Hijacking a Rebellion: New Trends in al-Qaeda Tactics

Demonstrators wave jihadist flags outside the U.S. embassy at Tunis. Image from Reuters.

Events in the Middle East and North Africa in recent months indicate a major shift in strategy by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. While many officials mistake this shift as a sign of al-Qaeda’s looming defeat, it actually displays a rapidly growing danger to U.S. national security. Al-Qaeda’s new ability to capitalize on instability amid preexisting rebellions is quite disturbing, and is occurring in several locations. The place of most significance for al-Qaeda is Syria, but a look at their ongoing late-phase operation in Mali can offer some insights into future developments in Syria.

In order to understand current al-Qaeda strategy, it must be known that al-Qaeda is no longer the monolithic structure of a decade ago, but rather has fragmented into smaller units either with the al-Qaeda brand name or ones closely associated with it. This clearly

points to an end of al Qaeda’s unipolar global jihad of the past decade and a return to a multipolar jihadosphere, similar to the 1990s. One key difference, however is that jihadi groups are now more ideologically homogenous — in the 1990s, jihadis thought locally and acted locally, while many now talk globally and act locally.

Essentially, any al-Qaeda safe haven in the world could metastasize easily into a pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Additionally, al-Qaeda has become a significant force multiplier in many conflict areas, providing expert training in weapons, explosives, and tactics to local militants while maintaining a smaller presence.

One such area is Mali. Because of the power vacuum created during a military coup in March, militant secessionist groups were able to take control of the northern half of the country. These groups relied on the support and expertise of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its two main affiliates Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Once the fighting was over, al-Qaeda forced the secessionist groups out of power and has complete control over the region:

“al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has become the region’s dominant armed group. Its relationships with Mali’s two jihadist groups, Ansar Dine and MUJAO, are deep and interconnected. In fact, it is often unclear where one group ends and another begins, and leadership among the three groups tends to be interchangeable. However, Ansar Dine’s activity takes place perhaps most heavily in Mali’s Kidal region, whereas a greater balance of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO activity takes place in Mali’s Timbuktu and Gao regions.”

Zone of control that AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJAO maintain in Mali. Image from Stratfor.

They are currently preparing to hold onto their territory even as Western and African officials discuss military intervention:

AQIM brigades in Mali have been bolstering defensive measures around their urban strongholds in a variety of ways, such as laying landmines and digging trenches. This indicates that the group suspects various forces could soon mobilize against them. The groups have also been imposing new taxes on the local population, likely in order to arm and equip themselves ahead of a possible intervention.

Although significant differences exist between the situation in Mali to that of Syria, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are behaving similarly in both theaters. Initially, these groups were widely considered just part of the complicated chaos within the Syrian rebel movement. However, these groups have risen in prominence and are becoming a welcome and integral part of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army’s operations:

“Jihadist groups such as Al Nusrah have become more appealing to Syrian rebels as they are better organized and have expertise from waging jihad in Iraq and elsewhere, and have integrated their operations with the Free Syrian Army.”

The al-Nusrah Front, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (both close affiliates of al-Qaeda and are comprised of former al-Qaeda fighters and leaders from the Iraq War), and al-Qaeda in Iraq are funding, training, and conducting operations with other rebel groups just as al-Qaeda has done in other theaters across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

Their involvement in Syria is disturbing because of large amounts of chemical and anti-air weaponry in the country. The West has been particularly worried about even small amounts of these weapons getting into terrorist hands. Behind the scenes, the U.S. is making plans to contain chemical weapon caches and also to ensure that foreign backers of the rebellion don’t send weapons that could be used in future terror operations:

“U.S. officials have discouraged Riyadh from sending heavier weapons, particularly shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS, to combat Syrian government air attacks… U.S. officials are worried about such weapons ending up in the hands of extremist elements among the opposition forces.”

Despite these efforts to contain the weapons, terror groups may still acquire them. For example, the al-Nusrah Front just took an airbase near Aleppo with some Free Syrian Army support:

“The Al Nusrah Front and Free Syrian Army captured the airbase in al Ta’aneh near Aleppo yesterday [Thursday, October 11, 2012] after heavy fighting with the Syrian military. Scud tactical ballistic missiles as well as anti-aircraft missiles were housed at the airbase.

This development is probably the most significant event to date in Syria from a U.S. national security perspective. Keeping sophisticated weaponry, such as a SCUD missile, out of al-Qaeda’s hands is a priority issue. In the short-term, events in Syria will likely maintain a status quo. However, if it appears that rebels are able to acquire greater numbers of heavy weapons, particularly chemical or biological, U.S. involvement in the form of securing or bombing those weapon sites could occur soon after.

It is probable that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will try to gain greater control over the rebellion, either by making more rebel groups dependent on it or diminishing the role of other groups, particularly the Free Syrian Army. In this scenario, they won’t be able to hold large swaths of territory as in Mali, but could maintain a significant presence throughout the country. It would be incredibly difficult to root them out if they reach a high level of establishment. If this occurs, long-term instability will plague Syria as they conduct a long-term insurgency:

“Their overarching objective is to achieve an Islamic state in Syria. Even if a more Islamist government comes to power, there is a significant difference between Islamist representation in parliament and an Islamic state. Any Islamist presence in government would likely come from Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists who are at odds with strict jihadist doctrine. Therefore, even if the al Assad regime is removed and replaced, additional unrest and insurgency can be expected.”

U.S. policy makers should make specific steps to diminish these Jihadist groups in the near-term with the goal of their complete eradication in the long-term. Heavy pressure should be placed against these groups’ foreign backers and the implementation of a strong counter-terrorism campaign combined with weapon-securing operations in the event of direct U.S. intervention.

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