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Counterterrorism Policymakers Should Focus On A Strategy to Prevent A Coalescence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State

By R.K.Raghavan

August 21, 2019

A notorious surname can be a burden. For Hamza bin Laden, the surname was probably a curse as well as a blessing. Not many around the world had probably heard his name until news of his death was broadcast in early August by the U.S. media.

Some reports say that Hamza, 30, was killed in a military operation about two years ago. He was apparently last seen in Iran after he and a few others of his group had been flushed out of Afghanistan. There is also speculation that he sought refuge in Pakistan, like his father Osama bin Laden.

No one knows why it took so long for the U.S. to be convinced that Hamza had indeed died. In 2017, the U.S. had classified Hamza as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. This decision was possibly on account of the realisation that Hamza’s vitriolic utterances against the U.S could inflame passions in the Islamic world, inside al Qaeda and outside.

Ironically, the U.S. announced a bounty of $1 million on his head only early this year, an indication that there was some doubt about his death until July 31. This reinforces the impression that targeted terrorists are elusive, fleet-footed and are able to hide their identities and movements for long, even from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Terror experts are divided on the impact of Hamza’s killing on al Qaeda. Some say he was charismatic and had great oratorical skills that won him some admirers looking for straws to clutch on to in the post-Osama era. But beyond this there wasn’t anything spectacular about Hamza to write home about. There is no account of his assuming a front-line role on any occasion — as a strategist, propagandist or fighter. In sum, he was a nondescript personality from whom a lot was expected. He disappointed his small number of followers.

Whispers went around in al Qaeda circles for a while that the mantle of leadership of the dreaded outfit was waiting to fall on Hamza. This was because Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head, who took over from Osama bin Laden, was reportedly suffering from a potentially debilitating heart condition and had failed to provide inspiration for any major attacks. He also chose not to target the West and its allies.

But if one looks at it objectively, Osama bin Laden himself was unable to carry out any attacks after 9/11 as he was on the run. Realising that the U.S. would somehow get him, bin Laden was desperate that the outfit he had built assiduously should not become rudderless after him. Bin Laden groomed Hamza hoping that he would continue to work with the same zeal after his time. But Hamza did not live up to his father’s expectations. He made occasional noises against the U.S., which were possibly feeble attempts to avenge his father’s killing. But nothing more.

Perhaps Hamza could not have been able to do much after his father’s death anyway. In the post-Osama era, al Qaeda began to be overshadowed by the arrival of a belligerent Islamic State (IS). With a relatively young leadership which exploited modern technology, the IS attempted to establish a Caliphate rather than focusing on winning followers by banking on a fossilised ideology, as al Qaeda did and suffered irretrievably.

Preventing A Coalescence

Where does all this leave counterterrorism policymakers? They should focus on a strategy to prevent a coalescence of al Qaeda and the IS. The two are not bitter enemies (though al Qaeda believes less in reckless attacks) as some mistakenly believe. There are no doubt differences between them, such as the territory they should concentrate on and the methods they should employ in unleashing terror. Al Qaeda’s targets are essentially the U.S. and its allies, while the IS has worked overtime in capturing geographical areas and associated assets in Syria and Iraq. The IS had huge appeal among the youth.

There was no major conflict between the two organisations which have demarcated among themselves territories from which to operate. On a handful of occasions the two have actually worked in tandem. This is why any tactic of playing one against the other may not work to destabilise either. Both are formidable and their prowess cannot be underrated. The two can individually or together work to muddy the troubled waters on our borders. Both are looking for space to expand. The recent intemperate utterances on Kashmir of Maulana Abdul Aziz, a cleric who was close to Osama bin Laden and who was the Imam of the historic Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007 when the Pakistan Army laid siege, are mischievous. This is why collaboration of an assortment of competing anti-Indian and pro-Islamic outfits and standalone clerics is a deadly prospect.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director.

Source: The Hindu