In the Media

The evolution of al-Qaida

by Barry Cooper

Ottawa Citizen
February 19, 2013

In 2011, according to John Brennan, U.S. counterterrorism chief, and Leon Panetta, then CIA director, al-Qaida was “on the ropes” and nearing strategic defeat. That same year, Panetta’s successor, David Petraeus, told Congress that al-Qaida was still a serious threat, a position that has often been repeated in the media. Those who argue for the first option point to the absence of any serious threat from the terrorist organization akin to what they accomplished on Sept. 11, 2001. Those who argue the second point to the continuing ideological appeal of the al-Qaida narrative. Both arguments are persuasive, but refer to distinct problems.

If we look at the narrative or ideology, not much has changed. There is still considerable appeal to discontented Western “homegrown” al-Qaida sympathizers as well as to those who join regionally organized affiliates and “franchises” in the Greater Middle East and Africa.

But if we look at how the organization has changed from its founding during the early 1980s as the “Office of Services” in Peshawar, tasked with assisting non-Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets, a great deal has changed. Between 1984 and 1987 this embryonic al-Qaida undertook rudimentary military training and ideological indoctrination (or religious education, if one prefers). By 1989 with the withdrawal of Soviet troops this first al-Qaida claimed they had (with the help of God) defeated the Red Army. The subsequent debate over whom next to attack centred on whether Kashmir or apostate Arab regimes, and not the United States, would be the target.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the response by the Americans began to change the thinking of the senior al-Qaida leadership — Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, in particular. They opposed American troops in Saudi Arabia, of course, but blamed the Saudi regime more than the Americans. It took the American intervention in Somalia to shift the attention of al-Qaida to the “far enemy” namely “America,” which included Canada.

The most successful attacks by al-Qaida during the 1990s were on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998. The arrest of the so-called “millennium bomber,” Ahmed Ressam, in 1999 and the failure in 2000 of the attack on USS The Sullivans was balanced by the successful attack on USS Cole later that year. In retrospect, success was partly the result of keeping a low profile.

The 9/11 attack was the first by a large, carefully selected, tightly controlled and well-trained team. Despite some significant lapses, they were able to maintain adequate operational security largely because U.S. intelligence agencies were ineffective. They were spectacularly successful but the attack was resource-intensive and, despite the ability to evade security forces, it left enough traces to ensure that it was, if not a one-time attack, then an operation that was very difficult to repeat.

Even so, the success of 9/11 provided an opportunity to recruit both what we now call homegrown jihadists and al-Qaida franchises precisely because the actions of counterterrorist organizations made a follow-on attack using the 9/11 model next to impossible. The current version of al-Qaida is largely a response to the new conditions created by Western and allied security forces after 9/11. Within five years, al-Qaida was more concerned with protecting its core leadership in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border than mounting offensive operations.

Today, effective operations rely heavily on local cells and local leadership, not foreign-trained and centrally commanded operations on foreign soil. Terrorists may have spent some time abroad for training or fought in foreign parts, but by and large they have only been inspired not commanded by the al-Qaida leadership. The members are usually at home in the target societies and conduct their operations almost entirely in the places they live. Some are bumblers and others are efficient, but to date none of the affiliates and franchises is capable of posing anything more than a tactical threat, chiefly in the developing world. For Canadians, al-Qaida is rapidly approaching the status of what historian Walter Laqueur called “nuisance terrorism.”

We can certainly expect jihadist insurgencies to continue to occur in countries with Muslim majorities or significant minorities. Unquestionably, therefore, Canada will have to continue to be prepared to intervene — our modest contribution to coalition efforts in Mali is a case in point. For the foreseeable future, jihadist terrorism in Canada will be a criminal matter best managed by the police and less a matter of national security.

Barry Cooper is a senior fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and professor of political science with the University of Calgary.

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