Zawahiri, and al Qaeda’s Future Plans

The fate of Ayman al-Zawahiri is still unknown after an airstrike in the Pakistani town of Damadola, near the Afghan border in the province of Bajaur. An Al-Arabiya source close to al Qaeda states Zawahiri is still alive, and Pakistani intelligence sources claim he escaped the attack. American intelligence officials are still eager to see the results of the DNA tests, and are unusually optimistic on the possibility Zawahiri was indeed killed in the strike. The fact that a team was able to gather remains indicates a certain level of sophistication and coordination in the strike, as Bajaur is a hostile and remote environment unfriendly to American forces and the central Pakistani government.

The Washington Post states the strike was “based on timely intelligence about Zawahiri’s whereabouts early Friday. Zawahiri had been under surveillance by the CIA for two weeks.” And Pakistan is reported to have been intimately involved in the intelligence gathering and operation. The Daily Times reports “the attack was planned and executed by a combination of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers in Pakistan and Pakistani officials. ‘This would not have happened unless they had pretty precise information that the right target was at that location.'”

Riots have broken out in Bajaur, and two Non-Governmental Organization (NGOs) offices were attacked, and thirty riotors were detained. Pakistan’s Information Minister condemned the attack and the U.S. ambassador has been summoned to explain the event. Based on Pakistan’s permissiveness in the past to allows such strikes and its involvement in the Zawahiri attack, the summons is for domestic consumption only.

The strike against Zawahiri comes at a transitional stage of the war. There are reports al Qaeda is reallocating resources from Iraq, which Zawahiri himself referred to as “the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.” Their destination is reportedly Afghanistan, where the Coalition is currently conducting operations during the winter months, and the Taliban has yet again vowed to step up attacks. Other evidence points to al Qaeda expanding operations in Lebanon, with the end target being Israel.

Based on the importance that Zawahiri himself placed on Iraq, the shift of operation focus is curious. Zawahiri has described Afghanistan, along with Chechnya, Kashmir, and Bosnia and other theaters as the “far-flung regions of the Islamic world”, and considers these areas as secondary in al Qaeda’s plans for the formation of the Islamist Caliphate. Yet there is the distinct possibility a drawdown is occurring in Iraq.

The failure of al Qaeda in Iraq to gain real traction with the Iraqi people may very well be the reason for this shift. There have been numerous cases of red-on-red fighting between al Qaeda and the insurgency. Mohammed at Iraq the Model provides even further anecdotal evidence:

Al-Qaeda is apparently being chased down and confronted by Iraqis in Anbar and Samarra according to a report from al-Sabah. Mohammed al-Ubaidi is a citizen of Anbar who took part in a battle against al Qaeda fighters said that people were enraged by the attacks that kill civilians in Anbar and other provinces and therefore have decided to form squads from the residents to rid Anbar from the foreign terrorists.

The reports mentions that several tribes’ sheikhs had a meeting in the home of a sheikh of the Dulaim tribe where they pledged to fight al Qaeda and throw them out of the province. There are also news that some 120 al Qaeda members have already fled outside Iraq after a series of battles between their cells and the residents of Ramadi and other towns and suburbs of Anbar. According to the same report, similar measures are being taken by the residents in Samarra and have succeeded in forcing foreign terrorists out of their city.

al Qaeda’s operations have been impacted by the successful offensive this summer and fall in northern and western Iraq. Lt. Gen. John R. Vines states “al Qaeda is increasingly in disarray and we have pursued, captured and killed a large number of them.” And al Qaeda recruiting cells continue to be rolled up in Europe. The latest round of arrests in Spain netted a senior operational leader and twenty of his cell members. These efforts, over time, place a strain on al Qaeda in Iraq’s ability to keep up a steady operational pace.

In his letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Zawahiri outlined al Qaeda’s plan for waging jihad in the heart of the Middle East:

The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq.

The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or amirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate- over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni areas, is in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans, immediately upon their exit and before un-Islamic forces attempt to fill this void, whether those whom the Americans will leave behind them, or those among the un-Islamic forces who will try to jump at taking power.

The third stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.

The fourth stage: It may coincide with what came before: the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.

This coincides with Saif al-Adel’s strategy doucment. The timeframe laid out by al-Adel is specific, with “definitive victory” set for the year 2020.

Zawahiri’s first and second stages have not been accomplished: the Americans have not been ejected from Iraq, and an Islamic Caliphate has not been set up within Iraq’s border. There is no rump Islamic State of Iraq. The closest al Qaeda came was during the summer of 2005, when they declared the Islamic Republics of Qaim and Haditha, but these regions were contested no-man’s lands at best. Anbar province has been denied to al Qaeda.

The obvious question is: why has al Qaeda jumped their strategy planning, and bypassed the most crucial elements: U.S. defeat in Iraq and the establishment of Islamic states in Iraq? Does al Qaeda actually believe they accomplished these goals? Or do they recognize the Iraq enterprise has failed and are cutting their losses.

Zawahiri is the pragmatist and strategic commander of al Qaeda. His letter to Zarqawi, and Zarqawi’s letter to Osama bin Laden provide a window into the way they view the state of current battles. You can see the need for urgency in their actions. If al Qaeda withdrawal from Iraq is really in the works, Zawahiri’s recent statements declaring U.S. defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely cover for withdrawal.

al Qaeda may believe it has a greater chance at achieving a victory against the West in Afghanistan. The United States is removing 4,000 troops from the Afghan theater, which are to be replaced by NATO forces. The Dutch are debating providing their alloted contingent of forces, which threatens the foreign policy of the European Union and NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is likely trying to cleave the Afghanistan Coalition, and attacks such as the suicide strike against Canadian soldiers in Kandahar are designed to achieve such a split.

Perhaps al Qaeda believes the buffer in the Tribal areas of Pakistan will provide it the protection needed to conduct a successful counteroffensive against Coalition forces. But many high-level al Qaeda leaders, operatives and an estimated 1,000 footsoldiers have been captured or met their end in Pakistan. And the strike against Zawahiri, whether successful or not, demonstrates al Qaeda is not free to operate without a response.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



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