A new report with the provocative headline “Al Qaeda: The Next Phase of Evolution?” warns that the torch has been passed to a new style of terrorist network, one with little in common with the bumpkins that botched the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The report, authored by Stratfor’s Fred Burton, warns of the emergence of a “grassroots jihadist network that both exists in, and has the ability to strike in multiple countries — without support or oversight from the central al Qaeda leadership.” In other words, after years of dodging in and out of the Tora Bora caves, Osama bin Laden has become obsolete. Where once bin Laden ran al Qaeda like some Don Corleone wannabe, and his hand-picked apprentices were trained in Bin Laden’s Afghan Training Camp and Spa, the new al Qaeda is more akin to the leaderless anarchist groups that blew onto the international scene in the late 19th century. It not only lacks Osama’s quiet wisdom and guiding hand, but is younger, dumber, and motivated by factors quite distinct from those of its predecessor.
Over its nearly two-decade career, al Qaeda has proved highly adaptable, changing its modus operandi no fewer than four times since its attacks commenced in the early ’90s. Indeed, the terrorists are now finding it necessary to change their operational model after every significant attack. The result is that the jihadists are able to stay one-step ahead of the West’s bumbling security services, who have had a rather trying time predicting future models of attack.
The change was inevitable, and a long-time coming. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda lost its key infrastructure, including its government support, its headquarters, training camps, you name it. Since then bin Laden has been on the lam and hardly in a position to lead a global jihad. Instead, he is now seen more as a fund-raising figurehead. Today, the Internet has replaced bin Laden as a magnet around which to “pull together the shattered remains of the organization that operated before the invasion of Afghanistan,” Lt. Gen John Abizaid tells the BBC.
In 1996 a British gent named Babar Ahmad pioneered al Qaeda Online (a lovely site that showed beheadings, kidnapped victims’ pleas and served as a fundraising mechanism for terror groups) from his comfy office at Imperial College in London. (My, terrorists do seem to have a strong affinity for Western universities.) U.S. prosecutors say they can link Ahmad to the Taliban and Shamil Basayev, the Chechen terrorist behind the Beslan school attack. He has since run for a seat in the British parliament, and, from behind the walls of a British prison, established another website to spread his anti-American tosh, while he fights extradition to the U.S.
TODAY’S AL QAEDA has turned from employing sleepers and foreign students to recruiting young, homegrown, locally radicalized Muslims, as in the London bombings, and the Egyptian and Saudi Arabia attacks. “Previously, such a feat could only have been accomplished by the core al Qaeda organization,” the report notes. “For a grassroots network to accomplish that feat, without direct involvement from the central leadership, would represent a generational leap forward in jihadist operations.”
The Canada 17’s pre-empted attacks would have featured this new model. Here was a well-connected cell, part of an international network with links to jihadists in the U.S. and Britain. Significantly, the new al Qaeda sympathizers have moved their base of operations to Canada, which has more liberal immigration and asylum policies than the U.S. (if such is possible), and avoids the interference of that meddlesome Patriot Act.
The new al Qaeda, however, has an agenda far different from that of its predecessors, who were radicalized while beating up on the Red Army in Afghanistan, and sought nothing less than the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate. The new jihadist couldn’t care less about the Caliphate, and has as his motivation anger over the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and, of course, the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
Al Qaeda may be changing its tactics, but some things remain disturbingly the same. The U.S.’s ally Pakistan is still home to terrorist training camps (as are the Philippines and Palestinian-controlled Gaza). The jihadists are still targeting symbolic sites and high profile persons. The Canada 17’s targeting of the Canadian prime minister calls to mind Abdel Basit’s plots to kill Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton. The terrorists continue to utilize low-tech, indigenous materials, like ammonium nitrate, which Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing. Thus al Qaeda can avoid the risk of smuggling weapons into a target country, using whatever’s available, whether that be jets, fertilizer or the Spanish-made explosives used in the Madrid attacks.
The new al Qaeda is clever, ruthless and slippery, but not necessarily bright and well organized. Young jihadists seem to have no reservations about using Internet chat rooms, which make it rather easy to track them. (Fortunately it is still legal for the FBI to log onto jihadist websites.) When contacts of the Canada 17 were rounded up last year, the alleged terrorists stupidly pressed on with their plans, instead of going underground.
It no longer makes sense to refer to these disparate groups as al Qaeda, solely because they are sympathetic to a few of the same objectives as Osama bin Laden. Though I suspect the label will persist since everyone easily recognizes “al Qaeda” as the bad guy, and the name has the connotation and weight of “Nazi,” or “Stalinist” and therefore remains useful, if misleading. The fact is al Qaeda, as we knew it, is a thing of the past. Today’s terrorists are simply herds of rogue elephants fighting what they are convinced is a romantic and holy cause against the infidel. And, all things considered, they are not doing too badly.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor and runs the Existential Journalist.