Al-Qaida chief’s killing comes as group gains ground in African conflict zones | Al-Qaeda

Written by Javed Iqbal

It was one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s last victories. Just over a week before al-Qaida’s leader was killed in Kabul by missiles fired from a US drone, militants from the organization’s largest subsidiary in sub-Saharan Africa Africa attacked the main military base in Mali.

The tactics of the attack were familiar – suicide bombers blew a hole in the defenses to allow gunmen to reach stunned defenders – but the operation marked a major escalation.

For more than a decade of insurgent war in MaliAl-Qaeda had never hit a target of such importance, nor so close to the capital, Bamako.

The attack on the Kati base underscored the organization’s persistence in Africa and elsewhere despite decades of intense pressure from a US-led counter-terrorism campaign and fierce rivalry from a breakaway faction that Islamic state in Iraq and Syria (Isis or IS).

“The international context is favorable for al-Qaeda, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of the global jihad,” said a UN report prepared on the basis of intelligence provided by member states in July.

The attack in Mali last month was a vindication of Zawahiri’s decision in 2011 to abandon the strategy of spectacular attacks against the West that had been favored by his predecessor, Osama bin Laden. Instead, he directed al-Qaida’s regional leaders to seek gains locally without being distracted by attempts to attack international aviation or bomb European cities.

The recent UN report warned that any territory carved out by al-Qaida or IS could be used as launching pads for such operations in the near future.

“The threat from IS and al-Qaeda remains relatively low in non-conflict zones, but is much higher in areas directly affected by conflict or neighboring it. Unless some of these conflicts are brought to a successful resolution … one or more of them will incubate an external operational capability for Isil [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]al-Qaeda or a related terrorist group,” it said.

Progress in Mali confirmed another part of Zawahiri’s strategy: building grassroots support. The grievances of marginalized communities could be exploited, especially where the government was weak or predatory, he told affiliate leaders after taking control of al-Qaeda in 2011. Strong ties could be built with local actors through cooperation and even intermarriage. If they used violence, affiliates would have to seek targets that would be perceived as legitimate.

The strategy predated the emergence of IS from 2014, but the rival group’s success provided impetus. Where IS relied on fear and coercion against local populations, al-Qaida sought to appear moderate in comparison.

Al-Qaeda has suffered major setbacks – nearly eliminated in Syria and Iraq and unable to compete with IS in some theaters, such as Nigeria and Egypt’s Sinai desert.

But especially in Africa, Zawahiri’s strategy has paid off. The late leader personally forged an alliance with al-Shabaab, the extremist movement that controls much of Somalia’s countryside and may number in the thousands. In July 500 al-Shabaab fighters received Ethiopian troops in an unprecedented cross-border incursion. The Somali subsidiary is also wealthy enough to send millions of dollars to al-Qaida’s central leadership, the intelligence agency suggests.

Deep problems caused by competition for resources due to climate change, political instability, massive displacement of population and the recent withdrawal of French troops from Mali provide al-Qaida with opportunities for further expansion, analysts say.

Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), has been quick to exploit the presence of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company with ties to the Kremlin hired to support the country’s embattled military.

Wagner has been repeatedly accused of systematic human rights abuses, including massacres of civilians, turning communities against the government and building support for extremists.

The attack on the Kati base outside Bamako was a response to government cooperation with the Wagner group, JNIM said.

“We say to the Bamako government: if you have the right to hire mercenaries to kill the defenseless innocent people, then we have the right to destroy you and target you,” the group explained in a statement translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Gen Stephen J Townsend, head of US Africa Command, told reporters last week that JNIM was “on the march south”.

“They are now almost investing … Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and they are now starting operations in … the border regions of the coastal states. So it is of great concern, I think, to the world that is watching,” he said.

In North Africa, al-Qaida still has a presence, but has largely been pushed out of Libya and Tunisia as the chaos seen earlier in the decade has calmed down.

Its subsidiary in Yemen, although also weaker than before, still exists and has long been regarded by Western security experts as a potential threat. Outside of Africa, the biggest gains have occurred in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban victory has very predictably strengthened the hand of al-Qaida… That is simply a fact,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, CEO of US-based threat analysis firm Valens Global.

Al-Qaeda has built deep relationships with key factions and senior members of the Taliban, who, though divided, appear prepared to offer the group a safe haven on certain conditions. The house Zawahiri was living in with his family when he was killed was owned by an aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan interior minister.

Other prominent al-Qaeda veterans is in Iranwhere they fled in 2002 but are still active despite restrictions on their movements and communications, reports suggest.

A challenge for the group is that many are obvious heirs of al-Zawahiri have been killedsaid Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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These include younger management candidates such as like Hamza bin Ladenthe founder’s son, who died in a drone strike in Pakistan between 2017 and 2019. Al-Qaida’s No. 2 was killed in what is believed to be a Mossad operation in Tehran in 2020.

An important factor that may help al-Qaeda is that the United States and its allies are now focused elsewhere.

“We’re not paying that much attention … and the question, at least here in DC, is what would make us pivot away from Asia again?” Zimmerman said. “What would be the strategic distraction from our new China focus? Everyone is saying a major terrorist attack, but I’m not actually convinced it would.”

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Javed Iqbal

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