Al Qaeda’s Toughest Task
Slain jihadi leaders like Ilyas Kashmiri and Osama bin Laden aren't so easily replaced.
The reported death last week of Ilyas Kashmiri, the notorious jihadi leader — if true — is merely the latest in a long line of decapitations of al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Osama bin Laden fell a few weeks before him, and men described as "senior" or "important" leaders, like Baitullah and Abdullah Mehsud, Hamza Rabia, Mohammed Atef, Saeed al-Masri, and others, have fallen before them.
But does cutting the head off the snake really matter? Can’t they just be replaced by the next militant waiting in the wings?
Not so easily. Although the consensus among experts is often that the deaths of such tactically and ideologically important leaders do not destroy groups, their loss does have an effect. Kashmiri’s death will not herald the end of violence in Pakistan or the threat to the West, but it will reduce al Qaeda’s capacity to strike. Long-standing warrior leaders are important figures in the ideological clash against groups believing themselves in a millenarian struggle. Bringing the big men down will help accelerate their groups’ demise.
Leaders like Kashmiri, who lost a finger and an eye in the Afghan war against the Soviets, are able to provide inspiration through their biographies. His time as a fighter in Afghanistan and Kashmir gave him connections across groups and networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and gave him a reputation as a fierce warrior leader. He built this personal narrative and connections into a formidable network operating under the name 313 Brigade, in reference to the 313 companions who fought alongside the Prophet Mohammed at the Battle of Badr, and was named by Masri as the leader of al Qaeda in Kashmir. He was also clearly effective in providing direction to terrorist cells, as shown by his suspected involvement in the May 22 attack on Karachi’s naval base (his latest attack on the Pakistani state), strikes in India coordinated from his base in Pakistan, and his ambitious plan to attack newspaper offices in Copenhagen.
A similar portrait can be painted of bin Laden. His life story embodied the jihadi ideal of an Islamist warrior giving up everything to fight against the unbelievers. His strong connections to the community of wealthy Gulf Arabs with deep pockets and pro-jihadi sympathies strengthened his inspirational role and made him a prize asset for al Qaeda. Many other longtime leaders and warriors fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan — their histories and connections stretching back to before the current conflict — claim the same mythical status.
But Kashmiri and bin Laden will be hard to replace. Their historical roles as front-line warriors not only earned them credibility with other local militants, but also brought them into contact with the community of regional and global warriors, giving them tentacles around the world. Bin Laden’s network is well-known while Kashmiri’s is currently on display in Chicago, where a key trial witness named David Coleman Headley is highlighting connections between Kashmiri — seemingly his key al Qaeda contact — and cells in the United States, Britain, India, and Sweden.
New leaders tend to either be less strategically seasoned or prove unable to replicate the formula the old leader had. Al Qaeda in Iraq was never the same after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and Yemen’s Aden-Abyan Islamic Army never really survived the death of its leader Abu al-Hassan, instead becoming subsumed by regional al Qaeda-linked cells. In both cases, the deaths of leaders with contacts and celebrity deprived the groups of their appeal. This means fewer recruits, less funding, and less capacity to launch audacious plots. Spectacular attacks like May 22’s brazen assault on Karachi’s naval base, which some have linked to Kashmiri, require great nerve and audacity to pull off, driven by an inspirational figure who can convince fighters to die for the cause.
Technical skills also matter. Bomb-makers often prove to be an essential ingredient in making an effective terrorist organization. In Yemen, it may be Anwar al-Awlaki who provides the English-language narrative that is drawing young Western fighters to his side, but it is Ibrahim al-Asiri who is building the innovative bombs with which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to penetrate airport security. Both play key roles and, if removed, would damage their organization.
But neither of these individuals has the caliber or longevity of Kashmiri or bin Laden. Asiri’s technical skills, like those of numerous other master bomb-makers before him, are replicable: They can be written down, taught, and ultimately learned by others. Awlaki’s stirring rhetoric and message would be missed, but he has not yet managed to enter the pantheon of leaders of global jihadism and is still learning the ropes as a jihadi preacher.
When dealing with a terrorist organization like al Qaeda or Brigade 313, it is unlikely that what comes next is going to be any different from what came before. For this reason, it doesn’t much matter whether key jihadi leaders are eliminated, because their successors will likely follow the same radical path. Al Qaeda in Iraq may have been damaged by the death of its butcher-in-chief Zarqawi, and there is little evidence that the group has deradicalized in his absence.
But when dealing with a tribal insurgency like the Taliban, the radicalization that results from decapitating strikes can backfire. Those who follow are likely to be more radical than their predecessors and carry additional grudges that will impede them from putting down arms. The tribal codes that dictate life in Pakistan’s lawless provinces and Afghanistan often demand a response that may supersede reason.
Drone strikes and SEAL teams directed by strong intelligence are waging an effective war in bringing down key leaders in al Qaeda. With the deaths of bin Laden and Kashmiri — two irreplaceable giants of the global jihad — we can at least start to see the end of the core group hiding in Pakistan.
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