In a post this past February, I compiled the results of 268 respondents who answered this question in April/May 2011:
In two years, will regional insurgent groups and local, upstart terror groups continue to brand themselves as AQ affiliates? (See this link for the full results.)
Respondents overwhelming believed, “Yes, groups will re-brand as al Qaeda, but will have no direct connection with AQ”. In the West, we grow concerned if this prophecy proves true as it points to the unstoppable growth of al Qaeda’s social movement and an enduring terrorist threat after more than a decade of war.
The expansive description of al Qaeda and the amorphous process for joining the organization was seen by many CT pundits as the terror group’s greatest strength – the construction of a social movement where extremists from all walks of life could join al Qaeda’s call and pursue global jihad under core ideological principles outlined by al Qaeda’s central leadership. Some professors and pundits flocked to social movement theory promoting every AQ wannabe executing a bungled, ill-conceived plot as a symbol of al Qaeda’s strength. These same theorists would note how al Qaeda’s flat structure makes the terror group resilient and difficult to counter.
Ironically, while social movement professors rustled through their closets searching for their wrinkled Che Guevara t-shirt from graduate school, al Qaeda became increasingly worried about their social movement – specifically their loss of operational control and dilution of their brand. Lacking a formal process for integrating all new members and affiliates joining al Qaeda, the terror group’s senior leaders could not vet the quality of new joiners. The amateurish failed plots of AQ wannabes and the expansive, reckless violence of AQ affiliates slowly began to erode popular support for AQ globally calling AQ leaders to ask, “Who are these guys in our organization?”.
The Abbottabad documents released last weak reveal that Bin Laden and his top leadership struggled with the issue of membership and control. In document SOCOM-2012-0000006-HT, a document potentially written by Zawahiri (although unconfirmed) to Bin Laden in December 2010, Zawahiri (or some high level AQ leader) notes:
“concerning controlling the affairs in general, membership and the affiliation in particular. There is no secret to you that, in the past, there were a lot of advantages and faults. However, what I would like to emphasize in this letter is the issue of individuals, those who pledge allegiance, and the affiliates. Therefore, from the last experience it showed great figures with high quality have emerged, and also some figures have emerged did not benefit any groups by their affiliation, yet some kind of bragging and boasting appeared by joining Al-Qa’ida. And, the formulation of specific titles have been published by their owners in the network of information.”
So it appears by 2010, AQ Central was becoming increasingly concerned about its unknown “volunteers” as a liability tarnishing its brand name. Likewise, local start-ups with little or no connection to AQ were creating their own groups and appointing themselves titles previously hard won on jihadi battlefields – annoying veteran AQ members with more experience. I can hear it now, “Hey, How did Habis get to be an Emir? He just joined 6 months ago and all he did was start his own group… he’s never done anything!” So much for a flat, horizontal “let’s all get along” AQ. Zawahiri (or some high AQ leader) continues on:
“Anyways, the important thing, honorable sir, is that the issue needs to be controlled, to know who is member of Al-Qa’ida, what his function is, what side he follows, what is the way to impeach him, so as not to increase the friends of desire and greed and seclude those friends of religion and morals.”
Contextual translation: Some of these recruits don’t deserve to be al Qaeda. We need to determine who is in and who is out. Zawahiri (or some senior AQ leader), concludes by recommending three standards, all quite subjective, by which membership in al Qaeda might be evaluated.
“Therefore, starting from now please think about controlling the matter with a system that deals with people, each according to his religion, piety and contribution.”
By Zawahiri’s standard, one must be subservient, prove their religious credentials, and contribute – either on the battlefield or for a certain “nominal fee” one might be able to buy their way into al Qaeda.
It appears Zawahiri (or some senior AQ leader) wanted to know who was in al Qaeda, and even within al Qaeda, who was in charge of who. Very interesting, I wonder how Zawahiri’s desires have played out in the past year as he has assumed command – assuming he can actually communicate and command anything from his current location. I also wonder, how Zawahiri’s desires for control and structure are being received by affiliates who appear to have had a relatively free reign to pursue objectives as they wished during Bin Laden’s rule.
Two closing notes:
Last summer, I helped J.M. Berger launch a survey asking CT enthusiasts “What is al Qaeda?”. The results (Part #1 & Part #2) were quite interesting and the conclusion was that we in the West don’t really know what organizations or individuals really constitute al Qaeda. I wonder how al Qaeda members would answer the same survey? I bet the results would be quite similar.
Lastly, if you haven’t voted already, please take three minutes and cast your opinions here on the fate of al Qaeda one year after the death of Bin Laden. The questions follow up on posts from last year’s survey I linked to above and will hopefully open up some good discussion in the coming weeks about the current state of al Qaeda.