| Issam Ahmed |
ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Al-Qaeda’s launch of a new branch in its heartland of South Asia masks the “desperation” of the world’s former terror bogeyman as it finds itself eclipsed by the savagery and evil of the Islamic State, analysts say.
Operational setbacks such as the killing of Osama bin Laden have contributed to its decline as many extremist fighters have drifted to the potent new banner of the IS in the Middle East.
Al-Qaeda was founded in the late 1980s by bin Laden during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and is inextricably linked to the South Asian region, but now estimates put the number of its fighters in Pakistan’s tribal areas in the low thousands.
And Al-Qaeda has become less involved in direct operational command in Pakistan, with a greater emphasis on providing an ideological framework and financing.
“With the passage of time we have seen that local groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban have gotten strong,” said Amir Rana, a leading militancy expert in Pakistan.
“The relocation of Al-Qaeda (fighters) from this region to Libya and other Arab States had weakened them.”
With its territorial gains and social media propaganda operation, IS has charged up on Al-Qaeda like a nimble start-up company challenging a staid old multinational.
There is now even some evidence to suggest IS may be making efforts to spread its influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda once had a monopoly.
Leaflets and graffiti urging support for IS have been seen in some Afghan-dominated parts of Peshawar, the main city of northwest Pakistan.
According to Rana, Al-Qaeda’s need to rebrand stems from a desire to head off the competition.
“This shows their desperation – they are losing control of their affiliates in this region and in other parts of the world,” he said.
While IS followers release graphic, at times horrifying, photos and footage from their military campaigns, the announcement of the new Al-Qaeda arm came in an hour-long video lecture by bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri – a communication method little changed in a decade.
The US State Department has described Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban as having a “symbiotic” relationship, with Zawahiri believed to be hiding under their protection.
But a major assault launched in June by the Pakistani military on North Waziristan tribal area has left the TTP looking increasing fragmented – as well as reducing the physical space available for jihadi bases and training camps.
Across the border in Afghanistan estimates about Al-Qaeda’s strength and importance vary, but experts agree that it operates now in more of a behind-the-scenes role.