Al Qaeda’s Big Year in 2013 Reviewed by Momizat on . By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross Any way you measure it, 2013 was a good year for Al Qaeda. It wasn’t supposed to be. Shortly after the United States killed the group By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross Any way you measure it, 2013 was a good year for Al Qaeda. It wasn’t supposed to be. Shortly after the United States killed the group Rating: 0
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Al Qaeda’s Big Year in 2013

Al Qaeda’s Big Year in 2013

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Any way you measure it, 2013 was a good year for Al Qaeda. It wasn’t supposed to be. Shortly after the United States killed the group’s charismatic leader, Osama bin Laden, a couple of years ago, Obama administration officials openly proclaimed that his death, coupled with targeted strikes that eliminated other senior jihadist leaders, had just about put al Qaeda out of business. Leon Panetta, then the defense secretary, stated in July 2011 that the United States was “within reach” of “strategically defeating” al Qaeda if it killed or captured 10 to 20 of its remaining leaders.

But as this year ends, the jihadist group’s regional affiliates have dramatically reasserted themselves in multiple countries, carrying out spectacular attacks and inflicting increasing levels of carnage. Though it’s hard to come by reliable estimates of the deaths they caused, the number is certainly in the thousands, and more than half a dozen countries now view these affiliates, or foreigners who have joined their ranks, as their top national security concern. The affiliates’ regeneration became so apparent over the course of this year that President Barack Obama was forced to clarify that his administration’s various claims of al Qaeda’s decimation were limited to the core leadership in Pakistan alone.

The year began with France spearheading a military intervention to push back jihadist groups that had seized territory in northern Mali, an impoverished country in the bone-dry Sahel region of Africa. France’s operation achieved some success, but a brigade led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar—who has pledged his loyalty directly to al Qaeda’s senior leaders—seized more than 800 hostages in a retaliatory operation at Algeria’s In Amenas gas complex. At least 39 foreign hostages were killed during the operation.

France’s war in Mali also showed how deteriorating conditions in Libya, where the new government has never been able to assert its authority, help the jihadist cause. Some of the In Amenas attackers reportedly trained in southern Libya (where camps prepare militants for suicide missions, among other things), and used the country as a staging ground for the hostage-taking operation. And as France advanced on the battlefield, many jihadist fighters fled to southwest Libya, where they evaded pursuit by “blending with local militant groups,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The In Amenas siege began on Jan. 16. The following day, Iraq experienced its first double-digit casualty terrorist attack of the year, as a series of bombs targeting buses and their passengers struck in predominantly Shia areas. The bombings killed 19 and injured more than 100 people.

Iraq’s death toll mounted throughout the year, driven by al Qaeda’s blossoming capabilities. By the end of 2013, more than 6,000 Iraqis had died in violence, the highest level of fatalities since 2007, the peak year of Iraq’s bloody civil war. As U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq two years ago, American and Iraqi officials expressed concern that al Qaeda was “poised for a deadly resurgence.” Rather than proving alarmist, these warnings likely understated the speed and magnitude of the organization’s rebound in Iraq.

Another al Qaeda franchise surged this year. The Somali militant group al-Shabaab, which once controlled more territory in southern Somalia than did the country’s U.N.-recognized government, had lost its last major urban stronghold of Kismayo to advancing African Union forces in October 2012.

But Shabaab remained lethal. On Sept. 21, terrorists associated with the group launched a spectacular assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. The attack dragged on for four days, killing 67 and injuring at least 175. But even before that, there were signs that a complex operation like Westgate was possible, as Shabaab carried out increasingly sophisticated attacks throughout the year. These included an attack on a Mogadishu courthouse that killed 29, and a twin suicide bombing at Mogadishu’s U.N. compound that claimed 22 lives.

In Syria, jihadists built on the gains they had made in 2012. Extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have proven to be some of the country’s most effective rebel factions. As 2013 ends, jihadists have been able to gain full control over such cities and towns as Raqqa and Shadadi in the north. ISIS has become adept at the targeted use of violence against Raqqa’s citizens, for the purposes of dominating and intimidating them as it implements a harsh version of Islamic law.

Further compounding concerns stemming from the Syria conflict, a recent study published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation found that up to 11,000 foreign fighters have flocked to the battlefield to fight Bashar Assad’s government, of whom around 2,000 are from Western Europe. This has sparked fears in their countries of origin that the fighters could pose a security threat if they return both radicalized and battle-hardened.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of 12 books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy.
In July, jihadist groups in three different countries were further strengthened by a series of jailbreaks. The most significant was a July 21 jailbreak at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison that freed about 500 prisoners from a facility boasting a high concentration of skilled jihadists. On July 28, prison riots coupled with an external attack freed 1,117 inmates from Benghazi’s Kuafiya prison. And a sophisticated July 30 prison break in Pakistan, where almost 250 prisoners escaped, was claimed by the militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Some of the least surprising news of the year was that U.S. officials came to suspect that these incidents, all occurring around the same time, might “be part of an al Qaeda-coordinated ‘Great Escape’-like plot.”

These jailbreaks are significant to al Qaeda’s future capabilities. Much of the increased jihadist organizational presence in North Africa since 2011 can be traced back to militants who were freed from regional prisons. Similarly, the regeneration of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemeni affiliate, began with a 2006 jailbreak.

But al Qaeda’s biggest gain was perhaps the July military coup that deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, and the often-brutal crackdown on protesters that followed. After the coup, jihadist groups in the Sinai went on an immediate offensive, with targets including security officers and Christians.

The coup also bolstered al Qaeda’s narrative. Many Western observers had hoped that the Arab uprisings, which toppled some of the region’s longstanding dictators, would weaken al Qaeda by providing a democratic alternative. These hopes rested on an inexorable march toward democracy that would prompt increasing numbers of citizens to participate in the new political systems. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria claimed, “Al Qaeda existed because bin Laden argued that the regimes of the Arab world were dictatorial and oppressive,” and now that these dictatorships were being replaced by “democratic, peaceful, non-Islamic revolutions,” the “basic rationale of al Qaeda” had crumbled. Instead, the coup showed that democracy is reversible—perhaps particularly so if political Islamist groups are in power. Bin Laden’s successor, al Qaeda emir Ayman Zawahiri, had been saying exactly this since the revolutions began—claiming in March 2011 that Egypt’s new regime, even if nominally democratic, would “preserve and maintain the old policies that fight Islam and marginalize the sharia [Islamic law].” Though it’s too early to say whether more people are gravitating toward al Qaeda’s argument as a result, Zawahiri and other leading jihadist thinkers have already claimed vindication after the coup, and we can expect more full-throated rhetoric on this point in the coming year.

Around the same time as Egypt’s coup, a political assassination in Tunisia prompted that government to declare war on Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), the major jihadist group operating in its territory. AST is openly aligned with al Qaeda’s ideology but claims organizational independence, something Tunisia’s government disputes. Tunisia experienced three suicide bombing plots before the year ended—none of which, fortunately, inflicted the carnage that the plotters desired.

Al Qaeda continues to be a force in its traditional strongholds as well. It has spearheaded an assassination campaign in Yemen that has, for more than two years, targeted the country’s military officers. And there are signs in Pakistan that even the supposedly decimated core remains resilient despite losing a number of top leaders.

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Because of the striking developments that occurred this year, thinkers like retired Marine Corps general James Mattis now describe early predictions of al Qaeda’s demise as “premature and … now discredited.” This conflict will neither wrap up as neatly nor as quickly as almost anybody would hope.

As the fight with al Qaeda moves further into its second decade, the U.S. government should focus on addressing two major areas. The first, given the length of the conflict and the public’s war-weariness, is ensuring the sustainability of counterterrorism efforts.

The second is establishing better metrics for success. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, famously noted in a 2003 memo, “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.” The same could be said today: The Obama administration’s proclamations about al Qaeda’s near-defeat in its first term were eerily similar to those made in Bush’s first administration. And neither of them got it right.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of 12 books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy.

 

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