Worldfocus takes a look at the evolution of al-Qaeda into a fragmented network of jihadi terrorist elements, often united more by philosophy than by concrete linkages between AfPak and cells in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa and beyond.
The escalated drone war in northwest Pakistan has brought attention to the attenuated al-Qaeda core that moved from Afghanistan in late 2001.
But two events in late December — a failed Christmas Day bombing and a suicide attack on CIA operatives in Afghanistan — have led analysts to re-assess al-Qaeda’s perceived decline in popularity and power.
The somewhat resurgent organization is highly decentralized and relies more on a brand name and local franchises than on ideological, communications and operations control by the group’s top leaders.
An Asia Times commentary article from 2004 addresses the al-Qaeda brand name:
Legitimized by President George W Bush’s administration’s declaration of war, al-Qaeda has now become a global phantom, plagued by its own reputation and in need of solid ground. Indeed, the post-September 11 security environment finds al-Qaeda lacking not only a physical safe haven as it had in Afghanistan, but also the critical manpower and expertise that it had in the moments prior to September 11.
This, by any means, is not the end of al-Qaeda, however. The ultimate power in such groups is not necessarily the leadership, but always the cause that defines the legitimacy of the group and the leadership that guides it. Bin Laden’s existence, perhaps as it always has been, is largely political and symbolic – but will nevertheless remain a powerful source of his straining influence on various members of the global umma. Thus the “war on terror”, although controversial in many minds, has undermined both the conventional and unconventional abilities of al-Qaeda and its global entities…
In sum, the power of the al-Qaeda cause, once inherited and customarily altered from the Muslim Brotherhood, has remained close to the political spirit of many radical variations of Islam. The twist here is that the elimination of the “physical” al-Qaeda nexus and the resulting decentralization of its regional elements into like-minded, local leadership groups may ultimately prove more of stratagem advantage versus US policy than a vulnerability.
Then a 2005 BBC article examined the terrorist organization as a global, corporate franchise:
Most newspaper reports encourage us to visualize al-Qaeda as an army, with a high command; or perhaps as a multinational organization, with bin Laden as its chief executive officer and men like Ayman al-Zawahri as his senior management.
We are told that the Bali bombings, like those in London, Madrid and half a dozen other places since the attacks of 11 September 2001, “bear all the hallmarks of” al-Qaeda – formulaic language that has not varied since the days when the violence of the IRA and ETA was at its peak.
The implication is that its senior figures order these attacks, and that local operatives carry them out…
Just as you can buy the franchise for, say, a Holiday Inn or an Intercontinental Hotel, so you can adopt the principles of Osama bin Laden and set up your own deadly group, murdering those you identify as the enemies of the faith – and anyone else, of course, who happens to be passing at the time.
And an AP article from July 2009 compares al-Qaeda’s expansion to fast food franchising:
The al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is perhaps the best example of how al-Qaeda is morphing and broadening its reach through loose relationships with local offshoots. The shadowy network of Algerian cells recruits Islamist radicals throughout northern and western Africa, trains them and sends them to fight in the region or Iraq, according to Western and North African intelligence officials who asked to remain anonymous because of the nature of their jobs. In turn, AQIM gets al-Qaeda’s brand name and some corporate know-how.
“The relationship with the al-Qaeda mother company works like in a multinational,” says Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s former top counterterrorism judge and an expert on North African networks. “There’s a strong ideological link, but the local subsidiary operates on its own.”
Another Western intelligence official compares AQIM to a local fast food franchise, “only for terrorism.”
The Guardian published a piece in September 2009 — on the 8th anniversary of the September 11 attacks — about the organization’s perceived decline:
Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida is under heavy pressure in its strongholds in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas and is finding it difficult to attract recruits or carry out spectacular operations in Western countries, according to government and independent experts monitoring the organization…
Its activity is increasingly dispersed to “affiliates” or “franchises” in Yemen and North Africa, but the links of local or regional jihadi groups to the center are tenuous; they enjoy little popular support and successes have been limited.
Lethal strikes by CIA drones – including two this week alone – have combined with the monitoring and disruption of electronic communications, suspicion and low morale to take their toll on al-Qaeda’s Pakistani “core,” in the jargon of western intelligence agencies.
Interrogation documents seen by the Guardian show that European Muslim volunteers faced a chaotic reception, a low level of training, poor conditions and eventual disillusionment after arriving in Waziristan last year.
“Core” al-Qaida is now reduced to a senior leadership of six to eight men, including Bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to most informed estimates. Several other Egyptians, a Libyan and a Mauritanian occupy the other top positions. In all, there are perhaps 200 operatives who count.
Yet, after a failed Christmas Day bombing and a successful Khost attack on CIA operatives, The Economist ran a piece last month that refuted assumptions about al-Qaeda’s imminent demise:
ONLY a few months ago, intelligence experts were saying that al-Qaeda and its allies were in decline, both militarily and ideologically. But two bombs less than a week apart, one failed and the other successful, have put an end to such optimism.
The talk of al-Qaeda’s downfall did not come from thin air. In the view of many analysts, the network’s central leadership had been decimated through drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal belt; al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch was all but defeated; its brethren in Iraq were marginalized; and those in other regions could mount only local attacks. Al-Qaeda had failed to land a blow in the West since the London bombs of 2005. Funds were dwindling, and more Muslims were eschewing global terror.
Though still dangerous, “al-Qaeda is under more pressure, is facing more challenges and is a more vulnerable organisation than at any time since the attacks on 11 September 2001,” declared Mike Leiter, the director of America’s National Counterterrorism Center last September.
Such assessments are being hurriedly revised. Mr Leiter, Barack Obama’s favorite spook, is now among those having to explain why his newish organization, which is supposed to fuse all information on terrorist threats, failed to connect several partial warnings about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Nigerian student, who moved from London to Yemen last year, tried to set off explosives sewn into his underpants on board a Northwest Airlines flight, carrying 290 people from Amsterdam, as it prepared to land in Detroit on Christmas Day.
For more on al-Qaeda in Yemen, listen to Worldfocus Radio: Yemen’s Multiple Wars.
– Ben Piven