The Counter Terror Expo being held in Olympia in April 2011 comes at a time of dramatic changes in the political landscape in the Middle East. In this piece Dr Dave Sloggett debates the implications of these political changes for Al Qaeda and how that may change the nature of the threat from transnational terrorism in the west.
The horrific scenes of September 11th 2001 will not readily dim for many of those that witnessed those events. It was a Berlin Wall moment, something that we can all vividly recall. The Counter Terror 2011 Conference in London in April provides a moment for many with hugely busy agendas to take stock of the current situation with respect to terrorism ten years on.
That the form of trans-national terrorism witnessed in New York and Washington and subsequently in Bali, Madrid, London and Mumbai has not been defeated cannot be in doubt. Globally over the last year nearly 1000 terrorist related incidents a month have occurred with over 11,000 events recorded in 2010, up slightly on the previous year. International terrorism is an enduring problem.
For all of the undoubted pressure applied to Al Qaeda and its franchises over the past ten years the organisation has shown a remarkable ability to maintain a low level of operational activity. Whilst no reoccurrence of the large scale act of mass murder that occurred on September 11th 2001 has been repeated, attempts to bring down airliners and to mount other major attacks aimed at causing mass casualties have continued.
If anything the threat has become more difficult as Al Qaeda has adapted its approach with innovations such as the call for individual acts of Jihad and has shown greater tactical agility by developing new approaches to terrorism, such as the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and the two packages sent through the international air cargo system which were intercepted in the United Kingdom and Dubai in October 2010. These are just the latest manifestation of a continually evolving threat. There can be no doubt that Al Qaeda and its various franchises still seek to mount large-scale acts of terrorism whose aim is to kill more than 1000 people in a single attack.
For many years prior to September 11th Al Qaeda was been able to tap into a deep sense of grievance that has been held across the Middle East and into many areas of northern Africa. Ironically that same deep seated sense of grievance has also recently manifested itself in the public uprisings that have been witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and many other states in the region.
Whilst it is too early to draw definitive conclusions on where these dramatic changes in the political landscape in the area may lead one thing is certain, Al Qaeda’s aim to replace what it saw as the ‘near enemy’ – regimes such as that in Egypt – have happened as a result of the kind of people power that Al Qaeda has long sought to harness. Al Qaeda’s single narrative, its message to what it hoped to be its constituency, has always focused on the obligation to take up jihad to protect Islam from the attack that is being mounted by the west. Part of that narrative was the implied threat from democracy to the practises and interpretation of Sharia Law that are the bedrock of the ideology from which Al Qaeda draws its strength.
But for many of those on the streets of Cairo and Tunis it was not Islamic fundamentalism that drove them to occupy places like Tahrir Square it was a call for political reform and for the end to the corruption that had become endemic in the region. Whilst some of the protestors will no doubt see their futures being defined by an increasingly transparent, democratic and plural approach to government, others will see that as an anachronism and against the very fundamentals of their Islamic faith. Paradoxically as events have unfolded in the last few weeks Al Qaeda has achieved its aims of toppling the regimes but not from the kind of popular uprising they had envisaged. These events are an unintended outcome for Al Qaeda. Not what the Doctor – in this case Ayman al-Zawahiri (Al Qaeda’s ever-vocal number two) – ordered. Therefore a key question for the organisation is what comes next?
Where ever Al Qaeda’s leadership is currently based, and that is the subject of a huge amount of debate, it faces some crucial decisions. The kind of political reform sweeping away the old regimes in the region were not part of the plan. One way for Al Qaeda to react to this is to maintain their focus on what they refer to as the ‘far enemy’; the capitals of Western Europe and the United States. With the political leadership of the west wrong-footed by the rapid pace of change in the Middle East Al Qaeda’s leadership may sense that this is a good time to go on the offensive in the west, to channel all of its energies into mounting new forms of terrorism that seek to exploit the current hiatus in political relationships. Al Qaeda has long thought that the political systems in the west are vulnerable to a major attack. Its enduring interest in CBRN terrorism provides a major indication of its thinking. One major attack could see the final downfall of the west; the model of democracy would be broken.
It is against this dramatic backdrop that many leading commentators, political leaders and those involved in the emergency services from across the world will come together at the Counter Terror Expo at Olympia on the 19th and 20th of April 2011. The conference which features many of the new developments in technology designed to counter the agility shown by Al Qaeda and its franchises also has a number of presentations covering a diverse range of topics and perspectives. For those seeking to understand the way the threat is adapting and morphing the insights gained from this unique gathering of people will be hugely important. In diaries that are often busy and with budgets tight this is one event that cannot be missed.