Al Qaeda in 2007: The Continuing Devolution

8 MINS READDec 28, 2006 | 01:03 GMT
Security Weekly
By Fred Burton The theme of STRATFOR's 2006 forecast for al Qaeda and the jihadist movement centered on the evolution — or the devolution, really — from al Qaeda "the group" to a broader global jihadist movement. This essentially was a shift from an al Qaeda operational model based on an "all-star team" of operatives that was selected, trained and dispatched by the central leadership to the target, to an operational model that encourages independent "grassroots" jihadists to conduct attacks, or to a model in which al Qaeda provides operational commanders who organize grassroots cells. We refer to this shift as devolution because what we are seeing now is essentially a return to the pre-9/11 model. This shift has provided al Qaeda "the movement" broader geographic and operational reach than al Qaeda "the group." This larger, dispersed group of actors, however, lacks the operational depth and expertise of the core group and its well-trained terrorist cadre. The metamorphosis continued in 2006, with al Qaeda announcing the merger of existing jihadist groups such as Gamaah al-Islamiyah (GAI) in Egypt and Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and others in the Maghreb into their global jihadist umbrella organization. These groups have had long-standing links to al Qaeda, and the announcement of the mergers is really a formalization of the relationship, though these new nodes joined al Qaeda's formal network of affiliate groups in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan. Since the announcements, these new groups have not yet demonstrated that they possess the ability to boost al Qaeda's operational effectiveness. We have seen no attacks that can be attributed to GAI, and perhaps the only attacks that can be attributed to the GSPC are the Dec. 11 attack against a bus carrying foreign oil workers and the simultaneous Oct. 30 attacks against two police stations in Algeria. Given this lack of results, the announcements ring somewhat hollow, as the mergers have not given al Qaeda the surge of momentum it might have wanted. The major attacks in 2006 in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia; Dahab, Egypt; Dubba and Marib, Yemen; and Damascus, Syria, were all conducted by existing regional nodes and not the main al Qaeda organization. These attacks did show a broad geographic reach stretching across the Middle East but, except for the Dahab attack, they were essentially all failures. Overall, 2006 was not a good year for the al Qaeda nodes in Saudi Arabia and the Sinai. It also was a dismal year for the Iraq affiliate, whose charismatic leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June. Twelve months have made a vast difference in the fortunes of the Iraq node. Last year at this time, al-Zarqawi made the headlines almost daily and his organization was conducting frequent and spectacular attacks. Now, following the death of al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq has been largely marginalized and eclipsed by Iraqi Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups. Going into 2007, we anticipate a continuation of this shift toward a movement — though it will be important to watch for any signs of operational activity by al Qaeda the group, as opposed to its prodigious public relations efforts. The Shift to Soft Targets As we noted in January, the shift to the broader movement model allowed for an increase in the number of attacks, although the movement's lack of expertise was forcing it to focus its attacks against soft targets such as hotels, trains and subways. This shift resulted in a larger numbers of casualties than the more spectacular attacks against hardened targets. Indeed, the casualty count from jihadist attacks in the 52 months following 9/11 was more than double that of the 52 months prior — and those numbers would be vastly increased if the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were included.
However, not as many attacks occurred in 2006 as we anticipated. In fact, the number of attacks and the casualties they generated were down for 2006. In many cases, such as Damascus, Abqaiq and Yemen, the attacks resulted in the deaths of more attackers than victims, and the only attack to produce a sizable death toll was in Dahab, where 24 people died. This trend in which attacks against tourist targets in Egypt produce the deadliest jihadist attack of the year continued from 2005, when the attack in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, killed 88 people. (Incidentally, that not only represents far more victims than in the Dahab attack, but also more than all of the 2006 attacks combined.) When Sharm el-Sheikh is combined with the 2005 attacks in Bali, Amman and London, jihadist militants produced far more deaths in 2005 than in 2006. (These statistics do not include attacks conducted in war zones or areas of insurgency such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Chechnya/Russia, Sri Lanka or Kashmir/India.) The only jihadist strike against a hardened target in 2006 was the failed attack against the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in September. A car bombing was directed against an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, but that attack happened a block away from the hardened facility. It was, however, the only one of the two to produce an American death. Target Sets As we said in January, al Qaeda the group has long been interested in striking financial targets, aircraft and chemical/petroleum plants. Because of that, and al Qaeda's demonstrated history of revisiting targets after failed or foiled attacks, it was logical to project that it would continue to attempt strikes against such targets in 2006. The petroleum sector indeed was targeted in 2006, as the strikes against petroleum facilities in Abqaiq and Yemen, and against oil contractors in Algiers, demonstrate. Although no attack occurred against financial targets as we anticipated, we still believe that target set remains at risk for the future, along with the others. Although authorities thwarted the plot to simultaneously destroy several airliners en route from London to the United States, it once again demonstrated that al Qaeda and the jihadist movement maintain a significant interest in airline targets. Details released in February on the Library Tower bombing plot provide another example of this fixation. Disruption Strategy Continues Once again in 2006 there has been no successful attack on U.S. soil — though the thwarted airliner plot was definitely aimed at the United States. Likewise, the anticipated attacks in European locations such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, France and Italy failed to materialize — again, not for lack of trying on the part of the jihadists. The U.S. government and its allies have been successful over the past year in disrupting terrorist plots and plans in many locations. The strategy of disruption these countries are following is really quite simple: It is better to pick up an al Qaeda suspect on immigration fraud or another lesser offense than to investigate a smoking hole in the ground. Although there has been significant skepticism over the terrorist credentials of those responsible for some of these plots, such as the one involving the Miami Seven, the plots serve as a reminder that there are people who remain committed to striking the United States. Over the years, Islamist militants have proven to be resilient and adaptable in the face of adversity, and they will certainly continue to adapt. It is important to remember that more than eight years elapsed between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attacks — during which time al Qaeda and its jihadist network faced nothing approaching the level of pressure they have endured since then. There were several thwarted terrorist spectaculars between 1993 and 2001, and yet the jihadists persisted and eventually succeeded in carrying out a massive strike on U.S. soil. Therefore, the string of law enforcement and intelligence successes since 9/11 does 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 9/11 dim and the public grows weary of the inconvenience and financial burden of increased security measures. The Jihadist 'War College' The forecast, which noted that the active armed struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus still serve as a kind of "jihadist war college," predicted that its graduates would continue to share their training and experience upon returning to their countries of origin. We already have seen a transfer of terrorism tactics and technology to Afghanistan, and we anticipate that this will continue in the future. In addition, the interpersonal connections that the militants make in places such as Iraq and Chechnya also will link them to the global movement in the same way the jihad in Afghanistan did for the preceding generation.

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