By Bruce Riedel
September 27, 2013
The horrible attack on a shopping mall in Kenya this week, the attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria earlier this year and the ongoing growth of al-Qaeda franchises in Syria all underscore the remarkable ability of al-Qaeda and associated movements to attract volunteers from across the Islamic world to its ranks. Al-Qaeda has achieved a long-sought goal of Islamist politics: the creation of a pan-Islamist militancy that operates across national borders and national politics. This transnational quality is one of the keys to al-Qaeda’s remarkable regenerative capacity, its ability to survive massive counterterrorism campaigns and rebuild operational capability quickly.
Much remains unclear about the al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, but it appears increasingly likely that the terrorists included at least a few foreign militants. Al-Shabab has long recruited volunteers for its jihad in Somalia from Somali expatriate communities abroad, including a substantial number in the United States. There is much speculation that a British citizen, Samantha Lewthwaite, was among the attackers. She is famous among jihadists as the wife of one of the British citizens of Pakistani origin who staged an attack on the London underground train system in July 2005. Foreign terrorists with years of living in Western societies would have been easier to slip unnoticed into the fashionable shopping mall and blend in with its multinational clientele.
The January 2013 attack on the Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria was also carried out by a multinational Islamist force. The gas facility, jointly managed by Algeria’s national gas company and the Norwegian Statoil company, was the target of an attack by 32 terrorists belonging to an al-Qaeda splinter group headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Belmokhtar is an Algerian veteran of training in Afghanistan in the 1980s who values recruiting across national borders. The attackers included a dozen Algerians, 11 Tunisians, two Canadians and others from Mauretania, Mali, Egypt and Libya. The leader of the team was from Niger. The two Canadians were from London, Ontario.
The Syrian al-Qaeda franchises have attracted foreign volunteers from across the Islamic world and the Muslim diasporas in Europe and North America. Every day, there are martyrdom announcements — often on Twitter — that volunteers from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria or Pakistan have died fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams in Syria against the army of President Bashar al-Assad. Danish officials have told me that they have identified 60 Danish nationals who have gone to fight in Syria. Sen. John McCain this week said French officials have told him a couple of hundred French nationals are in Syria. This week. Jabhat al-Nusra announced that one of its local commanders or emirs in Syria had been killed and that he was from the United Arab Emirates. The total number of non-Syrian fighters in the country is unknown, but it is a substantial force.
Since Osama bin Laden first went to Afghanistan in 1980 to fight against the Soviet invasion army, he was an advocate of a global Islamic fighting force to defend Islam from its perceived enemies. Bin Laden was an early disciple of the Palestinian jihadist Abdallah Azzam, who was the most important ideologue of the early days of global jihad. In a number of books and articles published in the 1980s, Azzam argued that Islam was under attack and that Muslims needed to band together to fight back. They should work as a transnational movement to defend Islam, not concentrate on national battles but focus on the bigger picture. According to one estimate, some 35,000 Muslims from 43 countries traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s to join the jihad.
Bin Laden institutionalized the pan-Islamist army in the creation of al-Qaeda. From its first days it advertised itself as above petty nationalism and a true global movement. In the 9/11 attack, bin Laden chose an Egyptian, Lebanese and an Emirati to fly the hijacked jets and Saudis to control the hijackers to illustrate al-Qaeda’s multinational capabilities. He could have chosen a wider field but he wanted to highlight Saudi participation in the operation to strain US ties with the kingdom.
Of course, the various al-Qaeda franchises are primarily focused on their own national fight. Most of their resources by necessity must be focused on the immediate enemy, whether that is in Syria or Algeria. There is a natural tendency to concentrate energy against the enemy of Islam that is near at hand, or in the case of Nairobi, just across the border.
But there is also a consistent pattern that when opportunity presents al-Qaeda will exploit a foreign volunteer who seeks to martyr himself in the West, especially the United States. Thus, al-Qaeda encouraged Najibullah Zazi and two other American Muslims to attack the New York City underground in September 2009 and Omar Farouk Abdul Muttalib to try to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. Opportunistic attacks like the Christmas operation generally take little time to go from inception to implementation and require few participants, making them very difficult to disrupt in advance.
Al-Qaeda’s multinational appeal is also a key part of its capacity to regenerate after being targeted by effective counterterrorism measures. Al-Qaeda was very effectively countered in Saudi Arabia in 2006-2007. It moved its locus of operations to Yemen and regenerated rapidly, using a core of Saudis and Yemenis and enlisting help from farther afield. Al-Shabab has recovered from setbacks by recruiting in East Africa and Somali diasporas. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has seen its top leadership killed more than once, only to regenerate again. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb retains a core Algerian leadership, but has built a fighting cadre from across North and West Africa.
This pan-Islam appeal and regenerative capability means that even when an al-Qaeda franchise is dismantled and disrupted by effective counterterrorist operations, it may recover quickly if the pressure is eased or removed. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has demonstrated a learning and adaptive capacity that has made it capable of recovery from even severe disruption.
This has worrisome implications for Pakistan. President Barack Obama rightly took credit this week in his speech to the United Nations for dismantling much of the al-Qaeda core organization based in Pakistan that carried out 9/11. But the al-Qaeda movement in Pakistan has deep roots in the much broader jihadist community in the country that includes groups like Lashkar e Tayyiba and the Pakistan Taliban, a support base that helps hide al-Qaeda fugitives. And the Pakistani state has shown little interest in fighting al-Qaeda in the last decade, as we discovered when bin Laden’s hideout was found in the front yard of Pakistan’s premier military academy.
The danger is considerable that if the counterterrorist pressure on al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan is reduced after most US forces leave Afghanistan in 2014 — as they should — that it, too, will regenerate. Care needs to be taken to ensure a dismantled al-Qaeda in Pakistan is defeated, not just wounded.
Bruce Riedel is the director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Avoiding Armageddon: America, India and Pakistan to the Brink and Back.