Al-Qaeda and “Near Enemy” Strategy

Friday, June 7, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent

After the beginning of Arab Spring, the terrorist Al-Qaeda organization has undergone an important change in strategy. As a result of that change, Al-Qaeda has excluded the United States and other Western powers, which it previously considered as “far enemy,” from its new strategy. Instead, the group has focused on the “near enemy,” that is the Arab countries in the region. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda who ascended to his new position after the former leader of the group, Osama Bin Laden, was killed in an operation by the US Marines in Pakistani town of Abbottabad, has issued his important statement about jihad from the safety of his hide-out in Hindu Kush Mountains. In his statement, he has urged all the members and supporters of Al-Qaeda to use all their capacities and capabilities to help the people who oppose and fight against the ruling regimes in the Arab world and take sides with anti-government armed groups. To replace the “near enemy” for the “far enemy,” Ayman Al-Zawahiri has made recourse to a very simple argument.

From the viewpoint of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, as long as the dictatorial regimes, which govern various countries in the Arab world, continue to bask in the support they receive from the United States and the European countries, they will never let go of power reins. On the other hand, he argues, the mercantilist Western powers will withdraw their support for any of their regional allies when and where they reach the conclusion – according to a simple cost-benefit calculation – that the cost of supporting their allies would be way higher than its benefits. That, Al-Zawahiri believes, is exactly the time that Al-Qaeda can get active and help the opposition forces to overthrow dictatorial regimes in the Arab world. It is quite another issue whether Al-Qaeda will make any effort afterwards to grasp the power. This is only a first step because after the overthrow of any dependent Arab state there would be more room for fostering radical Islamic ideas which are adhered to by Al-Qaeda.

In reality, however, the foreign powers look to the Arab world exactly through the same argument that Al-Qaeda uses to approach these countries and, naturally, adjust their plans accordingly.

This means that the Western world is also making the most of the power of arms and strong motivation, which characterizes Al-Qaeda, in its regional planning for the Middle East. By doing so, the West overthrows Arab states whose expiry dates have reached without allowing Al-Qaeda to snatch power once those dependent regimes are gone. In fact, the West sees Al-Qaeda as a means for achieving its ends. As a result, the developments known as the Arab Spring are actually moving in a totally opposite direction than what Al-Qaeda leaders imagine. This has been true in all Arab countries which have so far underwent major changes in their power structure. Most probably the same scenario will be applied to other Arab states which are going through similar conditions of change or will experience that change in future. That what happens in practice is quite a different issue and will depend on the existing conditions as well as the balance of power between specific political and social forces in every target country.

The issue, however, which is of special importance is the reality that the military power and fighting capacities of Al-Qaeda, which has gained a lot of experience during the war in Afghanistan, can be used to good effect in the Middle East and also be exploited to impose changes on the existing power structure of various countries. However, Al-Qaeda will be never allowed to use force in order to secure its grasp on the ruling power. This experience has been already gained in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and there is no reason why a similar situation should not be repeated in other Arab countries which have been swept by the wave of the Arab Spring. At present, Al-Qaeda has taken its forces into Syria and is fighting an uphill battle against the incumbent government of President Bashar Assad. Syria, however, is different from other Arab countries in that it is not an ally of the Western powers. As a result, Al-Qaeda is not in a position to pursue its “near enemy” strategy within its past framework by toppling the ruling government in the country. On the opposite, even the change of the ruling power in Syria will not be an immediate and effective contribution to Al-Qaeda’s “far enemy” strategy which targets the United States and the European countries. On the opposite, since Syria is part of the axis of resistance, which is currently trying to curb further influence of the West in the Arab world and is also a staunch enemy of Israel, the overthrow of its government will undermine part of the power and might of the Islamic world in the face of the consolidated front of non-Muslim enemies which are also the enemies of Al-Qaeda according to its “far enemy” strategy.

The story, however, does not end here. The Western world is pursuing its own special strategies with regard to Al-Qaeda. From the viewpoint of the West, Al-Qaeda should make a revision in its main strategy and its division of the world into two fronts; namely, the Islamic front as opposed to the infidel front. As a result, the West expects Al-Qaeda to change its ideological beliefs and change the focus of its war from the infidel front to within the Islamic front just in the same way that the group has already revised its strategic concerns by replacing the “near enemy” for the “far enemy” and giving priority to fighting Arab countries of the region. In more clear terms, Syria is now in a position which can be used as a good opportunity to ignite a war within the Islamic camp by fanning the flames of sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis. Apart from that, if the civil war in Syria takes a sectarian turn, the entire region will become prone to further spread of sectarianism to other countries like Lebanon and Iraq, in which case, the sectarian forces will set their sights on higher goals.

The Al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to Al-Qaeda, is currently playing a prominent part in developments in Syria and its armed fighters are also playing an increasingly significant role. The group has already owned up to its affiliation to Al-Qaeda and is also linked with a similar ideological group in Iraq in order to form a bigger group known as Al-Rafedain of Iraq and the Levant. In this way, Al-Qaeda has entered a field from which it cannot easily withdraw. On the other hand, it is not allowed to gain power to the extent that would enable it to take the place of the currently ruling regimes. A review of regional and international rivalries which have converged on Syria will easily reveal that a new balance of power is taking shape in the region which will be ensued by more and larger-scale threats compared to threats which can be perceived right now. As ethnic and ideological beliefs gain more power in Syria and Iraq, they form a triangle after the military power of the two countries is added to them.

That triangle will sooner or later adapt itself to ethnic and religious conditions in Syria and Iraq. In that case, separatism based on ethnic and religious grounds will be the sole solution to problems emanating from that situation, and other ways for finding a solution to those problems will be totally blocked. As a result, if the realities on the ground are not perceived correctly and parties involved in Syria crisis only think about the ephemeral benefits of grasping the power or maintaining their existing exclusive power, Al-Qaeda’s “near enemy” strategy is sure to have its consequences. As a result of those consequences, the aforesaid strategy will force the group to forget about the “far enemy” for a long time to come. On the other hand, the Arab world will become an arena for the power struggle of the Western world. Of course, that struggle will take place according to a new plan which will be much more complicated than the previous plans. As a result, before the full extent of the new Western plan is comprehended by regional countries, the entire region will once again find itself under domination of the West.

Key Words: Al-Qaeda, Near Enemy Strategy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Arab Countries, Arab Spring, Mollazehi

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