With the U.S. coalition withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014, a new global threat landscape is emerging in 2013. The Taliban, al Qaeda al Jihad and a dozen like-minded groups located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border survived a decade of global counterinsurgency and counterterrorism measures. They are slowly and steadily returning to Afghanistan, re-creating the pre-9/11 sanctuary. With the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal, the Afghan security forces will fight back with limited success. The insider threat stemming from Taliban infiltration of Afghan army and police is affecting Western capacity building.
About twenty to thirty thousand fighters from two dozen threat groups are located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, mostly in North Waziristan. They include the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Hezb-i-Islami, Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda al Jihad, Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, Islamic Jihad Union and Turkistan Islamic Party. In addition to operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some mount kinetic and influence operations overseas. Their media networks politicize, radicalize and mobilize Muslims, especially youth, to participate in or support their campaigns. The blowback of the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal will empower and embolden insurgent, terrorist and extremist groups worldwide.
Reminiscent of Soviet withdrawal in February 1989, the jihadists and Islamists are already celebrating the Obama administration’s plans to withdraw. Calling it Islam's victory over the West, they hail it as a strategic defeat of the United States. While most of them will focus on reestablishing a Taliban-like state, others will return home to establish Islamic states in their home or in neighboring and distant conflict zones. With a number of threat groups and state interests competing to advance their interests, by late 2013 and 2014 Afghanistan will most likely look like today’s Syria.
In Afghanistan, entities, surrogates and proxies of Pakistan, the United States, France, India, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other state players will intervene overtly and covertly. With no boots on the ground, militarized counterterrorism—U.S. drone warfare and special forces—will be insufficient to push back the Taliban's avowed return. While Pakistan will control developments in Afghanistan's Pashtun areas, Tehran will influence developments in Herat and surrounding areas bordering Iran. The regional warlords and transnational criminal organizations will compete to retain and expand their influence.
Developments elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa will compound the emergence of this new threat in South Asia. Although al Qaeda al Jihad is based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it influences threat groups in North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Groups from outside the region, notably the Middle East, are likely to return to Afghanistan and play primary and peripheral training and operational roles.
Although Western democracies perceive the Arab Spring as a victory, Middle Eastern threat groups received a boost from the uprisings, which, contrary to expectations, created a permissive environment for both democratic politics and violent extremism. The second- and third-order consequences of the West arming Libyan and Syrian fighters destabilized the Maghreb and Sahel and the Levant and beyond. Muslims from the Caucasus to Southeast Asia are traveling to establish an Islamic state in Syria. The developments have already affected Jordan, a pillar of stability, and may eventually destabilize the Gulf. International neglect of Tuaregs from Libya moving to Mali led to the creation of a third African hotspot in the Sahel after Somalia and Nigeria. Exploiting the new environment, Salafi-Jihadism, the ideology of al Qaeda al Jihad, is spreading rapidly in Africa. The ideological and operational relationship between the Middle East and Asia is growing.
The Israeli attack in Gaza in November 2012 increased global Muslim resentment and anger against the West. While most Muslims celebrated the United Nations General Assembly granting Palestinians nonmember observer status, the jihadists found no importance in the international recognition. As they are committed to an armed revolution, they questioned why people were celebrating. In discussions monitored by SITE intelligence group on the Ansar al-Mujahideen and Shumukh al-Islam forums in November 2012, jihadists argued that peaceful solutions are impossible and that only through jihad will Palestinians achieve statehood.
Such thinking, which is characteristic of al Qaeda al Jihad, is steadfastly spreading throughout the Middle East. The Salafi-Jihadi ideology politicized and radicalized a segment of the population, especially the youth. If the recently established “Arab Spring governments” fail to meet the public expectations, violence against the new rulers may become the order of the day.
Africa is developing as a new epicenter of terrorism. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) expanded from North Africa to the Sahel. AQIM shared its expertise with Boko Haram (BH) in Nigeria. In November 2012, Abu Bakr Shekau, its leader, expressed BH's solidarity with associates of al Qaeda al Jihad in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, Somalia and Yemen. After Qaddafi's fall, North Mali has emerged as a training ground and a battlefield. Malians are supported by European Muslims, especially French North Africans, including Algerians, Moroccans and Libyans. Al Shabab lost ground, but its ideology has spread to bordering areas of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Like al Shabab, BH is likely to join al Qaeda al Jihad in 2013. Unless stability is restored in Africa, the al Qaeda movement's footprint will grow.
Most terrorist attacks use the gun and the bomb. But the emerging threat of terrorism confronting the world will not be confined to conventional terrorism. The threat from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism is on the rise. However, recent developments in Syria, Iran and North Korea increase the likelihood of a biological outbreak. In the spectrum of unconventional agents, anthrax and smallpox are favored by threat groups. With terrorists recruiting from a cross section of society, a dozen scientists and technicians became vulnerable to supporting or staffing terrorist weapons acquisition and manufacturing programs. Both securing government storage and research facilities as well as periodic screening of scientific and support staff is paramount to prevent proliferation. In the event of an outbreak, accidental or deliberate first responders should be vaccinated and immunized.
Likely Future Developments
The global threat landscape is likely to change dramatically starting next year. Functionally and regionally, developments in Afghanistan will be the most influential. The Salafi-Jihadists and a segment of Islamists consider Afghanistan “the mother of all battles.” If the jihadists reconstitute Afghanistan for a second time, it will affect not only Western security but also will impact Asia’s rise. Driven by success, returning fighters will reignite conflicts in Kashmir, Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, Mindanao, Arakan, Pattani, tribal Pakistan and other Muslim lands.
In the backdrop of Obama’s pivot to Asia, battle-hardened fighters will threaten Asia. Seasoned to fight Western armies in Afghanistan, they will contest Asian armies, law-enforcement and intelligence services. Asian armies, twenty years behind Western militaries, will experience new threats from IEDs and suicide attacks. As in Afghanistan, returning fighters may bleed standing armies in existing and new zones of conflict. Committed to a generation-long fight, the strength of the foreign veteran is patience and resilience. They will serve in many roles, including fighters, ideologues, combat trainers and financiers.
The Bottom Line
Al Qaeda al Jihad, the core of the global terrorist movement, suffered massive degradation. Osama bin Laden was killed, but his associates and their new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri present a very real danger. Despite a smaller U.S. footprint after formal withdrawal in 2014, the United States will still remain the tier-one target of both al Qaeda al Jihad and the movement. Some associates such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) present a comparable, if not a greater threat to the United States. Yemen, where AQAP is based, remains unstable. The Pakistani Taliban, as demonstrated in last year’s Times Square bombing attempt, has developed anti-Western orientations. Several new groups influenced by Salafi Jihadism, such as al Nusra Front, have emerged in Syria, Egypt and Libya. In place of one single al Qaeda, a multiplicity of anti-American, suicide-capable groups have emerged in the last 12 months. Like ordinary and organized crime, extremism and terrorism will remain long-term threats to the world.
Some actions by state and nonstate actors aimed at countering the growing extremist and terrorist threat had unintended consequences. The movie trailer “Innocence of Muslims” (released by a private U.S. citizen), U.S. government overt and covert support for the Arab Spring, and announcing the U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan all increased the threat of ideological extremism and its vicious byproduct, terrorism.
Of all threats, the most significant will emerge from Washington’s lack of political will to sustain a U.S.-led coalition presence. The failure to build a credible Afghanistan military, law-enforcement and intelligence capabilities before U.S. withdrawal will create an environment of high threat reminiscent of conditions prior to 9/11. More than ever, a global strategy is needed before to better manage the existing and emerging security challenges in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Rohan Gunaratna, Head, International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore is a Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of Security Studies, Singapore.