Thursday, October 18, 2012

Defining al Qaeda

The Obama administration's efforts to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement have been a contentious topic in the U.S. presidential race. Political rhetoric abounds on both sides; administration officials claim that al Qaeda has been seriously crippled, while some critics of the administration allege that the group is stronger than ever. As with most political rhetoric, both claims bear elements of truth, but the truth depends largely on how al Qaeda and jihadism are defined. Unfortunately, politicians and the media tend to define al Qaeda loosely and incorrectly.

The jihadist threat will persist regardless of who is elected president, so understanding the actors involved is critical. But a true understanding of those actors requires taxonomical acuity. It seems worthwhile, then, to revisit Stratfor's definitions of al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement.

A Network of Networks

Al Qaeda, the group established by Osama bin Laden and his colleagues, was never very large -- there were never more than a few hundred actual members. We often refer to this group, now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, as the al Qaeda core or al Qaeda prime. While the group's founders trained tens of thousands of men at their camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, they initially viewed themselves as a vanguard organization working with kindred groups to facilitate the jihad they believed was necessary to establish a global Islamic caliphate.

Most of the men trained at al Qaeda camps were members of other organizations or were grassroots jihadists. The majority of them received basic paramilitary training, and only a select few were invited to receive additional training in terrorist tradecraft skills such as surveillance, document forgery and bomb making. Of this select group, only a few men were invited to join the al Qaeda core organization.

Bin Laden envisioned another purpose for al Qaeda: leading the charge against corrupt rulers in the Muslim world and against the United States, which he believed supported corrupt Muslim rulers. Al Qaeda sought to excise the United States from the Muslim world in much the same way that Hezbollah drove U.S. forces out of Lebanon and Somalia forced the U.S. withdrawal from Mogadishu.

Al Qaeda became a network of networks -- a trait demonstrated not only by its training methods but also in bin Laden's rhetoric. For example, bin Laden's 1998 "World Islamic Front" statement, which declared jihad against Jews and Crusaders, was signed by al-Zawahiri (who at the time was leading the Egyptian Islamic Jihad) and leaders of other groups, including the Egyptian Islamic Group, Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan and the Jihad Movement of Bangladesh.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States applied against the al Qaeda core the full pressure of its five counterterrorism levers: intelligence, military, law enforcement, diplomacy and financial sanctions. As a result, many al Qaeda members, eventually including bin Laden, were captured or killed and their assets were frozen. Such measures have ensured that the group remains small for operational security concerns. The remaining members of the group mostly are lying low in Pakistan near the Afghan border, and their isolation there has severely degraded their ability to conduct attacks.

The al Qaeda core is now relegated to producing propaganda for guidance and inspiration for other jihadist elements. Despite the disproportionate amount of media attention given to statements from al-Zawahiri and Adam Gadahn, the al Qaeda core constitutes only a very small part of the larger jihadist movement. In fact, it has not conducted a successful terrorist attack in years.
However, the core group has not been destroyed. It could regenerate if the United States eased its pressure, but we believe that will be difficult given the loss of the charismatic bin Laden and his replacement by the irascible al-Zawahiri.

In any case, the jihadist movement transcends the al Qaeda core. In fact, Stratfor for years published an annual forecast of al Qaeda, but beginning in 2009, we intentionally changed the title of the forecast to reflect the isolation and marginalization of the al Qaeda core and the ascendance of other jihadist actors. We believed our analysis needed to focus less on the al Qaeda core and more on the truly active and significant elements of the jihadist movement, including regional groups that have adopted the al Qaeda name and the array of grassroots jihadists.

Franchises and Grassroots

An element of the jihadist movement that is often loosely referred to as al Qaeda is the worldwide network of local or regional militant groups that have assumed al Qaeda's name or ideology. In many cases, the relationships between the leadership of these groups and the al Qaeda core began in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some groups have publicly claimed allegiance to the al Qaeda core, becoming what we refer to as franchise groups. These groups include al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Even though these franchises bear the al Qaeda name, they are locally owned and operated. This means that the local commanders have significant latitude in how closely they follow the guidance and philosophy of the al Qaeda core.

Some franchise group leaders, such as AQAP's Nasir al-Wahayshi, maintain strong relationships with the al Qaeda core and are very closely aligned with the core's philosophy. Other leaders, such as Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud of AQIM, are more distanced. In fact, AQIM has seen severe internal fighting over these doctrinal issues, and several former leaders of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat left the group because of this conflict. Further, it is widely believed that the death of Somali al Qaeda leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was arranged by leaders of Somali jihadist group al Shabaab, which he had criticized sharply.

The last and broadest element of the global jihadist movement often referred to as al Qaeda is what Stratfor refers to as grassroots jihadists. These are individuals or small cells of individuals that are inspired by the al Qaeda core -- or increasingly, by its franchise groups -- but that may have little or no actual connection to these groups. Some grassroots jihadists travel to places such as Pakistan or Yemen to receive training from the franchise groups. Other grassroots militants have no direct contact with other jihadist elements.

The core, the franchises and the grassroots jihadists are often interchangeably referred to as al Qaeda, but there are important differences among these actors that need to be recognized.

Important Distinctions

There are some other important distinctions that inform our terminology and our analysis. Not all jihadists are linked to al Qaeda, and not all militant Islamists are jihadists. Islamists are those who believe society is best governed by Islamic law, or Sharia. Militant Islamists are those who advocate the use of force to establish Sharia. Militant Islamists are found in both Islamic sects. Al Qaeda is a Sunni militant Islamist group, but Hezbollah is a Shiite militant Islamist group. Moreover, not all militant Muslims are Islamists. Some take up arms for tribal, territorial, ethnic or nationalistic reasons, or for a combination of reasons.

In places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and northern Mali, several militant groups are fighting foreign forces, their government or each other -- and sometimes all of the above. Some of these groups are jihadists, some are tribal militias, some are brigands and smugglers, and others are nationalists. Identifying, sorting and classifying these groups can be very difficult, and sometimes alliances shift or overlap. For example, Yemen's southern separatists will sometimes work with tribal militias or AQAP to fight against the government; other times, they fight against these would-be allies. We have seen similar dynamics in northern Mali among groups such as AQIM, Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, various Tuareg groups and other tribal militias in the region.

Taxonomy becomes even more difficult when a group uses multiple names, or when multiple groups share a name. Groups adopt different names for discretion, confusion or public relations purposes. AQAP called itself Ansar al-Shariah during its fight to take over cities in southern Yemen and to govern the territory. But radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was arrested in the United Kingdom in 2004 and extradited to the United States in 2012, has long led a movement likewise called Ansar al-Shariah. Even the Libyan jihadist militia that attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi uses the same name. But just because these groups share a name, and just because members or leaders of the groups know each other, does not necessarily mean that they are chapters of the same group or network of groups, or that they even subscribe to the same ideology. 

As we mentioned long before Moammar Gadhafi was ousted in Libya, jihadists and other militants thrive in power vacuums. This assertion has proved true in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, and more recently in Libya, northern Mali and now Syria. Weapons flooding into such regions only compound the problem. 

Militant Islamists have seized the opportunity to grow in influence in such places, as have the subset of militant Islamists we call jihadists. So in this context, while the al Qaeda core has been crippled, other portions of the jihadist movement are thriving. This is especially so among those that aspire to mount local insurgencies rather than those more concerned with planning transnational attacks. The nuances are important because as the composition and objectives of jihadist groups change, so do their methods of attack.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bodh Gaya: A Hindu Response

by Romesh Jayaratnam

(October 13, 2012, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) Buddhist petitioners have successfully filed a case at the Indian Supreme Court seeking to overturn the Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949. That legislation had enabled a shared Hindu and Buddhist management of Bodh Gaya. Nehru sponsored this consensus arrangement in order to roll back the Saivite Mahant's, until then, exclusive control over temple administration. The Buddhists are now keen to secure monopoly control over what they consider to be their sacred space. It is likely that the panel of two Supreme Court judges looking into the case will rule in their favor, unless checked.

Any change in the shared administrative arrangements of Bodh Gaya should be linked to a resolution of the long-standing dispute over who controls the entirety of the sacred space in Varanasi (Benares) and Mathura, not to mention how Hindu temples are administered in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Hindu activists should make the case for there to be a uniform policy framework that governs all religious institutions in India, be they Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or Hindu. One can not have separate principles, differentiated by religion, to govern the administration of places of worship where Hindus alone lack say in the running of their own sacred sites.

A Supreme Court ruling that removes a centuries-old Hindu presence in the management of Bodh Gaya will reinvigorate neo-Buddhist radicalism in India. The Ambedkarites will proceed to launch similar litigation to retrieve other alleged Buddhist sites. The long-term goal is to secure international status for Bodh Gaya akin to what the Vatican enjoys and what is claimed for Jerusalem by the Roman Catholic church. The objective is to ensure that the Bodh Gaya enclave is an international entity insulated from Indian law.

The Buddhist petitioners at the Supreme Court include the Japanese-born Bhante Arya Nagarjun Shurai Sasai and ethnic Tibetan Wangdi Tshering of Darjeeling. Bhante Arya Nagarjun is linked to President Mahinda Rajapakse of Sri Lanka. He is a Buddhist radical who routinely attacks Hinduism. He should be extradited to his native Japan where he can preach to his own people whose adherance to Buddhism has been in terminal decline.

The Mauryas and the Guptas helped build and refurbish the temple at Bodh Gaya. The Guptas, while sponsors of the Hindu high tradition, protected Buddhism in the spirit of Hindu tolerance. The Delhi Sultanate sacked Bodh Gaya in the 13th century which was then abandoned and neglected for three hundred years until Ghamandi Giri, a Saivite Hindu Mahant moved into the premises in 1590 thereby preserving the structure. Had he not moved in, the temple would have collapsed due to neglect. The Hindu Mahants had maintained the temple for 300 years. Hinduism, after all, embraces all humanity and promotes religious pluralism.

Varanasi and Mathura

This brings us to the subject of Hindu control of their sacred space in Varanasi and Mathura. The Gyanvapi or Alamgiri Mosque dominates the Varanasi skyline and overshadows the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Hinduism's most sacred place on earth. Hindus consider Varanasi to be the holiest city in the world. The 17th century mosque is situated on the original site of the Kashi Vishwanath temple that was demolished by Aurangzeb. The 71 meter high Islamic minarets are the most conspicuous feature in this epicenter of Hinduism. The mosque was recently expanded and towers above the Hindu sanctum sanctorum.

The Krishna janma bhoomi in Mathura is likewise a very sacred Hindu site. The Shah-i-Idgah mosque stands on the original site of the Krishna Temple demolished by Aurangzeb. The modern Kesava Deo Temple was only rebuilt in 1965 adjacent to the original site.

If the Supreme Court were to rule that Bodh Gaya be under the exclusive management of Buddhists, then the same should apply to the control of Hindu sacred space in Varanasi and Mathura. The immediate linking of the two separate issues will immediately give reason to the Supreme Court and to India's Attorney General to pause before making any hasty judgement on the Bodh Gaya issue.

Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments

The Buddhist petitioners demand exclusive Buddhist control over the management of Bodh Gaya. Yet the administration of centuries-old Hindu temples under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of Tamil Nadu and the Hindu Religious Institutions Act of Kerala is often subject to ideological and political interference by ruling state governments where atheists with an ideological animus against Hinduism are placed in charge of Temple Management Boards or Devaswoms when ever the DMK and the CPI (M) are in power. Such individuals divert Hindu resources for non-Hindu activity. Hindus need to regain control over the administration and finances of their own temples in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Should the Supreme Court over rule the Bodh Gaya Temple Act, it should in similar fashion over turn the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act and the Hindu Religious Institutions Act.

Buddhist Belligerence

Many a Hindu activist would claim that Hinduism and Buddhism are one and the same. Buddhists do not make that claim or emphasize that affinity. They view themselves as a separate and distinct dispensation.

Buddhist exclusivism has impacted adversely on Hindu interests in Myanmar where one million Tamil, Bengali and Marwari Indians, many of whom were Hindu, were expelled in 1962. It impacted on Bhutan which evicted 107,000 Hindus of Nepalese antecedents between 1985 and 1991. These people had lived in Bhutan since the 1890s.

A Buddhist-sponsored intolerance impacted on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka disenfranchised one million Tamil Hindu plantation workers of Indian antecedents in 1948 and proceeded to repatriate many of them to India in the 1960s and 1970s. I will omit reference to the subsequent civil war in Sri Lanka that pitted the Sinhalese and indigenous Tamils, 85% of whom are Hindu, with several tens of thousands killed in a 25 year period.

Buddhists have been intruding into Hindu space in Sri Lanka with Buddhist images placed this year within the precincts of the ancient Saivite Hindu temples of Tirukoneswaram (Trincomalee) and Tirukethiswaram (Mannar). Literary evidence indicates that Tirukoneswaram existed as a Hindu place of worship in the 4th century while Tirukethiswaram was already an established and revered Hindu temple in the 7th century.

Kathirkaamam, an old Hindu place of worship dedicated to Skanda or Kartikeya, that may likewise date back 700 years or more, is now exclusively managed by Buddhists. The medieval-era Vishnu Temple at Dondra has a similar Buddhist management. The objective is to erase the distinct Hindu character of these places and to Buddhicize them with a view to deny the Hindu presence in Sri Lankan history.

Nepalese Buddhists led the movement to dis-establish Hinduism as the official religion of Nepal in 2008. They successfully demanded that the 10 day national holiday of Dussehra or Dasain be pruned down to accommodate Buddhist holidays. In all four cases i.e. Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Hindu interests were impacted.

Buddhist monks have likewise intruded into the sacred space of the largest Hindu temple in the world - Angkor Wat dedicated to Vishnu in Cambodia.

The Ambedkarite Neo-Buddhist movement in India, inspired by rabid Sinhalese monks such as Saddhatissa Thera, is viciously anti-Hindu. Its denunciations of the Hindu religion are severe, harsh and continuous. They erroneously claim that India's scheduled castes were originally Buddhists and that the Devadasis were descendents of Buddhist nuns! The Ambedkarite neo-Buddhists reject the cardinal Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of rebirth and Samsara. They reject the veneration of the Hindu Gods, revered in traditional Theravada Buddhist societies. The latest litigation at Bodh Gaya is once again an example of the politics of hate. The neo-Buddhist edifice in India is a house of false cards and twisted logic.


It is important therefore to prevent any immediate change in the Bodh Gaya arrangement unless it is linked to a quid pro quo i.e. change in the current arrangements in Varanasi and Mathura, and a revamp in the administration of Hindu religious endowments and Devaswoms.

Further, a change in Bodh Gaya would mean that the Congress party-introduced Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 that froze the religious affiliation of all places of worship as at 1947 would stand annulled. This would allow Hindu activists to reopen the issue of Varanasi and Mathura, not to mention ensure the institutional autonomy of the cash-rich Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The BJP, in particular, has an obligation to keep a close watch on developments in Bodh Gaya as it impacts on its core constituency in what is a caste-fractured swing state with disproportionate impact on a closely fought national election in the next year.