separate appearances, al-Qaeda’s number two chieftain, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born leader of its Yemen affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
While al-Awlaki’s message was more generic in tone, demonstrating support for the regional unrest and condemning American involvement in the Muslim world in general, al-Zawahiri’s message was far more specific.
Entreating Egypt’s Muslims to create an Islamic state, as well as sounding a clarion call for Arab nations to intercede in the Libyan conflict, al-Zawahiri intoned, “I want to direct the attention of our Muslim brothers in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and the rest of the Muslim countries … rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Gaddafi and the rest of NATO.”
The video emerged shortly after ominous comments were made by Mark Giulano, FBI assistant director of counter-terrorism, to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. According to Giulano, Arab countries were suddenly finding themselves “led by transitional or interim governments, military regimes, or democratic alliances with no established track record on counterterrorism efforts,” and are ripe targets for exploitation from al-Qaeda.
That belief has been echoed by many experts who believe that al-Qaeda must be prevented from exploiting any political void created by the current regional unrest. As one American analyst has pointed out, “Al Qaeda tends to navigate to areas where they sense a vacuum.”
Yet, when the tape of al-Zawahiri and al-Awlaki was released, one US intelligence official disregarded the significance of the video and the presence of al-Qaeda in general: “Al Qaeda must be pretty damn frustrated these days. They’ve been on the wrong side of history – and humanity – for years.”
Of course, that view holds little credibility when compared to the terror organization’s assessment of the situation. As Awlaki himself wrote in Inspire, the group’s English-language online magazine, “The mujahedeen around the world are going through a moment of elation, and I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahedeen activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria and Morocco?”
Unfortunately, al-Awlaki’s boast may indeed ring true, as the current Middle East landscape seems to suggest that whatever setbacks al-Qaeda may have suffered, they were apparently momentary in nature.
In Libya, for example, accounts have surfaced that Gaddafi, while having long-standing connections to secular and Islamic terrorist groups, is selling anti-aircraft missiles, machine guns and other weapons to al-Qaeda.
Specifically, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), North Africa’s largest and best-armed al-Qaeda affiliate, has already been found exploiting the disarray in Libya. According to recent reports, a truck convoy left eastern Libya with a cargo of weapons destined for AQIM forces in northern Mali. The cache included Russian-made shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, RPG-7 anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov heavy machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, explosives and ammunition.
One Algerian security official said it was not the first convoy to make the trek, adding, “If the Gaddafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya…which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean.”
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces mounting threats to his regime’s survival from AQAP, already considered by American officials as posing the greatest threat to US Homeland security.
As Saleh has pulled back his armed forces to defend the capital city of Sanaa, AQAP has taken control of four provinces, including Yemen’s historical capital of Abyan. Abyan, where American and Yemeni counterterrorism activities have been mostly focused, is now referred to by Jihadist websites as the “Islamic Emirate of Abyan.”
In Gaza, a large collection of al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups, having capitalized on growing popular discontent with Hamas rule, remain locked with the terror organization in a growing battle for supremacy in the Gaza Strip. The latest incident in this struggle occurred when an al-Qaeda group under the name “Jihadist Salafi” killed an Italian pro-Palestinian activist for Hamas’ refusal to release its leader, Hesham al-Sa’eedni, whom Hamas arrested last month.
In Jordan, members of the radical fundamentalist Salafi Muslims demanding the release of 200 al-Qaeda-linked prisoners attacked Jordanian loyalists in an encounter that left one dead and dozens injured. As one Salafi leader exhorted the protesters, “One day all the Arab world will be ours. We will have Sharia law rule in Jordan. It’s only a matter of time.”
In Iraq, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists laid siege to a local government building in Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, and engaged in a four-hour gun battle with Iraqi security forces. The standoff, which left 56 people killed and over 100 wounded, ended when the eight terrorists blew themselves up.
Finally, serving as a backdrop to an al-Qaeda upswing is the disturbing news from recently released WikiLeaks documents that al-Qaeda may be on the verge of acquiring a nuclear “dirty bomb.” The documents show that since 2007, al-Qaeda has made “greater advances” in bioterrorism than was previously realized and may now possess the technical competence to “manufacture an explosive device beyond a mere dirty bomb.”
Still, there seems to be a strong belief that the Arab Spring has signaled that al-Qaeda’s best days to are behind it. While this may prove to be true, it is still to be determined who will replace it. That is the simple question posed by Saudi-born American Samir Khan, the publisher of al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, who asked in a recent edition: “The question now comes: what do you do if your government decides not to rule by Shariah? Who does your loyalty go to? The State or Allah?”
Perhaps, the lethal endurance and pervasiveness now being demonstrated by al-Qaeda suggests the answer.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.