September 5, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Many Faces of al-Qaeda

. As of early September 2012, the emotional force of the term "al-Qaeda" (AQ) endures in the post 9/11 era of terrorism and asymmetric conflict, stirring visions of unprecedented killing on a sudden and massive scale. In addition to the September 2001 attack on the U.S. homeland, the Qaeda organization that existed from roughly mid-1990s to early-2000s under the leadership of Usama bin Laden (UBL) carried out attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar As-Salam, Tanzania, in August 1998; against the USS Cole in October 2000; the maritime hit on the M/V Limburg in Oct 2002; and terror plots both executed and attempted in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2003. Moreover, AQ endeavored to carry out several lesser known plots such as the attempt to smuggle Sagger anti-tank missiles into Saudi Arabia for use against U.S. personnel in early 1998, the initial "ships operation" to attack four separate targets of U.S.-flagged vessels in the Arabian Sea in 2000, and a four-pronged plan to hit targets in the U.S. west coast and locations in Southeast Asia as part of the original "planes operations" that would ultimately become the 9/11 attack.


The Authentic al-Qaeda

This particular AQ refers specifically to the terrorist organization with its Shura Council of primarily Egyptians who were with UBL since the Afghanistan jihad front against the Soviets in the late 1980s, through his exile to Sudan in the early-mid 90s, on to his next exile in Afghanistan from 1996, and through the time of his dispersal order for the remaining Arab AQ fighters in December 2001 (when UBL began his underground exile period which ended with his death in Pakistan in 2011). The AQ Shura Council later included some Egyptians who were part of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad which formed a coalition with AQ in 1998.

That AQ was highly centralized: activities were formulated, reviewed, and recommended by the operations and military committees, and all funding and operational activities required UBL's approval. With its success against land, sea, and air targets, AQ saw itself consecrated as the vanguard and exemplar for fighting the enemies of Islam. Consequently, this overreach was affirmed when UBL and his Shura confidants revealed their abject underestimation of both the American and worldwide reaction to 9/11, which brought about not only AQ's quickly diminished capability as a transnational threat, but its current strategy of hide and survive while pining for the status quo ante.  

Of prime importance to understanding the AQ saga is that there was a key element related to its capability that existed prior to 9/11, but does not endure today: it could train, organize, and execute terror operations with impunity from the sanctuary the Taliban provided in Afghanistan.

In the times that have exponentially changed since 9/11, "al-Qaeda" has become an all-too-ready term of convenience, a sort of broad brush painted across much more nuanced and often highly localized landscapes. The Soufan Group has written about the pitfalls of applying anecdotes and false linkages to past events when trying to drill down into current crises and threats. Though often inspired by "AQ-ism," most on-going conflicts today — where non-state violent extremists employ terrorism as modus operandi — are much more about the immediate and regional struggle. This is of vital significance as too often otherwise well informed policy and decision makers might be wrongly influenced in assessment and action when the term AQ is attached. When a terrorist group or event is termed Qaeda or "AQ-affiliated," an informed decision-making process demands a closer look at the elements involved...and moving past the visceral response to the Qaeda of the last decade.


A Primer on "the Base"

Al-Qaeda, literally "the base" in Arabic, most likely came from the original term Al-Qa'ida Al-'Askariya, or "the military base."  Most recognized narratives indicate it referred to the training garrison for aspiring Arab fighters whom bin Ladin sought to organize and lead in support of Afghani and Pakistani mujahidin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. These "Afghan Arabs" were encamped in Jaji, Afghanistan, the location of a fateful battle where, in 1987, they held back a numerically superior Soviet military element that included the feared SPETNAZ special operations force. The shorthand of "al-Qaeda" subsequently became the widely accepted reference, and UBL cleverly leveraged its substantial brand-effect in his evolving ambitions to form a broader fight against what he labeled the apostate regimes of Arabia.

This is an important point to recall: UBL's post-Afghanistan agitation focused on the Saudi elites, which quickly transformed into an abject hatred of all things American, from a broad spectrum of that country's longstanding support for the ruling families throughout the Gulf to its major role in forcing him into the life of the unlikely ascetic — the privileged son whose piously motivated intentions were divinely inspired. Bin Ladin wholeheartedly embraced the most severe form of the salafi-takfiri-jihadi ethos, whereby in a profoundly Manichaean sense the religious justification for hate and murder unfolds in the following fashion: There is only one way, that of the Almighty, and we are the warriors for the sake of God. If you are against us, you are against God, and thus the only remedy is convert or face the sword.

But a significant part of this narrative was UBL's convenient co-opting of ever shifting causes designed to resonate with audiences not only in primarily Muslim populated countries but throughout the developing world. Among the wide-ranging themes he sought to embrace — and exploit — were Western colonization, humiliation of Arabs and Muslims, the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, political events in Lebanon, the evils of capitalism, and even environmental or "green" issues.


Precise Terminology; Precise Thinking

This is not to say that some remnants of the original AQ do not exist (or that they are no longer potentially lethal), but scale and current realities are critical considerations. The pre- and immediate post-9/11 AQ Shura council headed by UBL and including original (and proven) AQ deputies such as Abu Hafs al-Musri, no longer exists. Indeed, of the original guard only Sayf al-'Adel al-Musri, chief of security and special operations, and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, head of the religious committee, are believed to be still alive. Most significantly, there is no truly safe operational location for the remaining fragments of the organization. Even an exceptionally astute and organized terror network would be hard pressed to plan and train for an effective succession plan under such relentless pursuit by the U.S. and its allies.

Defining the evolution of UBL's Qaeda to its present form would include the broadly reviled Ayman Zawahiri as the de facto chief and some untold modest number of fighters whose names, when listed in open source reporting, reflect non-Arab ethnicity and a plausible reject status among longer established groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other jihad fronts. With resultant funding challenges and the strategy of  hiding to live (and, perhaps, fight) another day, operational effectiveness remains profoundly diminished. To apply the Qaeda label reminiscent of the capability that existed during the period of 1996 to 2001 to conflicts involving, variously, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other salafi-jihadi inspired elements is to misinform and distract from knowing the players in, and roots causes of, respective local conflicts.


A Meta-Analysis of al-Qaeda Today…and the Future

Conversely, this assessment should not be construed as a formal death notice for AQ, or more succinctly, Qaeda-ism, but a discussion of a more precise use of what is largely an anachronistic term. Other than AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), there is no other nominal AQ entity that current reporting would suggest is effectively executing UBL's design of goal-oriented war of the "far fight against the enemies of Islam," or even parroting his political grievances. AQAP remains somewhat of an exception in two ways. First, it has shown, at least for a short time, operational goals of a transnational nature (e.g., the underwear bomber and printer cartridge improvised explosive devices). Second, there remain a few active, legitimate old guard — though not leadership-level — AQ loyalists in Yemen, to include Qasim al-Rimi and Nasir al-Wuhayshi. At least al-Wuhayshi, from source reporting, was with UBL when he gave the "dispersal order" in December of 2001. However, even defining AQAP and its relation to the former AQ remains nebulous as the connection is unclear between the aspiring transnational group of the late Anwar Al-Awlaqi and the everyday fighting units of AQAP seeking to take over parts of Yemen.

When it comes to the broad spectrum of current conflicts in other locations — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sinai Peninsula, Syria, Iraq, North Africa, Mali, and Nigeria — it is evident that while the original AQ is simply not the factor it once once, "AQ-ism" most certainly is. Each of these local and regional conflicts requires an examination of how they came about, the ongoing internal and external factors, and how their activities are trending. To say, for example, that AQ is fomenting the recent horrific bombing campaigns in Iraq or that foreign AQ elements have a greater impact than local fighters among the Syrian opposition is patently superficial. There are as many contrasts as comparisons in these battlefronts. If there never existed the historically ephemeral phenomenon known as Qaeda, there would still be Sunni entities fighting against the new ruling elite in Iraq. Similarly, with or without AQ, motivated yet largely effete zealots would still seek to enter Syria, moved by an extremist religious call to work for the eventual installation of a new Islamic caliphate. Meanwhile, the Horn of Africa represents another example where the conflict between what is now called al-Shabab and opposing clans existed in some form before the ascent and nadir of AQ.   

It may be instructive to think in terms of communism, how it radiated from a core philosophy and then mutated into its various forms, often with stark differences in its local and regional interpretations, but never answering to a single master (despite Moscow's pretensions to the contrary). The dynamic of "AQ-ism" presents an interesting parallel. With its central tenets emerging from a profoundly extreme Sunni orthodoxy, and though it continues to influence regional conflicts, it is neither part of the underlying causes nor the catalyst for their continuation. Communism, though often portrayed as such, was never a monolithic force; neither, to be sure, is Qaeda.


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