The pictures of 8-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, with a red bow in her hair and a charming smile, filled internet pages and television screens. Her image did not go viral because of a precocious singing talent. Nawar, known as Nora, was the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric who had been called the heir of Osama bin Laden.
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Six years after her father was killed in a U.S. drone strike, Nora was killed in the first operation under President Donald Trump, conducted by U.S. special operations forces this week on her home in an Al-Qaida training camp in Yemen.
The same Navy SEAL Team 6 that killed bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 carried out this week’s ground operation, in which U.S. Chief Petty Officer William Owens was also killed. The American force killed 14 Al-Qaida members, but some 40 Yemeni civilians also died in the attack, including women and children. The operation was controversial because it seems Al-Qaida fighters were waiting for the raid, and as soon as they identified the American forces they opened fire. The possibility of a leak is being investigated.
At the same time, the operation helps clarify what Trump means for his war on terror. It seems the Islamic State organization is becoming a secondary target, both because of its failures on the Iraqi and Syrian fronts and because the fight against the Islamic State requires international coordination, particularly with Russia and Turkey. In comparison, the war against Al-Qaida can be considered an independent American battle, based on international intelligence cooperation of course, but not requiring coordination — and it does not carry the risk of another massive military intervention, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It would seem the attack in Yemen was just looking in all the obvious places. Yemen has the highest concentration of Al-Qaida militants, who have turned south-central Yemen into their base for training and civilian power. As opposed to other Muslim countries, such as Algeria, Pakistan or Afghanistan, in Yemen Al-Qaida has taken control using the same model the Islamic State used when it captured cities in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaida controls the port city of Al Mukalla, the capital of the Hadramaut governorate and Yemen’s main oil export terminal. Al-Qaida also controls oil fields in southern Yemen, and it collects an estimated $2 million a day from oil sales, taxes on services and customs fees on goods entering through the port.
Al-Qaida has exempted Hadramaut residents from taxes, saying they violate Islamic law. More important, it increases civilian support for the organization at the same time that members are marrying local girls, establishing businesses and becoming part of the community.
This is also why it is so hard to uproot Al-Qaida from its base in Yemen without an intensive ground campaign, which given the civil war there is not even a possibility. So the random actions taken by the U.S. military, mostly drone strikes, have only a marginal effect that does not limit the organization’s activities.
Some 3,500 kilometers from Al Mukalla, in Idlib, Syria, a new Al-Qaida force is growing out of the Levant Conquest Front (the former Nusra Front). It is led by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a rival of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After the fall of Aleppo, a number of Islamic militias established an umbrella organization named the “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” (Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham), which includes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, part of Ahrar al-Sham and parts of other organizations, under the command of Abu Jaber Hashem al-Sheikh, with Golani as the supreme leader.
All these groups, except for Tahrir al-Sham, enjoyed Turkish and American support until recently, and some received training and weapons from the CIA and were an integral part of what was called the “moderate Islamic rebels,” an amorphous group that also participated in the peace negotiations and is considered the legitimate representatives of the rebels to be included in the alternative leadership to the present Syrian regime.
Now with the establishment of the umbrella organization under the auspices of Al-Qaida, these groups have not only cut themselves off from their American and Turkish support, but have also become a legitimate target of the war on terror. This also strengthens the Russian position that it is impossible to separate between the moderate rebels and the terrorists, and all the Syrian rebel organizations, as Moscow claims, must be destroyed, and can certainly not participate as legitimate representatives of Syria.
It is not completely clear what caused these organizations to abandon their previous respectability and join Al-Qaida, but it is possible that they want to take advantage of the weakness of Islamic State in Syria and become the strongest anti-regime fighting force, with some 10,000 fighters. They could become indispensable for any solution in Syria, and would have to be included. Whatever the explanation is, the coming together of such a force in Syria gives Al-Qaida and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, great importance — after losing large parts of the organization and its influence to Islamic State over the past two years. An example is the group in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which declared fealty to al-Baghdadi two years ago, and now parts of the group decided to return to Al-Qaida.
A no less important development is the expanding base of Al-Qaida members in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2009, U.S. intelligence agencies estimated that only about 300 Al-Qaida fighters were left in Afghanistan. A year later then-CIA director Leon Panetta thought the number was even lower, between 50 and 100 men. But in October 2015, American forces attacked an Al-Qaida base in Kandahar in Afghanistan, and it turned out the base had almost 250 fighters. This was a big surprise for American intelligence, which admitted its intelligence on Al-Qaida in Afghanistan was lacking; and in 2016 they estimated that even after the attack on the base in Qandahar a few hundred Al-Qaida fighters remained in Afghanistan along with an unknown number in Pakistan — in addition to the “branch” in India established by al-Zawahiri there in 2014.
The “official” number of fighters may not sound impressive, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan Al-Qaida benefits from cooperation with the Taliban and other groups such as the Haqqani Network, which are responsible for a great number of attacks.
Al-Qaida is expanding its activities in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Mali but also in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. In Libya it they merged with another group, Ansar al-Sahria in the Benghazi region, where they suffered a serious defeat from the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, which forced them out of most of their strongholds. But Al-Qaida succeeded in reestablishing their outposts in the western part of the country, and over the last year they reinforced their ranks with fighters who have returned from Syria.
As opposed to the Islamic State, Al-Qaida in North Africa does not advertise their attacks, uses less brutal methods and tries to keep a low media profile. In addition, it focuses its attacks on military targets rather than civilians. As a rule, Al-Qaida uses the strategy it inherited from bin Laden, in which it is preferable to cooperate with the local population and not harm it, even if that means protecting the lives and property of Christians — and even of Shi’ite Muslims.