Al-Qaeda returns with another bin Laden
As the Americans and more recently the Russians worked to crush the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, they also have had to face an older, and seemingly wiser, enemy: A resurgent al-Qaeda, which has exploited the critical reverses suffered by its savage progeny over the last 18 months to stage a comeback.
Adding to the déjà vu, al-Qaeda’s advances in Syria may prove to be a launching pad for Osama bin Laden’s favourite son, Hamza, believed to be in his late 20s, to take command of the organisation as it claws its way back into leadership of the global jihad.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies noted that al-Qaeda “seems to have more lives than a cat… It has skilfully played itself off ISIS to portray the organisation as being the ‘moderate jihadists,’ people who you might not like but you can do business with.”
If the younger bin Laden does come out on top, it will have “potentially deadly consequences for the West and the rest of the world,” said Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American veteran of the jihadist wars who has hunted down many of al- Qaeda’s hard men.
Since Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces in a raid on his Pakistani hideaway in May 2011, al-Qaeda has been led by his long-time deputy, veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, an organiser who lacks the charisma of his warrior predecessor and who, as an Egyptian, is seen by many of al-Qaeda’s Gulf Arab stalwarts as an interloper.
“Many factors suggest that Hamza could be a highly effective leader,” Soufan observed.
“His family pedigree, not to mention his dynastic marriage to the daughter of an al-Qaeda charter member (Abu Mohammed al- Masri), automatically entitles him to respect from every jihadi who follows bin Laden’s ideology…
“His long-standing jihadi fervour and obvious charisma and his closeness to al-Qaeda’s most senior operatives” bolster his leadership qualities, Soufan, a former FBI special agent, noted.
“It remains to be seen how, exactly, the organisation will make use of him, but it is clear that his star is on the rise,” Soufan wrote in a September analysis published by the US Combating Terrorism Centre.
“That should worry policy-makers in the West as well as in the Muslim world.”
Hamza bin Laden has never fought on the front lines in the jihadist wars, although he repeatedly begged his father to let him do so. Letters found in Osama bin Laden’s hideout after he was killed indicate that he was grooming Hamza, who preaches violent jihad, as his successor.
Little was heard from Hamza until May 2015 when Zawahiri released a series of audio messages by the younger bin Laden, calling for attacks on the United States, Europe and a new enemy, Russia, which is keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
“We must be proud of our enmity of America and Russia, for they are the pharaohs of this age,” Hamza declared.
This suggests that Zawahiri, whose own standing with al-Qaeda’s rank-and-file has steadily fallen, is promoting Hamza to consolidate the campaign to re-establish al-Qaeda’s primacy in the jihadist sphere.
However, some analysts say that Hamza may become little more than a figurehead, with military veterans, such as strategist Saif al-Adel, a former special forces colonel in the Egyptian Army, and other battle-hardened senior al- Qaeda operatives infiltrated into Syria by Zawahiri since 2013, calling the shots. They would include al-Qaeda’s Syrian chief, Mohammed al-Jolani, who has overseen the group’s dramatic resurgence in the country while it has made significant gains elsewhere in the Middle East, in Africa and the Indian subcontinent aided by the Taliban.
War-torn Syria has become the organisation’s primary operational focus where, analysts say, it plans to declare an Islamic emirate to replace ISIS’s seemingly doomed caliphate.
Adel, 57, was described by one Western intelligence official as “one of the most capable and dangerous extremists active today.”
He has a $5 million US bounty on his head and has been on the Americans’ most-wanted list since the August 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the jihadists’ first real assault on the United States. He has been a pivotal figure in al-Qaeda since it was formed.
Hamza bin Laden’s focus on Russia follows the rise of a new rebel alliance in Syria dominated by al- Qaeda’s Syrian wing, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS,) which is centred on the strategic north-eastern province of Idlib, now largely held by the jihadists.
In September, Russian and Syrian warplanes blunted an offensive in north-eastern Syria by HTS, a signal that the expanding jihadist group has become a serious threat.
Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, spokesman for Russia’s General Staff, boasted that an estimated 850 jihadists were killed and 11 tanks destroyed during 24 hours of combat.
The figures have not been independently confirmed but, if accurate, they would mark a serious setback for HTS amid its growing resurgence as al-Qaeda’s main jihadist rival, ISIS, faces a crippling military defeat.
For months, exploiting ISIS’s reverses, al-Qaeda has been building up its military power in northern Syria as well as re-establishing its influence in other parts of the Muslim world, as far afield as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and even India.
In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, one of the movement’s most dangerous affiliates, has “emerged arguably as the biggest winners of the failed political transition and the civil war that followed,” said the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
In July, HTS, with a fighting force of 30,000, consolidated its grip on Idlib, which borders Turkey and has a population estimated at 2 million.
The following month, “the group moved one step further in its hegemonic project when it publicised its intention to establish a ‘civil administration’ for northern Syria, said Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.
On August 22, it asked Idlib’s civilian council to step aside as the group takes control of governance in the city.
HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s army in Syria, has absorbed or eliminated most of its rivals in Idlib and controls a long sector of the north-western border with Turkey.
It has done this through consultations, sometimes by brute force. Smaller groups often go along out of perceived military — not ideological — necessity.
Brett McGurk, the key US troubleshooter against the jihadist onslaught in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria under three US presidents, said he’s “very concerned about Idlib,” where “al-Qaeda is working hard to take the reins of power.”
US intelligence has long insisted that al-Qaeda central, its leadership hiding from US air strikes in the Pakistani badlands, has infiltrated the veteran operatives, which it calls the Khorasan Group, into Syria to mastermind terror attacks in Western Europe and the United States.
To achieve this, al-Qaeda, in whatever manifestation it operates, must first topple the Assad regime, which is kept in power by Russian and Iranian forces.
Gartenstein-Ross observed that the sharp intensification of tensions between Shias and Sunnis, due in part to ISIS’s ferocious campaign against Shias, gave al-Qaeda’s rebranding effort a major boost by allowing the group “an opportunity to present itself as a bulwark against Iranian influence in places like Syria and Yemen.”
“If Western policy-makers continue on their current course… al-Qaeda will continue to advance along its path towards an emirate,” said Charles Lister, a Gulf-based analyst who has spent years studying the jihadist factions, often face-to-face.
“Only by empowering local groups opposed to its transnational jihadi agenda can we avoid gifting north-western Syria to al-Qaeda on a silver platter,” he wrote in a May 4, 2016, assessment.
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
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