Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Globe Debate Faceoff

Debate: Is al-Qaeda a global terror threat or a local military menace? Add to ...

Some feel the jihadist group has become nothing more than a loosely affiliated network of regional militias. Other say it remains a global force. Read two opposing arguments and cast your vote

The Debate

When we think of al-Qaeda, we first think of Sept. 11: The jihadist organization will forever be identified with the international terrorist atrocities, directed against the United States and its allies, that it pulled off under the leadership of Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and early 2000s. These days, though, you’re more likely to hear about al-Qaeda in the context of the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by a militia it inspired, Boko Haram, or the guerrilla warfare waged in Syria by its sometimes-affiliate ISIS, or the coup in northern Mali committed by its offshoot al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Some believe that this is what al-Qaeda has become in the years after Mr. bin Laden’s death: A loosely affiliated network of regional militias in Africa and the Middle East, focused on local military struggles with only a minor interest in terrorism, a threat to the peoples in its midst but no longer significantly to the West. Others believe that there remains a central, co-ordinated al-Qaeda capable of organizing wider terrorist “spectaculars” while overseeing militias. We’ve brought together two of the best-informed al-Qaeda experts with opposing views on this question, so that you may compare and vote on their arguments and evidence.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
J.M. BergerSecurity analyst, editor of the terrorism site Intelwire - View Bio
Al-Qaeda has shifted from terrorism to local, fragmented warfare
Debate contributor
Daveed Gartenstein-RossSenior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington - View Bio
Al-Qaeda remains a centralized, international terrorist threat

The Discussion

Debate contributor

J.M. Berger : Just six months ago, online jihadist networks were overflowing with praise for the war in Syria. Foreign fighters on social media deemed Syria the “five-star jihad” – noble, glamorous, relatively comfortable and fully connected to the Internet.

But the stars are falling. Instead of fighting the oppressive Bashar al-Assad regime, jihadists are now fighting each other, with no end in sight.

It was a long road to this crucial juncture. Before September 11, al-Qaeda was a relatively small, shadowy terrorist network with probably fewer than 1,000 sworn adherents. Its primary activity was terrorism - theatrical attacks on non-combatants outside of war zones - although it exploited foreign-fighter conflicts such as the 1990s war in Bosnia to raise funds and groom hardened recruits.

Today, al-Qaeda is all over the map, both literally and figuratively.

In the wake of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, jihadists have spread out over the Middle East and North Africa, eventually settling into a franchise system in which the original group, al-Qaeda Central, designated official affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa.

Along the way, al-Qaeda’s primary mission shifted. While it has not forsaken terrorism, its resources today are overwhelmingly devoted to fighting wars and insurgencies.

In Syria alone, no one can credibly dispute that the current number of jihadist warfighters dwarfs the maximum possible size of al-Qaeda prior to 2001.

In Yemen, Somalia and Mali, al-Qaeda-aligned fighters have increasingly adopted the model of insurgency. While terrorist tactics still proliferate in these regions, organizational goals point to overthrowing existing regimes and directly capturing and controlling territory. In contrast, traditional terrorism seeks to sway policies and polities indirectly, through violence targeting non-combatants.

Al-Qaeda has not abandoned terrorism, but it has adopted a default position of encouraging “lone wolf” attacks by non-networked supporters in the West. While this obviously represents an ongoing problem, individual actors do not represent the same magnitude of threat that manifested itself on September 11, nor do they require al-Qaeda to spend its own resources.

Holding territory is an inherently local activity, which has focused the resources of many jihadists on the countries where they dwell, rather than on attacking the U.S. homeland. Even al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- widely held to be the most dangerous al-Qaeda threat to the West -- has attempted only a handful of attacks on the U.S. homeland. Each of the plots that have become public knowledge were lightly staffed and funded on a shoestring budget. AQAP’s resources are instead overwhelmingly devoted to battling the government of Yemen, where it is based.

In Somalia, al-Shabaab is fighting an insurgency, but it is also the al-Qaeda affiliate most visibly devoting resources to transnational terrorism, including a recent spree of regional terrorist attacks on the soil of its immediate neighbors Kenya and possibly Djibouti, both of which have troops in Somalia.

But while some dozens of terrorist conspirators can have a far-reaching and disproportionate impact -- that is the very reason terrorism exists in the first place -- such attacks do not suggest a broad global reach, and more importantly, they do not alter the math of resource allocation for the broad al-Qaeda movement.

In the year to date, all known terrorist conspirators combined represent only a fraction of 1 per cent of active jihadist warfighters. Far more people have died in 2014 as a result of insurgent activity and warfighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Mali than in terrorist attacks over the same period.

Meanwhile, important fractures have opened up within the broad al-Qaeda movement. Al-Qaeda has always included diverse elements, but Osama bin Laden was able to exert a measure of control thanks in significant part to his personal credibility and deep pockets. After the rise of the affiliates, rifts began to emerge, but they were carefully handled in private, maintaining the public facade of unity.

Since Mr. bin Laden’s death in 2011, his successor Ayman al Zawahiri has been unable to keep these internal conflicts behind closed doors.

In recent months, a full-scale civil war has erupted within al-Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq) defied public orders from Mr. Zawahiri and entered into bloody combat with al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nursa. As a result, in February Mr. Zawahiri ejected the group from al-Qaeda. ISIS minions on social media launched scathing attacks on Zawahiri, calling him “senile” and even accusing him of having assassinated the venerated father of the global jihadist movement, Abdullah Azzam.

ISIS has adopted a number of political, strategic and ideological positions to differentiate itself from al-Qaeda, many of which revolve around how to hold and govern territory, reflecting the change in direction of the broader movement.

All of this presents new and interesting challenges for Western counterterrorism strategy, currently focused on disrupting al-Qaeda plots and killing senior leaders.

So far, al-Qaeda’s civil war works in our favor. Jihadists are even more focused on local and internal issues, and even less on global terrorism (although one or both sides could attempt to change the conversation with an attack on the West). Jihadists are also actively killing each other in impressive numbers and creating an ugly environment that complicates the process of recruiting new blood.

What happens if we tamper with this complex and rapidly evolving scenario?

For instance, U.S. drones have been extremely active in Yemen recently, presumably targeting AQAP’s top leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who is an Al-Qaeda Central loyalist and the global movement’s deputy leader, second only to Mr. Zawahiri.

Al-Qaeda loyalty oaths are made to the leader, not the organization. So if we kill Mr. Wuhayshi, his successor is not obligated to maintain allegiance to AQC.

Would AQAP’s new leader throw in with ISIS? Such a development would weaken al-Qaeda, but would it shift the balance of power too far? The prospect of a global jihadist movement dominated by the notoriously brutal ISIS is unappealing, for many reasons.

For as long as this conflict continues, dominoes will fall with the death of any top al-Qaeda leader. If we kill Mr. Zawahiri tomorrow, all oaths of loyalty to Al-Qaeda Central expire with him. The new leader of al-Qaeda might be more effective and able to end the infighting, resulting in a stronger al-Qaeda. Or the whole network might shatter, leaving ISIS to fill the vacuum.

The Western powers need to start fleshing out such scenarios and pondering the second-order consequences of our current, dated policies.

The combination of unprecedented chaos and unprecedented resources assures we will see continued rapid change in the global jihadist movement. The al-Qaeda of 2014 barely resembles the 2009 model. What will 2015 look like?

Debate contributor

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross : Even before al-Qaeda’s senior leadership expelled its insubordinate Iraqi branch, ISIS, in February, some observers felt that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership had lost control of the organization. Less than a week before ISIS’s expulsion, for example, The New York Times reported on the “vast decentralization of al-Qaeda,” stating that what links various violent groups operating under that banner today “is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate.”

Arguments that al-Qaeda had become decentralized were supercharged following its renunciation of ISIS, particularly given the latter’s aggressiveness after its involuntary separation. One representative piece of analysis argued that “the real danger of terrorism” can now be found in “a plurality of armed jihadi groups spread throughout the Middle East and Africa.”

But we should be cautious about repeating past mistakes, and prematurely penning the obituary of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.

For their own part, al-Qaeda insiders reject the characterization that the group has become decentralized. Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, an al-Qaeda official currently in Syria with its official affiliate, the Nusra Front, recently spoke at length about al-Qaeda’s bureaucracy. He described system known as aqalim – regionalization -- wherein a different leader oversees each of the geographic locations where the group operates, but is subordinate through an oath of bayat (fealty) to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. One senior al-Qaeda official, known as the masul aqalim, is responsible for overseeing all the affiliates operating in different regions, coordinating with the regional emirs. Rather than disparate groups connected by little more than “loose ideology,” Abu Sulayman described a group with bureaucratic direction. His account appears more credible than that of The New York Times.

This bureaucratic system does not given the group’s senior leadership perfect command and control, and the ongoing conflict with ISIS poses a challenge to it. Tensions amongst key leaders and affiliated groups aren’t new to al-Qaeda: its open conflict with the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria (GIA) during the 1990s helped spur the creation of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which eclipsed GIA in the Algerian civil war.

Yet ISIS’s efforts have thus far stolen little support from the al-Qaeda network. Those whom it has won over are limited to nine officials in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region (only three of whom appear to be individuals of note), possibly Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Center Zone, and two leaders within Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who have made it clear that their views do not represent those of the organization. On the other side, Mr. Zawahiri -- without even making a public appeal -- has received declarations of support and loyalty from across the al-Qaeda spectrum, including from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab, Imarat Kavkaz, Al-Qaeda in Kurdistan, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s militant group in North Africa, and a coterie of extremist clerics.

Though ISIS may win others over to its side, it’s important that our preferred outcomes not skew our understanding of facts. The conflict between al-Qaeda and ISIS will have a profound impact on the shape of jihadism, and the United States and allied countries should try to take advantage of this opening, but there are several reasons to suspect that al-Qaeda will continue to prove resilient as the preeminent international terrorist challenge.

First, the conflict between al-Qaeda and ISIS comes during a period of expansion, not retraction, for jihadism and al-Qaeda. If the environment were unfavorable to these groups, the split would be a greater concern for them. Though many analysts thought the Arab Spring revolutions that shook the Middle East’s old order would marginalize jihadist groups, the movement has in fact found copious new opportunities. If you compare al-Qaeda’s current reach and strength to just prior to former leader Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011, the group has gained overall.

The central front for jihadism today is Syria, a conflict that was still nascent in May 2011. Syria will mean as much to this generation of jihadists as the Afghan-Soviet war did in the 1980s: the conflict has already attracted more foreign fighters at once than “any previous conflict in the modern history of the Muslim world.” In the Afghan-Soviet war, relationships among militants forged on the battlefield endured for decades and changed the international security environment in multiple countries. The Syria conflict may have a greater impact: Al-Qaeda wasn’t even created until the end of the Afghan-Soviet war. In contrast, transnational jihadism is now a mature movement that can more easily fit this conflict into its strategic vision. Further, global communications and ease of global travel have drastically improved in the interregnum between the two wars, potentially allowing relationships and cooperation amongst Syria veterans to be more enduring.

Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra -- which didn’t exist at the time of Osama bin Laden’s death -- is positioned to reap the benefits of that conflict. Moreover, jihadism has found a new home in states experiencing transitions driven by the Arab Spring, and al-Qaeda has managed to establish a presence in Libya since Moammar Gadhafi’s fall, has developed robust connections to Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, and may benefit from the chaotic situation in Egypt.

One important question concerning the continued relevance of al-Qaeda’s core leadership, on which analysts disagree, is what kind of levers of control al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has over its affiliates. J.M. Berger has argued that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership enjoys limited authority based only on “the religious weight of the loyalty oaths” that it has collected, as well as Zawahiri’s “elder statesman status” and “personal charisma.”

This conclusion about the senior leadership’s weakness is by no means self-evident, especially when one considers that after its expulsion ISIS has been denounced by a who’s-who of global jihadist ideologues. Does this have no impact on the flow of money and recruits to ISIS? Indeed, there are early signs that ISIS may also face an internal challenge from al-Qaeda loyalists within its ranks. It’s worth watching not only for the possible fragmenting of al-Qaeda, but also of ISIS.

Further, the fact that senior al-Qaeda leaders like Abu Khalid al-Suri and Sanafi al-Nasr had taken important leadership posts in the Syrian rebellion is relevant to al-Qaeda’s possible levers of control. The fact that the role played by these men wasn’t known in open-source reporting until they had long been established in Syria should make us hesitant to assume we know everything about the position of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.

Nor Abu Khalid and Sanafi al-Nasr alone among senior al-Qaeda figures now influential in Syria. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, al-Qaeda’s former head of security for counterintelligence Abu Wafa al-Saudi, is also in Syria. So is Abu Humam al-Suri (who heads Nusra’s paramilitary forces), former head of al-Qaeda’s Iran facilitation network Muhsin al-Fadhli, and founding al-Qaeda member Abu Firas al-Suri. These are just the individuals whose names have already hit the media, and all of them appear to be integrated into Syrian jihadist groups at the highest levels.

Analysts have tended to underestimate the resiliency of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. As Bruce Hoffman recently noted in an academic article documenting perceptions of al-Qaeda dating back to 2003, “Al-Qaeda Core has stubbornly survived despite predictions or conventional wisdom to the contrary.”

Al-Qaeda’s weaknesses are real, and should be exploited. At the same time, we need to understand not only its weaknesses but also its strengths and resilience if we are to truly defeat or marginalize this malign organization.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate