Blowback on the Arabian Peninsula?

Where is al-Qaida headed and should we be worried about it?

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Free Syrian Army fighters look at a Syrian Army jet, not pictured, in Fafeen village, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. Syrian rebels including Islamic extremists took full control of a sprawling military base Tuesday after a bloody two-day battle that killed dozens of soldiers, activists said. It was the latest gain by opposition forces bolstered by an al-Qaida-linked group that has provided skilled fighters but raised concerns in the West.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies wrote a useful piece this week over at ForeignPolicy.com on the online strategy writings of the recently killed deputy of al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and former Guantamo Bay detainee Said al-Shihri. Al-Shiri, writing under the nomme de guerre Abu Asma al-Kubi (basic translation: the father of Asma, the Cuban), was the right hand of the leader of AQAP and the recently promoted general manager of al-Qaeda Central, Nasser al Wahishi.

According to Gartenstein-Ross, al-Shiri's writing outlined three core tenets of AQAP's -- and perhaps now post-bin Laden al-Qaeda's -- strategy as being (1) the promotion of "individual jihad," (2) taking advantage of the societal openings brought about by the Arab spring, and (3) making war on the Shi'a.

On the first point, al-Shiri saw no contradiction between the hierarchical organization of al-Qaeda and the distributed operations of individuals. As Gartenstien-Ross puts it about these writings:

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

A jihadist need not wait to coordinate with the larger group…. Rather, he should take his own initiative in gathering information "and whatever he can find ... to benefit jihad." That information should be passed along to the nearest leadership outpost, and "if there is an outpost in his country, he joins it or proposes to it the work that he can do."

In other words, Shihri formulates a largely centralized model, but one that incentivizes, encourages, and sets the direction for individual actions. This is consistent with the messaging and propaganda of AQAP, whose online English-language magazine Inspire consistently encourages readers to undertake individual jihad.

The second point is interesting because many initially thought that the uprisings of the Arab Spring were seen as a blow against the appeal of al-Qaeda. But as Gartenstein-Ross writes:

While Shihri saw no hope in the political openings of the Arab uprisings, he immediately recognized that the regional upheaval would give jihadists an unprecedented opportunity to spread their ideas in society. The al-Qaida leader believed that one important stage of the new period was undertaking dawa, or missionary activity. While the old regimes in places like Egypt and Tunisia used to suppress such efforts, a number of jihadist figures who weighed in on the matter -- including al-Qaida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri -- correctly predicted that the new regimes' tolerance for once-prohibited ideas would offer jihadists a chance to expand their base of support.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

On point three Gartenstein-Ross notes that al-Shiri wrote in November 2011 about the Shi'a, "Kill them wherever they are … because they are disbelievers and are forbidden to enter the entire Arabian Peninsula." Furthermore:

Shihri consistently referred to Shiites by the pejorative term al-rawafid ("rejectionists"). He described Iran and Shiites in general as "the chief enemy of Sunnis today," and seemed to view them as a greater foe than even the United States or Israel. Not only did the al-Qaida commander foresee the Huthis -- a Shiite movement in Yemen that AQAP has sporadically attacked -- capturing the capital of Sanaa, he also thought Shiites would seize control of the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, thus coming to dominate traditional areas of Sunni power.

This last point about the Shi'a is very important because (1) this is a shift in focus from back in the dark days of Iraq when Osama bin Laden chastised and called out Ayman al-Zarqawi for targeting Shi'a and (2) targeting the Assad regime in Syria today is being done largely for sectarian reasons.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Having seen what such sectarian targeting looks like first hand in and around Tal`Afar, Iraq, in 2006-2007 I can say without hesitation that such indiscriminate targeting of women and children and non-combatant men is vile and depraved. On March 27, 2007, for instance, two truck bombs, driven by foreign fighters allegedly from Yemen, detonated in the Shi'a market on the southside of Tal'Afar killing 152 and wounding 347. It is an ugly and inhuman way of war.

Aside from the reasons above, backers of the fighters going to Syria to conduct this sort of sectarian bloodshed should be weary of these foreign fighters returning home to roost. Today's Shi'a targets might be tomorrows Sunnis who the extremists write out of Islam through doctrines such as takfir. These fighters will return home someday just as the "Arab Afghans" did in the 1980s and 1990s from Afghanistan. The difference this time however, as Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman told Liz Sly of the Washington Post this week, is that: "There are a lot of reasons to worry that Syria will emerge as an even more powerful variant of what Afghanistan was more than 30 years ago."

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.