By Joyce Karam
26 September 2013
Zahira Bawa, Fardosa Abdi and Ahmed Nasir Shirdoon are not “infidels” or “occupiers of Muslim lands,” they are innocent Muslim victims who happened to be at a shopping mall in downtown Nairobi on Saturday. The al-Qaeda horror machine did not spare them, nor did it spare those Iraqi Muslims who were killed during a funeral procession this week, or their fellow Syrians. The al-Qaeda horror machine feeds off chaos and sectarian divisions.
From Nairobi to Mogadishu to Najaf and Idlib, al-Qaeda continues its hallmark of indiscriminate killing that is now taking more Muslim lives than ever before. In 2009, a study by the Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) showed that al-Qaeda kills 8 times more Muslims than non-Muslims, a figure that exponentially grew with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the Arab Spring and al-Qaeda’s involvement in Syria, Libya, Mali and Yemen.
While some might argue that the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi is a sign of the resurgence of al-Qaeda and its affiliate al-Shabaab who claimed responsibility, the bigger picture points to the contrary. Today, 12 years after 9/11 and two years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, there is neither a strategy nor leadership for the extremist organization. Sporadic killing of civilians across the Middle East and Africa has become al-Qaeda’s sole mission, after losing its safe haven in Afghanistan and with it the operational capability to govern or carry out larger attacks.
This transition worried Osama bin Laden. He voiced this concern in one of his letters about al-Qaeda’s “brand name” and advised his Somali affiliate al-Shabaab not to associate itself publicly with his group, and even to avoid killing civilians. Yet, exploiting regional chaos and taking innocent lives defines al-Qaeda and its subgroups role today.
Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliates, Jabhat Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have hijacked the uprising to grab territory and promote radical agendas. Neither of those two factions is fighting to overthrow the Assad regime, nor do they seek the welfare of the Syrian people. In fact, al-Qaeda worked with the Assad regime prior to the uprising. Today, its affiliates are fighting the Kurds in the north part of the country, terrorizing Alawite villages in the centre and taking arms against the moderate opposition in Deir Zour and Azzaz.
In neighbouring Iraq, al-Qaeda has been blowing up cars and funeral processions on a daily basis. The group is responsible for more than ten thousand Iraqi deaths since the U.S. withdrew in December 2011. Targeting mosques from Baghdad to Islamabad to Raqqa has nothing to do with “liberating Muslim land” and it is not carried out under the banner of Islam when, in most cases, all the casualties are Muslim.
In its recruiting efforts, al-Qaeda is resorting to regional conflicts like Syria to attract sympathizers. It also relies on the narrative of “fighting cultural decline” and “seeking pride and dignity for Muslims” to attract those living in the West. This al-Qaeda video is exclusively designed for Muslim Americans in Minnesota, where a big Somali community lives (80,000) and has seen some of its youth leave to fight alongside al-Shabaab. U.S. officials tell the Washington Post that as many as 50 Americans have been recruited to al-Shabaab in the past six years, with more than half of them being traced back to Minnesota’s Somali community.
The video promises them “paradise” and, in this case, blowing up markets in Madagascar and shooting at 8-year-old children and pregnant women in Nairobi. Kenya’s Foreign Minister Amina Mohammad told PBS News that there are two or three Americans involved in the attack; meanwhile the F.B.I is sending an investigative team to Nairobi. If the Somali-American involvement is true, it won’t be the first time. Hassan Bourhan and Troy Kastigar are among those Americans fighting with al-Shabaab. While Abdisalan Hussein Ali and Shirwa Ahmed are Somali-Americans who executed suicide bombings in village restaurants and parking lots in Mogadishu.
It is this deranged mindset that is making al-Qaeda’s numbers plummet in the Muslim world. According to a Pew poll, the extremist group’s favourability ratings range from two percent in Lebanon to 13 percent in Pakistan to 21 percent in Egypt. With al-Shabaab threatening more attacks in the horn of Africa, and Nusra, the ISIS and the ISIL fighting locals in Syria and Iraq, expect these numbers to keep dropping. After all, they expose al-Qaeda for what it really is: a power-hungry group of extremists, pitting Muslims against each other and breeding death and destruction.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution.