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Killing the Hydra

Only attacks on its ideas can defeat a network like Al Qaeda

June 06, 2004|Marc Sageman | Marc Sageman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Penn State, was a CIA case officer working undercover in the Afghan-Soviet war from 1987 to 1989. He is the author of "Understanding Terror Networks."

PHILADELPHIA — If you follow such things, you're probably aware that two-thirds of Al Qaeda's leadership has been captured or killed. So why, then, do terrorist operations continue to escalate? Americans love to have identifiable enemies, and it is tempting to see Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab Zarqawi or any of the other Al Qaeda leaders as the faces of evil, the ones responsible for terrorism. If only they could be removed from the equation, the logic goes, then terrorism would end. But that's not how Al Qaeda works. It never really did, and it certainly doesn't today.

Al Qaeda has always been part of a loose-knit, violent, Islamic revivalist social movement held together by a common idea: the global Islamist jihad. It is a loose network with fuzzy boundaries.

For a brief period, when the Taliban provided sanctuary for him in Afghanistan, Bin Laden was able to establish a headquarters and training camps to school jihadists in terrorist operations. Formal induction procedures were implemented, and a central staff of experts was on hand to plan large-scale operations. Through their control of training and support, Bin Laden and his lieutenants were able to grab the reins of the movement, giving rise to the illusion that it was a more formal hierarchy than it actually was. Under Bin Laden's leadership, Al Qaeda became involved in the careful planning of sophisticated, long-term operations, like the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and the 9/11 attacks.

But the Afghan sites, which gave Al Qaeda its control over the movement, were also its Achilles' heel because they became specific military targets. After 9/11, U.S. and allied forces destroyed all identifiable terrorist targets: training camps, residential compounds and support facilities. Communications were disrupted. The network lost much of its internal glue and reverted to being small clumps of terrorists loosely connected to each other.

Today, there is no longer a formal initiation into the movement, and there is no fixed number of individuals who are terrorists. Rather, there are a few full-time terrorists among a pool of people sympathetic to their ideology. The number available to carry out acts of terrorism fluctuates according to local grievances and the international situation. Far from having a formal command structure, wherein followers strictly obey orders from above, these networks are self-organized from the bottom up and demonstrate a great deal of local initiative and flexibility. Like the Internet, they function very well with little coordination from the top.

Gaps in the network don't last long. If a leader is eliminated, the most aggressive terrorists step up to fill the void. A successful operation against the West attracts eager followers to its perpetrator. It's a team effort, and the player with the hot hands gets the ball. Right now, Zarqawi is hot, and his successes against Americans in Iraq have attracted attention. His growing reputation has generated a following and made him a de facto leader. So although two-thirds of the 2001 leadership has indeed been eliminated, a new leadership has been reconstituted, one that is more widely dispersed and more aggressive than the old one.

There is good news and bad news in all this. The lack of central support and planning now prevents the execution of large-scale, sophisticated and costly operations. But at the same time, we're seeing operations that are more frequent, reckless and hurried -- and they can wreak havoc. From Saudi Arabia to Madrid to Jakarta, we're seeing destructive attacks that were planned, supported and carried out by local operators without control from above.

This new wave of terrorist operations demonstrates the flexibility and resilience of the network and its ability to adapt to new circumstances. As the West has hardened itself as a target, Al Qaeda and its loosely affiliated partners have reverted to attacking local, softer targets in countries with lax anti-terrorist policies. In some regions -- including the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Morocco -- Islamic terrorists have successfully converted deep-seated local grievances into full-blown insurgencies.

U.S. mismanagement of postwar Iraq is rejuvenating this Islamist revivalist social movement worldwide. Potential terrorists are attracted to Iraq, where a collection of local jihads may coalesce into a more united, international one, just as occurred in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

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