What the Organization's Subsidiaries Say About Its Strength
Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks. Before 2001, its history was checkered with mostly failed attempts to fulfill its most enduring goal: the unification of other militant Islamist groups under its strategic leadership. However, since fleeing
Still, most accounts of the progress of the war against al Qaeda contend that the organization is on the decline, pointing to its degraded capacity to carry out terrorist operations and depleted senior leadership as evidence that the group is at its weakest since 9/11. But such accounts treat the central al Qaeda organization separately from its subsidiaries and overlook its success in expanding its power and influence through them. These groups should not be ignored. All have attacked Western interests in their regions of operation. Al Qaeda in the
It is time for an updated conception of al Qaeda's organization that takes into account its relationships with its subsidiaries. A broader conceptual framework will allow for a greater understanding of how and to what degree it exercises command and control over its expanded structure, the goals driving its expansion strategy, and its tactics.
AL QAEDA'S LOST DECADE
Although al Qaeda had tried to use other groups to further its agenda in the 1980s and early 1990s,
By mid-1996, al Qaeda was a shell of an organization, reduced to some 30 members. Facing irrelevance and fearing that a movement of Islamist militants was rising outside of his control, bin Laden decided a "blessed jihad" was necessary. He declared war on
With no coherent ideology or manhaj to encourage unification under his leadership, bin Laden instead pursued a predatory approach. He endeavored to buy the allegiance of weaker groups or bully them into aligning with al Qaeda, and he attempted to divide and conquer the stronger groups. In the late 1990s, he tried and failed to gain control over the Khalden training camp, led by the militants
The only real success during this period was al Qaeda's mid-2001 merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by
By 2001, al Qaeda still had no formal branches or franchises. Its membership included a core of just under 200 people, a 122-person martyrdom brigade, and several dozen foot soldiers recruited from the 700 or so graduates of its training camps. These numbers made al Qaeda among the strongest of the 14 foreign militant groups operating in
MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS
His predatory approach to unification having failed, bin Laden sowed the seeds of a new strategy. He concluded that al Qaeda could force unity among foreign militants and draw in new followers by carrying out "mass impact" attacks against
The strategy worked at first. The U.S. invasion began in
After al Qaeda's flight from
They drew from takfiri thought, which justifies attacking corrupt regimes in Muslim lands, and on materials that outline the Muslim requirement to target the global enemy: in this case,
The inclusion of takfiri materials gave al Qaeda another advantage, because this literature stresses the need for militant groups to unify. There are two main streams of guidance on how this should be done. One focuses on seniority and holds that newer groups should merge with the oldest group, regardless of the capabilities of each. The other emphasizes capability. Al Qaeda seems to have favored the seniority argument, and after its merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, it could -- rather dubiously -- present itself as the senior militant group.
Newer groups were apparently willing to go along, even if they had greater capacity than al Qaeda. By late 2004, for example, Zarqawi's group in
Although the development of a coherent ideology and manhaj helped al Qaeda acquire franchises, negotiations with most groups were nevertheless drawn out because it proved difficult to agree on the parameters of operational autonomy. Al Qaeda's focus was on integration, unity, growth, and gaining strategic leadership in the militant milieu. The group viewed external operations against the West; keeping the jihad going, no matter how incrementally; and strategic messaging as the way to achieve these objectives. So even as they pursued local agendas, the franchises were required to undertake some attacks against Western interests, and leaders of groups joining al Qaeda had to be willing to present a united front, stay on message, and be seen to fall under al Qaeda's authority -- all crucial for demonstrating the organization's power and attracting others to its cause.
WHO'S THE BOSS?
Al Qaeda today is not a traditional hierarchical terrorist organization, with a pyramid-style organizational structure, and it does not exercise full command and control over its branch and franchises. But nor is its role limited to broad ideological influence. Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises. For their part, al Qaeda's core members focus on exercising strategic command and control to ensure the centralization of the organization's actions and message, rather than directly managing its branch and franchises. Such an approach reduces the command-and-control burden, because al Qaeda need only manage centralization on a broad level, which, with a solid manhaj already in place, can be achieved through strategic leadership rather than day-to-day oversight.
Al Qaeda exercises command and control mostly in relation to external operations. It requires its subsidiaries to seek approval before conducting attacks outside their assigned regions and specifies that its branch and franchises seek approval before assisting other militant groups with external operations. For the most part, they appear to follow these stipulations. While Zarqawi was at AQI's helm, he reportedly sought permission to expand his area of operation to include
In times of sustained pressure, al Qaeda has delegated significant responsibility for external operations against
When subsidiaries do carry out attacks outside their territories, al Qaeda requires that they be conducted within set parameters. For example, al Qaeda heavily encourages suicide attacks and repeated strikes on preapproved classes of targets, such as public transportation, government buildings, and vital infrastructure. Once a location has been authorized, the branch and the franchises are free to pursue plots against it. But al Qaeda still emphasizes the need to consult the central leadership before undertaking large-scale plots, plots directed against a new location or a new class of targets, and plots utilizing a tactic that has not been previously sanctioned, such as the use of chemical, biological, or radiological devices.
Al Qaeda has put these requirements in place to ensure that attacks complement, not undermine, its strategic objectives. Whereas AQAP appears to honor al Qaeda's authority, at times the franchises have acted on their own; AQI's unapproved bombings of three hotels in
Communication and coordination among al Qaeda's core, branch, and franchises occur mostly through their respective information committees, which have access to senior leaders, distribution networks to assist in passing information, and close ties to the operations section of each group, which is responsible for planning attacks (since attacks must be publicized). Messages from the branch and the franchises to the core then generally go through al Qaeda's second-tier leadership, which briefs Zawahiri, bin Laden, or both if the issue is urgent -- that is, involves gaining permission for external operations or resolving a conflict between or within the subsidiaries.
Because al Qaeda's second-tier leadership manages most of the group's interaction with its subsidiaries, the removal of either Zawahiri or bin Laden would not overly affect the unity among the organization's core, branch, and franchises, nor would it impede communication among them. So long as al Qaeda can continue to demonstrate its ability to lead and provide strategic direction, its organizational dynamics will likely remain unchanged. The emphasis on unity in al Qaeda's ideology and manhaj and a desire to maintain the status quo will likely allow the organization to hold together, even as it comes under more pressure from the West.
Although opening a regional branch and acquiring franchises has reinforced the position of al Qaeda and its ability to present itself as both the senior and the most capable Islamist militant group, it approaches new mergers warily. Al Qaeda learned a lesson about overreach in 2006, when it attempted to bring splinter groups from the
With the exception of
In the near term, aside from any efforts to bring
Because al Qaeda will continue to encourage its branch and franchises to carry out attacks and will continue to use the reactions they provoke to pursue its goals, it is important that the strategic picture of al Qaeda accurately reflect the organization's broad operating dynamics instead of wishful thinking about the central organization's degraded capacity. A large attack tomorrow orchestrated by the central leadership would prove wrong any assessments of diminished capabilities. Meanwhile, the enduring goals that drive al Qaeda's strategies and tactics, which have allowed the group to expand during the past decade of war, continue to be overlooked. Until al Qaeda's interaction with its branch and franchises is better comprehended and taken into consideration, assessments of its capacity and organizational health will continue to fall short.
LEAH FARRALL is a former Senior Counterterrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police and the author of the blog All Things Counter Terrorism.
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