Destroying al Qaeda Is Not an Option (Yet)

If the world's most notorious network goes down, terrorism will get a whole lot messier.


The old al Qaeda is no more. At least 40 percent of its leadership circa 2001 has either been killed or captured. New faces have fared no better; since July 2008, 11 of the organization’s 20 most wanted have been put out of commission. And middle management is almost gone, many of them victims of Predator strikes. What remains is probably a hollow organization, represented by a core of insulated figureheads, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, surrounded by eager cadres of jihadist newcomers. Before long, the West may just hold a barrel to al Qaeda’s collective forehead. Should it press the trigger?

Gut instinct and righteousness scream "yes!" But a better answer might be "not yet." The world would be wise to keep al Qaeda alive, paradoxically enough, for security reasons. Like it or not, keeping a battered al Qaeda intact (if weak) is the world’s best hope of funneling Islamist fanatics into one social network — where they stand the best chance of being spotted, tracked, and contained. The alternative, destroying the terrorist group, would risk fragmenting al Qaeda into thousands of cells, and these will be much harder to follow and impossible to eradicate. It’s the counterterrorist’s dilemma, and the only real choice is the least unsavory: Al Qaeda must live.

Understanding this dilemma calls for a bit of network theory. Al Qaeda is a loose group of members who interact much like one does with peers on Twitter or Facebook; as in those platforms, al Qaeda members contact each other in sporadic and irregular bursts. And much like trading networks, the terrorist group is built around exchanges. Sure, some parts of the network are more powerful or central than others, but recruits seek membership for a fairly simple set of reasons: a fervent belief in waging jihad, a need for resources and know-how, and the chance to do it all under the mantle of the world’s most famous subversive group.

Al Qaeda, for its part, is more than willing to meet its recruits’ ideological, material, and prestige needs. The group is beset by high employee turnover, constantly in need of making up for members lost either to Western counter operations or successful suicide missions. Al Qaeda’s mid level managers are crucial to filling this personnel gap. These central members link with more contacts than either the secluded leadership or the fresh recruits, while bridging the two groups. At the same time, their higher exposure makes them easier to hunt down.

Herein lies the danger. Unfortunately, if this middle layer of management goes extinct, so will any hopes of stemming terrorist attacks.

It is tempting to draw up an organizational chart of al Qaeda and think that if the important nodes can be identified and destroyed, the rest of the network will follow. But if al Qaeda is shut down and its middle management decimated, eager fanatics around the globe would no longer gravitate toward a centralized base. Their alternative? To form their own no-name networks and band up with any other al Qaeda survivors. Killing off al Qaeda would do little to reduce Islamist terrorism. It would only make the world of terrorism more chaotic.

All this can be dismissed as fanciful theorizing. But what theory predicts, history confirms. Consider the case of the Aryan Nations (AN), a white supremacist movement in the United States which the Federal Bureau of Investigation recognized as a terrorist threat since at least 1999. In September, 2000, AN lost its headquarters in Hayden Lake, Idaho, due to a court order, but this did little to eliminate the group. Instead, it splintered into at least three organizations. AN’s director, August Kreis, even recognized the benefits of fragmentation in an interview. Now, he asserted, he and his like-minded colleagues are "much harder to watch." Nine years on, AN’s splinter cells may have proliferated — to how many, no one is sure. With their compound gone, they fell off the grid.

Dismantling a network, then, is often less a dream security fix than a reoccurring nightmare. You can shut down the enemy now, but you won’t know where new or surviving elements are.

The alternative to destroying al Qaeda is to keep it weak — but alive. The West would need to refrain from attacking all its central parts, choosing to monitor and watch them instead. Al Qaeda would continue to attract Islamist militants into its clustered network, where the fight against terrorism is at least manageable.

Assuming the United States and its allies learn more about the network over time, al Qaeda recruits could be shadowed through their training and eventual deployment. New operatives could then be neutralized once they move "downstream" — away from the network. This timing prevents scattering the higher echelons of al Qaeda, while still eliminating the direct security threat.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda middle managers must live on, if as an endangered species. This does not mean they should be any good at their jobs, however. Predator strikes should focus on competent bosses, yet spare their inept brethren. The former may be more cautious and harder to target, but such selective attacks will leave al Qaeda saddled with a heavy, ineffective midsection of leaders who just may lack the wit to plan hard-hitting operations.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for current counterterrorism policy is that the hunt for  al Qaeda’s top leaders should not be an obsession. In all likelihood, they are such isolated nodes that pursuing them is expensive and will yield only limited benefit. In fact, if the argument holds, bin Laden is more useful alive than dead. After all, his inflaming speeches maintain al Qaeda’s allure to potential recruits.

Of course, al Qaeda should not be kept alive forever. It can be dealt a deathblow when Islamist fundamentalism loses momentum, for example, through an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. As soon as the pool of recruits drains, al Qaeda’s funneling effect would no longer be needed.

But there is no sign that this will happen soon. So until then, we should take full advantage of the simple fact that the net which unites the worst Islamist terrorists also snares them.

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