By James Blitz
September 8, 2011
Ten years after the al-Qaeda attacks that scarred the US, western states continue to face serious challenges from jihadist terrorism.
But the origins and nature of today’s threats are very different from those of 10 years ago.
On the one hand, what is often described as the “core al-Qaeda” group founded by Osama bin Laden – and which operates from the Pakistani tribal areas and Afghanistan – has been seriously damaged.
Bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, is dead. Many of his followers have been killed by US-launched drone attacks. Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is nowhere near as charismatic as his predecessor.
On the other hand, groups often described as the “al-Qaeda franchises” – and which operate from areas in the Middle East and north Africa – have developed in recent years. They are a disconnected bunch and probably incapable of pulling off a spectacular attack on the scale of 9/11.
But western intelligence agencies warn that their ability to carry out an act of terrorism in the west should not be underestimated.
At the top of the list of jihadists worrying western governments is al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, a movement operating from Yemen.
Here, the individual whose activities cause most concern is Anwar al-Awlaki, a 40-year-old, US-born cleric who has been at the source of relentless plotting against the west for some years.
Mr Awlaki was the mastermind behind the attempted bombing of an aircraft over Detroit on Christmas day in 2009.
He also organised the dispatch of parcel bombs concealed in cargo aircraft bound from Yemen to Chicago in October 2010.
Airline bombs are not his only area of expertise. He has become a highly effective internet preacher, grooming people in western states to carry out attacks.
Mr Awlaki’s online sermons radicalised a woman who attempted to murder Stephen Timms, a former British cabinet minister, in a knife attack in May 2010.
This year, Mr Awlaki also emerged as the inspiration for a former British Airways employee to hatch an abortive plot to blow up an aircraft in an attack intended to kill hundreds of people.
A second franchise of concern is the group called al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Largely made up of Algerians, the group’s main area of operation is the vast Saharan territory of southern Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, where it exploits smuggler routes and the absence of state control.
It regularly kidnaps foreign tourists for ransom and periodically stages attacks against western targets mainly in Africa’s Sahel region.
Western intelligence experts say that al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has recently shown its strength by helping to develop a Nigerian radical Islamist group called Boko Haram.
Last month, Boko Haram displayed its growing capability and ambition with an attack on the UN mission in Abuja that killed at least 23 people and injured more than 80.
A third franchise of concern is the al-Shabaab movement that operates in Somalia.
There are two groups within al-Shabaab. One of them, al-Ansar wants to set up an Islamist state inside Somalia and is fomenting attacks in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.
The other – al-Muhajiroun – is influenced by bin Laden’s ideology and seeks to conduct attacks on the west.
In the UK, one of the concerns about al-Shabaab is that there are thought to be about 40 British nationals fighting for the extremist group in Somalia’s civil war.
The fear is that some of these individuals may come back to the UK, rejoin the Somali community and plot an attack on British soil.
Can any of these groups instigate a serious outrage in a western nation in the next few years? There is certainly confidence in the US and Britain that these franchise groups – like core al-Qaeda – are on the back foot.
This year, Leon Panetta, the former head of the CIA and now US secretary of defence, gave an upbeat assessment of the progress against al-Qaeda and all its affiliates.
“We’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda,” he said.
“The key is that, having got bin Laden, we’ve now identified some of the key leadership within al-Qaeda, both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas.”
There are other reasons for confidence.
In the events of the Arab uprising this year – in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain – jihadists have been bystanders.
They have not been the protagonists that bin Laden had wanted them to be.
But western governments know the chances of a successful terrorist attack cannot be ignored.
Intelligence agencies need to be lucky at every stage of their operations against jihadist groups but the jihadists only need to be lucky once.