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Global jihad's evolving strategy: Focus Al Qaeda

By Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)
Last updated on: March 02, 2010 15:31 IST
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The global jihadi network is under pressure but it needs a long-term strategy to keep it in control, writes Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

The terror attack on the German Bakery in Pune on February 13 and the failed Christmas days attack by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in America shows that the global jihadi network is under pressure.

Meanwhile, US Marines and the Afghan National Army have launched Operation Moshtarak and advanced into Marjah in Helmand, Afghanistan pushing the Taliban-Qaeda combine further. Global jihad's prime protagonist Al Qaeda has definitely experienced capability degradation with sustained targeting. Under the circumstances what strategy is the group evolving or strengthening? After all, it has been able to package itself as a beacon for jihadists globally and has wrested the ideological leadership of the jihadi world, largely. It would like to definitely want to retain that status.

Jihad's Strategy: Future Dimensions

Osama bin Laden's strategic intent of consolidation of Jihadi groups globally found expression way back in 1990s when he floated the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Christians while in Afghanistan. The strategy has witnessed piecemeal implementation so far. Coalescing of operational capabilities of outfits is easily witnessed today in the Af-Pak region with the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other militant outfits providing the manpower to the Taliban-Qaeda combine in its fight in Afghanistan. The Afghan battlefield has also inspired western Islamist radical converts to join the terrorists there and train their weapons on troops from their own adopted country.

The failure of Osama's consolidation strategy lies in Al Qaeda not becoming a more tolerant structure that provides space for all sub-sects of its religion. As it stands, it remains as virulently anti-Shia as it is when it's a question of Christians, Jews etc. The fact of the organisation having suffered considerable capability degradation with US attacks should have rationally inculcated more tolerance, and perhaps even alliances with other fundamentalist movements from other religions in atleast local tactical partnerships. However, no such endeavour is evident.

Expanding the scope and definition of enemies to be targeted has been pursued gradually by Al Qaeda. Though Al Qaeda's birth was inspired by the felt need of protecting the Islamic land -- Saudi Arabia -- from being occupied by the US, the strategy of defensive jihad has made way to a far more aggressive mutant. Today, Al Qaeda identifies Muslim leaders and States co-operating against its intents, as enemies. It espouses addressing them with similar violence as it reserves for crusaders. Further, the killing of innocents living in such states is also permissible since such populace is not resisting occupation of Islamic land by kafirs. In effect, the whole world but for those who actively support its cause are targetable by its tenets, now.

Survival of its strategic leadership is an evident priority with Al Qaeda. The use of the best technology and the declaration of the highest reward any mortal commands on his scalp, have not yet led to Osama or Al Zawahiri being captured. Unlike the LTTE of Sri Lanka, where the entire top leadership shared the fate of its rank and file, to be killed, thus leaving the organisation headless, the Al Qaeda leadership will remain elusive in order to ensure survivability of the organisation.

Adoption of alternative means to pursue its cause is not within the ambit of Al Qaeda's strategy. Unlike Hamas that participated in a democratic process, Al Qaeda will pursue purely violent methods. The penultimate strategic objective of the organisation remains an Islamist Caliphate, brought to bear and guided by Al Qaeda. It involves the creation of Islamist emirates initially, which will coalesce to form the Caliphate someday. Al Qaeda, apparently aims for a model in which day-to-day affairs of the emirates (states) will be the prerogative of chieftains of various Islamist militant groups/tribes dominating the area, within the framework of larger religious and military dictates decreed by Al Qaeda.

With nations increasing their scrutiny at airports and ports, it is getting more and more difficult to induct men and material for conducting operations in any country. However, modern communications allow dispersed sleeper cells to be fairly intimately guided by a central authority. Locals also do not raise suspicions as would be the case with an outsider. And such radicalised men are increasingly being found in most societies. Al Qaeda would perhaps prefer to use this lot more preponderantly in executing its operations in future.

Al Qaeda has given a call for garnering nuclear, biological and chemical weapons technology. Its web sites have asked for such assistance. It fully comprehends its requirement of such weapons to bridge the asymmetric capability gap it faces when compared with western powers.

Free World's Response Contours

If those be the strategic thrusts of the jihadi establishment in the days ahead what are the contours that could define the response of the free world. Of course, such issues as sharing of intelligence, militarily defeating them and ideologically overwhelming them remain vital but beyond that a few issues of import need attention.

Afghanistan is crucial to the free world's campaign against global jihad. If the Afghan battle is lost, in addition to sanctuaries, financial means, a huge recruitment cum training base and other advantages, the greatest benefit for global jihad would be its morale boost. The establishment of the Caliphate will seem probable to its rank and file. Obviously, Afghanistan cannot be lost. Pakistan has also to stop exporting and abetting terrorism.

Financial prowess is essential for every conceivable activity. The huge payoffs from the drugs trade goes to finance the jihadi movements. Afghanistan accounted for 80 percent of the world's opium produce last year. Mere destruction of crops is not an answer. Finding alternate crops, a market for the produce, and other livelihood means is the requirement. The smuggling of the drugs to primarily European and American destinations requires constant combating. Beyond opium, the loose structure of international financial transactions needs to be addressed making systems more transparent.

The larger issues of Palestine and Kashmir requiring resolution is an argument floated by most westerners. The relevance of such arguments notwithstanding, to conclude that the quest for an Islamist Caliphate will dilute should these issues be resolved, is misplaced. The demands of US forces leaving Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. have enough fodder to continue to propel Al Qaeda and jihadists of all shades. Even if all the above issues were resolved, the fanatics will find multiple preposterous rationales. In short, there are no olive branches or fig leaves, either off the shelf or tailor made that holds out a promise.

The hunt for the Al Qaeda leadership remains on. It needs to be strengthened. The top leadership will need to be eliminated. Meanwhile, they need to be discredited, and their harbourers pressurised to cooperate. The rank and file jihadists need to be assisted in perceiving, if Jannat (heaven) is what is attained through martyrdom, how is it that their leadership, Osama included, do not take to the field. That jihadists are but cannon fodder is the writing on the wall.

The Muslim ummah is certainly not with Al Qaeda, and the organisation understands that very well. In fact, Al Qaeda's mindless violence has further disenchanted a considerable percentage. However, it retains a resonating vibrance for a small segment of fundamentalists.

The fact that it corrupts Islam's teachings needs to be articulated by the Muslim intelligentsia, and the leadership of Islamic countries. They are the ones best armed to contain the menace. The battle against a self anointed ideologue is ideological too, and is best undertaken by those who practice the faith with diligence and are respected by the followers of the same faith.

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Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)