In March 2009, President Obama said that America's "clear and focused goal" in the region was not simply to kill Osama bin Laden, but "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and prevent their return to either country in the future." But what is al-Qaeda? This is a question that has been asked in one form or another since 9/11. But in the aftermath of bin Laden's death, when the media has promoted facile assurances that the terror organization was killed along with its visible public face, it has taken on a new urgency. Some, like Bruce Hoffman, have argued that bin Laden's close circle continues to pose the main global threat, while "decentralization" theorists like Marc Sageman state that the main threat no longer comes from a cohesive organization but from local, "homegrown" groups.
In a sense, both are true. In his seminal work on suicide terrorism, Robert Pape writes that "Al Qaeda is less a transnational network of likeminded ideologues ... than a cross-national military alliance of national liberation movements working together against what they see as a common imperial threat."
In other words, al-Qaeda was the glue that binds local Islamist insurgent groups around the world to "one another, giving each access to a global pool of ideas and resources. The ties between local movements--GSPC of Algeria (now known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Hizbul Shabaab of Somalia, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Taliban in Af/Pak, even "homegrown cells" in the West--give access to ideas, weapons, support, and power to each in their respective areas of operation; these links between the locals aggregate to produce what we think of as a "global" movement.
But after 2001, the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and his "Afghan Arabs" lost its physical stronghold, Mghanistan-based infrastructure, and much of its operational strength. A year before Abbottabad, Steve Coil wrote in the New Yorker that bin Laden and his deputy were "hunkered down ... surrounded by only about two hundred hard-core followers. Their adherents in Yemen and Africa number no more than a few thousand ... Relations with the Taliban seem brittle. Unlike Hezbollah, Al Qaeda provides no social services and thus has built no [concrete] political movement." Computers recovered from bin Laden's compound suggest that its members, far from spending their time planning major attacks, "have primarily been engaged in dodging drone strikes and complaining about how cash-strapped they are," according to political scientist John Mueller. Even as bin Laden's death is hailed as an important symbolic event, evidence suggests that al-Qaeda has lost most of its resources and connective capacity, leaving it as the mere figurehead of the militant "movement."
What comes next? The history of the organization offers an answer. From 1984, the Maktab al-Khidamat--or "Office of Services," the precursor to al-Qaeda--initially focused on Afghanistan and, after consolidating a substantial presence there, became al-Qaeda in 1988. Embracing a global vision, this self-defined "vanguard" of the Islamic movement used its Afghan (and for a time, Sudanese) base to train, connect, and equip fighters from Islamist nationalist groups around the world. Today, while American sensors focus on the Hindu Kush Mountains, there is a group to the south, in Pakistani Punjab, following a similar local-to-global pattern: the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
The group, whose name means "Army of the Pure," was established in 1990 by Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, fighters in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Saeed, LeT's leader, was born in 1950 to a Punjabi family that had lost dozens of members on its journey to Pakistan in the wake of the 1947 partition. Carrying that deep grievance with him, Saeed was appointed to General Zia ul-Haq's Council on Islamic Ideology and taught Islamic …