A Year Beyond Bin Laden: The New Al QaedaPrintable Version
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
It has been over a year since an elite team of Navy SEALs killed al Qaeda's Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The world has seen other changes as well: the "Arab Spring," the reverberations of which continue to rock the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. With the benefit of a year of reflection, how has bin Laden's death changed al Qaeda? How are these changes likely to play out in the future? What are al Qaeda's prospects in a post-Arab Spring world, given the ascendance of Islamic political parties? CNP hosted Mary Habeck, Will McCants and Stephen Tankel to discuss these very questions.
Command and Control
Mary Habeck, Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at SAIS, prefaced her remarks by agreeing that the combination of bin Laden's death and the Arab Spring significantly affected al Qaeda's operational capacity and public relations efforts. However, Professor Habeck believes that al Qaeda has been surprisingly resilient in the wake of these setbacks. Rather than being split into an al Qaeda core and regional affiliates, Professor Habeck asserts that even before the events of May, al Qaeda has been operating as a global organization and is not atomized into constituent parts. Indeed, in Professor Habeck's calculus, this single, and singular, organization has nimbly reacted to losses in senior leadership and ideological consensus.
Furthermore, we may have been misinterpreting the strategic focus of al Qaeda, which is not solely oriented to the U.S. but instead is organized as a global insurgency without a dominant locus. In this global struggle, a strong "command and control" dynamic may be supporting al Qaeda's ability to be flexible and tactical in response to new impediments.
For Will McCants, Middle East Specialist at CNA's Center for Strategic Studies, the central question a year out from bin Laden's death is whether al Qaeda is still shaping events in the Middle East with the same pace and intensity as it had in the past. Mr. McCants believes the answer is a resounding no, and that specifically the Arab spring has had immense consequences for al Qaeda's resonance. The increasing inclusion of conservative Muslims into Middle East parliamentary politics has dealt a serious blow to the broader jihadi movement that forbids such political participation. That many conservative Muslims are even equivocating on this issue is itself may indicate an erosion of any ideological hegemony al Qaeda may have produced.
With regards to the al Qaeda's "command and control" dynamic that Professor Habeck discussed, Mr. McCants believes that the situation is more fragmented and less beholden to an al Qaeda central. Rather than real organizational unity, Mr. McCants contends that the center-periphery relationship is a fluid association that has not followed a strict pattern. Additionally, while McCants also sees al Qaeda affiliates increasing its territorial holdings, he does not consider the strategy to be a sustainable as violence will ultimately usher in too much attention from local and international counter-terrorism forces.
Peripheral Jihad and Re-localization
Stephen Tankel, assistant professor at American University, also sees the relationship between al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and their affiliates as less than tight. Mr. Tankel believes that for al Qaeda, attacking the U.S. is part of a "peripheral jihad" (a tacit priority created by bin Laden) with the true primary objective the liberation of Muslim land from collaborators and/or heretics. Mr. Tankel considers groups that have embraced al Qaeda signatures, or that have actively positioned themselves as affiliates, as operating from a position of weakness and are using al Qaeda's rhetorical advantages to regenerate enthusiasm. However, despite "going al Qaeda" many of these groups don't adopt with the same fervor this need for a "peripheral jihad."
Indeed, Mr. Tankel argues that the current jihadist trend is for re-localization. Greater variegation between al Qaeda affiliates is emerging as they attempt to deal with the variety of local factors they confront on a daily basis. For Mr. Tankel, local objectives are trumping any ambition for operational and rhetorical unity. While al Qaeda in Yemen has shown some capacity and willingness to undergo transnational violence, the threat of attacks on the U.S. from AQ affiliates may currently be limited as they deal with their own local political contingencies.