From Yemen to Africa, al-Qaeda's latest comeback is underway

Assassination of Osama bin Laden and regular drone attacks have done nothing to halt the rise of a third generation al-Qaeda

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:24 ON Wed 23 May 2012

THE BOMBING of a practice parade of soldiers in Yemen this week is one of the most deadly al-Qaeda attacks for years. The bomber in Yemeni military uniform placed himself expertly in just the right place to cause maximum damage - at least 90 soldiers killed and up to 300 injured.

Yemen is now a battleground between the authorities of the new president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, backed by the CIA on the ground and in the air, and al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP.

In the Syrian insurgency, al-Qaeda is held responsible for the wave of bombings and the organisation is reported to be spearheading some of the most militant Sunni groups. The contagion is spreading to neighbouring Lebanon, unsurprisingly, where Sunni groups fought open battles at the weekend.

A new development comes in the form of a video just released by the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs purporting to be of an al-Qaeda militant urging the faithful to wage "a cyber jihad" against the US domestic infrastructure.

The six-minute video was made last year, and according to the committee's chairman Senator Joe Lieberman, "is the clearest evidence we have seen that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups want to attack the cyber system of our critical infrastructure".

All this goes against the narrative which has been running since Osama bin Laden was killed by a Seals commando raid on his compound at Abbottabad in Pakistan on 2 May last year. This version of events holds that the assassination was a deadly blow to the already frail leadership of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden's appointed successor Ayman al-Zawahiri is not a patch on his predecessor in grit and charisma, and the whole movement today is a mixture of fable, fantasy and a lot of wishful thinking.

This narrative, of course, greatly helps the re-election campaign of President Obama, particularly as he pushes for an accelerated wind down of American and international forces in Afghanistan.

But this is beginning to look like dangerous spin – as the al-Qaeda franchise, now in its third generation, is vigorously alive and spreading its spoors into the Caucasus, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Yemen.

From Yemen this month we have had the revelation from CIA and Saudi sources of the foiling of another underpants bombing plot. A suicide bomber was expected to use a charge many times more powerful than that discovered in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate his bomb in a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Only this time the bomber was a British-born double agent. The fact that the CIA and their Saudi pals blurted this to the media has not endeared them to their allies in MI6.

In Africa, the al-Shabaab militants of Somalia have joined the al-Qaeda franchise. Other recent allies are the Tuareg nationalist militants in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria. More worrying is the resurgence of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which has a strong foothold in the Rif in Morocco and is active in the highlands of Algeria. They provide the deep sanctuary and operational mounting base for terrorist attacks targeted on Western Europe.

The main tool used by the CIA is the Predator and other more lethal drones. These are used continuously in Yemen and the tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Earlier this month the Yemeni authorities claimed a drone strike had killed Fahd Mohammed al-Quso, who was on the FBI's Most Wanted terrorist list for the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in the outer harbour at Aden in October 2000. The suicide attack by dinghy killed 17 sailors and nearly sank one of the most modern US warships.

The CIA believes its drone attacks in the tribal areas are reducing al-Qaeda. Others aren't so sure. Last weekend a Taliban spokesman said the militant group would guarantee no foreign fighters, such as al-Qaeda, would be tolerated again in Afghanistan, should they negotiate their way back to power.

But David Cameron was given a less reassuring assessment in an intelligence briefing at the Nato summit in Chicago last weekend. If chaos ensured a rapid Nato draw down from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was likely to return to their old training grounds there. · 

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One should be most conservative when giving weight to information kicked up in the first dust of war. Going on twelve years now, has not the media and government been droning on about AQ blaming it first and foremost as the Ubiquitous Bogeyman of Global Terrorism? Not more than a year ago, we were told to rest assured, AQ, disorganized and diminished, no longer posed a credible threat to life, liberty and democracy. Should the analysts be sacked or is AQ redundant?