In recent months, the counterterrorism scene in the United States has been riven by debates about what al-Qa’ida (AQ) actually constitutes today, over two-and-a-half years since the death of Osama bin Laden. This has been a politically charged matter as it’s gotten caught up in the lingering catfight about exactly what happened at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, and why. This debate isn’t especially edifying, producing more partisan heat than analytical light, but I don’t expect it to go away either. Not to mention that defining the AQ threat accurately is necessary if we want to defeat it in detail and score more than tactical triumphs over the jihadists.
I consider it especially important that American CT experts listen to other voices from beyond the United States and the Anglosphere, so I’m passing on a recent interesting interview with a French CT expert, Yves Trotignon, in the Paris daily L’Opinion. Trotigon is a former CT analyst for DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service, and he continues to study terrorism as an outside expert, and he has recently authored a study on the current status of AQ and global jihad for the French military. Trotignon’s viewpoint is encapsulated in the article’s title: “Osama bin Laden has won: the al-Qa’ida threat has never been more significant.” His comments are interesting and, to some, controversial, so I’m passing on the entire interview:
Q: Nearly three years after the death of Osama bin Ladin on 2 May 2011, there is still talk of al-Qa’ida (AQ) in Iraq, Syria, in the Sahel and elsewhere. Where is the terrorist organization?
A: The jihadist threat was never more significant in the past thirty years, that is to say, since this phenomenon first appeared! There is today a real Sunni insurgency, with active movements everywhere, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, but also in North Africa, the Sahel, Yemen, the Sinai, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and even in Southeast Asia. These are powerful movements, interrelated and armed. This threat has taken knocks, but it has adapted to crackdowns. In addition, the Arab uprisings [since 2011] have opened a period of instability, which benefits them.
Basically, Bin Ladin’s gamble has paid off: He hoped to start something global. This has happened, and now AQ dresses up the conflicts, although it does not necessarily organize them. Besides, from 2003, bin Ladin explained that he had wanted to start the fire and that from that point onward AQ would support and inspire other actions.
Q: Can we still speak of AQ as an organized structure, or is it more accurately a movement?
A: Both! There are movements that are direct manifestations of, or have been dubbed by AQ – frequently changing names to this effect, such as Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They are to be found in North Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, in the Sinai, and now in Somalia, where the Al-Shabab organization joined AQ in 2012.
The situation is different in other regions, for example in Indonesia, Nigeria and the Caucasus. There, movements claim ideological kinship with AQ and act in the way they think that AQ would, by imitation, without AQ asking them to do anything. Therefore it is not an International body, as was the communist Comintern, with a central body exercising control with a short leash. Pakistan remains the main center of gravity, particularly at the intellectual and ideological level, but there are others, in North Africa, the Caucasus and Yemen. Everything is in a continuous state of flux, but everything is connected. It is a movement that reconstitutes itself continuously.
Q: How many of these radical jihadists are there?
A: There is no exact number and it’s probably impossible to know. Whom do we count, in effect? The hard core of people trained in terrorism, the fighters in insurgent movements, their supporters, their logistical support? In any case, they number in the tens of thousands …
Q: You say that the threat has never been as significant, but the West appears to have been secure since the major attacks in the early 2000’s, the 9/11, London and Madrid attacks?
A: Yes, we have overcome this by managing to make sanctuaries out of Western Europe and North America against new major attacks, even if there were – as there will be – many foiled attempts. This suppression was effective but it has not stemmed the threat. In particular, it has failed to stop recruitment. One only has to see the number of Europeans who have gone to fight in Syria. They will return and this is a great source of concern for intelligence services and the police.
In particular, the jihadist networks have adapted. One has to read the theoretical texts of al-Zawahiri, bin Ladin’s successor. He favors small, but very spectacular, operations by isolated individuals such as [Toulouse killer] Mohamed Merah, or the attack on the Boston Marathon.
The terrorists committed spectacular actions, such as the attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi or at the hotels in Mumbai, where they were sure to reach Western expatriates. In that way they get more mileage than from attacking a barracks in Algeria or Nigeria. What they want is to dampen spirits: Terrorism exists only because we talk about it
Q: What do you think of the situation in Iraq, where AQ has captured cities; and in Syria, where it is confronting Islamist resistance groups?
A: It is a little early to tell because the dust of battle has not yet settled. What we do know is that this is the result of a complex set of alliances between the various international supporters – including from the Gulf – and the interests of various local actors, warlords or tribal leaders. In Syria, everyone says that al-Assad is gaining the upper hand over the rebellion. In Iraq, it remains to be seen if the army can regain control of the cities that have been lost. The two countries somewhat constitute the same theater, since their frontier is a figment of the imagination. Besides, AQ there is called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or, as in the English acronym, ISIS.
Q: AQ is fighting the West but also the Shia. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, can you imagine a reversal of alliances between the West and the Shia – Iran to begin with – against Sunni terrorism?
A: Certainly, we are on the same side as the Shia in this case, but only in this case! I believe that it is difficult to have a position of general principle. We should act on a case-by-case basis, pragmatically, with cold calculation, depending on local and regional circumstances. We can also ask ourselves if AQ poses a mortal threat to the West. On balance, would not maintaining the Assad regime in power be at the expense of greater risk for French or British interests? The situation obviously is different in countries like Kenya, Algeria or Niger…
Q: How do you view the way things are developing in North Africa and the Sahel?
A: In the Sahel, France will be engaged for some years, that’s for sure! The big problem is Libya, which is now a failed state, from which the jihadists want to act in Tunisia, Egypt and the Sahel. We should avoid contagion. We often forget Algeria, where the situation has not stabilized. AQIM is still active in Kabylia and the predictable demise of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will usher in a period of uncertainty that terrorists could exploit.
Q: What fundamentally is AQ’s political aim?
A: It is very simplistic and their ideology is not thoroughly structured: Overthrowing states and establishing an Islamic caliphate, this is a fantasy. This is very hard-core Islamism, unlike that of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example … Depending on the situation, they either use Third World, or ethnic or pan-Islamist themes. In fact, what they are really interested in is the battle itself, not the project. They are much too radical to be able to govern and there are unbelievable gaps in their political planning.
Q: What can we do to fight them?
A: I have been wondering that for a long time now … It is essential to suppress them; on the other hand, it is difficult to counter them politically, because you cannot hold a dialog with them. Can we build something on the societel level to halt the recruitment … in 20 years? Certainly it is necessary, but it will not be enough, because AQ does not recruit only the unemployed; it also recruits from the middle classes. The most important point probably is this sense of cultural domination by the West, which AQ rejects. Therefore everything that stems from us is doomed to be ineffectual.
Lots to ponder there, folks, but I find myself in essential agreement with Trotigon’s point that AQ is fueled by a violent fantasy ideology, a toxic version of Salafi jihadism, that is ultimately fantasy-based and cannot actually achieve any of its political goals. Neither can it be reasoned or parleyed with. But it’s far from dead either, despite many setbacks. We ought to dispense with any wishful thinking that the fight against the AQ-inspired global jihad movement is anywhere near over.