On May 29th, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) head General Michael Hayden declared that al-Qaeda has suffered "significant setbacks globally" including "strategic defeat" in Iraq and "near-strategic defeat" in Saudi Arabia -- an upbeat assessment that instantly spurred controversy among intelligence and counter-terrorism experts. The fracas over Hayden's remarks mirrors a similar, though less publicized debate among analysts monitoring the evolution -- or devolution -- of al-Qaeda's organizational structure and operations since the September 11th attacks. The main question: is al-Qaeda still a disciplined organization with a central command or a loose network of self-directed amateurs?
The dispute isn't purely academic -- al-Qaeda's current form and function will determine the course of future American counter-terrorism policy. If al-Qaeda has morphed into a virtual organization of amateur homegrown jihadis, quelling them becomes a largely internal matter best left to law enforcement. But if al-Qaeda still has a central command and a robust global network, they are capable of attacks that match -- and may surpass -- the horror of September 11th. Overcoming this threat means bringing the diverse instruments of American military, economic, and political power to bear. As each perspective warrants a vastly different strategic approach, the question of al-Qaeda's present state has provoked fierce debate.
A Leaderless Jihad?
At the center of the debate are the counter-terrorist community's two leading scholars, Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman. A former CIA officer and forensic psychiatrist, Sageman argues in his new book Leaderless Jihad that al-Qaeda's core operational capabilities are no more. What remains is a ragtag cohort of self-radicalized "wannabes" throughout the West and the greater Muslim world, unpredictable and dangerous but largely incapable of carrying out major attacks.
Though he warns against complacency, Sageman is largely dismissive of these homegrown jihadists. When it comes to mass-casualty terrorism, motivation is often a poor substitute for training, expertise, and experience. Reading demolitions manuals on the Internet does not automatically make a middle-class doctor a high-explosives expert, nor does watching YouTube videos of roadside bombings miraculously transform a pumped-up teenage radical into an urban guerrilla. Most importantly, self-radicalized terrorists lack the organizational infrastructure and strategic guidance that large-scale attacks like 9/11 require.
Sageman's book is a bold challenge to counter-terrorism's conventional wisdom. Many writers describe al-Qaeda as a decentralized network, but emphasize its complex logistical chain, communications systems, and affiliate groups -- all of which take strategic and ideological direction from a leadership cell. The complex interaction between these elements gives al-Qaeda a capability for its trademark mass-casualty strikes. But Sageman presents an image of a terrorist organization on its last legs. He argues that al-Qaeda's remnants will wither away in the face of law enforcement action and counter-radicalization efforts.
While experts such as Islam scholar Malise Ruthven and military analyst David Isenberg have applauded Sageman's study, terrorism theorist and Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman has attacked Leaderless Jihad in a blistering Foreign Affairs book review. Citing the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)'s annual threat assessment, Hoffman argues that al-Qaeda's "center" is alive and well. Within its secure base in the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), al-Qaeda plots to unleash mayhem inside the West. To Hoffman, Leaderless Jihad is a well intentioned yet foolhardy denial of the threat al-Qaeda still poses.
Al-Qaeda's operational strength comes from its organizational resilience and its uncanny ability to plan from the perspective of both the ground-level terrorist and the top commander. Here, Hoffman argues, lies the crux of the problem. As long as al-Qaeda's organizational chain and leadership core are intact, it can continue to guide its overseas networks and affiliates. In Hoffman's strategic analysis, grassroots terrorism is a sideshow that Sageman mistakes for the main event.
al-Qaeda's Hybrid Threat
So who's right? Are we fighting Sageman's networks of alienated miscreants, or is the al-Qaeda that we know and loathe from 9/11 still operational? The answer, surprisingly, is both. First, it cannot be denied that the al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself within the lawless Pakistani badlands. Ensconced within secure mountain bases and protected by Baluchi ethnic separatists and Taliban remnants, al-Qaeda's leadership is rebuilding its overseas networks and reactivating old assets. Bin Laden's Pakistani hideaway and logistics "kill chain" facilitates the training, support, and guidance of overseas networks throughout the Middle East and Europe.
These networks have not been idle since 9/11. Their bloody handiwork is evident in a series of suicide bombings that have ranged from 2003's attacks on American expatriates in Saudi Arabia to the 2005 London bombings. And, as Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Riedel observes, many more failed plots have been traced back to al-Qaeda's Pakistani lair. One plot, an August 2006 attempt to blow up ten airliners over the Atlantic, would have killed thousands and crippled (if not destroyed) the airline industry.
Al-Qaeda has also been busy destabilizing Pakistan itself. A motley alliance of ethnic separatists, Taliban, and al-Qaeda agents have waged a violent low-level insurgency against the Pakistani state and its civil society. The Pakistani military cannot quell this rebellion, and after suffering high casualties has largely stopped trying. Indeed, the al-Qaeda ally and Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud -- "unofficial Amir" of South Waziristan and mastermind of the Benazir Bhutto assassination -- flaunts his power for all to see. The latest al-Qaeda attack in its Pakistani terror campaign was the deadly June 2 car bombing of the Danish embassy in Islamabad.
Al-Qaeda's affiliate organizations have also wreaked havoc in the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia. It is important to emphasize that these organizations have only an ideological connection to their supposed patron -- but are just as dangerous. While never a major player in Iraq's factional game, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) seized the world's attention through a slew of bombings, massacres, and even low-grade chemical warfare employing chlorine. However, its tactics eventually led to a popular backlash. In Algeria, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, becoming al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They immediately set to work targeting Algerians and Western expatriates, killing over 50 in a series of bombings in 2007. Indonesian al-Qaeda affiliates Jemaah Islamiyah have killed hundreds of Indonesians and Western tourists and work in concert with other regional guerilla fronts.
Al-Qaeda's gruesome post-9/11 track record is a testament to its adaptability and the resonance of its virulent ideology. But al-Qaeda's violent return has been paralleled by the rise of a peripheral, self-radicalized fringe of amateur terrorists. Radicalized by a toxic combination of problems of cultural and religious identity, American foreign policy, and a yearning for the theocratic utopia of the Caliphate, these homegrown holy warriors see themselves as members of a global community -- the ummah -- under threat by the West. In increasing numbers, they are plotting to carry out attacks within their home countries.
The stereotypical media image of the radicalization process is that of a young man chatting on a radical Islamist online forum. But, as Marc Sageman notes, radicalization is also a crowd phenomenon where groups of like-minded individuals slowly radicalize each other. Heated rhetoric quickly turns to plans for direct action, and these close-knit groups become operational cells. Tactical manuals are downloaded off the Internet, explosives are purchased, and weapons training begins in the backwoods next to Grandpa's house. The prelude to a deadly attack? Not quite.
Homegrown terrorist conspiracies, such as the 2002 Buffalo cell and the 2007 Fort Dix Six plot, are often amateurish affairs easily quashed by local and federal law enforcement. It is easy to mock these DIY terrorists for their epic pretensions and equally grand blunders. But the 2004 Madrid subway bombing, carried out by a radicalized homegrown cell with no links to al-Qaeda, is a paramount example of the horror that even "wannabe" terrorists can inflict.
Thus, we face a two-front war. Sageman's "wannabes" will continue to plot and scheme. While receiving ideological inspiration from al-Qaeda, they will act independently and with a different strategic logic. Lacking the capability to inflict large-scale attacks, grassroots terrorists will focus on low-intensity operations. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and its franchisees will seek to strike hard at the West. A particular challenge that counter-terrorism analysts will face is separating signal from noise, as grassroots plots will inevitably be confused with al-Qaeda's operations. Such confusion creates unnecessary fear and diverts attention from more dangerous plots.
Beginning of the End
While both the grassroots threat and al-Qaeda will continue to evolve based on changing political and social conditions, it is becoming clear that al-Qaeda -- whatever its form or permutation -- is incapable of achieving its long-term aims. As counter-terrorism analysts Lawrence Wright, Peter Bergen, and Paul Cruickshank report, al-Qaeda's increasingly savage operations have alienated both grassroots supporters and hardcore ideologues from the Middle East to the European diaspora. Defectors increasingly denounce al-Qaeda's bloodlust, nihilism, and strategic myopia. All the signs point to the beginning of a schism within the usually tight-knit organization -- a schism that could be the beginnings of its downfall.
Al-Qaeda has always carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Unlike the anti-colonialist insurgencies whose rhetoric and tactics al-Qaeda mimics, it offers no revolutionary political or economic system -- only the hazy promise of a return to a bygone era. It feeds off raw anger against the West and the Middle East's corrupt rulers, but anger alone is insufficient to lead a revolution.
The vast majority of Muslims do not share Bin Laden's antediluvian ideal of the future, and have largely ignored al-Qaeda's call to rise up against their governments. As polls indicate, Muslims everywhere are repulsed by the tactic of suicide bombing. Given that suicide bombing is al-Qaeda's main weapon of war, this popular revulsion should strike fear into its top strategists. Perhaps al-Qaeda's biggest strategic mistake has been its wanton targeting of fellow Muslims, as the blowback from AQI's sectarian slaughter in Iraq illustrates. It is hard to cast yourself as "resistance" when the victims are overwhelmingly your own countrymen and co-religionists.
These long-term trends bode well, but do not constitute an excuse for complacency. In order to combat al-Qaeda's hybrid threat, America needs a sophisticated and holistic kind of counter-terrorism thought, encompassing the different fields of domestic law enforcement, foreign strategic intelligence, military action, foreign policy, and public diplomacy. There must be a harmony of purpose uniting the police officer, soldier, diplomat, and spy, derived from a common strategy that aims to disrupt and destroy operational terrorist networks, deprive al-Qaeda of its mountain sanctuaries, and drain the ideological cesspool that sustains and nurtures radicalization.
All the while, we must also recover from the mistakes of the past, including our tone-deaf public diplomacy strategy, the neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the continuing Iraqi quagmire. These blunders have done much to give al-Qaeda, devastated by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a new lease on life. Thankfully, as a democracy, we have the opportunity to correct our mistakes. Al-Qaeda, while capable of tactical and operational adjustments, cannot change its virulent ideology nor reverse its self-destructive strategies.