Al-Qaeda refines its new fighting spirit
KARACHI - As Washington prepares to reposition itself in Iraq with more forces and resources, al-Qaeda too is shaping its transformation from an ideological movement into a physical entity. This would serve as an umbrella to unify resistance movements in preparation for a decisive battle against the "infidel" West.
Away from the high-tech world and sophisticated war machines, in the mountain vastness of al-Qaeda's hideouts in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, this process is already well under way. 
Al-Qaeda's harrowing experiences after its retreat from Afghanistan in 2001 and during military operations in the Pakistani tribal areas of Waziristan cost it hundreds of arrests and casualties.
As a result, al-Qaeda reformed its tunnel vision and concluded that it should concentrate fighters in small pockets to establish tiny "kingdoms of heaven" all over the Islamic world, instead of becoming involved in global fights against US targets.
The strategy finally began to pay off in 2006 in Afghanistan and Iraq, where leading amirs (commanders) are in place, although the losses of foreign forces are fewer than al-Qaeda might have expected. This process, therefore, is still in the phase of implementation.
Crucially, though, al-Qaeda has evolved from an "idea" with a small group of followers into a tangible physical entity, especially in Iraq, where the resistance is on course to be fully taken over by al-Qaeda. The execution of Saddam Hussein will help al-Qaeda become the unifying force of all Iraqi warring segments, very much like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Using Afghanistan and Iraq as springboards, al-Qaeda aims to unite all ideological allies under one strategic platform where their thoughts become al-Qaeda's. This, it is believed, will give them the courage to face down the "demon" US war machine that has kept them cowed in the past. The example is the new-found harmony between Pashtun tribes and the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda has targeted what it sees as the repugnant association of ruling establishments and Islamists in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These will be the new and broader fronts of wars fought under a structured al-Qaeda command.
Reading between the lines of statements issued last month by three pillars of al-Qaeda confirms this development. These were made by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq; Taliban leader Mullah Omar from Afghanistan; and Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's deputy leader.
Mullah Omar reaffirmed the Taliban's plan for attacks in southwestern Afghanistan in the spring as a prelude to laying siege to Kandahar city and then unseating the US-backed administration of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
Baghdadi's speech, delivered two days before Saddam's hanging, points to al-Qaeda having practically taken over command of the Iraqi resistance. Any US idea of negotiating with former Iraqi army generals for a ceasefire was dispelled. This was reinforced by Zawahiri, who stressed that al-Qaeda was the only player with whom the occupation forces could talk in Iraq.
Significantly, though, Zawahiri warned of the struggle being broadened to neighboring regions once the Afghan and Iraqi struggles were successful.
To do this al-Qaeda has had to refine its appeal.
Al-Qaeda gained immediate popularity in much of the Muslim world after the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, some jihadist groups maintained a distance from al-Qaeda, despite its strong anti-Americanism, and refused to provide it support or protection.
There were various reasons for this. In Pakistan, the jihadist groups were close to the establishment and were not permitted to associate with al-Qaeda. Others felt that if they subscribed to al-Qaeda's program, their specific causes, such as Kashmir, would be harmed. This was true also of groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and outfits in Asia.
Under the United States' squeeze and international pressure as part of the "war on terror", though, the armed struggles in Kashmir and Palestine have slowed and the issue of harming the immediate cause has become secondary. The chill of distant enmity toward the US transformed into immediate hatred, and al-Qaeda was ready to harness these feelings.
The first manifestation of this was the Pakistani military operations in Waziristan from 2003 to last year to root out "foreign elements" and al-Qaeda-linked people. Many disengaged militants from the Kashmir struggle were persuaded to join with al-Qaeda, and they established strong pockets of resistance against the Pakistan armed forces. This has proved to be a valuable source of men, money and arms for al-Qaeda.
This was the starting point of al-Qaeda's transformation into a physical entity to bring together myriad resistance movements for its battle against the West.
The idea, though, is not to draw individuals together under one al-Qaeda banner. Rather, contradictions between the various organizations, like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Pakistan and the Jamaat-i-Islami, will be reconciled, especially as al-Qaeda considers that they indulge too much in election politics.
The appeal will be wide open to pro-Islamic segments in the ruling establishments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Pakistan to side clearly with al-Qaeda.
First, though, the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq have still to be won.
1. Al-Qaeda goes back to base, Asia Times Online, November 4, 2005; Armed and dangerous: Taliban gear up Asia Times Online, December 22, 2005; The Taliban's bloody foothold in Pakistan , Asia Times Online, February 8, 2006.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]