LONDON: In a dramatic late-night broadcast on May 2, 2011, Barack Obama, then US president, announced the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The US military and CIA operatives had located and killed the Al-Qaeda leader in a nighttime raid on a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, where he had been hiding.
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief on hearing the announcement. It had taken the Americans nearly 3,519 days to hunt down the mastermind of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist assault on the US. That fateful day, Al-Qaeda members hijacked four passenger planes in a coordinated terrorist operation that killed nearly 3,000 people, injured more than 6,000 others, and caused at least $10bn in infrastructure and property damage.
It was obvious that with the killing of Bin Laden, the US had succeeded in cutting off the head of the snake. But what about the rest of the body? The picture is a lot clearer with the benefit of hindsight.
After Bin Laden’s death, his son Hamza served as the unofficial heir apparent, preparing to take up the mantle as the chief of Al-Qaeda when the time was ripe, while Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri, a close associate of Bin Laden, was in charge of the day-to-day running of the organization.
However, speculation about a more enduring Al-Zawahiri leadership of Al-Qaeda was fueled anew by an announcement by the US on July 31 this year that Hamza bin Laden died in an airstrike “some time in 2017.”
With the apparent removal of Hamza bin Laden from the succession race, Al-Qaeda has been deprived of a chance to rally its sympathizers and supporters around a leader who had an impeccable connection to its founder, and at a time both Al-Qaeda and terrorism are in disfavor in much of the world.
Members of Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate. (Reuters)
As far back as 2011, “an unnamed senior US official” was quoted in a BBC report as saying that “Al-Zawahiri’s ascension to the top leadership spot will likely generate criticism if not alienation and dissension with Al-Qaeda,” because he “has nowhere near the credentials that [Osama bin Laden] had.”
Reacting to what has been a common perception, Arie Kruglanski, distinguished university professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and an expert on the psychology of terrorism and political activism, says it is correct but up to a point.
Kruglanski does not think the 68-year-old Al-Zawahiri’s leadership is bound to diminish the potency of Al-Qaeda.
“Although Ayman Al-Zawahiri lacks the charisma of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda continues to inspire and instigate threat entities worldwide,” he told Arab News. “Al-Qaeda under Ayman Al-Zawahiri presents a continuing challenge to governments worldwide.”
Since the establishment of Al-Qaeda on August 20, 1988, until his death 23 years later, Osama bin Laden had been much more than just the terrorist group’s commander and leader; he was an inspiration for violent extremist groups across the Islamic world and beyond.
While he was alive, the story of Bin Laden’s life, notably his transformation from a billionaire construction magnate’s son into a militant commander of the Afghan jihad, and the establishment of Al-Qaeda branches worldwide, strongly resonated with aspiring extremists. Soon after the announcement of his death in 2011, an article in the journal of the American Psychological Association suggested that the news would have a negative effect on Al-Qaeda on both operational and inspirational levels.
DIRECT AL-QAEDA AFFILIATES
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS)
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)
“Bin Laden was a very special figure,” Kruglanski was quoted as saying in the article, entitled “Bin Laden’s death: What does it mean?”
“He proved himself in battle, he sacrificed his material interests for the cause, and he was able to organize spectacular attacks against the United States and its allies.”
By all accounts, in the absence of a leader of Bin Laden’s standing, extremist Islamic ideologues and activists have struggled to find a suitable replacement.
The self-proclaimed leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, had raised expectations with his appearance and declaration of a “caliphate” during a Friday prayer in July 2014 at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
However, it is widely believed he has failed to fill the shoes of Bin Laden from the standpoint of violent extremists. Since that maiden appearance, the only other time the world got to see him was in a Daesh propaganda video released after the Easter Sunday Sri Lanka attacks, which killed 257 people, including 45 foreign nationals.
This was in marked contrast to Osama bin Laden’s 31 appearances via satellite TV and video clips, in which he addressed his supporters in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Those speeches played an important role in mobilizing and motivating his supporters right up until his death.
With violent extremist groups hamstrung by an absence of charismatic leadership, the global terrorism landscape has undergone a steady transformation. Some of the offshoots of transnational terrorist organizations have effectively become agents of regimes that provide funding and material support in exchange for control over their actions.
The trend of sovereign states gaining influence over offshoots of terrorist groups is evident in at least two war-torn Arab countries. In Libya, Turkey and Qatar are backing militant groups, exercising influence over their decision-making processes.
Meanwhile, in Syria, a number of militant groups are acting as proxies of Turkey in such regions as Afrin and Idlib, where the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has deployed forces.
Big payments by Qatar for the release of Qatari nationals held hostage by Shia militia in southern Iraq are believed to have bankrolled the Nusra Front (or Jabhat Al-Nusra), an Al-Qaeda-linked militant group that rapidly grew to become Syria’s most powerful extremist faction.
Until 2016, the Nusra Front publicly maintained its ties to Al-Qaeda, even after the latter’s open split with Daesh, whose leader Al-Baghdadi had been instrumental in the Nusra Front’s formation. The Front’s latest iteration is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).
“The core of Al-Qaeda is weak but its peripheral groups are stronger,” Kruglanski said.
President Barack Obama announcing the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. (Reuters)
Currently, Al-Qaeda’s operational reach stretches far and wide. Its affiliated extremist groups include Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Northeast Asia, Jemmah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, and Al-Shabab in Africa.
Overall, says Kruglanski, “the strongest component of Al-Qaeda is HTS, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and Syria.”
Whatever the real state of Al-Qaeda, this much can be said for sure: the narrative of violent extremism since the attacks of 2001 has been anything but linear.
The strategy popularized by Al-Qaeda to target the distant enemy has receded. The objective of violent extremists at present is to attack the near enemy (represented by national regimes) and to be active in conflict zones to take advantage of local conditions in failed or failing states such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
“The strategy of all armed groups depends on leadership that provides the direction. After 9/11, Al-Qaeda was forced to shift its focus away from striking the distant enemy,” Kruglanski told Arab News. “Al-Qaeda, whose strength is the periphery and not the center, is focusing on the near enemy.”
During this period, the West has witnessed the rise of the far right and Islamophobia while the Arab world has been shaken by uprisings and civil wars. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and Daesh as well, have taken advantage of these developments to attract sympathizers, eliminate moderate political forces and sow chaos and discord.
As Rahimullah Yusufzai, the senior Pakistani journalist and security analyst who interviewed Bin Laden, points out, “9/11 was the first and last major terrorist attack against the US, which took unprecedented steps to thwart further attacks. Afghanistan continues to suffer from unending violence even though none of the 9/11 attackers were Afghan.”
Experts say that the passage of time and senseless bloodshed may have dimmed the appeal of Al-Qaeda and Daesh, but governments worldwide can scarcely afford to drop their guard.
“To fight the threat, there needs to be a shift from a whole-nation to a whole-world approach,” Kruglanski told Arab News.
“Government should work with partners in the media, religious institutions, the education establishment and other sectors to unite communities to stand against both Daesh and Al-Qaeda-centric groups.”
“As long as the ideology keeps renewing itself to stay relevant, the threat remains undiminished.”
Afghan poll body misses announcing crucial presidential initial vote
MANILA: The Philippines and India have agreed to boost defense and security cooperation following talks between President Rodrigo Duterte and his Indian counterpart Ram Nath Kovind on Friday.Kovind is in Manila as part of a five-day official visit to the Philippines that began on Thursday.In a joint statement, Duterte said he and Kovind have committed…
MANILA: The Philippines and India have agreed to boost defense and security cooperation following talks between President Rodrigo Duterte and his Indian counterpart Ram Nath Kovind on Friday.Kovind is in Manila as part of a five-day official visit to the Philippines that began on Thursday.In a joint statement, Duterte said he and Kovind have committed to building a “partnership” between the Philippines and India “that enables us to face challenges to our hard-won progress, jointly and effectively.”As Duterte welcomed India’s role in his country’s defense capability upgrade program, against the backdrop of growing security cooperation, he said they have agreed “to continue working together to fight terrorism and violent extremism and other transboundary threats.”Kovind said “both of our countries have been victims of terrorism,” and the two leaders “committed to work closely to defeat and eliminate terrorism in all its formsand manifestations.”He added: “As two vibrant democracies that believe in a rules-based international order, respect for international law and sovereign equality of nations, the Philippines and India are natural partners in the pursuit of their respective national development and security objectives.”The two leaders also agreed to strengthen maritime security ties.“As countries strategically located in the Pacific and Indian oceans, we affirmed our shared interest to protect our maritime commons and advance the rule of law in our maritime domains,” Duterte said.
Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said ‘both of our countries have been victims of terrorism,’ and the two leaders ‘committed to work closely to defeat and eliminate terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.’
He added that they also discussed “the most pressing concerns of our region and beyond, such as maritime security and economic integration.”Following their meeting, they witnessed the signing of maritime, tourism, science, technology and cultural agreements.Among them was a memorandum of understanding between the Philippine Coast Guard and the Indian Navy to enhance maritime security by sharing information on nonmilitary and nongovernment shipping vessels between the two countries.“With the signing of bilateral agreements, we have likewise widened the path toward enhancement of our engagement in maritime security, science and technology, tourism and cultural cooperation,” Duterte said.“We hope to look back on this day as a milestone in our relations, the day when we set out to turn promise into reality, and potential into concrete benefits that bring the greatest positive impact on the lives of our peoples.”
South Sudan opposition leader returns to meet with president
SYDNEY: An Iraqi man has been charged in Australia with people trafficking in connection with the drowning deaths of more than 350 asylum seekers in 2001, police said Saturday.Maythem Radhi, 43, was arrested at Brisbane airport late Friday after being extradited from New Zealand and has been charged with “organising groups of non-citizens into Australia”.He…
SYDNEY: An Iraqi man has been charged in Australia with people trafficking in connection with the drowning deaths of more than 350 asylum seekers in 2001, police said Saturday.Maythem Radhi, 43, was arrested at Brisbane airport late Friday after being extradited from New Zealand and has been charged with “organising groups of non-citizens into Australia”.He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.Police claim he was part of a syndicate that charged 421 mostly Iraqi and Afghan refugees for a place aboard an Indonesian fishing boat known by Australian authorities as SIEV-X in 2001.The vessel sunk in the Indian Ocean while en route to Australia’s Christmas Island, leaving 353 people dead, 146 of them children.”Police will allege in court that the man, then aged 24, took payments from the passengers,” the Australian Federal Police said in a statement on Saturday — exactly 18 years after the disaster.”It will also be alleged that he helped facilitate the transportation and accommodation of people in Indonesia in preparation for their journey to Australia,” they added.Radhi is the third person to face court for their role in the disaster.Iraqi people smuggler Khaleed Shnayf Daoed was extradited from Sweden to Australia in 2003 and received a nine-year sentence two years later, with prosecutors portraying the then 36-year-old as a key organiser for Egyptian people smuggler Abu Quassey.Quassey was convicted in Egypt in December 2003 of causing death through negligence and was sentenced to seven years in prison.Radhi is expected to appear in court later this month.
Republican stalwart Rooney ‘thinking’ about impeachment
WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump gave an atta-boy to Republican Rep. Francis Rooney last year on the congressman’s home turf in swing state Florida.“I love it when he defends me,” the president said then. He might feel differently now.The second-term Republican said publicly Friday what others in his party are not, namely that acting White House…
WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump gave an atta-boy to Republican Rep. Francis Rooney last year on the congressman’s home turf in swing state Florida.“I love it when he defends me,” the president said then. He might feel differently now.The second-term Republican said publicly Friday what others in his party are not, namely that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged a quid pro quo was at work when Trump held up US aid to Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv’s investigation of Democrats and the 2016 elections. Mulvaney later claimed his comments had been misconstrued, but Rooney said he and other Republicans heard them clearly.“He said there’s a quid pro quo,” Rooney said of Mulvaney during a telephone interview. “I just don’t think that the power and prestige of our country is supposed to be used for political things.”Asked whether he thinks Trump’s conduct is impeachable, Rooney replied, “I’m still thinking about it.”Anything short of a “no” on that question, even from only one of 197 Republicans in the House, is notable amid the drive by majority Democrats to impeach Trump. The president has made clear that he does more than notice what he considers acts of disloyalty; he is fond of making examples of Republicans by threatening to sink their re-election bids and following through in a few cases.Friday night, Trump tweeted, “REPUBLICANS MUST STICK TOGETHER AND FIGHT!” That tweet was accompanied by a video targeting Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has been critical of Trump’s handling of Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurds.When Rep. Justin Amash of politically critical Michigan became the first House Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment earlier this year — and quit the party — the backlash from Trump’s orbit was swift.But that was before revelations about Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, which made his impeachment by the end of the year a real possibility. Since the release of a rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, many current and former administration officials have testified before House impeachment investigators.Then Mulvaney spoke on Thursday. Rooney said in a telephone interview that the chief of staff’s comments marked a turning point for him from giving the president “the benefit of the doubt.” And he said GOP colleagues are newly troubled.“They were all going around saying what the president said — that there wasn’t a quid pro quo,” Rooney said. “There were a lot of Republicans looking at that headline yesterday. I think people were concerned about it.”Rooney said he had not received any blowback from the White House for his comments, though about half of the calls he’s getting are from constituents who are critical, including “some pretty hostile” ones from ardent Trump supporters.Only a year ago, at a presidential rally in Estero, Trump praised Rooney as “a man who’s so great to me on television. This guy is special. He was a great businessman. Now he’s a great congressman, Francis Rooney.”He went on: “I love him when he defends me. He’s brutal. He gets the job done, right, Francis? Thank you, man.”Rooney, 65, is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, a solid member of the Republican establishment. Among the wealthiest members of the House, he won his second term last year with 62 percent of the vote. His foreign policy bona fides come in part from his service as ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush.His official biography tells the story of his longtime connection to the GOP. In 1984, the family started Rooney Holdings Inc. One of the company’s subsidiaries counts among its projects the presidential libraries for both Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush, the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans football stadiums, the US Capitol Visitor’s Center, the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research and the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta.Rooney has at times been a Trump critic. He was one of 13 House Republicans to join a Democratic effort early this year to stop the president from declaring a national emergency to fund his border wall with Mexico.On Friday, Rooney was no longer one of Trump’s defenders, on television or elsewhere.“Whatever may have been gray and unclear before is certainly clear now,” he said on CNN.