Speaking to Marines who’ve borne the brunt of combat in Afghanistan, President Obama said last month that the core of al-Qaeda (AQ) is on the way to defeat. But after the appalling terrorist violence we’ve seen over the last few weeks it’s hard to accept that the forces of Islamist terrorism are really on the run.
Whilst there’s active terrorist groups that aren’t religious, like the Communist Party of India (Maoists) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the most prolific religious terrorist groups are almost exclusively Islamists.
Many are AQ franchises and affiliates and have their own local battles, but AQ has influence and the AQ brand is still very powerful for these groups. The Director General of the UK Security Service has pointed out that al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel have become more dangerous and we’re seeing increasing levels of cooperation between al-Qaeda groups in various parts of the world. He noted that AQ is active in Syria, and that parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaeda. (See here for an interactive map that shows terrorism according to the number of terrorist incidents, fatalities, injuries and the level of property damage.)
The broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda, hasn’t been defeated: al-Qaeda’s long-running propagation of global jihadism has influenced militant groups to varying degrees. In Nairobi, a squad from the Somali group al-Shabaab massacred at least 68 people in a shopping mall, separating out Muslims from non-Muslims, letting the former go free and massacring the latter.
It brought back terrible images from five years ago in Mumbai, where twelve coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across the city killed 164 people. It seems that the Westgate mall attackers might have included UK and US citizens. The group’s had success in recruiting Western Muslims. Last year al-Shabaab allied itself to al-Qaeda.
Last week in Iraq, two suicide bombers struck a cluster of funeral tents packed with mourning families in a Shia neighbourhood in Baghdad. It was the deadliest in a string of attacks around Iraq that killed at least 96 people. A suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral in Baghdad, killing at least 16 and wounding more than 30. Another blew up in a residential area of Kirkuk, wounding at least 35 people. Last Thursday, bombs left inside busy markets in mainly Sunni Muslim districts of Baghdad killed at least 23 people. Many of these attacks are the work of al-Qaeda.
The list goes on. We also saw the slaughter of Christians in Peshawar, northwest Pakistan, where 81 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a Protestant church. It was the handiwork of the Pakistani Taliban, who want to impose sharia law throughout the country. In Syria, a collection of some of the most powerful rebel groups striving to topple the Assad regime have just abandoned the opposition’s political leaders, and cast their lot with an affiliate of al-Qaeda. As many as 50 Nigerian students at an agricultural college were slaughtered by al-Qaeda linked terrorists on Sunday in northern Nigeria.
The most ridiculous comment on the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi came from Sir Simon Jenkins in the British Guardian. He argued that shopping malls themselves were to blame for the attack, because malls are enticing to extremists and defending them is near impossible. Jenkins concluded that it was ‘better at least not to create them. A shopping mall not only wipes out shopping streets, it makes a perfect terrorist fortress, near impossible to assault.’ There you have it: to prevent Islamist terrorism, let’s stop building malls. If only it were all so simple.
Gary LaFree from the University of Maryland recently noted that terrorism tends to be ‘bursty’. Bursty distributions are those that are highly concentrated in time and space. There’s a diverse range of bursty phenomena, including streams of e-mail messages, traffic on crowded freeways, the frequency of forest fires and the global distribution of terrorism (PDF, p41). When terrorism starts to happen, there’s a tendency for it to happen in the same place a lot. We’ll need to be realistic: sudden bursts of terrorist attacks are likely to be a permanent part of our national security landscape.
Australia’s response so far isn’t very robust. The AFP has a sole liaison post for the whole of Africa, situated in Pretoria, South Africa, although it has also played a role in developing the forensic science capability in Africa. But a lot more could be done—the AFP should now be looking to step up their regular liaison activities on counterterrorism, possibly by posting more officers, in key areas in Africa, especially where Australian interests are involved.
In the aftermath of Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall attack, former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who recently participated in ASPI’s Aus-Africa Dialogue with the Brenthurst Foundation, correctly pointed out that
Just as terrorists thrive on networks and cells, they have to be countered by networks of global co-operation and intelligence. … It is a fight we will lose or win together.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jason Fudge.