The central terrorist organization al-Qaida is in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But its affiliates of all sorts — from loosely organized fighters acting on local grievances, to militant groups who adhere to al-Qaida’s mission — have spread to other places.
It turns out al-Qaida could use both kinds of groups.
Al-Qaida’s primary goal is to establish a fundamentalist Islam guaranteed by the state, which often leads to violent attempts to expel external influences of powers, said Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen now with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. But it doesn’t seem to mind when groups with other agendas adopt the al-Qaida moniker.
“For al-Qaida to look as if it’s still a viable organization or movement, it needs to have people think that Boko Haram (in Nigeria) is part of al-Qaida. Otherwise, they end up being a bunch of guys sitting up in the mountains or Tora Bora with no real reach,” said Bodine. “You could almost say the guys at the home office need the affiliates more to continue the brand than the other way around.”
The local groups benefit as well. They get a certain amount of cache for saying they’re linked to al-Qaida, she added.
We take a look at some of the affiliates:
Al-Qaida had two phases in Yemen. The early phase in the 1990s was best described as a “warehousing operation,” rather than an operational or inspirational leadership, said Bodine, who was ambassador in Yemen during that time.
Al-Qaida central would send fairly low-level foot soldiers to Yemen for safe haven after they left Afghanistan and Pakistan and found they couldn’t return home.
Those members of al-Qaida weren’t viewed as a threat to the United States, but that changed after 9/11, she said. After the terrorist attacks on American soil, the United States and Yemenis worked to drive out al-Qaida.
At the same time, violence in Saudi Arabia spiked, and the Saudi government launched a crackdown on al-Qaida militants. Those who weren’t killed or captured by the Saudis went to Yemen in the mid-2000s and joined the remnants of the Yemeni al-Qaida.
The more sophisticated Saudi operational and leadership cadre mixed with the indigenous and arguably less-effective militants in Yemen, creating a “toxic mix,” said Bodine.
That toxic mix officially came out in 2009 as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and it was unlike anything the U.S. had encountered prior to 2005.
“It’s not a continuation, it’s a mutation driven as much by the Saudi influence, which gave it a far more exterior enemy — the United States — and a more fundamental and dangerous shift,” she said.
The group launched suicide attacks in Yemen, kidnappings in Saudi Arabia and claimed responsibility for foiled bombings aimed at the Unites States, including the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing on an airplane heading to Detroit in which a man tried to set off plastic explosives sewn into his underwear.
On Sept. 30, 2011, AQAP was dealt a blow when a U.S. airstrike killed al-Qaida operations planner Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The targeted killing of the cleric raised legal questions because he was born in the United States. Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation and Juan Carlos Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies discussed the implications and legality of his killing:
Most al-Qaida affiliates have an international element, but they don’t generally survive if they’re wholly foreign fighters, said Bodine. Her example: al-Qaida in Iraq (also known as al-Qaida in Mesopotamia) had few Iraqi roots, which was why the Sunni Awakening was able to beat them back for awhile in the mid-2000s, she said.
Now, the extremists there seem to be resurgent with multiple attacks over the past few months. On July 23, after a particularly large attack on Iraqi security forces and Shiite Muslims, Al-Jazeera’s Jane Arraf in Baghdad described what it said about al-Qaida’s aims “to create an Islamic state, a center of the caliphate” with a capital in Baghdad.
Arraf said although the sectarian violence in Iraq was far from where it was several years ago, al-Qaida seemed to want to “foster civil war again. The targets have been predominantly Shia targets, apart from the security forces….They’re hoping to restart the sectarian violence by provoking Shia militias to come out and fight them again in the streets, the same way they did a few years ago”:
Al-Qaida has an active affiliate in Mali, where Islamist militants have taken control of two-thirds of the country including the city of Timbuktu, reports Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News. And local militias are trying to fight back:
Four hundred miles south, in the Malian capital, Bamako, a makeshift populous militia trains every evening on a football pitch, their mission, to take the north of their country back from the Islamists.
Self-defense units like this are springing up across the country now. The people have got no faith in the army to defend them because they saw how the soldiers fled the moment the rebellion started in the north.
In nearby Nigeria, Boko Haram is a militant Islamist organization not officially associated with al-Qaida but has the same worldview, goals and objectives, and a willingness to use the same kind of tactics, said Bodine.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is a sin,” is fighting the Nigerian government and what it considers a dominant role by Christian Nigerians. We reported in February how the young and the poor are drawn to the hard-line group.
Al-Shabab has taken control of southern Somalia and imposed a strict version of Sharia law. It continues to fight the “enemies of Islam.”
Reuters’ David Clarke reported from Nairobi about the insurgency after Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a truck bombing near the Education Ministry in the capital Mogadishu, killing at least 70 people, in October 2011:
“In the areas they control, they are pretty rigorous about imposing their views. But they haven’t been able to take control of Mogadishu, and so one wonders whether they’re now resorting to the spectacular attacks which will keep their cause going. Because at the end of the day, they don’t necessarily need to defeat to keep the cause going. But as long as they’re not defeated themselves, they can,” Clarke said.
Now, some observers are saying al-Qaida-affiliated fighters are supporting the Syrian rebels battling the regime of Alawite President Bashar al-Assad. Read a GlobalPost report about how Syria is becoming “al-Qaida’s new playground”:
Tarik, a Syrian rebel fighter who has adopted a militant dogma, told GlobalPost from the frontlines in Aleppo that there were many more men like him who were now fighting not for the original aim of the uprising — to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and establish a more democratic state — but to establish an Islamic government.
Analysts agree. “The longer the conflict goes on, the larger the jihadi presence will get, as more individuals who fought in other conflicts, and have connections to get weapons and funding come,” said Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an American think tank. “Fighting jihad gives individuals more of a cause, as in they’re doing God’s work, and provides a frame for all the trauma and odds against them.”
View more of our World coverage.