As the violent attacks in Iraq have multiplied, it is becoming evident that the moniker “al-Qaeda” has been unwisely overused, adding to the potentially dangerous misrepresentation that the U.S. and its allies are facing a monolithic and unitary foe responsible for all Islamist violence on the globe. In fact, responsibility for attacks across the world points toward a completely different analysis. Based upon information from a variety of European sources, including the German foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Terrorism Monitor introduces the next generation of Osama bin Laden’s network.
Generation One: Down but not out.
The majority of agencies and open-source analysts agree that the original organization that was al-Qaeda has been severely degraded as a result of the military operations in Afghanistan that disposed the Taleban regime. From the very first point at which bin Laden became involved in recruiting and training fighters to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to his usurpation of the Bureau of Services for Mujahideen and its transformation into the Base (al-Qaeda), bin Laden required a safe-haven in which to operate his headquarters. He needed a home to the many training bases that his guerillas (and then later, terrorists) would pass through. His migration from Pakistan to Sudan and then to Afghanistan after 1989 testifies not only to his operational flexibility, but also to his need at every point to have a physical center for his organization.
While much has been made of the institutional and human weaknesses that led to the American security and intelligence failures prior to the 9/11 attack, it seems clear that the post-9/11 response has been to this point effective. Although bin Laden is still at large, six of the twenty-nine recognized top leaders of the original al-Qaeda structure are now dead and seven are in custody. The sheer fact that almost three years since the heinous hijackings, despite all its bluster and bin Laden’s various pronouncements, the organization has been unable to execute an attack of similarly catastrophic proportions, speaks to the operational weakness of the network. However, investigations of the still significant but somewhat smaller-scale bombings in Bali and Madrid indicate that the tactical initiative has moved to new, younger groups of fundamentalist terrorists that are less strictly linked to the original cadre of mujahideen fighters.
Generations Two and Three: an even harder-core adversary?
Demographically and socially, the core membership of the original al-Qaeda network is made up of individuals in their 40s or 50s, people tied to one another by the common experience of having fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In fact, their link to this war imbues (or at least imbued) them with a distinct status amongst Muslim fundamentalists. This was a monolithic and unitary structure, which functioned very much on the basis of personal acquaintance, but which, over time, has become a catalyst for newer and currently less globally-capable regional groups. The first regional group that sprang from under the patronage of original Arab mujahideen fighters, the so-called Afghan Arabs, was associated with the fighting in Bosnia. Numerical estimates by the BND put the original group at approximately 30,000 operatives, with the second generation numbering slightly less at 20,000. Here it should be noted that the majority of terrorist arrests made on the territory of the European Union since 9/11 have involved individuals in their 30s, most of the suspects having combat experience from the Balkans, and Bosnia in particular.
In the last few months, an even newer sub-set of terrorists which could be identified with al-Qaeda, or which identifies itself with the broader aims of the original group, has emerged. These Islamists are in one way or another tied to the fighting in Chechnya, or to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Usually in their 20s, they are not linked by any particular campaign or by having trained together in one of the original al-Qaeda camps. Rather, these Islamists have shared experience at certain universities dotted across the Arab and Muslim world, universities that are home to the more virulent strains of the fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Most often, these are establishments located in Pakistan. Very interestingly, in the case of some of the individuals that have been successfully identified or apprehended, these terrorists and potential terrorists are in fact the sons or sons-in-law of first generation members of the original al-Qaeda network. This is first and foremost an intellectual network, less reliant on the person-to-person contact so common to the original group. As a result, these cells have been found to be even more autonomous than was previously posited. They represent a broad outer circle, far more diverse than the original al-Qaeda network.
Aspects of the New al-Qaeda
The new generations of fundamentalist terrorists do not share the same group history as the ones the U.S. and its allies have been fighting most frequently since 9/11. The non-aligned nature of many of the new cells established in Europe and Austral-Asia, for example, have a more international identity, greater independence and looser structures. Almost all the 9/11 hijackers were of one nationality, Saudi Arabian. Today, however, law enforcement agencies are, more often than not, apprehending or learning of cells with an extremely heterogeneous make-up. Good examples of this are the group that attempted a gas attack on the Paris metro in 2003 and those responsible for the simultaneous bombings in March of the Madrid railway.
In fact, we now know that, contrary to the government line, the Hamburg cell which had provided logistical support to the 9/11 leader Mohamed Atta was not effectively dismantled after the attacks. Instead, it reconstituted itself in the months following in order to play a crucial role in the Madrid bombings more than two years later. Likewise, more and more cells have been unearthed, the members of which are from North Africa and Asia. This led one senior European intelligence specialist to state that: “It is not al-Qaeda that is the problem anymore. The next generation sees the original one as gone soft, or too vulnerable.”
Furthermore, a pattern seems to be emerging in regards to how these new iterations have managed to sustain themselves. Training facilities have moved from Central Asia to Asia: particularly Indonesia (the Sulawesi region especially), the Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal. And more often, it appears that operational planners have begun isolating specific Islamic centers, mosques or madrassas for operational targeting and recruiting. They take control of an existing facility, typically with the assistance of a radical Imam with a suitably fundamentalist or Salafi message, then turn this facility into a recruiting center for those that will be later sent to one of the new training camps. The creeping takeover of these centers reflects, in a methodological sense, the way in which the original Bureau of Services subsumed previously innocuous charities and organizations all over the globe before al-Qaeda was actually created.
While the wider world now busily dissects the findings of the 9/11 Commission, it seems that many of the recommendations touted as new and innovative responses to al-Qaeda may in fact already be out-of-date. Policymakers and practitioners will need to invent new tools to address the reality that the target has moved. We have effectively disabled the original organization, at least for the time being. However, the truth may be that, we are on the verge of witnessing the eruption of many more diverse groups on the world stage, groups which are less restricted by geographical and national ties than were their patrons.