Al Qaeda’s tentacles

Al Qaeda has just released the latest in its series of how-to guides for jihadists in the West who want to murder without the bother of flying to Pakistan to be trained. This time, the offering is an English-language manual explaining in detail how to build a bomb, and it demonstrates how nimbly Al Qaeda has adapted to become the world’s first truly global terrorist organization, able to recruit and train fanatics on the Internet as well as on the ground.

Almost 10 years after the most devastating attack on the American homeland by a foreign power since the British army burned Washington in 1814, Al Qaeda remains alive and deadly. President Obama has placed considerable pressure on Osama bin Laden and his gang with drone strikes in Pakistan, but the group is remarkably adaptive, agile and resilient.

Al Qaeda today has four faces. The first is familiar: the core group that includes Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. From its base in the badlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, this nucleus still provides strategic direction to both the group itself and to the worldwide jihadist community. The largest manhunt in human history, which has included a punishing drone offensive, has damaged Al Qaeda’s core, but it has by no means destroyed it.


The second face of Al Qaeda is the syndicate of terror networks aligned (either openly or covertly) with the group in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban, responsible for the failed Times Square car bomb attack last May, is openly allied with Bin Laden. Lashkar-e-Taiba, which orchestrated the Mumbai attack two years ago, is more clandestinely allied with Al Qaeda, but the two organizations are known to have plotted together on a failed 2009 attack in Denmark. That same plot resurfaced this winter when the Danes arrested four well-armed terrorists aiming to attack a newspaper office on New Year’s Day because it had published cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad.

The Afghan Taliban remains Al Qaeda’s essential partner in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban often operates independently, it also coordinates joint actions with Al Qaeda, as in the deadly strike on a CIA base in Khowst on Dec. 31, 2009. That attack, which killed seven Americans, was a joint operation of Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban.

The third face of Al Qaeda can be seen in its regional franchises around the Islamic world. These include organizations in North Africa, Yemen and Indonesia. Al Qaeda in Yemen, widely viewed as the most dangerous of the group’s regional operations, staged both an attempted Christmas 2008 airliner bombing and the foiled parcel bomb attacks aimed at Chicago in October. Across the Gulf of Aden, Al Qaeda’s proteges in Somalia pose an increasing danger to other parts of Africa, as they demonstrated during the World Cup when they sent a suicide bomber to Uganda. Even the much-diminished Al Qaeda franchise in Iraq continues to strike periodically and has claimed credit for an attempted suicide bombing in Sweden last month.

In the meantime, Al Qaeda franchises have learned from the mistakes of their sister organizations and adapted. In Iraq, for example, Al Qaeda tried to take over the Sunni insurgency and was rebuffed. In Pakistan and Afghanistan today, it lets the local Talibans lead the war effort while it stays in the shadows.

Self-initiated jihadists without formal ties to terrorist groups are becoming a fourth face of Al Qaeda. The massacre at Ft. Hood, Texas, was the work of one such individual. Sometimes these self-starters get in touch with Al Qaeda, usually in Pakistan or Yemen, and offer themselves as potential bombers, receiving training from the group. This was the case with three Americans who were trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan to build bombs and planned to blow themselves up on the New York City subway system a few days after the anniversary of 9/11 in 2009, a plot that was disrupted by the FBI. But even when terrorists take on freelance missions, such as the one at Ft. Hood, they are often deeply influenced by the group’s existence and its goal of global jihad.

The many tentacles of Al Qaeda are united by the group’s narrative and ideology. First conceived by Bin Laden and a long-dead Palestinian partner named Abdallah Azzam during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the idea has always been for global jihad, a war against the United States and its allies to be waged across the planet to force America to get out of the Islamic world and abandon Israel.

Al Qaeda has been undeniably tenacious, but we should keep its successes in perspective. The organization is not Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Smart policies that isolate it from the majority of Muslims, along with continued attacks on its havens and its ideology, are likely to eventually bring about the group’s demise.

Obama has embraced such an approach, attacking Al Qaeda’s narrative and ideology. His speeches in Turkey and Egypt, his peace initiative with the Israelis and Palestinians, and his efforts to reach out to the great majority of Muslims who reject Al Qaeda have all been part of the effort. Indeed, only a very small minority of Muslims believes in global jihad today, but even a handful of determined suicidal murderers can change the fate of nations. We all learned that nine years ago.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.”