Who’s really calling the shots in al-Qaida?

Experts differ on al-Qaida leader Zawahiri's degree of control, say local affiliates have become stronger than central leadership.

al-qaida terrorist 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
al-qaida terrorist 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A number of questions surround the shadowy events unfolding in Yemen over the last couple of days, not least of which is this: Why would al-Qaida attack now?
One possible reason could be that the United States killed the second-in-command of affiliate organization al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, in a drone strike in Yemen last year.
He was reportedly wounded in the October 2012 strike and died a few months afterward.
Jihadists recently called for revenge, and the terrorist organization’s affiliates in Iraq and Somalia are expressing their anger over his killing, according to Site, a jihadi monitoring website.
There could also be a connection with the recent appointment of a Yemeni AQAP leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, as general manager of al-Qaida, effectively making him the No. 2 man in the organization.
Could the new threat be based on orders from al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who gave a speech that was posted on jihadi forums on July 30, claiming that attacks on the US, including the recent Boston bombings, were revenge for Muslims killed in US-led wars?
“I call on every Muslim in every spot on Earth to seek with all that he can to stop the crimes of America and its allies against the Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Mali and everywhere....Every Muslim in every spot on Earth must work to defend the blood of Muslims that is being shed by America and its allies, and their sanctities that they are violating, and their villages and homes that they are destroying, and their wealth that they are stealing,” said Zawahiri according to the Site monitoring group.
Ely Karmon, senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that he believes Zawahiri is “the weakest part of al-Qaida because most of its military leaders have been killed and he is isolated in Pakistan somewhere.”
Consequently al-Qaida affiliates have become much stronger, he said, adding that he was skeptical that Zawahiri had given the order for the attack in an open telephone conversation that the United States intercepted. It is much more likely that the latest warnings – as well as ongoing attacks by al-Qaida affiliates in the region – are the initiative of local groups and not based on orders from above, said Karmon.
Another opinion is that Zawahiri is trying “to prove al-Qaida’s capability is still intact and [that] he retains control over its franchises,” wrote Anna Boyd, a senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk.
However, Karmon said the recent conflict between the al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq and Syria demonstrated that Zawahiri was not responsible for everything that was happening, and he was often forced to respond to events after the fact.
In that conflict, the Iraqi affiliate tried to unite with the Syrian al-Nusra Front, but the latter rejected the move and Zawahiri was forced to deal with the dispute.
According to Karmon, AQAP is the strongest al-Qaida affiliate. He noted that the organization had succeeded in conquering several cities in Yemen, taking advantage of internal conflicts.
These include the Sunni-Shi’ite battle going on in the north of the country against the Shi’ite Houthis, who are supported by Iran, as well as the historical conflict between north and south Yemen. Another lingering conflict resulted from the 2011 uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was replaced by Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Also, Hadi visited US President Barack Obama last week, which could be an added motivation for the recent terrorist attack warnings.
Boyd believes that AQAP’s operational network is weak and that it is unlikely to attack an embassy anywhere outside of Yemen, “where its core capability is focused and where the risk is severe.”
Saudi intelligence has effectively prevented it from reestablishing a base inside Saudi Arabia, she said.
“Its ability to mount attacks beyond the Arabian Peninsula has depended on recruiting single foreign operatives,” or “on plots that require no operatives traveling outside Yemen,” she wrote. Boyd also mentioned the failed 2009 plane bombing by a Nigerian student on a flight to Detroit, and the attempt to ship bombs on courier flights to the US.
Karmon finds it strange that the US decided to shut down embassies – a move that is essentially a “prize to terrorists,” he said. This decision seems to be an overreaction and might have been influenced by the fatal attack against the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year.
Another interesting point, said Karmon, is that it remains unclear why the US leaked so much information regarding the terrorist plans and the way in which they were uncovered. Publishing the material could serve as a deterrent, letting the terrorists think the US was aware of their plans, but it could be counterproductive, he asserted, as the enemy could also use this information.
Each al-Qaida affiliate is trying to enhance its position without any over-arching coordination, Karmon concluded.
This reality means that it will be much harder for the US and other intelligence agencies to uncover plots that are often not directed from above.