In the wake of an al-Qaeda threat that threw Western governments into turmoil, it is clear the terror network is far from defeated
By Con Coughlin
For an organisation that is said to be in terminal decline, al-Qaeda will draw immense satisfaction from the events of this past weekend, when it demonstrated its ability to disrupt the work of Western governments by forcing the temporary closure of dozens of diplomatic missions throughout the Arab world.
While it is unclear what kind of threat prompted the US government to initiate such radical measures, or the Foreign Office to shut the British mission to Yemen, American intelligence officials are convinced that al-Qaeda is planning a spectacular attack to mark the festival of Eid, which comes at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Specifically, they say the intelligence relates to a deadly al-Qaeda cell operating in Yemen, a war-torn country where the writ of the government barely extends beyond the confines of the ancient capital, Sana’a.
In recent years, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has emerged as one of the more deadly arms of the wider al-Qaeda franchise. This brand of terrorism thrives in Muslim countries with weak governments – and Yemen, which has been afflicted by decades of civil war and instability, was an obvious target for exploitation.
Having established a base there at the start of the last decade, the country’s al-Qaeda offshoot gained international notoriety via the so-called “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In December 2009, an attempt by this British-educated Nigerian terrorist to blow up a plane as it prepared to land at Detroit only failed when an explosive device hidden in his underwear failed to detonate.
Britain and America had another lucky escape the following year, when an explosive device was found hidden in an ink cartridge on a cargo flight due to leave East Midlands Airport for the US. It was primed to detonate as the aircraft approached America’s eastern seaboard.
Both these plots are said by intelligence officials to have been the work of Ibrahim al-Asiri, a 31-year-old Saudi who fled to Yemen after being jailed for his association with al-Qaeda. Despite a number of high-profile drone strikes in Yemen that have killed a number of key al-Qaeda leaders, including the group’s American-born founder Anwar al-Awlaki, Asiri still remains at large – and tops the list of America’s most wanted terrorists.
The fact that Asiri and his associates, both in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world, retain the ability to cause a global security alert suggests that, for all the efforts undertaken by Western counter-terrorism agencies, al-Qaeda remains a considerable threat to our security.
The widespread closure of diplomatic missions over the weekend certainly appears to contradict President Obama’s claim last summer that the “war on terror” was drawing to a close, and that the al-Qaeda organisation originally founded by Osama bin Laden no longer had the ability or capacity to cause wholesale carnage in the West.
The President made his comments in the wake of the successful mission to eliminate bin Laden at his hideaway in Pakistan in May 2011. Bin Laden’s death – together with the targeted killing by drone strikes of scores of senior al-Qaeda terrorists hiding in the remote mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan – was used to justify the impending withdrawal of American and other Nato forces from Afghanistan. After all, if al-Qaeda no longer had the capacity to terrorise the West, then there was no need for American and British soldiers to continue risking their lives.
The impression that America is winding down its long war against al-Qaeda was strengthened last week during a visit by Senator John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, to Pakistan. He dropped a strong hint that America was planning to end its controversial drone strikes in the tribal areas “very, very soon”, because al-Qaeda no longer posed a threat.
“I think the programme will end, as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” said Mr Kerry.
Yet within hours of this statement, the Secretary of State was obliged to authorise an immediate lockdown of all American embassies and consulates in the Arab world, for fear that al-Qaeda might be planning a repeat of last September’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in Libya, which claimed the lives of the American ambassador Chris Stevens and three other staff members.
The Obama administration faced fierce criticism over the Benghazi attack, particularly when it was revealed that Hillary Clinton, Mr Kerry’s immediate predecessor, had ignored warnings that al-Qaeda was planning to target the compound (Sir Dominic Asquith, Britain’s ambassador to Libya, had survived an al-Qaeda assassination attempt the previous summer). The US government then appeared deliberately to mislead the American public about the nature of the attack, claiming that it was a demonstration that got out of control, rather than a carefully planned al-Qaeda operation.
This time, Mr Kerry and his officials are taking no chances. But even if no attack materialises, this episode reflects one of the more frustrating aspects of the decade-long campaign against al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists: that no sooner has the threat posed by one group been eliminated, than another pops up to take its place. As the former director of the CIA, General David Petraeus said, the West needed to adopt a “whack-a-mole” policy, so that it could deal with different al-Qaeda cells popping up around the world at the same time.
Certainly, to judge by the recent upsurge in al-Qaeda activity, the organisation is currently experiencing something of a renaissance – whether it is organising mass prison breakouts, as have recently taken place in Iraq and Libya, or attempting to exploit the recent wave of Arab uprisings to suit its own Islamist agenda.
When anti-government protesters first took to the streets of the major Arab capitals two years ago to demand wholesale reform, it was seen as yet another nail in al-Qaeda’s coffin. The protesters wanted democracy and economic prosperity, not sharia law and a different system of repressive government. Notably, none of those taking part in the protests in places like Tahrir Square carried the black flag of al-Qaeda.
But as the protests have faltered, so al-Qaeda has moved quietly to seize the initiative for itself, exploiting the inexperience of newly installed governments in countries like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Secular politicians who voice their opposition to Islamist government have been targeted – two prominent secularists have been assassinated in Libya and Tunisia in recent weeks.
The chaos created in Libya by the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has also been to al-Qaeda’s benefit. Apart from acquiring a significant arsenal of hi-tech weaponry from the regime’s stockpiles – including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles – the removal of Gaddafi’s authoritarian government has allowed al-Qaeda cells to flourish with impunity throughout Libya’s vast desert expanse, even allowing its supporters to seize control of large areas of neighbouring Mali.
But arguably al-Qaeda’s most impressive recent achievement has been its infiltration of Syria’s moderate opposition movement, and its success in re-establishing a foothold in neighbouring Iraq, where it is once more doing its best to provoke a new round of sectarian conflict.
In Syria the al-Nusra Front, which makes no secret of its allegiance to al-Qaeda, has managed to provoke a civil war within a civil war by murdering a prominent commander of the Syrian Free Army. But its main objective remains the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and the establishment of an uncompromising Islamist government in Damascus – especially if it can seize control of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons in the process.
For years, one of al-Qaeda’s central aims has been to obtain access to weapons of mass destruction, thereby enabling it to achieve its goal of inflicting widespread carnage against the West.
To date, it has failed, but if its allies in Syria or elsewhere in the Arab world ever succeed in getting their hands on such destructive weapons, then the Obama administration and its allies will have rather more to worry about than the security of their diplomatic missions.