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Hichem Karoui: Transnational threat
December 23, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Addressing a large audience at the Centre for a New American Security, on Nov. 21, 2012, US Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta explained that for the United States and its allies, “ending the Al Qaeda threat calls for a modified military footprint, close work with partners and continued US involvement in regions of the world where violent extremism has flourished.” On the top priorities,  Panetta went on, come first, “fighting the war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, ending the war in Afghanistan, and implementing the new defence strategy.” However, he particularly insisted on “the goal that the president made very clear,” which remains a responsibility in “disrupting, degrading, dismantling and ultimately defeating those who attacked America on 9/11 – Al Qaeda,” the secretary said.

Nevertheless, if Al Qaeda has indeed been weakened by the death of Osama Bin Laden and several others of his aides, it is still much active in several places across the world. Panetta defined Afghanistan and Pakistan as two hotspots for the fight against Al Qaeda, where prolonged US military and intelligence operations have been rewarded. He acknowledged that Yemen and Somalia remain dangerous hubs. But the problem in these four countries is not new.

It has been there since a long time. As we see that a decade after 9/11, terrorist groups are still active, we realise that maybe the US policy-makers have been a bit too much “optimistic” in their assessment of the intensity of the threat, its longevity, and the means to defeat it.

According to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI – 2012), “The data shows the global impact of terrorism has increased significantly from 2002 to 2011, peaking in 2007 and then slightly falling to approximately 2006 levels in 2011. The current global trend of terrorism can best be described as plateauing rather than decreasing. This is somewhat offset by terrorist activity increasing in more countries than it decreased in, with 72 countries experiencing increased activity and 63 experiencing decreased activity over the last decade.”

The deteriorating situation in Syria and other possible conflicts in the region may make the situation a bit more complicated. The two countries where the US troops have been stationing during long years – i.e. Iraq and Afghanistan – accounted for 35% of the global total number of terrorist incidents from 2002 to 2011, according to GTI. The Middle East and North Africa region had the highest number of terrorist fatalities with the Asia-Pacific region closely following.

Let us not shut our eyes on the new regional and international conjuncture that developed in the wake of the “Arab Spring” revolutions. Not only the new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are facing a clear threat, weakening a political situation that is already enough complicated, but also their surrounding may obviously suffer from a possible mishandling or an underestimation of the threat.

In Tunisia, the Interior Minister, Ali Laridh, has recently acknowledged that elements of Al Qaeda have been (and are still) active across the borders between Algeria and Tunisia. He called them “Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi,’” emphasising that they have been trained by Algerian militants and that they are working under the orders of Al Qaeda “Emir” Abdel Mus’ab Abdel Wadoud.

According to the Tunisian Minister, some of the Al Qaeda elements have been spotted inside the ranks of the protesters who have recently given the government a lot of trouble.

Without further going into the details of the domestic Tunisian politics, there are indeed some elements of truth in this presentation of the threat. The problem of radicalism is likely one of the biggest challenges that the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have to tackle with subtlety and efficiency. Furthermore, this is not just a local issue, but also a regional and transnational one. Groups of violent radical jihadists move from a country to another across the borders, throughout a large region extending from the Northern African Sahara to Mali southward, and between the countries of North Africa themselves, from Morocco to Egypt, eastward. The African horn is also part of this terror network, as their action includes Somalia, with extensions of the same network in Yemen, through the Gulf of Aden. Then taking position in Yemen since relatively a long period, they expanded their network to encompass – at least in their vision –  Iraq, Jordan, and Syria.

This is indeed a transnational network. Their objectives and tactics are clearly stated in the literature of radical Islamism. Syria today is particularly attractive to them, because of its possible “Somalisation” as they wish, in case the political elite reveal to be unable to reach a consensus and a clear understanding regarding the post-Assad era.

In last July and again in August, some reports suggested that “the Islamic State of Iraq”(ISI), a Sunni Islamist umbrella group formed in 2006 by Al Qaeda in Iraq and led by Abu Bakr Al Qurayshi Al Baghdadi, was planning to move militants and weapons across the border into Syria. Another report by The Jamestown Foundation, suggested that Iraqi jihadists were operating in eastern Syria well before the start of the revolution there, “as the country was one of the main entry points for foreign jihadists going into Iraq to join Al Qaeda in 2004-2007.” The report reminded us of the “arrests of 11 suspected members of Al Qaeda in Iraq in connection with an October plot to mount waves of attacks on targets in Amman-Jordan (including the American embassy) using weapons smuggled from Syria and advice from Iraqi explosive experts,” as a proof of the potential and actual cooperation between the jihadists of the North-Africa/Middle East network.

During an ACRPS conference on “geostrategic shifts in the context of Arab revolutions”(see TGT , December 15), I particularly insisted on the fact that tackling the transnational threat would likely take more energy and time from the new governments in the “Arab spring” countries than expected, and would also become part of some foreign powers’ political and strategical planning for many years to come. Clearly, there are no partial solutions for inclusive issues.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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