WASHINGTON, September 28, 2014 — The death of al-Qaeda, whose decimation was announced by President Obama 32 times in 2012 alone, is generally recognized now to have been greatly exaggerated. It made that clear on Saturday when it launched rockets at the U.S. embassy in Yemen. The sudden appearance of a brand-new al-Qaeda affiliate, Khorasan, underscores the point.
Al-Qaeda is not an easy thing to kill. The terrorist group, founded by Osama bin Laden in August, 1988, has carried out thousands of terrorist attacks around the world since then. It has an estimated core membership of under 1,000, but it has a total membership estimated in the tens of thousands, with cells in a hundred countries.
Al-Qaeda does not depend on its core members for its operations. It uses operatives from a network of related groups, including al-Shabaab (Somalia), al-Nusra (Syria), Abu Sayyaf (Phillipines), Ansar al-Islam (Kurdish areas, Iraq), the Taliban (Afghanistan), the Haqqani Network (Afghanistan), and more than a dozen others. It also has more tightly-bound affiliate groups, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen).
Not all of al-Qaeda’s affiliates have remained in the family; they have spun off as competitors. In 2002, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi joined al-Qaeda to create al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Zarqawi’s enthusiasm for beheading captives and other harsh tactics were too much even for al-Qaeda, not because al-Qaeda’s leadership wasn’t bloodthirsty, but because these tactics alienated local support.
Al-Qaeda has cooperated with Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported, Shiite terrorist group based in Lebanon. AQI’s attacks on Shiite holy sites in Iraq resulted in retaliatory strikes against Sunni targets, creating friction with al-Qaeda’s leadership. AQI rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, though it did not formally break away from al-Qaeda until 2013, after it attempted a hostile takeover of fellow al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, resulting in battles that killed over 3,000 members of the two organizations.
To talk about al-Qaeda as a nexus of Islamic terrorist groups, or as the head whose death will cripple Islamist terrorism, is to misunderstand the enemy we face. Al-Qaeda central has served as a sort of clearinghouse for terrorist activities, but it doesn’t function as a leader. To kill al-Qaeda is like trying to destroy Russian thistle, and especially noxious weed. Blast the plant apart, and the bits can all form new plants.
To switch metaphors, to destroy al-Qaeda would have the same effect on Islamist terrorism as destroying McDonald’s would have on capitalism. There will always be a Wendy or a burger prince waiting in the wings to be the next king of fast food. And you can’t kill McDonald’s by killing Osama bin-Kroc. Killing bin-Laden was an exercise in catharsis, not anti-terrorism.
The al-Qaeda family of terrorist businesses as grown, diversified, and spun off competitors. It also attracts new startups. Last week the Obama Administration announced the success of strikes against a deadly new terror group, Khorasan.
Muhsin al Fadhli, a disciple of bin-Laden and a member of al-Qaeda in the heady days of 9/11, created Khorasan from an al-Qaeda cell in Iraq. The group apparently planned to place a bomb on an aircraft for detonation over Europe, taking advantage of the chaos in Syria not to attack the government of President Assad, not to strike their rivals in the Islamic State, but to strike out at the West.
The lawless conditions that prevail in much of Syria and Iraq, and the huge turbulence created by the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees across the expanding regions of conflict, are fertile soil for terrorist groups. The sudden newsworthiness of Khorasan also underscores the vitality of the al-Qaeda brand.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) apparently loaned the services of Ibrahim al Asiri, its explosives expert and the man whose work has made it harder for you to take printer cartridges and your underwear on an airplane, to help Khorasan build its bomb. The plan was to provide the bomb to an operative with a western passport in order to hit an aviation target.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Al-Qaeda is not dead, it isn’t dying, and it isn’t even decimated. Ideologically it is alive and well, operationally it is distributed across a diverse and robust ecosystem of terror, and the sudden appearance of Khorasan is just one more bit of evidence that our fight against al-Qaeda has not been entirely effective. Al-Qaeda is apparently less decimated than Obama hoped.
As hard and disagreeable a task as nation building might be, our only hope against al-Qaeda and related organizations is to end the chaos that has spread through the region, in large part thanks to our own efforts. What we need there are strong and stable governments; if they happen to be democratic, so much the better, but democracy is not and has never been required.