(Washington, D.C.) — This is the third in a series of columns on key leaders in the epicenter we should be keeping an eye on in 2014.
1) The first leader on my list was Jordan’s King Abdullah II — a fascinating Arab Reformer, the son of a bold Reformer, actively trying to lead his small, resource-poor, but vitally important nation towards progress and freedom, tolerance and modernity in a very tough neighborhood. The Big Questions: Will he play a key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2014? Will he also continue to protect himself and his nation from the Radical forces that want his head?
2) The second leader on my list was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a cruel dictator, the son of a cruel dictator, who is massacring his people as he presides over the implosion of a country engulfed in civil war. The Big Questions: Will he survive through 2014? Or are we seeing the end of his regime and the Syrian geopolitical state as we have known it?
3) The third leader on my list is Ayman al-Zawahiri — a fanatical, Radical leader of al Qaeda who is Hell-bent on eradicating Jews, Christians and other “infidels” in the epicenter and establishing an Islamic state throughout the Middle East, no matter what the cost in blood and treasure.
The Obama administration has repeatedly made the case since the killing of Osama bin Laden that Zawahiri and al Qaeda are crippled and in decline, despite the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya on September 11th, 2012. Consider this headline: “Obama Has Touted Al Qaeda’s Demise 32 Times since Benghazi Attack.”
In a new interview with the New Yorker, President Obama yet again dismissed al Qaeda’s role and influence saying, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
But U.S. and Middle Eastern security, intelligence and diplomatic officials I’ve met with in recent months say just the opposite is true. They are increasingly concerned about al Qaeda’s resurgence, and say Zawahiri and his allies pose a growing danger to Americans, and particularly to friendly, moderate governments in the Mideast.
Last fall, the Egyptian-born Zawahiri called for “lone wolf attacks” by Radicals in the U.S. He also continues to wage “economic jihad” against the U.S., saying in a video, “We must bleed America economically by provoking it, so that it continues its massive expenditures on security. America’s weak spot is its economy, which began to totter from the drain of its military and security expenditure.”
Zawahiri and his senior deputies and allies, former CIA and Mossad officials tell me, desperately want to launch horrific terror attacks against the United States and Israel. They also want to topple the regimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, King Abdullah II in Jordan, Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, and General Sisi in Egypt. If they can also knock off some emirates in the Gulf and the Saudi leadership, they wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.
Several years ago, al Qaeda was on the ropes. The U.S. and allied military and intelligence operations were pressing the offensive, ripping up jihadist terror bases, arresting and killing their leaders and operatives, cutting off their financial networks, and protecting Muslim civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was messy and imperfect, but significant progress was being made.
But mounting evidence suggests a reversal is underway.
With the White House pulling U.S. military forces completely out of Iraq — and increasingly out of Afghanistan — numerous experts fear a vacuum is being created, and that Zawahiri and other Radical forces are moving to fill that vacuum. We are no longer pressing the offensive. Zawahiri and his deputies are.
Consider some headlines worth noting:
- Al-Qaeda planned to blow up US Embassy in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem convention center (Times of Israel)
- Al-Qaeda militants in Iraq seize Fallujah (USA Today)
- Al-Qaeda slaughters on Syria’s killing fields — more than 1,000 Syrians flee al-Qaeda-linked group as they mow down children and behead prisoners in cold blood (Aljazeera)
- What ISIS, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, really wants (The Economist)
- Syria Rebels Turn Against Most Radical Group Tied to Al Qaeda (New York Times)
- Al-Qaeda emerges amid Egypt’s turmoil (Al-Monitor)
- In foiled Jordanian terror plot, officials see hand of resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq (Washington Post)
- King of Jordan warns that Syria’s chemical weapons could be seized by al-Qaeda (UK Telegraph)
Consider, too, today’s news of Israel arresting an al Qaeda cell plotting attacks inside Israel.
“Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency cracked open an al-Qaeda plot, directed from the Gaza Strip, to carry out mega terror attacks in Israel against both US and Israeli targets, according to information the Shin Bet made available Wednesday,” reports the Times of Israel. “Israel is holding three suspects in the plot, it added, but the key plotter is still at large.”
- The attacks, still in the planning stage, included twin suicide bombings, against the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the main Israeli convention center in Jerusalem, where President Barack Obama gave the centerpiece of his Israel visit last March.
- An Arab resident of East Jerusalem, according to the plan, was to be sent to Syria to learn the nuts and bolts of the terror trade. He would then facilitate the twin attack, which would be carried out by al-Qaeda operatives entering Israel with Russian paperwork, according to the Shin Bet.
- The security organization fingered a Gaza-based al-Qaeda operative, Oreib al-Sham, as the point man for the twin attack. The fact that he was allowed to operate freely from Gaza, the Shin Bet said, indicates that “Hamas allows Salafists to carry out terror attacks so long as they are not targeting them.”
- It has also become increasingly clear, the security organization said, that the civil war in Syria, a magnet for terror operatives throughout the Middle East, has deepened the roots of al-Qaeda and other like-minded organizations in the region.
- Those organizations, the Shin Bet said, are striving to link up with willing Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in order to strike Israel and Western targets.
- In this case, al-Sham, which means Greater Syria in Arabic and is likely a pseudonym, drafted three willing Palestinians over Facebook and Skype. The most developed plans appear to have been hatched with an East Jerusalem resident, Ayad Abu-Sara, who expressed both a willingness to carry out attacks on his own and to help orchestrate foreign attacks.
- Al-Sham made contact with Abu-Sara four months ago via Skype and Facebook, the Shin Bet said. The 23-year-old resident of Ras Khamis, a neighborhood within municipal Jerusalem, allegedly agreed to shoot the tires of an Israeli bus heading downhill from Ma’ale Adumim to the Dead Sea. He would then fire at the passengers and the rescue workers arriving at the scene.
I will be watching Zahawiri closely in 2014. I pray he is brought to justice. But it’s not really about one man. Bin Laden and Zawahiri have inspired, mobilized and encouraged a movement of Sunni Radicals throughout the world. We dare not lower our guard. Far too much is at stake.
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