THE reported death of Abu Yahya al-Libi in the latest US drone strike may have dealt yet another blow to the Al Qaeda leadership operating from Pakistan’s lawless tribal region and is seen as a triumph for President Obama’s relentless decapitation campaign. But the long-term success of this tactic of fighting Al Qaeda remains questionable.
Indeed, the killing of a top Al Qaeda ideologue who made an incredible escape from an American detention centre at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in 2005 is one of the biggest successes for the US war against the terror network after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
A deputy to Ayman al Zawahiri, Al Libi is the latest on the list of more than two dozen senior Al Qaeda operatives killed in the CIA’s drone campaign over the past three years. Yet the removal of the old guards often known as ‘sheikhs’ won’t obliterate the group whose centre of gravity appears to have now shifted from Pakistan’s tribal region to Yemen and Somalia.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda, operating from the Pakistani borderland, has managed to transform and replenish itself with new recruits. Though the US counterterrorism officials assert that the network has been crippled, and the number of hard-core foreign militants operating out of the tribal territories is now reduced to less than 200, the reality is that a new Al Qaeda has emerged in Pakistan.
Largely comprising local militants and Islamic radicals from other countries they are replacing the leaders killed in the drone strikes. The network has also grown in strength due to the new alliances it has made with the Pakistani Taliban and other outlawed militant and Sunni sectarian groups.
Drawn from educated urban middle-class youth splintered from mainstream Islamic parties including Jamaat-i-Islami, they are the new face of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Many of them have risen high in the group’s hierarchy, presenting a formidable challenge not only to the US coalition forces in Afghanistan, but also to the Pakistani state.
Ilyas Kashmiri was the prime example of this new breed of non-Arab commanders who occupied a very senior position in the Al Qaeda hierarchy. A veteran member of Harkat ul Jihad Islami, Kashmiri became the main strategist of Al Qaeda and had also been seen as one of the contenders to take over the command of the group after the death of Osama bin Laden.
Kashmiri was believed to be the mastermind behind some of the most spectacular terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, including the one on the Mehran naval base. He was killed in CIA Predator strike in South Waziristan last year.
Among others who became the part of the core group of Al Qaeda in Pakistan were two leading medical doctors from Karachi — Arshad Waheed and Akmal Waheed. Both were active members of the JI before joining Al Qaeda in Waziristan.
Dr Arshad Waheed, a renowned orthopaedic surgeon who took the nom de guerre Sheikh Moaz, not only provided medical help to the insurgents but also became a trained fighter. He was killed in March 2008 when a CIA-operated drone struck his hideout near Wana in South Waziristan.
An Al Qaeda videotape released after his death hailed him as a martyr who was “unparalleled in faith, love for his religion, and belief in Allah”. Dr Akmal Waheed , a cardiologist, is still active in Al Qaeda somewhere in the border area.
The Waheed brothers’ role in Al Qaeda raised questions about the JI’s connection with the global jihad network. This was certainly not an isolated case. In 2003, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured from the house of a leader of the JI women’s wing. There were several other such incidents where JI members were involved in providing shelter to Al Qaeda fugitives.
Although there is no evidence of the JI’s organisational links with Al Qaeda, many of its members maintained close connections with the group. Their association with Al Qaeda operatives is not accidental.
The country’s most powerful Islamic political party was after all the original face of jihad in Pakistan. Thousands of its cadres had fought against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later in Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechnya. Though the party leadership denied any links with Al Qaeda, many younger cadres joined the fighting against the US-led occupation forces in Afghanistan.
The cadre Al Qaeda attracted are ideologically and politically motivated. Products of secular educational institutions rather than Islamic seminaries, they have been the planners of many terrorist attacks that heralded the new phase of militancy sweeping the country over the past few years. They include spectacular attacks on high security military installations such as on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and Mehran naval base in Karachi.
Strongly committed to the cause of global jihad this new Al Qaeda generation acts as a magnet for radicalised Muslims, including a number of western citizens who travel to Pakistan. Then there are sympathisers providing monetary and logistic support, thus giving the group new depth in the country’s urban centres.
Though North Waziristan remains the main hub of Al Qaeda activities, the intensification of the CIA drone strikes has forced many Pakistani operatives to scatter outside the targeted regions. With a strong support network they do not face much difficulty in operating from urban centres.
The rise of small terrorist cells has made the task of countering them harder. These terrorist groups multiplied with the escalation in the Pakistani military offensives in the northwest and tribal regions. Some of these groups have just four or five members making them hard to detect.
The absence of a coherent counterterrorism strategy has also allowed Al Qaeda-associated groups to operate freely. Most of those arrested are freed by the courts either because of lack of evidence or because the judges are threatened. Pakistan is now a major battleground for Al Qaeda and its associated militant groups with dangerous implications for the regional security.
The writer is an author and a journalist.