WASHINGTON: Retired CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution think tank who has advised four US presidents, spoke to AFP about the evolution of Al-Qaeda since 2001.
Q: What is the state of Al-Qaeda since the attacks of September 11, 2001?
A: "We are witnessing today the evolution of the third generation of Al-Qaeda. Or what I refer to as Al-Qaeda 3.0.
"The first generation was the generation that created Al-Qaeda, right up to the attacks of September 11. The second generation dates roughly from the fall of the Taliban state in Afghanistan until the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab awakening.
"The third generation is what we're confronting now. It's in many ways a more dangerous threat than ever because Al-Qaeda, which didn't cause the Arab Spring nor did it anticipate it, has taken advantage of it.
"And in particular, it has taken advantage of the creation of large ungoverned, lawless spaces, like eastern Libya, northern Mali, the Sinai peninsula and increasingly significant parts of Syria, to set up safe havens and sanctuaries.
"So in effect, the third generation of Al-Qaeda now has more room for operational activity, training, plotting, than any Al-Qaeda that we've seen since the fall of the Taliban in 2001."
Q: Given that evolution, what should be the strategy of Western countries to counter this threat?
A: "There's no one solution that fits all of these. There has to be tailored approaches to each case. So in Mali, it's more than Mali. It's Mali, Libya, Algeria. There's going to have to be a strategy of first destroying the safe havens, which the French military is now embarked on doing in Mali. And then filling in these spaces with new governance. That's easy to say and extremely hard to do.
"Many of these places have never had good governance. Northern Mali, eastern Libya, Syria -- they have been ruled as police states for decades. And we certainly don't want to replace the old police states with new ones... But if we leave the Muslim world with a series of ungoverned spaces from North Africa to South Asia, Al-Qaeda will fill the space and will create sanctuaries that will threaten North America and Europe."
Q. How would you assess the threat posed then by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?
A: "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is the fastest growing of these franchises. It has an enormous safe haven in Mali, the size of Texas. And it's increasingly clear it has another safe haven in Libya. It is also well funded from the ransoms paid over the last decade to kidnappers and it's extremely well-armed from the arsenals of the Kadhafi regime.
"And it is attracting jihadists from around the world, from Pakistan, but also from across the Arab world, and increasingly from African countries south of the Sahara, like Nigeria.
"Although its immediate focus is local, they continue to have a focus attacking what they call the crusader Zionist entity. And for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the top of the list of targets is France."
Q: Does the hostage-taking at the Algerian gas plant represent a new tactic or is this nothing new really?
A: "Terrorists and Al-Qaeda in particular are frequently influenced by what they see other terrorists do. And the notion of taking hostages and bargaining is an old terrorist tactic. What was new in Algeria this month was targeting such a large natural gas facility.
"In the many years of jihadist terror in Algeria, we have not seen an attack on a facility of this size, of this sophistication, with this many terrorists involved from so many different places....It was a very sophisticated operation. And I fear that it is only a harbinger of more to come from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."
Q: The US approach has emphasized heavily the killing of senior figures in Al-Qaeda. Does that approach have to change?
A: "Targeting senior officials like Osama bin Laden is an important part of the strategy but it can't be the whole of the strategy. (...) There has to be nation-building and there has to be, above all, diplomacy, that seeks to address those issues that create the frustration.
"If you want to ultimately defeat Al-Qaeda, you have to address the issues that produce so much anger that fuels the volunteers of Al-Qaeda. And at the top of the list, not surprisingly, is the question of Palestine.
"The West has a vested interest in addressing the aspirations of Palestinians, not just because it is the morally right thing to do, but because it's in our own national security interests."