MLI Commentary – Keep momentum in the Arab Spring and al Qaeda on the run: Canada’s new Middle East mission
November 28, 2011, Ottawa, ON – The missing weapons in Libya and the ensuing risk that these weapons could land in the hands of al Qaeda have highlighted serious security issues for Canada and other Western countries. In a new study released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Halting al Qaeda’s African Rebound, author Alex Wilner analyzes these security issues in light of the political upheaval in North Africa and Osama bin Laden’s demise.
Wilner says, “Al Qaeda has suffered some setbacks, but how significant these setbacks truly are and how well al Qaeda manages its immediate future will partly depend on how the West responds to shifting regional dynamics. If Canada wants to stall al Qaeda’s regional rebound, it will have to work with its friends and allies to build on recent counterterrorism successes and keep al Qaeda on the run.”
He offers three recommendations on how Canada and its allies can contain and defeat al Qaeda:
1. Canada and its allies should help consolidate the changes sweeping the Arab world. Doing so would be in their best interest and would simultaneously ensure that al Qaeda cannot easily recuperate. The West should, where feasible, support democracy movements in the region with technical assistance, expertise, and advice. Since democracy will falter without fiscal, economic, managerial, and monetary improvements, it should help liberalize and modernize Arab economies by offering financial assistance and loans along with the trade and investment opportunities already pledged by the G8.
2. Canada must proactively assist international efforts to locate, secure, and destroy Libya’s missing missiles. Ottawa has already signalled its intention to do so. In addition, Canada can play a part by sending specialized mine-clearing teams and other technical and explosives experts to Libya to help track and dispose of these weapons. Canada can also offer assistance to other African countries and help them build the infrastructure they need to better police and monitor their borders.
3. The West would be wise to maintain pressure on al Qaeda to ensure the organization cannot easily rebuild. Al Qaeda’s leaders must be captured or killed and the organization continuously harassed. Also, NATO and its allies must not conflate bin Laden’s death with victory in Afghanistan. Departing Afghanistan (or for that matter, Iraq) prematurely or leaving too few soldiers on the ground to consolidate hard-fought gains risks giving al Qaeda and its allies too much room to manoeuvre. Any exit strategy must ensure that local police and military forces are able and willing to fill the security void Western forces will leave. For Canada, which has already begun withdrawing its combat forces from Afghanistan, ensuring other security personnel, like trainers and advisors, are in place and prepared to train Afghan security personnel is critical.
Wilner concludes, “The bottom line is that al Qaeda’s future does not rest in its hands alone. If Canada and its allies build on recent counterterrorism successes, like the elimination of bin Laden, they will further weaken the organization’s capabilities. And if they can help consolidate democratic gains in the Arab and Muslim world they will have eliminated al Qaeda’s broader regional appeal. But if the West instead uses bin Laden’s death to prematurely declare victory over al Qaeda or if it fails to properly nurse the evolving Arab Spring, it will have given al Qaeda and its regional affiliates and allies all the reason to welcome, rather than fear, the future.”
Alex Wilner is a senior fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland. He is author of Halting al Qaeda’s African Rebound, recently released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
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