Al-Qaida: end of the beginning

Audrey Kurth Cronin
11 September 2007

Yet another anniversary of 11 September has arrived, and the papers and airwaves are again full of anxious speculation about how democratic states, agencies and citizens are coping in the "war on terror." The question recurs: is al-Qaida's threat increasing or decreasing? But this is the wrong way to think about this challenge. The real question is: how will it end?

Audrey Kurth Cronin is senior research associate in the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University.
She has researched and written widely on issues of terrorism and security, including essays in International Security.

She is the co-editor (with James M Ludes) of Attacking Terrorism:Elements of a Grand Strategy (Georgetown University Press, 2004), and the author of the forthcoming book, How Terrorism Ends: Lessons from the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups

It is impossible to make good counter-terrorism policy unless we understand how terrorist campaigns end and work backwards from there. Throughout history, terrorism has been most effective as a strategy of leverage that draws its power from the actions of states. When democratic governments acquiesce to that framework it is almost impossible to win, because then their actions enter a dynamic that they do not control. Democratic states and their citizens think obsessively about how and what al-Qaida is doing, and how they should react. This is understandable, even necessary, if the goal is to only to prevent or respond to the next attack. But that kind of tactical thinking does not add up to a strategy and certainly does not serve long-term security interests.

The way to remove counter-terrorist policy from this dysfunctional dynamic is to understand how terrorist campaigns have actually ended, and drive toward that goal. In thinking about how other organisations that used terrorism have ended, it is possible to see al-Qaida in a different light.

The pattern of demise

There is no denying that al-Qaida continues to be a very serious threat. It is comprised of three consistent elements: a core central group of leaders and strategists who are Osama bin Laden / Ayman al-Zawahiri's direct associates, a nebula of more traditional groups that are formally or informally aligned (often called the "network"); and localised factions (even individuals) who have no physical contact with the centre but associate themselves with the worldview and label of "al-Qaida." All three aspects of al-Qaida have become stronger in response to mistakes made by the west. On the sixth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 tragedy, it is right to reflect on this sad fact, learn from the errors of these years, and do everything reasonable to keep ourselves safe.

But that is not enough if the goal is to formulate an effective strategy to counter the threat. Al-Qaida has clear vulnerabilities that become obvious when it is viewed from the perspective of the typical patterns of demise for other, comparable groups. I have just finished writing a book called How Terrorism Ends: Lessons from the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups. From my research, I here select just three historical parallels (there are dozens more) that apply to al-Qaida: its doctrinal infighting, its poor operational control, and its lack of unity.

First, the infighting that was so apparent in the declining months of predecessors - such as the Italian and German leftwing groups (the Red Brigades and Red Army Faction), the Provisional IRA, the Front de libération du Québec, the Abu Nidal Organisation, Combat-18 - is utterly endemic to this movement and has been from the outset. This is a huge problem for al-Qaida, which has at its heart a belief in a single Salafist interpretation of Islam, as well as a strong distaste for anything that smacks of democratic pluralism.

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

Malise Ruthven: "'Born-again' Muslims: cultural schizophrenia" (27 September 2001)

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)

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy" (18 December 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)

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "Towards the real al-Qaida" (10 September 2007)

One element of internal discord, for example, is the issue of whether or not it is acceptable to kill Muslims, particularly women, children and the elderly. This theme appears over and over again in jihadist chatter on the web, usually in the form of criticisms after specific operations. The usual response is that the violence is religiously sanctioned and necessary, and in any case can be laid at the feet of Israel and the west. But the regular and evident defensiveness of al-Qaida strategists about these actions demonstrates a real vulnerability.

Other flashpoints include whether or not it is right to call other Muslims apostates, to attack the economy of Muslim states, or to create political and social disorder. Sectarian disputes are likewise common, and not just in Iraq: in captured training videotapes, Abu Musab al-Suri, architect of the flat hierarchical structure and "individual terrorism" of al-Qaida's post-9/11 periphery, spurns any form of cooperation between Shi'a and Sunni, arguing that Shi'agroups like Hizbollah in Lebanon have had a negative influence on the Palestinians. In short, and just like many of its predecessors, this movement is full of deeply-held divisions that erupt in bitter arguments and could easily lead to its undermining.

Second, loss of operational control, the element that facilitated the implosion of terrorist groups as disparate as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Brigades, is another serious threat to al-Qaida's viability. In this respect, al-Qaida's tripartite structure is also its vulnerability. Those in the core are clearly most responsive to its agenda and control; but the leaders do not have operational control over all elements calling themselves "al-Qaida". The network of new and established groups has a pot-pourri of local organisations, some of whom act without direction or even permission from the centre.

True, al-Qaida has never aspired to have total control over its elements; it was meant to be a resource and catalyst, not a military hierarchy. Yet, actions taken in its name often work against its agenda. The lessons of how terrorism ends indicate that it is clearly in the interests of those who oppose al-Qaida to take advantage of the movement's direct and indirect responsibility for attacks that offend and hurt Muslims. Whether or not operational control actually exists, the actions taken by local groups that claim an association with al-Qaida reflect upon the al-Qaida movement overall and are a serious vulnerability.

Third, there is clear lack of unity in this disparate international movement packed with ideological discord. Therefore calling al-Qaida itself "an ideology", as some in the west like to do, is unhelpful from a counter-terrorism perspective; there are many crucial differences of opinion among the groups that, formally or informally, call themselves "al-Qaida".

Many groups are far more interested in local political aims than they are in the rhetoric of al-Qaida. There are vast differences in the motivations, worldviews, tactics, and aims of groups such as the Harkat-ul Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh, the Philippines' Abu Sayyaf, the Eastern Turkistan Islamist Movement (in the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region of China), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (Pakistan-based), for example - all of whom have some association with al-Qaida. Even those who have more recently professed their loyalty to bin Laden, including Allah's Brigade (Palestine), the Al-Qaida Maghreb Commandment (Morocco), and the Brigades of Kurdistan (Iraq) differ in their specific local aims. And yet it is in the interests of local groups to align themselves, at least in their public pronouncements, with the vaunted al-Qaida logo.

Dangerous, but not immortal

Analysts and policy-makers do themselves no favours by glossing over these differences and loosely describing the responsible agents as "al-Qaida", or for that matter implying that all groups that use terrorism are al-Qaida. There is a strong argument to be made for not even using the name in many circumstances, since unity is not what this movement represents. Yet, how we refer to this threat matters, because it suggests a narrative that guides our efforts.

offers regular comment and analysis on global terrorism and democratic and state responses, including a daily security briefing with a worldwide remit The mistake here is exactly the same as that made in the 1950s and early 1960s when politicians and observers lumped the Chinese and the Soviets together under the single, reductive category of "international communists". It was only after the attempt was made to understand the differences between them - including doctrinal disputes, nationalist interests, competitions for influence in the "third world", and divergent strategic ambitions - that democratic states and citizens were able to begin to build an effective response that took advantage of those points of leverage.

Policy-makers respond (very humanly) to popular passions and anxiety in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. But fear is exactly what terrorism is designed to exploit. Al-Qaida is dangerous, but it is not immortal. We can inoculate ourselves against the psychological manipulation of terrorism and think more clearly about how to formulate effective counter-terrorism strategy by focusing on how terrorism ends.

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