The two bombs that went off last week in Damascus, killing 55 people, suggest that Al Qaeda is out and about, not on the verge of defeat as appeared after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
The movement that claimed to be responsible, Al Nusra Front, whilst independent, almost certainly has ties with Al Qaeda. In an 8-minute video released in February Ayman Zawahiri, who took over from Ben Laden, urged Muslims to help “brothers in Syria with all that they can”.
According to US intelligence, Al Qaeda in Iraq responded by establishing terrorist cells in Syria. This is one reason why the US and NATO do not want to get militarily involved in Syria. They have at last learnt that it would radicalise more people and push them towards Al Qaeda. (Besides, the situation is not as straightforward as it was in Libya, with one all-powerful strongman, one dominant religious sect and a fairly united armed opposition.)
In Iraq, Al Qaeda is active; it killed 132 Shiite pilgrims in January. In Yemen, it is in control of several southern provinces. It also nearly perfected, before the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and the US got to know of it, undetectable, explosive-filled, underpants to be worn by a suicide bomber intending to board a US airliner.
Al Qaeda is the main supporter of Al Shabaab in Somalia, which has wrecked much havoc although it is now losing strength. It is also increasingly active in North Africa, with its influence reaching as far south as Nigeria. There appear to be connections with Boko Haram, the militant Islamic group in the north of the country that conducted many bombings of churches as well as UN headquarters in Abuja, but also killed many Muslims. Some observers believe that once US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, in 2014, the Taliban will invite Al Qaeda back in. Others, however, believe the organisation has now distanced itself from Al Qaeda and will continue to do so.
Al Qaeda’s reach depends on its franchise system. Without central control, only advice, these autonomous groupings could well increase in number. However, it is important to note that there has not been a serious bombing in the US since September 11 and in Europe since the horrendous bombing of four commuter trains in Madrid in 2004. (In this case the connection with Al Qaeda was tenuous.)
Added to the positive list is the effect of the Arab Spring, which has brought nonviolent change to Tunisia and Egypt and in Syria infuses the majority of protesters who are nonviolent. The protesters and the democratic movements they have catalysed are largely insulating their countries from Al Qaeda proselytising.
Perhaps the biggest worry about Al Qaeda should be under-reported Bosnia. I am convinced of this after reading the scholarly book “Islamic Terror in the Balkans” by Shaul Shay, head of the Israeli army’s department of history. Perhaps, although he does not say this, there are Al Qaeda sleeper cells right inside Europe in a country that could in some years’ time join the European Union.
Al Qaeda and other Muslim warriors went to Bosnia, he writes, when it was at war with Croatia and Serbia. They were involved in a number of atrocities carried out by the Bosnian army. Also, a number of the suspected September 11 bombers had been active in Bosnia.
After the war ended with the Dayton Accords in 1995, the Mujahedeen fighters were either recognised as legal citizens, following marriage to local women, or were granted citizenship as a reward for their help. Some of them were given senior positions in the administration, police, the army and the legal system.
Over 1,000 Mujahedeen fighters remained in Bosnia. Most of them are still there. According to Washington Post correspondent Jeffrey Smith, there are 100 Mujahedeen families living in one village alone, with the women wearing black and the men bearded — highly unusual in Europeanised Bosnia, largely Muslim though it is.
There are also militant cells in Muslim Albania, the Muslim parts of Kosovo and Macedonia. Al Qaeda was very active in Kosovo.
Bosnia got off lightly in Western reporting of the war in ex-Yugoslavia that, in a lopsided way, concentrated on the attacks and massacres by Serbian and Croatian forces. It was usually overlooked that Bosnia’s leader, Alija Izetbegovic, had encouraged young Muslims to fight with the SS-Waffen divisions during World War II. Later Izetbegovic had no scruples about inviting in the Mujahedeen, some of whom had joined Al Qaeda, to help the fight against Serbia and Croatia. That was overlooked too.
Are they sleepers? It is an important question that should be given more attention than it is.