The New Seeds of Terror

In eliminating Osama bin Laden, the United States may have unwittingly set the stage for a wider terrorist offensive on Western targets.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

The trouble with "high-value targets" is that their value may not be so high. During the years it took to find and terminate al Qaeda's No. 1, about 20 No. 3s have been killed. The problem is that No. 1s are not essential to overall operations, and in a network, everybody is No. 3. Al Qaeda, now one of the flattest, most decentralized networks in the world, will live on.

A rash of recent terrorist attacks by al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Morocco, and Yemen, and a thwarted plot in Germany, suggest that the network may even be mounting a small-scale, but still global, new terror offensive. The lack of "spectaculars" should not be seen as a sign of a weakening al Qaeda, but rather as an indicator of a shift in strategy. Watch for more small strikes in the weeks and months ahead, launched around the world.

Indeed, the death of Osama bin Laden may actually facilitate al Qaeda's transition from a hub-and-spokes network -- with Waziristan as the hub -- to a "mesh" network composed of small, loose-jointed cells distributed globally. This new organizational design was the dream of al Qaeda's top strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri ("the Syrian"). He was apparently much inspired by Robert Taber's classic The War of the Flea, on which he lectured to aspiring jihadists in the 1990s. But he built quite a bit on this foundational work.

The trouble with "high-value targets" is that their value may not be so high. During the years it took to find and terminate al Qaeda’s No. 1, about 20 No. 3s have been killed. The problem is that No. 1s are not essential to overall operations, and in a network, everybody is No. 3. Al Qaeda, now one of the flattest, most decentralized networks in the world, will live on.

A rash of recent terrorist attacks by al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Morocco, and Yemen, and a thwarted plot in Germany, suggest that the network may even be mounting a small-scale, but still global, new terror offensive. The lack of "spectaculars" should not be seen as a sign of a weakening al Qaeda, but rather as an indicator of a shift in strategy. Watch for more small strikes in the weeks and months ahead, launched around the world.

Indeed, the death of Osama bin Laden may actually facilitate al Qaeda’s transition from a hub-and-spokes network — with Waziristan as the hub — to a "mesh" network composed of small, loose-jointed cells distributed globally. This new organizational design was the dream of al Qaeda’s top strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri ("the Syrian"). He was apparently much inspired by Robert Taber’s classic The War of the Flea, on which he lectured to aspiring jihadists in the 1990s. But he built quite a bit on this foundational work.

Al-Suri, who likely plotted the 2004 Madrid train bombing that caused the fall of the Spanish government and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, has been in custody for over five years. His name is scarcely known to the mass publics of the world, and to surprisingly few in the military. But his ideas, articulated at great length — clocking in at some 1,600 pages — in his e-book The Global Islamic Resistance Call, seem to have carried the day in setting al Qaeda’s new course. He and bin Laden used to spar over this approach, in which links to the core were to be almost completely severed in favor of local cells’ freedom to chart their own courses and plan their own violent campaigns.

To emphasize this point, al-Suri even went so far as to suggest that "cell builders," perhaps the only tie to a much-reduced al Qaeda Central, should consider taking on a suicide mission of their own after planting some of terror’s seeds. This way there would be little chance of counterterrorist forces following their trail of links from one operative and cell to another — the manner in which some terrorist network affiliates have been taken down over this past decade, in locales ranging from the Sahara to Singapore.

If all this seems a bit dark, there is some good news. The al Qaeda leader’s death could free up huge resources from the intelligence and special operations communities hitherto devoted to the bin Laden manhunt. So instead of simply shifting the targeting mechanism to possible new No. 1s, there is an opportunity to use the vast majority of these resources to help illuminate the myriad cells forming up in accordance with al-Suri’s vision.

To be sure, some eyes in the sky should keep looking for the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki, and some hard men should stand ready to undertake the raids that lie at the end of these searches. But more technical and human resources need to be focused on the rise of al-Suri’s semiautonomous cells, for they will be the ones to launch the next wave of al Qaeda attacks. And unless the al-Suri system is disrupted, it will remain in operation long enough for one or some of these cells to acquire or develop true weapons of mass destruction.

So in the wake of bin Laden’s death, it is time to take the fight to the far reaches of the network — well beyond Afghanistan, where al Qaeda has precious little presence — and well beyond Waziristan, too. Abu Musab al-Suri’s vision is taking the network far from the Hindu Kush. America’s gaze must turn far from there as well.

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.

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