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Why we need to watch out for Al Qaeda's threat

By Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)
October 04, 2013 11:38 IST
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'We have leaders who would rather that we cohabit with the Indian Mujahedeen than fight terror, as long as the payoffs are there in the next polls... Obviously, we are not headed down the best route to keep terror at bay,' says Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

 An army helicopter hovers over the army camp during a gun battle with terrorists in Samba district, Jammu and Kashmir,  September 26.A recent statement by Al Qaeda advised against attacks on Christians, Hindus and Sikhs living in Muslim lands, and respect for the lives of women and children. The message was largely read by security experts as an admission of its failing capabilities.

However, the carnage at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya; the All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, followed by an attack on an Indian police station and an army unit in a relatively peaceful district in Jammu and Kashmir; all executed by Al Qaeda affiliates, raises the moot question: Has Al Qaeda really waned or found greater strength through its allies?

With Afghanistan-Pakistan as its headquarters, and a close connect with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other major terror outfits operating in the region, it has definite implications for our sub-continent.

The focused drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have definitely taken a heavy toll of the Al Qaeda leadership. The US delivered a body blow when it killed Osama bin Laden at his Abbottabad, Pakistan, home in May 2011.

Before we conclude that Al Qaeda has been laid low, it is essential to take a look at the organisation's intent and objectives as can be arrived at from statements of its leadership and activities it has undertaken in the past.

Al Qaeda's leadership has barely ever sent a message across that it intends to lead a very structured jihadist conglomerate globally with a centralised command and control structure that controls operations. On the contrary, it has endeavoured to build a loose federation with like-minded constituents pursuing goals of increased geographic domination, globally.

In 1998, Osama bin Laden brought together under one umbrella a large number of terror groups when he launched The International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Christians. The success of this organisation set the tone for Al Qaeda's future strategy, which relied on drawing affiliates to its fold.

Al Qaeda's objective has also been to occupy the moral and ideological pedestal of the jihadi fraternity and provide strategic directions to its affiliates and associates while leaving them relatively free to undertake operations in their areas. Al Qaeda also mediates to keep internecine conflicts between terror groups under control.

Al Qaeda's growth story in the African continent and west Asia has been substantial. It has a large presence in Mali, Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia.

Amongst its better acknowledged affiliates are the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Shabaab in Somalia. All these affiliates have publicly sworn an oath of fealty to the Al Qaeda's senior leadership.

In addition, there are numerous groups that associate with Al Qaeda affiliates. Ansar al Dine of Mali, Boko Haram, Nigeria, and groups active post the Arab Spring in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Yemen are a few examples of such a corporate conglomerate.

The large number African states facing internal conflicts and the Arab Spring's resultant destabilisation provides the right environment for Al Qaeda and its affiliates to increase their geographical spread and domination.

With the International Security Assistance Force likely to adhere to its withdrawal schedule from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda activities in the Pakistan-Afghan area are bound to witness a spurt. A fallout of such a situation would be the strengthening of groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, which had joined Al Qaeda's International Front for Jihad against Christians and Jews when it was launched in 1988.

In the war against terror, while the cooperation amongst terror groups and Al Qaeda affiliates has grown, nations have not come together significantly, except in Afghanistan, to combat global terror. In fact, the singular focus on Afghanistan provided the incentive to Al Qaeda to pursue a more global network that is also dispersed geographically.

Perhaps, the not too frequently articulated US error in deciding on going into Afghanistan was not as much the failure to visualise the end state that could be achieved, as its effect on the global war on terror. The concentration of resources in Afghanistan denied the resources required to fight terror globally.

In the Indian context, we have to strengthen our anti-terror capabilities. The very obvious tendency in elements of our leadership to shy away from action keeping the elections in view is a dangerous game. Recently, a state government was hesitant to interrogate terror mastermind Yasin Bhatkal after he was arrested along the Indo-Nepal border. Even the Batla House encounter in New Delhi, undertaken by the local police, was decried as a fake encounter killing by some politicians.

We have leaders who would rather that we cohabit with the banned Students Islamic Movement of India and Indian Mujahedeen than fight terror, as long as the payoffs are there in the next polls. And yet, when Parliament was attacked, they readily deployed the entire army to send a message across our borders about what we could do if the leadership is targeted.

If such resolute approach had shaped our strategy over the years, we would be living in a far safer India today. Obviously, we are not headed down the best route to keep terror at bay.

There are very many other measures required to contain proxy war and terrorism in our country, but such a discourse is of little consequence till our political leadership displays greater commitment to national security.

The business of anti-terror operations has to be left to professionals. The possible political fallout of such operations cannot be a restraint while chalking out the strategy or taking operational decisions. Our politicians had left the army alone for long years after Independence, leading to the force still retaining its intrinsic strengths. A similar hands off approach is called for in the war against terror.

Globally, the requirement today is to extend the surveillance radar to areas where Al Qaeda affiliates are already on a growth curve. The drone attacks have now to search their targets in large swathes of Africa and West Asia also.

Far greater cooperation between nations is called for. It needs to be realised that Moscow is not safe if London is unsafe; nor is Washington's safety assured by drone attacks along the Pakistan-Afghan border alone, while terror camps remain operative in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Image: An army helicopter hovers over an army camp during the gun battle with terrorists in Samba district, Jammu and Kashmir, September 26, an attack Brigadier Chatterji says was inspired by Al Qaeda. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

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