Al-Qaeda alert: tentacles spread despite the killing of Bin Laden
Two massive car bombs in Syria and 100 deaths in Mali show al-Qaeda mean business again
DESPITE the killing of the founder Osama bin Laden last May, his al-Qaeda franchise has been spreading into new areas and new conflicts in the past few weeks.
Bin Laden's deputy and one-time spiritual mentor Ayman al-Zawahiri has just issued an eight-minute video entitled, 'Onwards, Lions of Syria'. It exhorts the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria, and tells Jordan and Iraq not to back Turkey, the West or the Arab League in seeking a peace deal with Damascus.
Coincidentally the Syrian conflict spread at the weekend to Aleppo, the northern provincial capital, where two massive car bombs near military command posts killed 26 and wounded many others. The car bombs was similar to those used by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"Our people in Syria don't rely on the West or the United States or Arab governments and Turkey," Zawahiri declaims. He also warns against the Arab League "and its corrupt governments supporting it".
The timing as well as the content of Zawahiri's video carries ominous implications. It is a clear indication – if any were needed – that the conflict is not confined to Syria alone. The insurgent Sunni Arabs now have the backing of extreme elements in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, including allies of al-Qaeda; and they are close to the Saudi regime, as well as the Wahhabi sect.
The conflict seems to be spreading already into Lebanon, with reports of the killing of three members of an Alawite family in the northern port of Tripoli over the weekend.
The direct involvement of al-Qaeda in the insurrection inside Syria itself means that the rebels will be able to call on a steady supply of weaponry and manpower from Iraq and radicals in the Gulf States.
The prospect of a long civil war which the Alawite military regime might not be able to win may have caused the sudden change of mind by the Russian government, who now seem to be in favour of an international peacekeeping mission by the UN and Arab League to Syria, having vociferously opposed any such move in the past.
The al-Qaeda move into Syria is also a severe jolt to the carefully constructed narrative by the United States administration that the movement had been mortally wounded with the killing of Bin Baden by Navy Seals last May. This is the message behind President Obama's announcement that US forces are to step down from combat in Afghanistan a year and half before the previous deadline set by the Nato alliance of December 2014.
Since last summer, al-Qaeda has been renewing recruiting and training from the camps of the northern Caucasus, to eastern Pakistan and Afghanistan, and inspiring a string of groups across whole swathes of Africa.
Since the middle of January, Tuareg militias claiming affiliation to al-Qaeda have been attacking government towns in Mali. The Mali government has just confirmed that up to 100 civilians and security personnel were murdered in the northern town of Aguelhok on 24 January.
The Tuareg nomads, one of the few groups of humans that can survive the Sahara at its hottest, have had their way of life severely disrupted in recent decades. Their militias were recruited by Col Gaddafi and fought for him with little success in Chad. From an ethnic group of about a million, most of the fighters have got by thriough smuggling and kidnapping.
Now they are linking cross Saharan Africa under the al-Qaeda banner with the al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. They are also active in southern Libya, Algeria and Morocco.
Like the Tuareg of the Azawad National Liberation Movement, the leadership of al-Shabaab has declared its allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al- Qaeda. Last week the al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane issued a video saying his movement had "merged" with al-Qaeda.
This may be a sign that al-Shabaab is under severe pressure in its civil war in Somalia. But it brings the al-Qaeda issue close to home in the UK, too. Many of the al-Shabaab fighters in East Africa carry British passports. They rely heavily on funds and support from the Somali diaspora of around 200,000 in the UK. One of their largest communities is in Poplar and Tower Hamlets, adding a further security consideration for the nearby main site of the 2012 Olympics.