How robust is the Al Qaeda (AQ) global network? How and where does it operate? What sort of structure is it developing in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden? Who controls the shots? These and other questions are constantly under review as AQ morphs and adapts as the ‘game’ keeps changing.
A global terror organisation conducting complex major operations has to have an effective command and control mechanism. There is evidence that AQ control over its various ‘affiliates’ may be faltering.
As mentioned in my last post, over the last ten years al-Qaeda’s strategy has been to stage high profile mass-casualty attacks on Western targets. Recently al-Qaeda has had less success on this front and may be about to change its approach.
Intelligence suggests that the connections between core al-Qaeda and its local affiliates and allies are increasingly tenuous. As situations on the ground change, often the local affiliates react first and adapt tactics to realities. Only then does core al-Qaeda formally adopt the change and issue directives and communications in support. In 2009 al-Qaeda groups around the world were calling for attacks on China. When there was an uprising of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Province of Western China, Abu Yahya al-Libi reacted by issuing a statement condemning China as an enemy of Islam. Abu Yahya al-Libi is a hard-line Islamist ideologue and leading high-ranking official of al-Qaeda. He escaped from the US Bagram detention in July 2005. A CIA report on him says:
…He has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement.
Of course al-Qaeda has always been hailed as a classic ‘post-modern’ entity, with its loose connections and dispersed (invisible?) controls. Is it now attempting to tighten things up? Local allies and affiliates are what provide al-Qaeda with its power and reach and ability to morph unexpectedly. Al-Qaeda needs to have an effective relationship to make things work, especially to allow it to operate in places that would otherwise be beyond its reach. What is in it for the allies? Mainly they stand to gain funding, recruits, status, and ideological reinforcement.
There are difficulties and downsides for both parties and this may be the Achilles heel for al-Qaeda in the long run. There can friction about whose agenda prevails, the presence of foreign fighters may cause resentment, or the local group may have the chance of joining a national government. All this has a new relevance with the death of Osama bin Laden.