The Return of Al-Qaeda: why we should be worried about jailbreaks in Pakistan and Iraq

English: Osama bin Laden interviewed for Daily...

Osama bin Laden interviewed for Daily Pakistan in 1997 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, just over a week since the Al-Qaeda Jailbreak in Iraq, now we have the Taliban Jailbreak in Pakistan. It doesn’t take much to tell that this was no coincidence.

No, what it means is that, far from being a spent and broken force, the Al-Qaeda movement founded by Osama bin Laden is alive and dangerous.

Eight days after spectacular raids by militants on two prisons in Iraq freed 500 inmates, among them some of the most dangerous Sunni extremists from the civil war, comes a remarkably similar raid over a thousand miles away in Pakistan.

This time 250 prisoners escaped, including some of the most dangerous Sunni extremists from Pakistan’s own insurgency.

In both Iraq and Pakistan, the attacks began with large bombs that blew holes in the prison walls and gateways, supported by mortar fire and gunfire. In both cases, the attackers caused maximum chaos and released huge numbers of prisoners in order to make the escape of high-profile extremists easier.

And, in case you’re thinking the Pakistan attack was some sort of copy-cat operation, simply inspired by reports of what had happened in Iraq, investigators there say they have evidence it was being planned at least two weeks ago — a week before the Baghdad jaibreaks.

And who claimed reponsibility for the attacks? The names come back to haunt us, like memories from some half-forgotten nightmare: Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Taliban.

These groups aren’t the original Al-Qaeda or Taliban. In both cases, they’re local groups inspired by and named after the originals. But what the jailbreaks show is that these successor groups are now operating internationally, coordinating their strategy and operations across thousands of miles in battlefields around the world.

That they’re doing, in other words, precisely what bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was supposed to do.

The West is insisting on treating these groups as local militia involved in insurgencies that can be contained by borders. That can fit with our map of the world, with its clearly delineated nation states.

But the Wahhabi extremists of Al-Qaeda don’t believe in nation states or borders, and they’re operating across them with impunity. We’re still treating these groups as local franchises that were inspired by bin Laden, and followed his ideas without any real coordination.

Well, that’s what they were to begin with. Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was once an organisation, but crippled by the 2001 war in Afghanistan it survived as a movement, a set of ideas, a cause. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was an organisation set up to follow those ideas and fight for that cause.

But now it has links with the Taliban in Pakistan and like-minded groups in Syria — links that have flourished because, particularly in the Arab world, people travel from country to country to fight for the cause.

In this way a new international Al-Qaeda network is being created. Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was broken, but a new one is being born.

And all the while the West continues to treat these civil wars, insurgencies and crises as if they are separate — Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan — when to the Al-Qaeda extremists they are part of a single global cause.

Because we fail to see these separate battlefields as part of a single unifying cause, we are missing the danger. If you’re in doubt of how inimical these groups are to the West, just remember their names. Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Taliban.

We have identified the great danger to world peace as Iran, and its quest for a nuclear bomb, and the great villain of the Middle East as President Assad in Syria.

And Assad is a brutal, repressive dictator. And the Iranian regime is a very real threat to world peace. But we are ignoring the danger that comes from Al-Qaeda, and it’s just as real.

Right now they’re locked in another titanic struggle, the centuries-old fight for control of the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia. They fought it in the Iraqi civil war, which was largely between Sunni and Shia, and they’re fighting it Syria, where although the local Shias are a different type — Alawites  — they are still seen as the enemy by the Al-Qaeda-inspired groups who now dominate the forces fighting against the Alawite President Assad.

That’s why the fighting in Syria threatens to spill back into Iraq, and into Lebanon, and everywhere both Sunnis and Shia live. That’s why last week in Pakistan there was an attack in which 50 Shias died.

And, of course, behind the scenes are the regional powers. Iran is deeply involved with the Shia groups that dominate Iraq, and allied to Assad in Syria. And Saudi Arabia (and the smaller Qatar) have links with the Sunni groups in Syria.

When the West talks about arming the rebels in Syria, it’s effectively talking about arming one of the sides in this struggle, the side that sometimes goes by the name Al-Qaeda. The Sunni extremists now dominate the Syrian rebels, and any change in the balance of power would advance their cause.

If you think it’s a good thing for these to all be tied up fighting each other, consider this: the world’s biggest oil reserves, on which the global economy depends, sit right under where it’s all happening, in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. And the biggest of all in a part of Sunni Saudi Arabia where the country’s Shia minority live.

And if you think it’s still worth turning a blind eye to the danger of a resurgent Al-Qaeda, because the real danger is Iran and its nuclear bomb, consider that Iran hasn’t got a nuclear bomb yet. Pakistan has, and Al-Qaeda’s friends there in the Taliban would love to get their hands on it.



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  1. Rajeev Srivastava says

    Brilliant analysis. Tomorrows International Agenda(Naghma’s show) would be based on it.

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