Western interests have been targeted across the Muslim world in this period following the emergence of a film deemed offensive to Muslims (see Single Issue section for more on the domestic implications). The issue is related to the burning of Korans by an extremist church in Florida, under Pastor Terry Jones. However, to some extent the film is also being used as a hook to in part justify protests and attacks, which in fact are more representative of underlying tensions. The atmosphere remains volatile, particularly given the decision by a French paper to publish controversial cartoons, and in some respects this echoes the long-running targeting of Danish interests following the Jyllands-Posten’s publication of “offensive” cartoons depicting Mohammed several years ago. As reported in the Monitor that issue still drives some criminal actions against Danish interests, both domestically and abroad.
However the most significant incident – the sophisticated attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya in which the Ambassador was killed – was more than likely not related to the film at all. Instead, we assess that this was carried out by jihadists with reasonable links to al-Qaeda central. The reasoning for this is the release of a video eulogising Abu Yahya al-Libi, a key al-Qaeda ideologue who was killed over the summer by a US drone strike. Unusually, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri waited some time to confirm the loss, and it was only confirmed in a tape designed to commemorate 9/11 (the day the Libyan attack took place). We therefore believe that the eulogising of the most significant Libyan active in the global jihadist movement was no coincidence, and al-Zawahiri had a degree of foreknowledge that this action was likely. The attack showed signs of extensive preparation and was almost certainly rehearsed, implying that it was not spontaneous.
The wider, more or less genuine anger over the video is likely to rumble on for some time, particularly after Friday prayers, and may be enabled by the authorities in some jurisdictions (in Khartoum busses were laid on outside mosques, for example). American, British and French targets appear to be most desirable and discretion is advised. However this threat should not be confused with the more focused underlying danger from jihadist networks multiplying in the region. We have long argued that the Arab Spring offered al-Qaeda and similar groups a significant opportunity, with disorder opening up new territories and removing many key obstacles to growth. In the short term we consider that the movement’s focus will primarily remain within the Middle East and South Asia and that mounting attacks in Western nations will remain largely the province of “lone wolves” or through attacks via aircraft, since operational capability appears still to be limited due to effective security force actions. Gaining ground in the Middle East and North Africa therefore makes the most sense for al-Qaeda, especially since this is in line with the movement’s long-term strategic vision, and there are significant opportunities to do so at present. Note in this regard that Syria (particularly Aleppo) has great significance for al-Qaeda, with numbers of foreign fighters – including British nationals – being notable, albeit hard exactly to assess due to conflicting reports. Regardless, inside the UK and other Western nations jihadists are understood to be making great attempts to recruit those with experience to go and train rebels and fight against the regime in Damascus, which presents a significant future challenge.
Regional instability also continues to be fuelled by the ongoing Israel/Iran stand-off, with rhetoric growing significantly in this period. We assess that Tel Aviv is still likely to favour waiting until after the outcome of the US election is known before considering military action, despite some current messages, and reports that Iranian nuclear facilities were sabotaged by explosive devices last month show that other methods continue to be used by Israel. However, the proxy conflict continues to come increasingly to the fore and Iranian attempts to attack Jewish interests worldwide are likely to continue. Moreover, Jewish targets appear also to be drawing attention as part of the current wave of hostile sentiment arising from the films and other anti-Western issues, with a Kosher supermarket in France being hit with a small improvised bomb over this period, and so the risk near these sites should be considered particularly high at this time. France has Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations, so forms a natural fault line, with Jewish authorities reportedly concerned over the likelihood of more such incidents.