Al-Qaeda’s Next Generation: Less Visible and More Lethal

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 18

Experts speculate widely about the composition and tactics of the next generation of mujahideen. This speculation stems from the fact that transnational groups are harder collection targets than nation-states. Such ambiguity and imprecision is likely to endure indefinitely, and is particularly worrisome concerning “next-generation” terrorism studies.

Osama bin Laden has been planning for the next generation of mujahideen since he began speaking publicly in the mid-1990s. Bin Laden has always described the “defensive jihad” against the United States as potentially a multi-generational struggle. After the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden explained that, even as the anti-U.S. war intensified, the torch was being passed from his generation to the next. “We have been struggling right from our youth,” bin Laden wrote in late 2001:

“We sacrificed our homes, families, and all the luxuries of this worldly life in the path of Allah (was ask Allah to accept our efforts). In our youth, we fought with and defeated the (former) Soviet Union (with the help of Allah), a world super power, and now we are fighting the USA. We have never let the Muslim Ummah down.

“Muslims are being humiliated, tortured and ruthlessly killed all over the world, and its time to fight these satanic forces with the utmost strength and power. Today the whole of the Muslim Ummah is depending (after Allah) upon the Muslim youth, hoping that they would never let them down.” [1]

The question arising is, of course, what threat will the next generation of al-Qaeda-inspired mujahideen pose? Based on the admittedly imprecise information available, the answer seems to lie in three discernible trends: a) the next generation will be at least as devout but more professional and less operationally visible; b) it will be larger, with more adherents and potential recruits; and c) it will be better educated and more adept at using the tools of modernity, particularly communications and weapons.

Religiosity and Quiet Professionalism

The next mujahideen generation’s piety will equal or exceed that of bin Laden’s generation. The new mujahideen, having grown up in an internet and satellite television-dominated world, will be more aware of Muslim struggles around the world, more comfortable with a common Muslim identity, more certain that the U.S.-led West is “oppressing” Muslims, and more inspired by the example bin Laden has set—bin Laden’s generation had no bin Laden.

While leaders more pious than bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are hard to imagine, Western analysts tend to forget that many of bin Laden’s first-generation lieutenants did not mirror his intense religiosity. Wali Khan, Abu Zubaidah, Abu Hajir al-Iraqi, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, and Ramzi Yousef were first generation fighters who were both swashbuckling and Islamist. Unlike bin Laden and Zawahiri, they were flamboyant, multilingual, well-traveled, and eager for personal notoriety. Their operating styles were tinged with arrogance—as if no bullet or jail cell had been made for them—and each was captured, at least in part, because they paid insufficient attention to personal security. Now al-Qaeda is teaching young mujahideen to learn from the security failures that led to the capture of first-generation fighters.

“The security issue was and still is one of the aspects that most influence the practical course of the conflict [with the West] and one of the fronts that most affect the war’s outcome. As long as the Islamic movement does not take this aspect seriously, the promised victory will continue to lack the most important means for its realization.

“What is required is that the security consciousness be present with a strength that causes it to mix with the natural course of daily action.… However, a consideration of history and a study of events lead us to conclude that the enemy’s gain in the security conflict [with al-Qaeda] basically cannot be due to the extraordinary strength of those organizations or to the superior skill of those in charge of them. They are derived from the state of defenselessness caused by the sickness of [security] laxity in Islamic circles!” [2]

The rising mujahideen are less likely to follow the example of some notorious first-generation fighters, and more likely to model themselves on the smiling, pious, and proficient Mohammed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military commander, killed in late 2001 and, to this day, al-Qaeda’s most severe individual loss. A former Egyptian security officer, Atef was efficient, intelligent, patient, ruthless—and nearly invisible. He was a combination of warrior, thinker, and bureaucrat, pursuing his leaders’ plans with no hint of ego. Atef’s successor as military commander, the Egyptian Sayf al-Adl, is cut from the same cloth. Four years after succeeding Atef, for example, Western analysts cannot determine his identity—whether he is in fact a former Egyptian Special Forces colonel named Makkawi—or his location—whether he in South Asia, Iraq, or under arrest in Iran. Similarly, the Saudis’ frequent publication of lengthening lists of “most wanted” al-Qaeda fighters—many unknown in the West—suggests the semi-invisible Atef-model is also used by Gulf state Islamists. Finally, the U.K.-born and -raised suicide bombers of July 7, 2005 foreshadow the next mujahideen generation who will operate below the radar of local security services.


At the basic level, the steady pace of Islamist insurgencies around the world—Iraq, Chechnya and the northern Caucasus, southern Thailand, Mindanao, Kashmir and Afghanistan—and the incremental “Talibanization” of places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and northern Nigeria, ensure a bountiful new mujahideen generation. Less-tangible factors will also contribute to this bounty.

-Osama bin Laden remains the unrivaled hero and leader of Muslim youths aspiring to join the mujahideen. His efforts to inspire young Muslims to jihad against the U.S.-led West seem to be proving fruitful.

-Easily accessible satellite television and Internet streaming video will broaden Muslim youths’ perception that the West is anti-Islamic. U.S. public diplomacy cannot negate the impressions formed by real-time video from Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan that shows Muslims battling “aggressive” Western forces and validating bin Laden‘s claim that the West intends to destroy Islam.

-The adoption of harsher anti-terror laws in America and Europe, along with lurid stories about Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison, and the handling of the Qur’an will give credence to bin Laden’s claim that the West is persecuting Muslims.

-The ongoing “fundamentalization” of the two great, evangelizing monotheist religions will enhance an environment already conducive to Islamism. The growth of Protestant evangelicalism in Latin America, and the aggressive, “church militant” form of Roman Catholicism in Africa, has and will revitalize the millennium-old Islam-vs.-Christianity confrontation, creating a sense of threat and defensiveness on each side.

Compounding the threat posed by the next, larger generation is the possibility that analysts underestimated the first generation’s size. Western leaders have consistently claimed large al-Qaeda-related casualties; currently, totals range from 5,000-7,000 fighters and two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s leadership. If the claims are accurate, we should ponder whether the West has ever fought a “terrorist group” that can lose 5,000-7,000 fighters, dozens of leaders, and still be assessed militarily potent and perhaps WMD-capable? The multiple captures of al-Qaeda’s “third-in-command”—most recently Abu Ashraf al-Libi—and the remarkable totals of “second- and third-in-commands” from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization suggests the West’s accounting of Islamist manpower—at the foot soldier and leadership levels—is, at best, tenuous.


Recent scholarship suggests al-Qaeda and its allies draw support primarily from Muslim middle- and upper-middle classes [3]. This helps explain why bin Laden places supreme importance on exploiting the internet for security, intelligence, paramilitary training, communications, propaganda, religious instruction, and news programs. It also points to the West’s frequent failure to distinguish between the Islamists’ hatred for Westernization—women’s rights and secularism, for example—and their openness to modernity’s tools, especially communications and weaponry.

Several features of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s forces demonstrate that the mujahideen embrace modern tools. Two-plus years after the U.S. invasion, for example, Zarqawi’s technicians continue building Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and car bombs that defeat the detection/jamming technology fielded by U.S. forces. Indeed, each new iteration of defensive technology has been trumped by improved insurgent weaponry.

Zarqawi’s media apparatus is likewise the most sophisticated, flexible, and omnipresent U.S.-led forces have encountered since 9/11. Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq’s media produce daily combat reports, near real-time video of attacks on coalition targets, interviews with Zarqawi and other leaders, and a steady flow of “news bulletins” to feed 24/7 satellite television networks. In doing so, Zarqawi’s media are telling the Muslim world al-Qaeda’s version of the war professionally, reliably, and in real-time. So good has Zarqawi’s media become since joining al-Qaeda that it is fair to assume the most important help he has received is from bin Laden’s world-class media organization.


Despite satellites, electronic intercept equipment, and expanding human intelligence, the West does not understand al-Qaeda the way it knew the Soviet Union. Transnational targets are substantially more difficult collection targets than nation-states. We are, for example, unlikely to build an accurate al-Qaeda order-of-battle or recruit assets to penetrate the al-Qaeda equivalent of Moscow’s politburo. As a result, Western analysts must closely track broad trends within al-Qaeda and its allies, and the trends toward greater piety, professionalism, numbers and modernity merit particular attention.


1. Osama bin Laden, “Message to Muslim Youth,” Markaz al-Dawa (Internet), December 13, 2001.

2. Sayf-al-Din al-Ansari, “But Take Your Precautions,” Al-Ansar (Internet), March 15, 2002.

3. See especially, Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Robert Pape, Dying to Win. The Logic of Suicide Terrorism, (Random House, 2005).