Al Qaeda, its branches and Afghanistan

November 22, 2010

osamaSo little is known about al Qaeda that it is can be tempting to see patterns when none exist, or conversely to see only madness when there is method at work.

But with that health warning, it’s interesting to see Afghanistan cropping up in recent comments from both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

By way of background, do first read Leah Farrall at All Things Counter Terrorism arguing that that AQAP, which is threatening to launch more low-cost  attacks on the west after last month’s intercepted parcel bombs, should not be seen as either a new threat, or distinct from al Qaeda’s core on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.  “AQAP is a branch of AQ,”  she writes in this post.

“It is not an affiliate, not a franchise, and not a network. Rather it is  an operating branch of AQ, which means that while it may have authority  for attacks in its area of operations (the Arabian Peninsula), it comes under AQ’s strategic command and control for external attacks outside of this area of operation.  And it has always done so, right back to 02.”  (See also an earlier post here, and subsequent one here.)

In a commentary this month on an AQAP statement, Gregory Johnsen at the blog Waq al-Waq notes a reference to General David Petraeus , the U.S. commander in Afghanistan:

“Now, General Petraeus used to be head of CentCom and as such responsible for Yemen, but that hasn’t been the case since General McChrystal self-destructed in a Rolling Stones profile. So why mention Petraeus? Well, by itself I would be willing to overlook this as the overwrought hyperbole of a jihadi calling out a famous US General, but I don’t think that is the case. This is the latest in a series of suggestions that I have seen lately that lead me to believe that there is some new talent in the organization. And I am of the early impression that it is coming from Pakistan/Afghanistan.”

Then just last week al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) demanded the withdrawal of French forces in Afghanistan in return for the safety of French nationals kidnapped in Niger.

It will be interesting to see if there are more comments like that from different branches of al Qaeda focusing specifically on Afghanistan. If nothing else it would suggest that al Qaeda’s leadership, in its embattled drone-bombed hideouts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, still has the ability to get the different parts of the organisation, from Yemen to North Africa,  to sing to the same tune.  And in turn — though at this stage this may be a leap too far — it would indicate how far it can use them in a coordinated manner either to stage attacks on the west or to prepare new safe havens if it feels its survival on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is compromised.

As a post-script,  or rather an antidote to pattern-seeking, do read this piece by academic Mark Stout on jihadi strategy to get a flavour of the complexity of the environment in which al Qaeda operates as it steers a course between its own aspirations to global jihad and those, like the Afghan Taliban, more focused on national causes.

(Reuters file photo of Osama bin Laden)

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