The decision of the leaders of Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) to pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda has been well-covered. The GSPC’s proven combat capabilities, willingness to send fighters to Afghanistan, Iraq and other Islamist insurgencies, widespread presence in Western European cities, connections and working relationships to criminal enterprises in Europe and its status as a potential al-Qaeda-related threat to Western oil and natural gas supplies emanating from Algeria are all positive benefits for al-Qaeda . Beyond these tactical and strategic—at least regarding energy supplies—advantages, the GSPC’s decision to join al-Qaeda is, from the latter’s perspective, part of a bigger, long-labored-for and positive whole.
“The better rule,” General Robert E. Lee once said in regard to analyzing enemy intentions, “is to judge our adversaries from their standpoint, not from our own” . With this advice in mind, it becomes clear that the addition of the GSPC to al-Qaeda’s ranks fits nicely into the primary mission bin Laden has defined for his organization: instigating and inspiring Muslims to move their focus toward Islam’s far enemy, the United States and its allies . This, it should be kept in mind, is much easier said than done. One of the most enduring aspects of 19th century European imperialism and colonialism has been the nationalistic orientation of Islamic resistance groups. Until bin Laden came on the scene, the Islamists were exclusively fighting local tyrannies: the Egyptian Islamists were intent on destroying the Mubarak regime; the Yemenis were bent on overthrowing President Saleh; the Palestinians sought to eliminate Israel; and the Algerians aimed at the military junta in Algiers. This stubbornly nationalistic focus, bin Laden argued, had to be broken and redirected toward the United States, the nation-state that al-Qaeda doctrine holds responsible for keeping Israel’s regime and the Muslim tyrannies in power.
Success for bin Laden has been hard to come by. The first break in the nationalist dam came when Ayman al-Zawahiri led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) into al-Qaeda in early 1998 . Al-Zawahiri had long argued that the road to Jerusalem led through Cairo, but he ditched this deeply held tenet to fight the United States. (NB: Oddly, there are still those who argue that bin Laden is the EIJ chief’s mouthpiece, although it is clearly the latter’s views, not the former’s, that have drastically changed.) The shift of focus of the Egyptian Islamists was augmented in August 2006 when al-Qaeda announced that at least a portion of Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiyya—under Muhammed al-Hakaima—had joined al-Qaeda . The GSPC pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda, then, is the third major crack in the dam, and with it the two nationalities who historically have been the most near-enemy, nation-centric organizations have sworn loyalty to the concept of destroying the far enemy as the indispensable prelude to eliminating the host of near enemies.
This does not, of course, mean that Algerian and Egyptian Islamists have or will stop attacking targets in their own country. What it does mean, however, and what has begun to occur, is a gradual shift in targeting toward a focus that complements al-Qaeda’s war against the United States. In Egypt, the attacks on tourist facilities have hit the country’s foreign exchange earner, and Cairo has nowhere else but Washington to turn to make up for any shortfalls. In Algeria, the media has reported increasing GSPC interests in attacking the country’s energy infrastructure, security services and expatriate work force.
While these are important achievements for al-Qaeda, it can be argued that success in getting only three major Islamist resistance groups to publicly shift from a near- to far-enemy focus since 1996 means that bin Laden still has a long way to go. Furthermore, while there is an element of truth in that conclusion, the comfort the West can take from it is mitigated by the largely unnoticed success bin Laden has had in refocusing many more Islamists on the far enemy than just those belonging to the EIJ, the Gama’a and the GSPC. Indeed, bin Laden’s success can be seen not only in his ability to convince large numbers of individual Islamists, but even more so in the fact that these individuals appear to be forming “al-Qaeda” groups of their own in Europe and across the Arab world.
As evidence of bin Laden’s success in this regard—and this refers to inspirational and instigating successes that seldom confer command-and-control on al-Qaeda—media reporting since January 2005 shows that nearly 40 organizations have announced their formation and pledged allegiance to bin Laden, al-Qaeda and their strategic objectives. Although not controlled by al-Qaeda, they may have received some logistical, training or financial assistance from al-Qaeda in their formation. A non-scientific and non-exhaustive sampling of the groups reported in the media follows:
– Martyr Marwan Hadid Cell, Al-Qaeda in Syria (Syria)
– The Islamic Revenge Cells (Iraq)
– Brigades of Kurdistan (Iraq)
– Ansar al-Qaeda (Saudi Arabia)
– Al-Qaeda in Bilad al-Sham (Syria)
– Al-Qaeda Organization in the Levant-Umar Brigade-Lebanon Province (Lebanon)
– The Islamic al-Tawhid Group, al-Qaeda Organization (Europe)
– Al-Qaeda Organization in Afghanistan (Afghanistan)
– Abu-Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade, al-Qaeda Organization (Europe)
– Al-Quds Islamic Army (Palestine)
– Al-Qaeda Organization in Lebanon (Lebanon)
– Al-Qaeda in Levant and Egypt-Abdallah Azzam Brigades (Egypt)
– Qaedat-al-Jihad in Yemen, Liwa al-Tawid (Yemen)
– Black Leopards-al-Qaeda Military Faction in Lebanon (Lebanon)
– Brigade of Martyr Nasir Bin-Rashid al-Rashid (Europe)
– Saudi Brigades of Sada Tuwayq in al-Zufi (Saudi Arabia)
– Squadron of the Martyr Abu Annas al-Shami (Saudi Arabia)
– Kata’ib al-Shahid Hammudi al-Masri, al-Qaeda Organization South and East Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Far East)
– Allah’s Brigade (Palestine)
– Secret Organization Group of al-Qaeda of Jihad in Europe (Europe)
– Abu-ali al-Harithi Brigades (Yemen)
– Al-Qaeda Maghreb Commandment (Morocco)
– Al-Qaeda Organization in the Island of the Arabs (Saudi Arabia)
The foregoing list suggests at least three conclusions that should encourage Osama bin Laden and sober Western security services. First, bin Laden’s central intention of having his words and al-Qaeda’s actions serve not only to harm U.S. interests but also instigate other Muslims to become jihadis seems to have some traction. If the above list could only be built to four or five items, a claim of success for bin Laden could be debated, but the 20-plus groups above and a total inventory now nearing 40 makes those negative arguments moot. The grassroots instigation bin Laden has been conducting is working.
Second, the organizations discussed herein are often referred to as al-Qaeda “franchises” by terrorism experts who also argue that the threat from these groups has replaced the threat from what they refer to as “al-Qaeda Central”—the insurgent apparatus directly commanded and controlled by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Recent media reports, statements by U.S. officials, and especially by director-general of the British security service MI5 Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller’s public description of a working set of al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, strongly suggests that al-Qaeda Central is not out of business and that the West now faces two tiers of threat, rather than one from al-Qaeda .
Third, the list above appears to reflect bin Laden’s success in using Iraq as contiguous territory from which to reach into the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and even Europe. Historically, al-Qaeda does not expend effort, funds and manpower in regions that do not afford it contiguous safe haven from which to operate; this consideration kept the group from making a major effort in the Balkans, and to date has made it unable to hit the Israelis at home. Yet of the 24 groups listed above, 16 are located in places that al-Qaeda believed new safe havens in Iraq would provide it opportunities for expansion: Egypt (1); Europe (4); Palestine (2); Lebanon (3); Syria (2); and Saudi Arabia (4). Although more research needs to be completed on the idea of Iraq being an al-Qaeda base for projecting itself into adjacent countries, it seems that not all of al-Qaeda’s time has been spent fighting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq .
In conclusion, the GSPC’s decision to come under al-Qaeda’s umbrella is in itself an important story; it is a lethal and talented group that will benefit from its ties to al-Qaeda while extending the capabilities and reach of bin Laden’s fighters, especially in Europe and Canada. Yet its accession is clearly part of a bigger story which is seeing al-Qaeda’s plans for instigating Muslims to join a jihad aimed at the far enemy beginning to bear fruit, and also how those plans are being furthered by al-Qaeda’s ability to operate from bases in Iraq. As the late Sheikh Abdullah Azzam claimed when he and bin Laden worked together in the 1980s, it is the job of Islamist leaders to persuade Muslims to join “the caravan fighting in God’s way.” Bin Laden is carrying on his mentor’s work successfully.
1. See recent issues of Terrorism Focus and Terrorism Monitor, and the GSPC’s declaration of allegiance to al-Qaeda, “The statement and the good news of the joining with and the pledge of allegiance to Sheikh Abu Abdullah Osama bin Laden, may God protect him,” Salafist Group for Call and Combat website, September 13, 2006.
2. Peter G. Tsouras, Civil War Quotations. In the Words of the Commanders, New York: Sterling Publishing, Inc., 1998, p. 90.
3. Bin Laden defined this mission in his, “Declaration of Jihad Against the United States,” al-Islah, September 2, 1996. He has restated it many times since.
4. “Declaration of the World Islamic Front Against Crusaders and Jews,” February 26, 1998.
5. “Al-Zawahiri Announces Egypt’s Islamic Group Leaders Joined al-Qaeda,” al-Jazeera TV, August 5, 2006. See, also, Terrorism Focus, October 10, 2006.
6. Mark Mazetti, “New Generation of al-Qaeda Chiefs Seen on the Rise,” New York Times, April 2, 2007.
7. See, for example, Thair Abbas, “Al-Qaeda Presence Increases in Lebanon,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 13, 2006; Abd-al-Rahman al-Rashid, “‘Al-Qaeda’ in Syria,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 4, 2005; and Annette Young, “Al-Qaeda Gains a Foothold in Palestine,” The Scotsman, May 21, 2005.