Last week, 10 militants attacked the Jinnah International Airport and more than 20 people were killed in the long-drawn gunfight between the attackers and law enforcement agencies. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for this large-scale attack and termed it an act of revenge for the killing of their leader Hakeemullah Mehsud. According to preliminary reports, the terrorists are likely to be Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) trained Uzbeks from North Waziristan. It appears that the Karachi airport attack and the suicide bomber blowing up the vehicle of intelligence officials were orchestrated by the TTP to refute the claims regarding its diluted strength after the split in the Mehsud group. Though the different groups of terrorists differ in their ultimate objectives, they have established strong inter-linkages to support each other in terms of manpower and logistics. Furthermore, it must not be overlooked that the numerous terrorist groups operating in our tribal areas, including the IMU, have maintained close ties with al Qaeda, which, contrary to many accounts, still retains the capability to attack high-profile targets in Pakistan.
Over the past few months, a litany of reports appearing in the international media have revealed that dozens of al Qaeda-linked fighters, including many midlevel strategic planners, are shifting the base of their operations from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Syria. Many intelligence-based assessments also suggest that al Qaeda’s senior leadership has moved out of Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri has exhorted his followers to prepare for a more decisive battle inside Syria and also to use Syria as a launch pad for future strikes against the US and Europe. Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria will offer it the opportunity to have close access to more than 1,000 European and US radical Muslims currently fighting on the Syrian battlefield and to recruit them to carry out terrorist attacks when they return to their home countries.
Much of the debate in Pakistani academia on this development has resulted in making a number of optimistic assumptions about a less troublesome future in our lawless tribal areas as al Qaeda is finally headed for the exit. Some political analysts and journalists are of the view that after the flight of al Qaeda fighters from the Pak-Afghan border, our military may find a way to succeed in a debilitating and long-drawn war against the local and foreign militant groups and clear out the TTP’s bases in North Waziristan. However, in my opinion, the reason these assessments could be misplaced is that al Qaeda has never been a structured organisation. Instead, after 9/11, it has evolved as partly an ideological and partly a politico-cultural force.
Furthermore, al Qaeda’s influence in Pakistan is determined not by the specific number of its fighters, but instead its ability to influence a deep network of militant groups in our tribal areas, including the Taliban and other foreign militants from the Central Asian Republics (CARs) who swear allegiance to it. This has always been the troublesome factor. Since the US-led military operation dislodged al Qaeda from Afghanistan, the group has largely used Pakistan as an operational safe haven to plan international terrorist attacks and undermine the Pakistan army’s support for the US’s war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s influence in Pakistan will remain undiminished because various locally banned outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba (SeS), and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) continue to work under al Qaeda’s umbrella.
More alarmingly, the last few years have witnessed a sudden rise of many other increasingly autonomous and aggressive al Qaeda affiliate groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Contrary to President Obama’s recent claims of al Qaeda as largely a spent force in Afghanistan, the Republican vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, has claimed in an interview that al Qaeda has significant presence in northeast Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many estimates from the US intelligence community coming up earlier this year indicate that al Qaeda’s presence is rapidly expanding to Nuristan and other areas close to the Pakistani border.
Both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have worked in the past as close associates of al Qaeda and have provided it with logistical and operational support in its areas of operation. Al Qaeda has earlier carried out brazen attacks in Pakistan and exercises influence over various Taliban factions. Even the TTP was formed by al Qaeda through Uzbek warlord Tahir Yuldashev after the 2007 Lal Masjid affair. It is precisely because of these linkages that, despite many tactical counter-terrorism successes, al Qaeda continues to constitute a major strategic threat for both Pakistan and the US. David Sedney, the former US deputy assistant defence secretary, has recently expressed the same concerns: “Tomorrow, al Qaeda will be an even greater threat because of its ongoing evolutions.”
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that many former Pakistan army officers have maintained close contacts with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has always sought to promote confrontation with Pakistan because it considers Pakistan’s cooperation with the US in the war against terror harmful to its interests anywhere around the world. After the US and its allies in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdraw most, if not all, of their troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, al Qaeda will gain increased space in Pakistan and may use its local contacts to build a bridge between local and foreign militant networks in order to put up a strong fight against Pakistan and attack its nuclear installations. It is part of Zawahiri’s agenda to destabilise Pakistan and weaken its armed forces so that al Qaeda can take control of our nuclear programme and use those weapons against the US and other European countries.
The writer is a research scholar and a former visiting fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org