Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Al-Qaeda havens

By FT reporters

May 2 2011 21:29

Yemen: home of “the most dangerous man in the world”

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, may only consist of a few hundred people, but it has caused the US more headaches than larger terrorist organisations recent years, claiming responsibility for both the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day 2009 and a foiled plot to send parcel bombs to the US in October of the same year.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen who is the group’s chief propagandist, was declared the most dangerous man in the world by a US security official last year after being linked to numerous terrorist plots, including the Fort Hood shooting in which a US army major was charged with killing 13 people at a US army base.

Yemen’s branch of al-Qaeda first caught the world’s attention with the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and appeared to have been fatally weakened when a US drone assassinated its then leader in 2002. In 2006, however, 23 suspected militants escaped from a Yemeni prison and in 2009 the group merged with jihadis fleeing Saudi Arabia to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Osama bin Laden, whose family originated in Yemen, once described it as one of the best Muslim countries, where one could “breathe clean air unblemished by humiliation,” and the leader of AQAP, Nasser al Wahayshi, is said to have been one of bin Laden’s assistants in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Little is known about the organization beyond what can be gleaned from the attacks attributed to it, the occasional surrender of one of its members to the authorities, and its prolific media output. Opinion is divided over whether the last few years, which have seen both a weakening of the central government’s authority in Yemen and an increase in US counterterrorism efforts there, have left the group stronger or weaker.

Analysts say that although al-Qaeda’s central leadership were key in determining the Yemeni branch’s ideology, bin Laden’s death is unlikely to significantly affect the organisation.

“They’re more likely to be affected by stuff that’s happening in Yemen now,” said Bernard Haykel, an expert in radical Islam at Princeton University. According to Mr Haykel, whilst the anti-regime protests which have swept Yemen may seem to benefit al-Qaeda by creating instability, such popular movements could leave a vanguardist organisation like al Qaeda looking isolated.

“I would imagine (AQAP) are pretty confused, like everyone else in the Middle East,” said Mr Haykel.

Abigail Fielding-Smith in Amman

East Africa: opportunity in instability

For over a decade, the spectre of al-Qaeda has hung over east Africa. More than 200 people were killed on August 7 1998, when a truck bomb was detonated outside the US embassy in downtown Nairobi to horrific effect. An almost simultaneous attack on the American embassy in Dar es Salaam killed at least 11 people.

These were the first major attacks to be blamed on al-Qaeda and they shot Osama bin Laden to international notoriety.

Yet while many Kenyans may welcome the news of bin Laden’s death, concerns remain that neighbouring Somalia is a haven for terrorism following the rise of al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that controls much of the nation’s south and claimed responsibility for suicide attacks in Uganda last year that killed 79 people.

“Osama’s death can only be positive for Kenya, but we need to have a stable government in Somalia,” Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister, told Reuters. “The loss of [al-Qaeda’s] leader may first upset the movement but then it will regroup and continue.”

The embassy bombing investigations unveiled an east African trail that stretched back to 1991 when bin Laden and many of his followers were welcomed to Sudan, one of the few countries willing to accept the Saudi militant who had been ostracised by his home country. Once settled into an affluent Khartoum neighbourhood with the blessings of Sudan’s Islamist government, bin Laden set up businesses, including a tannery and agricultural and construction projects.

He is also said to have established training camps for his fighters, while alleged al-Qaeda members were dispatched to Somalia in 1993 to help train Somali fighters battling US troops in that country, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statements into the embassy bombings.

After Somalis shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 US soldiers in the October 1993 “battle of Mogadishu” – sparking the hasty withdrawal of American troops – the al-Qaeda members slipped across the border into Kenya.

Bin Laden was quoted as saying it was the battle of Mogadishu that led led him to believe that Americans lacked the stomach for war. More deadly attacks in east Africa followed as the al-Qaeda cells that moved to Kenya plotted the 1998 embassy bombings, according to the FBI statements.

Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, a fellow al-Qaeda militant who was convicted for his role in the embassy bombings, told the FBI that most of the group’s members left Kenya shortly before the attacks. But in fact Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comorian wanted in connection with the attacks and listed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, remained and emerged to be the leader of al-Qaeda’s east Africa cell.

He is alleged to have masterminded a 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel on the Kenyan coast and simultaneous failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli-chartered aircraft as it took off from Mombasa airport.

He and his operatives are alleged to have used Somalia – a lawless Muslim nation which has been without an effective central government since 1991 – to plot the 2002 attack and use it as an escape route. Worryingly for east African officials, his current whereabouts are unknown.

The US has launched a number of airstrikes against suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia in recent years with mixed success. It claims to have in 2009 killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nahban, a Kenyan alleged to be involved in the 2002 hotel bombing, and Aden Hashi Ayro, an Afghan-trained Shabaab leader, a year earlier.

But it has also been accused of killing innocent civilians. Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia – with the tacit backing of Washington – helped the Somali Islamists draw on nationalist support and attract foreign fighters to their cause.

Andrew England in Johannesburg

North Africa: remnants of civil war

Al-Qaeda’s North African offshoot, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, grew out of the civil war that gripped Algeria for most of the nineties after the Algerian army aborted elections to stop an Islamist party from winning in1991.

Largely comprised of Algerians, AQIM’s main area of operation is the vast borderless Saharan territories of southern Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, where it exploits smugglers’ routes and the absence of state control.

The group regularly kidnaps foreign tourists for ransom and periodically stages attacks against western targets mainly in Sahel countries. It also operates in the Kabylie region of northern Algeria, where it carries out occasional ambushes against the police and army, and kidnaps local businessmen for ransom. Most recently, a roadside bomb that last Wednesday killed two police officers near Boumerdes, just 50 kilometres east of the Algerian capital, was attributed to AQIM.

Said to number a few hundred fighters, it is headed by Abdel Malek Droukdel, an Algerian who also goes under the name of Abou Mossab Abdel Wadoud and is a reincarnation of the Salafi Group for Predication and Combat, an Algerian militant organisation formed by radical Islamists who took up arms against the state in the 1990s.

The Islamist movement fragmented, and was largely defeated militarily but remnants of the GSPC held out in eastern Algeria and in 2007, the GSPC rebranded itself as an al-Qaeda affiliate in an effort to boost its fortunes after its ranks had been severely depleted by government amnesties and strikes by the Algerian army.

Following the merger, AQIM staged a series of high-profile operations such as the bombing of a UN headquarters and the prime minister’s office in Algiers. Under pressure from the authorities, however, its ability to carry out major attacks in the Algerian capital appeared to have fizzled out.

Although AQIM has been able to recruit members from the Sahel countries where it operates, it has failed to incorporate Islamist movements from Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.

Analysts say that its failure against the Algerian authorities and its inability to turn itself into a serious hub for al-Qaeda in north Africa pushed it south to the Sahara.

AQIM has claimed responsibility for the abduction of two Frenchmen found dead after a failed rescue attempt in Niger in January and is currently holding other French nationals kidnapped in Niger in September 2010. A tape, released on Islamist forums late last month showed pictures of each of the hostages. An Italian woman kidnapped in Algeria in early February is also being held by the Islamists.

The increased risk of kidnappings, either by Islamists or local gunmen cooperating with them, has made large tracts of Mauritania, Mali and Niger no-go areas for westerners.

The bomb that killed 16 people in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh this week bears the hallmarks of al-Qaeda, according to Moroccan officials, but so far there has been no claim of responsibility from AQIM or any other group.

The ongoing conflict in Libya has heightened concerns that AQIM will exploit the unrest to smuggle weapons out of the country. Algeria’s military last week announced that it is seeking increased regional co-operation with Mali and other neighbouring countries over reported cross-border activity by the group in the Sahara.

Heba Saleh in Cairo and Eileen Byrne in Algiers

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