There is an interesting thing happening in the world of terrorism -- or rather among those who write about terrorism. According to some, the days of the growth of "Islamic extremism" are coming to an end and its followers are becoming, as the terrorism commentator, Marc Sageman, is quoted in the Financial Times, "increasingly desperate and fragmented." At the other end of the spectrum is Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University and formerly of the Rand Corporation. He stated, "Frankly, the threat from al Qaeda is more serious today than at any time since 2001."
From an operational rather than an academic standpoint, both views seem to be appropriate even if they appear contradictory. The al Qaeda organization that had as its sanctuary and training site the Taliban-governed Afghanistan prior to 2001 definitely is closer these days to having diminished capabilities. Clearly the leadership role of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri has been substantially reduced, if for no other reason than their loss of key lieutenants and enforced limitation of movement and communication.
There is no question, however, as to whether this original leadership of al Qaeda feels successful in their broader aims of inspiring and aiding in the construction and maintenance of akin groups in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and northwest Africa (Maghreb).
The structure of al Qaeda today mirrors a broad international network with certain autonomous strong points, each with its own lines of outreach with separate cells. There is a tendency among analysts to view this structure as a dilution of al Qaeda in relation to the more centralized control of the bin Laden and al Zawahiri apparat of earlier times.
Realistically one must grant at least continued strong ideological motivation offered by al Qaeda' s traditional "central command," even if direct operational control no longer exists. The major "franchise" activities outside of the Waziristan sanctuary of OBL' s al Qaeda now have little or no physical dependence on that one-time headquarters other than possible injections of financial aid and periodic intelligence advice.
Perhaps to camouflage this fragmented structure, as well as retain an international image of continued overall authority, the newest audiotape of OBL distributed by Al Jazeera sought to claim full knowledge -- and thus imply influence -- of the operation involving the Nigerian student' s effort to destroy the Detroit-bound aircraft.
It is important to explore the motivation for bin Laden to seek to remind the world, and especially his own extended community of jihadi, of his continued exercise of authority over the al Qaeda conception of radical Sunni Islam. From an outsider, this action can only be viewed as one of self-perceived weakness. From the inside each franchise and sub-franchise group must be confused as to the intent of the unexpected display of responsibility for what was after all a failed plan.
Jihadi operations recently have shown a lack of sophistication when compared to the 9/11mission. Considerable effort from a personnel and logistics standpoint had been put into the simultaneous attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the attempt to hit another high value target in Washington. What has prevented such organization, coordination and imagination from occurring lately? The immediate response is to suggest the effectiveness of Western security operations and diminished quality recruiting efforts among the radicalized Islamic public.
Certainly counter-terrorism ops have improved, but even now the advantage remains on the side of the attack forces as opposed to the defender. The limited availability of committed and intelligent jihadi willing to sacrifice their lives may be the key vulnerability for Islamic radicalism in 2010. But that can, and most likely will, be corrected. All it takes is time, and time is on the side of the offense as long as it wishes to continue the attack.
Osama bin Laden provided some insight in his recent tape. He again called for jihadi attention to be paid to "our brothers in Gaza," and then went on to directly justify continued attacks on what he termed "the safe life" of America and its allies. This was a reminder to all the followers of al Qaeda' s line that the ultimate objective of the holy war was to attack Israel and all sources of support for Israel. This was hardly a new message, but one that points to more terrorism rather than less.
The continuing issue is why Osama bin Laden felt it was necessary to keep the jihadi focused on this obvious message -- or did he just sense a developing morale problem?
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