There is an all-too-prevalent tendency to equate causes with individuals. Thus, after the death of Osama bin Laden, there is an understandable feeling the battle against radical Islam has been won. It hasn’t. Just this weekend, a day before US forces stormed Bin Laden’s urban hideout in Pakistan, al Qaeda struck in Morocco, through one of its major affiliates. By SIMON ALLISON.
The second floor balcony of the Argana café overlooking Marrakech’s wonderfully chaotic Jamaa el-Fna Square was something of an institution for sweaty, tired travellers who just wanted a cold ice-cream and some respite from the madness below. I’ve spent happy hours there sipping chilled glasses of the sweet orange juice for which the city is rightly famous, watching the food stalls set up for the night’s business, the lazy fans in the high ceiling keeping us cool.
At lunchtime on Saturday the café was half-full of tourists, the liveried waiters flitting about between them, when the café exploded, killing at least 18 people and destroying the Argana. A customer, who left two huge bags behind is the principal suspect. The bags were packed with nails and triacetone triperoxyde (TATP), an explosive relatively easy to make. They were detonated remotely, allowing whoever did it to get away. At least seven French nationals died, as well as two Moroccans and two Canadians.
The symbolism of this attack is hard to ignore. In targeting tourists in a tourist institution, the perpetrator/s were going after the West. And, more importantly, they were going after the Moroccan government where it hurts most; its wallet. Tourism brings in huge revenues to Morocco and if numbers were to dip – which they surely will – the government will have to do some belt-tightening.
The Moroccan authorities were quick to finger al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a splinter group of al Qaeda, as the culprits. Its members have experience with TATP, the network to pull off an attack on this scale and a video was found from a few days before the attack where AQIM warned of an impending attack on Morocco. The Moroccan authorities are probably right – it seems unlikely that any other groups have the ability or the ambition to pull off such a spectacular attack.
AQIM is an interesting group. Despite the name, it is not part of al Qaeda proper. While sharing the same values and methods, AQIM operates under a separate leadership structure and has completely different origins. In fact, its name is little more than a branding exercise designed to give the group, which has its origins in the Algerian civil war, a more regional appeal. Known previously by its rather more unwieldy moniker, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, in 2006 it was formally welcomed into the al Qaeda fold by none other than Osama bin Laden’s deputy and ideologue-in-chief) Ayman al-Zawahiri: “The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat has joined the al Qaeda organisation...may this be a bone in the throat of American and French crusaders, and their allies, and sow fear in the hearts of French traitors and sons of apostates," he said in a videotape released on 11 September that year.
Photo: People gather near Marrakesh's Jamaa el-Fnaa square after a bomb explosion at Argana cafe overlooking the square April 29, 2011. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal
The rationale for this merger was simple. Besieged in its stronghold along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border – with, as we now know, Bin Laden largely housebound near Islamabad – al Qaeda needed to decentralise control and so established “franchise” operations wherever they could, lending their name to already-established groups with narrower, but complementary aims. This meant “al Qaeda” could operate in places where, for security and logistics reasons, it was struggling to reach. For AQIM, the benefits were clear; technical, political and financial support from the best terrorists in the business. And don’t underestimate the PR benefits of a scary name – if the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat does something, no one really cares, but if al Qaeda does something, the world takes notice.
But the problem with decentralisation is, of course, a loss of control. This year, as the political structure of the Middle East changed irrevocably with revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, civil war in Libya and protests in Bahrain and now Syria, al Qaeda began to reconsider its usual strategies. For al Qaeda finds itself on the same side as the revolutionaries in the Arab Spring. In fact, al Qaeda has been railing against the venal and corrupt dictatorships of the Middle East for years. In one of those paradoxes which make politics so fascinating, it seems that fundamentalist Islam and pro-democracy protesters want exactly the same thing. So instead of sewing chaos and division in Muslim countries – a move designed to invite western intervention and set up a “clash of civilisations” conflict with the West on one side and the forces of Islam on the other – the organisation’s ideologues are moving towards focussing directly on the goal of establishing a pan-Islamic state through taking advantage of the unrest in the Middle East by re-establishing links with other Islamic groups and lobbying for public opinion. As al Qaeda expert and journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote in Asia Times, “Al Qaeda began a new phase...to revive its old contacts and establish a new nexus for a joint struggle against Western interests in the Muslim world.”
Which brings us back to Morocco and AQIM. After the explosion on Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Marrakech’s central square to protest against the attack. Bloody footprints from the aftermath of the attack were still visible on the floor of the square. The sentiment was clear: sorrow for the dead and anger at those responsible. The economic impact of the attack will affect the lives of tens of thousands in Morocco. This is unambiguously not the way to win public support for al Qaeda in Morocco, or to capitalise on the Arab Spring. While an attack of this nature might serve AQIM’s limited aims of regime disruption in Morocco, the broader – and more nuanced – aims of al Qaeda proper are being undermined.
And there’s not too much that al Qaeda can do about it. Once you’ve lost control of your name, you can’t get it back again. Shutting down a terrorist franchise is not like shutting down a KFC. And so, unwittingly, AQIM may just have done everyone a favour by discrediting the world’s most dangerous brand name. A brand name which has suffered an even larger blow with the death of its iconic and inspirational leader this weekend.
Will al Qaeda be able to overcome the twin threats posed by the death of Bin Laden and its renegade affiliates? Without Bin Laden’s gravitas, exerting authority on groups like AQIM will be even harder for the central command in Afghanistan/Pakistan. But al Qaeda are masters of fluid situations, as has been proved by their survival for so long in so many different environments. One thing’s for sure - we’ve definitely not heard the last of them. DM
Simon Allison is a specialist in African and Middle East politics, with degrees from Rhodes university and the School of Oriental and African Studies. He lived in Egypt for four years. He also co-authors the politics blog Third World Goes Forth.
Main photo: The body of a dead victim is seen after an explosion rocked the Argana cafe in Marrakesh's main Jamaa el-Fnaa square April 28, 2011. An explosion killed 14 people, including foreigners, on Thursday in a busy cafe in the Moroccan tourist destination of Marrakesh. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal.