Despite attrition in its ranks and lower and middle-level leadership, Al Qaeda remains as elusive, as innovative and as homing-pigeon like as ever. That is the assessment that one could draw 11 years after its terrorist strikes in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam and eight years after its 9/11 strikes in the US Homeland.
Despite the most sophisticated search for eight years with the help of modern gadgetry and some of the sharpest minds in the US counter-terrorism community, the US has not been able to pin-point the location of Osama bin Laden and his No.2 Ayman-al Zawahiri. The supposition --this is strongly denied by Pakistan--is that they are somewhere in the North Waziristan or Chitral area of the Pashtun tribal belt of Pakistan. There has been no confirmation of this supposition. Neither human nor technical intelligence regarding their exact whereabouts has been forthcoming.
The flow of human and technical intelligence regarding the Pakistani Taliban has improved considerably resulting in some very successful operations by the US. The most spectacular in recent months was the elimination of Baitullah Mehsud, the Amir of the Pakistani Taliban, through a Predator strike on the house of his father-in-law in South Waziristan, where he was resting, on August 5,2009.
There have been no similar operations against OBL and Zawahiri since January 2006 when the US narrowly missed killing Zawahiri in the Bajaur Agency through a Predator strike on the house of one of his friends with whom he was reportedly planning to eat. He did not turn up at the last minute. The US strike killed a large number of civilians, but not Zawahiri.
Offers of millions of dollars in reward for information leading to OBL and Zawahiri have not helped. There are Pashtuns who are prepared to betray the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, but not OBL or Zawahiri. Is the absence of even scanty information regarding their whereabouts due to the devotion and loyalty of the Pashtuns to OBL and Zawahiri, whom they regard as their honoured guests or is it due to the fact that neither of them is in the Pashtun belt, where the US has been looking for them?
Some middle-level leaders of Al Qaeda, who had taken shelter in the Pashtun belt, were killed by Predator strikes. Abu Faraj al-Libi, another middle-level leader, was arrested in the Pashtun belt in May, 2005 and flown to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba . All other Al Qaeda leaders caught in Pakistan since 9/11 were found in non-tribal areas and arrested in places such as Faislabad, Karachi, Rawalpindi etc. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), the most important Al Qaeda leader arrested in Pakistan, was reportedly found in the house of a women's wing leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Rawalpindi. Is it necessary for the US to revisit its supposition that OBL and Zawahiri must be in the tribal belt--most probably in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)? Which are the other areas where they could hide as effectively as in the Pashtun belt? These questions must be already engaging the attention of the US intelligence.
OBL and Zawahiri have not been seen by anyone outside Al Qaeda since 2002, but they are heard from time to time through their messages disseminated by As-Sahab, the propaganda wing of Al Qaeda. The US has not even been able to track their message trail back to their hide-outs. It seems to be clueless as to how and where these messages are being recorded and how they are disseminated.
The relentless US hunt for OBL and Zawahiri and the constant fear of their being killed or captured have not come in the way of Al Qaeda continuing to organise, guide or inspire terrorist strikes in different parts of the world. It may not have succeeded in carrying out another 9/11 in the US homeland, but its record in terms of terrorist strikes right across the world organised ,guided or inspired by it has been impressive. Bali (2002 and 2005), Mombasa ( 2002), Madrid ( 2004), Jakarta (2003,2004 and 2009),London (2005), Mumbai (2006 by the Lashkar-e-Toiba), Islamabad (Marriott Hotel explosion in September 2008), Mumbai (November, 2008 again by the LET) and Jeddah (August 2009) are the notable examples. There are many other examples from Algeria, Somalia, Iraq, Egypt,Morocco, Turkey and Yemen.
Al Qaeda's leaders are widely scattered. They do not live and operate from the same place. That is why whenever an Al Qaeda leader was killed or captured he was found alone. No other leader was found with him. They maintain communication and restrictive security effectively. That is why whenever an Al Qaeda leader was captured, his interrogation did not lead to the hide-outs of OBL, Zawahiri or others. From this it should be evident that the Shura of Al Qaeda is no longer able to operate as a shura with all members meeting at one place and taking joint decisions. Despite this, new ideas have been flowing back and forth and innovative modus operandi --new ones or old ones with new gadgetry to increase their destruction-multiplier effect--are being tried by Al Qaeda and its associates such as the LET.
Among the innovative MOs seen since 9/11 of 2008, one could mention the commando-style attacks with hand-held weapons on multiple targets mounted from the sea in Mumbai in November,2008 by the LET, terrorists checking into hotels as normal guests and the explosive material being reached to them separately for mounting a suicide attack as was seen in Jakarta in July,2009, and a terrorist posing as a deserter from Al Qaeda and wanting to surrender in order to gain access to an important, well-protected leader as was seen during the failed attempt to kill the Saudi Deputy Minister of the Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, at Jeddah on August 27,2009. According to unconfirmed reports, the suicide terrorist, who was accidentally blown up before he could come close to the VIP, was wearing a suicide under-wear and not a vest as used to be normally done.
There has been no degradation of Al Qaeda's ability to think and innovate and to take the intelligence and security agencies by surprise. Al Qaeda derives its ability to surprise from the fact that it continues to be the least penetrated of the jihadi terrorist organisations of the world. Neither the strengthening of national intelligence capabilities nor the development of international intelligence co-operation has succeeded in penetrating it. There have been tactical successes scored by the intelligence agencies of the US, the UK, Canada, Saudi Arabia and India in thwarting terrorist operations by identifying and neutralising the cells constituted by Al Qaeda and its associates for carrying out terrorist strikes, but the neutralisation of such cells has not yet led to a withering away of the organisation. Al Qaeda continues to think globally and operate globally.
Al Qaeda's principal adversaries remain the same--the US and Israel. Its subsidiary national targets keep changing depending on the policies of different States towards the US and Israel. Spain and Italy, which were among its important national targets immediately after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, no longer seem to receive the same attention in its planning. Among its new targets post-2003 are Pakistan and India-- Pakistan because of its alleged co-operation with the US in its anti-Al Qaeda and anti-Taliban operations and India because of its developing strategic relationships with the US and Israel. In Europe it pays more attention to the UK and Germany as possible targets because of their active role in helping the US in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia's importance in the eyes of Al Qaeda remains undiminished--not only because the holy places of Islam are located there, but also because its oil wealth could be used to economically damage the West. Its presence in South-East Asia and Central Asia is important for it to project itself as a global force defending the interests and honour of Islam.
Al Qaeda continues to view its battle against the US as being fought on many fronts--Algeria, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. In its view, the ultimate defeat or victory will come in the battlefields of the Af-Pak region. Afghanisation of Pakistan is one of its important objectives--that is, making Pakistan as unstable and as ungovernable as Afghanistan and as receptive to the jihadis of the world. It originally thought it would engage the US in a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Iraq things have not developed the way it hoped they would. Iraq has not been a success story for Al Qaeda.
What it failed to achieve in Iraq--the defeat and humiliating withdrawal of the US-- it hopes to achieve in the Af-Pak region. It is encouraged by what it perceives as the first signs of public fatigue in the US with its involvement in Afghanistan. Till some months ago, public support for the US operations in Afghanistan was high. The US public--like its political leadership--viewed continued US military operations in the Af-Pak region as important to prevent another 9/11 in the US homeland. But memories of 9/11 are fading. Fears of a catastrophic act of terrorism by Al Qaeda or its associates involving the use of weapons of mass destruction material no longer strengthen public support to the same extent as they did. The present visuals before the US public are of the Americans being killed in increasing numbers in Afghanistan and not of the hundreds of civilians killed on 9/11.
There has been no spectacular battle-field success of the US and other NATO troops against the Afghan Taliban or Al Qaeda. The US successes against the Pakistani Taliban are not exciting the American public. What it wants is signs of success against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
What stands in the way of the US ability to turn the tide of the campaign in the Af-Pak region in its favour decisively is its failure to realise that its continued pampering of Pakistan is the root cause of its difficulties in Afghanistan and of the lack of success against Al Qaeda. Without a more robust policy to make Pakistan act really -- and not just seemingly -- against Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Punjabi jihadi organisations, American difficulties will not end.
It is in the common interest of the international community to work in a co-ordinated and determined manner for making Al Qaeda and its associates wither way. They will not wither away so long as they find a fertile, well-irrigated soil in Pakistan.
The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.