The speakers considered the threat that the new “Al Qaeda 3.0” poses to Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen, and what both the U.S. and its partners are doing to counter it.
As President Obama declared during his May 28th speech at West Point, “the landscape has changed” for American foreign-policy going forward into the 21st century. At this critical juncture, it is important to examine al Qaeda’s newly fluid, decentralized structure and how the U.S. and its international partners can adapt to meet the challenge through initiatives like the proposed Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund.
At the beginning of his presentation, the first speaker Said Temsamani emphasized that, while many Moroccans believe that only 100 citizens have gone to fight in jihadist conflicts, the number is actually much closer to 2,000. The levels of Moroccan participation in international jihad, while smaller than those present in other countries, warrants policies to understand citizens feel duty to engage in international jihad, how the state can discourage or prevent them from doing so, and how to reintegrate them into Moroccan society. At the same time, Morocco faces the threat of domestic unrest and violence, as occurred during the 2003 Casablanca bombings that killed 15 civilians.
When Moroccan nationals arrive in Syria, they receive training and indoctrination in the virtues of the international islamic struggle. Whereas, initially, most Moroccan recruits joined indigenous organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), in 2012, Brahim Benchekroun (a.k.a. Ibrahim Bin Shakaran), a former Guantanamo detainee, organized the first majority-Moroccan jihadist group in Syria named Sham al-Islam.
After becoming disenchanted with the islamist movement in Syria, many Moroccan jihadists have attempted to return to Morocco, but face imprisonment if they do so. Thus, in Morocco, the government is pursuing two soft-alternatives that are proving very effective in combating ideologies that support and encourage violence .
The Moroccan government supports:
1) religious scholarship and education that emphasize moderate voices and the role of women in islamic religious life
2) rehabilitation designed to reintegrate former terrorists and jihadists into Moroccan society
Morocco’s program has received international acclaim across the Arab world for its success in cultivating moderate, inter-sectional voices and perspectives. Governments across the region are seeking aid from Morocco in developing their own models for rehabilitation.
The second speaker Zack Gold began his presentation by arguing that while al Qaeda does not formally exist in Egypt, islamist, al Qaeda-affiliated, and al Qaeda aspirational groups pose a threat to the stability of the country and the region.
One of the major flashpoints of strife in Egypt has been the Sinai peninsula. In January 2011, Egyptian security forces retreated from the Sinai and the local population responded by looting and vandalizing nearly every police station in the region. Citizens took these actions, in a major part, because the state had used the army to oppress and control the region’s population and any dissent it raised. During the same period, a number of prominent jihadist leaders such as Ramzi Mowafi, the personal doctor of Osama bin-Laden escaped from Egyptian prisons.
The Sinai has also served as a conduit for weapons that militants have acquired from Gaddafi’s stockpiles during the Libyan Revolution into Gaza and beyond. Egypt’s border with Libya continues to be a source of anxiety for Egyptian authorities who fear further arms smuggling and spillover from fierce fighting between oil militias, islamists, and the rogue Libyan General Khalifa Haftar.
Unlike Morocco’s new, asymmetric responses to terrorism and islamist groups, Egypt has continued using the same type of military force and repression it employed against populations in the Sinai. Although such policies are successful in the short-term, in the long-term, they alienate the populations most amenable to islamist influence and undermine the authority of the central government.
Given the Egyptian government’s continuing political repression, the U.S. Congress has been critical of continuing military-aid to the country.
The Egyptian government must work to end the repression, abuse, and corruption that push marginalized populations into the waiting arms of radical factions. The U.S. can serve as a partner in constructing policies that bind together the government, military, and Egyptian people in combating islamist insurgent groups.
The third speaker Timothy Fairbank spoke about the threat that militant groups pose in Yemen.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is only one of the many militant groups in Yemen that include both islamist and separatist organizations. AQAP is in constant flux and its future plans, whether to institute islamic governance in regions of current influence or to spread into new regions, and its probability of success in achieving those objectives remain unclear.
Tensions within the larger region continue to play a role as well as around 500 Saudi citizens have crossed the border into Yemen and have joined AQAP.
In contrast to the period when al-Qaeda was one, monolithic organization, as the struggle for international jihad has fractured, the aims, methods, and objectives of splinter groups have become diverse and different from what they were prior. In particular, many islamist groups, rather than trying to attack foreign targets as al Qaeda did in the 1990s and early 2000s, are targeting citizens of the countries in which they are based.
All of these problems become exacerbated when the Yemeni government lacks the ability and authority to address the diverse grievances of its citizens. In such situations, radical islamist organizations are able to portray themselves as sources of potential authority and strength for local communities unable to resolve their problems through established channels.