International Security Studies
Understanding Al Qaeda
This meeting, part of the ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum series, was co-sponsored by the Council on Global Terrorism, Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, and the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Security Studies.
Bruce Riedel observed that 2000 days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the planners of the deadliest act of mass terrorism in history are still at large and are still planning. Indeed, in Riedel's estimation, Al Qaeda "is more dangerous today than ever before." Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has proclaimed that not only has Al Qaeda survived, but is winning its struggle against the "Crusaders" (i.e., the United States and the West) and Israel.
According to Riedel, the key to Al Qaeda's success has been the establishment of "affiliates," which operate independently while professing loyalty to bin Laden. By focusing on local franchises, Al Qaeda has established a global presence, from London to Bali, in less than a decade, and has been able to mount attacks (most recently in Algiers) of increasing breadth and audacity.
Five years ago, Al Qaeda was "on the ropes" after the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Now a British commander has said that the combat in that country against reconstituted Taliban units is the toughest U.K. forces have experienced since the Korean War. Riedel argued that the reasons for this resurgence are: (1) Taliban forces were never really defeated; instead, they dispersed to the Pashtun region; (2) the coalition "took its eye off Afghanistan" as the Bush administration focused on Iraq; and (3) the Taliban benefited from a safe haven in Pakistan.
The role of the government of Pakistan is unclear; it has engaged in "selective counterterrorism." In addition to its safe haven status, Pakistan is central to the struggle against Al Qaeda because of its successful recruitment of U.K. citizens, whose families emigrated from that country. The coordination and direction, Riedel stated, comes from Al Qaeda's core; these British citizens are the Al Qaeda leadership's foot soldiers who are able to move freely across international borders.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban-Al Qaeda goal is to make the country ungovernable. This is part of a broader strategy that aims to entangle U.S. and Western forces in the region – from Somalia to Afghanistan. With respect to Iraq, Riedel stated that Al Qaeda's fear is that U.S. forces will leave too soon, thereby escaping the quagmire and allowing the Shiite Muslim majority to consolidate control and brutally suppress the minority Sunni community.
Meanwhile the Al Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia are targeting that country's oil sector in order to disrupt the global economy; the Saudi government keeps uncovering new Al Qaeda cells trained in Iraq. A new theater of operation for Al Qaeda is Algeria, which it views as the gateway into France, a major target.
Riedel concluded that the primary focus of U.S. strategy should "go after the head" –eliminate Al Qaeda's core leadership. That the United States has been unable to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and the top leadership of Al Qaeda "has created a mystique that is very dangerous to us."
Robert Litwak, Division of International Security Studies