Shadow Government

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

In my last post I argued that the views of U.S. experts on al Qaeda and bin Laden are deeply divided.  The majority opinion sees the group as amorphous, small, and embattled, led by a man who inspired attacks and aspired to control a global fight, but who was incapable of much beyond giving speeches ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

In my last post I argued that the views of U.S. experts on al Qaeda and bin Laden are deeply divided.  The majority opinion sees the group as amorphous, small, and embattled, led by a man who inspired attacks and aspired to control a global fight, but who was incapable of much beyond giving speeches and using rhetoric to convince others to carry out individual acts of terror in his name.

The Minority Position

There is, however, another view  — one held by a small minority of analysts and experts-that is quite different and that implies therefore very different policies for the U.S. to follow.  The best-known proponent of this view is Bruce Hoffman, as expressed in such articles as "The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism," "American Jihad," and many others.  This is also the position that I take, and the description that follows contains my thought as much as that of Hoffman and other experts. 

The minority position argues that al Qaeda is primarily an organization, one that is cohesive, disciplined, and has a sophisticated hierarchy of committees and commanders that run it.  It is much larger in size than the majority opinion holds — perhaps thousands of members — and controls branches in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa, and is working on creating affiliates elsewhere.  The group has not been permanently damaged by strikes carried out by the U.S., but has managed to regenerate itself numerous times despite serious losses.  al Qaeda has a coherent strategy that has evolved over time, beginning with a plan to attack the U.S. in order to undermine our support for the "tyrants" of the Muslim world and ending with the creation of a physical worldwide Islamic state.  Striking the U.S. is therefore not the main purpose or objective of the group, as the majority position contends; this is merely the means to much greater ends.  The ideology and rhetoric of leaders was used not only to inspire, but also to radicalize groups and individuals in order to create an integrated global jihad aimed at common strategic objectives.  Those who support this position see al Qaeda as committed to both Afghanistan and Pakistan equally, since the organization considers this area of the world a single whole.

The implications of this view differ profoundly from those of the majority opinion.  al Qaeda is not a failure because it has been unable to strike the U.S. since 9/11, rather it is winning its war in some places (Somalia, Yemen, North Africa, Pakistan), while losing in others (Algeria, Turkey, Indonesia).  Al Qaeda is in fact in the process of taking over sections of the Muslim-majority world, in some cases through fighting, but in others through default in remote areas only nominally held by weak central governments.  Saving Pakistan from insurgency or civil war is vital, as the majority argues, but the war in Afghanistan is also an integral part of defeating al Qaeda.  Lastly, the revolutions in the Middle East might prove to be al Qaeda’s undoing as the majority opinion holds, but the organization might also be in a position to subvert and co-opt the uprisings in places like Egypt.

The minority position on bin Laden diverges quite significantly from the majority view as well.  Bin Laden’s primary function within the group was as the "Emir of Jihad," his official title within al Qaeda, and he thus had the authorities of Commander-in-Chief in an organization with global reach.  He had-or at least attempted to have-far greater command and control of al Qaeda and its operations both in Afghanistan/Pakistan and around the world than the majority position holds, although before his capture experts who supported the minority view had difficulty explaining how he could actually do so from isolated areas of Northern Pakistan or Southern Afghanistan.  Bin Laden used his personality to win over groups and individuals to his side, but his appeal and ties with other jihadists was based as well on common ideological principles, strategies, and objectives.

These views of Bin Laden suggest that he was more than the inspirational and aspirational figure of the majority model, but was rather the operational commander for a cohesive fighting group that was developing a global reach.  At the same time, they imply that al Qeda is more than bin Laden:  it is an organization with an ideology, strategies, and objectives that are far greater than just one person.

In my next post, I’ll describe the conflicting conclusions that these two views draw from the death of bin Laden, as well as key data points researchers might find in the materials captured by the SEALs that would support one or the other of these positions.

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