al-Qaeda and Taliban have apparently shifted focus

The Assault of Suicide-Bombers in Pakistan and Afghanistan

By Yoram Schweitzer—— Bio and Archives--December 31, 2007

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During the past year, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have apparently decided to shift the focus of their suicide actions to the Pakistan-Afghanistan theater.


That does not mean that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have abandoned the use of suicide terror in other places, and they continue to carry out suicide attacks elsewhere, especially in Iraq and recently even in Algeria.

Still, the resort to this mode of action in Pakistan and Afghanistan is clearly on the rise.  The murder of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto by a suicide assassin represents the peak – probably only temporarily – of the assault going on in Pakistan for over a year.  The previous attempt to kill Bhutto, about two months ago, was also carried out by two suicide bombers who blew themselves up near the convoy taking her from the airport following her return to Pakistan after eight years in exile.  They failed in their primary mission but did kill about 150 other people.  Another suicide bomber also blew himself up inside a mosque during Eid al-Adha and killed about fifty people.  These attacks are a clear manifestation of the severe deterioration in security that Pakistan is experiencing.  They also reflect the total rejection of any self-restraint by al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who have no reservations about mass murder even of other Muslims in places of worship during holidays, when any acts of war or bloodshed are strictly forbidden.

Pakistan, which played a central role in building up the Taliban and indirectly helped al-Qaeda, was itself spared any suicide attacks until 2002, apart from one such bombing in 1995 at the Egyptian consulate in Karachi.  And between 2002 and 2006, there were several such attacks each year, some directed against foreigners but most stemming from confessional conflict and directed against the Shi’ite minority.  However, in 2007, and especially in the second half of the year, there was a sharp rise in the number of suicide attacks.  These were mostly directed against the security forces and other government targets.  Thus far, there have been about 50 attacks, resulting in hundreds of casualties.  One explanation for this huge escalation is apparently the decision by al-Qaeda and the Taliban to force Pervez Musharraf out of power by attacking him directly or at least destabilizing his regime, because they see him as a collaborator with their enemies in the west, especially the United States.  The direct confrontation with Musharraf came to a head in July 2007, following the Pakistani army’s assault of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where Islamic extremists were holed up.  That attack led to the deaths of dozens of radicals, including Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who ran the mosque along with his brother Abdul Aziz.  In a videotape released after the incident, Usama bin Laden labeled Musharraf an apostate collaborator with the enemies of Islam and called for his liquidation.  And in one of his latest videotapes, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, demanded the liquidation of Bhutto.  His demand was met, even if it turns out that al-Qaeda was not directly involved, and it can be assumed that bin Laden’s appeal will also prompt continuing attempts to answer it.

Along with the assault in Pakistan, there has also been an upsurge in the use of suicide-bombers by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and local jihadi groups in Afghanistan.  During the ten years of struggle against the Soviet occupation (1979-1989) and even until 2001, Afghanistan did not experience a single suicide bombing.  Only in September 2001, two days before the 9/11 attacks, did al-Qaeda send two assassins to liquidate Massoud Shah, the head of the Northern Alliance and Taliban’s most dangerous enemy.  From then until 2004, there were sporadic suicide attacks averaging about five each year.  But since then, the phenomenon has expanded and reached a peak in 2006-2007, when there were about 120 attacks each year, causing hundred of casualties.  More than anything else, the current coordinated suicide assault in Pakistan and Afghanistan signifies the revival of al-Qaeda and the Taliban after they were forced to give up their bases of power and flee to the Afghan-Pakistan border area as a result of the war on terror launched by the international coalition of forces in late October 2001.

It is noteworthy that in most other Middle East countries – apart from Iraq – security forces have learned to deploy more effectively against suicide bombings carried out by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.  Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria – notwithstanding the two recent bombings in Algiers – have foiled most bombing attempts and the networks that prepared have been neutralized.

It may well be that the security forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan were surprised by the extent and intensity of the suicide attacks and that they are still at the stage of developing appropriate responses to the challenges they face.  Given the cumulative experience of other states facing similar threats, it is possible that they, too, will find a way to reduce significantly the dimensions of the problem by cooperating with others and learning from their experience.

The relative success of other security forces in limiting the activities of suicide-bombers does not allow them to rest of their laurels.  Even if al-Qaeda and its partners have turned their attention and resources to the Pakistan-Afghanistan theater, other states in the Middle East, the Gulf and Europe will very probably again become targets in the future. That intention is expressed in Zawahiri’s videotapes, and recently even by bin Laden himself.  Indeed, al-Qaeda’s current distress in Iraq may well prompt its leaders to capitalize on the investment they have made in their campaign there and redirect their forces, including new recruits from among the “graduates” of Iraq, to the next missions of the global jihad around the world.  As a result, al-Qaeda and its affiliates may soon shift their operational center of gravity to other old-new arenas.  As in the past, their activity will almost certainly focus on suicide-bombings, not just as an effective modus operandi and trademark but primarily as proof of their dedication to the “path of God.”




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INSS Yoram Schweitzer -- Bio and Archives | Comments

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