Al-Qaeda's Resurgence

By Bruce Riedel

Last year on the day after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, the group he founded was seen by some as on its last legs. No more. While under siege by drones in Pakistan and increasingly in Yemen, al-Qaeda not only received a new lease of life from the Arab Awakening, but has created its largest safe havens and operational bases in more than a decade across the Arab world. It's not a popular movement, but its ideology, organization and lethal power promise to be a long-term challenge to the world.

Since President Barack Obama came to office in 2009, there have been almost 300 lethal drone strikes in Pakistan flown from bases in Afghanistan, most of which targeted al-Qaeda operatives. Along with the raid on Abbottabad, the offensive has decimated the group's leadership in Pakistan, putting it on the defensive. Its new leader, Ayman Zawahiri, works from hiding and is fighting to survive.

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But al-Qaeda is not alone. Allies in Pakistan, like Lashkar e Tayyiba, the group that attacked Mumbai in 2008, or the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, are under little or no pressure. LeT and the Afghan Taliban, focused as they are on non-Pakistani targets, still enjoy Pakistani intelligence patronage, even as the ISI fights the Pakistan Taliban. The capacity of some of these groups, especially LeT, to cause global mischief, even provoke a war in South Asia between India and Pakistan, is undiminished. Three of the five most wanted on America's terrorist list, Zawahiri, LeT's founder Hafeez Saeed and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are in Pakistan. Only Zawahiri is hiding, the other two enjoy the ISI's backing. Zawahiri, too, likely has powerful protectors.

Like the rest of the world, al-Qaeda was surprised by the revolutions that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Its ideology of violence and jihad was initially challenged by the largely nonviolent revolutionary movements that swept across North Africa and the Middle East. But al-Qaeda is an adaptive organization. It has exploited the chaos of revolutionary change to create operational bases and new strongholds from one end of the Arab world to the other.

In North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, a franchise of the al-Qaeda global terror organization, has successfully aligned itself with a local extremist group in Mali named Ansar al Dine, or Defenders of the Faith. Together they've effectively taken control of the northern two thirds of Mali. Now they're destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as al-Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan's historical treasures in the years before 9/11.

AQIM has long been among al-Qaeda's weaker franchises. Created from an Algerian terrorist group in 2006, it had some early success blowing up the United Nations headquarters in Algiers, but for most of its existence it's been confined to kidnapping Westerners traveling in the remote deserts of Algeria, Mali, Mauretania and Niger and other criminal enterprises. UK sources say it raised €50 million this way. This spring after a military coup in Mali, AQIM found a partner in Ansar al Dine, and together they swept out government forces from the north of Mali. Then the two turned on a Tuareg independence movement which had initially been their partner. Now they control a vast Saharan stronghold the size of Texas.

AQIM's exact role in the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi on 9/11's anniversary is being investigated. Moroccan and French leaders are now labeling the new AQIM stronghold in Mali the gravest threat to regional stability in more than a decade.

The combustible mix of AQIM, Ansar al Dine and Tuareg rebels is complex and dangerous. All are well armed, thanks to looting Libyan depots after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. AQIM has acquired weapons from Libyan caches that probably make it the best armed al-Qaeda franchise in the world today.

In Egypt another al-Qaeda jihadist stronghold is developing in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, long a depressed and angry backwater in Egypt. After the revolution disaffected Bedouin tribes in the Sinai cooperated with released jihadist prisoners from Hosni Mubarak's jails to begin attacks on security installations and the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline. The jihadists in the Sinai have pledged their allegiance to Zawahiri, and he has repeatedly endorsed their attacks on Israeli targets. Libyan weapons have also found their way into the Sinai.

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Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad, was released in paperback this year. © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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