`Al Qaeda threats will persist for foreseeable future`

Updated: Aug 31, 2013, 00:30 AM IST

Osama bin Laden is dead, but his terror group al Qaeda is very much alive. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al Qaeda leader, has kept the organisation intact after bin Laden`s demise. The threat emanating from al Qaeda is still real. It became evident when recently the US closed 22 embassies and consulates for a day amid fears of an al Qaeda attack.

The organisation is taking advantage of the ongoing chaos in Middle East countries, such as Syria and Egypt, to keep growing.

Al Qaeda is also a major reason behind the Obama administration`s reluctance to intervene in Syria. Notably, al Qaeda`s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, is believed to be the most effective force fighting Bashar al-Assad.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zee Media Group, Seth G Jones, a political scientist, discusses the survival of al Qaeda and its threats.

Seth G Jones is Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University`s School of Advanced International Studies. He has also served as the representative for the commander, US Special Operations Command, to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. He is the author of `Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa`ida after 9/11` and `In the Graveyard of Empires: America`s War in Afghanistan`.

Kamna: What do you think is the reason behind the survival of al Qaeda even two years after the death of Osama bin Laden despite massive drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and the US surveillance programme?

Jones: Al Qaeda`s resilience is likely caused by several factors. One is the Arab uprisings, which have weakened regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, creating an opportunity for al Qaeda affiliates and allies to secure a foothold. In addition, the growing sectarian struggle across the Middle East between Sunni and Shi’ite actors has increased the resources available to Sunni militant groups, including al Qaeda.

Kamna: A report published by the Austrian daily, DerStandard, said that the prison breaks in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia were staged with the help of a Persian Gulf country to support al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda-affiliated extremist group in Syria. What is your view on this? Which country, do you think, could it be?

Jones: I am sceptical about this conclusion. I have seen little evidence that there was any coordination with regard to these prison breaks.

Kamna: Outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller had recently said that al Qaeda “may well have postponed” its plan to attack US diplomatic sites in the Middle East and Africa. Why, according to you, al Qaeda postponed the attacks?

Jones: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in particular, may have postponed its major attack out of concern that the operation was compromised. Other possible attacks may have been postponed because of concern that the US was “hardening” its embassies (e.g., increasing security measures). Still, these threats will likely persist for the foreseeable future.

Kamna: Will a US military intervention in Syria strengthen or weaken al Qaeda`s position in the war-torn country?

Jones: It depends on what the US and other countries do. It is theoretically possible for the United States and other countries to (a) help the Syrian opposition overthrow the Assad regime and (b) work to sideline and marginalise Jabhat al-Nusrah. After all, Jabhat al-Nusrah’s goal of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria (and possibly the broader region) does not appear to be supported by most Syrians.

Kamna: Now, I will talk about two recent YouTube videos. In one video posted online by al Qaeda terrorists, an adult is seen training a laughing little boy how to hold a semi-automatic pistol. Another video shows the execution of Syrian truck drivers, who belonged to a minority faith the local al Qaeda affiliate does not like. How is the world prepared to deal with such al Qaeda terror?

Jones: Polling data from multiple countries suggest that support for al Qaeda has significantly declined over the past several years (see the results of various Pew Charitable Trust polls). In the past, as in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, local populations have risen up against al Qaeda when it becomes overly brutal.

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