Sunday, August 21, 2011

Whither Al-Qaeda after Osama's death and Arab Spring?

Earlier this month (August 2011), I attended a lecture by Professor Bruce Hoffman entitled "Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden and the Arab Spring" (henceforth, for convenience, I shall be referring to, Al-Qaeda as AQ, Osama Bin Laden as OBL and the Arab Spring as AS). The lecture, as its title suggests, was mainly about the prospects of AQ and terrorism following the death of OBL and in light of the recent events of the AS.

Decline of Al-Qaeda?

Professor Hoffman started his lecture talking about how following the death of OBL and with the events of AS recently, many observers have come forth to say that AQ is on the decline. On this, Professor Hoffman reminded the audience that many times in the past, following the capture, death or killing of certain key AQ leaders or operatives, many have also talked about the decline, if not demise, of AQ. Yet, unfortunately, those claims have not come true.

That said, perhaps claims that AQ is on the decline will indeed come true this time? According to Professor Hoffman, drone attacks have killed about half of AQ's top leadership in the past three years. In addition, the recent events of AS appear to demonstrate that the violent Islamist extremist ideology of AQ is no longer the predominant ideology in the Arab world/Middle East, that AQ is slowly becoming irrelevant and marginalised as a force to be reckoned with.

The core is weak but the affiliates are gaining in strength

Professor Hoffman was however quick to remind his audience that despite the above, the threat posed by terrorism remains a significant worldwide threat. This is in light of how AQ, through its affiliates, is still operating on an international scale with eleven networks or theatres. For example, there are the AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP; i.e. Yemen), AQ in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and also AQ in East Africa (in the form of Al-Shabaab).

And of these affiliate groups, the AQAP and Al-Shabaab, in Professor Hoffman's assessment, are the two of the fastest-growing groups. The latter has transformed from being just another militant group in Somalia to become a group which perhaps have effective control over most of Somalia. As for the AQAP, Professor Hoffman said that it is perhaps one of the most innovative groups when it comes to concocting new (suicide) bombing tactics - this was the group behind the "Underwear Bomber" and the "Ink Cartridges" bombs. In fact, it was reported that AQ and/or its affiliates may be attempting to make use of SIIEDs i.e. Surgically Implanted [into an individual's body, if you all are wondering] Improvised Explosive Devices to launch terrorist attacks.

In addition, AQ and/or its affiliates also has an increasing online presence which they are aptly using for the purposes of propaganda and recruitment. According to Professor Hoffman, besides making use of online forums and websites, these groups are also making use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter (here, Professor Hoffman pointed out how, ironically, these tools were similarly used by the proponents of AS). An example of this growing online presence would evidently be the Youtube videos of Anwar al-Awlaki. In fact, as revealed by Professor Hoffman (to my utmost surprise), the Taliban apparently actually has not one but two Twitter accounts on which it gives its own account of the war is going on in Afghanistan!

Hence, in light of the above, Professor Hoffman said that AQ is not a single monolithic entity but is a transnational networked movement with regional franchises. Although the AQ core may be weakened, its regional franchises appear to be growing in strength and influence.

Al-Qaeda: weakened but not defeated

With regards to claims about how recent events of AS have perhaps marked the irrelevance and marginalisation of AQ and its ideology in the Arab world/Middle East, Professor Hoffman said that while this may appear to be the case for now, AQ's message with its traditional core audience (which the Professor identified as being disenfranchised, disillusioned, marginalised youth) still remains strong.

And Professor Hoffman pointed out that if the AS falters or does not succeed as fast or to an extent that people want it to, the pool of disenfranchised, disillusioned, marginalised youth in the Arab world/Middle East (and perhaps also elsewhere in the world) is quite likely to increase, thus providing an even larger pool of potential recruits for AQ and its affiliates.

Here, Professor Hoffman reminded the audience how there was similar optimism about the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon in 2005 but as things turn out, this led to the rise of the Hezbollah. There is thus a significant potential for the AS to turn bad.

Professor Hoffman added that with the upcoming US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is the risk that the Taliban or other extremist groups may return to destabilise and take over the country and once again use it as a sanctuary from which terrorist attacks may be plotted and carried out. History shows us this was what happened after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

Capturing and killing terrorists: necessary but not sufficient

Moving on, Professor Hoffman told the audience that while the capturing and killing of terrorist operatives is necessary and critical, this is by itself not sufficient to fully defeat the threat of terrorism. There is a crucial need for a political solution to not only "decapitate" AQ and its affiliates but also to reduce AQ's ability to recruit new members to regenerate itself (here, as I was taking notes on this point, I thought of the analogy of how while you may cut off the heads of a hydra, those heads will most probably grow back, if not in even greater quantity).

There is thus a critical need to produce counter-narratives that can counter the appeal of AQ's ideology. Here, the Professor highlighted the documentary "Killing in the name" (plot summary; trailer video) as a noteworthy example of doing this.

Later on during the question-and-answer session, Professor Hoffman remarked how while many perhaps also recognise this crucial need to go beyond just capturing and killing terrorist operatives to initiate counter/deradicalisation efforts, much less effort, resources and attention is spent on the latter because there is perhaps no readily available quantitative measurement of how successful a counter/deradicalisation initiative is. In other words, while you can easily count how many terrorist operatives you captured or killed, it is much more difficult to count how many individuals you prevented from coming under the sway of terrorist groups.

Professor Hoffman ended his lecture by saying that while his analysis may appear rather negative and pessimistic, what he really is seeking to do is to remind people how dynamic the situation is and can be - that even as things appear to be very positive, there is the potential for them to go very wrong (and vice versa, hopefully?).

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