Al-Qaeda, the franchise

The 9/11 attacks in New York burned the name Al-Qaeda into the minds of many Westerners as the source of militant Islamism and the root of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism worldwide. In the years that followed, seemingly every region and nation with a significant Islamist presence has acquired a declared branch of Al-Qaeda. The different offshoots seem to share an affinity for militancy and a deep belief in a universal and fundamentalist version of Islam. Beyond tactics and a religious cant, however, it's not clear what these often geographically isolated units share. Other Islamic organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood, are bound internally by common elements: leadership, goals, literature, communications, funding, etc. In contrast, Al-Qaeda is more like an ideological trademark; a moniker or brand that implies certain broad motives and tactics, but little else in the way of cooperation or shared purpose.

To the extent that the original Al-Qaeda was a coherent network, it was built, financed and led by Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda is accused of planning and executing attacks from the early 1990s through the 9/11 attacks in 2001, including in Kenya, Indonesia, Tanzania and Yemen, and its operations have focused primarily on American targets including embassies and naval vessels.i Many more attacks, successful and foiled, have been linked to Al-Qaeda or affiliates – primarily through the network of training camps maintained by Al-Qaeda, including the infamous al-Farouq base near Kandahar, Afghanistan. ii It is through these camps that Al-Qaeda forged links to other militant organizations, training and equipping a widely dispersed network of independent and diverse violent activists, who came to compose the leadership of organizations such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and others. While there is evidence of communication between these groups and the Afghanistan-based organization led directly by Bin Laden and his lieutenants, it appears that they were not centrally coordinated and did not always share the same specific goals. While bin Laden's network was primarily occupied with attacking American targets around the world and training radicalized militants, other affiliates were focused on local targets and goals. The aims of the various units identified as linked with Al-Qaeda share some general ideological characteristics, as well as broadly similar insurgent tactics, but are often distinguished by chief concerns which are specific to their region of origin. They typically oppose those they describe as “enemies of Islam”, such as Western nations and their representatives. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has attacked American targets in Mesopotamia; Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was responsible for the attack in Yemen of the USS Cole.

But not all or even most of Al-Qaeda affiliate activities have focused on Western targets, and this is an element of why Al-Qaeda has been so successful as a brand. Its ideology of establishing puritan Islamic states in the Middle East and Africa and opposing secular forces around the world has been adapted to rebellious operations opposing indigenous governments and civilian populations from Yemen to the Philippines to China, nations which despite their often fractious relations with Western nations have become identified for internally repressing Islamism. In Iraq many of the attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda targeted Iraqi civilians; some who represented cooperation with the American occupation, some engaged in activities anathema to the fundamentalist brand of Islam associated with Al-Qaeda, and some with no apparent ideological value other than to raise the public profile of the organization and its message.iii Bombings in Sana'a by the local Al-Qaeda affiliate came in retaliation for the pursuit of Islamic militants by the government of the Republic of Yemen. iv The affiliate in Somalia, Al-Shabab, has gained control over areas of that country and established strict Islamic governance, while fighting with other Islamic groups and the vestiges of the Somali government. v Militant members of Abu Sayyaf, an organization in the Philippines, have received training and assistance from Al-Qaeda and principally fight against the Filipino government for the establishment of an independent, Islamic state. vi Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian militant group, is dedicated to overthrowing the government of that nation and replacing it with an Islamic state. The BBC reported in 2005 that the Somalian militant organization, under a previous name, claimed ties with Al-Qaeda that intelligence officials in Britain and France were unable to verify, suggesting that the militants adopted the association (and in 2007, the name) in order to express solidarity with other Islamic militants and to raise the public profile of their attempt to establish an Islamic Algerian state.vii Further evidence of organic ties between Al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups comes in the form of Ansar Dine, the militant organization that participated in the Mali rebellion and has retained control of north Malian territories, including Timbuktu, where it has announced the establishment of an Islamic nation under strict Wahhabi shari'ah law. viiiix

The common thread between the organizations linked, either by themselves or by national intelligence agencies, is not coordinated operations or centralized authority. Such a structure might actually be a core strategic weakness because international attempts to interdict communication and other links between organizations, and to isolate or assassinate those identified as key players, would be disruptive to a centralized structure. Al-Qaeda's nature as an ideological template and banner for Islamic militancy allow it to be applied to widely distributed groups with little or no communication, with the benefit of attracting adherents to a global movement and of raising the stature and apparent influence (and threat level) of the network as a whole. This adaptability, the natural difficulty in interdicting the activities of distributed groups, explain the popularity of Al-Qaeda among insurgent groups and may ensure the viability of the Islamist brand far into the future. “Timeline of Al Qaeda Attacks” Robert Windrem, MSNBC Research, 5/2005 “Interview with a Taliban Insider: Iran's Game” Leah Farrall, The Atlantic, Nov. 14, 2011 “Terror Strikes blamed on Al-Zarqawi in Iraq” Robert Windrem, MSNBC Research, 5/2005 “Al-Qaeda claims bombing that killed nearly 100 Yemeni soldiers” Al Arabiya, May 21, 2012 “Special Report: In Africa, a militant group's growing appeal” Willam Maclean, Noor Khamis, Mohamed Ahmed. Reuters, May 30, 2012. “The Abu Sayyaf-Al Qaeda Connection” Michael S. James, John K. Cooley, ABC News, Dec 20 2001. “Secrets in the Sand”, Catherine Fellows, BBC News, August 2005. “Islamists declare full control of Mali's north” Tiemoko Diallo, Adama Diarra. Reuters, June 28, 2012.,8599,2110673,00.html?xid=gonewsedit “The Fearsome Tuareg Uprising in Mali: Less Monolithic than Meets the Eye” Julius Cavendish. TIME Magazine, March 30 2012.


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