Vail Valley Voices: The future of al-Qaida |

Vail Valley Voices: The future of al-Qaida

Matthew Kennedy
Vail, CO Colorado

The Middle East’s recent uprisings will have a long-term impact on the region’s strategic environment. A key question is what influence might the events have on al-Qaida’s ability to repeat another Sept. 11-style operation. Were the 9/11 attacks an anomaly? Or is al-Qaida waiting patiently, until America’s guard is down – and then strike with an equally crippling, more lethal attack?

Al-Qaida’s capability has evolved over the last decade. It currently lacks the operational facilities necessary to initiate attacks. Al-Qaida now provides ideological inspiration, training, and financing for operations initiated by individuals or affiliated groups. There are several instances with the above characteristics including the London, Madrid, Istanbul, and Riyadh attacks, plus the failed August 2006 and Christmas 2009 plots. The chances of a direct assault against the United States by al-Qaida are slim. The most likely attacks within the American homeland will originate from homegrown, militant Islamist terrorists or organizations linked with al-Qaida. These organizations most likely to attack the U.S. homeland are al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Lashkar e-Toiba (LeT) and Al Shabaab.

The most immediate threat is from homegrown terrorists. These individuals are motivated by the militant Islamist ideology. They are not specifically linked with al-Qaida or its affiliates. These individuals have, however, received weapons and explosives training from al-Qaida and/or its associates. There have been various instances of this trend since the 9/11 attacks. The most recent occurred between 2009 and 2010. Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay were arrested, accused, and convicted of plotting a suicide attack against New York City’s subway system in September 2009. Faisal Shahzad was convicted of plotting to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Time Square in May 2010. (The Zazi and Ahmedzay’s cases have a local element – both constructed their explosive devices in the Denver area.)

The second danger to the American homeland is from AQAP. It came into existence in 2009. The group was formed by jihadists and homegrown terrorists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia,and Somalia. Its home base is Yemen. The Middle Eastern country is attractive since much of the nation is devoid of government control. The group attempted to attack the United States in 2009 and 2010. An AQAP operative, Umar Faruq Abdulmutallab, almost detonated an explosive device aboard an Amsterdam to Detroit flight on Christmas Day 2009. The same organization is allegedly responsible for attempting to bomb several cargo planes originating from England’s Midland airport to Chicago in October 2010. The U.S. is in the organization’s crosshair: An AQAP spokesman on Dec 17, 2009, said “We only have an issue with America and its agents. So, be careful not to side with America.”

The other lesser groups to monitor are al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Lashkar e-Toiba (LeT) and Al-Shaabab. AQIM presents the highest danger of the three organizations. Its main operational base is in Algeria. It has also conducted logistical and financial activities throughout the Sahel – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. AQIM’s operational presence isn’t limited to the Sahel. European Counter-terrorism authorities have disrupted AQIM-linked cells in several countries including Spain, Italy, France and Germany, for instance.

The organization was initially called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat or its French acronym, GSPC. Its original aim was to overthrow the Algerian government and replace it with an Islamic regime.

Their objectives changed after the GSPC merged with al-Qaida, renaming itself AQIM. The consolidation occurred after Algerian authorities severely degraded the organization’s operational activities. The alliance with al-Qaida was viewed as an attempt by GSPC to revitalize its recruitment and operational base. The organization expanded its objectives to include attacking France and the United States. Washington is now in AQIM’s crosshairs since the North African group contends the U.S. supports the Algerian government. Specific AQIM plots against American facilities have yet to be discovered.

The other, lesser groups – LeT and Al-Shabaab – have loose ties with al-Qaida. LeT is based in South Asia, while Al-Shabaab is stationed in Somalia. Neither has planned any detected attacks against U.S. political, economic, military, or diplomatic sites, yet. Both require a wary eye.

The aforementioned groups poise a short-to-medium term threat; their long-term demise is highly likely. The Middle East’s ongoing uprisings may result in their decline. The events’ participants are more interested in better economic and political conditions than religious ideology; the militant Islamist philosophy is also opposed by most Muslims. Both will decrease al-Qaida’s and its affiliates’ recruitment base plus operational capabilities.

The American people cannot reduce their vigilance of al-Qaida, its associates, or the homegrown terrorist threat, despite the Middle East’s events. The United States risks another 9/11 style attack otherwise.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to

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