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Terror warning

Published : Jul 15, 2011 00:00 IST

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BANARAS KHAN/AFP

BANARAS KHAN/AFP

Al Qaeda is back in the reckoning, with Ayman al Zawahiri, its new leader, warning the West about a jehadist renaissance.

THE formal announcement on Al Qaeda-linked websites in the third week of June that Ayman al Zawahiri has taken over as the leader of the group was on expected lines. The Al Qaeda general command, in a statement issued six weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden, said that 60-year-old Zawahiri would continue in bin Laden's footsteps and urged Muslims to fight the disbelieving invaders who attack the land of Islam, headed by Crusader America.

Zawahiri, a qualified Egyptian surgeon, had been Al Qaeda's second in command ever since its formation in the late 1980s. He was reputed to be the real tactician, while bin Laden was the titular leader of the group. Many terror experts have described Zawahiri as bin Laden's intellectual mentor. Ayman is to bin Laden what a brain is to a body, said a prominent Egyptian lawyer, Montasser al-Zayat.

The videos and tapes of Zawahiri that were released after the events of September 11, 2001, were taken as seriously as the ones issued by his nominal boss, bin Laden. Zawahiri is believed to be the operational brains behind the 9/11 attacks. All the tapes recorded by him since 2001 urge Muslims to strike at the commercial interests of the West and its allies, which in his view included many pro-American Arab states and countries such as India which have struck a close strategic relationship with the West. In recent years, Kashmir, too, has frequently figured in his speeches.

The Obama administration has tried to play down the news about the new Al Qaeda leader. U.S. counterterrorism officials are trying to give the impression that they actually welcome the new developments within the depleted Al Qaeda ranks. Defence Secretary Robert Gates weighed in by remarking that Zawahiri lacked the peculiar charisma of bin Laden. Gates claimed that bin Laden was a more hands-on leader than Zawahiri, adding that Zawahiri's Egyptian nationality would also limit his appeal among fellow militants. Gates, however, conceded that Al Qaeda, despite its huge losses, remained a threat to American interests.

Egypt is the most populous Arab country, and the radical ferment in the Arab region had its epicentre there. Zawahiri himself became radicalised as a teenager when he joined the fight against the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of Anwar Sadat. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Egyptian government at a young age. At a mass trial of militants, a young and unrepentant al Zawahiri told the court: We are here the real Islamic front and the real Islamic opposition against Zionism, communism and imperialism.

After his release he left Egypt to wage jehad against the communists in Afghanistan. Ironically, his long-cherished goal of overthrowing the regime of Hosni Mubarak was achieved through means he detested. As the leader of the second biggest Egyptian militant grouping, Islamic Jihad, Zawahiri is said to have orchestrated the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor. He was sentenced to death by an Egyptian military court in absentia. After the Luxor incident, Egyptian public opinion turned against militant groups. So much so that Al Qaeda was a mere bystander, watching the Arab Spring bring about democratic regime change in the nation early this year.

Zawahiri had words of encouragement for the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world. At the same time, he urged the crowds of Muslim Ummah in Pakistan to revolt against the mercenary soldiers and the bribed politicians who control the fate of the people.

Zawahiri seems to have taken into account the new realities on the ground. In recent speeches, for the first time, he had positive things to say about the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt, who have been targeted in recent months by extremists. In another speech, he praised the Hamas leadership. Until recently, Al Qaeda was critical of Hamas, mainly for participating in elections and for its close ties with Iran and Syria.

American intelligence officials and experts are of the opinion that Zawahiri's abrasive personality coupled with his long years in isolation will make him a weak leader. Zawahiri, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, is said to be hiding in the tribal belt of Pakistan adjacent to its border with Afghanistan.

Incessant American drone attacks have made life for the militants in the tribal areas extremely difficult and have disrupted their communication links. U.S. intelligence estimates last year put the number of active Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan in double digits. The Obama administration is now saying that the negligible Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will allow for the speedier withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country. Al Qaeda may be on the defensive in South Asia, but its affiliates in West Asia and Africa have been gaining ground. In Yemen, the continuing civil strife has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One indication of this is the sharp escalation in the U.S. drone attacks in the region since early June.

In North Africa and the Horn of Africa, U.S.-instigated wars have helped Al Qaeda affiliates such as Al Qaeda in Maghreb (AQM) and Al Shabab in Somalia to grow. In Libya, former Al Qaeda supporters are getting help from the U.S. in their ongoing efforts to bring down their nemesis, Muammar Qaddafi. American drones in Libya are being used to target government leaders, including Qaddafi. The Libyan government was the first to seek an international warrant of arrest against bin Laden.

Zawahiri himself, according to reports, has narrowly escaped drone and missile attacks. In one such attack in December 2001, he is said to have lost his wife and several of his children.

Zawahiri had played a key role in the formation of the Pakistani Taliban after the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad by the Pakistan Army in 2007. The recurring theme in his messages at that time was that the Pakistani government was an agent of the West and needed to be overthrown. Pakistani intelligence experts have said that Zawahiri used to meet Pakistani militant leaders frequently and advise them about tactics. In his last video-taped speech released on June 8, Zawahiri, pictured in his trademark white turban and a rifle by his side, warned the West that it would face a jehadist renaissance and that preparations were on to stage an attack that would rival September 11. But he also called on Al Qaeda and its affiliates to desist from acts of mindless violence such as blowing up public places.

The Obama administration, despite its recent rhetoric running down Zawahiri's leadership capabilities, is taking Al Qaeda's threats seriously. Zawahiri has a $25 million price on his head. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar comes next with a $10 million reward for his capture or death. But the Afghan Taliban is now being coerced into talks by a dual campaign of relentless bombing and diplomatic manoeuvres. The United Nations Security Council has already delinked the Afghan Taliban from Al Qaeda and is moving ahead to remove sanctions on prominent Taliban leaders. Killing Mullah Omar does not seem to be the priority of the Obama administration at this juncture.

Reacting to the news of Zawahiri taking over the leadership of Al Qaeda, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the U.S. would seek to capture and kill Zawahiri in the same way that it succeeded in seeking and killing bin Laden.

The Obama administration's determination to eliminate the new Al Qaeda chief once again puts Pakistan in the spotlight. Washington has been demanding that the Pakistan government cooperate fully this time. Bin Laden's safe house in Abbottabad, adjacent to a military cantonment and near the capital Islamabad, has left the Pakistan government red-faced. U.S. officials have maintained that influential sections of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence protected the Al Qaeda leader.

Recently, they even alleged that the militants were tipped off on several occasions by the ISI on impending U.S. attacks.

Zawahiri once described the Pakistan Army as the hunting dogs of the Crusaders. He has repeatedly warned that Washington's ultimate aim is to gain control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. There are Al Qaeida sympathisers within the Pakistan Army and the popular mood in Pakistan is anyway vehemently anti-American.

The Pakistan government, already angry with the U.S. for the blatant violation of its territorial sovereignty during its operation to hunt down bin Laden, has announced that it will no longer allow breaches of its territorial integrity by the U.S. military. Interior Minister Rahman Mallik said recently that CIA agents would no longer be allowed to operate inside his country. The U.S. media have reported that the Pakistan government has arrested four of its military officers for collaborating with the U.S. in the Abbottabad raid.

There are clear indications that under the leadership of Zawahiri, the main focus of the jehadist groups will be on South and West Asia. In his June 8 speech, most of the emphasis was on waging jehad against the governments of Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

Zawahiri is also known to be in close contact with Ilyas Kashmiri of the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI), which along with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has been busy targeting Kashmir and was responsible for the terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008. There is no conclusive evidence to show that Kashmiri was killed in a U.S. drone attack in May in the Waziristan region.

Under Zawahiri's overall leadership, spectacular terror attacks on targets worldwide are, however, still very much on the agenda. Zawahiri was credited with planning the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. In a speech delivered in February 2009, he said that the entire world is our field against the targets of the Zionist crusade, adding that it was not for the enemy to impose on us the field, time and the way in which we fight.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 15, 2011.)

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