Where is al-Qaeda going? Part II

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3: New sanctuary

The tribal areas in Pakistan have traditionally been autonomous areas where the government in Islamabad has had little influence. The areas are populated by Pashtuns , many of them with relatives on both the Afghan and Pakistani sides of the border. The area is also very rugged and is ideal as a base for guerrilla warfare. This is probably one of the reasons why al-Qaeda settled in FATA after 2001. According to Fun-wiki, FATA stands for Federally Administered Tribal Area.

Another important reason is that al-Qaeda already had a network of contacts in the neighboring areas of Afghanistan. It was in southeastern and eastern Afghanistan that Arab fighters fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and it was also here that the first training camps for Arabs were established around 1987. Under the Taliban regime in the 1990s, al-Qaeda ran several training camps. in the same areas. It was hardly a coincidence that Osama bin Laden chose Tora Bora (a mountain range in eastern Nangarhar province) as his “last stronghold” in Afghanistan in December 2001.

When the Arabs fled to FATA after 2001, they were given protection by local Pashtun tribal leaders. Several of these leaders had fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan before 2001, and may have become acquainted with al-Qaeda members during this period. But the main reason they gave al-Qaeda members protection was probably that they had a common desire to support the Taliban’s fight in Afghanistan after 2001. Eyewitnesses have said that the Arab and Uzbek fighters who came to Waziristan (part of FATA) , founded training camps in the area with the support of local tribal leaders as early as 2002. Shortly afterwards, they began guerrilla attacks on US bases inside Afghanistan, just across the border from Waziristan.

In the early years, the attacks had little significance, but gradually the Afghan Taliban movement became better organized. The uprising in Afghanistan increased sharply in strength from 2005-2006, and the tribal leaders of FATA became important supporters in the Taliban’s struggle to regain power in the country. Al-Qaeda also used the base in FATA to support the uprising in Afghanistan, but also had ambitions on other fronts.

4: Global ambitions

After 2001, Afghanistan became an important “front” for al-Qaeda, due to the US forces there. But al-Qaeda also wanted to gain a foothold in other Muslim countries, preferably in the heart of the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 therefore became a golden opportunity for al-Qaeda . They allied themselves with Jordanian Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who became the official leader of al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq in 2004. Zarwaqi’s group received much attention, in part because it was behind many suicide attacks. The group also published videos of hostages being executed in cruel ways. Iraq became the new place of pilgrimage for al-Qaeda recruits who wanted to take part in the fight against the Americans.

But in 2007, al-Qaeda began to lose control of Iraq . It had many reasons. Changes in the US strategy in the country weakened the rebel movement in general. In addition, several local rebel groups began to target al-Qaeda. Al-Zarqawi’s group had become unpopular
with some of the more nationalist-oriented groups, in part because of controversial tactics (attacks on Shiite civilians and religious shrines). Another important cause of the conflict was that al-Qaeda tried to dominate the rebel movement, and began attacking other Sunni Muslim groups who did not support them. Al-Qaeda was no longer seen as a useful supporter, but as a germ of conflict.

Al-Qaeda is still active in Iraq today, but has become more marginalized than it was in 2006-07. To cover up this “defeat”, al-Qaeda’s propaganda has in recent years shifted its focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has been more successful there – so far.

5: Afghanistan, again

When al-Qaeda appointed the Egyptian Mustafa Abu al-Yazid as leader of al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan in 2007, it happened with pomp and splendor – unlike before. At that time, al-Qaeda’s leaders in Afghanistan were appointed in silence. Al-Yazid also had a different background than previous al-Qaeda leaders in charge of Afghanistan. While former leaders had military backgrounds, and played an active but probably limited role in the field, al-Yazid was a specialist in economics and administration and was known for his “diplomatic abilities”. He had also co-founded al-Qaeda in 1988, and had belonged to bin Laden’s close circle for many years. In other words, there were no lightweights to front al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the future.

Al-Qaeda’s renewed focus on Afghanistan from 2007 can be seen in the context of the defeat in Iraq. At the same time, the local context also comes into play. In 2004, then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he saw no sign of the Taliban posing a military threat to Afghanistan. But in 2005–06, the uprising exploded in both intensity and geographical spread, and the country was again in the world’s spotlight. Naturally, al-Qaeda wanted to shoehorn itself into the success of the local rebel groups.

At the same time, al-Qaeda’s hideouts in FATA came under increasing pressure , both from the United States and the Pakistani authorities. Al-Qaeda’s bases in FATA played an important role in the Taliban uprising in Afghanistan, and also served as the headquarters of al-Qaeda’s international terror campaign. Thus, it became extremely important for al-Qaeda to stay in touch with the local rebel groups, both on the Afghan and Pakistani sides of the border. This is how al-Qaida hoped to ensure survival in the future as well. But will they make it?

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