A Quarter of a Century Later, Al-Qaida's Panic Tactics Are Evolving

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Al-Qaida is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. The organization, founded in Peshawar, Pakistan in August 1988 by Osama bin Laden and veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to fight the United States and regimes in the Middle East, has managed since the mid-1990s to carry out a number of major terror attacks against Western targets, the most shocking of which came on September 11, 2001.

In recent years, Al-Qaida has endured a number of defeats, the most significant one being bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in 2011. According to intelligence services in Pakistan, the organization’s key leadership, hiding out in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, only has 100 fighters left.

But since the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and especially in recent years, Al-Qaida has changed its modus operandi. Its new strategy focuses on compartmentalizing its terror activities, either because it wants to or it has to.

In the middle of the last decade, separate branches of Al-Qaida arose in the Middle East, Africa, Iraq, Yemen, the Maghreb and Somalia, and now, with the establishment of the group known as Jabhat al-Nusra, in Syria. These groups work separately and independently, partly because of the difficulty in communicating with one another without Western intelligence services listening in.

The Somali branch, Harkat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, focuses its efforts against the weak central government of Somalia and on attacking foreign aid groups in that country. The Iraqi branch has murdered thousands of Iraqis, and, until the U.S. forces withdrew, hundreds of American soldiers. The North African branch has attacked and kidnapped Westerners in that region. As for Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, their fighters are turning most of their weapons on President Bashar Assad and his forces.

The organization’s main branch, considered the most dangerous, is Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen. Founded in 2007, its leaders are responsible for two failed attempts to blow up planes on the way to the United States.

With all the surveillance skills of the U.S. National Security Agency, the methods used by the terror groups make their attacks very difficult to thwart. The discovery that the Yemeni Al-Qaida group may have liquid explosives that turn clothing into undetectable bombs greatly increases the level of concern.

And so it is understandable why the United States ordered embassies shut down across such a large part of the world after it intercepted a rare message by the leader of Global Al-Qaida, bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the commander of Al-Qaida in Yemen, Nasser al-Wahishi, with instructions to perpetrate an attack soon. The message coincides with three significant dates: Al-Qaida’s 25th anniversary; the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa, in which over 200 people were killed, mostly locals; and the end of Ramadan.

The three recent jailbreaks in Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, which freed hundreds of Al-Qaida operatives, increase concerns that the group is ramping up its efforts. Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told USA Today: “We may be seeing an effort, a trend, of al-Qaida trying to announce its relevance, trying to show the world it's still in the game. And some sort of spectacular attack on a U.S. facility would certainly do that."

The American intelligence may have been based on more information than what has been made public. And yet the closure of embassies, some until the end of the month, raises a number of questions. First, the United States has already turned its embassies worldwide into fortresses, based on past lessons learned. Now they are closed for fear of an attack. As American columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on the Bloomberg news site: “What next? Virtual embassies on Facebook?”

Second, although embassies are not the only targets, it seems that events of the recent past influenced the decision to close them. As the New York Times wrote in an editorial yesterday: “The administration, excoriated by Republicans for underestimating the deteriorating security environment in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the killing of four American diplomats last Sept. 11, is bending over backward to avoid a repeat.”

Finally, Zawahiri, who has survived for so many years at the top of the U.S. most wanted list, is very sophisticated. But it is hard not to wonder whether the rare chatter intercepted was not his attempt to see how much panic one message could cause.

U.S. embassy in Tel AvivCredit: Ariel Schalit

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