The Almanac of Al Qaeda
FP's definitive guide to what's left of the terrorist group.
In December 2007, al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made a little-noticed nod to the fact that his organization's popularity was taking a nosedive: He solicited questions from jihadi forum participants in an online question-and-answer session. It looked like a rather desperate gambit to win back al Qaeda’s dwindling support. And it was. Since the September 11 attacks, the terrorist organization and its affiliates had killed thousands of Muslims -- countless in Iraq, and hundreds more in Afghanistan and Pakistan that year alone. For a group claiming to defend the Islamic ummah, these massacres had dealt a devastating blow to its credibility. The faithful, Zawahiri knew, were losing faith in al Qaeda.
In December 2007, al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made a little-noticed nod to the fact that his organization’s popularity was taking a nosedive: He solicited questions from jihadi forum participants in an online question-and-answer session. It looked like a rather desperate gambit to win back al Qaeda’s dwindling support. And it was. Since the September 11 attacks, the terrorist organization and its affiliates had killed thousands of Muslims — countless in Iraq, and hundreds more in Afghanistan and Pakistan that year alone. For a group claiming to defend the Islamic ummah, these massacres had dealt a devastating blow to its credibility. The faithful, Zawahiri knew, were losing faith in al Qaeda.
Zawahiri’s Web session did not go well. Asked how he could justify killing Muslim civilians, he answered defensively in dense, arcane passages that referred readers to other dense, arcane statements he had already made about the matter. A typical question came from geography teacher Mudarris Jughrafiya, who asked: “Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with your excellency’s blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?”
Like a snake backed into a corner, however, a weakened al Qaeda isn’t necessarily less dangerous. In the first comprehensive look of its kind, Foreign Policy offers the Almanac of Al Qaeda, a detailed accounting of how al Qaeda’s ranks, methods, and strategy have changed over the last decade and how they might evolve from here. What emerges is a picture of a terrorist vanguard that is losing the war of ideas in the Islamic world, even as its violent attacks have grown in frequency.
It’s not because the United States is winning — most Muslims still have extremely negative attitudes toward the United States because of its wars in the Muslim world and history of abuses of detainees. It’s because Muslims have largely turned against Osama bin Laden’s dark ideology. Favorable ratings of the terrorist leader and the suicide bombings he advocates fell by half in the two most-populous Islamic countries, Indonesia and Pakistan, between 2002 and 2009. In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s ruthless campaign of sectarian violence obliterated the support al Qaeda had enjoyed there, deeply damaging its brand across the Arab world.
The jihad has also dramatically failed to achieve its central aims. Bin Laden’s primary goal has always been regime change in the Middle East, sweeping away the governments from Cairo to Riyadh with Taliban-style rule. He wants Western troops and influence out of the region and thinks that attacking the “far enemy,” the United States, will cause U.S.-backed Arab regimes — the “near enemy” — to crumble. For all his leadership skills and charisma, however, bin Laden has accomplished the opposite of what he intended. Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, his last remaining safe havens in the Hindu Kush are under attack, and U.S. soldiers patrol the streets of Kandahar and Baghdad.
If this looks like victory in the so-called war on terror, it is an incomplete one. The jihadi militants led by bin Laden have proved surprisingly resilient, and al Qaeda continues to pose a substantial threat to Western interests overseas. It could still pull off an attack that would kill hundreds, as the most recent plot to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 attests. We know from history that small, determined groups can sustain their bloody work for years with virtually no public support. Al Qaeda’s leaders certainly think that their epic struggle against the West in defense of true Islam will last for generations. — Peter Bergen
The definition of an al Qaeda “fighter” is a fluid one. The core fighters are relatively few — just about 100 in Afghanistan in 2009, down from 200 in 2001, according to intelligence officials — and swear a religiously binding oath of personal allegiance known as a bayat to Osama bin Laden. At the heart of the al Qaeda network — now centered in Pakistan — several hundred more “free agent” foreigners, mostly Arabs and Uzbeks, are “all but in name al Qaeda personnel,” as one U.S. intelligence official put it. Several thousand militant Pashtun tribal members, into whose families some of the foreigners have intermarried, form another layer.
Al Qaeda’s media wing, as-Sahab (“The Clouds” in Arabic), is a master of free-riding. With little operational muscle of its own, as-Sahab reaches out to ideological and geographic allies — “from Kabul to Mogadishu,” as the title of a February 2009 statement by Zawahiri put it — and opportunistically takes credit for the actions of jihadi militants around the world. Releases usually come as statements from specific individuals, documentary films, or videos praising militant attacks.
So Where’s Bin Laden? Ask the CIA
PORTER J. GOSS
“I have an excellent idea of where [bin Laden] is.”
June 22, 2005
CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence
“We, like you, continue to assess that Osama bin Laden is alive. We continue to assess that he’s probably in the tribal areas of Pakistan.”
July 11, 2007
“What about bin Laden? Why haven’t we killed or captured him? Anyone familiar with the Afghan-Pakistan border area knows how rugged and inaccessible it is.”
Nov. 13, 2008
Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri are hiding “either in the northern tribal areas [of Pakistan] or in North Waziristan or somewhere in that vicinity.”
March 17, 2010
As a teenager, Osama bin Laden was so pious that other kids didn’t swear or tell off-color jokes when he was around. That religiosity later hardened into a fanatical hatred. “Every Muslim, from the moment they realize the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians,” he told Al Jazeera in a 1998 interview. “This is a part of our belief and our religion.”
Today, bin Laden personally exercises near-total control over members of al Qaeda, exemplified in the bayat oath of allegiance sworn to him by the group’s members. Several of his followers have described their first encounter with the al Qaeda leader as an intense spiritual experience, explaining their feelings for him as love.
Despite persistent rumors about bin Laden’s health, including talk of a life-threatening kidney disorder, there is ample evidence that he is still alive and at al Qaeda’s helm. Since 9/11, bin Laden has released a steady stream of video-and audiotapes discussing current events, most recently praising the failed Christmas Day attack. In a 2007 tape, the al Qaeda leader had even dyed his white-flecked beard black, suggesting that the Saudi militant is not immune to a measure of vanity as he ages.
Who might take over if bin Laden finally does go? One of the most likely successors is Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group’s young, media-friendly, hard-line theologian. Another is Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, an Egyptian and an original member of al Qaeda’s leadership shura who serves as the group’s commander in Afghanistan. Some of bin Laden’s sons might also be key players; clearly, the al Qaeda leader has worked to instill his ideology into his kin from an early age. One son declared in a family wedding video on Jan. 10, 2001, at age 8, “Jihad is in my mind, heart, and blood veins. No fear nor intimidation can ever take this feeling out of my mind and body.”
Who are the men and women so devoted to al Qaeda that they are willing to give everything? In Afghanistan, the newest hot spot for suicide attacks, most assailants come from across the eastern border. Young, uneducated, and heavily drawn from Pakistani madrasas, the attackers are not motivated by any one cause in particular, a 2007 U.N. study notes. Religion, security, nationalism, and personal concerns about dishonor are all thought to play a role. The story in Iraq was also one of foreign origins; most bombers were not locally grown. Mohammed Hafez, author of the authoritative study, Suicide Bombers in Iraq, found that of the 139 “known” suicide bombers in Iraq up until 2006, 53 were Saudi and only 18 were Iraqi, while the rest came from other Arab countries and even Europe.
Al Qaeda’s No. 3: The Most Dangerous Job in the World
Comparing today’s most wanted terrorists with a list from 2001, one can’t help but notice the number of “No. 3 al Qaeda leaders” who have met their maker (or at least their jailer).
- Mohammed Atef
Cause of death: Killed by drone in Afghanistan, Nov. 2001
Role in al Qaeda: Military commander
- Hamza Rabia
Cause of death: Killed in North Waziristan drone strike, Nov. 2005
Role in al Qaeda: International operations commander
- Abu Laith al-Libi
Cause of death: Killed in North Waziristan drone strike, Jan. 2008
Role in al Qaeda: Field commander and spokesman
- Saif al-Adel
Captured: In Iran, 2003; now under house arrest
Role in al Qaeda: Military commander
- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Nationality: Pakistani, born in Kuwait
Captured: In Pakistan, 2003; now in U.S. custody awaiting trial
Role in al Qaeda: Operational commander of 9/11 attacks
- Abu Faraj al-Libi
Captured: In Pakistan, 2005; now in detention at Guantánamo Bay
Role in al Qaeda: Operational commander, successor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
- Abu Yahya al-Libi
Presumed location: AfPak border region
Role in al Qaeda: Spokesman
- Mustafa Abu al-Yazid
Presumed location: Afghanistan
Role in al Qaeda: Leader of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, liaison to Taliban
The ‘Might-Have-Been’ Plots
In a majority of the serious terrorist plots targeted against Western countries since 2004, the plotters were either directed or trained by established jihadi groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In the last two years, however, more Western recruits have joined al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan’s tribal regions than al Qaeda itself, increasing the channels through which the terrorist network can send operatives to the West to launch attacks. “Serious” plots are defined as those that killed 10 or more people, would likely have killed a significant number had explosives not malfunctioned, or in which cell members acquired bomb-making materials without the assistance of informants or undercover law enforcement agents. — Data by Paul Cruickshank
Fertilizer Bomb Plot
Target: Popular London destinations, including a nightclub and a shopping mall
2001: Omar Khyam and four British colleagues contact al Qaeda in the AfPak border region.
2003: The five plotters receive bomb training in two locations in northwest Pakistan.
March 2004: British police arrest the five extremists.
April 2007: Five suspects are convicted of plotting to cause explosions in Britain and sentenced to life in prison.
British Planes Plot
Target: Seven transatlantic airliners
Conspirators: At least six
Possible Deaths: 1,500
2005-2006: British-born attackers associated with the plot travel to Pakistan’s FATA region.
Aug. 9, 2006: British police arrest 24 men in connection with the plot.
September 2008: Three convicted in British court of conspiracy to murder.
September 2009: Three convicted of plotting to bomb airliners.
New York City Subway Plot
Target: Subways in New York City
Conspirators: At least three
Possible Deaths: dozens
Fall 2008: Najibullah Zazi, a one-time coffee-cart operator on Wall Street and a U.S. citizen, and two other suspected conspirators receive training from al Qaeda in Pakistan’s FATA.
September 2009: Zazi is arrested in Denver.
February 2010: Zazi pleads guilty to planning to attack New York City subway lines.
They’re the cornerstone of U.S. President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan — his administration authorized more during its first year than George W. Bush did over his eight-year tenure. But are the drone strikes working? If violence on the ground in 2009 is any indication, maybe not. Pakistan and Afghanistan saw record levels of Taliban and other insurgent violence last year. The militants are clearly able to absorb the repeated losses of lower-level militants. But given Pakistani officials’ opposition to U.S. boots on the ground, drone strikes are likely to remain in the Obama administration’s toolbox.
Al Qaeda Allies
Members: 25,000 in Afghanistan; tens of thousands in Pakistan
Leader: Mullah Omar
There are some 25,000 fighters in Afghanistan and tens of thousands in Pakistan, but just 10 percent of the population in those countries supports the movement. In Pakistan, the Taliban fund their endeavors by raising tens of millions of dollars through kidnapping, bank robberies, extortion, and illegal taxes on gems, timber, and local minorities. On the other side of the border, intelligence agencies think the Taliban in Afghanistan receive between $70 million and $300 million a year from the country’s lucrative poppy crops and about $106 million in annual donations from foreign sources — probably from the Persian Gulf.
Al Qaeda in Iraq
Members: At its peak, several thousand Iraqis, plus 100 foreign-fighter imports per month
Leader: Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (killed outside Tikrit on April 18, 2010 — succesor unknown)
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was formed in October 2004 when Jordanian ex-convict Abu Musab al-Zarqawi swore allegiance to bin Laden on behalf of his militant group, Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad). Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006, and today AQI operates as the Islamic State of Iraq. The former titular head of AQI, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (killed outside Tikrit April 18, 2010), was a mysterious figure who may have been a persona designed to give the group a more Iraqi flavor. His successor is unknown. Since its strongest moment in 2006 and 2007, AQI has been driven underground by Sunni tribal militias, U.S. military pressure, and Iraqi security forces.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Members: Between 200 and 300
Leader: Nasir Abd al-Karim al-Wahayshi
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula skyrocketed to fame late last year with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Day attack. Now just over a year old, the branch was officially formed when the Saudi and Yemeni al Qaeda affiliates merged because of intense Saudi government pressure on al Qaeda in the kingdom. The group’s leader, Nasir Abd al-Karim al-Wahayshi, is a thirty something Yemeni who fought in Afghanistan during the December 2001 battle of Tora Bora and is thought to have worked directly for Osama bin Laden.
Peter Bergen is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
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