IS AL-QA'IDA'S CENTRAL LEADERSHIP STILL RELEVANT?
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Kyle Dabruzzi
Analysts such as Jason Burke, a reporter for London's Observer and the author of Al-Qa'ida: The True Story of Radical Islam, and Stratfor's Peter Zeihan have underestimated the importance of Al-Qa'ida's central leadership, in part because they overstate what that leadership needs to do to remain relevant. Even if the central leadership's role is limited to connecting terrorist nodes pairing skill sets, financing, and operatives it can transform terrorist groups from disunited regional problems into cohesive adversaries capable of threatening Western societies.
Analysts consider terrorist networks to be centralized when there is a principal command exercising control over the network, making operational decisions, and guiding its ideology. Decisions filter from top to bottom, and levels do not mix: There is a clear separation between the leadership and lower ranking operatives. A central command joins terrorists with specific skill sets across regions, tasks smaller cells, and provides financial and logistical resources. A prime example of such a centralized structure was pre-9-11 Al-Qa'ida, which had a supreme leader (Osama bin Laden), a shura (consultation) council, various committees, and a cadre of lieutenants in charge of regions or cells.  Although some analysts assume that youths can self-radicalize and train themselves via the Internet,  training camps produce the most capable terrorists. Graduates of terrorist training camps have conducted the deadliest post-9-11 attacks: in Bali, Madrid, London, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Mumbai. U.S. officials are fortunate that both the group that plotted to bomb the John F. Kennedy airport in 2007 and the cell arrested in Miami in 2006 were untrained and apparently isolated from global jihadist networks. 
While there are clear advantages for terror groups to centralization and hierarchy, decentralization does offer some benefits: Bureaucratic intelligence agencies have trouble keeping up with cells that are disconnected and on the move, making it almost impossible to uproot an entire decentralized network. Regional terrorist groups can also act with greater spontaneity, absent the need to coordinate their operations through hierarchical channels. But on balance, centralized terrorist groups pose the greater threat to the United States. Marc Sageman, a clinical psychiatrist who previously worked for the CIA, has observed that small-scale operations "may be lethal," but "they will not result in mass carnage, which requires coordination, skills, and resources." 
Burke argues that there were three elements to Al-Qa'ida during the period from 1996 to 2001: "a hardcore, a network of co-opted groups, and an ideology."  He says that the "Al-Qa'ida hardcore" was comprised of bin Laden's longtime associates as well as perhaps 100 of the world's preeminent terrorists, who worked closely with each other and occasionally left their safe haven to run operations, but who did not always agree over ideology or tactics.  The co-opted groups, Burke maintains, were "associate members of Al-Qa'ida" who "acted as links between the 'Al-Qa'ida hardcore' and the rest of the vast, amorphous movement of modern radical Islam."  With the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he argues, both the "hardcore" and co-opted groups were defeated and scattered, and today only the ideology remains. "We are now in a 'post-bin Laden' phase of Islamic militancy,"  in which belonging to Al-Qa'ida is a matter of adherence to its ideology, and nothing more.  This is an assessment with which Jerrold Post, a founding director of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, agrees.  This view has persisted well into 2007. Stratfor's Peter Zeihan argued:
At the other end of the spectrum is Peter Bergen, the author of two books about bin Laden and his terror network. Bergen argues that Al-Qa'ida's leadership has regrouped in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has established new terrorist training camps in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Al-Qa'ida's propaganda campaign is expanding, as are its affiliations with regional terrorist groups.  For example, the Algeria-based Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, GSPC) recently changed its name to Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, signaling its incorporation into Al-Qa'ida's global network.  Since January, 2005, some forty different organizations in countries that include Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen "have announced their formation and pledged allegiance to bin Laden, Al-Qa'ida, and their strategic objectives."  While the April, 2006, National Intelligence Estimate assessed that "the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent strategy, and is becoming more diffuse,"  the July, 2007, National Intelligence Estimate supports the view that Al-Qa'ida "has protected or regenerated key elements of its [U.S.] Homeland attack capability." 
In the debate within Al-Qa'ida about the group's future, most favor a strong central leadership. Abu Musab al-Suri, one of the most prolific jihadist ideologues, has, in recent years, argued for a decentralized combat model. In contrast, Abu Bakr Naji, another prominent jihadist ideologue, calls for a more centralized model.
Suri's 1,600-page manifesto, The Call for Global Islamic Resistance, argues that the centralized, hierarchical model of jihadism cannot overcome the technologically advanced U.S. military, and that regional security cooperation such as the alliance between Washington and Islamabad makes a hierarchical structure dangerous. He suggests that decentralization immunizes terrorist cells from detection through the capture and interrogation of members of other cells.  Suri's prescription for decentralization would mean replacing the old training camp model with one in which fighters are trained "in homes and mobile camps." 
In contrast, Naji's The Management of Savagery argues that, once the jihadists hold territory, they should erect a governing apparatus to enforce Islamic law and provide security, food, and medical care. A high command would ensure that efforts are not needlessly duplicated and would prioritize actions against various groups or nations.  Naji has carried the day within Al-Qa'ida's hierarchy, especially as Al-Qa'ida has gained new safe havens in Pakistan.
Other documents detail duties, salaries, and even vacation time.  Bachelors qualify for a round-trip ticket home after a year, although they have the option of using it for hajj (religious pilgrimage) instead. An application to train in Al-Qa'ida camps inquires about the applicant's education level, professional experience, medical history, and how much of the Qur'an he has memorized. 
Although the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan devastated Al-Qa'ida's safe haven, the group's core leadership survived. Abdel Bari Atwan, Editor in Chief of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, wrote that U.S. forces may have destroyed "more than 80 percent of [Al-Qa'ida's] military capabilities and infrastructure,"  but the group's senior leadership fled. A few such as Saif al-Adl, Saad bin Laden, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith fled to Iran,  but most relocated to Pakistan. 
Soon after, Al-Qa'ida regional nodes took the lead in operations. On October 8, 2002, two Kuwaitis linked to Al-Qa'ida opened fire on U.S. marines, killing one.  Then, on October 12, 2002, Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyya killed 202 people in a nightclub bombing in Bali.  On October 23, 2002, Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater packed with 850 people.  The March 1, 2003, capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Al-Qa'ida's principal operations commander and chief architect of the 9-11 attacks, set back the re-assertion of Al-Qa'ida's central leadership.  Over the next year, regional attacks continued. A March 11, 2004, attack on commuter trains in Madrid killed almost 200 people and sabotaged Spanish Premier Josι Marνa Aznar's reelection bid. In early September, 2004, Chechen terrorists killed 300 civilians, including 180 children, in the southern Russian town of Beslan.  On July 7, 2005, four British-born Pakistani Muslim suicide bombers blew themselves up on London's public transit system during rush hour, killing fifty-two. 
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that, in this period, analysts and media commentators underestimated the extent to which Al-Qa'ida's central leadership remained able to organize terror attacks.  Al-Qa'ida's leadership formulated the Madrid plot, even though a regional node implemented the operation: The police traced the mobile phone detonators used in that plot to Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan who owned a cell phone shop in Madrid.  Spanish authorities monitored a call between Zougam and Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkus, the now-jailed head of Al-Qa'ida's node in Spain. Zougam said that Mohamed Fizazi, spiritual leader of the Moroccan extremist group Salafia Jihadia and convicted for his part in the May, 2003, Casablanca suicide bombings, offered him financial aid. Zougam also visited Mullah Krekar, an Iraqi Kurd based in Norway who founded the Ansar al-Islam terrorist organization.  The ringleader of the Madrid cell, Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, was friendly with senior Al-Qa'ida operative Amer Azizi.  But the most salient connection is the fact that the Center of Mujahideen Services, an internal Al-Qa'ida "think tank" and linear descendant of the Maktab al-Khidmat (Bureau of services), a nongovernmental organization formed in the mid-1980s to provide services during the Afghan-Soviet war, developed the political strategy behind the attack.  The Center of Mujahideen Services, formed to provide the same kind of services to Iraqi mujahideen that Maktab al-Khidmat provided to Afghan fighters, published a book entitled Iraq al-Jihad, which concluded that "the Spanish government will not endure two or three attacks" and argued that a coordinated terrorist assault could turn the Spanish public against the government, forcing it to withdraw. 
Al-Qa'ida's senior leadership also played a crucial role in the July 7, 2005, attacks on London's transit system. British police reports were hesitant to link the bombers to Al-Qa'ida, believing the terror cell to be autonomous and self-actuating.  But as the official account of the 7-7 attacks hit the British press, terrorism analysts Dan Darling and Steve Schippert enumerated a number of problems with the early conclusion that the broader Al-Qa'ida network was largely irrelevant to the London cell that executed the bombings.  First, they noted connections between cell leader Muhammad Sidique Khan and Riduan Isamuddin, mastermind of the Bali bombings. Mohammed Junaid Babar, a Pakistani native living in Queens, New York, who pled guilty in U.S. federal court to smuggling military supplies to Al-Qa'ida and assisting the London bombers,  had identified Khan as someone he had met at an Al-Qa'ida camp in Pakistan. Haroon Rashid Aswat, who helped set up an Al-Qa'ida training camp in Oregon, had contacted the London bombers by telephone hours before the attack.  After the bombing, Khan and fellow bomber Shehzad Tanweer appeared in a video aired on the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera that included praise for the attacks from bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as Khan's suicide message.  It seems highly unlikely that Al-Qa'ida's senior leadership would have this footage were they unconnected to the attack. Underscoring this point, Al-Jazeera posted a video from Zawahiri on the one-year anniversary of the bombings claiming that Khan and Tanweer had visited an Al-Qa'ida camp "seeking martyrdom."  Bob Ayers, a security expert at London's Chatham House think tank, commented:
The connections between Al-Qa'ida's senior leadership and the attacks in Madrid and London demonstrate that the group's top command was not as isolated and irrelevant during this period as some suggested. Still, it would gain more strength over time.
The 9-11 Commission concluded that, to carry out catastrophic acts of terror, terrorist groups require sanctuaries that provide them with "time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work" as well as "opportunities and space to recruit, train, and select operatives with the needed skills and dedication."  Al-Qa'ida gained this in Pakistan with the signing of the South Waziristan accord, and later the North Waziristan accord, which signaled Musharraf's military defeat in the campaign directed at the tribal areas. The accords provided that Pakistan's military would not carry out air or ground strikes in the tribal areas and included a pledge that Islamabad would disband its human intelligence network there.  In effect, Musharraf granted Al-Qa'ida a new safe haven. Three similar accords have since been signed: with the Bajaur region in March, 2007,  two months later with Swat,  and finally with the Mohmand agency in August, 2007.  With these agreements in place, the United States has seen an influx of Al-Qa'ida operatives and money into the tribal regions.  Recent video taken in a Pakistani training camp shows a graduation ceremony of about 300 recruits for suicide missions, some of whom are allegedly bound for the United States and Europe. 
Already, the safe haven in the North-West Frontier Province has made an Al-Qa'ida and Taliban resurgence possible. Taliban attacks in Afghanistan increased almost immediately after the Waziristan accords were consummated.  Moreover, the August 10, 2006, plot to destroy ten aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean with liquid explosives signaled the resurgence of Al-Qa'ida's senior leadership in its Pakistani safe haven.  Although some initial reports hesitated to link the plot to Al-Qa'ida's senior leadership,  the evidence left little doubt. Pakistani security sources confirmed that the plot was hatched by Al-Qa'ida's "top hierarchy."  Published reports stated that high-level Al-Qa'ida operative Matiur Rehman "directed the British terror plot from Pakistan."  Officials believe that two suspects identified in the plot met with him in Pakistan and later received a wire transfer from Pakistan to buy airline tickets for the suicide bombers.  The operatives charged with carrying out the transatlantic air plot trained in Al-Qa'ida's Pakistan camps. B. Raman, the Director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, India, and former head of the counterterrorism division for India's external intelligence agency, has noted that "some of the eighteen persons of Pakistani origin detained by the British police in connection with the investigation had traveled to Pakistan after the earthquake of October, 2005," to volunteer for humanitarian efforts, but, while in the relief camps, "were taken by the Jundullah, a Pakistani jihadi terrorist organisation which is close to Al-Qa'ida, to its training camps in the Waziristan area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan for training."  The magnitude of the plot and the number of players involved estimates range from fifty to 150 are beyond what a local cell could organize without outside help.
Compounding the problem of Al-Qa'ida's Pakistan refuge, the group may gain further safe havens in Somalia and Iraq. Last year, most of Somalia was conquered by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group closely associated with Al-Qa'ida. The ICU's rise attracted hordes of foreign fighters, as well as money from established Al-Qa'ida financiers leading some analysts to fear that a new Afghanistan-style safe haven was emerging.  The Somali camps perhaps seventeen in all hosted an array of jihadis from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula. Although an Ethiopian intervention that began in December, 2006, pushed back many of the ICU's advances, the group has since launched a potent insurgency. 
Al-Qa'ida's senior leadership also sees Iraq as a critical battlefield.  CIA Director Michael Hayden has warned that U.S. failure there would produce "a safe haven from which" Al-Qa'ida would be able "to plan and conduct attacks against the West."  When U.S. and Iraqi forces killed an Al-Qa'ida financier known as Muthanna in a late 2007 operation, the documents and electronic files they uncovered yielded a great deal of information about Al-Qa'ida's infrastructure in Iraq.  The information recovered included a list of "500 foreign terrorists being recruited by Al-Qa'ida" and biographies of 143 Al-Qa'ida fighters en route to Iraq from such countries as Algeria, Belgium, Egypt, France, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, and Yemen.  Around the same time, the U.S. military detained a man in Baghdad who had allegedly received approximately $100 million from outside sympathizers to fund Al-Qa'ida's operations.  These incidents are indicative of Al-Qa'ida's infrastructure in Iraq.
Even with its leadership on the run post-9-11, Al-Qa'ida nodes remained deadly, staging a number of significant attacks. With a new safe haven for its leadership in Pakistan, as well as several open fronts, the group may be able to orchestrate even more spectacular terrorist attacks in the future.
There are many external signs that Al-Qa'ida is back, including its increasingly effective media operations. Al-Sahab, Al-Qa'ida's media wing, disseminated fifty-eight videos in 2006.  While Al-Qa'ida's regional nodes will remain terrorist forces in their own right, the senior leadership is indeed back. With a safe haven in Pakistan and perhaps soon in other territories the senior leadership will likely play a greater role in future plots, while attempting to conceptualize and carry out an attack that will surpass 9-11. A strong central leadership makes the group more formidable and its attacks more deadly; dismissing the evidence that Al-Qa'ida's leadership has regrouped will ultimately endanger U.S. security.
 Derek Reveron, "Tuned to Fear," National Review Online, Jan. 13, 2005.
 Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al-Qaeda (New York: Berkley Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 75-8.
 BBC News, July 14, 2004.
 Emily Hunt, "Virtual Incompetence," Daily Standard (Washington, D.C.), Aug. 18, 2006.
 Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 54.
 See also Fareed Zakaria, "Osama Needs More Mud Huts," Newsweek, May 8, 2006.
 Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 8.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 231.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 290.
 USA Today, Aug. 7, 2005.
 Peter Zeihan, "The Many Faces of Al Qaeda," Stratfor (Austin, Tex.), July 10, 2007.
 Peter Bergen, "The Return of Al Qaeda," The New Republic, Jan. 29, 2007.
 The Washington Post, May 30, 2007.
 Michael Scheuer, "Al-Qaeda and Algeria's GSPC: Part of a Much Bigger Picture," Terrorism Focus, Apr. 3, 2007.
 "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council, Washington, D.C., Apr. 2006.
 "The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland," National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council, Washington, D.C., July 2007.
 Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, The Call for Global Islamic Resistance (Arlington, Va.: DCIA Counterterrorism Center, 2006), p. 66, 1378.
 Ibid., p. 1419.
 Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery (West Point, N.Y.: Combating Terrorism Center, 2006), p. 11, 27.
 9-11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: W.W. Norton Co., 2004), pp. 60-1.
 "Interior Organization," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Harmony Database, released Feb. 14, 2006, accessed Nov. 20, 2007.
 "Employment Contract," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Harmony Database, released Feb. 14, 2006, accessed Nov. 20, 2007.
 "Camp Acceptance Requirements," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Harmony Database, released Mar. 17, 2006, accessed Nov. 20, 2007.
 Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of al Qaeda (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 180.
 NBC News, June 24, 2005.
 Anonymous and Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2004), pp. 64-5.
 BBC News, Oct. 9, 2002.
 BBC News, Feb. 19, 2003.
 Johanna McGeary and Paul Quinn-Judge, "Theater of War," Time, Oct. 27, 2002; Country Reports on Terrorism, 2004, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Washington, D.C., Apr. 2005.
 Kevin Whitelaw, "A Tightening Noose," U.S. News & World Report, Mar. 9, 2003.
 The Washington Post, Sept. 4, 2004.
 The Guardian (London), July 13, 2005.
 Bergen, "The Return of Al Qaeda."
 Petter Nesser, Jihad in Europe: A Survey of the Motivations for Sunni Islamist Terrorism in Post-Millennium Europe (Kjeller, Nor.: Forsvarets Forkskningsinstitutt, 2004), p. 73.
 The Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 22, 2004.
 Lawrence Wright, "The Terror Web," The New Yorker, Aug. 2, 2004.
 Anonymous [Michael Scheuer], Through Our Enemies' Eyes (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2002), p. 41.
 Iraq the Jihad: Expectations and Dangers (Center of Mujahideen Services, 2003), p. 33.
 Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005, Intelligence and Security Committee, The Stationery Office, London, May 11, 2006; Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005, British House of Commons, May 11, 2006.
 Dan Darling and Steve Schippert, "British 7/7 Bombing Report Ignores Al-Qaeda," ThreatsWatch, Apr. 10, 2006.
 CNN.com, Aug. 11, 2004.
 The Times (London), July 21, 2005.
 The Peninsula (Doha), Sept. 4, 2005.
 CBS News, July 7, 2006.
 CBS News, July 7, 2006.
 The New York Times, Dec. 26, 2003.
 9-11 Commission Report, pp. 365-6.
 Dawn (Karachi), Sept. 6, 2006.
 Agence France-Presse, Mar. 26, 2007.
 Daily Times (Lahore), May 23, 2007.
 Daily Times, Aug. 28, 2007.
 Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2007.
 The Blotter, ABC News, June 18, 2007.
 The Blotter, ABC News, Oct. 24, 2006.
 ABC News, Aug. 10, 2006.
 Peter Brookes, "The Other Enemy: Lessons of the Latest Plot," The New York Post, Aug. 11, 2006.
 Dawn, Aug. 16, 2006.
 Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 31, 2006.
 CNN.com, Aug. 11, 2006.
 B. Raman, "Operation Bojinka-2006: The Trail to Pakistan," South Asia Analysis Group, Noida, India, Aug. 11, 2006.
 Bruno Schiemsky, et al., "Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1676," U.N. Security Council Committee, New York, Nov. 2006; BBC, June 16, 2006.
 Andrew McGregor, "Weapons and Tactics of the Somali Insurgency," Terrorism Monitor, Mar. 1, 2007.
 Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, interview, video released by As-Sahab Media, May 5, 2007.
 Hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Annual Threat Assessment, Jan. 18, 2007.
 Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, "Update on Operations and Reconstruction in Iraq," Oct. 3, 2007.
 Agence France-Presse, Oct. 4, 2007.
 Bergen, "The Return of Al Qaeda."
Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
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Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the Vice President of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin, 2007). Kyle Dabruzzi is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The foregoing article by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Kyle Dabruzzi was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Spring, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-ΰ-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1875)
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