How to become Al-Qaeda

What is Al-Qaeda and what is not Al-Qaeda? As we have seen in case of ISIS something also can be Al-Qaeda and can lose Al-Qaeda brand later. Katherine Zimmerman of AEI writes that Al-Qaeda’s leadership regulates the use of its name and resources. So how to become Al-Qaeda, what are the core conditions for using Al-Qaeda’s name and resources? Read few comments.

Edwin BakkerProfessor, Director Centre for Terrorism & Counter Terrorism, Leiden University

In the past (pre-9/11) when AQ was more hierarchically structured, all major decisions were made by a council (shura). Today it is far more vague. There have to be contacts and there has to be some recognition by core AQ – but we do not know if and to what extent Al Zawahiri is in a position to communicate and decide with other core members of AQ. Apparently there still is some kind of structure, but also regional players (beyond core AQ in Afghanistan and Pakistan) play a role. This holds in particular for the Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia region. Name changes of ‘AQ’ in this part of the world raise questions about who is in charge. I guess regional leaders have become more important. I would say that core conditions include a strong regional power base and funding from the region. Moreover, the name AQ seems to have become a less important asset in Syria and Iraq (possibly because of the bad reputation of AQ). This partly explains the use of the name ISIS instead of AQ. Moreover, by using the term ‘state’ they also seem to have a somewhat different agenda: more locally oriented, more power oriented, and less aimed at a global Caliphate. This raises the question if AQ as a brand name and strategy/modus operandi might gradually become a thing of the past, a phenomenon of the first decade of this century giving way to new types of islamist/jihadist organisations and labels.

Daveed Gartenstein-RossDirector, Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy

The interesting thing about it is that the answer isn’t as clear as one would hope. American analysts tend to define groups as part of al-Qaeda if they have publicly taken an oath of bayat (loyalty) and had it accepted by the group’s senior leadership. I tend to use this definition as well to ensure that I’m starting from the same baseline definition as other analysts. But as I detail in my Daily Beast article, “Obama’s Kobe Bryant-Al Qaeda Flap,” there may be — and I would assert, more strongly, I believe there is — more to the al-Qaeda network than just those affiliates whose oaths of loyalty have been publicly accepted. Remember that Osama bin Laden, prior to his death, was looking to rebrand al-Qaeda.

The example I give in the Daily Beast article of what seems, in my view, to be an unacknowledged part of al-Qaeda is Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), which a year or two ago was widely described as entirely local to Tunisia. Over time, the Tunisian government has released additional evidence that tends to undermine that view. Tunisian authorities have alleged that the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, a militant group operating between Algeria and Tunisia that engaged in frequent combat with Tunisian authorities at the border, linked Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to AST operationally. They have also claimed that AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi and AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud had signed a handwritten “Allegiance Act,” and that Abu Iyad had made “an oath of allegiance to an Algerian emir,” almost certainly Abdel Wadoud. Tunisian sources further claimed that AST’s funding came from al-Qaeda financiers. If all this evidence is correct, it seems that at some point AST became an unacknowledged part of al-Qaeda’s network (AST still claims to be organizationally independent). If AST was an unacknowledged part, at what point did that happen? Was it the plan all along, or did AST only succeed in tapping into al-Qaeda’s resources over time? What were the conditions imposed upon it for doing so? What were al-Qaeda’s levers of control?

The answers to most of these questions are less clear than we would like, which is one reason that I have emphasized the need for some modesty in our analytic conclusions. This is also a reason that I think the U.S. government should hasten declassification of the documents captured in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Having more information about the network can help our assessments, and even our guesses, to become more educated.

Fernando ReinaresProfessor and Chair in Politics, King Juan Carlos University, Senior Analyst on Global Terrorism, The Elcano Royal Institute (Real Instituto Elcano) 

1. Al Qaeda used to be a unitarian jihadist organization. But evolved into a decentralized terrorist structure within which it is possible to observe a central nucleus, that is Al Qaeda Central, located in the tribal areas of Pakistan and the adjacent territiories of Afganistán, and Al Qaeda’s branches or terrestrial extensions. These Al Qaeda brances include Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

2. Until very recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an evolution of formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq, was an official territorial branch of Al Qaeda. But recent disputes between the ISIL and the organization finally adopted as its affiliated in Syria, Jabaht al Nusra, led Zawahiri, the emir of Al Qaeda, to deprive ISIL from its previous condition of an Al Qaeda branch and even to relegate below the status of an associated entity.

3. The relationship between the core Al Qaeda and its territorial extensions vary from case to case. There is no single model, as it would depend from situational circumstances, leadership profile and conflicting strategies with respect to particular conflict zones. In the letters from Abbottabad, partly released by West Point, there are interesting examples on these differential connections between the leadership of Al Qaeda central and directorates of Al Qaeda territorial branches.

4. To be an Al Qaeda branch is different from just being consider an associate to Al Qaeda. An Al Qaeda branch is formalized only after its emir pledges loyalty to the emir of Al Qaeda central and the emir of Al Qaeda central responds positively to that pledge of loyalty. This process is different from usual linking procedure from associated entities, which may simple exchange resources, engage in cooperation activities over a certain territory or provide logistical support in concrete terrorist operations.

5. In addition to Al Qaeda central and its territorialized branches, to the associated or affiliated jihadist entites, another component can be observe in the global terrorism network: that of independent cells and individuals. The threat coming from these independent cells and individuals is expected of lower intensity than highly lethal, coordinated and sofisticated attacks which take place when formal jihadist organization intervene in its planning, preparation and execution.


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