When we first became aware of al Qaida, it was based in Afghanistan. It had grown out of the loose organizations that had fought the Soviet occupation. As the Soviets retreated and the communist government they had supported collapsed, a new force called the Taliban emerged. They were strict Islamists and compatible with the goals of al Qaida, and as al Qaida carried out attacks against Western targets, the Taliban provided it a safe haven. That is why we invaded Afghanistan after 9-11 – to track down al Qaida and eliminate it. For ten years, all we accomplished was making al Qaida move along to new havens. There was an old-line al Qaida, centered around its founder Osama bin Laden, that settled into the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the new offshoots of al Qaida sought new places to hide. There were cells in many countries, but al Qaida needed a central location for training and operational management. They could not use any country with a strong government because, even though weren’t really paying attention, the Arab world was, and bin Laden’s plans for the future of the Middle East called for al Qaida to seize control of the entire region to re-establish the medieval Caliphate. They needed a place where society and political chaos offered them cover.
For a time, it looked like they had chosen Somalia, but there are actually some places on earth that are too unstable and lawless even for al Qaida. Geraldo Rivera’s second busted excursion involved finding an abandoned training camp in Somalia. It was emptier than Capone’s vault. Al Qaida eventually ended up in Yemen.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. It will run out of what little oil it has in just five years. It has been in a state of civil war between the northern and southern halves off and on since they became a single country in 1990. Add to that all the usual problems of tribal loyalties and Islamic factions and you have a country in a near perpetual state of anarchy. It’s a perfect place for al Qaida, even more fractured and out-of-control than Afghanistan was after the Soviets left. So, al Qaida’s master bomb maker, Ibrahim Al-Asiri, has set up shop there, and the American-born cleric who inspired the Fort Hood shooter and the Times Square bomber, Anwar al-Awlaki, was living there. But, it’s a mistake to think of al Qaida in Yemen as part of a larger al Qaida.
The papers and computer files seized from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan showed that he had no control over the Yemeni al Qaida, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has even less. Al-Zawahiri has always been a divisive figure in al Qaida. Bin Laden was the movement’s spiritual leader, the person who inspired and gathered volunteers and recruits. Al-Zawahiri was the terrorism mastermind. The tandem act made al Qaida function. They had separated in recent years, and bin Laden’s papers show how ineffective he was at planning terrorist attacks.
Al Qaida’s internal divisions do not herald a diminishment of the organization, but an evolution into a more dangerous one. Bin Laden was very concerned about the number of Muslims who were being killed in al Qaida attacks. Killing fellow Muslims, except in self-defense, is the only unforgivable sin in Islam. Al Qaida was too involved in the insurgencies and the rebellions. And the new al Qaida does not respect Muslim life any more than it respects non-Muslim life.