The terrorist group may be headless, but its tentacles still pack a mean punch.
Al Qaeda is returning to the shadows. The experiment by al-Shabab, al Qaeda's Somali affiliate, of attempting to govern a broad area in Somalia's south officially came to a close this weekend when its fighters fled from their final stronghold, the port city of Kismayo. Its fate in this regard mirrors that of the jihadi group's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which also saw its more limited experiment in governance draw to a close in the middle of the year. In contrast, the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens suggests the group's North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to hone its capabilities.
This isn't just a tale of three different organizations moving in different directions. Rather, al-Shabab and AQAP's failures, along with AQIM's apparent success, are related to the unique weaknesses and strengths of global jihadi efforts: Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been able to control territory at times but have not found much success in doing so. Their rigidity makes them ineffective governors, unable to truly win the sympathies of populations forced to endure their harsh, dystopian brand of Islamic law. Al Qaeda's retreat from governance, however, does not render it irrelevant. The jihadi organization remains comfortable as an insurgent actor, adept at moving in the shadows and carrying out occasional, devastating strikes.
AQIM currently represents the success story in this jihadi triumvirate. After some embarrassing vacillations on the part of President Barack Obama's administration, U.S. government analysts seem to be converging on the idea that al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa was involved in the Benghazi attack. Although it is unclear whether AQIM was the primary perpetrator, U.S. officials have homed in on the group in recent days, exploring ways to counter its growth, most likely through stepped-up training efforts for local partners in counterterrorism efforts, but perhaps including a direct U.S. military response.
A recent Wall Street Journal article provided the most extensive account of why analysts are coming to associate al Qaeda with the attack. Importantly, the article highlights how various al Qaeda franchises and local actors were able to come together and play varied roles in an attack.
The Wall Street Journal article centers on Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad -- who, according to a defense analyst I interviewed, is known by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmad al-Masri -- a militant who had been incarcerated in Egypt prior to the Arab Spring uprisings, which saw many prisons emptied. Ahmad is a locally based militant, and fighters under his command, who may have trained at his camps in the Libyan desert, took part in the Benghazi attack, according to U.S. officials. Ahmad has tried to officially connect with the global jihadi network, even petitioning al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the subject.
Such permission has not been forthcoming, so Western officials refer to his militant organization as the "Jamal Network." Yet though he is not an official part of al Qaeda, the Wall Street Journal reported that officials think that Ahmad received funding through AQAP and "tapped into its system for smuggling fighters," and that AQIM fighters were also present during the Benghazi attack.
Many counterterrorism specialists have argued that we are seeing the "relocalization of jihad," in which regional interests dominate over global agendas. This may be true, especially because revolutionary events in the region provide jihadists with local opportunities they simply did not enjoy previously. Some analysts, however, appear far too eager to declare networks like al Qaeda irrelevant to the counterterrorism picture.
Indeed, in August -- prior to the Benghazi attack -- the Library of Congress's Federal Research Division published an unclassified 50-page report titled "Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile." The report, which unfortunately is not available online, concludes that the Libyan revolution "may have created an environment conducive to jihad and empowered the large and active community of Libyan jihadists," and that both AQIM and al Qaeda's senior leadership have attempted to exploit this environment. If indeed the Benghazi attack is connected to AQIM, the details offered in this report suggest that it was likely the outgrowth of many months of effort to build up a jihadi network in Libya.
Al Qaeda's senior leadership, according to the report, had dispatched high-level operatives to Libya to bolster its network in the country. As of August, the Federal Research Division assessed that though a core network had been created in Libya, it "remains clandestine and refrains from using the al Qaeda name." The report also judged that the network was expanding and had begun operating training camps and undertaking social media campaigns. These initial efforts to establish a network were initially undertaken by al Qaeda's Pakistan-based leadership, but the report also predicted that AQIM would "join hands with the al Qaeda clandestine network in Libya."
Back in August, the majority of analysts writing in the public sphere probably would have disagreed with the report's conclusion. Many thought that al Qaeda had been marginalized, even within the jihadi movement. Today that assessment may be different -- not just because of the Benghazi attack, but also because of additional information that has emerged about the dynamics of jihadism in Libya. Nobody should be surprised, however, that al Qaeda would attempt to keep its growth (or regrowth) hidden from view. Its use of different labels as it established a network in Libya is instructive. It wanted to be off its adversaries' radar during this network's growth phase. Likewise, in both Somalia and Yemen, where al Qaeda's affiliates have recently taken a beating, the terrorist network is going to try to regain strength out of plain sight.
On Oct. 2, African Union peacekeepers were greeted with a bomb blast as they entered Kismayo to take control of the former al-Shabab stronghold. Although there were no casualties, this was al-Shabab's way of saying that, though it no longer controls territory, it is still a force in the country. "This is only an introduction to the forthcoming explosions," the group's spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, said.
Al-Shabab will try to repeat a maneuver that already proved successful once before in Somalia. Back in 2006, an Islamist coalition called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), of which al-Shabab is an offshoot, controlled most of the key strategic points in southern Somalia and had encircled the U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government in the south-central city of Baidoa. The ICU governed according to its strict interpretation of Islamic law. It executed people for watching soccer matches and imposed a number of other draconian restrictions (though wasn't as harsh as al-Shabab would later become). As the year neared its end, many observers expected the ICU to undertake an offensive to wipe out the transitional government's final sanctuary. Instead, however, Ethiopia launched an invasion of Somalia that not only received the approval of the United States, but critical military support as well. Ethiopian troops entered the capital, Mogadishu, on Dec. 28, 2006, and quickly reversed virtually all the ICU's strategic gains throughout the country before the end of January 2007.
The ICU promised an insurgency, and one soon gripped Somalia. Al-Shabab split from the ICU during this period and eventually was able to become the dominant force in the country's south. By early 2011, the situation looked much like it did prior to the Ethiopian invasion. Just as a few Ethiopian troops protected the transitional government in Baidoa in 2006, all that stood between the Somali government and certain death at al-Shabab's hands in 2011 was the protection of an African Union force composed of Ugandan and Burundian troops.
But things have gone poorly for al-Shabab since the group won back control of territory. It completely mishandled the devastating drought that racked the Horn of Africa last year, which deepened into a famine in areas under its control. The group's dogmatic insistence on clamping down on humanitarian organizations, claiming they had a "Christian" agenda, certainly made the crisis deeper. Nor did al-Shabab do itself favors with its heavy-handed tactics during this period.
African Union peacekeepers, joined this time by Kenyan forces, went on an anti-Shabab offensive following the drought. As a result, al-Shabab's experiment in governance seems to be over for the time being as it returns to the role of the insurgent force.
Whether al-Shabab will be able to regain its fighting capabilities is, of course, an open question. There are some promising differences between 2012 and 2007. For one, the Ethiopian role has moved to the background. Of all the countries that might try to occupy Somalia, predominantly Christian Ethiopia has particularly poor prospects, given the historical rivalry between the two countries. It is no coincidence that two of the most towering figures in Somali history, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi and Muhammad Abdille Hassan, both fought against Ethiopia. A second positive factor, frankly, is that al-Shabab has actually had the opportunity to govern. Somalis have tasted its oppressive rule and seen a humanitarian disaster take far too many lives under its watch, and may strongly resist its return to power. Finally, unlike the quick defeat of the ICU in 2006 and 2007, al-Shabab has experienced significant losses over the past several months and may therefore have more difficulty recovering.
But the country's transitional government, on the other hand, does not inspire much hope. It has never been able to govern effectively, and just like in 2007, it is being protected by a foreign army. These two deficits may be sufficient to allow an insurgency to gain strength in Somalia. If one does, its early growth will largely be out of sight -- the occasional bombing or attack on African Union or transitional government forces the only sign that al-Shabab remains a force to be reckoned with.
AQAP did not manage to control and govern territory in Yemen for nearly as long as al-Shabab did in Somalia, nor did it preside over as large a region. As noted Yemen specialist Gregory Johnsen has written, the United States increased its airstrikes in Yemen following Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi's ascension as president in February, and a major offensive from May to June "forced AQAP to abandon overt control of the towns it had captured." Hadi has proved very willing to accept counterterrorism assistance from the United States, including publicly praising drone strikes. Johnsen notes that AQAP seems to be at a crossroads, faced with the choice of returning to what it had been -- a militant group that moved in the shadows -- or trying to reclaim its lost territory and "once again position itself as a governing authority."
It is not yet clear which of these routes AQAP will try to pursue, though there are signs that it is experiencing somewhat of a rebound. In mid-September, for example, gunmen affiliated with AQAP front group Ansar al-Sharia captured an entire security unit in Yemen's al-Bayda governorate. As with the other two groups, AQAP will keep its organization out of public view as much as it can, meaning that much of what we learn about it will be from its militant actions. To that extent, if AQAP did play a role in the Benghazi attack -- even one limited to financing a key perpetrator -- it tells us something new about its expanding regional influence.
The United States must be on alert as these al Qaeda affiliates move into a new phase of their evolution. These groups are done with the business of trying to govern, at least for now, and are back to doing what they do best: operating in the shadows, fighting as insurgents, and engaging in terrorist attacks.