Can al-Qaeda Endure Beyond bin Laden?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 20

The question of al-Qaeda’s longevity after the demise of its figurehead is ultimately unanswerable until bin Laden is actually gone. There are those who believe bin Laden is dead—which would surely be one of history’s best kept secrets—and argue that al-Qaeda has proven its survivability. While never saying never, it seems exceedingly likely that bin Laden is alive, and on that presumption the following analysis is based.

Man or Organization

Too often, al-Qaeda’s post-bin Laden future is discussed solely on the basis of who will place him. It is asked whether the successor will have bin Laden’s intelligence, charisma, and jihadi credentials. Or, can Zawahiri, Sayf al-Adl, Zarqawi, one of bin Laden’s sons, or a now-unknown mujahid fill the top position? Thus, much of the analysis about a new al-Qaeda leader’s impact focuses on personalities and their respective strengths and weaknesses, and frequently fails to examine the nature of the organization bin Laden’s successor will inherit.

The al-Qaeda organization, as all know, was formed in the last months of Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan, around mid-1988. Bin Laden played the lead role in its formation, but his colleagues—Wali Khan Amin Shah, Abu Hajir al-Iraqi, Wael Julaidan, Muhammed Jamal Khalifah, etc.—also played a part. What was the group’s goal in establishing al-Qaeda? It was meant to maintain the Islamist momentum attendant to the Red Army’s defeat. It was also intended to be an organization governed by Islamist principles. Furthermore, it was meant to be patterned on the Afghan Islamist insurgent groups—those of Khalis, Hekmtayar, Sayyaf, and Masood—which had defeated the Soviets. (It always is worth noting that al-Qaeda is not modeled on a terrorist group.) Finally, from its inception, al-Qaeda has targeted the United States.

Yet, the foregoing are intentions to be accomplished, they are not the basic reason for al-Qaeda’s creation. The best phrase to describe why al-Qaeda was created is “long-term durability.” At the most fundamental level, al-Qaeda’s founders wanted to build an organization that would preserve and—here bin Laden’s CEO talents came into play—institutionalize the mechanisms built during the 1980s to support the Afghan mujahideen and, once institutionalized, use them to support militant Islam worldwide. How to enumerate these mechanisms is an open question, but it fair to list five mechanisms that al-Qaeda’s founders thought essential to the long-term durability of their organization, regardless of who was serving as its chief.


The Afghan jihad was expensive, and bin Laden saw this reality first hand. Bin Laden, moreover, was directly involved in the funding process, serving early in the war as a channel through which private and official Saudi monies went to the mujahideen. (Bin Laden’s counterpart in funding was Shaykh Abdullah Azzam, who brought money from the non-Gulf Middle East and the Muslim Brotherhood.)

By the Afghan war’s mid-point, moreover, bin Laden and other Arab mujahideen began forming all-Arab insurgent units. While it is likely that Pakistani intelligence diverted some official U.S. and Saudi funds to the groups, bin Laden has explained that the Arabs did not want to be tainted by U.S. support and so developed funding sources and channels independent of those supporting the Afghans.

Since the end of the Afghan war, al-Qaeda’s funding capability has been solidified and expanded on the basis that established it in the 1980s. Al-Qaeda’s worldwide growth and multifaceted activities—attacking America, supporting Islamic insurgencies, training fighters, etc.—demanded reliable funding. The group’s well-documented record of success suggests funding is ample and that the channels carrying the funds are hidden and not susceptible to interdiction.


Many wealthy Muslims were willing buy weapons for the Afghans but were unwilling to work with Riyadh or the U.S. government. Faced with this reality, bin Laden and other Arabs crafted a weapons-procurement system for the Afghan mujahideen that, like the funding mechanism, ran parallel to the U.S.-Saudi system. Bin Laden and his colleagues ran this parallel mechanism and used it to arm the Afghans and themselves. Before al-Qaeda was formed, therefore, its leaders were well-versed in clandestine procurement and transportation of arms, communications gear, and military accoutrements.

Since 1988, bin Laden and his lieutenants have improved their procurement system to accommodate the al-Qaeda group‘s needs, as well as to arm its allies. There is no evidence that al-Qaeda and its allies have ever suffered more than a temporary shortage of conventional weapons. Al-Qaeda also has created a second, separate procurement channel for acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD), particularly nuclear weapons. This system benefits from al-Qaeda’s successful recruitment of scientists, engineers, technicians, and hands-on practitioners of building such weapons from, at least, Pakistan’s WMD programs. The extent of this second system’s success is not known, but if the targeted application of money, time, expertise, and leadership pressure can yield success, it would be a mistake to assume that WMD-acquisition is too difficult for a non-state actor like al-Qaeda.

Manpower and Logistics

Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and their colleagues began their jihad careers building and managing a network that supplied men for the Afghan war. Bin Laden et al. brought non-Afghan Muslims from across the Islamic world to Pakistan to serve as fighters and as workers in hospitals, arms dumps, refugee camps, clinics, and NGOs. Their effort was successful and created a network of travel routes, trusted facilitators, and way stations where jihad-bound travelers could be succored. By war’s end, this system had matured to the extent that very few volunteers could not reach the jihad.

At its founding, al-Qaeda faced the task of turning this single-direction system—all roads led to Afghanistan—into one that could continue bringing men to South Asia for training, transport trainees to camps in Yemen and Sudan, and move trained fighters to combat theaters in Tajikistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. Al-Qaeda obviously succeeded in a systemic expansion which has accommodated ever larger numbers. Indeed, manpower never has been a problem for al-Qaeda; it is now present in 75-plus countries, has sizeable contingents in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has combat trainers, logisticians, and veteran fighters involved in most of the world’s Islamist insurgencies. Al-Qaeda’s manpower and logistical capabilities—like those for funding and procurement—can be described as effective and relatively immune from disruption.

Training and Personnel Services

Bin Laden’s 1988 operational priority was for al-Qaeda to train Muslim militants from around the world at the groups’ camps, and provide far-flung Islamist insurgencies with a cadre to train fighters locally and be a “stiffening agent” for local forces. The al-Qaeda cadre added to Taliban forces in 1996, for example, added skill and professionalism to Mullah Omar’s campaign against the Northern Alliance around Kabul. The al-Qaeda cadre had the same impact on Kashmiri insurgent forces in the late 1990s. Today, al-Qaeda’s training capability in Afghanistan is constrained, but the steady pace of combat in the insurgencies in the Philippines, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere suggests training remains an al-Qaeda priority and is being executed outside Afghanistan.

As for any military organization, al-Qaeda’s personnel services for combatants and their families are vital both to maintain morale and prevent disgruntled fighters or their families from publicly denigrating the group or, worse, providing information about it to the enemy. After a decade of war with the United States, we know little about how al-Qaeda’s personnel services work. We do know, however, that no individual has come forward in the media to attack al-Qaeda for the treatment he or she received from the group, nor have there been intelligence leaks about an ill-treated al-Qaeda fighter or family member providing information that damaged group—data Western governments surely would have leaked if it existed. On the other hand, anecdotal accounts abound of al-Qaeda providing health care and financial aid to the families of fighters killed in battle or absent on operations; doing everything possible to provide special care such as prosthetic devices for wounded fighters; and delivering monthly stipends to families of imprisoned fighters. In sum, al-Qaeda’s personnel services seem to help maintain high morale and stubborn loyalty toward the organization.


From al-Qaeda’s first day to the present, bin Laden’s priority has been to incite and instigate Muslims to support and participate in a defensive jihad against the United States and its allies. He and his lieutenants have spent large amounts of money, time and imagination to build a world-class media and propaganda apparatus. Today, that apparatus is in full operation. Bin Laden and Zawahiri appear on and dominate the international media at times of their choosing. As important, al-Qaeda’s multifaceted Internet presence keeps its religious views, political and ideological commentary, and news reports constantly before its most important constituency, the Muslim world’s computer-literate middle- and upper-middle classes.

Al-Qaeda also has used the Internet to drastically reduce the need for would-be mujahideen to travel to places like Afghanistan, Yemen, or Sudan for training. By mounting military and intelligence manuals on the Internet, al-Qaeda has created a situation where training can be conducted in virtually any country on earth, thereby increasing the chance of evading the eye of Western governments.


Al-Qaeda’s post-bin Laden effectiveness will, in significant measure, depend on leadership qualities of his successor. Realistically, there is little reason to think a potential successor will have the same credentials and talents that have powered bin Laden’s leadership. Yet, his successor may not need equivalent credentials and talents. Al-Qaeda is now a well-established, 17-year-old firm; indeed, the parts of it that developed from mechanisms that supported the Afghans against the Soviets have been operating for 25 years. In short, al-Qaeda is now what its founders intended: a reliable, professional organization that has demonstrated long-term durability. Thus, bin Laden’s successor will inherit a proven, well-functioning organization, one that will give him time to grow on the job without the need to spend most of his time keeping the organization running.