The ghost of Osama bin Laden will have been chuckling this month as he watches the movements he inspired conquer swathes of the Middle East. He will be particularly gratified to see fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) storm into Al Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s eastern province of Hadhramaut from which the bin Laden family originated before making their fortune in Saudi Arabia.
As happened in Mosul, Iraq last summer when the Iraqi army fled before a jihadi attack, Yemeni government soldiers abandoned their bases in Al Mukalla leaving US Humvees and other military equipment. Earlier, AQAP had seized the central prison in the city and freed 300 prisoners, including Khaled Batarfi, one of the most important jihadi leaders in Yemen.
It is a measure of the severity of the multiple crises engulfing the region that AQAP, previously said by the United States to be the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda, can capture a provincial capital without attracting more than cursory attention in the outside world. How different it was on 2 May 2011 when President Obama and much of his administration had themselves pictured watching the helicopter raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden was killed. The grandstanding gave the impression that his death meant that the perpetrators of 9/11 had finally been defeated.
But look at the map today as unitary Muslim states dissolve or weaken from the north-west frontier of Pakistan to the north-east corner of Nigeria. The beneficiaries are al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda inspired groups which are growing in power and influence. The US and its allies recognise this, but cannot work out how to prevent it.
“It’s always easier to conduct counter-terrorism when there’s a stable government in place,” said the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, rather plaintively, last week. “That circumstance obviously doesn’t exist in Yemen.”
You can say that again. Mr Carter sounded a little put out that “terrorists” have not chosen well-ordered countries such as Denmark or Canada in which to base themselves, and are instead operating in anarchic places like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia, where there is no government to stop them. Suddenly, the drone war supposedly targeting leaders and supporters of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia is exposed as the politically convenient irrelevance it always was. In fact, it was worse than an irrelevance, because the use of drones, and periodic announcements about the great success they were having, masked America’s failure to develop an effective policy for destroying al-Qaeda in the years since 9/11.
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
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Yemeni refugees carry water to their tent at the Mazraq internally displaced people's camp in the northwestern province of Hajja
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A displaced man from Yemen's Saada province amid UNHCR tents at a camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mazraq in Yemen's Hajja region, 360 kms northwest of Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees queue to get food aid at the Marzaq internally displaced people's camp in Harad in the northwestern province of Hajjah
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Displaced Yemenis from al-Jaachan Al-Ansin, a village in the province of Ibb, some 200km South-East of Sanaa, stand next to their tents in a makeshift refugee camp in Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees walk to a refugee camp in the southern Saudi province of Jizan after crossing the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia
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Syrian refugees arrive in Turkey at the Cilvegozu crossing gate of Reyhanli, in Hatay. The number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit, the UN refugee agency (UNCHR) said, in an annual report released on World Refugee Day
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Syrian refugees walking among tents at Karkamis' refugee camp near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey
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South Sudanese refugees waiting for food in the Kule refugee camp near the Pagak Border Entry point in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia
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African refugees live homelessly at a temporary shelter beside a road on World Refugee Day in Sana'a, Yemen. The number of African refugees who have come to Yemen during the past few years has reached 750,000, most of them are Somalis
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An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. The militants' capture of Iraq's cities of Mosul and Tikrit makes their dream of a new Islamic state look more realistic. It already controlled a swath of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, with a spottier presence extending further west nearly to Aleppo, Syria's largest city. In Raqqa, the biggest city it holds in Syria, it imposes taxes, rebuilds bridges and enforces the law - its strict version of Shariah
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Refugees queue to register at a temporary camp in northern Iraq
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A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
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A child refugee from the northern province of Raqqa in Syria, reacts from the cold weather in a Syrian refugee camp beside the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley
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Boys help their father remove snow in front of their tent in the Azaz refugee camp
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A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
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A child refugee stands next to a home constructed using a billboard in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugee baby Rim in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugees arriving at a camp near Bossangoa, 190 miles north of Bangui, the capital. Forty-one thousand people fled their homes following mass executions in the area
Juan Carlos Tomasi/Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders
19/41 Syrian refugees
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
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A women and a girl wash at a tap at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint in Kalak. Thousands of people have fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region
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Families arrive at a Kurdish checkpoint next to a temporary displacement camp in Kalak
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An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. Days after Iraq's second-largest city fell to Isis fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades
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A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region
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A displaced Iraqi woman washes her family's laundry as the children shower outside their tent at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province in Aski kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil
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Iraqi refugees from Mosul arrive at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad
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The international Red Cross said that the road from Bor to the nearby Awerial area 'is lined with thousands of people' waiting for boats so they could cross the Nile River and that the gathering of displaced 'is the largest single identified concentration of displaced people in the country so far'
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People unload the few belongings at Minkammen, that they were able to bring with them to the camps
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Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village of Minkammen, a once-tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts 25 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Bor
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Many people had spent days hiding out in the bush outside Bor as gunmen battled for control of the town, which has exchanged hands three times in the conflict, and remains in rebel control
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A young boy pulls his suitcase of belongings as he walks to find a place to rest after getting off a river barge from Bor
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A displaced family camp under a tree providing partial shade from the midday sun
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A boy carries a fish, caught from the nearby Nile river, in a cardboard box on his head back to his relatives to eat
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A mother and her baby, one of the few to have a mosquito net, wake up in the morning after sleeping in the open
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Four-month old Haida Majzub was born in the Ajuong Thok refugee camp inside South Sudan. The camp, in northern Unity State, hosts thousands of refugees from the Nuba Mountains, located across the nearby border with Sudan
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A girl fills a container with muddy water in the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp
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The clashes in South Sudan began when uniformed personnel opened fire at a meeting of the governing party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement
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45 year old Dilbhar looks towards the camera as she stands in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. She escaped to Bangladesh from the Bodchara village in the Mondu district of Myanmar
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32 year old Mahada Khatum, 5 year old Hasan Sharif, and 9 year old Umma Kulsum sit outside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. The family escaped violence and discrimination from the Zomgara Baharchara village in the Meherulla district of Myanmar
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Hamid and his daughter Rajama sit inside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. They fled to Bangladesh from the Dhuachopara village in the Rachidhong district of Myanmar
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Afghan children wait for relief supplies from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
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Afghan people carry relief supplies received from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
Al Mukalla was not the only victory of an al-Qaeda affiliate in recent weeks. In northern Syria, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, led an attack force of between 4,000 and 5,000 jihadis to capture the provincial capital of Idlib whose Syrian army garrison was overwhelmed. Saudi sources revealed that Saudi Arabia and Turkey had both given their backing to Jabhat al-Nusra and other extreme jihadis in seizing Idlib.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states seem intent on rebranding Jabhat al-Nusra and its clones as wholly different from Islamic State (Isis) and therefore acceptable as a potential ally. Al-Nusra may not publicly revel in its own atrocities as does Isis, but otherwise it differs little from it in ideology and tactics. Created by Isis in 2012, it split from the parent movement and fought a bloody inter-rebel civil war against it in early 2014, but today there are worrying signs of cooperation. According to accounts from the Syrian opposition, it was al-Nusra that allowed Isis fighters to take over in recent days most of Yarmouk Palestinian camp a few miles from the centre of Damascus.
For all the billions of dollars spent on security since 9/11, the tedious searches at airports, the restrictions on civil liberties, tolerance of torture – not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the so-called “war on terror” is being very publicly lost. The heirs of 9/11 are far stronger than ever. As argued previously in this column, there are seven wars going on in Muslim countries between Pakistan and Nigeria and in all of them al-Qaeda-type movements are gaining in strength or are already strong. It would be astonishing if these conflicts did not at some point produce extreme violence in nearby countries such as the massacre of Christian students by Somali gunmen in Kenya or the killing of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, police and Jewish shoppers in Paris. Given that there are 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, 4.1 million in Germany and 5 million in France, al-Qaeda-type movements are bound to find some supporters.
What should be done? The only way of dealing with Isis, al-Qaeda and other jihadi movements is in the countries where they flourish. The great mistake after 9/11 was for Washington to absolve Saudi Arabia of responsibility – though 15 of the 19 hijackers, bin Laden himself, and much of the money spent on the operation came from Saudi Arabia – as well as Pakistan, which had propelled bin Laden’s hosts, the Taliban, into power in Afghanistan.
Once again al-Qaeda-type movements are not being targeted effectively despite their many enemies. This failure can best be explained by a saying popular a few months ago among western politicians and diplomats to explain their policy in Syria and Iraq. This was “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend”.
Few of those who pronounced these glib but shallow words had thought them through or appreciated that, if this was indeed the policy of the US, Britain and their allies, then there is no way the Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra or AQAP can be defeated. In Yemen, the Houthis are the strongest military force opposing AQAP, but since we support Saudi Arabia in its air campaign against the Houthis we are ensuring a situation in which AQAP will be able to expand. Since the Saudis’ stated aim is to restore to power President Abd-Rabbu Hadi, who has almost no support (those described as his supporters are mostly southern secessionists), the chief beneficiary of prolonged war will be AQAP.
In Syria, similarly, “the enemy of our enemy” and the strongest military force is the Syrian army, though it shows signs of weakening after four years of war. But if we have decided that US air power is not to be used against Isis or Jabhat al-Nusra when they are fighting the Syrian army because we want to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad, then this is a decision that benefits Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and extreme jihadis. In Iraq the situation is less dire because, although there is a pretence of not cooperating with the Shia militias, in practice the US had been launching air strikes on the same Isis positions these militia are attacking on the ground. The reality is that it is only by supporting “the enemy of my enemy” that the expansion of al-Qaeda and its lookalikes can be beaten back and the movement defeated.Reuse content