By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI – The ongoing Israeli offensive in Gaza against Hamas, which has aroused the Arab street, although Egypt and Saudi Arabia support the action, opens the possibility of al-Qaeda capitalizing on the widespread discord in the region.
Asia Times Online investigations, including interviews with people associated with al-Qaeda, reveal that the central leadership of al-Qaeda, sitting somewhere in the tribal areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, sees the Gaza conflict as a major opportunity to inflame the war theater in Gaza and make it a permanent trouble spot for and Egypt, just as al-Qaeda-led areas of conflict have created seemingly intractable difficulties for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Capitalizing on the Gaza unrest would be consistent with al-Qaeda’s vision of reviving a caliphate to centralize Muslim resistance in its capacity as a non-state actor. The crucial issue is how long Hamas’ estimated 25,000 fighters in Gaza can resist the Israelis.
There is a strong discourse on a possible al-Qaeda role in supporting Hamas, but given limited resources there is no likelihood of immediate action. However, there is a consensus that if Hamas succeeds in prolonging the war for at least a few more weeks, al-Qaeda would be able to weigh in.
Al-Qaeda is passing through a transitional restructuring phase. The most crucial areas where it is transforming its organization and strategies are Somalia and Yemen, beside Iraq. Al-Qaeda plans to disrupt the sea routes between Somalia and Yemen, which would affect international trade through this route.
It has developed an understanding with the leadership of the opposition Islamic Courts Union of Somalia on common strategic goals. In Yemen, al-Qaeda leader Salem al-Radwui has been specially sent from Afghanistan by the al-Qaeda leadership to develop links with dissident Yemeni groups operating in southern Yemen, as well as with various Islamic groups. Al-Qaeda’s aim is to provide background guidance while encouraging the local groups to play a lead role.
In Iraq, al-Qaeda has recently adopted the same approach, which is already in effect in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that is, the resistance is led by Ibnul Balad sons of the soil, and al-Qaeda only provides guidance, resources and support through special operations that are strictly coordinated through local groups.
As a result. al-Qaeda has made something of a comeback in al-Anbar province in Iraq, although not as strong as it was in 2005. The reason is that local tribal youths, traditionally a martial race, have strong representation in the US-backed law-enforcement agencies.
In Egypt, which was the second-strongest base for al-Qaeda after the Pakistani tribal areas, al-Qaeda has suffered huge setbacks over the past 10 years and its resources and strengths are scattered and unorganized as a result of intensive government action. Many underground groups, including al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, have surrendered.
However, militancy has not been eradicated from Egypt, it has only been contained, as happened from 2001 to 2006 in Pakistan when the Pakistani military establishment struck deals with militant groups. When a concerted offensive began in Afghanistan in 2006, these dormant jihadis were activated and they streamed into the Pakistani tribal areas and into Afghanistan, turning them into real war theaters.
A similar situation could exist in Egypt, where, according to Asia Times Online contacts, several thousand men associated with different groups linked to al-Qaeda are lying low. At present, there is a serious leadership dearth within al-Qaeda to mobilize these militant groups, as they are doing in Iraq and Yemen, and it is extremely difficult to send leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda is therefore banking on the Hamas resistance in Gaza continuing long enough for it to goad the groups into action. Specifically, al-Qaeda envisages militants breaking the Egyptian blockade of Gaza.
This would allow Hamas fighters a corridor to retreat, turning Egypt into a strategic backyard of resistance, similar to the Syrian border towns for Iraq. In this scenario, al-Qaeda could divert some resources from Iraq and turn Gaza into a permanent war zone – al-Qaeda is not looking for victory, rather it wants the space to maintain a resistance.
Al-Qaeda has learnt from its experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan that surviving for another day is an essential component of guerrilla warfare, besides showing resilience.
In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, for example, which is a non-tribal area, al-Qaeda-led militants initially were forced by the military to abandon their bases, but within a few weeks they reassembled as guerrilla fighters and just concentrated on surviving with the help of the local population.
Now, according to a recent report by Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on Pashtun tribalism, they control large areas of the valley. In an article published in The News International, “Taliban rule the roost in Swat through FM radio”, Rahimullah explains in detail how the Taliban govern, with their orders broadcast over the radio.
Al-Qaeda has similar designs in the present Israel-Palestinian conflict. If Hamas abandons its bases in Gaza and gets the chance to scatter and only tries to survive around the Israeli forces, with the support of the local population and militants from neighboring countries like Iraq and Yemen, and most importantly from Egypt, it could regroup and stream back into Gaza to create a little Afghanistan and Iraq close to the heart of Israel.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org