Reflecting on 9/11 Seventeen Years on: The Resilience of Al-Qaeda
September 2018 marks 17 years since the devastating 9/11 attacks. Seventeen years marked by an increasing attention being paid to the phenomena of terrorism, and al-Qaeda in particular. Chronicled in the thousands of books, monographs and reports since then is the structural composition of the terrorist groups, their financial mechanism, recruitment patterns, and attack methodologies. With such a wealth of information at our disposal (along with the expertise and increasing intelligence gathered for and by the militaries and intelligence agencies around the world), one would expect that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Taliban should have been defeated and/or eradicated by now, much less allowing for new international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State to come up and pose a threat to the entire global population.
However, in the 17 years since the declaration of ‘global war on terror’ by the United States government, we find the development of a different reality. What we see today is an increase in the number of international terrorist organizations, an increase in military spending towards fighting terrorism across countries[i], and as per a recent United Nations (UN) report, the continued relevance of the threat from al-Qaeda and Taliban[ii]. More recently, governments around the world are making multiple pleas for a chance for a dialogue with the terrorist groups, without any preconditions for them to stop their indiscriminate violence against the people.
This raises an important question: how is it that despite the intensive focus of the world’s largest and strongest military, along with its multiple military partners, al-Qaeda continues to pose a major threat to the world? While the group’s financial structures offer an explanation, the answer falls short and seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient a condition for the survival and longevity of the group.
As a part of a longer answer, this article focuses on how even after 17 years since the declaration of global war on terror, al-Qaeda has managed to posit itself as a credible threat[iii]. By looking at the group’s strategy for survival and tussle for the position of primacy among the terrorist groups, especially with the Islamic State (IS)[iv], the article finds that it is the continuous reinvention of the group’s organizational and financial infrastructure, and its ability to adapt to the environmental changes that have allowed it to maintain its position as one of the leading terrorist organizations.
Looking at the historical trajectory of the group, and the centrality of the role of its former leader, Osama bin Laden, it was assumed after his demise that al-Qaeda as a group too would cease to exist. After all, bin Laden’s second-in-command, Dr Ayman al Zawahiri, did not possess the same charisma and opulence to carry the organization the way bin Laden did. However, in measuring the success of any group or organization, it must always be remembered that the personality traits of a leader remain secondary factors affecting the decision making process. Zawahiri, while not the most charismatic of leaders for the group, has proved his capacity for deeply understanding the changing political environment around him, allowing him the change to adapt to the various changes with appropriate new alliances, deals, and changing of the organizational structure of al-Qaeda.
For instance, with the world’s attention on the Islamic State in the past few years, Zawahiri did not push al-Qaeda fighters to join the newly divergent groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, but rather stayed away from the centre of the storm and let the IS take the brunt of the blow from the international community. At the same, he continues to praise the efforts and deeds of ‘brothers’ fighting in al-Sham and with the Taliban[v], thereby extending patronage to these fighters and expecting a particular level of allegiance from them as fellow Sunnis fighting to save their faith. In lying low and letting another terrorist organization, i.e., ISIS take the centre stage, Zawahiri allowed al-Qaeda’s senior leadership a chance to re-group and re-organize itself, all the while discreetly exerting an increasing level of influence over the areas where its subgroups and affiliates are functioning[vi].
In trying to strengthen the core group and re-organizing its affiliate system, Zawahiri ensured that al-Qaeda would now be associated with less violent groups and those that do not target large mass gatherings, especially those which do not kill a large number of Muslims. This has afforded him two major successes. One, al-Qaeda is no longer being seen as the most violent and repressive terrorist organization anymore. Two, it has allowed him to now bring together and address all Muslims as a representative sheikh, one whose organization does not target Shia and other minority Muslims communities the way that IS does. These two together have allowed him to rebrand al-Qaeda as a moderate, concerned, and rightful organization, fighting the kafirs in a heavenly mandated manner in the name of all Muslims worldwide.
Zawahiri’s strategic long-term thinking capabilities have afforded him and al-Qaeda a new chance for revival. Looking at the resilience of al-Qaeda despite 17 long years of fight against them by some of the world’s most powerful militaries, therefore, necessitates a re-look at our counter-terrorism architecture and action plan.
It must be underlined that terrorism remains asymmetrical warfare. Never has any terrorist actor or group played by the rules. Therefore, symmetrical/ standardized warfare by the armies would never fully be effective against such terrorist actors. To be able to effectively counter terrorism, militaries must, therefore, allow for a few disrupters, who can change and counter such terrorist actors in an unexpected manner, while managing to keep their rank and file in order. In remembering the 9/11 attacks, the world’s militaries must realize that they do not simply have to play their game well, but rather, they have to play the same game if they are to defeat the terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda.
[i] While we do not really know how much has America’s Global War on Terror cost, recent estimates put it around $28 trillion. For a detailed analysis of the estimate, see Laicie Heeley’s article in Fortune:http://fortune.com/2018/09/11/war-terror-spending-debt/
[ii] The multiple United Nations Security Council Reports concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), a-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities have continuously reinforced the threat from these groups as continuous, and often on the increase. These can be accessed here:https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/resources/security-council/other-security-council-documents/
[iii] A July 2018 United Nations Report (S/2018/705) notes that the global al-Qaeda network continues to show resilience, and that its affiliate network is now much stronger than ISIL in certain places (see especially para 10 and 11 for their notes).
[iv] The article describes the group popularly known as ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL)’ (QDe.115) as the ‘Islamic State’ (IS).
[v] This can be seen in the latest video release from Zawahiri, accessible here:https://jihadology.net/category/individuals/ideologues/dr-ayman-al-zawahiri/
[vi] Drawn from the United Nations Security Council Report S/2018/705, Section 1.B. para 6-11.