Saturday, 1 May 2010

Divergent strategy of al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies

Anne Stenersen, a research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, has published an excellent study of the relationship between al-Qaeda and the various Taliban factions. Al-Qaeda's Allies, published by the New America Foundation, points out that al-Qaeda and the Quetta Shura of the Taliban have diverged strategically since 2001, largely due to the former's relocation to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
While the Quetta Shura has continued to fight US and Allied troops in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has become involved in internal Pakistani politics and has supported the campaign by militants there aimed at overthrowing the Pakistani state.
Stennersen notes: "Formally, al-Qaeda's leaders have sworn an oath of allegiance (bay'a) to Mullah Omar." But, she says: "In practice the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Quetta Shura is not necessarily one of command and control. Rather, it is a political relationship, where al-Qaeda has agreed not to establish a competing organisation to that of Mullah Omar's."
al-Qaeda fighters still take part in actions in Afghanistan, but these tend to be very localised and largely confined to the southeastern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Stennersen has analysed the 90 or so films released by the As-Sahab media house - al-Qaeda's official propaganda arm - in the series Pyre for the Americans in the Land of Khurasan.
This series first appeared in 2005. In 2006 38 films appeared, with production dropping off over the next few years until only three were produced in 2009. An analysis of where the films were shot showed that 44 were filmed in Khost and neighbouring Paktika, 12 were filmed in Kunar and 8 in Zabul. The significance is that Khost and Paktika are just over the border from the main al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Waziristan and Bajaur.
As Stennersen says, "It suggests that al-Qaeda has established few bases deep inside Afghan territory itself and that cross-border raids seem to be the preferred type of activity. Moreover, there is a disproportionate number of films from southeastern Afghanistan, given the high level of insurgency-related violence in this area."
The report examines the relationship of al-Qaeda with the Baitullah Mahsud group and other militants in FATA, as well as shedding light on the other foreign fighters who use FATA as a sanctuary, including the Uzbeks and Chechens.
Stennersen concludes: "In future al-Qaeda's alliances with local militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan may develop in one of two ways. The al-Qaeda militants could dissolve into the local militant environment and adapt to the agenda of local groups...If such a development takes place, al-Qaeda would gradually become irrelevant as an international terrorist organisation.
"Alternatively, and of more concern, al-Qaeda could succeed in inserting its ideology into the local militant environment. al-Qaeda's alliance with the late Baitullah Mahsud and the TTP may be seen as a development in this direction...If this development continues, it will make the Afghanistan-Pakistan region a hub for anti-American Islamist militancy for years to come."

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