The Privatization of Al-Qaida

The Russian plan to supervise and disarm Syria of chemical weapons has a lot to do with Al-Qaida.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks played second fiddle to the threat of war with Syria, as far as the media was concerned. Media outlets usually give more play to impending war crises than days of commemoration. But the announcement of a Russian (with Iranian coordination) plan to supervise and disarm Syria of chemical weapons - which has Putin playing the role of savior and has turned Obama into a faltering leader - has much to do with Al-Qaida.

A major consideration that has thus far prevented military action in Syria, even before revelations of chemical weapons use, were the well-grounded fears that bringing down Assad would put Syria into the hands of radical organizations, some of which are affiliated with Al-Qaida. Those groups would then turn Syria into a war zone and breeding ground for attacks on neighboring nations.

Al-Qaida, in this case, can chalk itself up a great achievement. From a loose coalition of terror organizations, collectively and individually waging wars against targets both in Arab states and the West, it has become a primary strategic consideration for the international system. That system is now forced to defend itself, not only from these organizations’ terrorist attacks, but also from the spread of their influence. The reality is that any step taken by a world power must take these organizations’ possible reactions into consideration, as if they were a world power, or at the very least, another state.

With too much ease, that perhaps disrupts their modus vivendi, these groups have been labeled “global jihad organizations,” or simply Al-Qaida, for short. But after the September 11 attacks, and well before Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, that all-encompassing label failed to accurately reflect these organizations. The Islamist groups in Syria are a particularly fitting example. They each get the label “Al-Qaida branch” until they come under the microscope – which reveals a much more complicated picture, of groups that far from allies, are in open conflict with one another.

Last week, a group called “Caucasian Mujahideen“ announced that it was splitting from another group, called “The Islamist state of Iraq and Syria.” The first, which is comprised of Muslim volunteers from the former Soviet Union states, declared in a video message that their objective is to “help the Syrian people in their struggle, and thus to break off and form their own battalion, spate from the ‘Islamist State,’ which they had previously been a part of.”

The Islamist state organization, however, which is led by Abu Bachar Al-Badhdadi, recently split from the “Jabahat A-Nusra”, the Syrian organization led by Mohammed Al-Julani. To add to the confusion – one must mention that Jabahat A-Nusra itself split into two when Julani decided to join Al-Baghdadi. The two men however, have recently butted heads, and Al-Baghdadi decided to break off from Jabahat A-Nusra, to restore his original organization, called “Islamist Nation of Iraq,”not to be confused with the “Islamist nation in Iraq and Syria.”

The quarrel between the two leaders was not ideological, but rather political. Al-Baghdadi blamed Al-Julani for making decisions alone, and failing to coordinate his actions. But the rift between their two organizations, and between them and the volunteers from the Caucasus runs deeper than that. Volunteers that aren’t Arabs, let alone Syrians, have had difficulty forging ties with the local Syrian population which they control. Their languages aren’t shared, their customs are foreign, and this creates all kinds of difficulties, even though their goal is the same – to remove Assad from power, and found a Sharia state.

These foreign volunteers actually have a close bond with Al-Baghdadi’s group, as the majority of the group is also foreign, and largely uninterested in the needs of the local population. Al-Julani’s group, on the other hand, makes sure to appoint commanders from among the local Syrian populations, and to provide for the people’s basic needs.

The confusion only runs deeper when the preferences of the Syrian volunteers are taken into account. Many of them, living in eastern Syria as they do, hail from the same Iraqi Sunni tribes that join Al-Baghdadi, while western Syria seems to favor Al-Julani.

And where is the Al-Qaida leadership? After Al-Baghdadi and Al-Julani split, Ayman al-Zawahri, who named himself leader of Al-Qaida after Bin Laden’s death, sent the two Syrian commanders a letter, ordering them to completely split up, and restore their organizations, separately, to the way they were before, so that each man would be in command of his own group. Al-Baghdadi, it seems, is in no rush to follow the order, as he continues to exert control over the Caucasus Mujahedeen, while Al-Julani is left to command his own organization. It is doubtful if Al-Zawahri is able to enforce his decision on the heads of these groups, the Syrian, the Iraqi, and the Caucasian, or give them orders in general.

The Sinai front isn’t any simpler. Bait al-Muqaddas (Al-Aqsa Mosque) For example, what is the difference between the “Bait al-Muqaddas (Al-Aqsa Mosque) supporters,” and the “Shura council of Mujahedeen supported by the Bait al-Muqaddas,” or “Bait al-Muqaddas support,” for short? They are both active groups in the Sinai Peninsula. The first group is charged with the attempted assassination of the Egyptian interior minister last week, and the second is charged with an attack on an Egyptian intelligence base that killed 11 people this week. But they are only two of about a dozen Jihadist organizations which have all been labeled by the Egyptian government as “global jihad.”

In these cases, the groups are comprised of volunteers from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Maghreb countries, and even Pakistan and other non-Arab states. These Jihadists, however, are suspected of cooperation with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as well, which aren’t, according to most definitions, accepted as legitimate global jihad organizations. It is unclear which of these groups take orders from Al-Zawahri, or march to the beats of their own drums like, “Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad,” “Al-Takfir Wal-Hijra,” “the black flag group,” and the “jihad supporters,” which total roughly 7,000 armed “soldiers.”

Aside from the acts of terror these groups are committing in Syria and Egypt, the collective labels placed on them manages to force difficult dilemmas on the nations forced to deal with them, and the allies of those nations. Take, for example, Israel’s recent military and intelligence coordination with Egypt, which reached its high point as Israel allowed Egypt to break the Camp David agreements and deploy large forces in the Sinai Peninsula. Or, the American hesitation to freeze military aid to Egypt after the coup, which is due largely to unwillingness to harm the Egyptian army’s efforts against these terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula.

Obviously, Syria is the most fitting example, as all of the organizations that want to do away with Assad also pose a threat of taking over the nation. And we’ve yet to mention Afghanistan, where the police are trying to appease the Taliban and other organizations that aren’t subservient to Al-Zawahri, or Iraq, where Al-Qaida affiliated groups are renewing their insurgency.

In all of these developments, however, there is a common thread. The West is no longer the primary target, but rather local regimes are the main focus. That doesn’t mean that if an easy Western target were to fall into their laps, these groups wouldn’t pounce, but the “global” aspect of their actions has drastically decreased. On the other hand, they manage to seriously hamper the West’s readiness to intervene in these nations, and thus they are indeed putting into practice the ideology that has guided Al-Qaida since its inception.

Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida leader.Credit: Reuters

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