Five world deserts are caught up in the flames of civil war and revolution besetting the Middle East and Africa: the vast Sahel belt and Sahara, the dunes of the Arabian Peninsula, the rugged wastes of Sinai and the Syrian-Iraq desert, scene of the raging Syrian conflict.
This is because the proactive Al Qaeda and its offshoots have made desert regions their current arenas of choice for three geo-strategic reasons:
1. These barren regions were found ideal for their campaign to bounce back from the damage wrought the jihadist movement by the loss of its leader, Osama bin Laden two years ago.
From those havens, his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri has seized the golden opportunity offered by the civil wars in Libya and Egypt (2011), Syria (2011-2012) and Iraq (2005-2013), the Arab Revolt and the policies of the Obama administration and NATO members, and turned it into a grab for power in Muslim capitals.
This drive generated the extraordinary flurry of activity shown in recent months by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Syria-Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Al-Qaeda-led Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
2. Discounted by the West as a shattered movement forced to retreat to far desert corners where they are easily picked off by US drones, al Qaeda also used its remote havens for setting up vast arms smuggling networks nourished by the revolutionary mayhem in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
High quality weapons systems now flow on an unprecedented scale to trouble spots in the Middle East, Africa and the Persian Gulf, including for the first time chemical weapons, surface-to-surface missiles, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
Al Qaeda weapons stocks determine the outcome of wars
In short order, the five Al-Qaeda organizations procured a stock of tactical weapons comparable in size to many Middle East military arsenals. Their volume and quality give al Qaeda enough leverage to determine the outcome of ongoing armed conflicts. Primitive indigenous tribes of the desert “zones of silence” are empowered overnight by these smuggling networks with control over “roaring zones” which spit fire and threaten some of the world's richest countries, like Saudi Arabia.
3. Washington and the key NATO capitals of London, Paris and Rome, and the main Persian Gulf capitals – Riyadh, Doha and Dubai – can’t pretend they weren’t forewarned about the deleterious consequences of the Arab Revolt.
As early as the summer of 2011, the heavy weapons stocks piled up by the defeated Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi were grabbed by Touareg nomadic fighters from the Sahara as well as the Islamist tribes and militias of eastern Libyan Cyrenaica, which led the anti-Qaddafi revolt.
By diving into the weapons-smuggling labyrinth as suppliers of the Syrian rebel movement, the US and Qatar gave the five Al-Qaeda organizations added traction as pushers of the buttons controlling the smuggling traffic from their desert strongholds.
In this sense, the West and Arab rulers alike stood by as the five biggest desert regions of Africa and the Middle East were overrun by Al Qaeda organizations.
Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict spreads
The resurgence of al Qaeda’s jihad against the West is by now in full and shocking spate in one place after another. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources point to the turning-point in Benghazi where on Sept. 10, 2012, US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three aides were murdered; Al Qaeda’s revival in Egypt and near total domination of the Sinai Peninsula; Jabhat al-Nusra appearance as the most effective combat element of the anti-Assad Syrian rebel movement; the bloody hostage siege at the Algerian In Amenas natural gas plant in the Sahara; and the ascendancy of Ansar al-Sharia which defers directly to Zawahiri in eastern Libyan.
Were it not for French military intervention in January, al Qaeda and allies would have overrun the entire desert republic of Mali.
This turbulence is breaking out of its bounds and reviving four major “old” wars, so presaging the next chapter of the ongoing Arab Revolt in such places as:
Iraq: As the Syrian conflict begins its third year, neighboring Iraq is sliding into wide-ranging civil strife: Sunni Muslims and Kurds are carving out their own states in defiance of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and its Iranian wire-pullers;
Arab monarchies: The royal rulers of the oil-rich Persian Gulf and Jordan will soon be fighting for their lives. The first likely to succumb to insurgency is the tiny kingdom of Bahrain and its Al-Khalifa throne.
Sunnis versus Shiites: The Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict, already in full flow in Syria and Lebanon, is snapping at Baghdad.
Israel. Armed confrontations cannot be ruled out between Israel and the new Arab regimes – for instance, a clash with the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood over the terrorist-infested Sinai Peninsula, or armed hostilities with other Islamist extremist forces and militias associated with Iran or Al-Qaeda.
What will Obama say in Cairo Speech 2?
Barack Obama begins his first visit to Israel as US president Wednesday, March 20.
He has made a personal request to transfer the speech he was invited to give before the Israeli parliament (Knesset) on March 21, to the Jerusalem Convention Center which seats an audience of 3,000.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Jerusalem, the US president said he intended making a major policy speech from Jerusalem on the same lines as the historic address he delivered at Cairo University on June 4 to mark a new beginning for US relations with the Muslim world..
Obama is writing this “major speech” himself. Although it appears to be intended as a new message to the Middle East, its content is a closely guarded secret.
But the Middle East and the Muslim world have changed intrinsically since then. And, furthermore, in 2009, the US was still a major military presence in the region. That presence has shrunk substantially in the interim. It will be interesting to hear what the US president has to say in the aftermath of his dramatic pullback of American military resources from the region. And even more intriguing to see which Middle East rulers are still heeding him.