Al Qaeda ex­pands ar­mies, ter­ri­tory

Takes ad­van­tage of U.S. fo­cus on Is­lamic State

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Al Qaeda is mak­ing a come­back in the Mid­dle East and North Africa by ex­pand­ing its ar­mies and in­fil­trat­ing new ter­ri­to­ries, com­pli­cat­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s pri­or­ity of de­stroy­ing the world’s other ma­jor Salafist Sunni group, the Is­lamic State.

Whether al Qaeda could or­ga­nize an­other transna­tional plot such as the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks on the U.S. is ques­tion­able. But it is ex­plor­ing bomb­mak­ing tech­niques to bring down air­lin­ers as well as ways to desta­bi­lize lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

In re­cent months, the Pen­tagon has shifted more fire­power against al Qaeda, which is try­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on Washington’s fo­cus on the Is­lamic State, or ISIS. The ul­tra­vi­o­lent group shocked the world in 2014 when it in­vaded Iraq and be­gan in­spir­ing mass slaugh­ter in the West.

Ter­ror­ism an­a­lysts have told Congress in re­cent weeks that al Qaeda’s plan is to re­cruit qual­ity ter­ror­ists in­stead of mass sign-ups. The group, founded by Osama bin Laden, is re­ly­ing on a so­cial net­work of mosques and fi­nanciers to se­lect ji­hadis in­stead of the Is­lamic State’s flashy in­ter­net me­dia pro­duc­tions.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­act­ing. The Pen­tagon an­nounced Thurs­day that Mr. Trump has ap­proved an ex­pan­sion of “pre­ci­sion strikes” on al-Shabab, al Qaeda’s per­sis­tent fran­chise that is try­ing to over­throw the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in So­ma­lia.

In Jan­uary, Mr. Trump ap­proved a ma­jor spe­cial op­er­a­tions raid on al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Peninsula (AQAP) in Ye­men. It marked a rare on-the-ground con­fronta­tion with a group ded­i­cated to at­tack­ing the U.S. home­land and bring­ing down air­lin­ers. U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, who learned much about AQAP’s fight­ing style in that raid, have sig­naled that more ground strikes are planned.

Thomas Josce­lyn, a ter­ror­ism ex­pert at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies, told the

Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee that al Qaeda is grow­ing.

“One of the com­mon [themes] that was re­peated was that ISIS was con­cerned with con­trol­ling ter­ri­tory, whereas al Qaeda is not. This is false,” Mr. Josce­lyn tes­ti­fied. “Al Qaeda has a dif­fer­ent strat­egy for do­ing so, but they are build­ing Is­lamic emi­rates right now, as we sit here, in sev­eral coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ye­men.”

AQAP is not just a fran­chise, but also an al Qaeda head­quar­ters to co­or­di­nate at­tacks out­side the coun­try, he said.

With al Qaeda build­ing “emi­rates,” Mr. Trump finds him­self in a two-front war akin to fight­ing two fas­cist en­e­mies, Ger­many and Ja­pan, in World War II. Both the Is­lamic State and al Qaeda must be de­feated to win the war on ter­ror­ism, but the two Salafist groups keep ex­pand­ing out­side their core ar­eas.

“While the Is­lamic State is burn­ing very brightly, it’s also burn­ing very quickly,” ter­ror­ism con­sul­tant Ge­off Porter told a House Home­land Se­cu­rity sub­com­mit­tee last week. “And al Qaeda has em­ployed a more con­ser­va­tive, longer-term strat­egy and is likely to be more en­dur­ing of an or­ga­ni­za­tion than the Is­lamic State will be.

“I would ar­gue that it’s less ag­gres­sive in its re­cruit­ing be­cause it’s more selec­tive in its re­cruit­ing. And the mem­ber­ship of al Qaeda, I think, is more ca­pa­ble than the mem­ber­ship of the Is­lamic State over the longer term,” Mr. Porter said.

Al Qaeda has been greatly over­shad­owed by the Is­lamic State since 2014. ISIS, as it is of­fi­cially called by the Pen­tagon, built a huge for­eign fighter army in Syria, boldly and vi­ciously in­vaded Iraq and es­tab­lished a so-called caliphate. It was ter­ror­ism’s first large, ma­neu­ver­able land force com­plete with a so­cial-me­di­asavvy pro­pa­ganda arm.

But all the while, al Qaeda was study­ing the same up­heaval left by the 2011 Arab Spring in North Africa and the Mid­dle East and started cap­i­tal­iz­ing.

“Where al Qaeda per­haps has an ad­van­tage as an ide­ol­ogy and its ide­o­log­i­cal roots is the fact that it’s built on a ma­trix that has been de­vel­oped over years of for­eign money, for­eign in­flu­ence, mosques and so­cial net­works,” said J. Peter Pham of the At­lantic Coun­cil.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s as­sess­ment that “al Qaeda is on the run” seems a dis­tant boast to­day.

Al Qaeda is op­er­at­ing at least five ma­jor or­ga­ni­za­tions: al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb (AQIM) and An­sar al Shariah in North Africa, AQAP in Ye­men, al-Shabab in So­ma­lia and a bur­geon­ing army in Syria. In Afghanistan, where the war on al Qaeda be­gan as the World Trade Cen­ter lay in smok­ing ru­ins, it re­mains a threat.

AQIM has ex­panded from coastal ar­eas of Al­ge­ria into Libya and Tu­nisia.

The think tank Long War Jour­nal re­ports that al Qaeda in­creased at­tacks by 150 per­cent in North Africa, from 106 in 2015 to 250 last year.

Plan­ning for growth

“With its on­go­ing op­er­a­tion in Tu­nisia and its re­group­ment in the Sa­hara and the [sub-Sa­hara] Sa­hel, al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb is now the strong­est ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion in North Africa and poses the great­est threat to U.S. na­tional in­ter­ests in the re­gion,” Mr. Porter told the House Home­land Se­cu­rity sub­com­mit­tee.

Steve Stal­in­sky, who di­rects the Mid­dle East Me­dia Re­search In­sti­tute, told The Washington Times that ji­hadi groups are form­ing in North Africa and pledg­ing al­le­giance to al Qaeda.

One new group, the Union of Sa­hel Ji­hadi Groups, popped up in mid-March and was im­me­di­ately em­braced by AQIM.

“This high­lights a big fo­cus of al Qaeda,” Mr. Stal­in­sky said. “These groups have also been warn­ing France of com­ing at­tacks.”

AQAP has in­creased in size thanks in part to Iran’s de­ci­sion to back Shi­ite Houthi rebels in Ye­men. This cre­ated an­other Sunni-Shi­ite flash­point, beck­on­ing re­cruits to al Qaeda. AQAP con­tin­ues re­search into bombs that can be sneaked onto pas­sen­ger air­craft.

Last month, the Pen­tagon un­leashed one of its largest bomb­ing raids on AQAP ter­ror­ists, their weapons and their com­pounds.

“AQAP has taken ad­van­tage of un­governed spa­ces in Ye­men to plot, di­rect and in­spire ter­ror at­tacks against the United States and our al­lies,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, di­rec­tor of Pen­tagon press op­er­a­tions. “U.S. forces will con­tinue to work with the gov­ern­ment of Ye­men to de­feat AQAP and deny it the abil­ity to op­er­ate in Ye­men.”

Said Bill Rog­gio of the Long War Jour­nal: “The large num­ber of strikes over a short pe­riod of time in­di­cates the U.S. is chang­ing its tac­tics in fight­ing AQAP in Ye­men. The U.S. mil­i­tary pre­vi­ously de­scribed AQAP as one of the most dan­ger­ous ter­ror­ist net­works that is de­ter­mined to strike U.S. in­ter­ests, yet it had been overly cau­tious in tar­get­ing the group. Over the pre­vi­ous five years, the U.S. mil­i­tary av­er­aged just two to three strikes against AQAP a month.”

Mr. Josce­lyn tes­ti­fied that AQAP in Ye­men was planned by bin Laden in the early 1990s as a fu­ture al Qaeda state, rather than an adap­ta­tion to the U.S. in­va­sion of al Qaeda’s head­quar­ters in Afghanistan in 2001.

“That’s how far in ad­vance they have been think­ing about this,” he said.

He said the U.S. has killed al Qaeda lead­ers in Ye­men, “yet their in­sur­gency grows, their in­sur­gency pros­pers.”

Mean­while, al Qaeda in Syria has been gain­ing some ter­ri­tory as U.S.-backed rebels re­cede and Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, backed by Rus­sian air­power and Ira­nian com­man­ders and mili­tias, ce­ments his bru­tal hold on power.

Al Qaeda, once aligned with what was then called the Nusra Front, has cob­bled to­gether var­i­ous ji­hadi groups into a for­mi­da­ble stand­ing army that has taken land in cen­tral Syria. Press re­ports say some U.S.-backed rebels aban­doned their units and joined al Qaeda, weapons and all.

In Afghanistan, where the hot war against al Qaeda and its head­quar­ters, safe houses and train­ing camps be­gan 15 years ago, of­fi­cials say it re­mains a threat to the cap­i­tal, Kabul.

Na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cial Ma­soom Stanikzai told CNN: “They are re­ally very ac­tive. They are work­ing in quiet and re­or­ga­niz­ing them­selves and pre­par­ing them­selves for big­ger at­tacks. They are work­ing be­hind other net­works, giv­ing them sup­port and the ex­pe­ri­ence they had in dif­fer­ent places. And dou­ble their re­sources and re­cruit­ment and other things. That is how — they are not talk­ing too much. They are not mak­ing press state­ments. It is a big threat.”

In the run-up to his re-elec­tion in 2012, Mr. Obama de­clared al Qaeda “is on the run.”

In a 2013 speech at the Na­tional De­fense Univer­sity, he talked of “lethal yet less ca­pa­ble al Qaeda af­fil­i­ates” and said the “core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pak­istan is on the path to de­feat” and the “core al Qaeda is a shell of its for­mer self.”

Later that year, he said that “core al Qaeda is on its heels, has been dec­i­mated.”

To­day, Mr. Josce­lyn looks at the al Qaeda map and sees a dif­fer­ent story.

“The bot­tom line here is … al Qaeda’s core was never de­feated, it was never dec­i­mated,” he said. “They suf­fered dozens of lead­er­ship losses for sure, but they had thought that through and they knew that they were go­ing to suf­fer those losses, and we are still killing guys, to this day, who first joined the ji­had in 1979 and 1980.”

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