The Real State of Play

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On the 2 of January 2010 US President Barack Obama made a statement that sounded eerily like George W. Bush’s in both tone and content. Obama, in his weekly address from the White House, outlined the steps his administration had taken to protect the safety and security of the American people, emphasizing his unwavering commitment to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.” President Obama’s statement was a response to two bombings that occurred less than a week apart in December 2009. The first was the attempted bombing of the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The second was the successful suicide attack by Khalil Abu Mulal Al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor, in Khost, Afghanistan. Embarrassingly, Al-Balawi, who was sent by the CIA to Pakistan in order to infiltrate Al-Qaeda’s top leadership, killed seven Americans and a Jordanian intelligence officer along with himself and is now believed to have been working as a triple-agent for the ISI, CIA and Al-Qaeda.

These two attacks have once again raised questions about the state of Al-Qaeda and its allies, both thought to be in decline since early to mid-2008. In 2009 for instance, U.S. officials consistently emphasized the group’s unprecedented losses of mid-level to senior commanders as a direct result of concerted drone attacks in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Analysts believed that the decimation of this leadership, which included leaders like Biatullah Mehsud who were evidently instrumental in providing Al-Qaeda a safe haven in the region, had seriously damaged the organization and hampered its ability to effectively target the West.

However, Osama bin Laden’s recent audio tape, “From Osama to Obama,” aired in late January on Al-Jazeera, not only hailed Abdulmutallab as a hero but also claimed that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attempted Christmas bombing. Given that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had already claimed responsibility for both orchestrating the attack and training Abdulmutallab, some US intelligence officials believe that this statement is a poor attempt by Bin Laden, who has been relegated to a mere figurehead, to prove that he directly commands the organization’s many off-shoots.

The accuracy of this claim is questionable, considering these are the same analysts who had announced Al-Qaeda’s sharp decline. Is Al-Qaeda really on the wane or does it still possess the ability to threaten and target the West and its interests? Any attempts to answer such questions must begin with an understanding of the true nature of what is a resilient and adaptable organization.

Steve Coll, in a testimony before the US House Armed Services Committee on 27 January 2010, categorized Al-Qaeda as being “an organization, a network, a movement or ideology, and a global brand.” Indeed, it is this very elasticity that makes Al-Qaeda as virulent and dangerous as it is today. The Al-Qaeda core has been characterized by a rigorous consistency in its function and goals. From its conception, over 21 years ago to date, the Al-Qaeda core has held true to its bylaws, committee structures and rules for succession. Its foundational leaders, bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have consistently lead the organization in its original efforts to inspire a wider global jihad by bringing together like-minded individuals in a joint struggle against Western dominance and apostate regimes. While the nature of this deliberately constructed network has varied over time, the original aim of igniting a global jihad has remained at the heart of both the organization’s ideology and its methodology.

The Al-Qaeda network too has changed both in its shape and its geographical area of influence as the “core” has cunningly exploited emerging security vacuums but also as the fortunes of its many affiliated groups have waxed and waned.  At the turn of this century for instance, Al-Qaeda’s critical power center was located in Southeast Asia, while in 2005 it held great sway in North Africa and Iraq. Today, it is strongest in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. While the core’s relationship with each regional group varies considerably it is amply clear that these groups are either core-related or core-inspired.

“Core-related” groups are those that have taken a bayat (an oath of allegiance) to bin Laden that has been acknowledged by the higher echelons of the leadership, as in the case of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), or indeed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Then there are those groups that may be related but have not taken a bayat, such as Al-Shabab in Somalia, as well as those that may have historical connections to Al-Qaeda, such as the Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba. Theses groups not only shared training camps with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but also sent its fighters to assist Al-Qaeda in Iraq. On the whole, core-related groups tend to have had some form of contact with the core, either through training-camps, funding or sometimes even joint operations. 

“Core-inspired” groups, on the other hand, tend to lack this contact and are often self-taught and self-radicalized. This is in itself a testament to the power of Al-Qaeda’s ideology, which has emerged as a global brand primarily due to the organization’s systematic propaganda campaign. In an intercepted letter from Al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in 2005 the former declared: “More than half the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media. We are in a media race for hearts and minds.”

Indeed, Al-Qaeda has successfully distributed its ideology to a global audience through the Internet. As a result, while individual recruits may never meet any core leaders, they are actively inspired, radicalized and recruited in any number of settings. It is precisely this media savvyness that makes Al-Qaeda so resilient as it allows the organization’s ideology of transnational violence to be effectively communicated to multiple disaffected audiences around the globe.

This all brings us back to the key question: Given these multiple manifestations what really is the state of Al-Qaeda? Perhaps most crucially, does it or any of its arms retain the capacity to inflict serious damage upon their perceived enemies? It is clear that Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-related groups remain committed to striking the Western world and targeting what they see as apostate regimes. But it is also clear that there has been a sharp decline in political and ideological support for Al-Qaeda and its ideology in the Muslim world.

A great part of this drop is rooted in the organization’s indiscriminate use of violence against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Yet, despite this declining support, and irrespective of the many multi-faceted, multi-pronged counter-terrorism strategies being adopted by various countries across the Middle East and the West, as long as Al-Qaeda’s ideology holds sway with even the smallest fraction of individuals that it can successfully recruit and train, it will retain the potential to inflict serious damage to life and property. This suggests that, as in the past, while there may be shifts in regional focus, and ebbs and flows in operational ability, as long as recruits are willing to travel to safe havens and security vacuums across the world, Al-Qaeda will endure. Perhaps then it is time we took Zawahiri’s words more seriously and made concerted efforts to win some hearts and minds.

Rashmi Singh - Lecturer in Terrorism Studies at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St. Andrews