TSG IntelBrief: Al Qaeda Faces Deep Challenges in Filling its Critical Leadership Void
May 8, 2012
As of early May 2012, al Qaeda is still searching for an effective, charismatic, and broadly accepted leader to replace Osama bin Ladin, whose death one year ago this week has left the group ― one that is still comprised of a significant number of followers and sympathizers ― without the inspirational figure necessary to galvanize current followers into renewed efforts and, more importantly, attract capable newcomers to replenish the depleted ranks and infuse the organization with new ideas.
Al Qaeda, even in its current, weakened form, is not looking for new enemies, nor for new causes; rather, it is desperately searching for a new leader, one able to articulate a compelling vision and global narrative that provide the organizing principles around which the organization can rally. It is in need of a personality that can can serve as a center of gravity for an organization that lacks the coherence given it by bin Laden.
Understanding this need, counterterror officials will continue to move aggressively against any reasonably credible candidate. This tactic was most recently seen in the May 6 drone strike that killed Fahd al-Quso, a senior leader for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who had been wanted for his involvement in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. In addition, al-Quso was considered a credible replacement for Anwar al-Alwaki, the Yemeni-American AQAP official killed in similar fashion last year. Indeed, the May 7 announcement that the U.S. Government had disrupted a sophisticated AQAP-directed airline bomb plot along the lines of the failed 2009 Christmas Day airline bombing attempt (also AQAP-directed) highlights the need to continually target those rare individuals capable of both tactical and inspirational leadership for al Qaeda.
The Search for a Charismatic Figure
Counter-terror officials are acutely mindful of this reality and will continue to do everything possible to frustrate al Qaeda in its search for a leader of bin Laden’s stature. At some point, without a true successor capable of embracing and furthering bin Laden’s goals, al Qaeda as an integrated group will cease to exist in any meaningful fashion and become, at most, a tangential inspiration for other actors. Knowing well that ideology is not enough, al Qaeda will step up its search for a replacement.
The plight of al Qaeda in this regard is not unusual, in that nearly any large group ― an army, a multinational corporation, or a terrorist group ― that was founded and subsequently led by a charismatic figure, one with the uncommon ability to inspire and organize the activities of thousands, quickly finds itself in an existential free fall once that original leader leaves the scene and there is no anointed and suitably inspirational replacement waiting in the wings. The cult of personality is indeed powerful, but its strategic effect is ultimately only as strong as the organizing personality or its logical successor. Every group that encounters the disruptive influence caused by the death of a key leader must quickly move to sustain itself by first securing a worthy replacement at the helm.
The challenge AQ faces is better understood within the larger context of terrorism and the fundamental elements that underlie it existence. Clearly, there is no shortage of disaffected, disenfranchised, and disillusioned youth in the contemporary world; similarly, there is no shortage of injustices ― real, imagined, or a combination of both as often found in a terrorist group’s narrative ―to inspire protest, revolt, and violent action. While crimes committed by individuals against individuals or groups are a daily occurrence, and often happen with little planning, organization, or infrastructure to support it, terrorism is a profoundly different enterprise. Counter-terror professionals must understand that what makes terrorism different is also what makes a terrorist enterprise so difficult to establish, organize, and manage: inspiration.
Moving the dispirited to action against a perceived injustice ― which often requires a renunciation of much of their former lives ― is not an easy task; it requires a considerable degree of motivation to elicit the level of commitment necessary to create a terrorist organization that is viable and sustainable over the long haul. It is the rare individual who possesses the degree of charisma and who can demand the level of respect necessary to broadly animate an organization from potential to definitive action. When an individual of this nature arrives, the organization can quickly build momentum and command attention and resources far beyond its sheer numbers or objective impact. And so it is that al Qaeda now finds itself looking to replace not the seemingly infinite pool of “number threes” that are essential to managing the organization’s daily affairs, but that critical and often irreplaceable “number one.”
The Twin Pillars of Leadership and Inspiration
The scarcity of real talent and the law of averages ensure that the search for an exceptional replacement for any organization is both painful and uncertain, and this is especially true for a terrorist group in which up-and-coming talent is not only marginalized by ad hoc rank structure fraught with personality conflicts, but also one that is incessantly targeted by counterterrorism forces at every step. Given the unrelenting pressure on al Qaeda, the group has been stymied in its effort to complete an acceptable succession scheme. This is hard enough for a lesser known extremist group to do this, and nearly impossible for an organization such as al Qaeda.
This helps to explain the urgency with which the United States acted against al-Alawki, who, while not the official head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was certainly its most effective and charismatic figure. Beyond his ability to exhort followers in both Arabic and English, it was al-Alawki’s profile as an inspirational figure ― one able to attract, inspire, and organize a significant numbers of followers and new recruits ― that caused the U.S. the greatest concern. This rationale also in part explains the U.S Government’s determination to prevent al-Quso from assuming a more prominent leadership role in AQAP, as his involvement with two separate AQAP airline bomb plots, his role in the USS Cole operations, and his logical ascension to greater leadership within the group suggested that al-Quso was perhaps uniquely talented and sufficiently active to be just the leadership figure al Qaeda is searching for in Yemen and beyond. (Ibrahim al Assiri, the AQAP-affiliated bomb-maker behind the aforementioned Christmas Day plot, and very likely yesterday’s thwarted operation to detonate an explosive devise ― reportedly an improved version of the so-called “underwear bomb” used in the 2009 attempt ― aboard a U.S.-bound commercial airplane, could arguably also have both the operational successes and planning acumen to warrant consideration as a possible candidate.)
This same rationale also helps to explain why a figure such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was never a credible candidate for leadership in al Qaeda. Zarqawi’s successful campaign of terror in Iraq proved only that he was a energetic and skilled killer, but not necessarily a leader who could inspire, organize and sustain a movement. Modern counterterror theory suggests that as rare as an individual such as Zarqawi thankfully is, even more rare is the person who can attract, build, and then manage a terrorist group. It is precisely this combination that led the U.S to act against al-Alawki.
Much of al Qaeda’s rank-and-file remain motivated and committed to an array of causes, but they are nonetheless operating under on a lesser scale in a void in leadership and, most importantly, inspiration. The organization finds itself in an incredibly trying situation: it must identify a charismatic leader to replace bin Laden, and complete this vital task, as note above, under the unremitting global pressure to ensure that it fails in this effort.
The appearance of al-Zawahiri’s brother in Tahrir Square in early May, accompanied by al Qaeda flags, is most concerning for Western security services seeking to maintain that pressure. Such scenes have the potential to serve as rallying points to re-energize the faithful and materially aid the hunt for a new bin Laden. Counterterror experts are acutely aware of the strategic impact these events can have on a extremist group, especially one in desperate search for meaning and relevance in a rapidly shifting landscape. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies therefore work diligently to prevent them, as they are so exceedingly difficult to counter once they occur. In similar fashion, it is far more feasible to prevent a truly inspirational figure from assuming a leadership role than to counter the effect that individual may have once in place.
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