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Jan 4, 2006 | 04:59 GMT

15 mins read

Al Qaeda in 2006: Devolution and Adaptation

By Fred Burton The new year is an ideal time, in geopolitics as in other areas of life, to reflect on developments of the past year and, at STRATFOR, to offer our view of those we anticipate in the realm of terrorism in 2006. For quite some time, we have been tracking al Qaeda's metamorphosis from a relatively small group of individuals who viewed themselves as the vanguard of radical Islamism — calling themselves "Knights under the Prophet's Banner" — to a much broader movement or ideology capable of influencing the behavior of many others. The rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of the jihadist cause has called clearly and repeatedly for the "Ummah," or Islamic people, to rise up and join the "jihad against the Jews and Crusaders." While this call has not resulted in the worldwide uprising al Qaeda's leaders hoped for, it has nonetheless resonated in some quarters. From Group to Movement This shift from a group to a movement was evident in 2005, and we believe there will be further signs of the evolution in 2006. In the major attacks attributed to al Qaeda or close affiliates during 2005 — such as those in London (July), Sharm el-Sheikh (July), Bali (October), and Amman (November) — operatives from regional groups, rather than teams of what might be called the "al Qaeda all-stars" that carried out the Sept. 11 operation, took up the banner of jihad. The differences here are important: The Sept. 11 hijackers were dispatched from "The Base" and came to the United States to carry out their missions. They received direct logistical support and operational guidance from al Qaeda's central command structure. On the other hand, the operatives in London and Indonesia were locals, and the operatives in Amman were regional, in the sense that they crossed over the border from Iraq to carry out their strikes. While there are connections between the main al Qaeda leadership and operational cells in places like Britain and Iraq — as evident from the group's statements, intercepted letters and the suicide video of London bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan — the language of the letter purportedly written by deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq clearly demonstrates that the various nodes of al Qaeda exist in more of a loose federation than a strict hierarchical chain of command. In the letter, al-Zawahiri made flattering statements to al-Zarqawi and requested that he do certain things — such as stop beheading hostages and ease his attacks against the Shia — but he was not clearly ordering him to do those things. And indeed, al-Zarqawi's militants continued to carry out attacks against Shiite targets in Iraq even after the letter was made public. Al Qaeda's tendency to work with local militants has been well established since the early 1990s: It showed up in operations targeting places like Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and New York. This system was institutionalized in 1998, when bin Laden issued a joint fatwa with the Egyptian Islamic Group, Al Jihad, the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh and the "Jamaat ul Ulema e Pakistan" under the name "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders." The fatwa declares it the "individual duty for every Muslim" to attack "Jews and Crusaders" wherever possible, "in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam." Al Qaeda gained momentum and strength after bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996. This enabled the group to operate without the assistance of local militants. However, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the arrests or deaths of several key al Qaeda leaders and the seizure of millions of dollars in assets, al Qaeda has reverted back to its earlier operational model. As we have noted previously, this shift gives "al Qaeda the movement" broader geographic and operational reach than "al Qaeda the group", but at the same time it is shallower in a sense: The new actor lacks the operational depth and expertise of the core group and its well-trained leadership. In fact, al Qaeda the group has been unable to demonstrate a continued capability to act as a strategic force — meaning one whose actions can drastically reshape the world — since the Sept. 11 attacks. There have been no strikes carried out by "all-star teams" since Sept. 11. Instead, the operations that have taken place have borne much stronger resemblances to the anti-U.S. attacks in the 1990s, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing or the embassy bombings in East Africa. Such actions can kill many people and are not to be lightly dismissed — but in terms of geopolitical impact and magnitude, they are mere pinpricks when compared to the stunning blow that was dealt on Sept. 11. Thwarted Attacks, Timing and Resilience Recently, several readers have asked whether we believe that al Qaeda has purposely avoided attacking the United States in order to play to the U.S. media and allow public opinion to turn against the war in Iraq — and, consequently, against the broader war on terrorism. The answer is no: While public opinion in the United States and elsewhere has indeed run against the war in Iraq, the lack of a successful follow-on attack by al Qaeda on U.S. soil has not been strategically planned or ordered. In other words, it has not been for a lack of trying. Since Sept. 11, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have thwarted at least a dozen likely plots against targets in the United States, interdicted at various stages of the attack cycle. In addition to the well-known plots connected to actors such as Richard Reid and Jose Padilla, it is widely known (from evidence made public in 2004) that al Qaeda conducted detailed surveillance of the Citigroup building, Prudential Plaza, New York Stock Exchange and other financial targets in New York City, as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquarters and congressional targets in Washington, D.C. While many can and do debate tactics used by various governments in the anti-jihadist war, and we ourselves have occasionally rolled our eyes as the Pakistani government announced the arrest or death of yet another of al Qaeda's apparently limitless "number three" leaders, we must nonetheless give credit where it is due. The U.S. government and its allies have done a very good job at disrupting terrorist plots and plans. The disruption strategy is really quite simple: Better to pick up an al Qaeda suspect for immigration fraud or another lesser offense than to investigate a smoking hole in the ground. There were ample instances of this tactic in play during 2005 — most notably the arrest of an imam in Lodi, California, who the FBI believes was encouraging a terrorist plot, and the arrest of an imam in Cleveland, Ohio, who is believed to be linked to a Palestinian militant group. The trail of disrupted plots has been continuous, and it speaks to jihadists' ongoing desire to strike at the United States. Though not all of the "disrupted plots" made public by the U.S. government necessarily should be viewed as valid threats, there remains a clear record of plans to strike on U.S. soil since Sept. 11. Over the years, Islamist militants have proven to be very resilient and adaptable, and we anticipate they will continue to adapt. We note that more than eight years elapsed between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11 attacks — during which time the jihadists faced nothing approaching the level of pressure they have endured since Sept. 11 and ensuring "global war on terrorism." To be sure, several would-be terrorism spectaculars, such as the millennium bomb plot and Operation Bojinka, were thwarted between 1993 and 2001. It was against this backdrop of defeats that the jihadists persisted and eventually succeeded in carrying out a massive strike on U.S. soil. Similarly, the strings of law enforcement and intelligence successes since Sept. 11 do not rule out the possibility of another strike on U.S. soil in time. We believe the likelihood of such an attack will increase as memories of Sept. 11 dim. Despite the many declarations made in the immediate aftermath of the strikes in New York and Washington that "America will never be the same," there has been a slow and steady shift back to business-as-usual and a sense of general complacency. On the whole, Americans are a people with short attention spans — and at any rate, "alert fatigue" has always been recognized as among the hazards in a long-term war. While we do not believe that al Qaeda is capable of carrying out another Sept. 11, that is not the same as saying they cannot carry out another strike on U.S. soil. We believe they will do so — likely with lower impact than in 2001 — as soon as they are capable of evading pre-operational detection. Death Toll Trends Having said that, there is another trend to address. The shift from group to movement may mean that al Qaeda no longer should be viewed as a strategic geopolitical force, but the jihadists are still a threat and capable of killing many people. A look at the numbers shows there have been more deaths attributed to al Qaeda in the 52 months since Sept. 11 (more than 800) than in the 52 months prior to it (less than 400) — despite the global war on terror and the successes in disrupting al Qaeda as an organization. We should note that these statistics do not include the deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan or the former Soviet Union where active insurgencies are under way, and that they include both Western and non-Western victims. With the active resistance being fought in Iraq against coalition forces and Iraqi civilians, the numbers of deaths caused by jihadists there would be much higher. There are several reasons for this trend in death tolls. First, as we have stated, al Qaeda the movement is larger and more widely dispersed geographically than al Qaeda the group. Though many of those involved in the movement may not have the training and professionalism of their "al Qaeda prime" counterparts, sheer numbers and geographic factors have allowed the movement to attack with much greater frequency and across a much broader front than the main group would be able to support. For example, in addition to the attacks in Indonesia, Britain and the Sinai Peninsula, the world witnessed the emergence of a new suicide-bombing threat from the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen last year in Bangladesh — a region where al Qaeda the group has not historically chosen to act. Second, there has been a shift toward soft targets. As physical security measures surrounding traditional symbols of Western power (such as the White House, the Pentagon and the U.S., British and Australian embassies) has been intensified or "hardened," the threat has been pushed toward softer target sets that are very difficult to defend — such as hotels, trains and subways. The propensity toward attacking softer targets with smaller devices to create large casualty counts was clearly delineated in Indonesia on Oct. 1, where the strike by Jemaah Islamiyah against restaurants in Bali caused more deaths than the group's last two large car bomb attacks. "Hard targets" are just that — hard to strike due to design and location. A large bomb is needed to penetrate defenses. However, a shift to soft targets means that small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can be used with deadly efficiency — as actually occurred in London and Amman. The demand for resources is different as well: Scores of small IEDs can be made with the same quantity of explosives used in the 1993 World Trade Center truck bomb. Employing the "smart technology" of human bombers, who place timed or remote-detonated bombs — or themselves, in suicide mode — in ideal tactical locations, such devices very easily can kill or wound scores of people. In fact, the rail attacks in Madrid and London bore proof that small IEDs can cause many more deaths than attacks using biological or chemical agents such as anthrax or sarin. Thus, the U.S. government's strategy of "hardening" official sites and assets has been a double-edged sword when it comes to private industry, particularly the transportation and hospitality sectors. The public and private sectors have joined forces in efforts to protect transportation systems, but private-sector businesses like hotels and cruise lines, as well as the tourism industry in general, remain extremely difficult to secure. These targets host large numbers of "pre-packaged" victims. This fact has not been obscured by the fog of war for the jihadists, who continue to target such businesses. It takes little expertise or training to place an IED on a subway or in a restaurant or hotel. We expect that jihadists will continue to exploit such vulnerabilities in the "soft target" set over the next two to three years — until there has been enough loss of life to make it a political issue for American voters. We expect this would not occur until the subways in New York City or Washington, D.C., are attacked in a London- or Madrid-style strike, the Washington-to-New York Amtrak line is hit, or there is an Amman-style suicide attack at a large U.S. hotel in a major U.S. city. Looking Ahead Al Qaeda remains a dangerous movement and, while it now lacks the strategic punch it carried in 2001, it will continue to attack soft targets across a large geographic front in the coming year. We expect that in 2006, strikes will be carried out in both the traditional hotspots and in areas not previously known for Islamist militant activity. The active armed struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus continue to act as a kind of "jihadist war college" — and as the graduates of that school return to their countries of origin, they will continue to share their training and experience with militants back home. The connections that the militants make in places like Iraq and Chechnya also will link them to the global movement in the same way that the jihad in Afghanistan did for the preceding generation. It is not certain what the new year will bring for al Qaeda the group. It is not clear at this point that bin Laden is even alive — he has not been heard from in more than a year, and there have been no conclusive signs of his survival since we pondered in September that he might indeed be dead. However, we are certain that whatever elements of the organization remain are dedicated to striking the United States as hard and as frequently as they are able. Given their past plots and interrogations of key players such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, we know that al Qaeda the group has been interested for years in striking financial targets, aircraft and chemical/petroleum plants. Because al Qaeda has a demonstrated history of revisiting targets after failed or foiled attacks, it is logical that they will continue to attempt strikes against such targets in the future. Bin Laden's notable absence during the past year has underscored al Qaeda's shift from a group to a movement — and indicates that even when he is not seen to be in control, the movement will keep steaming right along on course. This indicates that if bin Laden is alive and eventually is taken out by the United States, the movement will continue. Ideologies are much harder to kill than individuals. That brings us to another key point: There has been a gradual but accelerating decline in support for the ideology of jihadism in the Muslim world. Though pockets of staunch support for jihadism remain, the tide of public opinion has begun to turn against al Qaeda and jihadism in some crucial locations, including Saudi Arabia. Al-Zawahiri himself has acknowledged defeat in Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy has persuaded the masses to turn against jihadists — or "deviants," as they are termed by the regime. It is this kind of ideological battle that must be fought and won to defeat jihadism. It is indeed a long-term war, and we do not anticipate its conclusion in 2006.

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