OZY on Global Hotspots and Al-Qaeda’s New Bad Guy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sure, the NSA scandals continue to dominate international news. But you should keep an eye on al-Qaeda and the Ukraine, too.
What do international insiders think about? Sometimes it’s not what’s in the headlines.
The aging and reclusive director of a small but once hugely influential international organization made a bold move last summer. He appointed an ambitious dark horse candidate as his apprentice, vaulting him ahead of the competition. Industry observers are keeping an eye on what this change will mean to the group, which made a profound impact in 2001 but has been struggling since the unexpected death of its founder two years ago.
Of course, this was no normal business transition when Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed Naser al-Wahishi as his general manager, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. At first glance, it just seemed like a promotion of another bad guy, but it really reflected a shift in how al-Qaeda is doing business.
The list includes cyberattacks, water shortages and population pressures, says former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin. But he also says to keep an eye on al-Qaeda, which is consolidating territory in northeast Syria, largely in and around the city of Raqqa. This represents a long-cherished dream of Osama bin Ladin’s successor, Ayman Zawahiri, who has always argued that al-Qaeda needs territory to train and plan operations. The ability of Jabhat al-Nusra to hang on to this ground depends on many things — future fighting, the strength of moderate forces, and whether the West can organize successful negotiations in Geneva on the country’s future (recently postponed again). Syria’s future is truly incalculable, but if the al-Qaeda affiliate can keep what it has, it will almost certainly begin to plan operations outside of Syria, to include Western targets.
Once the former Soviet Republic that was most closely connected to Russia — ethnically, linguistically and culturally — Ukraine is beginning to loosen its historic ties in favor of integration with Europe. But it’s not going smoothly. When Ukrainian President Yanukovich recently failed to sign an agreement that could have started the country down the path to eventual membership in the 28-member European Union, protestors hit the streets.
Why does this matter outside of Russia?
On one level, Ukraine’s gravitation to the West would be the death knell for Russian hopes of maintaining a dominant role among the constituent parts of the former Soviet Union, something Russian leaders have sought since the Union’s breakup, most recently in the form of a proposed customs union.
On a deeper level, a Ukrainian drift westward, especially if accompanied by the political reform that is the European Union’s trademark requirement for aspiring members, would show the Russian public that a society closely mirroring theirs does not have to accept the authoritarian policies that have become the norm in Russia. If Ukraine does join, it will mark a new frontier for the EU, which, despite its recent financial problems, is history’s most successful experiment in pooling sovereignty and spreading political liberalization.