Competition between Islamist militants may fuel big attacks

Reuters

* Pattern seen in India, Algeria, Kenya attacks

* Big attacks enhance reputation, bringing money andrecruits

* Competition offset by shared ideology

* Risk of attacks outside the West high and hard to stop

By Myra MacDonald

LONDON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - The assault on Kenya's Westgateshopping mall has brought into sharp relief a pattern likely tocomplicate efforts to counter Islamist militants - competitionamong jihadis can increase the risk of a major attack.

As with the 2008 assault on the Indian city of Mumbai andthis year's raid on an Algerian desert gas plant, the attack inNairobi by Somalia's al Shabaab was preceded by in-fighting orloss of supporters to other militant groups.

This competition can initially make groups seem divided andweak, while actually making them more dangerous if a leader thenfeels compelled to mount a big attack to burnish his jihadicredentials - thereby bringing in fresh recruits and funding.

Western counter-terrorism officials have long been aware ofthe risk that intensive security measures adopted at homefollowing the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States aredriving militants to target Westerners overseas.

But the impact of competition, sometimes caused bygovernment efforts to curb militants, is only just beginning tobe understood. It was thrown into sharp relief by the mallattack by al Shabaab, which killed 67 people.

Recognised by al Qaeda as an affiliate in 2012, the group had suffered from internal feuding as African Union forces,including troops from Kenya, drove them out of urbanstrongholds.

These rifts rose dramatically to the surface when theAmerican-born Omar Hammami tweeted about what he said wereattempts on his life by al Shabaab assassins sent by the group'sleader. He was reported to have been killed this month inSomalia.

JIHADIST FORCE

While it is too early to assess all the motivations behindthe attack on the Westgate mall, the attention it received couldhelp al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane achieve his ambition ofrebranding his group as a significant jihadist force, leadinganalysts to warn that more attacks could follow.

In the case of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed bythe United States and India for the attack on Mumbai, outsidepressure may have contributed to the internal dynamic that ledit to mount a spectacular operation.

Unlike al Qaeda, its focus is on India and Kashmir. But likeal Qaeda it is a Salafist group and shares its aim of arestoration of Muslim rule from Delhi to Spain - making iteasier for followers to move between the groups.

Under severe pressure to rein in its activities after one ofthe men involved in the 2005 London transport bombings waslinked to the group, Lashkar-e-Taiba began to lose members to alQaeda and other groups fighting more actively in Afghanistan.

According to testimony by the Pakistani-American DavidHeadley, who scouted out targets in Mumbai, the huge scale ofthe attack in India after initial plans for a more limitedoperation was encouraged by the need to compete.

The assault by 10 gunmen killed 166 people, gripped mediaattention during a three-day siege and became a template forsubsequent "copycat" operations like Westgate.

The January attack at the Algerian gas plant, in which 39foreign hostages were killed, also followed internalcompetition, this time more to do with personal rivalries.

"MR MARLBORO"

Its Algerian mastermind, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had set up hisown group, although he retains strained but functioningrelations with the Algerian-based leadership of Al Qaeda in theIslamic Maghreb (AQIM). Once dismissed as "Mr Marlboro" becauseof his smuggling activities, Belmokhtar staked a claim to be thetrue representative of al Qaeda in the region with the assault.

The role of competition makes it all the harder forgovernments to contain militants, whether through force - fromdrone strikes to ground operations - or by using infiltrationand offers of talks to some factions to divide and rule.

In the 1990s, Algeria used infiltration to stir upin-fighting and break an insurgency which erupted after itsuppressed elections that Islamists were poised to win. But thisalso encouraged more brutal attacks on civilians - an estimated200,000 died in the civil war.

More recently, Pakistani efforts to divide and rule theTehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) by setting one faction againstanother may also be fuelling violence.

Little is known for sure about the internal dynamics of theTTP. But the group denied responsibility for a car bomb onSunday which killed 42 in Peshawar - the third attack on the city in a week - raising the possibility that another factionmay have been involved to demonstrate its power.

Meanwhile, for states seeking to combat militants, including al Qaeda, competition offers little comfort for itrarely runs deep enough to splinter and defeat jihadist groupsaltogether.

If anything, al Qaeda is proving more resilient than ever,despite the vast military force thrown against it since theSept. 11 attacks.

NETWORK OF ALLIANCES

Often thinking more globally than the governments which seekto counter it, its network of alliances stretching from its basein Pakistan to West Africa has left it well positioned toexploit the instability caused by the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Its leader Ayman al Zawahri appears to have settled into hisrole after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011,continuing to set overall direction for al Qaeda while cedingmuch operational control to affiliates.

Earlier this year, he intervened to stop in-fighting betweentwo al-Qaeda aligned groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and theIslamic State in Iraq and the Levant - arguably proving moreeffective in preventing confrontation between allies thanWestern countries trying to shape the Syrian civil war.

The network is held together by personal and geographicallinks which ultimately override feuding and rivalries -connections which can often be traced back to Afghanistan andPakistan and are now being forged anew in Syria.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, for example, has its roots in anorganisation created in the mid-1980s to support the jihadagainst the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Belmokhtar reachedAfghanistan around 1989.

Godane went to Pakistan in the late 1990s on a scholarship,according to Stig Jarle Hansen, the Norwegian author of a bookon al Shabaab. He disappeared for a time before returning homein 2001; but two of his peers from the same generation had beenin the Khaldane training camp in Afghanistan.

That shared ideology makes it a virtual certainty thatIslamist militants will strike again.

Exactly how capable different parts of the network are, andhow much national and regional pressures limit their room formanoeuvre, often comes down to guesswork.

Following the raid on the Algerian gas plant, Belmokhtar'sgroup claimed responsibility for attacks in May on a militarybase and a French-run uranium mine in Niger, West Africa -despite a French-led military operation designed to driveIslamist militants out of neighbouring Mali.

Hansen suggested al Shabaab could attack other countrieswhich, like Kenya, contribute forces to the African Unionpeace-keeping mission in Somalia. "There is more to come. Theyhave the capacity; I think they will do it again. Ethiopia,Uganda and Burundi should watch their backs very carefully."

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