Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Daily Times editorial March 8, 2012

The al Qaeda franchise

After the loss of its base in Afghanistan and the death of its leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, optimists may have thought that the terrorist organisation was on its last legs. Not if the al Qaeda ‘franchise’ is any indication, however. The attack by the Yemen branch of al Qaeda, one of the most active ‘franchisees’, on a military base in Kud, just south of the main city of Zinjibar in the insurgent-infested province of Abyan yielded a devastating worst ever defeat for the Yemen army in its 10-month old campaign against al Qaeda in the area. The death toll from the attack has risen to 185 soldiers, with many of the bodies mutilated and some headless. Apparently the terrorists were able to achieve complete surprise when attacking the sleeping camp from the rear, where there was zero surveillance. They not only overran the base, they then turned the army’s captured armoured vehicles and artillery against the soldiers. The defeat comes as a serious blow to newly installed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s declared resolve the other day to fight al Qaeda in the province. In fact, some observers are inclined to see the attack as a direct response to the president’s challenge. Not surprisingly, the surprise attack and the mutilations have left government troops fearful and with low morale. Another 55 soldiers were captured and paraded through a nearby town by the terrorists, who lost 32 fighters in the assault. The opposition to and lengthy year long protests against longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, who only handed over power to Hadi last month, left the Yemeni state weaker in its campaign against the terrorists. Reports say the soldiers in the overrun base were poorly equipped and better trained and armed anti-terrorist units needed to be brought to the front. Hadi has reiterated his resolve to continue the struggle against al Qaeda, but it seems he has a long way to go before such claims can be taken seriously.
After 9/11, US President George Bush decided to go after al Qaeda in the manner of killing a fly with a sledgehammer, invading and occupying al Qaeda’s host country Afghanistan, ruled then by the Taliban. In the process, the splattered pieces of the al Qaeda elements escaping from Afghanistan to Pakistan spread fairly rapidly to other countries, either in the shape of some al Qaeda members returning to the countries of their origin to carry on their terrorist activities there, or local groups springing up throughout the Middle East and even as far as Indonesia. The struggle against this new widespread threat has had a mixed bag of results. Indonesia seems to have managed to put the lid on terrorism after the terrible bombings in Bali. In Somalia, the al Shabaab group is wrestling the government for power. Invaded Iraq also gave a fillip to al Qaeda in that country. With the withdrawal of US forces from that war, a noticeable resurgence of terrorism has been evident in recent days. Europe too has seen its share of terrorism by elements inspired by al Qaeda’s malign message.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite being reportedly based in FATA, especially North Waziristan, al Qaeda has maintained a reasonably low profile, the occasional leaked messages from Osama bin Laden and after his death, his successor Ayman al Zawahri, notwithstanding. Here the task has been ‘contracted’ out to local Taliban groups across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is arguable on the evidence therefore that al Qaeda may be down, but by no means out. Apprehensions of al Qaeda finding a revived base in Afghanistan if the Taliban return to power are not without foundation. Unfortunately, the heavy handed tactics of the US and NATO have failed to contain, let alone scotch, the phenomenon. The world’s response has been confused, lacking coordination, and therefore ineffective in wiping out the terrorist organisation. Of course the dual policy of the Pakistani military establishment vis-à-vis jihadi groups has not helped. The hope is that US/NATO withdrawal from the Afghan theatre notwithstanding, the world will revisit and formulate a more intelligent strategy to contain and eliminate the menace that threatens many countries in the region and further abroad.

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