Al Qaeda’s Six Degrees of Separation

When it comes to the world's most infamous terror organization, who decides who's in, and who's out?

WEDA/AFP/Getty Images
WEDA/AFP/Getty Images

In a taped message last month, Osama bin Laden endorsed the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and referred to the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as "heroic." But even with bin Laden’s endorsement, were Abdulmutallab’s actions an al Qaeda-directed plot? If so, what was al Qaeda’s exact involvement? What, if anything, does an association with al Qaeda mean today?

The term "al Qaeda affiliate" has been lobbed not just at Abdulmutallab — who was trained in Yemen by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — but at almost every individual linked to the terrorist plots that have unfolded in the past year. Tarek Mehanna, a Boston pharmacology student, studied jihad over the Internet and then tried and failed to contact al Qaeda operatives in Iraq; he was termed an al Qaeda affiliate. So too was the dodgy Detroit imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, who sought to create a separate state ruled by sharia law, but was eventually killed in an FBI shootout before he reached his goal. Najibullah Zazi and his associates, who plotted an attack on New York City, were described as being connected to al Qaeda, as was Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter.

But these homegrown radicals’ trajectories and levels of association with jihadi groups are so different as to make the term "al Qaeda affiliate" meaningless. Neither Mehanna nor Abdullah ever actually met anyone from al Qaeda. Abdullah was radicalized in prison, far away from hot spots in Afghanistan and Yemen. Syrian recruiters rejected Mehanna when he asked for their help in getting to Iraq for training. Zazi comes closest to being associated with al Qaeda, having been in contact with serious terrorist operatives in Pakistan.

More often than not, Islamist extremists assign the term "al Qaeda affiliate" to themselves — regardless of whether it is true. Upstart terrorist groups, regional insurgents, and radicalized individuals embrace the name to lift their profile and gain cachet in the jihadi community. But it is not a particularly good indicator of their actual relationship to the al Qaeda organization.

Furthermore, terrorism analysts have been too willing to take individuals at their word when they claim an affiliation with al Qaeda. Take Abdulhakim Muhammad, a Tennessee man who is accused of killing a soldier at an Arkansas military recruiting station last June. He proclaimed the murder an act of jihad, saying he was acting on the orders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the same outfit that recruited and dispatched Abdulmutallab. Although Muhammad did spend time in Yemen, his own father calls his claim of being a part of al Qaeda "make-believe."

Terrorism analysts have not been rigorous enough in their application of labels and definitions — partly for good reason. In the past eight years, since bin Laden went into hiding, the jihadi landscape has become increasingly fractured. The world of global jihad is so fluid and dispersed that it is almost impossible to capture the true extent of anyone’s connection with al Qaeda. Thus they’ve come to depend on this catchall phrase "al Qaeda affiliate" as a descriptive.

But the term has been abused, used so often as to render it useless. Media outlets and terrorism analysts should view each "al Qaeda associate" skeptically, rather than at his own word or even the word of bin Laden and other high-level al Qaeda officials.

In the coming years, more and more independent terrorists will claim al Qaeda connections, and it will be more and more important to sort out what those connections really mean. High-level members of al Qaeda have been so effectively targeted that al Qaeda has ceded much control to its affiliates. In many cases, it exerts no strategic leadership, let alone operational control, over so-called "al Qaeda plots." As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently stated, al Qaeda is now operating within a "syndicate of terrorist operators." According to Gates, "What we see is that the success of any one of these groups leads to new capabilities and a new reputation for all."

As terrorist groups vie with each other for power, prestige, and influence, old stalwarts such as bin Laden will see their reputations diminish accordingly. Terrorists previously quick to claim a connection to al Qaeda might, in fact, no longer need to legitimize themselves by drawing on the organization’s bona fides.

We have already seen the beginnings of this shift. Bin Laden is now quicker to claim the works of others as his own. As Middle East analyst Juan Cole recently noted, bin Laden’s recent statement claiming credit for the Christmas Day bomb plot was not posted on any of the jihadi websites that traditionally carry al Qaeda missives. According to Cole, "even the jihadis know that this thing is likely a fraud…. If it is Bin Laden [whose voice is heard on the audio tape], it is a pitiful Bin Laden trying to stay relevant by grandstanding and stealing others’ thunder."

Both Westerners and jihadi sympathizers have grown accustomed to thinking of bin Laden as the terrorist par excellence and of al Qaeda as the organizational center of his movement. As we struggle to understand the shifting political landscape of the jihadi movement, this intellectual framework may no longer help us explain the threats we face. We must begin preparing ourselves for a world where new organizations form the center of the jihadi world, while new sympathizers on the outside look for a way in.

Lydia Khalil is a former intelligence advisor to the Boston Police Department and counterterrorism analyst to the New York Police Department. She is currently a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.

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