x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The new jihadists: hotspots

The nature of Islamist insurgency is changing and the battle is being fought on several fronts.

Al Shabaab fighters outside Mogadishu in Somalia.
Al Shabaab fighters outside Mogadishu in Somalia.

The biggest threat to the newly elected president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, comes from al Shabaab, a violent movement that controls the south of the country and has thousands of fighters. Their stated goal is to impose Sharia law in Somalia. In the city port of Kismayo, which they control, a young girl who was raped was recently stoned to death. The organisation became popular when American-backed troops from Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006 to oust the government in Mogadishu, the capital. The movement has thriven because of America's policy of isolating moderate Islamists and backing warlords who have terrorised the civilian population. In December, politicians elected Mr Ahmed, a moderate Islamist who has said he wants to make peace with his neighbours and has extended an olive branch to the jihadi fighters. He also wants to make peace with neighbouring Ethiopia whose forces withdrew from the country in January after three years. Some experts say with Ethiopian troops gone, and al Shabaab's hardline Salafist ideology at odds with the gentle Sufi traditions of Somalia, the movement may lose supporters. "While it is still too early to say, there is a good chance that the Shabaab reached its high-water mark in late 2008, and is now facing resistance from Somali constituencies and struggling with internal fissures," wrote Ken Menkhaus, at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. It will not be easy for Mr Ahmed. Upon arriving in Mogadishu to take up his post in January, the president's villa was hit by mortars.

Algeria's security forces have stepped up their campaign against militants in the run-up to the presidential elections on April 9. The north African country is battling al Qa'eda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) which was created when an indigenous group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) joined forces with al Qa'eda in 2006. Since then they have been hitting government, police and military targets in wave after wave of suicide bombs and explosions. Despite their pan-north African ambitions, they have not been able to mount any wide-scale campaign of violence. On Monday, the interior minister said 120 militants had been killed in the past six months. Much of the fighting is concentrated east of the capital, Algiers, where permanent checkpoints are manned by nervous policemen who always keep their finger on the trigger. There is also dissent among al Qa'eda's ranks. In January Hassan Hatab, the founder of the GSPC, urged fighters to lay down their weapons and surrender to the government. More than a dozen did so. AQIM's members are believed to number about 600, miniscule when compared with the 28,000 Algerians who belonged to Hatab's organisation in the 1990s. But decreased support for militancy has not translated into popular support for the repressive government. Most opposition parties are boycotting the election, claiming it will be rigged in favour of the incumbant president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and voter turnout is expected to be less than 30 per cent.

The bomb that killed a French teenager in a Cairo market popular with tourists brought back the spectre of the insurgency that once raged in Egypt. These days, Egypt's influential Islamists are more likely to be debating the merits of jihad rather than taking up armed struggle. The secular government effectively won the battle with organised terror groups a decade ago but last month's explosion was a reminder that small groups can still cause destruction. The intellectual battle, however, goes on unabated. Sayyid Imam al Sharif, better known as Dr Fadl, has written thousands of pages from his Cairo prison cell explaining his change of heart about fighting infidels. Previously head of Islamic Jihad, one of Egypt's most notorious terror groups, Dr Fadl was author of two books in the 1980s which became the manuals for al Qaeda terror camps, justifying suicide bombings and violent tactics. After his arrest in 2004 he had a change of heart. Since then his writings have argued that most forms of terrorism are illegal under Islamic law. Known as The Revisions, they have been serialised in the Arab press. He has also criticised al Qaeda's leaders Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden with a series of personal insults. "Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the internet ? inciting the youth whilst living ? in a distant cave," he wrote. "They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves and prisons." Zawahiri was sufficiently riled to launch his own 200-page riposte published in newspapers and broadcast on Arab television.

On Tuesday Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an insurgent group, claimed responsibility for the murder of five Shiite Muslims in Quetta. Some intelligence officials believe the group may also have been behind the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team on the same day in Lahore. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, apparently driven by a desire to wipe out certain Islamic sects, bears some similarities to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, a Lahore-based terrorist group whose main motivation is to ensure Indians are driven out of Kashmir. Though seemingly unlinked, such homegrown local militant outfits are becoming the backbone for al Qa'eda in Pakistan, according to army officials, militants and political analysts. A young member of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba said: "All insurgent groups in Pakistan help each other out. We sometimes send our people to train in the camps of another group and we often share safe houses." When asked specifically about al Qa'eda, he said: "Yes, we work with them also. If they need our facilities or our people for any assistance, we help them." But he added that his group did not carry out attacks for al Qa'eda. In the past five years, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has murdered more than 200 Shiites in Quetta and conducted suicide bomb blasts on Shiite places of worship. Other insurgent groups within Pakistan include the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Jihad and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Major Gen Saleem Nawaz, the inspector general of a paramilitary force in Baluchistan, said it was evident that through the assistance of local insurgent groups, al Qa'eda had expanded its operations to various cities of Pakistan.

The jihadist movement in Yemen is growing stronger despite the government's attempts to contain it. Yemen's government has been forced to strike a delicate balance in dealing with extremists, making arrests and killing top militant leaders to appease its western backers, but without biting too deep into the ranks of the jihadists who fought with the president in the 1994 civil war that pitted north against south. Their ranks have swollen because of Israeli's recent war in the Gaza Strip, the government has released about 100 militants from jail and Saudi and Yemeni fighters recently announced that they have merged operations. "This announcement shows al Qa'eda is now stronger for it is recruiting new young jihadists. No organisation could announce its objectives and presence in such a blatant way unless it is powerful enough," said Saeed Obaid al Jamhi, the author of al Qa'eda: Establishment, Ideological Background and Contiguity. Mr al Jamhi criticised the Yemeni government for being weak and ineffective. "The government response to this announcement has not been sufficient. It is making deals with old militants who have no ground in the new organisation." Al Qa'eda has regrouped since the death of Abu Ali al Harithi, the Yemen cell's leader, killed in a US drone attack in 2003. Its revival follows the escape from jail of 23 militants who have begun fighting again, said Abdulellah Haidar, a journalist who specialises in al Qa'eda and Islamic movements. Yemen also has other jihadists groups, including Aden-Abyan Islamic army in the southern governorate of Abyan.

Three out of the four roads that lead out of the Afghan capital, Kabul, have Taliban checkpoints, an indication that the insurgents have effectively surrounded the capital. This year, the Americans will send an additional 17,000 soldiers to provide a measure of security but it is more likely to escalate the war between insurgents and international forces. The north and central parts of Afghanistan are relatively stable but the southern provinces that border Pakistan are the hardest hit by an insurgency. The Taliban and their supporters have thrived in a region beset by deadly tribal feuds. The Pashtuns who live there feel neglected by the Kabul government and drug lords have a stake in ensuring the rule of law does not extend to the south. It is in this atmosphere that Afghan and foreign jihadist fighters have arrived to do battle with Nato and American soldiers and target aid workers. The challenge this year for Barack Obama, the US president, will be to isolate the Pashtun tribes, who have genuine grievances over the killings of innocent civilians by international forces, from opportunistic fighters. Their presence has prevented aid organisations and the government from bringing development to the country, alienating the largely rural population even further. President Hamid Karzai's government has initiated talked with rank-and-file Taliban fighters to convince them to stop fighting but it has had limited success. The hardcore group of leaders refuse to do so unless all foreign troops withdraw and the current government is toppled from power. Last year, 2,118 Afghan civilians were killed, according to UN figures, more than half by Taliban suicide bombs and explosions, and the rest by Nato air strikes or crossfire. *With additional reporting by Jack Shenker and Ayesha Nasir