Think Again

Think Again: Al Qaeda

The world's most notorious terrorist organization was never quite what Americans thought it was -- and Osama bin Laden's death doesn't mean that it's down for the count.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"Osama bin Laden’s Death Doesn’t Matter."

Not so fast. It’s hard to imagine the chapter of history that began in Lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, ending more conclusively than it did on May 1, when the body of the man who masterminded the worst terrorist attack in American history slipped off the deck of the USS Vinson into the Arabian Sea. But at the same time, Osama bin Laden’s death and watery burial were strangely anticlimactic. By the time the team of Navy SEALs burst into his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden’s terrorist organization and his place within it were far different from what they had been when he plotted the 9/11 attacks.

The attacks established the organization that bin Laden had founded in 1988 as the deadliest, most infamous terrorist group on the planet. But after 9/11 Al Qaeda did not, as was widely feared, succeed in launching another spectacular terrorist attack on the United States; bin Laden himself receded from view, and it began to look as if his organization’s most fearsome days were behind it. In 2008, terrorism analyst Marc Sageman argued in Leaderless Jihad that "Al Qaeda Central in particular was neutralized operationally," its communications degraded "to the point that there was no meaningful command and control between the al Qaeda leadership and its followers."

But while al Qaeda’s operational structure was damaged, it was still intact. In recent years, bin Laden had steadily rebuilt the battered organization in Pakistan, and he and his lieutenants always retained more control over its day-to-day operations than post-9/11 optimists believed.

The July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London, for example, were at first attributed to self-radicalized terrorists who taught themselves about jihad on the Internet. Al Qaeda’s claim of credit was dismissed as the plea of an organization desperate for relevance trying to exploit a local event. But it later emerged that the cell’s mastermind, Mohammad Siddique Khan, was trained in an al Qaeda camp and visited Pakistan at least two times before the attack. While in Pakistan, he and another locally trained jihadist recorded martyrdom videos — a standard al Qaeda practice — which were released by al Qaeda’s media wing in the months after the bombing. Khan was also in direct contact with Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, one of bin Laden’s most senior lieutenants, who reportedly "retasked" Khan and his associates with attacking the London Underground after meeting with them in Pakistan. Terrorism expert Peter Bergen described the bombings as "a classic al Qaeda plot."

By the time of bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda was again training would-be terrorists in Pakistan, recruiting fighters for Iraq and other conflicts, and issuing propaganda on a mind-numbing basis. (Before 9/11, any al Qaeda statement was worth scrutinizing down to its last word. After the attacks, the group produced so many public statements that analysts struggled to keep up.) Because of his newfound celebrity and the loss of his Afghan safe haven, bin Laden’s own operational role was necessarily more limited after 9/11 than it had been before. But the simple fact of his survival was of immense symbolic value for al Qaeda. After all, how could the world’s biggest military, in the employ of its most powerful country, search for almost ten years and fail to find a single middle-aged man in waning health? To his supporters, only God’s protection explained this mystery.

Bin Laden’s death renders that protection considerably more debatable in the eyes of would-be jihadists. Less mystically, global jihad has lost its marquee name: Egyptian jihadist Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s probable successor, may be an effective operator, but has far less starpower than his former boss and is unlikely to inspire Muslims as effectively. No less importantly, al Qaeda will find it hard to recruit and fundraise without bin Laden to lead their cause. Rival groups may exploit al Qaeda’s leadership weakness to attract the most motivated young men and most important donors, further weakening the group in the long term.

"Bin Laden Was a Homicidal Maniac."

Yes and no. Al Qaeda’s No. 1 certainly departed this world with plenty of blood on his hands. There were the thousands of Americans killed on 9/11, of course, and thousands more Muslims killed throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia in the terrorist attacks and al Qaeda-affiliated insurgencies of the following decade. In 1998, bin Laden declared that killing "Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

This killer, however, often confounded those who met him. Many terrorist leaders foster a cult of personality — Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s leader until his death in combat two years ago, was known for making his followers drink his bathwater. Bin Laden, by contrast, was by all accounts a humble and modest man. He lived an ascetic existence and assumed he would be killed — or, as he saw it, achieve martyrdom — long before he met his fate on Sunday. His mixture of idealism, bravery, and charisma inspired many young Muslims to take up arms and risk their lives for the ideas he championed. Perhaps the best measure of bin Laden’s influence is the respect he enjoyed not only within jihadist circles, but outside of them. His status as a defiant anti-American hero extended beyond the Muslim world to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The al Qaeda leader’s piety and humility, however, should not be mistaken for naivete. Bin Laden embraced the proverb that advised, "Trust in God — but tie your camel tight." His public statements and directives to his organization revealed a man who was as much shrewd politician as ascetic martyr-in-waiting. Within the jihadist movement, bin Laden often pushed back against the tendency toward slaughter that manifested itself in Iraq and Algeria in the mid-1990s. In such countries, so-called taqfiris — hardliners who saw Muslims who did not adhere to their extreme views as apostates — made war on their own societies, making the killing of civilians as much a priority as striking U.S. or local regime targets. Bin Laden counseled against this tendency and tried to use his influence to focus fighters on the United States and its allies — although he didn’t let his personal preferences stop him from embracing genuine homicidal maniacs like Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who ignored bin Laden’s advice and butchered far more Iraqi Shiites than Westerners.

"Al Qaeda’s Business Is Terrorism."

Only in part. The al Qaeda brand is associated with mass deaths of innocent civilians for obvious reasons. The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 Americans; the organization’s earlier efforts, targeting U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000, killed dozens more Americans and more than 200 Africans. Although al Qaeda hasn’t pulled off a blockbuster against the United States since 9/11, the group has been linked to ambitious plots such as the 2006 plan to down as many as 10 airliners traveling from Britain to the United States and Canada, which could have killed thousands more. Under bin Laden’s command, al Qaeda was the most lethal terrorist group the world has ever seen.

But al Qaeda is about much more than terrorism. It has supported, and at times seeded, insurgent movements throughout the Muslim world, and trained and funded many fighters who went to Afghanistan and Iraq. Less prominently, the movement also supported fighters who fought regimes in Algeria, Chechnya, Libya, Kashmir, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, and the Philippines. Not all of these fighters were loyal to bin Laden, but bin Laden was loyal to them; he wanted to make them more lethal so they could topple regimes he believed had turned away from Islam.

Almost all these struggles began with a local agenda. Sunni Iraqis rose against Americans in 2003 for local and nationalistic reasons, while Chechens fought Russians for independence. But over time, al Qaeda lent these local revolts a jihadist flavor, at first simply sending local recruits money and military know-how but eventually indoctrinating fighters and trying to convert their disparate causes into ones that meshed with the organization’s global agenda. Al Qaeda, in short, tried to turn civil wars into cosmic ones.

The suffering exacted by al Qaeda’s terrorism may be staggering, but in truth far more people have died in the civil wars the group has exacerbated. A precise accounting to sort out which deaths can be pinned on al Qaeda’s tactics or ideas is impossible, but the group unquestionably poured fuel on many fires. In Iraq alone, al Qaeda-related terrorism played a major role in turning sectarian divides into a society-rending conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives and threatens Iraqi stability to this day.

Perhaps most importantly, al Qaeda is about propaganda and proselytization. The group’s ideologues — most notably Zawahiri — have devoted tremendous attention to refuting what they see as the "errors" of other radical organizations, including groups like Hamas. Training manuals, political manifestos, and spiritual guides are all part of al Qaeda’s output, much of which is on the web for easy dissemination and access. Indeed, violence for bin Laden was really just another form of propaganda, intended to inspire and educate: Striking American targets, he believed, would rally Muslims around the world and shake them from their lethargy.

It was in this ideological arena, more than anywhere else, that bin Laden was astoundingly successful. When al Qaeda was founded 23 years ago, Muslim jihadists had little love for the United States, but they were principally focused on villains closer to home: the Soviet Union, then still bogged down in Afghanistan, and the Arab world’s own despots. Less than a quarter century later, bin Laden has profoundly reshaped perceptions among Muslim extremists, many of whom now embrace the late Saudi leader’s identification of the United States as the number one enemy of Islam.

"Al Qaeda Unified the Jihadist Movement."

Only in name. Like his old nemesis George W. Bush, bin Laden saw himself as a uniter, not a divider. From the outset, he sought to bring jihadists of all stripes together under al Qaeda’s umbrella. In the 1990s, that meant pushing the ever-bickering Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group, radical groups that focused on fighting the Egyptian government in the 1990s, to mend relations and work together. In Iraq in the following decade, it meant trying to unify the mélange of independently operating jihadist groups that had proliferated in the vacuum left by Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, al Qaeda has tried to foster affiliate movements, many of which now use variants on the brand name, such as Algeria’s al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, neé the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. And for all his Sunni credentials, bin Laden was often a voice against sectarianism; while he had little love for the Shiites, he believed Muslims should sort out these problems after removing the United States and its allies from the Middle East, and cautioned his followers against being distracted by a lesser enemy.

But bin Laden was swimming against the tide. Groups like Hamas always rejected al Qaeda, and at times the two clashed bitterly (though Ismael Haniyeh, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, took pains this week to condemn the killing of bin Laden, and praised the Saudi terrorist as an "Arab holy warrior"). Moreover, al Qaeda is just one group within the "salafi-jihadist" community — individuals who embrace an extreme puritanical form of Sunni Islam and the use of political violence. Important groups like Hamas are far more pragmatic, and other salafi-jihadists differ on a variety of important subjects: who to strike next, the permissibility of killing non-combatants, and the proper relationship with less radical fellow Muslims. The brutal operations of al Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq brought these disagreements out into the open. In Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, prominent jihadists who once worked closely with bin Laden and his deputy Zawahiri denounced the organization for al Qaeda-linked atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere, blasting them for engaging in a foolish war, not jihad, and bringing pain and suffering to fellow Muslims.

This infighting is likely to grow worse now that bin Laden is dead. Bin Laden enjoyed a larger-than-life reputation that enabled him to transcend many local disputes. Zawahiri is a skilled operator, but he has taken the lead in denouncing groups like Hamas for its compromises and supposed deviations. His leadership may be characterized by less tolerance and more efforts to force other jihadist groups to toe al Qaeda’s line.

"Al Qaeda Is Down To a Few Hundred Members."

We wish. U.S. intelligence officials have at times estimated the number of al Qaeda members in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the low hundreds. In 2006, Jack Cloonan, a retired senior FBI official, declared al Qaeda’s numbers to be "minuscule," while National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter put the number at scarcely "more than 300" last year.

If these were the full dimensions of the problem, it would be far easier to solve than it is. It’s true that relatively few jihadists swore personal loyalty to bin Laden or otherwise were part of the al Qaeda core, a terrorist elite composed of only the most dedicated and skilled individuals. These select few hundred, however, are only the innermost circle of a far larger organization.

Al Qaeda also has affiliates in Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Algeria, as well as groups it works closely with in Pakistan and other countries. These groups retain independent organization and their own local leaders. Some are involved in international terrorism, while others focus almost exclusively on local targets. Yet all share at least some of al Qaeda’s global ambitions and cooperate with the Pakistan-based core of the organization. Many have attacked U.S. or other Western targets in their immediate area of operations and some, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have tried to bomb U.S. passenger and cargo jets. Beyond these affiliates, al Qaeda has also trained tens of thousands of fighters who are part of local groups who wage war on Russia, India, or U.S-backed regimes in the Muslim world, some of whom have also embraced international terrorism.

Finally, there are the civilian sympathizers. Some give money, while others turn a blind eye to al Qaeda proselytizing and recruitment or even assist it. Struggles against the United States in Iraq or the Indians in Kashmir are popular among many Muslims and give al Qaeda credibility — even among those who reject its broader message or most ambitious aims. This broader social network means that an organization with mere hundreds of wholly dedicated adherents effectively has tens of thousands of members — or millions, perhaps, if you count its most casual sympathizers who support attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Indian troops in Kashmir, or other popular causes that al Qaeda embraces.

Intelligent policy, however, must recognize al Qaeda’s potential reach while resisting conflating limited sympathy with active membership. Those who were close to bin Laden must be killed or arrested, as few of them will turn away from violence. Those in the outer rings of the circle are usually less committed and might be persuaded or intimidated into rejecting al Qaeda — or at least not taking up arms in the group’s name.

"Killing Individual Al Qaeda Operatives Won’t Kill the Network."

It will if you keep it up. In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked his military commanders, "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?" As terrorism grew in Iraq and elsewhere, the answer seemed a resounding no — U.S. forces killed or captured so many al Qaeda No. 3s that it became a running joke. Indeed, the conventional wisdom in some circles  has become that killing terrorist leaders is eventually fruitless if the underlying political grievances that gave rise to violence are not solved.

If terrorists are killed or arrested on a large scale, however, the effect can be devastating. There will always be plenty of people who hate the United States and want to take up arms. But without bombmakers, passport forgers, and competent leaders, those angry young men will be little more than semi-dangerous bumblers, easy to disrupt and often more of a threat to themselves than to their enemies — just ask Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the erstwhile "underwear bomber."

It’s been done before, and not just to al Qaeda. Israel used an aggressive arrest and killing campaign in the Second Intifada to devastate Palestinian terrorist groups. At first, killing terrorist leaders seemed only to inflame hatred, and revenge attacks were common. But the terrorist groups lost their most skilled personnel, and the younger and less-seasoned replacements made foolish mistakes that set the groups back even more. Five years into the intifada, groups like Hamas sought a ceasefire. Their hatred of Israel remained as strong as ever, but they had lost too many leaders to function effectively.

The U.S. drone campaign against al Qaeda, begun under Bush and put on steroids under President Barack Obama, has achieved similar results, taking out dozens of al Qaeda figures, most of them in Pakistan. All were far less prominent than bin Laden, but their skills were in short supply. Al Qaeda found it hard to find seasoned and skilled new leaders — and even when it could, it took time to integrate them into the organization. A subtler but even more important result of the drone war was the change it affected on al Qaeda’s communications. Lieutenants have been forced to limit their communications to prevent U.S. eavesdropping that could lead to airstrikes; reduce their circle of associates to avoid spies; and avoid public exposure, all of which make them far less effective leaders. This, in turn, makes it harder — though not impossible — for them to pull off sophisticated attacks that require long-term planning.

All of this suggests that bin Laden’s death may make the terrorist organization less dangerous and less relevant. Much will depend, however, on seizing the momentum of the moment. For now, the United States looks strong, and it can use this credibility to back the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring, a popular alternative to al Qaeda’s bleak, bloody vision of the future of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, drone strikes and aggressive intelligence efforts are necessary to keep al Qaeda’s base from recovering — because if history is any guide, it will undoubtedly try.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman