The Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat
A must read!
James Phillips wrote a very important paper with an excellent summary on The Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat. His paper is based on his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats, and Capabilities on February 16, 2006.
- Terrorism is only a part of Osama bin Laden’s revolutionary strategy for imposing his harsh Islamic ideology on the Muslim world. A wide variety of radical Islamic groups have copied al-Jada’s terrorist tactics and share its radical Islamist ideology, which meas that “bin Ladenism” will outlast bin Laden.
- To defeat al-Qaeda, the U.S. and its allies must not only destroy its leadership, but also destroy its ability to recruit replacement by discrediting its violent ideology. The United States must put as much effort into the ideological struggle as it did during the Cold War.
- To discredit bin Laden’s ideology, Muslims must be convinced that his revolutionary program is unrealistic, imposes intolerable costs on Muslims, and that there is a better way to practice authentic Islam. These arguments must come from Muslim political, religious, educational, and intellectual leaders.
Al-Qaeda is a transnational Sunni Islamist terrorist network operating in over 60 countries around the world. At the center of the web is the core group, which I will refer to as Al-Qaeda Central (AQC), a disciplined, highly professional cadre of committed revolutionaries, which now probably consists of fewer than 1,000 dedicated members, and perhaps fewer than 500. Although it has become the most hunted terrorist group in world history since its September 11, 2001, attacks and has been severely degraded by substantial losses, it remains a resilient and potent threat to the United States.
AQC remains determined and capable of launching spectacular megaterrorist attacks against the United States, which it perceives to be the chief obstacle to its visionary plans to build a global Islamic state, a new caliphate. A disparate network of Islamic revolutionary groups are loosely affiliated with AQC and share its long-term goals and the broad outlines of its ideology, while focusing their efforts on attacking secular and moderate governments in the Muslim world, American and Western targets of opportunity, and moderate Muslim leaders in their respective fields of operations. Although they cooperate with AQC, support some of its operations, and receive AQC support for some of their operations, the affiliate groups function independently and generally concentrate on local or regional jihads, rather than waging war on a global basis.
A third tier of terrorist threats comes from loose collections of Islamic radicals who organize themselves for ad hoc attacks, sometimes with support from AQC, but often inspired by al-Qaeda’s example. These terrorist groups, such as the group that bombed the World Trade Center in February 1993 and the group that bombed the London Underground in July 2005, contain self-selected individuals with little or no terrorist training who may not belong to a formal organization and who coalesce for a limited campaign or even a single operation. Although their amateur status may limit their effectiveness, it can make them much harder to detect and counteract.
I will focus my remarks on Al-Qaeda Central, rather than its affiliates or loosely organized Islamic militants inspired by its actions.
Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants operate as an umbrella group to recruit, train, finance, and logistically support a diverse network of Islamic extremists united by a fanatic ideology that is cloaked in religious zealotry. While the foot soldiers are relatively easy to replace, the top leadership, drawn from a tight circle of “Afghan Arabs” who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, will be much harder to reconstitute because personal trust based on shared experience is so vital to its operations.
Now that they have been forced out of their Afghan caves and shorn of most of their Taliban allies, they are increasingly vulnerable to betrayal. The more bodyguards they retain for personal security, the more risk they take of detection or treachery. Communications and movement undoubtedly have become more difficult. The 2004 arrest of al-Qaeda communications coordinator Mohamed Naim Noor Khan in Pakistan has further degraded bin Laden’s ability to safely communicate with his far-flung organization.
Although bin Laden is the front man, he is more important as a spokesman and revolutionary icon than as the operational commander. One of the code names that he selected for himself was “The Contractor,” which suggests how he sees his own role. He delegates responsibilities to his followers, sometimes financing operations that are planned and conducted by semi-autonomous mid-level leaders within his decentralized organization.
The chief operational brains behind al-Qaeda is believed to be Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Egypt’s Al Jihad terrorist group which has merged with al-Qaeda. Egyptian militants, who acquired considerable terrorist experience in their long struggle with the secular regime in Cairo, provide much of Al-Qaeda Central’s top operational leadership.
Al-Qaeda recruits members through a progressive screening process. It is believed to have recruiters that travel to or are embedded in radical mosques, where they identify and befriend promising candidates. Often the candidates are selected to travel to foreign countries such as Pakistan or Yemen for religious education. Once there, they are isolated from former friends and family and offered more rigorous training for jihad. Al-Qaeda also recruits promising prospects from radical Islamic insurgent groups that it supports around the world. Iraq recently has become an epicenter for attracting, organizing, and training a new generation of battle-hardened revolutionary terrorists.
In recent years al-Qaeda and its affiliates have made increasing use of women as suicide bombers. Chechen groups have been most active in this regard, using “black widows” (some of whom claim to be the wives or relatives of insurgents killed in action) to attack Russian targets in Chechnya and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda’s organization in Iraq has used women suicide bombers in at least three attacks inside Iraq, including one mounted by a Belgian woman who converted to radical Islam. It also used an Iraqi woman in the November 9, 2005, suicide bomb attacks on three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Al-Qaeda affiliates also have used women in suicide attacks in Egypt and Uzbekistan. AQC probably will use women more extensively in the future due to their greater ability to slip through security perimeters and the heightened shock value which would amplify the publicity garnered by such attacks.