Think Again: Al Qaeda

A year after Osama bin Laden's death, the obituaries for his terrorist group are still way too premature.  

Keep dreaming. Osama bin Laden was fond of recounting the following parable from the Quran to rally his followers in times of despair: A much-better-armed Christian army employed war elephants in a fearsome assault against Mecca, aspiring to destroy the Kaaba shrine, one of Islam's most sacred sites. But birds showered the Christian army with pellets of hard-baked clay, and the Arabs eventually defeated the invaders. To bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, this demonstrated that God was on their side -- even in the face of certain defeat.

Over the past decade, U.S. policymakers and pundits have repeatedly written al Qaeda's obituary. The latest surge of triumphalism came after bin Laden's killing a year ago. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panettaasserted that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda," while President Barack Obama proclaimed, "We have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat," and academic experts churned out a new wave of books with such bullish titles as The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda.

These declarations of victory, however, underestimate al Qaeda's continuing capacity for destruction. Far from being dead and buried, the terrorist organization is now riding a resurgent tide as its affiliates engage in an increasingly violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa. And for all the admiration inspired by brave protesters in the streets from Damascus to Sanaa, the growing instability triggered by the Arab Spring has provided al Qaeda with fertile ground to expand its influence across the region.

Al Qaeda's bloody fingerprints are increasingly evident in the Middle East. In Iraq, where the United States has withdrawn its military forces, al Qaeda operatives staged a brazen wave of bombings in January, killing at least 132 Shiite pilgrims and wounding hundreds more. The following week in Yemen, fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized the town of Radda, while expanding al Qaeda's control in several southern provinces. "Al Qaeda has raised its flag over the citadel," a resident told Reuters.

Beyond these anecdotes, several indicators suggest that al Qaeda is growing stronger. First, the size of al Qaeda's global network has dramatically expanded since the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia's al-Shabab have formally joined al Qaeda, and their leaders have all swornbayat -- an oath of loyalty -- to bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

These al Qaeda affiliates are increasingly capable of holding territory. In Yemen, for example, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited a government leadership crisis and multiple insurgencies to cement control in several provinces along the Gulf of Aden. Al Qaeda's affiliates in Somalia and Iraq also appear to be maintaining a foothold where there are weak governments, with al-Shabab in Kismayo and southern parts of Somalia, and al Qaeda in Iraq in Baghdad, Diyala, and Salah ad Din provinces, among others.

The number of attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates is also on the rise, even since bin Laden's death. Al Qaeda in Iraq, for instance, has conducted more than 200 attacks and killed more than a thousand Iraqis since the bin Laden raid, a jump from the previous year. And despite the group's violent legacy, popular support for al Qaeda remains fairly high in countries such as Nigeria and Egypt, though it has steadily declined in others. If this is what the brink of defeat looks like, I'd hate to see success. 

"Al Qaeda's Mergers Are a Sign of Weakness."

Wishful thinking. In recent years, al Qaeda leaders have consciously developed a strategy to expand their presence in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Rather than weakening the organization, this mergers-and-acquisitions strategy has been fairly successful in allowing al Qaeda to expand its global presence.

Today, al Qaeda has evolved from a fairly hierarchical organization at its 1988 founding to a more decentralized one composed of four main tiers. First, there's al Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan. Zawahiri took over as emir after bin Laden's death, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, the head of al Qaeda's religious committee, became his deputy. They are flanked by a new cast of younger operatives, such as Hassan Gul, Hamza al-Ghamdi, Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, and Abu Zayd al-Kuwaiti al-Husaynan -- figures charged with plotting al Qaeda operations, managing its media image, and developing its religious dogma.

Security concerns, however, have prohibited this core group -- al Qaeda Central -- from playing a major strategic and operational role. Its leaders can't meet together anymore, are unable to provide timely information or guidance to operatives, and spend an inordinate amount of time simply trying to survive. This reality makes the proliferation of al Qaeda franchises critical to the network's survival. Still, as documents seized from bin Laden's home in Abbottabad show, al Qaeda Central is not entirely isolated. It has remained in contact with its affiliates overseas and provided strategic advice on issues from leadership appointments to fundraising, as well as mandates for attacks. Before his death, bin Laden himself instructed deputies to focus "every effort that could be spent" on targeting the United States and even to plot the assassinations of Obama and Gen. David Petraeus.

The next tier of al Qaeda includes a growing list of affiliated groups in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, and Somalia. Al Qaeda's most recent merger was this February, when it publicly announced a formal relationship with Somalia's al-Shabab. These affiliates benefit from al Qaeda Central's ideological inspiration and guidance. Take al-Shabab. In announcing his group's official merger with al Qaeda, al-Shabab's emir, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair, gloated that his group's prestige had now been lifted in the jihadi world and beckoned Zawahiri to "lead us to the path of jihad and martyrdom that was drawn by our imam, the martyr Osama."

The third tier incorporates more than a dozen allied groups that remain formally independent but work with al Qaeda on operations when their interests converge. One example is Pakistan's Tehrik-i-Taliban, which, though focused on South Asia, has been involved in terrorist plots overseas, notably the failed 2010 attack in Times Square. Al Qaeda has assisted in several Tehrik-i-Taliban-led attacks, including the May 2011 siege of the Pakistan Navy's Mehran naval base in Karachi. In Nigeria, the Salafi group Boko Haram has emerged as an increasingly deadly threat -- most spectacularly killing more than 200 people in January -- and has also developed relations with al Qaeda. Since 2009, according to U.S. government officials in the region, Boko Haram operatives have traveled to Mali to train with members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in explosives manufacturing and suicide attacks.

Finally, al Qaeda draws on support from inspired networks -- groups and individuals that have no direct contact with al Qaeda Central but are motivated by the movement's cause and outraged by the perceived oppression of Muslims. Lacking direct support, these networks tend to be amateurish, if occasionally lethal. The quintessential example is Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major who in November 2009 gunned down 13 people and wounded 43 others at Fort Hood, Texas. There are more recent cases as well. In February 2011, Khalid Aldawsari was arrested in Lubbock, Texas, on charges of planning terrorist attacks after purchasing sulfuric acid, nitric acid, wires, and other bomb-making material. Last September, Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

Sure, al Qaeda's mergers could eventually create fissures among increasingly autonomous groups. For now, though, these mergers have allowed al Qaeda to survive -- and expand. 


April 28, 2012, Foreign Policy