“Someone” has given the order and foot soldiers are on the march, writes Peter Fabricius.
Radical Sunni Islam is on the march. From northern Nigeria to Syria, from Iraq to Afghanistan, these extremists are on the rise.
It is as though someone has given the command and the foot soldiers have sprung into action.
Just 11 days ago, Iraq’s ambassador to South Africa, Hisham al-Alawi, was urging South African investors to ignore the alarming reporting about insecurity and go to Iran.
A few days later, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) – also, confusingly, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) – launched a lightning strike into Iraq from Syria, where it is fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Within days Isis/Isil – widely seen as an even more extremist faction or splinter of al-Qaeda – had captured the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit and had got to within 90km of the capital, Baghdad.
Security analysts are now forecasting the possibility of a Taliban/al-Qaeda arc of influence stretching all the way to the Mediterranean, which could reshape Middle East boundaries set nearly a century ago after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
If you draw the arc the other way, leapfrogging over the Gulf States, there is a disturbing near-continuity of al-Qaeda-like Islamic militancy from Yemen through al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Sudan state itself, to eastern Libya and across the Sahel where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) is growing ever stronger, and then down to northern Nigeria and Boko Haram, also linked to al-Qaeda.
Boko Haram, though active for many years, has recently gone into overdrive and extended its territorial reach, with deadly bomb blasts as far south as the capital, Abuja, and many more of its usual indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the north-western states, and of course the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok on April 14, which caught the world’s attention.
Whether someone in al-Qaeda high command, assuming there is one, really did throw a big switch to energise all this deadly and destructive activity at roughly the same time is hard to say.
Is Osama bin Laden’s successor as the organisation’s leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, moving jihadist models on a large map of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, and seeing his dream of a Caliphate across that whole territory moving closer to reality?
Most terror experts would probably say not, observing that al-Qaeda itself is weaker now than it has been for a long time, partly because of concerted efforts by the US and other states to stifle it.
But at the same time, its “franchises” seem to be resurgent. It is hard to imagine them not co-ordinating their activities in some way, even if only according to a rough blueprint they have had in their heads for a long time.
What to do about this is becoming an ever more painful headache for the enemies of al-Qaeda (and friends of freedom and democracy) like US President Barack Obama and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
Obama, who campaigned for election in 2008 with a promise to reverse his predecessor George Bush’s terrible blunder in Iraq, is now seeing the results of the withdrawal of US troops last year.
The Iraqi army is melting away before the advance of Isil, forcing Obama to contemplate a return to Iraq.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, the US, UK and France are just starting to get involved militarily in the fight against Boko Haram, because Nigeria itself is incapable of defeating it.
In Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, the heavy-handed intolerance by governments of their opposition has fuelled the insurgency.
Whether or not the al-Qaeda consortium is now busy executing a grand plan to seize the Middle East and north, or whether it’s happening by spontaneous combustion, those opposing it would do well to get together to devise an equally grand plan on how to prevent that happening.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.