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Towards the real al-Qaida

About the author
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is deputy director and academic dean of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and adjunct professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

As the sixth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States has approached, talk of a reconstituted, strengthened, and resurrected al-Qaida have proliferated among officialdom, security experts, and the establishment media. The opening salvo of that discourse came in early April 2007 when the New York Times reported that al-Qaida has come to be working today precisely as Osama bin Laden had initially envisaged. By July, using language echoing the prescient August 2001 memorandum to President George W Bush (see CNN, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US", 10 April 2004), the US's national-intelligence council produced an estimate entitled "Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West".

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is the author of Understanding Al Qaeda: The Transformation of War (Pluto Press, 2006 and University of Michigan Press, 2006 )

Also by Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou in openDemocracy:

"The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy" (18 December 2006)

An examination of the recent evolution of the Islamist organisation indicates that it may well be that al-Qaida is working even better than its founders ever expected. Indeed, such a narrative of incremental success could just as well have been delivered every year since the autumn of 2001. True, there have been tactical setbacks: the loss of Afghan territory as a site for the training of its footsoldiers (as it had been throughout the 1990s), and the killing or arrest of a few senior and mid-level operatives (most of whom - notably Mohammed Atef, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh - had been involved essentially in the planning of the 9/11 attacks). But no significant - decisive and lasting - blows have been dealt to the group. For each tactical blow, al-Qaida has come to earn a strategic gain: retreat in Afghanistan but advance in Iraq; confined leadership but proliferating cells; curtailed physical movement but transnational impact; dedicated adversaries but expanding recruits.

Movement and message

Al-Qaida is thus arguably just as strong as it was in 2001, then enjoying its status of stealth menace largely ignored by its enemies, now mutated into a multifaceted global powerhouse whose opponents do not know what to be on the lookout for, where and when to expect it, and under what form to prepare for it. Such an outcome - surprising given the resources allocated to countering the movement, the urgency of the issue, and amount of attention devoted - is due, in large part, to the investment which al-Qaida has placed in its forward-looking strategy. While the dominant perception of the group's irrationality has persisted (many in the United States went from underestimating this enemy to trivialising it), al-Qaida has consistently been ahead of the game, leaving its foes guessing what its next move will be. Currently, it is its operational silence since summer 2005 that is perplexing (see "The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy", 18 December 2006). In that context, 2007 in particular has been characterised by a newfound emphasis on the part of the central al-Qaida leadership on reasserting control of its message.

United States-born al-Qaida "lieutenant" Adam Gadahn's tape of 29 May ("Legitimate Demands") and the group's number-two Ayman al-Zawahiri's ninety-three-minute video of 3 July ("The Advice of One Concerned") have so far been the highlights of this year's media campaign (during which al-Qaida's media branch, Mouassassat al-Sihab, released another forty-two audio or video messages). The recordings are increasingly sophisticated, featuring computer graphics (re-enacting attacks), statistical graphs (on Gulf economies), excerpts from documentaries (on the US-Saudi alliance), commentary on the group (by media analysts), and lengthy quotations from current-affairs books (Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack). In an indication of the group's ability to coordinate efficiently among its units, the group curtailed the reaction period in putting out its message from about six weeks in 2002-05 to an average ten days - issuing professionally-produced videotaped messages eleven days after Hamas's Gaza takeover in June 2007, and eight days after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege in Pakistan in July.

Also in openDemocracy on al-Qaida's character and strategy:

Murat Belge, "Inside the fundamentalist mind" (4 October 2001)

Omar al-Qattan, "Disneyland Islam" (18 October 2002)

Paul Rogers, "The al-Qaida perspective" (9 January 2004)

Faisal Devji, "Spectral brothers: al-Qaida's world wide web" (19 August 2005)

James Howarth, "Al-Qaida, globalisation and Islam" (20 January 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's standing" (22 March 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's fresh horizon" (5 April 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida: time on its side" (4 June 2007)

Johnny Ryan, "The militant Islamist call and its echo" (1 August 2007)

In this respect, there must be reservations as to the authenticity of the tape released on 7 September 2007 allegedly featuring Osama Bin Laden. Several aspects of it depart from al-Qaida's well-established communication pattern of delivering high-quality products unexpectedly to al-Jazeera's offices - among them the manner of its release (pre-announced, copy obtained by US authorities, excerpts leaked to an independent anti-terrorism research site) and the video's puzzlingly poor quality (for example, depicting the leader in an almost identical outfit as the October 2004 tape, the unconvincing matter of the darker beard, minimal motion, still image from minute 2 to minute 12:30 and from minute 14 to the final minute 26). It is rather puzzling that al-Qaida would spend the best part of the past two years improving its visuals to mark the comeback of its leader with the most amateurish tape it has yet produced.

A telling shift

As it is, the two years during which al-Qaida has been operationally silent (the group led no major international or regional attacks since London's on 7 July 2005) were thus those where its leadership seems to have asserted greater control of its activities and displayed faster velocity in responding to key international developments. Yet such efficient performance and survival by al-Qaida may paradoxically mask the tipping-point of the group's centralised control over both its "brand name" and the restrained and paced strategy Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri appear to be painstakingly assembling.

With more and more self-starting insurgent groups (the Islamic State of Iraq), fledging Islamist movements (the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, now renamed the Al-Qaida Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb), or new generation of radicalised-nationalists-turned-Islamists (the Lebanese Fatah al-Islam) seeking the "mother" al-Qaida's imprimatur and acting independently, it will inevitably become harder in the long run for Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to remain in full control of their movement.

A sense of such concern was noticeable in al-Zawahiri's video released in July 2007 in which the organisation's deputy leader took pains to explain to his "Iraqi brothers" of Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia that his "advice" of unity was offered "modestly" as regards matters to which they are "closer" than he is. This is a telling departure from the time (late 2005-early 2006) when instructions were given by the same al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to restrain his attacks on the Iraqi Shi'a. Ultimately, though, a phasing out of the "mother al-Qaida" - which may come out as a natural temporal factor or as result of the arrest or death of either Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri - is not necessarily something envisioned with apprehension by the group's leaders. The two men have repeatedly indicated that the movement should go on in their absence, and this would certainly be a way for them to ensure continuity of their activism ahead of their exit.

Before a build-down can ever commence in the war between the United States and its allies and al-Qaida - talk of non-military engagement or negotiations may or may never gain serious ground - the currently inflated sense of alarmism could act to suppress discussion of a possible trend: that for all its radicalism, al-Qaida might in the coming phases attract or spin off uncontrollable factions purportedly acting in its name. Just as the Irish Republican Army saw a radical splinter emerge from within it as it was opting out of a violence-centred strategy, the prospect of a less political, decentralised, younger, and even more violent "Real al- Qaida", which would displace the group we already know, is a worrying prospect in this stalemated conflict.


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