Al Qaeda: From Organization to Movement?

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
10 MINS READSep 22, 2005 | 18:58 GMT
Pedestrians walk past a newspaper stand announcing terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005.
Pedestrians walk past a newspaper stand announcing terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005.

As our longtime readers are likely aware, STRATFOR approaches analysis with a "net assessment" model of the world: an internal definition of how things are and the key trends driving developments at any given time. A net assessment is much more than an intuitive "gut feeling." Rather, it is the product of two key elements: a daily search for developments that either fit with the ongoing picture (or anomalies that reshape it) and an understanding of time, as viewed by the region or actor being assessed.

And these views vary dramatically. It could be argued, for example, that an American's sense of historical cycles — which have been crammed into a national history that scarcely exceeds 200 years — is vastly different from that of the Chinese, whose civilization spans a millennium. We apply this same perspective to al Qaeda and to attempts to understand the current status of what the Bush administration has labeled the "global war on terrorism." Given the unusual nature of this "war" against a non-state actor, there is plenty of room for debate and speculation, but in general it has been our position, from a geopolitical standpoint, that al Qaeda is losing its effectiveness as a strategic force — meaning one that is capable of drastically reshaping the behavior of nations, as it did on Sept. 11, 2001. We place emphasis on the word "strategic:" We are in no way saying that al Qaeda has been conquered or declaring the United States a victor, but it is our view that a shift is occurring in the nature of the war, which is taking on more of a regional and local — rather than global — nature.

Where the U.S. calculus is concerned, this is neither unusual nor unexpected. Strategically speaking, it was to be expected that the United States would respond to the Sept. 11 attacks with all the tools in its arsenal — overwhelming military force, a heavy foreign policy stick, intelligence capabilities and law enforcement. It was also expected that, at some point, American attention would return to other issues as well — the state of the economy, an erstwhile Chinese threat, and so forth. We already have seen this happen.

But what of al Qaeda? Has its attention been diverted, its resources stretched, or its goal lines moved? Is the sense that al Qaeda is "getting the worst of it" thus far in the war —which we have stated repeatedly — actually justified? At the tactical level, the answers to most of these questions would have to be "no." Let's dissect that for a moment, returning again to al Qaeda's core goals and to a localized understanding of time. First, it's important to remember that — emotionalism aside — al Qaeda's core goal has not been chiefly to kill Americans or Westerners in general, but to effect political change within the Muslim world. The goal of the Sept. 11 attacks was, we have long believed, to create a sense of empowerment among the Muslim masses that would lead to popular uprisings against secular or "apostate" regimes. Whether al Qaeda actually planned to kill 3,000 people with the Sept. 11 strikes, or whether the death toll massively exceeded even its own expectations, is a matter of debate; what is known is that the attacks were, and were intended to be, "spectacular" strikes against symbolic targets that would grip the world's attention. Second, it must be recalled that the Sept. 11 attacks were in no way the opening salvo of al Qaeda's war — simply its first success in commanding the world's attention. The war, from al Qaeda's standpoint, already had been under way for several years — likely beginning with the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, or even before, perhaps with the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan.

Armed with hindsight, intelligence analysts can come up with a handful of possible starting points for al Qaeda's war and track the cycles — perhaps going as far back as the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — using various rationales. But all of these cycles have one thing in common: They are long cycles, much longer than the four years that have passed since Sept. 11, 2001. The cycle bookended by the two strikes against the World Trade Center, in 1993 and 2001, is as useful to examine as any:

  • Eight years transpired between World Trade Center I and the Sept. 11 attacks, punctuated by numerous strikes against U.S. assets overseas. These include, but certainly are not limited to, the bombings of the Khobar Towers in 1996, embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000, in addition to assassination plots targeting the pope in the Philippines and against various American and British diplomats in Pakistan.
  • As this list shows, many of the attacks and plots that can be identified as al Qaeda acts between 1993 and 2001 involved a "hardened target set" — military or diplomatic targets that were symbols of U.S. or Western power. 2.
  • With the Sept. 11 attacks, al Qaeda successfully struck not only at hard, symbolic targets, but at a "soft" target as well — the World Trade Center towers — and with that, the underpinnings of U.S. power: its economy. 3.
  • The tempo of al Qaeda's operations, beginning in 1993, has not slowed since Sept. 11: We have seen, for example, assassinations in Jordan (2002), brazen assaults against Westerners in Saudi Arabia (2004), deadly bombings of nightclubs and hotels in Indonesia (2003) and the Middle East (2004), and deadly bombings of passenger rail systems in Madrid (March 2004) and London, not to mention al Qaeda's obvious involvement in the insurgency in Iraq.

In short, we are seeing the natural progression of a terrorist campaign — a shift from hard targets to soft — at the tactical level, entailing both a trend toward small-scale attacks and al Qaeda's adaptation to new political and security realities. We have seen the same progression with other groups in the past. For example, Hezbollah — under the direction of Lebanese national Imad Mughniyeh — went from the suicide bombing of U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut in 1983 and the kidnapping and murder of CIA station chief William Buckley (who fits the definition of a "hard target") in 1984 to the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994. We do not dismiss the fact that Hezbollah — which intelligence agents believe served as something of a model for the early al Qaeda, and has been an ongoing target of government counterterrorism efforts — has mutated since that time to become more of a political actor, most active within its native sphere but still capable of deadly violence in many parts of the world.

The shift that appears to be under way is that from "al Qaeda the Organization" to "al Qaeda the Movement."

From a tactical perspective, the shift to softer targets is quite worrisome — not only because they are so much more numerous than "hard" targets, but also because al Qaeda quite clearly has laid careful plans for this stage of the war. True, the group so far has not been able to carry out a successful follow-on to Sept. 11 on U.S. soil, but that certainly is not for lack of trying. To date, U.S. intelligence agents have uncovered at least a dozen likely plots within the United States, interdicted at various stages of the attack cycle — and it is widely known 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. From everything that U.S. intelligence knows — including interrogations of captured operatives — al Qaeda does not go to such lengths as sketching out the architectural weaknesses or security points of a building without eventually trying to bring it down, even when the target is known to authorities.

Now, we cannot know definitely whether al Qaeda lacks the capability to pull off another attack within the United States at this point or — for reasons of its own — has opted not to. Certainly, there have been numerous periods, such as the recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, when the group could have made an effective statement by staging an attack — and did not. Given that, and the effectiveness of the FBI and CIA thus far in pre-empting plots, we interpret a certain amount of disruption.

Making a Shift

In light of history, however, this analysis provides little comfort. Though centralized command and control operations in all likelihood have been disrupted, the shift that appears to be under way — marked particularly by the Madrid and London bombings and the use of "B" team players or native-born sympathizers — is that from "al Qaeda the Organization" to "al Qaeda the Movement." We, along with government intelligence agents, have noted something of a teacher-pupil relationship in many of Ayman al-Zawahiri's videotaped statements: It is possible for al Qaeda to retroactively claim responsibility for any number of acts — independently organized and carried out by sympathizers or wannabes — thus bolstering its own credibility and that of the actors at the same time. It also is possible for al Qaeda, at times, to prove direct links between its central leadership and peripheral actors.

Tactically speaking, al Qaeda the Movement has both a broader geographic reach — drawing on regional conflicts and local grievances — and shallower depth (since it relies on small-scale strikes at softer targets) than would al Qaeda the Organization. But this is, in its own way, a strength: Given al Qaeda's sustained operational tempo since Sept. 11, 2001, it appears that the inspired movement has managed to overcome the command-and-control problem posed by the isolation and quarry status of al Qaeda's central leaders. If you were to plot this out on a chart, what you might see are two trend lines forming an "X:" One, depicting al Qaeda's impact as a strategic force, on a declining trend; the other, depicting the tactical and security threats posed by a widespread and less visible movement, on the increase. At this point, we find ourselves near the mid-point on the X. Al Qaeda has a top leadership that is, though in hiding, still capable of communicating with the world through broadcast recordings and the Internet, and — if London is any indication — foot soldiers around the world who are capable of flying below the radar until an attack actually is carried out. If, however, al Qaeda gels as a movement — with its ideology resonating among militants with various causes of their own — the existence or annihilation of widely recognized figureheads would be, in most respects, irrelevant.

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