The new face of terror
The West thought it was winning the battle against jihadist terrorism. It should think again
Sep 28th 2013 |From the print edition
A FEW months ago Barack Obama declared that al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat”. Its surviving members, he said, were more concerned for their own safety than with plotting attacks on the West. Terrorist attacks of the future, he claimed, would resemble those of the 1990s—local rather than transnational and focused on “soft targets”. His overall message was that it was time to start winding down George Bush’s war against global terrorism.
Mr Obama might argue that the assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi by al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, the Shabab, was just the kind of thing he was talking about: lethal, shocking, but a long way from the United States. Yet the inconvenient truth is that, in the past 18 months, despite the relentless pummelling it has received and the defeats it has suffered, al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies have staged an extraordinary comeback. The terrorist network now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history (see article). Mr Obama must reconsider.
Back from the dead
It all looked different two years ago. Even before the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda’s central leadership, holed up near the Afghan border in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, was on the ropes, hollowed out by drone attacks and able to communicate with the rest of the network only with difficulty and at great risk. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), its most capable franchise as far as mounting attacks on the West is concerned, was being hit hard by drone strikes and harried by Yemeni troops. The Shabab was under similar pressure in Somalia, as Western-backed African Union forces chased them out of the main cities. Above all, the Arab spring had derailed al-Qaeda’s central claim that corrupt regimes supported by the West could be overthrown only through violence.
All those gains are now in question. The Shabab is recruiting more foreign fighters than ever (some of whom appear to have been involved in the attack on the Westgate). AQAP was responsible for the panic that led to the closure of 19 American embassies across the region and a global travel alert in early August. Meanwhile al-Qaeda’s core, anticipating the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan after 2014, is already moving back into the country’s wild east.
Above all, the poisoning of the Arab spring has given al-Qaeda and its allies an unprecedented opening. The coup against a supposedly moderate Islamist elected government in Egypt has helped restore al-Qaeda’s ideological power. Weapons have flooded out of Libya and across the region, and the civil war in Syria has revived one of the network’s most violent and unruly offshoots, al-Qaeda in Iraq, now grandly renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
The struggle to depose the Assad regime has acted as a magnet for thousands of would-be jihadists from all over the Muslim world