Al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan
Al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan Reuters

On Tuesday, Al Qaeda officially claimed responsibility for two separate mass-jailbreaks in Iraq which freed around 500 senior terrorists, some of whom were on death row for their role in deadly attacks against civilians and security forces.

In an online statement, the group claimed that Sunday's attacks were the final one in a campaign to free Al Qaeda prisoners and target justice system officials, and that they were preceded by "months" of delicate planning. Iraqi officials had initially denied that any prisoners had escaped, but were forced to backtrack as the sheer scale of the jailbreak became clear.

At least 20 security guards died in that attack, and Iraqi government officials have expressed concern that the scores of freed terrorists may seek to exact vengeance on the security services, further fueling the continuing instability and bloodshed in the country.

Wider implications

The injection of such a large body of veteran Islamist fighters may also have ramifications for the wider region, in particular the Syrian civil war, where Al Qaeda in Iraq recently merged with local radical groups to create the larger Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Levant) or ISIS. 

This latest, highly sophisticated attack by the group's Iraqi branch lends support to the findings of a report released yesterday by the Christian Science Monitor. Citing a study by the RAND Corporation, the report notes that 13 years on from former US President George W Bush's "War on Terror," Al Qaeda is in fact growing.

Western governments have indeed inflicted serious casualties over that period - from the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, to drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, French military intervention in Mali, and of course the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. In addition, other Al Qaeda affiliates such as Al Shabab in Somalia have recently suffered serious reversals on the battlefield.

Furthermore, the report does indicate that the direct threat to western states from Al Qaeda has at least been contained - 98% of Al Qaeda attacks between 1998 and 2011 have occurred outside of the west.

Instead, the group's objectives are becoming increasingly "local" - including the establishment of independent stateletes, or "Emirates," ruled by strict Islamic law (sharia). Some of ISIS's most recent clashes in Syria have been with secular Kurdish nationalists, who oppose the establishment of such Emirates, as they conflict with their own plans for an autonomous Kurdish region.

Threat to the west

In spite of western successes on the battlefield, the dismantlement of much of central Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has simply encouraged the group's various franchises to work autonomously, turning to what remains of "central" Al Qaeda - led by Ayman al Zawahiri - for "advice," as opposed to direct orders. That change of strategy has allowed the Al Qaeda "brand" to spread and proliferate much more effectively.

The threat to the west has not entirely dissipated either.

For example, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa) has been implicated in attacks on western foreigners, including the assault on the US embassy in Benghazi which killed the US's Libyan Ambassador; and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (based in Yemen) is still identified by the US as a very real threat to western security.

However, in keeping with the overall thrust of the report, the greatest threat to western nations mostly likely comes from a portion of their own citizens. In recent years, attacks such as the Fort Hood massacre and Boston Bombings in the US, and the Toulouse Massacre and recent public beheading of a British soldier in Europe have turned attention towards "home grown" extremists.

But the greatest threat is not strictly "home grown." The presence of hundreds (at least) of western Islamist fighters in Syria raises the question of what will happen when these well-trained and battle-hardened fighters return to their countries of origin. Only this week a US passport was found in an abandoned Al Qaeda base in Syria, and that is but the tip of the iceberg. The continued resurgence of Al Qaeda in that very region coupled with a western reluctance to intervene militarily raises the alarming prospect of a "new Afghanistan" - a haven for Islamist radicals from across the globe to receive training, indoctrination and battlefield experience.

And then, of course, there is Israel.

The growing strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, as well as intermittent jihadist activity in the Sinai Peninsula, may yet place Israel at the frontline of the battle against Al Qaeda. Israel has already engaged sporadically with Al Qaeda-inspired groups in Gaza, but despite the anti-Israel rhetoric of the group's leaders, the two sides have yet to come face-to-face on the battlefield.

That may yet change, and - given their own unwillingness to intervene - western leaders may find themselves increasingly reliant upon the only stable democracy in the Middle East to uphold their own security.