By Meredith Potter
ON MAY 2, 2011, American operatives stormed a residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing al Qaeda commander Osama bin Laden. The immediate effect on the United States and its allies was psychological; retribution had been achieved after the grand plotter of the September 11 attacks eluded United States intelligence agencies for nearly a decade. Yet, despite this blow to al Qaeda leadership, the War on Terror is not over. In his remarks after the raid, President Obama said, “His death does not mark the end of our effort… al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.” Thus far, the post-bin Laden phase of the War on Terror has been plagued by uncertainties about al Qaeda’s senior leaders and their ties to regional al Qaeda nodes in Iraq, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Though Ayman al Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden in June, will he be, as Retired General Chrystal described bin Laden, an “iconic figure…whose survival emboldens al Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world?”
The al Qaeda Franchise
Al Qaeda, which means “the Base,” formed as the Soviets were retreating from Afghanistan in 1989. Bin Laden and his group of mujahedeen, primarily from the Arabian Peninsula, received American and Saudi funding to participate in expelling Soviet invaders, who had been in Afghanistan since 1979. In 1990, bin Laden volunteered his organization to help defend Saudi Arabia from a possible Iraqi strike. The Saudis rejected his offer; instead, they permitted US forces to use the country as their base during the Gulf War. Angered, bin Laden publicly disparaged the Saudi monarchy and was forced into exile in Sudan. Al Qaeda relocated to Afghanistan after the Taliban, who shares bin Laden’s literalist Islamic theology, came to power in 1996. Al Qaeda’s deadliest attacks prior to September 11 were the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole, which was docked in the Port of Aden off the coast of Yemen, in 2000.
Osama bin Laden sought to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Arab world by ridding the region of foreign influence and crafting a social order under an Islamic government akin to the Taliban. In his 2002 letter to the American people titled “Why We Are Fighting You,” he says, “you attacked us and continue to attack us,” and lists his grievances, particularly American support for Israel, Indian oppression in Kashmir, occupation of Muslim countries, and theft of oil. He targeted anyone he considered complicit in the advancement of the “Western agenda.” Before the Arab Spring, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was an al Qaeda target because of his dependence on Western aid. In January, protests in Tahrir Square deposed Mubarak without al Qaeda’s assistance.
Though established in Afghanistan, al Qaeda has spread throughout the Arab world, leading to the development of semi-autonomous “nodes” in Iraq, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Since 2004, regional groups with similar Salafi Islamic ideologies have been negotiating mergers with senior al Qaeda leaders. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) formally merged with al Qaeda in 2004, al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) formally merged with al Qaeda in 2006, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) formally merged with al Qaeda by combining the Saudi and Yemeni al Qaeda contingents in 2009.
Al Qaeda has adopted a franchise model in which they cede some authority to regional nodes in order to expand its reach throughout the Muslim world. Dr. Geoff Porter, the founder and director of North African Risk Consulting, says that senior al Qaeda leaders seek out Islamist organizations whose views and tactics align with their own. Though regional nodes are expected to conform to al Qaeda tactics and targets, for the most part, they are financially independent.
Al Zawahiri, who has succeeded bin Laden, seems unsure how to direct them. Today, terrorists are conducting attacks in pursuit of the Islamic caliphate envisioned by bin Laden without consulting al Zawahiri. Regional nodes are becoming increasingly independent. Al Zawahiri is ushering in an era of further decentralization between al Qaeda senior leaders and their operatives.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)
Even under bin Laden, al Qaeda struggled to control the actions of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi, whose target set included Americans, Iraqi Shi’a, members of Sunni resistance groups, and Sunni tribal leaders that refused to coalesce when confronted with his demands. The increasingly violent al Zarqawi sent suicide bombers to attack hotels in Amman, Jordan in 2005. In doing so, al Zarqawi alienated potential sympathizers.
Ultimately, bin Laden tamed al Zarqawi, but not before al Zarqawi damaged the jihad in Iraq. Though AQI has been declining since the United States killed al Zarqawi, the story of AQI speaks to al Zawahiri’s primary challenge: to prevent the regional nodes from straying from the tactics and targets that benefit al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has always had a tenuous relationship with al Qaeda senior leadership. They formally merged with al Qaeda on the fifth anniversary of September 11; since the merger, they have conducted attacks against national, regional, and Western targets. From 2008 to 2010, ties between senior leadership and AQIM worsened; they disagreed over the kinds of attacks that were being conducted in the Maghreb, and Algerian counter-terrorism efforts challenged AQIM. I interviewed Dr. Geoff Porter, the founder and director of North African Risk Consulting, who writes for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
The Politic: How did AQIM come to be?
Dr. Geoff Porter: For a while, the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC, did not want to align with al Qaeda, an organization with a global agenda, because GSPC had an Algerian focus. They wanted to topple the government in Algiers and restore the government there. Discussions between Abdelmalek Droukdal, the head of GSPC, and Ayman al Zawahiri, began in 2006. Bin Laden was always more cautious than al Zawahiri about sharing the al Qaeda name. After GSPC attacked a foreign oil service company in December 2006, thereby proving their mission was in line with al Qaeda’s goal of ridding non-Muslims from Muslim lands, the group became al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
The Politic: AQIM finances itself through kidnapping for ransom operations. In September 2010, AQIM said it would not negotiate for release of the French hostages it is holding; all negotiations, it said, had to be made directly through bin Laden. Is this evidence of AQIM and al Qaeda senior leadership drawing closer or is it evidence of AQIM attempting to revive a faltering relationship with senior leaders?
GP: It could be either of those things, but in 2009 and 2010, AQIM drifted away from carrying out sensationalist attacks against non-Muslims in the Maghreb, so I think it was probably evidence of AQIM attempting to revive a faltering relationship with al Qaeda senior leadership.
The Politic: Will al Zawahiri improve relations between AQIM and al Qaeda senior leadership? Al Zawahiri facilitated their merger.
GP: I am not sure. One of the things I wonder is to what degree al Qaeda senior leadership is facing or is going to face fundraising constraints because of the death of bin Laden. As a consequence of that, I wonder to what degree al Zawahiri will lean on the franchises. AQIM is phenomenally wealthy. They have earned bucket loads of money through kidnapping and ransom operations. It is possible that al Zawahiri, when faced with financial challenges will call upon AQIM to give back, but AQIM may not acquiesce. There may be opposition from leaders in the south.
The Politic: What does the Arab Spring mean for terrorism in North Africa?
GP: There is a broad argument that the Arab Spring has proven that al Qaeda is not the only vehicle for overthrowing Western puppets in the Middle East. Given that, AQIM is going to be at pains to prove that they are a useful movement for challenging authoritarianism in North Africa. I do not think AQIM is raiding Libyan weapon stockpiles, but there is no question that they will benefit from their eventual proliferation. Once they acquire Libyan weapons, they have three choices: (1) monetarize the weapons; (2) bolster their defensive posture to discourage raids; or (3) use the weapons for offensive purposes. There is no way to know which of these options they will pursue.
The Politic: What kinds of AQIM attacks should Washington prepare for in the near term? In the long term?
GP: I do not think AQIM has the capability to attack outside of North Africa. Marc Trevidit, France’s leading judge in counter-terrorism efforts against AQIM, recently declared AQIM incapable of attacking Europe. There might be an attempt to infiltrate Morocco which is a target rich environment, but Morocco has an aggressive counter-terrorism policy. It is important to keep AQIM in perspective. It has an al Qaeda affiliation, however, it is a group that consists of maybe 500 or 600 hardcore members trying to cover a geographic area that is roughly the size of Australia. The number of people they have kidnapped or killed is relatively small compared to other terrorists and violent non-state actors around the world. While it is an al Qaeda franchise, I think its affiliation with al Qaeda has inflated the importance we ascribe to it.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
AQAP, unlike the other nodes, is modeled closely after the original network bin Laden built in the 1990s. Nasir al Wihayshi, the leader of AQAP, served bin Laden as aid and secretary for four years before the two were separated at the Battle of Tora Bora in 2001. He was imprisoned, but in 2006, he and 22 other Yemeni captives escaped. Since 2006, al Wihayshi has overseen multiple plots to attack the American homeland. Anwar al Awlaqi, a dual citizen of Yemen and the United States, helped AQAP recruit jihadists until his death on October 14, 2011; he was killed during an American drone strike. I interviewed Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University, who synthesizes Yemeni affairs in his blog Waq al Waq. He was a member of the USAID conflict assessment team for Yemen and writes for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
The Politic: Why is AQAP interested in domestic American targets in addition to targets in the Arabian Peninsula, an idiosyncrasy that does not seem to have taken root in the other nodes?
GJ: There are different opinions on this. Keep in mind that al Qaeda went through two different iterations in Yemen. It was after his prison break in 2006 that al Wihayshi came back on the scene. Into 2007, 2008, and even 2009, the group was resurrecting al Qaeda from previous defeat. They applied what I would call a “lessons learned” approach. Some scholars and policymakers believe that AQAP is an organization that evolves over time and that they only became strong enough to target the United States in 2009, so at that time, the United States became part of their target set. Others believe that AQAP always had aspirations to attack the United States, but they lacked the talent. These theorists believe that AQAP acquired the talent required to attack the United States when it acquired Anwar al Awlaqi.
The Politic: What do you make of the death of al Awlaqi? Without him, what will become of Inspire, al Qaeda’s English language magazine?
GJ: His death will not be a particularly debilitating loss to AQAP. There are many people – still alive – that pose a greater threat to the West. However, he did fill a special role in reaching out to English speakers in the West. In that respect, al Qaeda has lost a voice. The idea that killing him has made Americans safer – I disagree with that.
The Politic: What kinds of AQAP attacks should Washington prepare for in the near term? In the long term?
GJ: We cannot prepare for eventualities. AQAP is innovative; numerous times, they have caught the United States off guard, which was the case with the Christmas Day bomb plot. They have carried out numerous attacks, so it is difficult to be prepared for specifics. Instead, we are increasing air and drone strikes in Yemen in the hope that we can keep AQAP at bay, and that this will prevent them from utilizing the space they have acquired. This is not a sustainable strategy in the long run.
The Politic: What does the Arab Spring mean for terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula?
GJ: At this point, we have a very messy situation in Yemen. We have an uprising that has gone on for months, we have an army that is split, and so there are still a number of different ways this could play out. I think the United States has to understand that we cannot simply look at Yemen through the prism of AQAP. We have to solve the political problem in Yemen first; first, there must be a political transition away from President Saleh, and then we can deal with AQAP. We have defeated al Qaeda in Yemen once, but we need to reform our policy in order to do so again.
Al Qaeda is struggling to make itself relevant in the Arab Spring. The organization has been unable to launch a spectacular attack for years. Al Zawahiri is likely to be unable to fundraise with the same alacrity as bin Laden; for that reason, he may expedite al Qaeda’s organizational deterioration. Bin Laden’s supporters were largely Persian Gulf Arabs, and though they loyally supplied bin Laden with fighters and finances, they are more skeptical of Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian who has always been a loose cannon compared to bin Laden.
Al Zawahiri faces the difficult task of ensuring that al Qaeda’s regional nodes pursue its modus operandi. When asked how senior leadership should control its regional nodes and affiliates, Mr. Johnsen and Dr. Porter have similar thoughts: if al Zawahiri does not carefully ally himself with loyal individuals, the al Qaeda franchise system will break down. Mr. Johnsen says, “as far as AQAP goes, one of the reasons bin Laden was so comfortable with the organization as it was set upfrom 2006 onwards was the individual in charge.” The leader of AQAP, Nasir al Wihayshi, was close to bin Laden. Mr. Johnsen says, “That personal tie gave bin Laden, and should continue to give al Zawahiri, confidence in AQAP.”
Dr. Porter says, “Bin Laden’s rationale, which was a legitimate one, was always to refrain from allowing organizations to use the al Qaeda name if he was not convinced that (1) they were likely to be successful in their efforts and (2) they were going to be loyal to him. Once you give someone the al Qaeda name, you cannot take it away from them. Al Zawahiri always played faster and looser with the al Qaeda name; given that, we may end up with a situation under al Zawahiri in which there are more al Qaeda franchises, but al Zawahiri will still lack an enforcement mechanism to ensure people are true Salafi jihadists, not criminals with local grievances.”
Though al Zawahiri is likely to facilitate further decentralization and disorganization within al Qaeda, the War on Terror is far from over. If al Zawahiri fails to fundraise, regional nodes will continue to operate independent of senior leaders in Pakistan. What types of attacks can we expect from al Qaeda’s regional nodes? Where should the United States direct its immediate counter-terrorism efforts? Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently described AQAP as posing the most immediate threat to the United States because of its interest in attacking the American homeland. In December 2009, a young Nigerian man tried to detonate a bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight to the United States. Last year, authorities thwarted an AQAP plot to blow up Chicago-bound cargo planes. However, in the immediate future, the US should also be concerned about lone wolf attacks, especially attacks conducted by individuals seeking retribution for bin Laden’s death. They are virtually impossible to predict.
Meredith Potter is a junior in Saybrook College.