An end to Osama, not al-Qaida

I had trouble getting as enthusiastic as my fellow Americans over the news of the assassination of Osama bin Laden by US forces. This is definitely good news, a major morale booster for America and a win for the American intelligence agencies and personnel involved. However, I couldn’t bring myself to dance in the streets, like my fellow New Yorkers were in the early hours of Monday morning, because my assessment, which is shared by many others, is that bin Laden’s death is at this point just a minor victory in the greater fight against terrorism.
This is a conclusion that is not hard to reach after analyzing the way al-Qaida has morphed in the years following 9/11. When al-Qaida had a safe haven in Sudan and then Afghanistan, they were more centralized and structured. In Afghanistan, al-Qaida could meet, plot and train, but this all came to an end with the US-led invasion in late 2001. Although the invasion led to a major transformation of how al-Qaida operated, the idea that the organization needed to decentralize was envisioned before 9/11 by a terrorist visionary that is less well known to Western audiences than bin Laden.
al-Qaida’s transformation into what it is today can be traced back to a Syrian named Abu Musab al-Suri. His story, and how he became a rival of bin Laden, explains the internal dynamics of al-Qaida and why it remains a threat today even after bin Laden’s death. Al-Suri argued that al-Qaida needed to operate in a more decentralized manner, with cells operating autonomously. Al-Suri himself operated somewhat autonomously within the al-Qaida framework, operating his own training camps within Afghanistan teaching his own jihadist philosophy. As a former member of a radical wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, al-Suri is considered radical by his al-Qaida colleagues.
According to al-Suri’s plan, the central leadership of al Qaeda would serve as a glue and attacks carried out by cells around the world should be credited to al-Qaida to give a sense of a unified front against Islam’s enemies. As my friend Jason Wiseman writes in his “Security Brief” blog in Konekt, al-Qaida “acts as a fast-moving entity that associates and dissociates itself with local elements while maintaining its global character.” Wiseman also outlines how al-Qaida’s current, decentralized strategy plays out: “a single trainer recruits others to form an al-Qaeda cell, the trainer will continue to travel and set up 3-5 autonomous cells in different locations. Only the trainer knows about the other cells and its members. Once these cells have been formed, the trainer will engage in a suicide operation, erasing the link between the cells.” This is al-Suri’s vision, not bin Laden’s. Central al-Qaida is just to give an appearance of a major force of global jihad, not an operational strategy.
The type of terrorism that much of the Western world today is dealing with is homegrown terrorism, and the trend is continuing in that direction. On the flip side, because al-Qaida no longer has a central location from which to operate, a major 9/11-scale attack is more difficult for them to undertake. Interestingly, al-Suri actually was opposed to the 9/11 attacks for that very reason; it led to the US assault on al-Qaida’s territory and the destruction of its operational headquarters. (Experts believe al-Suri was unaware of planning for the 9/11 attacks, and his criticism came after the event.) Despite his objection, al-Suri still wanted to publicize bin Laden as al-Qaida’s leader simply for appearances to help al-Qaida recruit using bin Laden’s star power.
Today, al-Qaida is more of a global ideology than anything else. When an “al Qaeda offshoot” claims an attack, it’s more likely that they simply support al Qaeda’s goal of global jihad rather than have actually worked with anyone in the group’s leadership. Terrorism analyst, Dr. Boaz Ganor, in an analysis piece in the Jerusalem Post writes that these offshoots, many of which are around the Arabian Peninsula and headquartered in Yemen “were more active in recent years and are perhaps more dangerous than the core al-Qaida group whose leadership was busy worrying about self-preservation.” Indeed, al Qaida’s core has been less active, but their followers continue in their path.
I couldn’t get too excited about bin Laden’s death, because, in the end, it doesn’t change much in the realm of global security and counter-terrorism. The death of a mass murderer is a good thing, but while bin Laden is gone, his violent vision of a global confrontation between Islam and the rest of the world lives on. And this ideological goal mixed with al-Suri’s decentralized operational strategy has combined to give us the al-Qaida and homegrown terrorism that we know today. As Dr. Ganor writes, “Inspired by al-Qaida leaders, independent homegrown terrorists personally incite and initiate suicide operations but do so without direction from or operational connection to al-Qaida.”
While Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaida, its ideology, and the threat is poses, is certainly not.
For more from this author, visit The Big Ben Theory.
Much of the information here stems from “Abu Musab Al Suri: Architect of the New al-Qaida,” by Paul Cruickshank and Mohannad Hage Ali and can be here.