Al-Qaida-linked militias seen as direct threat

All the groups share admiration or affinity for al-Qaida's brand of puritanical militancy
Last Updated : 30 May 2014, 18:51 IST

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The Benghazi militant group Ansar al-Sharia is under attack by a renegade former general trying to rid Libya of political Islam. But in response, the militia has taken aim squarely at Washington. 

“We remind America of their defeats in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia,” Mohammed al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, declared this week in a videotaped statement, warning that the United States would face “much worse” if it tried to intervene in Libya. 

Locked in a local battle for territory but with an eye cocked warily at the West, al-Zahawi is in many ways a prime example of the growing terrorist threat of “decentralised al-Qaida affiliates and extremists” that President Barack Obama described Wednesday in a speech at West Point.

Although less able or inclined to strike the American homeland, this diffuse patchwork of groups now posed “the most direct threat” to the US and its interests, especially abroad, Obama said. 

Ansar al-Sharia of Benghazi, infamous for its role in the 2102 attack that killed Ambassador J Christopher Stevens, is one of thousands of independent militant groups that have sprung up in loosely governed, lawless or war-torn territories across the Middle East and Africa - in places like Libya, Mali, Somalia, northern Nigeria, the Egyptian Sinai, Yemen, Iraq and most of all Syria. 

Most have primarily or exclusively local objectives, concerned with expanding their turf, overturning an autocratic state or defending a vision of Islam from supposed foreign threats. But the groups all share an admiration or affinity for al-Qaida’s brand of puritanical militancy.

They train or indoctrinate fighters who circulate among militias, battle lines and even continents. And, like al-Zahawi, they see American malfeasance around every corner, and, as in the 2012 Benghazi attack, they can quickly shift from their local struggle to strike against US interests as well. 

More than 5,000 independent Islamist militias have sprung up over the past four years in Syria alone. Some, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, were inspired by al-Qaida but later broke with it, to pursue an agenda that was at once more local and more ruthless.

More than a few practice medieval punishments like beheading those deemed apostates. Others operate as criminal gangs, like Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, the renegade North African Islamist known for his lucrative tobacco smuggling and kidnappings. In Nigeria, the loosely Islamist cult Boko Haram killed thousands of civilians before horrifying the world with its abduction of more than 250 schoolgirls. 

And militant groups as different and distant as al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Algeria can form fleeting and tactical alliances, trade weapons or fighters, and merge or dissolve into each other. 

In his speech Wednesday, Obama pledged to “develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat,” but he also warned against “sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

How to respond to a specific local threat without unintended consequences remains the unanswered question, said Frederic Wehrey, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

“If these groups really are focused on a local agenda, does that meet the threshold for action?” he asked. “If we come into these countries exclusively focused on security and start training or working with the local government forces, then this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and these local groups will become more anti-American.” 

The Syrian militant group Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest fighting forces formed during the uprising against President Bashar Assad, exemplifies the challenge ahead. Its full name means the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of Syria, and it has emphasized in its public statements that its goal is replacing Assad with some form of Islamic government, not waging a global jihad against the West. 

But at the same time, it works closely on the battlefield with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate. When an envoy sent from al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, was killed in Syria, he was mourned as a member of Ahrar al Sham, not of al-Qaida, underscoring the blurry lines between the groups. 

Global jihad

Analysts say that like many of the proliferating Islamist militant groups, Ahrar al-Sham’s personnel and ideology are both still in flux, with individual fighters drifting in and out and internal debates about its ultimate goals still unfolding.

If the US decided to effectively accept Assad’s continued rule on the grounds that he can provide a bulwark against terrorism, as some foreign policy thinkers have recommended, “that would crystallise the thinking of all these groups by convincing them that they are under an immediate American threat,” said Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“A lot of these groups don’t have a fixed idea about a global jihad, and they could go one way or the other, depending on Western policy,” he said. 

At the same time, US policies can inadvertently play into militant suspicions of Washington’s motives. For example, the Obama administration’s talks with Iran and Washington’s support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq against Sunni militants have both become grist for jihadi conspiracy theories that the US is siding with the Shia in sectarian battle across the region. 

In Syria, US officials are scrambling to track more than 70 Americans who have travelled to fight with the armed opposition groups, fearing the fighters could return home or team up with other fighters to carry out attacks against the West.

The FBI, CIA and Homeland Security Department recently created a special team of analysts to try to prevent the US jihadists from returning undetected. “This conflict has resulted in a real long-term threat for the United States and its interests,” Mark F Giuliano, deputy director of the FBI, said in prepared remarks in Washington on Wednesday. 

In Yemen, US officials believe the master bomb-maker of al-Qaida’s affiliate there, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is working to develop a nonmetallic explosive device that can foil the most sophisticated airport screening technology.

Unlike most of the other al-Qaida affiliates and extremist groups, the Yemen franchise has stood out for its ambition to strike against the United States’ mainland, launching unsuccessful attempts to blow up an airliner with an underwear bomb on Christmas 2009 and with an explosive-packed printer cartridge the next year. 

In the perverse logic of terrorism, even an international crackdown can pay benefits in prestige and propaganda. U.S., European and Israeli advisers have rushed to help Nigerian authorities rescue the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, but U.S. officials say they fear any attempt by the Nigerian military - or U.S. commandos - to save the girls could backfire.

“It’s basically a win-win for them,” a Defense Department official said about Boko Haram, whose fighters have trained in northern Mali with al-Qaida. “Regardless of how it ends, Boko Haram is going to be able to definitely burnish its image.” 

In a sense, scholars say, the proliferation of al-Qaida-inspired militant groups is reversing Osama bin Laden’s formula, which was to focus on the global patrons believed to prop up local governments.

“We are seeing global movements turning local - seeking local anchorage, local resonance,” Mathieu Guidère, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toulouse in France. 

Published 30 May 2014, 18:51 IST

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