“T oday, I have glad tidings for the Muslim ummah [nation] that will please the believers and disturb the disbelievers, which is the joining of the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to Qaeda al-Jihad to support the unity against the Zionist-Crusader campaign and their assistants amongst the treacherous agent rulers”. These were the words uttered by al-Qaeda chief in a recent video announcing the formal joining of Somalia’s Al Shabaab movement to the al-Qaeda network.
What was interesting was what the reaction to this supposedly dramatic announcement. One US policy maker, when asked for his comment, simply shrugged his shoulders and stated that there was nothing new in the announcement – that it simply confirmed what was widely known. Indeed al-Shabaab had already issued a bayat [oath of allegiance] to former al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in 2009. The announcement by Zawahiri must then be read as an attempt to provide a morale boost to his comrades-in-arms. After all, al-Qaeda’s leadership has suffered serious losses in US predator drone strikes as well as the fact that funds and new recruits have been drying up. More importantly, since 2005 al-Qaeda has failed to carry out a major attack on the West. The announcement then must be seen as an opportunistic and desperate attempt for some media coverage and relevance to this once powerful organisation. It must also be interpreted as an attempt by Zawahiri to consolidate his own position within al-Qaeda. Upon the death of Bin Laden, there were many who were opposed to Zawahiri’s style of leadership. Repeated failed attempts at fresh terrorist atrocities further served to undermine his leadership.
More troubling however is the al-Qaeda leader’s recent call for the ousting of Syria’s “pernicious, cancerous regime”. Whilst this too is an opportunistic attempt to gain popular appeal from the Arab Spring (a movement that took the al-Qaeda leadership by surprise), it remains a deeply troubling development on many fronts. First, it complicates the situation since it actually reinforces the Syrian government’s position that they are fighting armed terrorists as opposed to viciously responding to a popular uprising. Second, we should not forget that key hotspots in Syria like Homs have been known for their Islamist militancy. Hama, another hotspot, was also the seat of a previous attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the Assad regime in the 1980s. Third, the longer this 11 month old conflict drags on, the more it creates opportunities for al-Qaeda. The Director of the Brookings Doha Centre, Salman Shaikh, recently echoed these sentiments when he said, “The longer this goes on, we may get a permissive environment in Syria for these kinds of characters as the Syrian people get more and more desperate. I don’t think they [al-Qaeda] would be welcomed in Syria but there may be desperate people in Syria who are looking for any kind of help”.
For this reason, beyond the humanitarian imperative, the international community (including Beijing and Moscow) must support the Arab League’s proposal for a speedy resolution of the Syrian crisis.