Tuesday’s attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the US Ambassador was killed, serves as a reminder of the renewed danger from jihadist networks in the Middle East and North Africa, which are rapidly growing in confidence and ability. Although the killing has been linked to the release of a controversial anti-Islamic film, the reality is that this operation was almost certainly planned for some time and was a calculated act with the foreknowledge of al-Qaeda central.
The indication for this came when Ayman al-Zawahiri released a statement for broadcast on September 11, which confirmed the death of key al-Qaeda ideologue Aby Yahya al-Libi in a US drone strike over the summer. Normally, the movement acknowledges the loss of key individuals soon after the event. The delay was therefore notable, and the message was clearly timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As his pseudonym suggests, al-Libi was a Libyan, and he had great significance to the many fighters from Libya who form part of a wider jihadist movement figure-headed and inspired by al-Qaeda. The fact that such an effective strike against US interests took place in that country and on that day appears to be more than a coincidence.
This potentially tells us several things. Firstly, the fact that there was no raise in the alert state or any other indication of any plot in the US this anniversary – unlike on some previous occasions – demonstrates how al-Qaeda’s focus remains primarily on the Middle East and North Africa, where the movement senses an opportunity in the vacuum created by the removal of the “tyrants” and their regimes. Al-Qaeda’s desire to capitalise on this is more than likely bolstered by a belief that this is in line with God’s plan, as forecast in Islamic prophecy. The second, consequent point is that jihadist capability is much stronger in these areas, with political confusion, weak security forces and ready availability of weaponry offering significant opportunities. Finally, it seems likely that Ayman al-Zawahiri at the very least had foreknowledge of this plot. This shows how strong ties still exist between al-Qaeda central and regional jihadist groups.
Aside from Libya, jihadist activity is increasing in Mali, the Sinai, Yemen and particularly Syria. The latter two countries are particularly important in regard to jihadist prophecies; indeed, in regard to Syria al-Qaeda is putting huge effort into recruiting experienced fighters to come and train others, which is a key consideration affecting the likelihood of intervention by Western nations. Indeed, the latest experience in Libya shows how the genie has to some extent already been unleashed from the bottle, with Syria likely to follow a similar course. In the long term the spread of jihadist enclaves offers an opportunity to broaden the range of threats against the West emanating from the region. However, for now lone wolves are likely to remain the predominant problem for domestic security agencies in the UK, Europe and the US as the movement focuses on what has always been the mission closest to its heart – toppling the “tyrants”, liberating the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and restoring the Caliphate. The implications are that the Middle East, North Africa and the Maghreb are likely to become increasingly dangerous and uncertain places for Western businesses, with the military and political options for dealing with the situation more restricted than ever. Although largely unheralded and unrecognised in the US and UK, the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 therefore sees al-Qaeda experiencing significant strategic success, albeit many challenges remain.