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Al Qaeda: idea or structured organisation? 11, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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I am usually an ardent fan of Bruce Hoffman, one of the world’s leading terrorism experts. However, I have major disagreements with the latest piece that he has written for the Washington Post. The key issue I have with the piece is the overall tone of the article which fosters the idea of Al Qaeda as some kind of highly structured terrorist organisation with research departments, an R&D section, a hierarchy implementing long-term strategic goals and tentacles stretching around the world . My understanding of Al Qaeda is that it is first and foremost an ideology that various people attach themselves to. For sure, there are people who are putative ‘masterminds’ i.e. people who direct others and offer advice or money for attacks, but I don’t believe that these people are part of some hierarchical organisational structure with brain-storming sessions and proverbial headed notepaper.

Hoffman wrote about five elements of Al Qaeda’s new strategy.

First, al-Qaeda is increasingly focused on overwhelming, distracting and exhausting us. To this end, it seeks to flood our already information-overloaded national intelligence systems with myriad threats and background noise. Al-Qaeda hopes we will be so distracted and consumed by all this data that we will overlook key clues, such as those before Christmas that linked Abdulmutallab to an al-Qaeda airline-bombing plot.

This makes it sound like there has been a decision made ‘on high’ disseminated to underlings to increase chatter and distract the enemy; that an actual communication has gone from the proverbial directors, down through middle management and out to the operatives in the field. What seems to be far more likely to me is that hundreds of radicals/terrorists around the world, independent of  structure or orders or organisation (who may well describe themselves as Al Qaeda in the same way as a football fan from Bangkok who has never been to the UK describes themself as a Manchester United fan) are simply communicating in their own little groups. Why must some Machiavellian, evil organisation be behind this?

Second, in the wake of the global financial crisis, al-Qaeda has stepped up a strategy of economic warfare. “Today, al-Qaeda threatens: “We will bankrupt you.” Over the past year, the group has issued statements, videos, audio messages and letters online trumpeting its actions against Western financial systems, even taking credit for the economic crisis.

Again, this conjures images in my head of a board meeting where the Al Qaeda board of directors sit and have a chat over tea and coffee as to a long-term strategy. “Mmmm….I think we should go for a strategy of economic warfare” says one. Just because one guy – even a bonafide Al Qaeda spokesman [grumble, grumble…] – witters on about some strategic plan to bankrupt ‘us’ doesn’t mean that it is not just a simple by-product of usual terrorist tactics.

Third, al-Qaeda is still trying to create divisions within the global alliance arrayed against it by targeting key coalition partners. Terrorist attacks on mass-transit systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 were intended to punish Spain and Britain for participating in the war in Iraq and in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and al-Qaeda continues this approach today. During the past two years, serious terrorist plots orchestrated by al-Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, meant to punish Spain and the Netherlands for participating in the war on terrorism, were thwarted in Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Any terrorist with half a brain could work this out. This is logic 101. Why – again – does this obvious logic need to have been necessarily sent down from on high?

Fourth, al-Qaeda is aggressively seeking out, destabilizing and exploiting failed states and other areas of lawlessness. While the United States remains preoccupied with trying to secure yesterday’s failed state — Afghanistan — al-Qaeda is busy staking out new terrain. The terrorist network sees failing states as providing opportunities to extend its reach, and it conducts local campaigns of subversion to hasten their decline. Over the past year, it has increased its activities in places such as Pakistan, Algeria, the Sahel, Somalia and, in particular, Yemen.

If you are a terrorist and you want space, time and relative freedom to plan, construct and launch your attacks are you going to do this in Europe or a relatively stable Arab country or a country where there is next to no law and order? The choice is obvious and there does not need – again! – to have been some strategic decision taken on-high to relocate “all our assets” to, for example, Yemen.Hoffman also – unforgivably – describes Major Nidal Hassan’s attack at Ford Hood as part of Al Qaeda’s growing variety of attacks which to me is as egregiously wrong as concluding that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  He also finishes with a few useless platitudes and truisms.

Al-Qaeda needs to be utterly destroyed. This will be accomplished not just by killing and capturing terrorists — as we must continue to do — but by breaking the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that sustains the movement.

It seems to me that Al Qaeda is attributed most attacks that occur in the Western hemisphere and practically every attack that targets Westerners even when the evidence that Al Qaeda ‘did it’ often stems from no more than the protagonist ‘visiting Yemen’ for a few days/weeks/months.  The threshold for an attack to be deemed to be ‘by Al Qaeda’ is painfully low. We need to resist the urge to pigeon-hole, tabulate and name every threat in a Western-inspired, orthodox typeset but instead adapt our thinking to understand how things actually are rather than how we think they are.


1. ViP - 12, January 2010

I have to disagree with your assessment of the article. I think that what Bruce Hoffman is trying to do is to model Al Qa’ida’s actions to discern patterns.

I don’t think he would disagree – I know I don’t – with the fact that there may not be strategy sessions or some sort of “war cavern” in the FATA! That’s generally the point of models. Although there may not necessarily be a clear-cut, rational and agreed-upon set of rules that every member or cell follows, it doesn’t mean that there is no pattern.

In this case, it helps better understand how AQ members might work and predict the kind of actions they might be planning.

davidbroberts - 13, January 2010


Discerning patterns: probably a fair point. Though I still maintain that the language used and the picture painted is not a helpful or realistic one overall.

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