Al Qaeda has developed a number of regional affiliates including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Other groups that have pledged their allegiance to, or strengthened their relationship with AQ include:
2. The Islamic Jihad Union,
3. Lashkar i Jhangvi,
4. Harakat ul-Mujahadin
5. Jemaah Islamiya6. Pakistan Taliban (TTP)
7. Al-Shabab8. Boko Haram9. Afghan Taliban10. Abu Sayaf
11. Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LT)
12. Haqqani Network
AQI, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), originally evolved in 2004 to pressure Western militaries to leave Iraq. However, we now know that AQI has spread its interests throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and South Asia. We also know that both AQ and AQI have recently allied with Jabhat al Nusra (JN), which is a Syrian terrorist group that is currently fighting the Assad regime in Syria.
AQI/JN also has a presence in the U.S. In 2011, two AQI members living in Bowling Green, KY were arrested on terrorism-related charges. Just a few weeks ago, an Illinois teenager was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport as he prepared to board a plane to Turkey. The teen, Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, was on his way to Syria to fight for JN.
The Syrian Conflict
There are two important factors that must be understood about the Syrian conflict:
1. Numerous rebel groups within Syria all share the goal of trying to overthrow the Assad regime. But most of those groups are fighting with the purpose of trying to establish a democratic government. JN, however, is also fighting in Syria in order to establish an Islamist government.
2. AQ has been instrumental in organizing JN. AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri approved the merger of AQI and JN. This revelation dramatically increases the likelihood that the Syrian conflict will become influenced by AQ's goals, as opposed to being about the establishment of a democratic government.
To help accomplish the goal of establishing an Islamist government in Syria, jihadists from various Middle Eastern nations are now traveling to Syria to fight. But it must be remembered, once the Assad regime falls, the fighting will continue because each of the rebel groups have different long-term goals for how Syria should be governed. We need to look no further than Iraq to see the same scenario.
AQ's Alliances in Africa Becoming Concerning
Boko Haram (BH) is an Islamist terrorist group in Nigeria that has been allied with AQ since 2010. The "Underwear Bomber", Umar Farouk Abdulmutallub, is from Nigeria and BH has already attacked the UN Headquarters in Abuja and a BH spokesperson has vowed they will attack U.S. interests. Just last week, the Nigerian president declared the nation in a state of emergency.
The U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to Nigeria and think this merger doesn't matter. Nigeria is the largest U.S. trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa and is also the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the U.S. In addition, it has been hard for the U.S. to develop intelligence on BH due to BH informants that exist within the Nigerian government.
BH has also allied itself with other Islamist terrorist groups in Africa including Al-Shabab (AS) and Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AS announced its merger with AQ in 2012 and they have carried out many deadly attacks across Somalia in their quest to establish an Islamic government in Somalia.
AQIM is an Algerian-based Islamist terrorist group, originally known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). GSPC merged with AQ in 2006 under the name of AQIM and announced their intentions to attack Western targets. AQIM recently took control of the African nation of Mali for a period.
France has been fighting AQIM in Mali where AQIM is attempting to establish an Islamist government. A recent statement issued by AQIM should not go unnoticed. Earlier this month, AQIM issued a call for all Muslims to conduct jihad against France and French interests worldwide.
Make no mistake, neither AQ nor their affiliate groups are fighting for democracy in any Muslim land. AQAP issued this statement in Dec. 2012 following a U.S. air strike in Yemen. In this statement the narrator says: "As for those who take Democracy as their religion, they are comfortable on their thrones. We ask Allah to enable us to slit their throats."
Going Forward Politicians can argue that AQ is "on the run" but in reality, that is far from the truth. AQ has formed numerous alliances with violent Islamist terrorist groups across Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. A compelling argument could be made that AQ is actually stronger today than it was on 9/11.
Neither BH nor AQIM have been designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) by the U.S. Department of State. Without this designation, U.S. law enforcement has a more difficult time trying to combat these groups. BH and AQIM must be designated as FTOs.
Ultimately the solution to stopping the spread of radical Islam must come from Muslims themselves. However, the United States, as the world's leading superpower, must play a vital role. The U.S. must walk the fine line between allowing the will of the people to overthrow dictatorships such as the Assad regime, but not allowing AQ and their ideology to take over the political process.
This will be a sensitive and time-consuming endeavor. However, I'm optimistic it can happen. While Yemen has definitely been a hotbed for AQ, it is also maybe the only Arab nation where true democracy is beginning to take hold. The U.S would be wise to hold them up as at least hope for the rest of the Middle East.
In closing, we should never underestimate the importance of the U.S. military. Many people argue that the presence of the U.S. military in the Middle East contributes to the problem. But according to the 9/11 Commission, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region is what gave Osama bin Laden the motivation for continued attacks against U.S. interests. It is also why he viewed the U.S. as weak.
AQ and their groups will hate the West regardless of our policies. We must never be afraid to confront evil head-on. The American people need to prepare for a long fight.
Matthew Ernst is a law enforcement officer and independent national security analyst.
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