Defeat of Soviets sparked Jihadi growth
The terror attack on Garissa University and the Isil advance on a Syrian refugee camp point to a security crisis, says Shona Murray
Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30
The terror attack on Garissa University in Kenya, and the taking by Isil militants of most of Yarmouk - the largest Syrian Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus - indicate a dire deterioration in the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Both jihadist groups responsible spring broadly from the same roots - Al Qaeda - and call for the eventual establishment of an Islamic state, yet their domestic raisons d'etre are different, as made clear by Al-Shabaab's threat to continue attacks in vengeance against Kenya's military presence in Somalia.
"No amount of precaution or safety measures will be able to guarantee your safety, thwart another attack or prevent another bloodbath from occurring in your cities," the group has vowed.
Meanwhile, Islamic State, in its regular, well-orchestrated media communication, consistently expresses its intention to attack western targets, particularly those that make up the coalition targeting the group with strikes. British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Isil possesses the "greatest terrorist threat" in history to UK security.
"They (Isil) can attack Europe any time they want; they have members inside Europe, inside America, inside Britain, they're just awaiting a decision from al-Baghdadi (the self-proclaimed Caliph, of the Islamic State)," said former Isil militant 'Abu Omer', who fought with them in Deir Al Zor in Syria, speaking under this assumed name to the Sunday Independent in February.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) or to use the local, Arabic term 'Daesh' - meaning the same as Isil, in a loose acronym "al-Doula al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham" - used to be Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The group, which controls in the most heinous way vast swathes of land in east Syria and North western Iraq, originated in Iraq in 2003, after Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi merged his Islamic extremist group, Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad with Al Qaeda, after the Iraq insurgency in 2003, thus forming Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Strategically, these days, Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self - certainly in comparison to the power it wielded after the 9/11 terror attacks. It remains active in Pakistan, yet more relevant however, is that its ideology has developed with remarkable potency across the Arab peninsula and throughout North Africa - as evident in Thursday's attack against the university which killed 148 during early morning Christian prayers.
Kenya is an important target for Al-Shabaab, as a leader in driving the group out of control in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, the Islamist extremists vowed to repeat attacks similar to the devastation it wreaked at the Westgate shopping mall siege in Nairobi, executing 67 people in October 2013.
Al-Shabaab - meaning "the youth" - has some support in coastal areas of Kenya where typically disaffected, poverty-stricken youths feel that they've been "sidelined by the Kenyan government", according to Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, Paul Rogers. The alleged mastermind of last week's attack is Kenyan-born Mohamed Mohamud, aka Dulyadeyn, who according to reports became radicalised while in Kenya, before crossing into Somalia and launching attacks on Kenyan soldiers guarding the border.
Somalia itself is one of the poorest, most conflict-racked regions in the world, without any semblance of stability for the longest time. In its original form, al-Shabaab went under the name - Al-Ittihad Al-Islami (AIAI, or "Unity of Islam"), which strove, back then, to establish an Islamic Caliphate, and was funded in the 1990s by Al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden. Many of its fighters joined the flourishing Jihadist movement in Afghanistan, according to the US Council on Foreign Relations.
The military intervention by Ethiopia in 2006 exiled al-Shabaeb to the South of Somalia, and out of Mogadishu, at which point its ties to Al Qaeda strengthened. In 2008, the US declared it a terrorist group, and in 2012, it announced its official allegiance to Al Qaeda. Al-Shabaab is now led by Ahmed Omar Abu Ubeyd, following the death of its more militarily stable commander, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed by drone strike in September last year.
In Syria, as well as in other parts of the region, some of the most powerful groups operate separately and regularly engage in hostilities against each other - including Islamic State in Syria and Al-Qaeda's official affiliate there, Jabhat al Nusra, or Al Nusra front.
Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr Al-baghdadi unsuccessfully sought to merge with Al Nusra, which concentrates more intently on the overthrow of Assad in Syria, with the eventual creation of a Sunni Islamic state in mind. Al Nusra is an effective force to be reckoned with, and has relatively speaking, more credibility for its presence in the region, given that it is made up of more Syrian-born fighters, as opposed to Isil which is infused with foreign fighters whose target is just about anyone who doesn't succumb to their fatalistic interpretation of Islam.
According to a report from the UN Security Council last week, more than 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries have joined Isil in Iraq and Syria. Sources from the US State Department estimate that around 70 men from Ireland have joined in the last couple of years, with around 500-600 from the UK. The number of foreign fighters surged to 71pc in the middle of 2014 - around the time when Isil's lightning advances in North Western cities in Iraq, such as Mosul occurred, according to the UN report.
While Al Qaeda, in its current form, is not presently the hardline, centrally operated jihadist operation it was once on the path to being, its ideology and modus operandi is at least more widespread than 2001, when the so-called 'war on terror' began.
According to Professor Rogers, Al Qaeda is part of a wider movement which originated from the Wahhabi tradition within Saudi Arabia, and even further back to the writings of influential Egyptian Islamic author, Sayyed Qutb from the 1960s. Qutb proclaimed his disdain for the United States, rampant materialism and western culture through his writings - he also espoused violence against those who claimed to be Muslim, but didn't abide by the teachings of the Qu'ran as he saw it.
He joined the Muslim brotherhood in 1951 - after a stint living in the US - he is also said to have strongly inspired Osama bin Laden, and is dubbed the 'father of modern fundamentalism'. But perhaps the greatest energy given to groups like Al Qaeda is said to be the success of fighting off, and humiliating, the Soviet superpower in the 1980s, coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989. According to Prof Rogers, the change happened when "you had Bin Laden and others attracting plenty of young people to fight with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the soviets back in the 1980s, which developed this idea of a much wider global jihadist movement to establish a caliphate."
Al Qaeda claimed victory for "evicting and destroying a super power from Islamic land. The idea of a global jihad became more real."
Shona Murray is a journalist with Newstalk