How the franchise operations of the world's most infamous terrorist organization became more potent than the mothership.
Ever since launching the war on terror in 2001, the United States has struggled to define — let alone defeat — what has proved to be a maddeningly amorphous enemy. Al Qaeda, once a relatively defined and hierarchical group, has metastasized into a multinational movement with franchise operations in at least 16 countries, from Mali to Syria, Yemen to Nigeria. These so-called affiliates have largely replaced the Pakistan-based mothership — now known as "al Qaeda core" or "al Qaeda central" — as the driving force of global jihad. That distinction, between the original terrorist group and its offshoots, has recently grown in political significance as U.S. President Barack Obama touts his decimation of al Qaeda’s "core leadership" — even if each new start-up renders that victory less and less reassuring.
After years of supporting the Afghan mujahideen, Osama bin Laden and some of his top associates meet in a suburb of Peshawar, Pakistan. With Soviet forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, the idea of a global jihad suddenly seems possible, and al Qaeda, literally "the Base," is born. "We used to call the training camp al Qaeda," bin Laden would later recall. "And the name stayed."
Bin Laden asks a senior al Qaeda associate in Pakistan to draft a memorandum requiring regional al Qaeda affiliates ("brothers") to consult with "al Qaeda central" before carrying out operations — another apparent sign that the core is losing control of the periphery.
"As long as we sustain the pressure on it, we judge that core al Qaeda will be of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement," National Director of Intelligence James Clapper tells the U.S. Senate. "But regional affiliates … and, to a lesser extent, small cells and individuals will drive the global jihad agenda."
*Correction, March 17, 2014: This article originally misstated that Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the union of al Qaeda and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The union was between al Qaeda and the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which had previously broken away from GIA.
Special thanks to Peter Bergen, Thomas Hegghammer, and Bruce Riedel.
Illustration by Sarah King