Al-Qaeda seeks new alliances, new conflicts

People watch Somali al-Shabab fighters on February 13, 2012, in Elasha Biyaha, in the Afgoei Corridor, during a demonstration to support the merger of al-Shabab and the al-Qaeda network Image copyright AFP
Image caption While a Somali rally signalled support for al-Qaeda's merger with al-Shabab, the former has few operatives within the country

Despite the media focus on events in Arab states, al-Qaeda has been largely absent from the headlines. But could recent announcements herald the group's resurgence in the region?

Largely ignored by the recent reform movements sweeping over much of the Arab world, al-Qaeda's core leadership has responded to developments in the Middle East and Africa with two major announcements within days of each other.

First came the statement on 9 February by Osama Bin Laden's successor, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, that al-Qaeda had now merged with Somalia's insurgent group, al-Shabab.

Then, on 11 February, an eight-minute video by the same al-Qaeda leader was posted on the internet calling for a jihad to overthrow the embattled regime of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

'Safe havens'

So what is behind the announcements and will either have any impact?

Regional analysts have greeted the Somali merger with a degree of cynicism, pointing out that al-Shabab already announced it was merging with al-Qaeda in 2009.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Zawahiri may hope to repeat Bin Laden's recruitment of foreign jihadists

This time it was al-Qaeda that announced the merger, a sign - say some - of the heavy pressure it is under and its need for new partners and new fields of conflict.

Last week, the London think tank Rusi (Royal United Services Institute) put the number of non-Somali jihadists fighting alongside al-Shabab at 200, of whom it says a quarter are British.

The number of actual al-Qaeda operatives inside Somalia is probably very small indeed.

Recent drone strikes by the CIA as well as military incursions by Kenya and Ethiopia have sought to restrict its use of "safe havens" in Somalia.

But the country is sufficiently fragile, lacking in effective government and endowed with such porous borders that it could still become a magnet for foreign jihadists.

Somali peace 'remote'

For core al-Qaeda, struggling to present itself as relevant to fast-moving events in the Arab world, it makes sense to shore up a strategic alliance with a still-powerful regional movement bitterly opposed to the weak, western-aligned government in Mogadishu.

But for al-Shabab, accepting and welcoming this merger is a strange move.

True, it too is under huge pressure; driven out of central Mogadishu, pushed back from the south-west border by the Kenyans and under attack from African Union forces elsewhere.

But al-Shabab is still the single most powerful Somali force in much of Somalia and it was assumed that sooner or later it would have to lay down its arms in a peace deal.

Yet now, having publicly and unequivocally allied itself with al-Qaeda, that prospect seems more remote than ever.

For many of the world's governments engaged in seeking a long-term solution to Somalia's problems, al-Shabab has effectively put itself completely beyond the pale.

Rallying cry

Al-Qaeda's call to arms in Syria makes perfect sense from its perspective.

In Saturday's taped address, Zawahiri urged Muslims in the neighbouring states of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to rise up and support the rebellion against President Assad's rule.

He told Syrians not to rely on the West or Arab governments; there was no mention of Russia or China which blocked intervention at the UN Security Council.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Syrian opposition may not welcome al-Qaeda today but what of the future?

Core al-Qaeda is now in a similar position to where it was in February 2003 when, having been driven out of Afghanistan, losing support and in search of a cause, Osama Bin Laden issued a rallying cry to fellow Muslims to come to the defence of Iraq.

In an audio statement at the time, he said: "Regardless of the removal or the survival of the socialist party or Saddam, Muslims in general and the Iraqis in particular must brace themselves for jihad against this unjust campaign and acquire ammunition and weapons."

While this did nothing to stave off that year's US-led invasion, it did help usher in a constant stream of foreign jihadists that provided the sharpened tip of Iraq's subsequent insurgency.

Al-Qaeda will now be looking to exploit Syria's sectarian tensions, playing on the resentment by many Sunnis at the supremacy of the Alawite minority.

And yet Zawahiri's message has attracted surprisingly little attention on social media sites, at least from those opposing the Syrian government.

Two days after it was posted on the internet, Syrian Facebook pages calling for President Assad's downfall had still not reported it.

New foothold?

On the micro-blogging site Twitter, it was either ignored or condemned by major users.

There was marginally more interest from Assad supporters on social media sites, who warmed to the suggestion that al-Qaeda's message somehow proved it was in league with the US and Israel.

But, as has been seen in Egypt and Tunisia, trends on Twitter and Facebook do not necessarily project the situation one year down the line.

While al-Qaeda's message may be unwelcome to most in the Syrian opposition today, there could still be scope in the future.

If, say, Syria descends into protracted anarchy, al-Qaeda could establish a new foothold in a country that for years imprisoned and tortured its members.

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