Summary: With the newest terror alert, it’s timely to review what we know about al Qaeda. What kind of organization is AQ? How are they fighting us? Here is a brief summary (quickly written), giving one perspective on these things. We are in war, a war of choice, a war we’re fighting in a mad fashion, a war that might have horrific effects (even more horrific effects) if we continue as we have since 9-11.
- Forms of al Qaeda
- What is al Qaeda?
- Fighting al Qaeda
- For More Information
This post is a summary of conclusions drawn in the dozen-plus posts about al Qaeda listed at the end. See those for the details of analysis and evidence. These are my guesses based on the available scraps of public information.
(1) Forms of al Qaeda
We are told of two versions of al Qaeda:
- a powerful global organization like SPECTRE, THRUSH, & COBRA
- a powerful system of a central unit plus national franchises
These are conflicting stories; neither has much supporting public evidence. The first is fiction, a useful creation of US propaganda after 9/11 to gain support for the Patriot Act and foreign wars. Based on the public information, AQ might no longer exist in any effective form. Just as a shattered remnant issuing PR materials — bolstered by the US government, for whom it’s a useful boogeyman.
The second version is equally questionable. There are effective national organizations using the AQ brand name (eg, AQ in Iraq). These have some things in common with other organizations using the AQ name and AQ “central” — belief in some form of jihadist theology, opposition to Western culture, etc. But they are not “franchises” in any meaningful fashion.
Franchises are licenses from a central organization to operate under its umbrella, usually with some degree of control by the center. Like McDonalds, perhaps the paradigmatic example. See this Bloomberg article about life as a McDonald’s franchisee, under the thumb of the parent. There is little evidence that’s how AQ operates, that the AQ HQ has such control over others using the AQ name, or that AQ “central” can provide meaningful support to the national AQs. AQ “central” does not even control the most basic element of a franchise: control over the name.
The national AQs are also called “affiliates”, an irrefutably vague but still menacing term.
These labels are not trivial matters. Such metaphors to describe AQ are valuable tools of propaganda, fitting AQ into a familiar slot in our thinking — without thought or evidence. Unfortunately even our senior leaders probably believe these things (people often come to believe their lies). History shows such conceptual errors are a major cause of strategic mistakes.
(2) What is al Qaeda?
AQ is a 4GW foe, united by its jihadist theology. It is a resilient, adaptive, amorphous foe (US forces quickly cull the slow and stupid of AQ’s leaders). The national insurgencies fighting under the AQ brand pursue their own goals, under their own leaders, relying mostly (often entirely) on their own resources. They are linked to some degree. The most important link: they are all fighting the US. Hence “we” are a common element — a unifying element.
Moving from the propaganda to fact, what form of entity is AQ? Where is AQ on the spectrum from a movement (loosely allied group, such as leftist groups have tended to be in the world since after WW2) and an organization in the usual sense of the term?
Perhaps it is in the grey area between these two forms. Like the traditional US Mafia, one of the best known groups in the grey area. The Mafia consists of independent organizations of one ethnicity (more or less) and a shared operating culture — who coordinate and work together. But then, they have to work together because they operate in one nation — one society, one market, one government. Without that shared geography, would the various AQs work closely together?
The available evidence suggests that AQ might be a form of open-source insurgency. An open admission movement, for those willing to stake their lives as ante. For more about these see one of the essential books about 4GW: John Robb’s Brave New War (2007).
Unfortunately, there is one project that might bring the AQs together: attacking us. Conversely, how much would the AQs work together if we left them alone to fight their own wars for national control, against nations most of whose leaders (our friends & allies) are totalitarian scum.
(3) Fighting al Qaeda
Since 9-11 the US public has been bombarded with a steady stream of ominous warnings. The recent surge is among the strongest, but similar in nature to the others: “U.S. sources: Al Qaeda intercept is just one piece of threat intelligence“, Reuters, 5 August 2013 — Excerpt:
U.S. officials said there was still no information about a specific target or location of a potential attack, but the threat to Western interests had not diminished.
The threat is just as serious now as it was on Friday when the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert, said Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. “It’s a very serious threat,” Ruppersberger told CNN. “I’ve seen the intelligence. It’s a threat coming from the highest levels of al Qaeda. And especially focused in the Arabian peninsula, Yemen and areas like that.”
ABC News on Monday reported that a senior U.S. official said authorities “are frantically searching” for vehicle bombs that al Qaeda wants to use to blow up the U.S. embassy in Yemen and possibly other embassies.
… U.S. sources and analysts cautioned that communication between al Qaeda and its affiliate did not necessarily mean that AQAP was taking orders from Zawahri.
Such articles often refer to AQ doing sophisticated tactics, such as probing our intelligence and defense systems. Odd that during the past 12 years AQ has staged no sophisticated operations in the West. Just the usual terrorist operations, similar to but smaller than those of the 19th century anarchists.
Then there are the many stories during the past 12 years describing AQ’s chemical and biological weapons programs (NYT: “Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S. Officials Fear“).
Another theme: experts in counter-insurgency and counter-terror often urge further support for the War on Terror by explaining that we killed bin Laden, but did not kill the ideology of the jihadists. How does a government kill an ideology? I have never seen examples of nations successfully doing so.
Lost amidst these well-financed voices are the people familiar with such things who suggest that dealing ourselves into every situation where jihadists appear is a gift to them (polarizing the locals). Also doing this diminishes our reputation (eg, Boyd’s advice on grand strategy), and dissipates our strength. We are playing our cards exactly as bin Laden predicted. As bin Laden hoped.
(4) For More Information
(a) Posts about bin Laden:
- Important: Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?, 11 June 2008
- Bin Laden wins by using the “Tactics of Mistake” against America, 6 February 2011
- A brief note about the death of bin Laden, 2 May 2011
- Important: About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken, 5 May 2011
- Bin Laden won, with our assistance. Our applause shows the scale of his victory., 15 December 2012
(b) These posts about AQ remain relevant today:
- Important: Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005 — Is al Qaeda like Cobra, SPECTRE, and THRUSH?
- The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important, 15 September 2008
- “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
- Can we defeat our almost imaginary enemies?, 10 December 2009
- “The Almanac of Al Qaeda” – about our foe, 16 June 2010
- Today’s news about the Af-Pak War, about al Qaeda’s strength, 1 July 2010
- Important: Does al Qaeda still exist?, 31 March 2011
- “Death celebrates 9-11. Can we stop and think before we walk further along the road of terror?“, 13 September 2013
Posts on the FM website about al Qaeda here.
(c) For more information about our Islamic foes:
- Important: Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
- Important: RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, 15 January 2010
- Stratfor’s strategic analysis – “Jihadism in 2010: The Threat Continues”, 17 March 2010
- Stratfor: “Jihadism: The Grassroots Paradox”, 21 March 2010
- Stratfor: Setting the Record Straight on Grassroots Jihadism, 1 May 2010
- Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris , 1 May 2011