The Quiet Campaign Against al Qaeda's Local Nodes
By Fred Burton
Indonesian authorities announced June 15 they had arrested Zarkasih, the acting head of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an al Qaeda-linked militant group that has conducted several major attacks in Indonesia. Zarkasih, who succeeded Abu Bakar Bashir and Abu Rusdan as JI leader, was captured June 9 in the same operation that netted another top JI leader, Abu Dujana, an operative trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan who headed the group's military wing.
The capture of these two major figures alone would be a significant blow to JI. However, when they are combined with the steady stream of other JI leaders who have been killed or captured since JI carried out its most devastating attack -- the October 2002 bombings in Bali that killed more than 200 people -- the impact becomes even more significant. In other words, few of the leaders remain who directed JI up to and including the 2002 attacks.
The Indonesian government's campaign against JI, part of the global "war on terrorism," has been bolstered by assistance from the United States, Australia and other Western nations. Moreover, the fight against JI is not confined to Indonesia itself, but is a regional effort involving other governments in Southeast Asia. These efforts have kept JI off balance and unable to launch a major attack since the October 2005 suicide bombings in Bali. The Indonesian government also has been able to seize large quantities of weapons and explosives -- ordnance that no longer can be used in terrorist attacks.
The success against JI underscores one important fact: Although much of the world's attention regarding the war on terrorism -- which really is a war against jihadists -- has been focused on Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, a quiet and quite successful campaign is being waged against the local nodes, those regional or national militant groups supporting al Qaeda in places like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and North Africa. The war on jihadism, however, is at its heart an ideological war; and as long as the ideology of jihadism survives, these regional nodes -- and al Qaeda itself -- cannot be eradicated.
The Local Nodes
Al Qaeda's leaders have always known that al Qaeda, as an organization, lacks the strength to achieve its goals of ending infidel influence in Muslim lands and overthrowing the "corrupt" regimes ruling them. Because of this, al Qaeda has viewed itself as a "vanguard organization" and, as such, aims to serve as an example for the larger Muslim community (or ummah) to follow and to convince the ummah to join the jihad (or rather, its definition of it). Al Qaeda's hope is that its example will lead to a global uprising among the ummah and that this "awakened" community will wield the force necessary to achieve jihadist objectives.
This context helps to explain the relationships al Qaeda's leaders have fostered with local groups in such places as Indonesia, Afghanistan, Algeria and Iraq. They believe these local or regional organizations are important partners that provide a bridge for the transfer of their ideology to the ummah in the various regions where they operate. Many, indeed most, of the thousands of fighters al Qaeda has trained over the years in camps in Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere were not al Qaeda members per se, but rather men like Dujana who would return home and join regional groups like JI, or others who would go back and form grassroots cells, like Mohammed Siddique Khan, who established the cell that conducted the July 7, 2005, London bombings.
Al Qaeda's attention to local jihadist groups, therefore, clearly is not the result of the group's difficulties following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has always placed emphasis on working with these groups. For example, in February 1998, when bin Laden announced the formation of what he called the "World Islamic Front," the organization's fatwa calling for "jihad against Jews and crusaders" was also signed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who at the time led a faction of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) group; Rifai Ahmad Taha, leader of his faction of the Egyptian Gamaah al-Islamiyah (GAI); Shaykh Mir Hamzah, secretary of his faction of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan; and Fazlul Rahman, leader of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh.
Al-Zawahiri's EIJ was one of the first of these regional or local groups to officially join forces with bin Laden and al Qaeda, though when that union took place, EIJ had splintered and its new militant wing had suffered major setbacks. The militant faction under al-Zawahiri not only had been largely decimated inside Egypt, but U.S.-led operations also had resulted in the capture or death of many of its senior operatives outside of Egypt in locations such as Albania and Kuwait.
Although many of these local groups received training from al Qaeda and worked closely with it, for the most part they maintained their independence. During the 1990s, for example, GAI members were trained at al Qaeda facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan, and some, including GAI leader Mustafa Hamza, even worked for businesses bin Laden owned in Sudan. Furthermore, bin Laden and al Qaeda helped organize and fund GAI and EIJ's cooperative attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995.
When GAI fractured in the late 1990s and the bulk of the group denounced violence and jihadism, Taha, the militant faction's leader, maintained close relations with al Qaeda. He even appeared alongside bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in a September 2000 video calling for the release of GAI spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was (and is) in a U.S. prison. Abdel-Rahman was convicted in October 1995 on charges of seditious conspiracy for, among other things, issuing a verbal fatwa that condoned a plan to attack several targets in New York, saying the plan was permissible under Islam. However, in spite of the close relationship, GAI's militant faction did not announce its merger with al Qaeda until August 2006.
The Rush to Join the Caravan
Though the 9/11 attacks did not spark the widespread uprising of the ummah al Qaeda was hoping for, the spectacular success of the attacks made bin Laden a household name and vaulted al Qaeda into the media spotlight. Despite the Taliban's quick defeat in Afghanistan, which resulted in the scattering of al Qaeda and the relocation of its leadership to Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, al Qaeda continued to be perceived as the apex of the jihadist movement in the Western media and, perhaps more important, on the streets of the Muslim world.
Following the aggressive action of the U.S. government and its allies against jihadist groups in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many people who previously praised bin Laden and al Qaeda renounced the group's tactics, including GAI leader Hamza. However, in October 2004, the leader of a little-known jihadist group in Iraq, Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), changed the name of his group to Tandheem al Qaeda fi Bilad al-Rafidain (al Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers) and swore allegiance to bin Laden. In a December 2004 statement, bin Laden confirmed this alliance, referring to the leader of that group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as the "leader of al Qaeda in Iraq."
This move by al-Zarqawi was hugely successful. By associating his network with al Qaeda, al-Zarqawi made it prominent among the many jihadist and nationalist insurgent groups operating in Iraq -- and quickly achieved name-brand recognition. This recognition rapidly translated into an influx of fighters, both foreign and Iraqi, for the group and a much-needed infusion of capital. In fact, al-Zarqawi's organization was so flush with cash that in a July 2005 letter, al-Zawahiri asks al-Zarqawi to send financial assistance.
Within a short period of time, al-Zarqawi's group became one of the pre-eminent militant groups in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi himself became a household name since his group posted frequent statements and videos of its operations against coalition and Iraqi forces on the Internet. In some ways, al-Zarqawi had even surpassed bin Laden in terms of media coverage and notoriety.
Though al-Zarqawi's meteoric rise was cut short by his death in a June 2006 airstrike, the success he enjoyed by adopting the al Qaeda brand was not missed by other interested observers. In August 2006, the militant wing of the Egyptian GAI released a video announcing it had formally joined al Qaeda. Three months later, Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) announced that it was forming a unified command with Morocco's Islamic Combatant Group, Libya's Islamic Fighting Group and several Tunisian groups. The new group was to be called the al Qaeda Organization for the Countries of the Arab Maghreb.
Kashmiri Islamist militant groups also are now attempting to jump on this bandwagon, as demonstrated by the "Declaration of War against India" they issued in the name of al Qaeda earlier in June.
Status of the Nodes
To date, none of these newer local nodes has realized the same level of success that al-Zarqawi's group did. The Egyptian node has carried out no successful attacks since its highly publicized announcement. The Moroccan element of the new Maghreb al Qaeda node apparently attempted to go operational in March and April but its poor tactics and inadequate planning resulted in the death of more suicide bombers than targets.
Perhaps the most successful of these new groups is the Algerian element of the Maghreb al Qaeda node, the former GSPC. The Algerian group has conducted several attacks, including an April 11 double suicide attack involving vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. Those bombs struck the prime minister's office and a police station in Algiers. The Algerian government, however, has cracked down on the group and its supporters since those attacks.
In many ways, the Algerian group seems to be following a trajectory previously seen elsewhere, in which a local node emerges, conducts some successful attacks and then is hit hard by local authorities (often with assistance from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.) This is essentially what has happened to some of the older nodes, such as JI in Indonesia, Egypt's Tawhid wa al-Jihad in Sinai, and the Saudi al Qaeda node. There were signs in January of a possible revival of the Saudi node, but other than a simple shooting attack in late February -- followed by a major hit against the group by Saudi authorities -- the node has been quiet.
Even al-Zarqawi's node, which undertook several operations in Jordan before his death, including the November 2005 Amman hotel bombings, has been unable to project its power outside of Iraq as of late. This node also has been receiving pressure from elements in Iraq and has started to fight Iraqi nationalists. If a political settlement is reached between the United States and Iran regarding Iraq, this node could quickly find itself unwelcome in Iraq -- and even more embattled.
Given that most of the al Qaeda local nodes currently are doing poorly, and those that are doing fairly well now are looking at possible bleak futures, does that mean they pose no threat? Absolutely not.
Though the campaign to disrupt the local nodes -- the war against jihadism -- has been very successful, it is important to remember that this is not so much a war against a group of individuals as it is a war against an ideology. The problem is, ideologies are harder to kill than people. Consider, for example, how the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Che Guevara have outlived the men themselves.
In the same way, the al Qaeda ideology will outlast bin Laden, as the call to jihad outlasted bin Laden's friend and mentor, Abdullah Azzam. So even if bin Laden were to be eliminated next week, the struggle would continue. The nodes may be disorganized and their operations disrupted, but as long as they can recruit new fighters and raise money, they will retain the ability to reorganize and carry out attacks. The key therefore will be in undermining the ideology of jihadism and thereby cutting into the jihadist recruiting pool and drying up its fundraising operations.
The problem for the United States is that it cannot fight this ideological war, and any efforts it openly supports -- including the Arabic television station Al Hurra -- are quickly tainted and discredited. The U.S. government, therefore, must sit on the sidelines while moderate Muslim scholars refute the theology of jihadism. Meanwhile, Washington can only hope the message gets through.