Nov 20, 2003

Special to Site: Al Qaeda–The Movement

Al Qaeda: The Movement
In perhaps their most concentrated burst of activity since 9/11, jihadists who look to Osama bin Laden as their spiritual guide have in the past three weeks carried out a series of devastating suicide attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The targets have included two synagogues and a British consulate and bank in Istanbul; a residential compound in Riyadh, and an Italian police barracks in Nasiriya, southern Iraq. The attacks have left some one hundred dead and have wounded as many as a thousand. Authorities have been quick to say that al Qaeda is behind the attacks, but what does that mean exactly?

Al Qaeda is clearly shorthand for something, but what? It seems, on some levels, a simple question: after all, "al Qaeda" is a term much bandied about by the public, politicians and pundits alike. Indeed, al Qaeda is now one of the best-known organizations in the world, with brand recognition seemingly only eclipsed by another successful franchise operation: McDonalds. Yet there is a great deal of ambiguity about what exactly constitutes al Qaeda. Is it a terrorist organization run in a regimented top-down fashion by its CEO, Osama bin Laden? Or is it a loose knit group of Islamist militants around the world whose only common link is that many of them trained in Afghanistan? Or has al Qaeda the organization morphed into something that is best described as al Qaeda the movement; a movement defined by adherence to bin Laden's virulent anti-Westernism/anti-Semitism and propensity for violence? Or is "al Qaeda" all of the above? Defining our terms about what exactly is meant by al Qaeda is more than a matter of s
emantic interest: If we can better define what we mean by "al Qaeda" we may better understand the threat posed by the al Qaeda phenomenon at this critical moment in the history of the Middle East.

First, there is al Qaeda, the organization. Most non-specialists are surprised to learn that al Qaeda has only some two or three hundred members. These are the men who have sworn bayat, an oath of allegiance to serve their emir, or leader, Osama bin Laden, even unto death. It is al Qaeda, the organization, which carried out the 9/11 attacks. The second concentric ring spreading out beyond the inner core of al Qaeda consists of perhaps a couple of thousand "holy warriors" who trained in the group's Afghan camps in the terrorist black arts of bomb-making and assassination techniques. Beyond this circle are tens of thousands of militants who received some kind of basic military training in Afghanistan over the past decade. Many of these trainees came to Afghanistan for something not much more than a jihad vacation. Most were to be cannon fodder in the Taliban's war against the Northern Alliance. (Think John Walker Lindh.) Finally, there are an untold numbers of Muslims around the world who subscribe to bin Laden
's Manichean view of the world that the West is the enemy of Islam, some of whom may be prepared to do violence.

The investigations of the recent attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are in their initial stages, but it seems the various "al Qaedas" described above may all have had some role in the attacks. In the case of the November 8 Riyadh bombing, al Qaeda itself has taken credit for the attack. This is plausible as al Qaeda has already struck in Riyadh in May in an attack that killed thirty-four. In the case of the November 12 attacks in Nasiriya, Iraq directed at the Italian presence there, Italy's Defense Minister, Antonio Martino, has said that Saddam Hussein loyalists and al Qaeda members are to blame for the operation. The Nasiriya attack then is not the work of al Qaeda itself, but the wider circle of jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda who will cooperate with groups on the ground with purely local interests, such as Saddam loyalists. The November 15 attacks on the two synagogues in Istanbul were carried out by two Turks, at least one of whom seems to have spent time in Afghanistan, according to Turkish au
thorities. After the synagogue attacks a group called the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, claimed responsibility. Abu Hafs is the nom de guerre of al Qaeda's former military commander who was killed by a US air strike in Afghanistan in November 2001. The synagogue attacks seem then to have been carried out by one of al Qaeda's many affiliates, recruiting local talent on the ground to execute the operation. This may also be the case for Thursday's attacks against the British bank and consulate in Istanbul.

What we have seen in the past three weeks then represents the likely future of "al Qaeda" operations; some attacks will continue to be planned by the terrorist organization itself; other attacks will be carried out by affiliate groups acting in the name of al Qaeda, and additional operations will be executed by local jihadists who have little or no connection to al Qaeda except in terms of ideology. The latter is perhaps the most worrying development because it suggests that al Qaeda has successfully turned itself from an organization into a mass movement, a movement that has been energized by the war in Iraq.

Reportedly President Bush keeps photos of the twenty or so top terrorists in his desk and when one of them is apprehended or killed he writes an X through their picture. Al Qaeda, however, is not like the Gambino crime family where if you arrest all the Gambino capos it will disappear. Al Qaeda is now a movement, and you can't arrest entire movements.