Affiliates of Al Qaeda Create Their Own Paths ; as Main Leadership Loses Sway, Diverse Groups Take Violence across Borders

By Hubbard, Ben | International New York Times, January 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Affiliates of Al Qaeda Create Their Own Paths ; as Main Leadership Loses Sway, Diverse Groups Take Violence across Borders


Hubbard, Ben, International New York Times


With its central leadership no longer holding unchallenged sway, Al Qaeda is becoming a gathering of regional jihadist groups going in their own directions.

The letter bore the corporate tone of a C.E.O. resolving a turf dispute between two middle managers. In formal prose and numbered lists, Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda, directed one of the group's affiliates in Syria to withdraw to Iraq and leave operations in Syria to someone else.

The response was unequivocal. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, declared that his fighters would remain in Syria "as long as we have a vein that pumps and an eye that blinks."

It was the first time in the history of the world's most notorious terrorist organization that one of the affiliates had publicly broken with the international leadership, and the news sent shock waves through the online forums where jihadists meet. In no uncertain terms, ISIS had gone rogue.

That split, in June, was a watershed moment in the vast decentralization of Al Qaeda and its ideology since 9/11. As the power of the central leadership created by Osama bin Laden has declined, the vanguard of violent jihad has been taken up by an array of groups in a dozen countries across Africa and the Middle East, attacking Western interests in Algeria and Libya, training bombers in Yemen, seizing territory in Syria and Iraq, and gunning down shoppers in Kenya.

What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups.

"Al Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now," said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. "It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilizing people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don't have to join the actual organization anymore to get those benefits."

For policy makers and terrorism analysts, this has made it harder to define what it means to be "Al Qaeda" and to gauge and combat threats. In addition, disagreements over definitions of Al Qaeda have animated debates in Washington about the perpetrators of the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, especially over the Benghazi militant group Ansar al-Shariah. Although intelligence agencies and the State Department do not consider the group an affiliate of Al Qaeda, some Republican critics of President Obama argue that its puritanical, anti-Western vision makes it one.

In many ways, American counterterrorism operations since 9/11 have successfully handicapped the original Qaeda organization founded by Bin Laden from the remnants of the mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Drone strikes have eliminated top leaders, surveillance impedes communication with affiliates and the killing of Bin Laden removed a charismatic, unifying figure.

The franchise model has been essential to the group's survival, even if that means affiliated groups are often left to their own devices.

"There is really not one Al Qaeda anymore," said Gregory D. Johnsen, the author of "The Last Refuge," a book on Al Qaeda in Yemen. "It has taken on the local flavor of wherever it is. …

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