St. George and the Hydra: The United States and Al Qaeda

By K. David Du

Nationsmith Longform writer K. David Du writes an article about the challenges Al Qaeda represents for the US and its national interests.

St. George and the Hydra: The United States and Al Qaeda in the Indian Ocean

            According to legend, there was once a dragon that was threatening the countryside of Silene, Libya. Along with eating the common sheep, the dragon would occasionally feast upon a commoner or two while desecrating their lake with its venom and vileness.

One day, a knight named George appeared along the country side and claimed he would slay the dragon. In return, he asked the commoners to swear allegiance to the Lord, baptize themselves, and convert to Christianity. With the swing of his sword Ascalon, George slew the dragon, thereby ending its threat forever, and won the hearts and minds of Silene. For his bravery, George was elevated to the heavens and consecrated as Saint George, the dragon slayer.

In the same way George had to confront the beast of Silene, the United States, during the Cold War, had a large dragon it needed to slay: the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were a dark mirror image of the US and its NATO allies: the adversary had similar conventional military capabilities (and the willingness to utilize these capabilities), rational interests (raison d’etat), and a highly centralized organization. Fortunately, like the dragon: if you decapitate Moscow, you will slay it.

In 1991, the Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union went into decline and dismantled itself a year later.  Thus, the United States had slain its dragon through superior military might, economic maneuvering, and the aggressive foreign policies of Reagan Administration.

Like Saint George, the US had defeated its adversary, thereby changing the hearts and minds of its former enemies to adopt liberal democratic reforms, and thus the US inherited a world to shape in its own image.

It would remain this way for ten years until a new threat had found its way to redefine, distract, and subvert American international security interests.

On 9/11, the attacks were not from a dragon.

I: Introduction

            Since 9/11, Al Qaeda, along with other violent non-state actors, have become a prime and vital concern of the US national security establishment. Not only have organizations like Al Qaeda have been destabilizing thorns to global security but they have facilitated transnational criminal activity such as smuggling, trafficking, and money laundering in order to support their terrorist activities.

The center of this essay will be Al Qaeda and its role within the Indian Ocean region. In this essay, I will focus upon Al Qaeda’s organization, strategies, and tactics and the ramifications it has for American interests within this region of the world. I will organize this essay into three sub-sections: Al Qaeda as a decentralized organization, Pakistan’s vulnerability to Al Qaeda, and lastly, I will detail what measures the US must do to counter Al Qaeda in the Indian Ocean and abroad.


II: The Hydra

            Unlike the Soviet Union, Al Qaeda is entirely another animal. It’s not a dragon that can simply be slain: it’s a hydra. The hydra was a mythological monster in the old Greek legends which was incredibly resilient. Whilst a dragon could be destroyed by decapitating its head from its body, a hydra would regenerate its fallen head and add another to its body.

In short, Al Qaeda won’t be easy to kill.

Al Qaeda is a highly resilient, decentralized organization that prides itself on its ability to franchise its brand with other affiliate radical Sunni terrorist groups. Until his death, Al Qaeda was led by international terrorism financier Osama bin Laden (UBL) and is now led by his former second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Al Qaeda’s ideological goals call for the creation of a pan Sunni-Islamic caliphate free of apostate (secular) states and Shia Muslims and it uses criminal, terrorist, and paramilitary tactics and means to achieve this goal.

Before delving deeper into Al Qaeda’s organization, I want to define my criteria on what this implicitly means. One final caveat, I am directing my organizational analysis towards its organization as a movement with smaller, autonomous cells and affiliates.

Taking a line from The Starfish and the Spider, I am defining what makes Al Qaeda a decentralized organization. According to the book, a decentralized organization lacks a hierarchy with a leader, a headquarters, and is resilient when parts of its de facto leadership and constituent bodies are destroyed. Additionally, the organization’s knowledge and power base is highly fragmented, its operations are acted upon with flexibility, it is self-financed, and the number of its participants are truly unknown (Brafman 55).

Does Al Qaeda fit into the criterion of a being a decentralized organization? Yes, and I will go through this point by point.

Al Qaeda’s organization is mainly international in scope, with affiliate cells across the globe which include: Al Qaeda in the Arabian in Saudi Arabia, Islamic Jihad of Yemen, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Al-Shabaab, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

In terms of leadership, Al Qaeda’s de facto leader, Al-Zawahiri (previously UBL), has a very loose control of the whole operation which are instead delegated towards so called commanders of its affiliates (such as Zarqawi in Iraq), which according to Shapiro, who have to “for a variety of reasons, political and ideological leaders must delegate certain duties to middlemen or low-level operatives- their agents” (Shapiro 75).

Of course, there are no headquarters to decapitate the organization; and in the case of Osama Bin Laden’s death or the destruction of whole cells or branches of Al Qaeda, the movement lives on.

Al Qaeda also doesn’t keep a tight leash on its tactics and strategy, which is readily available on the internet for its operatives. According to Fishman, one important case is the dissemination of “The Myth of Delusion”, written by Al Qaeda’s spymaster, Khalil al-Hakaymah, which is “an exhaustively research dissertation on the structure, practices, and weaknesses of US Intelligence Community,” (Fishman 1).  This is one in many cases of its open dissemination of information, which include messages, doctrine, and orders which are covertly hidden within webpages, head drive files, and other digital media Al Qaeda affiliates use to directly contact each other.

In explaining flexibility, I would like to introduce it in the next section on Pakistan.

According to the Sinjar Records, Al Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, an Iraq based insurgent group,  was able to self-finance itself efficiently during the Iraq War through organized smuggling and trafficking of fighters, suicide bombers, and support staff. Because it was working covertly, it “relied heavily on voluntary donations and spent a good deal of energy tracking how the money was raised and spent…The ISI relied on three sources of funding: transfers from other leaders of AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq, money foreign suicide bombers brought with them, and fund raising from local Iraqis,” (Shapiro 70). Within a period of fifteen days to six months, the Al Qaeda affiliate was able to requisition a high amount of fundraising amounting to $141,529 USD to fund its operations through incoming fighters, internal transfers, and local donations (Shapiro 73).

In this section, I have defined what a decentralized organization is and how Al Qaeda is able to fit into this organizational model. Why this is important will be vital in the last section of this paper in which I will center on their ramifications on the US strategy against Al Qaeda in the Indian Ocean.

III. The Shadow War

            The objective of this section will deal heavily with the Brafman’s criteria of “flexibility” in which I will define simply as the freedom of action, choice, or opportunity in which a decentralized organization can clearly act without impediment from obstacles such as nation states or their laws, via extralegal means or asymmetric warfare. This section will also integrate factors from Monsoon reading in order to help facilitate their relevance.

In Carolyn Nordstrom’s book Shadows of War she defines her usage of the shadows  as, “the complex sets of cross state economic and political linkages that move outside formally recognized state- based channels… the transaction defining these networks aren’t confined solely to criminal, illicit, or illegal activities, but cross various divides between legal, quasi-legal, and downright illegal activities,” (Nordstrom 106).

Thus, in this section, I want to focus on Al Qaeda’s clever usage of Nordstrom’s shadows, where the shadow economy which involves human trafficking; arms, contraband, and drug smuggling, money laundering, and other extra-legal activities bleed in and out of legality in order to profit Al Qaeda and its affiliates in the Indian Ocean region. I want to make a point that activities or materials that are illegal in one country, isn’t necessary illegal in another.

The geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent is dominated by two nuclear powers: Pakistan and India. This story, a remnant of the Cold War, has a direct relationship with the rise of Al Qaeda, Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen.

To delve deeper into the cold relationship between India and Pakistan, we must look into the realities of the Cold War: Pakistan was a key American ally during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Its political rival, India was a socialist country aligned with the Soviet Union. Through Saudi and American funding, the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI (Inter-service Intelligence), was able to directly funnel money to Osama bin Laden and his Afghan Arab mujahedeen, the precursor to Al Qaeda. Pakistan helped the US to give the Soviet Union its “Vietnam”.

Pakistan, according to Kaplan, is home to four ethnic groups: the Punjabis, who rule, and the minority ethnicities of the Baluch, Sindh, and the Pashtun. Like Iraq, the country has real sectarian divides, which are also complicated by the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power in a standoff with its easterly neighbor, India. However, unlike its belligerent neighbor, Pakistan is clearly headed in the direction of a failed state. This is the ripe kind of environment Al Qaeda and its ilk thrive upon in order to arm, fund, and supply its activities.

In this type of environment, it is foreseeable that smuggling strategies used in the Sinjar Records can clearly be applied to and from Pakistan to the Jihadi hotbed of Afghanistan, which implies Al Qaeda exploits the use of mercenaries, smugglers, and tribesmen along the frontier to traffic arms, supplies, and recruits requisitioned from Pakistan and into volatile areas in which it has little governmental control, such as Waziristan. The Pakistani government, like the Syrian government in the Sinjar Records, has little resources to police that region and whatever resources they do have can be bribed, or at worst, ignored.

On the flipside, there are official records of Pakistani state sponsored terrorism activities in terms of its direct funding to the mujahedeen, “…In addition to billions of dollars that flowed through Pakistan’s military intelligence service to the Afghan mujahedeen parties… 200 million dollars of non-governmental support flowed into the Jihad effort,” (Bergen 102). Though Pakistan is nominally our ally in this region, it was not until our invasion of Afghanistan against the Taliban government did the Pakistani government officially halted its funding of the Taliban.

Furthermore, Kaplan alleges that the ISI, “was a key supporter of Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgencies and was aiding terrorists in Indian controlled Kashmir. Above all, the ISI was operationalizing the infiltration of jihadists into India,”(Kaplan 130).

As an aside, I would also like to mention other Indian Ocean based tactics Al Qaeda affiliates and allies have learned from its affiliate in Iraq. According to Bergen, which include maneuvers such as the massive usage of suicide bombers, chorine attacks, propaganda (specifically those which include summary executions and beheadings), and IED innovations (Bergen 112). Specifically, these include copycat massive suicide bomber attacks used by the Tamil Tigers and Taliban insurgencies; kidnappings and beheadings such as those of journalist Daniel Pearl in Afghanistan, and other places such as in the Mumbai bombings in India.

In this section, I have succinctly shown Al Qaeda’s flexibility in how it works within legal and extra legal matters in Pakistan in order to achieve some of its objectives in Afghanistan.

Lastly, I wouldn’t want to ignore the huge elephant in the room that would affirm Pakistan’s guilt: the ISI sheltered Osama Bind Laden in Abbottabad, which at least implicates that there was at least some involvement in the highest echelons of the Pakistani military that were aligned with UBL and his movement.

IV. Slaying the Hydra

            In this last section, I will point out some ways of how the US can deal with Al Qaeda’s threat within the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

            There a few powerful lessons to be learned from The Starfish and the Spider about dealing with highly fragmented and decentralized organizations, but first there have to be a few lessons we need to assume before we create our strategy:

Brafman argued that when they are attacked, decentralized organizations become more decentralized; it’s easy to mistake a decentralized organization for a centralized one; there’s no centralized repository of data, its spread apart; and a decentralized organization can easily mutate.

These are powerful assumptions that must fit into our calculus within the Indian Ocean, but we need to also remember that culture plays another important role. Thus, as Americans build bases to stabilize our interests in the straits of Malacca and Hormuz (arguably the most vital trade routes in the region), we can’t ignore that along with grand strategy we need micro-strategies to solve lesser problem sets such as the problem with Al Qaeda.

Firstly, we can’t confront Al Qaeda like any other conventional enemy, since it has no headquarters, Supreme Leader, or CEO, we can’t fully eradicate it with conventional martial, economic, or diplomatic means. One, diplomacy and sanctions are moot against non-state actors; two, if we continue to fight by martial means, they simply divide and fade into the shadows.

Secondly, the adversary’s is flexible and adaptable. It uses networks that governments hate to handle such as shadow economies, infiltrating allies, and hiding within plain sight. It uses asymmetric tactics that leverages our weaknesses against us.

Fortunately, point three is that Al Qaeda, like other decentralized organizations, can mutate, which may be either a good or bad change for the US. Good, in we can control that mutation by hoping we change their ideology (hearts and minds) or centralize them in order to defeat them. The negative scenario would be it decentralizes and fragments them further.

In terms of ideological change, the US should support moderate and mainstream Muslim clerics and followers who reject Salafist ideology. An effective pressure point would be for the US to pressure the Saudi Government to mandate its state sponsored clerics disseminate more moderate views.

Centralizing Al Qaeda is another goal, which I believe is the most probable way we can defeat them. According to the Sinjar Records, Al Qaeda, at the affiliate level, is bureaucratic and centralized. It keeps records in recruitment, finance, and, interestingly enough, names that the US and its allies can use to pick out and blacklist likely Al Qaeda operatives.

It is from there, we can systematic defeat the centralized “heads” of the hydra.


            In conclusion, I have written about the organizational aspects of Al Qaeda, its involvement in Pakistan, and some measures I would use to defeat Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and its ilk are not the dragons that we can simply defeat conventionally like the Soviet Union, but they are another beast entirely. In order for us to slay this hydra, the US must learn to analyze these organizations differently, consider less conventional means and tactics, and instead work on either “hearts and minds” strategy or another strategy that centers on pulling Al Qaeda away from the shadows which it thrives upon.

That is how “Washington” can slay the hydra.