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Al Qaeda (Arabic for “The Base”) is not the same organization it was prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Usama bin Laden and his chief deputy (and current titular number one in the organization) Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician-turned-Islamist fundamentalist, had successfully established an arrangement with the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan following bin Laden’s expulsion from Sudan. The arrangement with the Taliban, which involved financial support for the Afghanistani government in exchange for use of that country’s vast open and mountainous spaces, allowed al Qaeda to establish a sizable infrastructure within Afghanistan’s borders, including a series of training camps through which passed tens of thousands of terrorists of myriad ethnicities. The arrangement between the Taliban, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, and bin Laden enabled the latter to create a very centralized organizational structure with a clear chain-of-command, which facilitated the planning and execution of al Qaeda’s most infamous attacks, including the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; the October 12, 2000, bombing of the U.S. Navy ship USS Cole while it was visiting the port of Aden, Yemen; and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the aborted attempt to similarly strike either the U.S. Capitol building or the White House (the destination of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, remains uncertain, but best estimates involve one of those two important and highly visible government sites).
This organizational structure was destroyed following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and al Qaeda subsequently underwent a major, and very ad hoc, transformation. No longer was the organization centralized and, as a corollary, susceptible to relatively easy mapping by Western intelligence agencies. Now, it became far more diffused, with its leader, bin Laden, reduced to hiding in a specially-built compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan until he was killed by U.S. special forces on the night of May 2, 2011. Bin Laden had remained an important symbolic figure, but his physical and electronic isolation from the organization he founded and led drastically reduced his ability to exert control over his subordinates, now spread out over much of South Asia. The diffusion of al Qaeda resulted in the diminishment of it as an effective, centrally-controlled organization, with regional branches, most prominently, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in remote areas of Yemen, usurping the influence once wielded by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and planning and carrying out terrorist operations on their own. While these branches remain a serious threat to U.S. interests abroad, and to American citizens at home (AQAP was responsible for the attempted bombing of an airliner heading for Detroit on December 22, 2009, and for the attempted car bombing in the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan on May 2, 2010), al Qaeda does not represent the same level or type of threat it once did. Repeated killings of its top leaders by U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft and special forces strikes have seriously degraded its effectiveness.
While al Qaeda does not represent the scale of threat it did prior to 2001, however, it remains a formidable problem for U.S. security planners. Its engineers continue to work to develop new ways to conceal explosives so that airport security measures can’t detect them and they continue to examine ways to develop biological and chemical weapons that can, if properly disbursed, kill or maim thousands of innocent people. The aforementioned branches continue to destabilize the countries where they operate, especially al-Shabaab in Somalia and AQAP in Yemen. The former has been particularly active, most notably with its September 21, 2013 attack on a prominent shopping mall in Nairobi, during which 62 civilians were killed and another 120 wounded, and its apparent plans to set off bombs in Uganda, the plot for which was fortunately detected by Ugandan security forces (Kenya and Uganda are repeatedly targeted for attack by al-Shabaab for their participation in the African Union military force sent into Somalia to protect that country’s government).
Al Qaeda’s current capacity to conduct large-scale terrorist attacks has been degraded through the killings of its chief military commanders, but the organization remained a symbolic role-model for Islamist fundamentalists around the world, many of whom, until recently, affiliated themselves with al Qaeda both out of sympathy for the organization’s goals, and because of al Qaeda’s “prestige” among Islamic militants. During 2014, however, al Qaeda has been overtaken by the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The Islamic State (IS) has successfully taken control of large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory, and has posed a very serious threat to Iraq’s fragile unity, which is characterized by tremendous enmity among its Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish populations, with various smaller minority groups suffering greatly. The ascendency of the IS has pushed al Qaeda to the margins of the world’s attention, and prompted al-Zawahiri to recently announce the expansion of his organization to the Indian subcontinent, fertile ground given the depth of hostility between India’s majority Hindu population and neighboring Islamic Pakistan, two countries with sizable arsenals of nuclear weapons who have fought several conflicts in the past and remain in a perpetual state of war with each other. This week, in fact, an al Qaeda assault team attempted to attack an American naval vessel in the Pakistani port of Karachi, but accidentally assaulted the wrong ship – a Pakistani Navy surface combatant the crew of which beat back the attack. The failed assault in the port of Karachi was a serious embarrassment to al Qaeda, but the organization, as noted, remains active and committed to attacking all those it deems legitimate targets. Should the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal, it is possible al Qaeda will once again find safe haven there, but for the time being, it remains in a continuous state of transformation, with little centralized control but great capacity for carrying out attacks.
With respect to al Qaeda’s place in the historical context of terrorist organizations, its attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, remain the “gold standard” for all terrorist organizations, despite that somewhat counterproductive nature of those attacks. Prior to al Qaeda’s emergence as a serious threat to U.S. interests, other terrorist organizations were considered more formidable, especially Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards al-Quds division. Hezbollah’s global reach, especially into South America, and its role in some of the 20th Century’s most spectacular terrorist attacks, lent it the aura of invincibility that al Qaeda later came to enjoy. Al Qaeda’s international operations, however, dwarfed anything any other terrorist organization has been able, or willing, to carry out. More than any other terrorist organization before or since, it represented a truly global threat, and the attacks of 9/11 illuminated the dangers inherent in underestimating it or any other terrorist organization.
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