Monday, 2 May 2011

Following bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda affiliates poised to produce new leaders

Following bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda affiliates poised to produce new leaders

By Sudarsan Raghavan, Updated: Monday, May 2, 3:25 PM
NAIROBI — With the death of Osama bin Laden, a constellation of al-Qaeda franchises stretching from Africa to the Middle East, and linked by ideology and allegiance to his core values and tactics, are poised to produce their next generation of leaders and operatives, according to terrorism experts.

Yemen, in particular, is likely to become a prominent refuge and operational arena for al-Qaeda loyalists, possibly creating an even bigger challenge for the Obama administration, they said. The poor and unstable Middle Eastern nation is home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, which has tried to attack the United States twice since 2009.

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“Bin Laden leaves behind a number of groups that have been deeply influenced by him. He has built a movement that will outlast him,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. “Yemen will become an even more significant theatre than Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming months and years.”

But Yemen will not be the only area of concern for the United States and its allies.

In Somalia, al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab is seeking to overthrow the struggling American-backed transitional government and turn the region into a Taliban-like Islamic emirate.

In North and West Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has murdered westerners and staged suicide bombings. Kidnappings for ransom are growing, infusing large sums of cash into the group’s coffers. The group is believed to have perpetrated last week’s bombing of a popular cafe in Marrakesh that killed 16, mostly foreigners.

Bin Laden’s death arrives as Yemen is facing its biggest political crisis in more than three decades. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a vital American ally in counterterrorism, is clinging to power as momentum builds on the streets and in Arab capitals for his ouster, inspired by the populist rebellions that have gripped the region. Saleh has agreed to step down within 30 days after a formal agreement is signed that grants him and his family immunity, but so far the talks have been bogged down by mistrust and disagreement over core demands in the deal.

U.S. officials are deeply concerned about a post-Saleh government. His sons and nephews control crucial security agencies, including American-trained counterterrorism units. For weeks now, those units have remained inside their barracks, as key military officials have defected to the opposition and divided the security forces.

AQAP militants have reportedly taken over areas in the south, deepening their presence especially in Shabwa and Abyan provinces. And Houthi rebels seized Saada province in the north, further weakening the central government. Even before the political turmoil, Yemen had grappled for years with the northern rebels and a secessionist movement in the south, and diminishing oil and water reserves. Meanwhile, rising food prices and a sinking Yemeni rial are exacerbating tensions.

Such instability probably will allow AQAP to bolster its presence, observers say. Earlier this year, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, described the affiliate as posing “the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland.” On Christmas Day, 2009, the group dispatched a Nigerian man to try to blow up an American airliner headed to Detroit; last year, it tried to blow up Chicago-bound cargo jets with printer cartridges filled with explosives.

AQAP and other franchises, say terrorism experts, were part of a grand plan by bin Laden to enlarge al-Qaeda’s reach and leave a self-sustaining legacy. Such affiliates received little, if any, financial and material support from al-Qaeda’s central command in Afghanistan and Pakistan — or any directives. They operated independently, conducting their own fundraising, recruitment and strategizing. Often, bin Laden and his associates would step in to offer rhetorical and theological encouragement

“Bin Laden’s biggest achievement was his ability to work with different leaders and disparate groups,” Gunaratna said. “He was more like a politician when it comes to collaborating with other groups. In doing so, bin Laden was able to replicate core Qaeda tactics and operations in other theaters, so that many new al-Qaedas emerged.”

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