The question raised in the previous article was about the emerging western strategies to deal with extremism inflicted regions. The other related inquiry examined what is causing them to take a fresh look. First of all, after years of fighting, the threat from terrorists has not diminished and the economic reality has forced NATO’s thinking towards a new approach. Furthermore, emphasis on a military solution for more than a decade has led to a serious slip in perception, especially for the US. This is obviously undesirable as it allows other global powers, especially China and Russia, to make inroads in to what was traditionally a western sphere of influence.
To deal with the emerging dangers, the new premise is on the lighter and agile presence around the globe. Moreover, the reliance is increasingly on the regional allies to lead the fighting, while NATO provides security and economic assistance. This is obvious in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and Islamic Maghreb. The challenge is that both the West and its regional allies in the terror-afflicted regions are presently in a weakened economic and social condition. This is pushing the NATO states to develop and agree on new modus operandi, so the burden to protect against the risks does not fall only on the US. At the same time, the US remains concerned as European allies continue to shrink defense budgets.
In this article, the focus is on examining the patterns transpiring in the extremism impacted regions. Additionally, to look at the gravest risks for which the West is preparing, and which are also reflected by the new strategies and tactics it’s adopting.
European and American thought centers are deeply concerned about the dwindling Westphalian system in these parts of the world, and what would follow the Arab Spring. There is an anxiety that radicalization may be spreading, and the danger of it reaching the helms of power is very real. At the same time, there are fears that these conflicts may also be radicalizing Muslim populations in the West, causing them to join the extremists, and return from the battle zone with deadly skills. Moreover, to understand the transformation of extremist threat from Core AQ to AQ and Associates, is posing its own sets of implications. At a deeper level, Western assessment involves examination of factors and elements posing a threat to the global systems and processes it put in place, and some will say are advantageous for it.
To study the ground reality, some will argue the best approach is to study each nation with its own sets of peculiarities. On the other hand, one can say that this limits observing the broader patterns that can be generally applied. Without deciding in the favor of one or the other, its best to be just cognizant of this distinction.
After years of struggle in Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood was finally able to narrowly form a government via elections. Many believe the Islamic organization exploited the Arab Spring, inspired and led by liberal forces, in its own favor. Soon after Mursi government came in to power, it attempted to consolidate power and exhibited worrying behavior related to its posture towards extremist groups, and also towards regional dynamics linked with Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
After Mursi’s overthrow, what has followed appears to be an attempt to return to the politics of the past, with the secular military at its center. This, however, is an untenable direction in the long-term with its own dreadful consequences involving the Egyptian military. Since the removal of Mursi, the military has cracked down against Muslim Brotherhood, which also supported Hamas in the West Bank. This may be causing the upsurge in militant activity and attacks in the Sinai.
What happens in Egypt has serious repercussions for not only the security of Israel but also the Middle East Peace Process and the two-state solution. After coming to power, Mursi had not only attempted to build closer ties with Iran but also with Qatar and Turkey; the powers that have supported Hamas against Israeli blockade. This put his government in stark contrast to policies adopted under Mubarak that were inline with the interests of other Gulf powers, such as Saudi Arabia.
Thus, what seems to be occurring is a repeat of the past politics, as oppose to a genuine movement towards the future, and this is likely to breed more extremism and perhaps erode the liberal nature of Egyptian army. Meanwhile, the new rulers will likely continue to exploit western worries to prolong their rule and gain economic and security assistance. The decades long Muslim Brotherhood experiment to work with in the system to attain power failed miserably, and this will only strengthen the voices of those proclaiming violent ways, with implications beyond Egypt.
In Syria, the threat is not only from extremists but also from the weapon of mass destruction falling in to the hands of extremists, whether Shiite or Sunni. The extremist groups came very close to acquiring deadly weapons and Israel acted unilaterally on few occasions to destroy the arms that could threaten its security. The peril posed by chemical weapons almost led to US/NATO military strike in Syria, and it was only after Russian diplomacy that the threat receded. While Russia, US and Western powers differed on military intervention and which side to support, they were united in preventing the proliferation of chemical weapons.
Moreover, the inter-radical conflict in Syria has already spread, involving Lebanon more directly. Reportedly, even Taliban sent reinforcements to Syria. The liberal Free Syrian Army (FSA) is supported by the West and Gulf nations and is fighting Assad’s military and Sunni extremist groups. Meanwhile, the Shiite Hezbollah has the backing of Iran and indirectly Russia. Hezbollah desires to restore Assad and is fighting with FSA and AQ linked extremist groups such as al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).
Although recently FSA, Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), and the Islamic Front together fought more extreme AQ linked ISIS, which reportedly has more foreign extremists. The emerging classification is between extremist groups with local base such as al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, and ISIS with more foreign extremists and possessing regional and global ambitions.
On the other hand, the Al Qaeda linked Sunni extremist groups are fighting both FSA and Hezbollah. Apparently, Hezbollah has state sponsors while the Sunni extremist groups have none. Will this trend continue for long is yet to be seen. This was one more reason why the Muslim Brotherhood backed Mursi regime in Egypt was considered dangerous under the regional circumstances. The moderate mainstream Islamist groups, such as Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, are considered to carry sympathies for some extremists and militant groups although they have stayed away from direct involvement.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 80s, the jihadist had received assistance from Pakistan, Gulf States and the US. As long as the US, Russian, and Chinese ties remain in the realm of cooperation and away from confrontation; the Sunni groups are unlikely to get overt support. This situation, however, can change if the balance of power swings completely in favor of Iran in the Arab world, and the direction of Arab Spring moves towards the Gulf States. Thus managing Saudi Arabia will become one of the top priorities for the West in the future.
While the nation-states of the region have struggled to contain the extremist and nationalist/separatist elements, these forces have operated across the borders, in the same manner as the war against terror has. This has been most visible in Iraq; a state stands as an example for more than one reason. In the after math of US withdrawal from Iraq, the regime seems struggling to contain the onslaught brought upon by AQ linked Sunni extremist groups, such as Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), which recently took over Ramadi and Fallujah. The correlation with the situation of Afghanistan is alarming; where a complete US withdrawal can result in similar consequences i.e., take over from Afghan Taliban with the help of AQ and other affiliated groups in Pakistan.
The fall of Saddam changed the balance of power in Iraq where now a Shiite led government is in power while the resentment is growing amongst the minority Sunni population that had ruled Iraq in the past. The government is fighting the Sunni extremists with the help of moderate Sunni tribes.
In Syria, it’s the minority Alawites that has controlled power in the majority Sunni country and whose fate now hangs in the balance. The goal of extremists in both Syria and Iraq is to rid the Shiite led governments backed by Iran, and supported by the West in case of Iraq, and Russia in case of Syria. In the long run, these AQ linked extremist groups want to become serious contenders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the same fashion Hezbollah has been.
Transformation of Al Qaeda; Afghanistan and Pakistan
Since the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the hype about Core AQ has decreased and the new narrative presents the organization as a much-diminished threat. There are political and psychological reasons for this change. Under increased economic stress, the death of Osama bin Laden provided a key symbolic victory in the war against terror and opportunity to turn the page. However, on the ground, a different picture is emerging that defies this version. It’s increasingly the affiliates of AQ that have taken on its mission in Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the Middle East, and the Islamic Maghreb.
Core Al Qaeda
Through the use of Special Forces and drones, NATO and US have been intensely involved against the Core AQ in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The contention was that if the core leadership is dealt with, other offshoots such as AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq), AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and AQIM (Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) will also lose their vitality. The constant pressure, however, has produced two outcomes: while many of the leaders have been killed, others migrated to create new flashpoints.
As the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, it does not in anyway indicate AQ is a mute concern. Increasingly, the extremists and militant groups that are linked to AQ are spearheading its mission. This is evident in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where are a conglomeration of militant and extremist groups led to the formation of Shura-e-Murakebah in 2011. In the Middle East and North Africa, AQ and its affiliates are suspected of exploiting the Arab Spring afflicted hot spots, such as in Syria, Egypt and Libya. The assassination of the American ambassador to Libya in 2012 is a case in point.
Emerging Tactics and Strategies
While the emphasis of the US and NATO strategy is to prevent AQ from finding a safe haven, from where it can plan attacks against the West. In actuality, AQ and its affiliates are relying less on safe havens and more on simply exploiting the chaos and vacuum created by weak or collapsing regimes. These governments are operating under the dual pressures of viral war against terror and Arab Spring.
One of the key challenges in this regard is that while these nations are being expected to control the situation within, they have minimal influence over the instability in the surrounding neighborhood. As noted previously by PoliTact, this has put the nation-state structure under considerable pressure.
The conflicts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Mali, Yemen etc., did not remain within the confines of these countries. One of the reasons for this being that AQ, with the help of its affiliates, has operated across borders. Overtime, to confront this, the response did the same, with the area of operation for the drones and Special Forces spanning the whole region.
The Nature of AQ Associates
It has thus become critical to understand the nature of these AQ affiliates. In a majority of the cases, the associates are mostly local extremist and militant organizations, with local grievances and ambitions. They usually have their own religious, nationalistic and political agendas that further complicate the ground reality. In return for their cooperation, AQ turns a blind eye to their activities. Similarly, these associate organizations use the cover of AQ for their benefit. However, the cross-pollination amongst extremists groups has produced disastrous results. Consider, for example, the interplay of AQ and TTP, Haqqani network and LeT.
Working through a network of local extremist and jihadi organizations has several strategic benefits for AQ. Firstly it gives them a reach and penetration that is impossible otherwise. AQ members simply embed themselves and can go undetected for quite a while. Secondly, it gives AQ sustainability.
When AQ members feel threatened, they migrate to other less hostile areas of incubation.
Meanwhile, the local affiliates provide the continuity in the absence of direct supervision. As NATO moves its attention based on shifting threats, it too depends on regional allies to keep a check on local affiliates of AQ. The nut result is that while NATO and US may move on, the conflicts still simmer while producing economic drain at a time when no one can afford it.
To counter this conglomeration of extremists, the efforts are to separate the local and more moderate extremists from the hardened AQ linked ones that have regional and global ambitions.
The application of this model in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has proven to be difficult, as it has in Syria and Iraq, and remains a work in progress.
Even before the war against extremists got initiated and the Arab revolts spread, many states impacted by the above phenomena’s were also inflicted by separatist movements of one form or the other. Most of these were the byproduct of how new states were crafted at the end of World War II. In a majority of the cases, AQ has stayed away from such nationalist oriented insurgencies.
On the other hand, in the unfolding Arab revolts, the West usually sides with the liberal anti-regime and moderate Islamists that accept democratic norms, and not necessarily the separatists. This is obviously is a difficult balance to maintain and may change in the future depending on the nature of global politics.
As the state structures crumble under the triple pressures of war on terror, Arab revolt, and separatist movements, AQ and associates are striving to fill the vacuum and create new flash points. This is in turn is creating even more opportunities for Western intervention when they can hardly afford them.
For example, to prevent the region from further instability, France intervened directly in its former colony Mali by sending troops. It also conducted air raids against extremists, reportedly using the airspace of neighboring Algeria in the process. As a reaction, AQ linked Islamic militants took over an Algerian Amenas gas field last year, which is located near its border with Libya. The jumbled operation conducted by Algerian forces to take back the gas field caused the death of about 24 hostages, including foreigners. The situation has raised French resolve to increase military presence in the region. So, the action-reaction cycle continues through out the region.
In the next article, the focus will shift to understanding the response from the regions impacted by extremism, and how that is getting intertwined with the regional and global power tussles.