TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda 3.0: Reinvention, Resilience, and Counter Narratives
September 30, 2013

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The Qaeda of Today

Al-Qaeda is a much different organization than it was when it took its most lethal form in the mid 1990s. Understanding its history, though, informs more effective options in thwarting its persistent message of violence as the means to an end.


A Brief History of al-Qaeda: 1.0

After carrying out its most deadly attacks on 9/11/2001, al-Qaeda began changing almost immediately. It altered its raison d’etre from rigidly centralized operational entity—planning and carrying out attacks—to that of keeper of the causes and motivational leader. Al-Qaeda’s successes brought new followers, with a steady flow of financing, new recruits, and material support.  But it also had a major drawback. Al-Qaeda’s “small business model” changed to something more akin to a large multinational. The sudden growth that made al-Qaeda eminently “legitimate” in the eyes of its supporters also made it the only target for Western eradication efforts.



Al-Qaeda’s second incarnation was as impressive as its entrance to the world stage in the 1990s. Bolstered by supporters and recruits, al-Qaeda continued its rapid growth and expanded its sphere of influence and operational range by encouraging “franchises,” or affiliate groups.

Its message and influence flowed to vulnerable locations around the world. More importantly, the addition of a new crop of affiliates helped dilute Western efforts to kill or capture the group’s core leadership, by increasing the number of locales requiring attention.

Despite these pros for al-Qaeda, Western counter assaults exacted a large toll on core and affiliate leaders and operatives. This pressure, combined with the challenges of running such a widespread enterprise, made it difficult for al-Qaeda’s core leadership to provide effective command and control.

Eventually, fissures formed between al-Qaeda and its affiliates. These tensions trickled down to lower organizational levels and caused friction, leading to infighting, splintering, and the formation of new organizations led by former al-Qaeda affiliate group leaders. Recent examples include the announcement of al-Murabitoun in Mali and al-Shabab’s attack in Nairobi, the culmination of infighting between rival intra-group factions.


3.0: A Continuing (R)evolution

Despites its internal and external challenges, al-Qaeda has succeeded in evolving. Its current form is increasingly—and necessarily—regenerative and amorphous. It is doing this in several ways:

Diversification & Strategy Adjustment. By including new groups under its banner, both officially and unofficially, al-Qaeda keeps expanding its reach and influence. While this strategy threatens to create new fissures between affiliates and their sub-groups, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks.  Al-Qaeda core also seeks to alter its narrative to broaden appeal, reflecting a softer, populist message.  The 12 and 13 Sep statements from al-Qaeda’s nominal leader Ayman al-Zawahiri contained “jihad guidelines,” with caution to avoid attacking Muslims, and even non Muslims in areas where members might find a safe base. Of note, al-Zawahiri stated al-Qaeda was an idea before it was an organization—the essence of its resilience. Al-Zawahiri stated al-Qaeda will not be defeated so long as the focus of its enemies is on its structure; it will only die when extremists no longer see it as a way to fight policies they regard as humiliating.

Innovation: Gone are the days of solely communicating through couriers, and recruiting new members behind closed doors. Al-Qaeda 2.0 began taking advantage of modern technology to enhance its operations, as any large organization would, and al-Qaeda 3.0 has continued down that path, using social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype to attract, and communicate with sympathizers, potential recruits, partners, and affiliates.

Recruiting: New members are the lifeblood of al-Qaeda. It has accepted recruits from around the world, including new Muslim converts from the West that represent a wide spectrum of ethnic groups and nationalities. Al-Shabab’s large-scale attack against the soft target Westgate Mall in Nairobi—with purported multinational operatives—virtually assures al-Qaeda will more aggressively focus its recruiting efforts on Western European and American “markets.”

There’s little doubt Western military and law enforcement agencies have blunted al-Qaeda’s effectiveness by constantly changing the environments in which it operated over the years.  And though it’s not and never’s been a monolithic extremist Sunni movement, Qaeda-ism is not “on the run” as some have contended.

As long as Western nations evolve to meet the constant challenges posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates, they stand a good chance of not only reversing some of al-Qaeda’s advances but of causing it to regress. A big part of thwarting the Qaeda message of violence and death is an effective counter narrative. On 27 September, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Turkish opposite number announced a new Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience. The Fund, which hopes to raise some $200 million over 10 years, is designed to promote local initiatives to counter the appeal of terrorism. It will have financial support from a range of countries and aims to attract private donations. The initiative is overdue, but it has the potential to make a real difference.



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