The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Al Qaeda

Will the blasts in Kampala herald a new wave of terror in East Africa? No.

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Image credit: AFP/Getty Images

Somali militant group Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for twin blasts in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. 74 people were killed while watching the end of the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, and dozens were injured. An unexploded suicide vest laden with ball bearings was also found in a disco hall, suggesting that militants planned another attack. Four “foreign” suspects were arrested in connection with the find.

No doubt, this is a significant event. It represents the first time that Al Shabaab, a rebel group attempting to gain control of Somalia, has struck outside the country’s borders. However, it doesn’t warrant the descriptions of the group that have since been presented by certain members of the media. Several outlets are reporting that Al Shabaab has “links to Al Qaeda” and the Washington Post has led its editorial calling Al Shabaab an “al-Qaeda’s Somali branch.” This is pure, unabashed sensationalism bordering on the hysterical.

Al Shabaab’s supposed links to Al Qaeda are tenuous at best, apart from the group once pledging allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri once praising Al Shabaab for its efforts in Somalia, there is no evidence of any real collaboration between the two on any organisational level.

According to the US think tank, The Council for Foreign Relations:

Experts say there are links between individual Shabaab leaders and individual members of al-Qaeda, but any organizational linkage between the two groups is weak, if it exists at all (many experts note that al-Qaeda operates in a disaggregated manner–so linking self-proclaimed members of Shabaab to self-proclaimed members of al-Qaeda would not necessarily indicate that the two groups are coordinating with one another in a systemic way).

However, if we disregard these tenuous links, that does not mean that Al Shabaab are not dangerous. Their reasons for targeting Uganda are clear, I’ll let Michael Wilkerson explain:

It’s clear why al-Shabab would have picked Uganda: It is the largest supplier of peacekeepers in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), sharing with Burundi the burden of defending Somalia’s weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG). In recent months, al-Shabab has publicly threatened to attack Uganda and Burundi for defending the fledgling Mogadishu-based government, and most analysts agree that without the African Union troops, al-Shabab could quickly capture control of the capital. [FP]

What’s not clear is exactly what al-Shabab hopes to gain with this attack. Max Fisher has a great post up about this on the Atlantic:

There are two likely tactical explanations for the attack. The first is that al-Shabaab is feeling increasingly threatened by the African Union force and is desperate to forestall or prevent the planned addition of 2,000 peacekeepers. In that case, this attack was a defensive act. Insurgents typically turn to terrorism when they are no longer able to challenge their opponents on the battlefield. While this may appear to be good news because it would mean that the group is weaker, a threatened al-Shabaab would become a threat to not just southern Somalia but all of East Africa.

The other possibility is that al-Shabaab is stronger than we think and that this attack is the beginning of a push to expand its reach. Al-Shabaab only operates in Somalia’s south. If it feels confident in its control there, it may be planning to assault north into the contested horn of the country or even into the relatively calm Somaliland region in the north, which has been called an “oasis of stability.” This act of terrorism would be al-Shabaab way of opening a new front in a campaign to expel the peacekeepers from the regions al-Shabaab does not yet control. If the insurgency is indeed growing stronger, this would help explain why the African Union felt the need to increase its force strength by one third.

Personally, I think that Fisher hits the nail on the head with his first explanation. I think it’s unlikely that Al Shabaab are stronger than we think, I think what’s more likely is that they feel increasingly threatened by AMICOM and frustrated by their inability to take Mogadishu. Innocent civilians watching the football in Kampala can thus be seen as a soft target, an easy way to exact revenge, send a message and gain publicity for Al Shabaab’s cause. Indeed, the timing of the blasts with the World Cup final seems to have been aimed primarily at gaining maximum publicity. And if the hysterics I mentioned above are anything to go by, it’s worked

Al Shabaab has long planned to strike outside its borders, but the general consensus has been that it has not had the means to do so. Until now. I do think that this is a significant event and that it will embolden the movement and be a possible precursor to new attacks. However, I do not think that it is a precursor to a massive wave of Islamist violence and terror that will sweep over East Africa crushing all in its wake. One thing is clear, this is hopefully enough of a game-changer to get the international community to rethink its strategy on Somalia.


Written by alexlobov

July 13, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Posted in Somalia

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Pakistan gets surveyed II: No major surprises

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This time, its by the folks at the International Republican Institute. I didn’t blog about the IRI’s survey earlier this year, but we did a summary of the Al Jazeera and Pew surveys here. (Worth bookmarking so you can whip it out during your next conversation about Pakistan)

The IRI survey focuses on several key areas, but for the short term its worth looking at the leadership ratings as well as opinions on the Taliban and foreign policy. I’ll probably post more from the report later on today but for now – and having just seen a rather disturbing video of the Pakistan Army reportedly beating up suspects – this will have to do.

Its the economy, stupid

Firstly, the biggest issue for Pakistan right now is the economy: Pakistanis’ biggest concern is inflation (40%), their economic condition has worsened (72%) and they’re not optimistic either (58% say the condition will worsen)

Terrorism and the Taliban

Public opinion has turned against the Taliban – every pundit, blogger and news channel will tell you that – and so did the Pew and Al Jazeera surveys.

IRI survey-1

There’s a 17% increase in public opinion that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operating in Pakistan are a serious problem, and 90% of the respondents say that religious extremism is a problem in Pakistan. However, if a parliamentary election were to be held, 61% of respondents would vote in for a coalition of religious parties led by the PML-N.

The army operation gets more props, but American incursions remain unpopular. No surprises there. Peace deals with extremists also have less support now, according to this survey (from 72% in March to 46% in July)

And there isn’t much support for extremists using Pakistan as a base to launch attacks on India and Afghanistan. 71% of respondents say that its a very serious problem while 18% say its a somewhat serious problem, making it 89% against.

Popular Avenue

Now this one really made me laugh. People, prepare for a Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari government in the not-so-distant future, since 2% of respondents think Bilawal Bhutto can handle Pakistan’s problems effectively. Asfandyar Wali and Qazi Hussain Ahmed have 1% each.


Also, Mulla Omar is the most disliked ‘political’ (they’ve included COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in the list) figure, with 88% of respondents saying they disliked him.


Written by Saba Imtiaz

October 2, 2009 at 6:41 am

Newsweek: The Taliban in their own words

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This oral history of the Taliban (kudos to Newsweek correspondent Sami Yusufzai) has to be the most gripping thing I’ve read all day (h/t Alex Strick van Lins’s Twitter feed):

Once we sent a shipment for the making of IEDs to our forces in Zabul province. For some reason we forgot to include the remote-control devices. I got an urgent call from the commander asking me to quickly send the missing items. So I hid the remotes among some books and clothes in several travel bags. At Torkham [the Khyber Pass crossing], the police asked me to open the bags. At first I thought I should flee. But where could I run? I started searching for the key to open the bags. There was a long customs queue. The impatient policeman finally said: “You’re taking too long. Get out of here.”

Read the rest here

Written by Saba Imtiaz

September 28, 2009 at 3:57 am

A Deutsch village in Waziristan?

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afghanistan_pakistan Mein Gott! This Telegraph story is truly one of the most bizarre ones I’ve read this week (and I live in Pakistan where bizarre is a everyday term). The Telegraph is reporting that a veritable German village exists in Waziristan, being run by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, one that is inhabited by ‘WHITE’ (the paper places emphasis on their skin colour to dispel the notion that they  may not be native Germans, I assume) Germans and Swedes who have converted to Islam and joined Al-Qaeda.

Now while the presence of foreigners in Waziristan is nothing new: there are insurgents from the Middle East as well as Afghanistan fighting up north, as well as nationals of Maldives (who were captured in FATA according to Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik). But this village may be gaining some notoriety – apparently a German family was making their way there and got caught by the Pakistani authorities:

Last night a foreign ministry spokesman told The Daily Telegraph they were now negotiating with Pakistani authorities for the release of six Germans, including “Adrian M”, a white Muslim convert, his Eritrean wife and their four year old daughter, who were arrested as they were making their way to the “German village”. They are particularly concerned about the welfare of the child.

They are being held in custody in Peshawar after their arrest in May shortly when they crossed the border from Iran. They are understood to have left Germany in March this year.

The spokesman said negotiations were “under way” with Pakistani authorities “concerning a group of German citizens” and that it had been aware that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had been recruiting in Germany “since the beginning of the year”.

The article rounds off with a quote from a former intelligence officer, who says “the most dedicated people in Waziristan are from Europe.”

On a lighter note, I bet the Arabs, Afghans and Pakistanis fighting there are developing a gora sahib complex (the ‘white man’ complex) at this statement.  And what this story really needs is a Downfall spoof video.  Can’t you just see Hitler ranting about this?

Written by Saba Imtiaz

September 26, 2009 at 3:38 am

Where’s OBL? More thoughts on the recording.

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to finish reading Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, so the OBL speech is interesting in that context. Having recently read Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization, I feel like I could recite the evolution of Osama Bin Laden at length.

Alex has done a roundup of the major points from the recording – the shift to being issue-centered as opposed to being ideology-centered – is notable. I’ve re-read the transcript several times and what continues to surprise me is how up-to-date OBL seems to be. Given that he is rumoured to be dead, barely alive, alive and well, hiding out somewhere in Waziristan, isn’t it somewhat surprising that he seems to have access to recent publications, was able to hear/see US President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, knows about opinion polls and new developments in the US…I know the quest to find OBL isn’t as fervent as it once was, but clearly, there’s a big intelligence failure happening somewhere.

And no, just because I’m Pakistani doesn’t mean I know where OBL is. A Syrian cab driver once asked me that and had quite the laugh imitating the Jordanian Mukhabarat calling me to get an update on his whereabouts.

Secondly, is OBL pandering to an American audience by trying to be sympathetic to them? From the translated text:

“This is has all been prescribed for you by the doctors Cheney and Bush as medicine for the events of September 11, yet, the bitterness and loss this has caused is worse than that of the events themselves.”

“Put the issue of your alliance with the Israelis up for debate and ask yourselves what your stance is: is your own security, blood, children, money, jobs, homes, economy, and reputation more important to you, or do you prefer the safety of the Israelis, their children, and economy?”

Thirdly, his primary concern is still the Afghanistan war, not Iraq, and unlike Zawahiri, he makes no mention of Pakistan at all. Doesn’t seem like he’s heard of the AfPak acronym yet.

Fourth, I really hope OBL doesn’t try and get in touch with Alex about the ‘nice eyes’  remark.

This is has all been prescribed for you by the doctors Cheney and Bush as medicine for the events of September 11, yet, the bitterness and loss this has caused is worse than that of the events themselves.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

September 16, 2009 at 1:11 am

Bin Laden’s Back with his new Book Club to rival Oprah’s

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Most of the MEast related news today was fairly consumed with the new recording from (supposedly) Bin Laden. OK disclaimer, I cannot be bothered prefacing each and every reference to Bin Laden with (supposedly). Yes, he may well be dead. Yes, there has been evidence to suggest that his latest videos were by some impostor. Yes, he’s just an Arab looking man with a big beard and lovely eyes, but that’s not the point. From here on in, I am going to operate under the assumption that this is his latest recording and will do so in all future references and posts about the man. I just can’t be bothered with conspiracy theories, imaging pre-facing every mention to 9/11 with (the potential inside job).

Anyway so Bin Laden’s latest recording has been all over the internets and news media with interesting bits & pieces of analysis to be found in lots of corners. First of all, peep the full recording here at The Majlis of the original (Arabic obviously) and the NEFA Foundation has an English translated transcript here.

The first thing I noticed upon reading it is how much more reasonable and to-the-point it is than many of the other al-Qaeda communications from al-Zawahiri and his ilk were. OBL pretty much sticks to the point here, hammering home the main gripes – namely Palestine and Afghanistan, not in the least bit surprising. I found it interesting that OBL spends a long time discussing US politics, the realities of it and how little has changed with Obama. He does not deliver any personal attacks on Obama himself though, which I found interesting once again, probably so as not to alienate any of the possible Americans that have gotten their hands on the recording (very unlikely considering most distribution channels online have been shut down, no US media will touch it and it didnt include English subtitles for the first time). Over at Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch attributes this very plain and reasonable sounding OBL to the following:

The speech itself represents a vintage bin Laden appeal to the mainstream Muslim world, with a heavy focus on Israel and the suffering of the Palestinians and very little reference to salafi-jihadist ideology.  This is important, because one of the reasons for al-Qaeda’s recent decline has been its general exposure — or branding, if you prefer — as an extreme salafi-jihadist movement rather than as an avatar of Muslim resistance. [FP/Abu Aardvark]

With some more wisdom from Marc Lynch, we can see that the focus on Palestine is nothing new, even if it has been re-branded and reworded somewhat and with a more plain/reasonable sounding tone. Precisely why anyone who knows tuppence about the region and its people knows that the “They Hate our Freedom! They Hate our Way of Life!” clarion call was discredit long ago. They hate us because they hate our interventionist and intrusive policies.

Bin Laden’s heavy focus on Israel is not new, despite the frequent attempts to argue the opposite. He has frequently referred to Israel and the Palestinians since the mid-1990s. Whether he “really” cares about it is besides the point — he understands, and has always understood, that it is the most potent unifying symbol and rallying point for mainsteam Arab and Muslim audiences.  Al-Qaeda and the salafi-jihadists in general hurt themselves quite badly over the last few years with rhetorical attacks on Hamas and with the emergence of the Jund Ansar Allah group in Gaza.  Tellingly, bin Laden says nothing of either of these and sticks to generalities about Palestinian suffering and Israeli perfidy. [FP/Abu Aardvark]

There is some debate around the traps about what, precisely, this means for al-Qaeda over all. Specifically, are we at the end of the road for al Qaeda yet? We’ve heard lots about this end of the road… you know… Bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda cant recruit members, there’s no love for them in the Muslim world, they’re nowhere to be found, etc. Yet, say what you say about whether this is the Real OBL, there’s a new tape and we’re still talking about it. A lot. However,

Overall, this tape struck me as something significant.  Al-Qaeda has been on the retreat for some time.  Its response thus far to the Obama administration has been confused and distorted.  Ayman al-Zawahiri has floundered with several clumsy efforts to challenge Obama’s credibility or to mock his outreach.  But bin Laden’s intervention here seems far more skillful and likely to resonate with mainstream Arab publics.   It suggests that he at least has learned from the organization’s recent struggles and is getting back to the basics in AQ Central’s “mainstream Muslim” strategy of highlighting political grievances rather than ideological purity and putting the spotlight back on unpopular American policies. [FP/Abu Aardvark]

I agree with Mr. Aardvark’s general sentiments. Al Qaeda is far from dead (whether or not OBL is), and this could be a real change in ideological tact. I disagree, however, that this will lead to any resurgence of popularity for AQ in the Muslim world. Firstly, their name is far too tainted already and secondly, their distribution channels are shot to pieces and, given the previous stream of nonsense from various other AQ people, their barely organised or unified around a common strategy of engagement with Muslims. They have shifted to a far more decentralised system of cells in various countries, so whether OBL, or anyone else, can unite them and then reinvigorate AQ’s standing within the ummah is very questionable indeed.

For further excellent reporting on the current state of al Qaeda, peep this gem (translation at The Boursa Exchange) from Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, who, as described by The Boursa Exchange, has probably interviewed Osama bin Laden more times than any other journalist, and is considered an expert on al-Qaeda.

For those interested, check out more details on the three books that OBL recommended for the US public as part of his new Book Club strategy. Interesting choices! His newest message could also possibly start a rap beef with Jay-Z over this… (hat-tip @tomgara)because the Death of Autotone has been pronounced and OBL, that smarting upstart bastard that he is, refuses to acknowledge its demise!

Written by alexlobov

September 15, 2009 at 11:13 pm