Earlier this week, the press learned that an intercepted communication between al Qaeda honcho Ayman al Zawahiri and Nasir al Wuhayshi, who heads al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and is now al Qaeda’s overall general manager, is what caused the US government to shutter more than 20 diplomatic facilities.
Is there more to this story? Writing for the Daily Beast, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report that the conference call included “more than 20 al Qaeda operatives.” They write:
Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The presence of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates operating in the Sinai was one reason the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, according to one U.S. intelligence official. “These guys already proved they could hit Eilat. It’s not out of the range of possibilities that they could hit us in Tel Aviv,” the official said.
We cannot independently confirm this, of course. If true, it is this type of detail that threatens to upend the counterterrorism community’s prevailing paradigm for understanding al Qaeda.
The paradigm holds that al Qaeda’s “core” is a distinct organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and whatever all of these other al Qaeda-affiliated groups are, they aren’t really al Qaeda. The paradigm’s adherents believe that these groups may walk and talk like al Qaeda, but that is really all a show – branding, if you will, without any meaningful operational connectivity.
Even without this reported al Qaeda summit via conference call, however, the paradigm has always been demonstrably false. Just look at the organizations reportedly represented on the conference call. They are all part of the al Qaeda-led global jihad.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are publicly recognized, formal affiliates of al Qaeda. They both swore allegiance to Zawahiri after Osama bin Laden’s death, and had sworn allegiance to bin Laden before that.
Zawahiri was directly involved in managing AQI during Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s heyday, when the new butcher of Baghdad would frequently let his psychopathic tendencies get the best of him. After Zarqawi’s demise, Abu Ayyub al Masri, a Zawahiri loyalist, took over command of AQI, but was then killed. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, AQI’s current leader, doesn’t always like Zawahiri’s rulings. But even though AQI’s leader objected to being overruled by Zawahiri during a leadership squabble with the Al Nusrah Front in Syria, AQI (now the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) has not split off from al Qaeda. The Al Nusrah Front, which is also loyal to Zawahiri, fights alongside the ISIL to this day.
We should also recall that it was Zawahiri who recognized AQIM’s formal allegiance to al Qaeda’s senior leadership. “Our brothers will be a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies,” Zawahiri said in 2006, when accepting the AQIM merger. That deal was facilitated by AQI. There are credible reports that Egyptians have been dispatched to Mali and elsewhere to help manage AQIM’s operations.
Boko Haram, according to the US government, has received assistance from three official al Qaeda affiliates. As the Rewards for Justice page for Boko Haram’s leader notes: “There are reported communications, training, and weapons links between Boko Haram, al Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.” And Boko Haram’s forces have fought alongside AQIM.
The Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), according to the US State Department, has a “symbiotic relationship” with al Qaeda. The TTP “draws ideological guidance from al Qaeda,” and al Qaeda “relies on TTP for safe haven.” This “mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both al Qaeda’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members.” The TTP “is a force multiplier for al Qaeda.” This is not a relationship that the TTP or al Qaeda tries to hide.
The “Uzbekistan branch” of al Qaeda mentioned in the Daily Beast report is likely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and/or its offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), both of which are closely allied with al Qaeda. Both groups fight alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tahir Yuldashev and Abu Usman Adil, the two previous leaders of the IMU, sat on al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis. IMU fighters often serve as bodyguards for top Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, and are frequently reported to be killed alongside senior al Qaeda leaders in US drone strikes. And its leaders have repeatedly said the group seeks to help with establishing a global Islamist caliphate.
And, finally, there is al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, which is reportedly led by Osama bin Laden’s former doctor.
We could go on, citing additional evidence with respect to each of these groups. The above paragraphs are just a cursory sketch.
The point is that even without the stunning revelation of a conference call involving all of these parties, and probably more, it is quite obvious that the very narrow definition of al Qaeda used by so many is flat wrong.
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