Recent weeks have seen a flurry of articles touting a resurgent al Qaeda. I have lots of grumblings about this notion, which I’ll post separately in the coming days – namely that al Qaeda has actually done nothing as of the writing of this post to achieve its so called resurgence.
The nexus of recent U.S. embassy closures and increased drone attacks allegedly came from an intelligence intercept of an al Qaeda conference call – or as we’ve now learned was probably not a conference call at all but instead some sort of an online chat where people that may or may not have involved high level leaders of al Qaeda affiliates or atleast some dudes that might know important people in al Qaeda affiliates. (We really don’t know anything essentially) What was interesting about the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call was who did not participate. Check out this list of participants from the Daily Beast:
Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
Who is missing? uuhhh, al Shabaab right?
Maybe the source just forgot al Shabaab, but I think chances are that Shabaab wasn’t invited to participate in the call. Shabaab isn’t out in Somalia, but they most certainly are a mess. It was less than two years ago that Shabaab’s merger with al Qaeda was seen by many as a sign of that group’s growing strength with some in 2010 declaring Shabaab as al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate. Having recruited the largest number of Western foreign fighters of any al Qaeda affiliate at the time, Zawahiri probably thought a merger might be a good opportunity during a time of relative decline in al Qaeda.
Instead he got involved in a distant and distracting quagmire in a country that has always been a problem for al Qaeda: Somalia. Since the beginning of 2013, Shabaab under Godane’s leadership has splintered. Ibrahim al-Afghani publicly called for Zawahiri to replace Godane as head of Shabaab at a time when Godane was hunting the rebellious and disgruntled American jihadi Omar Hammami. Later Godane would attempt to kill Hammami and then actually kill al-Afghani and others who called for his ouster. Now, Shabaab appears to be fighting everyone; the Kenyans, Ethiopians, TFG/SNA/AMISOM and their former comrades that have aligned with Mukhtar Robow.
So what for Zawahiri and al Qaeda? Egypt is an opportunity and Syria remains the center of gravity for foreign fighters. But we should use caution when overstating Zawahiri’s ability to control al Qaeda affiliates in these ripe battlefields. It was only a few months ago that al Qaeda went silent and turned a blind eye on its dysfunctional affiliate in Somalia. Zawahiri ignored Afghani, Aweys and Hammami; passively letting his affiliate leader Godane kill al Qaeda members loyal to AQ Central. Why should we be certain from a conference call that probably wasn’t a conference call that Zawahiri and al Qaeda are in control of a global insurgency in many countries? While I do think al Qaeda has probably only delayed the attack that prompted the embassy closures, I don’t think the West should heap so much credit on an al Qaeda that just a few months ago couldn’t silence one of its most celebrated foreign fighters (Hammami) or remove its most divisive emir (Godane).