Al-Qaeda sniffs opportunity in Gaza
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The ongoing Israeli offensive in Gaza against Hamas, which has
aroused the Arab street, although Egypt and Saudi Arabia support the action,
opens the possibility of al-Qaeda capitalizing on the widespread discord in the
Asia Times Online investigations, including interviews with people associated
with al-Qaeda, reveal that the central leadership of al-Qaeda, sitting
somewhere in the tribal areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, sees the
Gaza conflict as a major opportunity to inflame the war theater in Gaza and
make it a permanent trouble spot for Israel and Egypt, just as al-Qaeda-led
areas of conflict
have created seemingly intractable difficulties for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Capitalizing on the Gaza unrest would be consistent with al-Qaeda's vision of
reviving a caliphate to centralize Muslim resistance in its capacity as a
non-state actor. The crucial issue is how long Hamas' estimated 25,000 fighters
in Gaza can resist the Israelis.
There is a strong discourse on a possible al-Qaeda role in supporting Hamas,
but given limited resources there is no likelihood of immediate action.
However, there is a consensus that if Hamas succeeds in prolonging the war for
at least a few more weeks, al-Qaeda would be able to weigh in.
Al-Qaeda is passing through a transitional restructuring phase. The most
crucial areas where it is transforming its organization and strategies are
Somalia and Yemen, beside Iraq. Al-Qaeda plans to disrupt the sea routes
between Somalia and Yemen, which would affect international trade through this
It has developed an understanding with the leadership of the opposition Islamic
Courts Union of Somalia on common strategic goals. In Yemen, al-Qaeda leader
Salem al-Radwui has been specially sent from Afghanistan by the al-Qaeda
leadership to develop links with dissident Yemeni groups operating in southern
Yemen, as well as with various Islamic groups. Al-Qaeda's aim is to provide
background guidance while encouraging the local groups to play a lead role.
In Iraq, al-Qaeda has recently adopted the same approach, which is already in
effect in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that is, the resistance is led by Ibnul
Balad sons of the soil, and al-Qaeda only provides guidance, resources
and support through special operations that are strictly coordinated through
As a result. al-Qaeda has made something of a comeback in al-Anbar province in
Iraq, although not as strong as it was in 2005. The reason is that local tribal
youths, traditionally a martial race, have strong representation in the
US-backed law-enforcement agencies.
In Egypt, which was the second-strongest base for al-Qaeda after the Pakistani
tribal areas, al-Qaeda has suffered huge setbacks over the past 10 years and
its resources and strengths are scattered and unorganized as a result of
intensive government action. Many underground groups, including al-Gama'a
al-Islamiyya, have surrendered.
However, militancy has not been eradicated from Egypt, it has only been
contained, as happened from 2001 to 2006 in Pakistan when the Pakistani
military establishment struck deals with militant groups. When a concerted
offensive began in Afghanistan in 2006, these dormant jihadis were activated
and they streamed into the Pakistani tribal areas and into Afghanistan, turning
them into real war theaters.
A similar situation could exist in Egypt, where, according to Asia Times Online
contacts, several thousand men associated with different groups linked to
al-Qaeda are lying low. At present, there is a serious leadership dearth within
al-Qaeda to mobilize these militant groups, as they are doing in Iraq and
Yemen, and it is extremely difficult to send leaders from Afghanistan and
Al-Qaeda is therefore banking on the Hamas resistance in Gaza continuing long
enough for it to goad the groups into action. Specifically, al-Qaeda envisages
militants breaking the Egyptian blockade of Gaza.
This would allow Hamas fighters a corridor to retreat, turning Egypt into a
strategic backyard of resistance, similar to the Syrian border towns for Iraq.
In this scenario, al-Qaeda could divert some resources from Iraq and turn Gaza
into a permanent war zone - al-Qaeda is not looking for victory, rather it
wants the space to maintain a resistance.
Al-Qaeda has learnt from its experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan that
surviving for another day is an essential component of guerrilla warfare,
besides showing resilience.
In Pakistan's Swat Valley, for example, which is a non-tribal area,
al-Qaeda-led militants initially were forced by the military to abandon their
bases, but within a few weeks they reassembled as guerrilla fighters and just
concentrated on surviving with the help of the local population.
Now, according to a recent report by Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on Pashtun
tribalism, they control large areas of the valley. In an article published in
The News International, "Taliban rule the roost in Swat through FM radio",
Rahimullah explains in detail how the Taliban govern, with their orders
broadcast over the radio.
Al-Qaeda has similar designs in the present Israel-Palestinian conflict. If
Hamas abandons its bases in Gaza and gets the chance to scatter and only tries
to survive around the Israeli forces, with the support of the local population
and militants from neighboring countries like Iraq and Yemen, and most
importantly from Egypt, it could regroup and stream back into Gaza to create a
little Afghanistan and Iraq close to the heart of Israel.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]