Is Al Qaida looking for someone's tailcoat to hang on to? The question is not fanciful.
In a little noticed statement posted on pro-Al Qaida websites last week the terrorist outfit announced an alliance with one of the deadliest armed groups in Algeria.
The Algerian outfit, known as the Salafi Group for Propagation and Armed Jihad (SGPJA), has been responsible for killing thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, over the past decade. By the year 2003, however, some experts believed that the SGPAJ had lost control of most of the "emirates" it had set up in a few remote corners of Algeria.
At one point there were even reports that its leader, one Hassan Hatab, had been killed and his chief deputies captured by government forces.
Many SGPAJ's ghazis (holy raiders) had fled to Morocco, Niger and Mauritania where they went underground. Dozens made their way to Europe, especially Spain, France and Belgium where they have been waiting for a fresh call to jihad.
According to French sources the SGPAJ may have the largest number of "sleepers" in continental Europe backed by a well-established network of money laundering and arms smuggling.
In his recent talks with the Bush administration, France's Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, singled out the SGPJA and its smaller ally the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) as the deadliest terrorist threats to Europe today.
So, why would Al Qaida want to forge an alliance with the SGPAJ that has so far not shown much interest in operations outside Algeria?
One reason may be that Al Qaida, having lost much of its logistics networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, might be looking to SGPAJ to help it make up the loss by offering it facilities in Europe and North Africa.
Another reason may be the ascendance of the so-called "regionalists" in Al Qaida's internal debate. The "regionalists" argue that the 9/11 attack against the United States was premature, and that Al Qaida should have focused on winning control of several Muslim countries before starting a war against the "infidel".
The "regionalists" wanted Al Qaida to use Afghanistan as a base from which to seize control first of Pakistan and then of Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, a couple of other oil-rich states.
The "regionalist" option, was initially advocated by Abdullah Al Azzam, Al Qaida's spiritual founder in the 1980s.
In his treatise on jihad, Al Azzam expressly limited "holy war" to Muslim lands under non-Muslim occupation or impious rule. He wrote: "Jihad today is individually obligatory (fard 'ayn), by self and wealth, on every Muslim and the Islamic community remains sinful until the last piece of Islamic land is freed from the hands of the infidel."
That view was rejected by the "globalist" group as early as the mid-1990s. The "globalists" claimed that the most efficient way of waging jihad was to attack the "infidel" in their heartland, thus forcing them to end their support for existing Muslim governments. Once that support is gone, so the argument went, Al Qaida could seize power in a number of Muslim states.
Although any rigid divisions within Al Qaida leadership may be misplaced, it is generally assumed that the Egyptian Ayman Al Zawahiri is the standard-bearer of the "regionalists" while Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden represents the "globalists".
Over the past five years Bin Laden's direct influence on the jihadist movement has faded and Al Zawahiri's has increased.
This may be one reason for the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan where Mullah Mohammad Omar, backed by Al Qaida's Pakistani branch, is seeking to set up a mini-emirate in the desolate wastelands bordering Iran and Pakistan in alliance with the Pushtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The problem with Al Zawahiri's "regionalist" scenario is that Al Qaida has lost much of the sympathy and support it once enjoyed amongst Islamist groups from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent.
The Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the oldest fundamentalist group in modern Islam, began distancing itself from Al Qaida in the early 1990s, opening the path for a new strategy for winning power through permeation, infiltration and elections rather than violence and terror. Today, the largest branches of the Brotherhood, in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territory, go out of their way to demarcate themselves from Al Qaida.
The next Islamist group to reject Al Qaida after 9/11 was the Sudanese National Islamic Front (NIF) whose leader Hassan Al Turabi had concluded an alliance with Bin Laden in 1993.
More recently, Al Qaida has come under attack from the Egyptian Islamic Society (Gama'a Islamiyah), a terrorist outfit that assassinated president Anwar Sadat and fought the government for two decades.
In a book entitled Islam And The Way of War, the Gama'a, to which Al Zawahiri once belonged, rejects every aspect of Al Qaida's ideology as "anti-Islamic". It says that killing civilians on any excuse is murder and those responsible, far from being martyrs, are destined for the "lowest recesses of hell". The book condemns suicide bombings, the chopping of heads and the seizure of hostages.
The Gama'a even endorses cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims against aggressors, and, as an example, cites the Saudi-American alliance against Saddam Hussain in 1991 to liberate Kuwait. More significantly, perhaps, the Gama'a declares that : "No one has the right to describe another Muslim as impious".
The "regionalist" strategy has suffered other setbacks.
Despite slaughtering large numbers of civilians in Iraq, the insurgents allied to Al Qaida have made no political gains. They were unable to prevent any of the municipal, parliamentary and constitutional elections held since 2003 and failed to sabotage the transition of power to a governing council and, later, to an elected government in Baghdad.
They have also failed to prevent the creation of a new Iraqi army and police that are growing in strength and experience every day. The insurgents have also failed to break the morale of the American people and force a cut-and-run posture on the Bush administration.
It is not only in Iraq that the jihadists have suffered large losses without making any political headway. In Saudi Arabia, almost all of Al Qaida's cells in the key region of Qasim have been destroyed. By the latest count over 800 terrorist have been killed since 2002 and many more captured. A "re-education" programme to bring Al Qaida operatives back to normal life has helped hundreds of young men shed their jihadist past since 2005.
The recent resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has not produced any happier results for the "regionalist" strategy. Although the Taliban have given Nato forces a run for their money, they themselves have suffered losses at levels that cannot be sustained for long.
Al Qaida's alliance with the SGPAJ is an act of desperation.
Al Zawahiri may want to revive the terrorist campaign in Algeria or, perhaps, heat things up in Morocco and Tunisia. He may even dream of spectacular operations in western Europe in the hope of reviving Al Qaida's fading fortunes. His strategy, however, is as doomed as that of Bin Laden who had assumed that he could become master of the world with a few spectacular raids against the "infidel".
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.