Shadow Government

Bin Laden’s death and the al Qaeda debates, part one

The raid last week on Bin Laden’s lair in Abbotabad did more than kill al-Qa’ida’s leader.  In what might be one of the greatest intelligence coups of all time, the SEALs also seized dozens of thumb drives, at least five hard drives from computers, and a great deal of printed documentation.  Preliminary examinations of the ...

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The raid last week on Bin Laden’s lair in Abbotabad did more than kill al-Qa’ida’s leader.  In what might be one of the greatest intelligence coups of all time, the SEALs also seized dozens of thumb drives, at least five hard drives from computers, and a great deal of printed documentation.  Preliminary examinations of the materials that were seized suggest that they contain a wealth of information about al Qaeda and bin Laden that will give U.S. analysts new insights into the group and its leader.

Beyond the urgent matter of uncovering active plots against the United States and other nations, the treasure trove of new documents might be able to answer a set of vital strategic questions currently dividing the professional community that studies al Qaeda.  For the past ten years, scholars and experts both inside and outside government have struggled to understand what al Qaeda is, how big the group is, its strategies and objectives.  There is also the problem of how much command and control authority bin Laden had over al Qaeda members and jihadists around the globe.  All these issues have important implications for U.S. policies in the continuing war on terror and, depending on the answers that the thumb drives and computers provide, could lead to a far-reaching reconsideration of our own strategies and tactics.

It would be far too simplistic to suggest that there are only two possible positions on these issues, but two views have tended to dominate discussion amongst experts.  For the next three blogposts, I will describe as concisely as possible these positions and their implications and then suggest how the new information might transform U.S. policy if the materials seized last week are as rich and revealing as the first examinations suggest.

The Majority Position

The vast majority of experts on al Qaeda and bin Laden have held a series of analytical positions and assumptions that profoundly influence their reading of the threat posed by the group.  Perhaps the best proponent of this position is Marc Sageman, who has written several books on the topic, including Leaderless Jihad and Understanding Terror Networks.  On al Qaeda itself, the majority position holds that the group is fundamentally an inspiration for jihadist activity.  It is small in size (perhaps 350-400 members), has little direct control over the so-called affiliates (such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and uses ideology and rhetoric to inspire attacks by individuals.  The main purpose and goal of the group is to attack the United States, for which it is using its safe haven in Northern Pakistan or Afghanistan to train a few cells.  In general, the majority position has seen al Qaeda as a tenuous organization held together by personal loyalties; a group that does not seem to have a coherent strategy beyond striking the U.S.; and one that is more involved in Pakistan than it is in Afghanistan.

If this position is correct then the implications are profound:  al Qaeda is an absolute failure, since it has been unable to carry out any successful attacks on the U.S. (its main objective), it has been unable to attract the Muslim community to its cause, and its size and influence have shrunk since 9/11, primarily due to U.S. strikes and attrition.  This position also forces the United States to reconsider its commitment to a war in Afghanistan, since it implies that the problem in that country is not al Qaeda, but rather the Taliban, and that it does not make sense to continue to fight a war against a group of less than 500 people.  Pakistan, however, demands further involvement, as al Qaeda seems far more connected to that country and the deteriorating situation throughout the nation might leave its nuclear weapons vulnerable.

The majority position also has views of bin Laden that are significant for U.S. policy, arguing that he was an inspirational figurehead rather than a commander in chief.  His speeches and rhetoric were used to convince others to carry out attacks for him and in al Qaeda’s name, but he was incapable (and perhaps did not even desire) to exercise any meaningful command and control over people or groups other than his own.  Instead he aspired to convince individuals to carry out multiple attacks on the U.S. and American allies around the world.  His tenuous ties with other groups, including the Taliban led by Mullah Umar, were based on his personality alone, and he claimed authorities over local organizations like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Shabaab in Somalia, and elsewhere that he did not have.

Once again, the implications of this view are significant: bin Laden might be all that is holding al Qaeda together, making an appeal to the rest of the Muslim world to carry out attacks against the U.S., or keeping other groups (including the Taliban) working with al Qaeda.  At the same time, this position suggests that local jihadist groups have their own reasons for declaring war on their countries and their own grievances or grounds for hatred that will motivate them to fight on.

Tomorrow I’ll continue with a look at the minority opinion about al Qaeda and bin Laden, and finish the next day with the profound implications for U.S. policies of both views in the light of bin Laden’s death.

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