A number of developments from the "greater middle east" to west Africa highlights the varying fortunes of the al-Qaida movement over recent years. In Pakistan and Yemen, drone attacks on al-Qaida affiliates continue with an intensity that is little recognised outside military circles. This week, a senior al-Qaida intelligence specialist, Abu Ubaydah Abdullah al Alam, was reportedly killed in Pakistan, and in Yemen two paramilitary fighters were killed in Marib province, the third attack in six days.
In Somalia, the Shabaab movement is conceding territory to advancing African Union forces, as well as facing criticism from some radical Islamic scholars. In Iraq, however, groups allied to al-Qaida are on the offensive against government security forces and Shi'a communities.
In Syria, jihadist elements among the insurgents are gaining strength, a trend that parallels deep divisions in the more secular opposition forces. The United States is becoming ever more cautious about supplying the rebels, a stance that worries its Israeli ally, for Israel in particular fears that Bashar al-Assad's regime could eventually fall to an unstable coalition with a very powerful Islamist component.
Washington itself, though, has been able to draw a degree of relief from the dispersal of the al-Qaida "idea". Many of the newer “offshoots” appear to have nationalist rather than transnational agendas, even as they benefit from open routes of transnational cooperation. The jihadist groups may target western workers (as in the In Amenas raid in Algeria), and the possibility of attacks arising from within western cities remains (as indicated by the Boston incident). But a repeat of Madrid (2004) or London (2005), let alone 9/11, has been avoided. Indeed, few al-Qaida affiliates - Yemen apart - even pay much attention at present to the “far enemy” of the United States.
The Nigerian case
Yet this limited comfort may be deceptive, if developments in Nigeria are a guide. There, Boko Haram is continuing to evolve into one of the most potent of Islamist movements. The group, founded in 2002, rose to prominence following an attack on the police HQ in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, in 2009. In the aftermath its leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured by the army and handed over to the police, where he died in custody, becoming a martyr to its followers. Since 2009 Boko Haram has been active across the north (and particularly the northeast), but its operations further south include bombing the United Nations offices in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.
The very high death-toll in these years of fighting between security forces and Boko Haram, probably well over 3,000, owes much to the Nigerian security apparatus's tendency to use intense force in response to incidents. Some politicians call for negotiations, but the police and army see armed power as the only way is to defeat the movement. This approach is reflected in a military assault on Baga village on the shores of Lake Chad that reportedly left over 180 people dead and scores wounded, and 300 houses destroyed.
Despite such operations and other repression, however, Boko Haram shows few signs of wilting. Indeed, it has produced an offshoot called Ansaru, which has its own agenda as well as being prepared to work with the main body of Boko Haram.
Ansaru is far more transnational and less concerned with domestic issues. Its representatives have even said that it is unacceptable for groups such as Boko Haram to attack and kill other Nigerians. The splinter's dominant message is that Ansaru will move towards kidnapping foreigners and holding them for ransom, which can be a very profitable way of raising funds.
On its own this may appear a minor shift in a neglected conflict. But against the background of al-Qaida's wider disperal it could well turn out to be very significant.
Until around January 2013, al-Qaida could be characterised as a scattered if still potent idea, whose various loose affiliates (again excepting Yemen) tended to focus on their local struggles and eschew the idea of a global contest. The importance of Ansaru is that it embraces this wider concept in a way that echoes the ambition of the al-Qaida of more than a decade ago. If it persists and broadens its appeal, either in Nigeria or even in neighbouring countries, it could be the harbinger of "the post-al-Qaida world".
This provides one more reason why the Nigerian authorities might well try other approaches than reliance on heavy military force in addressing the problem of Boko Haram and now Ansaru. It is even more important for them to resist any offers of military help from the United States and Britain. The deployment of foreign special forces and armed-drones in Nigeria is all Ansaru needs to enable it to grow.