For any terrorist group, the ability to project destructive power is more important than the power itself. Having a large quantity of explosive, chemical or biological material that can be used only in a limited target geography may be useful for attacking that locale -- but to be able to use destructive devices on a broad international basis, however, establishes the terrorist group as a "player" in global political terms.
This is not merely a matter of organizational egotism: It corresponds to the terrorists' ambition to be recognized as representing an important ideological concept. Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden had that characteristic. Somali-based Al Shabaab does not. The result is different only in the scope of the two organizations' transnational terror activities and thus the perception of danger as viewed by the world community. Al Qaeda is now as widely known around the world as the Mafia. Al Shabaab has that distinction only in its own region.
Such definition is not academic but rather an operational factor. Al Shabaab has the potential of reaching out to black Americans, but so far there has been limited evidence of this happening. Some African-American dissidents have sought to associate their ambitions as a fraternal outreach to their self-proclaimed Somali cousins. Al Shabaab is not a centrally directed organization and has at least three principal leadership groupings. Outreach is limited by these divisions.
Although there is a growing community of former Somali fighters now residing in Yemen, al Shabaab's activities beyond the borders of Somalia are restricted to eastern Africa. Its external support structure depends heavily on financial infusions funneled by members of the Somali diaspora through Nairobi and other centers in East Africa as well as regular transfers from Yemen. This is along with their traditional income from piracy, hostage-taking, and thievery. The Nigerian Islamic terror organization, Boko Haram, initially was said to have an al Shabaab connection, but so far that has not proven to be the case.
The Islamic terrorist mechanism with the smallest base yet the broadest ambitions is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Embedded in the Yemeni community, AQAP has developed assets stretching from the Gulf monarchies to contacts in Europe. Uniquely, it is said to boast various participants who held original enlistments in bin Laden's al Qaeda who administer secret training facilities -- recently a major target of Yemeni special forces. AQAP's best known member currently is the "scientist" Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri, the man credited with creating the "underwear bomb" and other exotic devices including recent ventures into cyberwarfare. One of the best known al Qaeda operatives, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al Quso, was killed in a drone attack on May 6 in Yemen.
It is interesting that what would appear to be an otherwise limited parochial terror affiliate of al Qaeda has assumed this broader international role. The explanation seems to lie in the technically sophisticated personnel hiding out in Yemen along with Saudi AQ fighters on the run. Counteraction by the Americans, British, and Saudis of course has centered on eliminating the talent base, while Yemeni Army units attack defended al Qaeda and anti-government positions in the south.
While Pakistan still harbors many former al Qaeda veterans, other than very small groups and individuals with tribal relationships still in Afghanistan, most of these are monitored by ISI's internal surveillance. Pakistan is now more of a retirement center for actual al Qaeda "made members" than an operational hub. Nonetheless, the country remains a principal training, recruiting and financial source for other Islamic terrorists.
The name al Qaeda has had a value strictly by association with its already established deeds and reputation. By affixing "al Qaeda" to its name, any terror organization seeks to have the ability to project an image of sophistication simply through that presumed association. This is more or less the background of what is referred to as al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). One would have thought that an organization of that name would at least have had a recognizable role not only in the anti-Qaddafi Libyan civil war, but also to some degree throughout the experience of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Morocco. Various explanations have been offered, but the fact remains AQIM is not credited with any substantial participation.
Another factor of particular importance is the automatic assumption that terror organizations with Middle East or South Asian connections actually have a strong Islamic commitment. In practical terms loyalty to Islam is an initial requirement for membership in an "Islamic" terror group, but it is not the degree of piousness that is the determinant of leadership within that group. In fact, as Bernard Lewis has written in The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, "The first primal and indelible mark of identity is race."
In the Islamic world "race" is often interpreted in different ways: Tribe, clan, family are often seen as the basis for the term. Ethnicity in the Maghreb, for example, has a great deal to do with skin color and thus the varying degree of genes inherited from the several ancient sub-Sahara and European invasions. Islamic religion may tend to unite the many groupings, but the separate identities remain within and often express themselves by creating competitive components. Sunni and Shia belief systems are only the beginning.
While limiting this commentary to some of the Islamic-related terror organizations, it is important to remember: "Terrorism is the principal military weapon of a wide variety of organizations with greatly differing characteristics," as Graham Benton wrote in 1984 pointing to the contrasts and similarities among the Uruguayan Tuparamos, the PLO, the IRA, the Red Brigades and the Basque ETA. At that time only the Palestinian group had any Islamic connections, and those were tangential. In today's world the emphasis is on Islam and the terror groups associated with it. Terrorism, terrorist acts and terrorists, however, are not limited by today's preoccupation.