Al-Qaeda in South Asia rebrands to stay relevant

Al-Qaeda in South Asia rebrands to stay relevant
This picture, provided by the IntelCenter monitoring group, shows Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri speaking in a video released by Al-Qaeda's media arm as-Sahab on March 16, 2012.

ISLAMABAD - Al-Qaeda's launch of a new branch in its heartland of South Asia masks the "desperation" of the world's former terror bogeyman as it finds itself eclipsed by the savagery and slickness of the Islamic State, analysts say.

Operational setbacks such as the killing of Osama bin Laden have contributed to its decline as fighters have drifted to the potent new banner of the IS in the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda was founded in the late 1980s by bin Laden during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and is inextricably linked to the South Asian region, but now estimates put the number of its fighters in Pakistan's tribal areas in the low thousands.

And Al-Qaeda has become less involved in direct operational command in Pakistan, with a greater emphasis on providing an ideological framework and financing.

"With the passage of time we have seen that local groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban have gotten strong," said Amir Rana, a leading militancy expert in Pakistan.

"The relocation of Al-Qaeda (fighters) from this region to Libya and other Arab States had weakened them." With its territorial gains and social media propaganda operation, IS has charged up on Al-Qaeda like a nimble start-up company challenging a staid old multinational.

There is now even some evidence to suggest IS may be making efforts to spread its influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda once had a monopoly.

Leaflets and graffiti urging support for IS have been seen in some Afghan-dominated parts of Peshawar, the main city of northwest Pakistan.

According to Rana, Al-Qaeda's need to rebrand stems from a desire to head off the competition.

"This shows their desperation - they are losing control of their affiliates in this region and in other parts of the world," he said.

While IS followers release graphic, at times horrifying, photos and footage from their military campaigns, the announcement of the new Al-Qaeda arm came in an hour-long video lecture by bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri - a communication method little changed in a decade.

Back-office support

The US State Department has described Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban as having a "symbiotic" relationship, with Zawahiri believed to be hiding under their protection.

But a major assault launched in June by the Pakistani military on North Waziristan tribal area has left the TTP looking increasing fragmented - as well as reducing the physical space available for jihadi bases and training camps.

Across the border in Afghanistan estimates about Al-Qaeda's strength and importance vary, but experts agree that it operates now in more of a behind-the-scenes role.

"Everyone agrees there is really only a minimal presence of internationals in the insurgency," said Graeme Smith, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan.

Jawed Kohistani, an Afghan security analyst, estimated the presence of around 2,000 Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan's Badakshan, Kunduz, Logar and Nuristan provinces.

Zawahiri is one of the few pre-September 11 leaders to remain alive. Military chief Mohammed Atef was killed in a drone strike in 2001 and Pakistan's Ilyas Kashmiri in 2011, a month after chief Bin Laden died in a US raid.

Attacks linked directly to Al-Qaeda have been few and far between in recent years.

There was the 2011 storming of an important naval base in Karachi, carried out jointly with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and this June an assault on Karachi airport by the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

A new birth?

Al-Qaeda's relative decline as a frontline fighting force in South Asia and its failure to carry out spectacular attacks in the West have coincided with the rise of IS, which has declared a caliphate over Iraqi and Syrian territory.

IS grew from Al-Qaeda's Iraq offshoot but the parent network formally cut ties in February this year.

It was against this backdrop that Al-Qaeda on Thursday elevated propagandist Asim Umar to be its new head of South Asia.

The middle-aged Umar had been known in security circles but was not previously endorsed by Zawahiri.

While Al-Qaeda and IS appear to be at odds, Rana said that ultimately the outcome could be a rejuvenated global Islamist struggle - likening the move to a corporate restructuring.

"When militant groups transform, they get new recruits and bring in new affiliates - it helps create momentum with their organisation.

"Broadening their ideological perspective gives a new birth, a new life to terror movements." Moreover, Al-Qaeda has been written off as dead and buried numerous times since 9/11. But as a 2013 Canadian intelligence report noted, its leadership has shown remarkable resilience in surviving for over a quarter of a century in the face of a concerted onslaught by governments.

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