TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda 3.0: An Unfolding Strategy and Threat
August 7, 2012

As of early August 2012, al-Qaeda central is on the retreat. As drone strikes and counterterrorism operations have killed many senior leaders and severely disrupted its operational capability, the group’s overarching strategy has adapted to this current reality. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who assumed leadership of the group upon the death of Osama bin Laden, has sought to align al-Qaeda’s ideology to the Arab Spring and to expand its network of affiliates. Further, although al-Qaeda-directed attacks are likely — both against their respective homelands and international Western interests  — the nature of the threat and likely tactics have changed substantially.

During the 1990s, Osama Bin Laden established an exclusive group, which pursued an independent strategy, doctrine, and set of tactics. The group was ideologically cohesive and its attack pattern was focused specifically on achieving its long-range objectives. Al-Qaeda’s operational composition subsequently changed after the U.S.-led intervention into Afghanistan, and it gradually sought to establish a global franchise. The group’s operational headquarters was the “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan-Pakistan) border, but its geographical reach expanded as it incorporated various groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in Iraq, and The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. During this phase, the available evidence suggests that Bin Laden saw himself in a role similar to that of the CEO of a transnational company: he personally established the group’s agenda and tactics, and sanctioned affiliates that deviated from his vision.

The death of Bin Laden has brought about al-Qaeda 3.0. Bin Laden was al-Qaeda’s financier, architect, and a key strategist; in addition, he was clearly the figurehead that linked the disparate affiliate groups. His death consequently had an immeasurable strategic impact on the organization. Since then, drone strikes have killed more senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Ilyas Kashmiri, Atiya Abdul Rahman, and Abu Yahya al-Libi. Along with the loss of bin Laden, these deaths have left a major void in Al-Qaeda’s command structure. While a number of senior leaders remain alive, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sayf al Adel, Adam Gahan, Farman Ali Shinwari, and Adnan al Shukrijumah, their main goal appears to be primarily survival. Accordingly, the balance of power between al-Qaeda central and its affiliates has changed, with the affiliates gaining additional power and far greater strategic latitude.

Al-Zawahiri’s vision for the al-Qaeda network arguably reflects the group’s weakness. His communiques indicate that he intends to tie al-Qaeda’s ideology to the Arab Spring — along with calling for further uprisings in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. In February, Zawahiri announced that al-Shabbab, the Somali-based terrorist group, was an official affiliate (even though bin Laden had steadfastly refused to grant the group that status). Al-Qaeda 3.0 clearly aims to remain relevant and extend its reach through empowering its affiliates. At the same time, with the central group unable to offer effective operational guidance, and weakened by the death of senior leaders, it is inevitable that its ideology and longer-term objectives are at serious risk.

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The Arab Spring and Strengthening al-Qaeda Affiliates

The most capable affiliate is the aforementioned al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past eighteen months, AQAP has exploited the instability from the uprising against former President Ali Saleh to take control over large swathes of Yemen’s southern and eastern regions, including, temporarily, the towns of Ja’ar and Zinjibar. Despite ongoing Yemeni counterterrorism operations, AQAP has repeatedly demonstrated the capability to perpetrate mass-casualty attacks against Western and Yemeni targets across the country, along with the ability to design sophisticated and innovative bombs that can circumvent even advanced security procedures. AQAP has repeatedly attempted to conduct bombings against the U.S., and has threatened further attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Across North Africa and the Sahel, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has also benefitted from the recent political unrest. Previously considered the weakest affiliate, it has since extended its presence from Algeria into Libya, Niger, and Mali (where it holds territory in the north). Its target selection has focused on kidnap for ransom, with Westerners of greatest interest. It has also shown a keen strategic awareness in aligning itself with other regional Islamist groups, including the Nigerian-based Boko Haram. Western intelligence officials are acutely concerned that, with increased weaponry and territory, the group could establish training camps and plot large attacks against Western countries.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is also strengthening. During the height of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, AQI was near defeat and its attack tempo had decreased markedly. But following the U.S. troop withdrawal, AQI has launched a campaign of mass-casualty attacks aimed at re-establishing control over parts of Iraq, as well as to provoke violence between Shia and Sunnis. The group also has regional aspirations: AQI has recently extended its campaign into Syria, and is conducting attacks designed to weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-controlled government, which has reportedly boosted its recruitment and funding. Further instability in Syria will only strengthen AQI’s appeal and relevance.

The newest al-Qaeda affiliate is the Somali-based Al-Shabbab. Over the past year, the group has retreated from Mogadishu, but it continues to show the capability to conduct mass-casualty attacks against African Union troops and Somali military bases. Al-Shabbab — through its affiliate, the Muslim Youth Movement — also has a strong presence in Kenya, where it has presided over a campaign of attacks, including into central Nairobi.  Sources indicate that Al-Shabbab provides al-Qaeda with the infrastructure to protect and support its east African cells (which remain operational).

Over the past eighteen months, al-Qaeda central has also shown a willingness to conduct joint operations and share resources with groups that are not formally designated as affiliates. In Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, al-Qaeda, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and the Haqqani Network — groups with different strategic goals, but occasionally shared operational objectives — have conducted joint attacks, including the Fedayeen assault against the Mehran Naval base.

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The Evolving al-Qaeda Threat

Al-Qaeda’s shift away from the Af-Pak border poses a new set of security challenges to Western governments and commercial operations. The affiliates — with the exception of AQAP — have primarily focused on local or regional aspirations. In the short-term, based on recent attacks patterns, the most likely threat to Western operations is in countries where the affiliates are strongest. AQAP has shown the capability to conduct mass-casualty suicide assaults against Western diplomatic targets and operations, and has warned it intendeds to attack oil installations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, AQIM has staged multiple kidnappings of Westerners, while it also threatened Western government interests. And Al-Shabaab has conducted bombings against Western targets in Somalia, Kenya and in Uganda.

The threat of attacks in Western countries has also evolved. Although al-Qaeda’s core is under threat, it — along with AQAP — maintains well-oiled propaganda components. A clear objective is to inspire “homegrown” attacks, either through lone wolf scenarios, such as Nidal Hasan and his attack against Fort Hood, or self-starter groups, which can operate under the radar of domestic intelligence agencies. Through this, al-Qaeda can continue to spread psychological fear and drain Western economic resources through expensive antiterrorism security programs. Such attacks, however, are likely to be less spectacular than 9/11, and involve small (albeit lethal) explosives and armed attacks.

The third — and potentially highest impact threat — is from an al-Qaeda affiliate, particularly AQAP, staging an attack against the U.S. or another Western state. This remains a realistic scenario. Over recent years, there have been several AQAP attempts to target the U.S., most recently a failed plot to plant a bomb on a U.S. aircraft in March. Meanwhile, over the past month, details were released of at least two other al-Qaeda-linked plots, one a Norwegian who planned to blow up a U.S. airline, and the other involving the detention by Spanish authorities of three “well-trained” al-Qaeda suspects who were taken into custody while in possession of large amounts of explosives.

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