What does Zawahiri really want?

Jawed Naqvi
AS propagandists of the so-called Islamic State continued to revel in the beheadings of helpless men this week — a British aid worker in their custody being the latest casualty — it was equally alarming to hear a reference to Aafia Siddiqui by the masked killer of Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist to be decapitated.
Through Sotloff’s killer on Sept 2, the terrorist group told the US to release Aafia among its other demands. The suspected Al Qaeda member is currently serving an 86-year prison sentence in Texas for the attempted murder of US officials in Afghanistan.
For President Obama, directly addressed by Sotloff’s killer in the grisly video, swapping the American-educated Aafia who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received a doctorate from Brandeis University would be more or less unthinkable.
She was arrested allegedly with documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs. A plan even more invisible to her quarries and thus easier to deploy, found Aafia, it has been reported, with a detailed manual on how to weaponise Ebola.
The eventual purpose of the material she was caught with was to target symbols of American power in major American cities. The idea was to cause maximum damage and to spread terror.
Now that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current Al Qaeda chief, has expanded his focus to South Asia as the new theatre of his group’s evolving strategy, all concerned countries in the cross hairs need to perhaps sit up and ponder counter measures. South Asia’s capacity to cope with any major emergency has been shown as ordinary if not dismal.
There are, of course, the all-knowing security pundits who would ignore or have already dismissed as far-fetched Zawahiri’s televised threat to India, Bangladesh and Burma, with Pakistan and Afghanistan already under his active gaze.
For example, we have heard a few experts suggesting that Zawahiri was merely responding to the self-declared Islamic State’s military successes, which was projecting itself as the new terror hub for zealots. In other words, in their view, Al Qaeda was a virtually jobless entity. That’s why it needed to do or say something dramatic.
That may be so. But Aafia Siddiqui was linked with Al Qaeda when she was caught with her destructive plans. It hardly diminishes the lethal potential the terrorism carries if she is today on the Arab group’s agenda, enough to make them kill innocent men to press for her release. Several questions can be asked in this regard. Where did Aafia get the purported Ebola weaponisation plan from?
Going by a book I quoted in a recent column on the outbreak of Ebola in western Africa, there appear to be two obvious sources from where the details could be acquired. Here, the US and the former Soviet Union countries are easy suspects. If there was a third source, where did it originate? And how close were the Al Qaeda experts to putting their alleged plans into action when Ms Siddiqui was arrested?
South Asia’s capacity to cope with any major emergency has been shown as ordinary if not dismal, the ongoing flood havoc on both sides of Kashmir being a case in point. Ironically, more than the grudging resources of their respective governments, the affected citizens have leaned on the more efficient caregivers from private bodies, not excluding religious and political bigots themselves.
This is not to say that all is hunky dory in the West, credited as it is with better resources and ability to deploy them when needed. Suffice it to say, that last year, officials at a maximum-security research lab in Texas lost a vial of an obscure virus, which they considered to be a potential bio-terror tool.
The officials claimed, however, that the missing virus was most likely to have been destroyed and therefore posed no further danger. In a similar incident elsewhere in the United States more recently, the BBC reported how a number of long-forgotten deadly microbes have been uncovered in US government laboratories.
It said the substances were found in a hunt triggered by the accidental discovery in July of vials of smallpox at a lab in the National Institutes of Health near Washington. The search for “unregulated toxic substances” was initiated after the apparent discovery of long-forgotten vials of smallpox in July.
The disease was officially declared eradicated in the 1980s. What is the United States doing with lethal viruses in its laboratories?
There is after all a global pact led by the major powers that prohibits any future recourse to chemical or biological warfare.
The pact, however, doesn’t prohibit the use of such viruses for medical research, for example, to make vaccines.
There is absolutely nothing wrong if in this era of lingering mistrust between nations, everyone is prepared for a surprise by the other.
That could be a reason why President Obama has ordered the deployment of military as opposed to civilian caregivers to be situated in Ghana from where they would try to contain the Ebola outbreak in western Africa. Handing over precious antidotes developed for an entirely different kind of contingency to civilian caregivers could undermine America’s own security.
If we notice carefully, the president has also alerted his nation about a possibility that the virus could mutate into a more readily communicable germ, a reference not entirely bereft of its dire import. South Asia is one of the world’s most insecure regions, not the least because the region is crawling with nuclear weapons, worse, without a plan in sight on how to deal with any inherent eventuality.
Zawahiri’s threat could be an opportunity to end sectarian and religious differences he could exploit for goodness knows what purpose.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Courtesy : Dawn