Defeating Al Qaeda, an Endgame to the Longest War

By K. David Du (@Kentsinoroyale)

I: Defining the Enemy

            For many Americans, the public perception of the terrorist network Al Qaeda is that it is an unbeatable organization. The perception assumes that because global terrorism, or more specifically “terror”, is an ideal and ideals are ultimately indestructible. Therefore, they assume the Global War on Terror is an unwinnable war.

Accordingly, there are ways to win this war.

According to the book, “How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns”, by Audrey Cronin there are many historical examples from throughout the modern era about the dismantling and disbandment of major terrorist organizations. In her work, she abstracts that there have been six main classifications about the ways these organizations usually end: decapitation, negotiation, success in reaching their political goals, failure in reaching their political goals, repression, and reorientation. Lastly, in her last chapter, she evaluates the same criteria on Al Qaeda and inquires whether Al Qaeda would meet a similar demise as many of her other historical case studies.

Al Qaeda, according to Cronin can be defeated.

For this essay, I will evaluate whether her conclusions match up with what we’ve learned about the organization through lectures, assigned readings, and other open source information. Thus, my overall goal for this exercise is to verify her work and hopefully demystify the myth about Al Qaeda and public perceptions that this is an unwinnable war.

Additionally, for this essay, I will source The Spider and the Starfish and The History of Terrorism to qualify her assumptions. Like the author, I will write an in depth analysis of each of her criteria, how they apply to Al Qaeda from Cronin’s view, and lastly whether I agree, disagree, or qualify with her arguments based on our readings.

In the opening passages of her chapter on ending Al Qaeda, Cronin describes what Al Qaeda is.

In her simplification, she writes that, “Al-Qaeda began in the 1980s as a computer database with the names of foreign fighters in Afghanistan so that a very wealthy Saudi dilettante would have a way to inform their next of kin if they were killed, and over the course of the next two decades it became a global entity capable of bloodying a superpower on its own soil and frightening millions of people into supporting a “war on terror.”  She continues to write about the Attacks of 9/11 orchestrated by Al Qaeda operatives and both U.S. and international diplomatic, economic, and military engagements against the organization which has resulted in the devastation of seventy-five percent of its core leadership. However, she concludes that despite our military victories against Al Qaeda continues to be an “elusive group [that] present[s] a persistent challenge, with high stakes for the future of the Muslim world, the security of the West, and indirectly [the] stability of the international system.”

No one disputes this assessment about what Al Qaeda is:  it’s an international Jihadist terrorist organization. However the origin of the name comes from Abdullah Azzam, who according to Migaux, had aimed for his Arab mujahidin to reconquer the Muslim world against apostates (the near enemy) and crusaders (the far enemy). His organizations was known as al-qaeda al-sulbah, “the solid-base” and he describes the mission of Al Qaeda, “Every principle needs a vanguard to carry it forward that is willing, while integrating into society, to undertake difficult tasks and make tremendous sacrifices. No ideology, celestial or earthly, can do without such a vanguard, which gives its all to ensure victory. It is the standard bearer on an endless and difficult path until it reaches its destination as it is the will of God that it do so. It is al-qaeda al-sulbah that constitutes this vanguard hoped for society.”

Cronin then briefly explains the six historical explanations about how terrorism ends: decapitation (capturing or killing the enemy), negotiation (entering a legitimate political process), success (achieving strategic goals), failure (marginalization and implosion), regression (Crushing defeat by overwhelming power), and lastly reorientation (in which the organization transitions into either an insurgency or conventional military) and states that, “the task now is to determine which lessons from historical experience with terrorism’s decline [is] relevant to Al-Qaeda and which are not.”

I will not dispute her explanations or classifications for the historical decline of terrorist organizations, but with the following passages, I will critique her assessments for each explanation and whether they apply effectively to Al-Qaeda’s end.

However, before she asserts her analysis, she makes a point to analyze what makes Al Qaeda unique from other terror organizations.

According to Cronin, “Al Qaeda combines elements of continuity and discontinuity with other terrorist groups, and lessons to be learned from the success and failures of past and present counterterrorist responses are applicable to it.” In her essay she writes about Al Qaeda’s resilient structure, the methods of radicalization and recruitment it uses, its means of support, and lastly, its means of communication.

Firstly, in her description of Al Qaeda’s resilient structure, she writes about the objectives and goals of Al Qaeda, which correlates with Abdullah Azzam’s mission statement: Al Qaeda’s goal is topple apostate states (non-Muslim Arab nationalist or socialist states) and to impose Salafist Islamic law upon those states, and thereby creating pan-Islamic Caliphate. She continues to state the main elements of Al Qaeda’s structure, “Since 9/11 al-Qaeda has consistently been melding of three elements: the core central group of leaders and strategists who are Bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s direct associates; a nebula of more traditional groups that are formally or informally align with the core and sometimes respond to its central guidance (the network); and lastly localized factions that have no physical contact with the center but strive to associate themselves with the worldview and label of Al Qaeda.”

Thus, Al Qaeda has the central core which formerly was run by Osama Bin Laden and now by his former lieutenant Zawahiri; larger formations and “Al-Qaeda franchisee” terrorist organizations and affiliates that are directly funded, directly coordinated with higher AQ echelon strategy, and ultimately very of autonomous of the AQ core; and lastly a grouping of random individuals and smaller groupings who exist at the outer peripheral of AQ’s management.  Less professional than the second grouping (the network), the third group can be classified as “amateur terrorists” and many lone wolf terrorists find their way into this category. Additionally, in the same passage, Cronin writes about Al Qaeda horizontal nature, its network tying with large groupings from Chechen to Uzbek affiliates of the Al Qaeda network.

Cronin also writes about Al Qaeda’s unusual resilience and international reach, “Al Qaeda is a wealthy resource center, operational facilitator, and now legendary ideological and propaganda focal point for a wider movement.” Because of the tripartite nature of its organization, it can centrally operate from the core or independently through its network. She states, “No previous terrorist organization has exhibited quite the elasticity, agility, and global reach.”

Cronin also writes about Al Qaeda’s methods of radicalization and recruitment, which she describes Al Qaeda, with its tripartite organization, behaves more like a movement than a classical terrorist group. She talks about the group’s usage of its periphery, which is organized similarly to a grassroots, localized volunteering organization. As a point, she writes about Al Qaeda ease of using the internet and social networks to indoctrinate, radicalize, and recruit normal Muslims into becoming volunteers.  These recruits originate mostly from the Arab states, northern Africa, and parts of Europe.

Another unique characteristic about Al Qaeda, according to Cronin is Al Qaeda’s resourcefulness in finding means of support. She writes, “Financial support for al-Qaeda is likewise robust, ranging from money channeled through charitable organizations to grants given to local terrorist groups… Most of its operations have relied on small amount of “seed money” provided by bin Laden’s organization.”

Lastly, Cronin writes about Al Qaeda’s means of communication, “the most important aspect of al-Qaeda is its means of communications. Related to its effective recruitment and radicalization , the al-Qaeda movement has used the tools of globalization to connect with multiple audiences, including potential new members, recruits, active supporters, passive sympathizers, neutral observers, enemy governments, and potential victims.” She also talks about the tools that Al Qaeda operators utilize, which include: mobile phones, text messaging, instant messaging, websites, email, blogs, chat rooms, and other tools from the internet to facilitate their terrorist activities and fund raising.

Much of these features about Al Qaeda are similar to what Brafman and Beckstrom write in their book, The Starfish and the Spider. In the case of Al Qaeda, it has many features of a Starfish organization: there’s no centralized leadership, there’s no single headquarters; when Osama Bin Laden was killed, and the organization continued; from the different levels of the Al Qaeda’s organization, the core direct the strategy, the network implements terrorism, but the periphery seems to take little direction from the core (thus no division of roles); as Cronin stated, the organization is robust enough that if part of the organization is destroyed, Al Qaeda continues to operate. Sixthly, Al Qaeda’s knowledge and power bases are definitely decentralized with major documents and media uploaded to the internet; units are also capable of self-funding or asking for “grant money” from AQ core, and lastly, there’s no definite way anyone can count all the people who consider themselves Al Qaeda, because anyone can choose to become Al Qaeda.

Thus, having identified the key features and make-up of Al Qaeda, we can move unto how we can end this threat.

II. Ending Al Qaeda

            Within the next few passages I will analyze Cronin’s six explanations of ending Al Qaeda with commentary related to our coursework. Remember the six explanations that Cronin wrote were decapitation, negotiation, success, failure, regression, and lastly, reorientation.

The decapitation of Al Qaeda is an event that has already occurred with the daring SEAL Team Six raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottabad safe house which resulted in his death. Cronin prophetically is correct in her assumption about the decapitation (targeted killing) of Osama Bin Laden in that, “past experience with terrorism indicates that al-Qaeda will not end if Osama bin Laden is killed,” she further explains her reasoning, “the argument that their demise will end the al-Qaeda movement is tinged with emotion, not dispassionate analysis. Organizations that have been crippled by the killing of their leader have been hierarchal in structure, reflecting to some degree of personality, and lacking a viable successor. Al Qaeda currently meets none of these criteria: it has a mutable structure, with both elements of hierarchy and a strong emphasis on individual cells and local initiative,” (Cronin 177-178).

With Osama Bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri has become the spiritual successor to OBL, but many of the operational capabilities of Al Qaeda foreign affiliate network and periphery were unaffected by the change.

Negotiations, according to Cronin, involve a terrorist organization negotiating or a transitioning towards legitimate political process. She argues that in order for negotiations to go underway there must be a stalemate or deadlock between the terrorist organization and its governmental rival, “ Negotiations are most likely when both sides reach a stalemate, especially a ”political” stalemate from the perspective of the terrorist group,” (Cronin 180). She argues that the reason why some terrorist groups negotiate is for an exit strategy away from a losing cause. Additionally, there like from the peace settled from the Good Friday Accords in Ireland, there must be a promise of stability and realistic political terms and conditions that both sides agree upon.

Cronin does not believe that Al Qaeda can be easily swayed to the bargaining table. She questions what terms would Al Qaeda actually agree upon, it’s political rhetoric and ideology problems for settling the peace, and lastly, if negotiations settled the peace what organization would replace Al Qaeda in the international system. Additionally, there will be problems in how the AQ core, network affiliates, and the periphery would react towards any peace negotiations and much like in Ireland, splinter groups and spoilers groups will most likely work to end the peace such as the situation in Palestine (FATAH works to settle the peace w/ Israel, HAMAS works to unravel it). Thirdly, historical negotiations with terrorist organizations usually end successfully if there is a bargaining chip such as territory, ethnic and national rights, and legal protections that the government will offer to settle the peace. Because of Al Qaeda internationalist starfish structure, we can expect some parts to agree with the peace, but others (such as affiliates with exotic national constituencies such as AQ affiliates in the Philippines and post-Soviet world) will not recognize it.

The third historical end to terrorism according to Cronin is if a terrorist organization successfully accomplishes its political goals, therefore allowing it to dissolve. Modern cases such as the disbandment of the Kosovo Liberation Army after it achieved Kosovar independence from Serbia in the Kosovo War. Cronin disagrees that this will be a likely scenario for Al Qaeda because it is very unlikely that the movement will be able to entirely consolidate its power and create a caliphate within the Muslim world by replacing so-called apostate states.

This scenario has taken an unlikely turn. Within the last two years, the Arab Spring movements within the Arab world have wide reaching implications for this success scenario. Though it is may still be unlikely for Al Qaeda to create its international Caliphate, former apostate states such as Egypt, Libya, and possibly Syria has taken a rightward swing towards pro-Islamic regimes run by Islamist parties. For the short term, I believe this movement creates the instability that Al Qaeda will thrive upon, but however in the long-term business as usual will continue as these revolutionary states enter into international system and work with other antiterrorist states.

The fourth explanation by Cronin is the unraveling of a terrorist organization through major failures. Cronin defines this fourth explanation in two novel ways: either the group dissipates through implosion or it loses out on popular support. Furthermore, Cronin argues that there are four sub-explanations for implosion which includes failing to adapt to generational transitions, succumbing to infighting among members, losing operational control, and accepting amnesties or other exit pathways offered by the government.

Remember, Cronin had stated that Al Qaeda’s structure is highly resilient and unlike government who tries to mirror it, it exists as a multi-tiered, horizontal organization.  Thus an incident such as Al Qaeda imploding on itself is less likely as I will emphasize in the following passages.

Firstly, Al Qaeda, as Cronin suggests, is successful in its ability to adapt new jihadists into its fold. Through sophisticated media and personal initiatives, Al Qaeda has actively recruited second, third, and possibly fourth generations of fighters. In terms of its recruiting efforts, Al Qaeda recruits are often part of network affiliates or even more commonly local peripheral groupings who wear the Al Qaeda branding.

Secondly, Cronin writes about one definite way Al Qaeda will end itself: through infighting and fractionalization. Because of Al Qaeda’s highly decentralized structure, its membership being a truly international network and there are obvious weaknesses that governments can exploit. Al Qaeda at its onset was a terrorist organization of 35,000 radical Muslims from 43 countries and this is complicated by divisions in languages, nationalities, customs, habits, and Islamic practices. Without the common enemy, Al Qaeda’s divisive nature is an obvious threat to its organizational stability.

The third point to implosion, the loss of operational control, which is a likely occurrence due to Al Qaeda decentralized structure. The core is a traditional hierarchy, with an emphasis on command and control whilst the networks and periphery are highly autonomous of the core, which in turn undermines the core’s strategic goals, command authority, and tactical control of the battlefield. In fact, the situation more than often is the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.  For example, Al Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq conducted poor strategies in Iraq that was counter-productive to AQ core goals of winning the hearts and minds of the local Iraqi populace, possibly losing ground to pro-government militias and Baathists groups.

Cronin’s fourth point of implosion relies on parts of the membership opting out of the terrorist organization through governmental means such as a government amnesty. Again because of the decentralized structure of Al Qaeda small groupings and individuals may seek to throw away their guns if they are able to take a government buyout or adopt peace.

The author’s second classification of failure relies on the diminishment of popular support for a terror organization. According to Cronin, there are a few ways this happens which includes diminishing support of a group’s ideology, the group losses contact with the people, and lastly, the public blowback from terrorist activities.

Because of the multitudes of divisions within Al Qaeda, ranging from the decentralized structure to smaller ideological divisions, different parts of the organization may stand for different ideas and these divisions don’t translate universally throughout the core, network, and periphery. As an example, Al Qaeda fighters from Maghreb during the Iraqi Insurgency were considered outsiders from the Iraqi populace: they had different customs, cultural sophistications, and even religious practices that undermine local support for Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Additionally, because of the nature of terrorism, there will always be the dangers of asymmetrical warfare fought within the confines of urban spaces. Because of the utilization of IEDs, indiscriminate fire, forced collusion, and civilian deaths as a result of terrorism, Al Qaeda has lost many opportunities in which it may win the hearts and minds of the population in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Cronin exemplifies the incident in where a small girl dies because of an Al Qaeda assassination attempt on an Egyptian PM, causing public perception of Al Qaeda to go negative.

Repression is Cronin’s penultimate endgame for terrorism, which involves the government’s overwhelming use of force to destroy a terror organization. Much like Brafman’s argument regarding the further decentralization of Starfish organizations when they are met by centralized government, Cronin writes about Al Qaeda’s elusive and effective survival capabilities. Tying with the failure of decapitation strategies, the use of overwhelming conventional military strategies has done little to defang Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s simple solution is decentralized nature, of course, but also because when leaders are defeated or arrested, there is always someone to fill the power-vacuum.  However, what I believe is the most critical failure of this strategy is our democratic handicap that prevents the utilization of Russian and Peruvian suppression techniques. We simply will not use genocide to further our national security goals.

Lastly, Cronin’s last historical endgame for a terrorist organization is the reorientation of the terror organization from terrorism into either an insurgent or criminal organization. Cronin writes that Al Qaeda networks affiliates have already started branching into either the criminal or the insurgent sphere.

Certainly, the criminal factor is largely because as a terrorist group, Al Qaeda cannot utilize legitimate means of financing their activity. Rather, Al Qaeda uses known criminal activities such as narcotics smuggling to fund their operations. Additionally the usage of narco-trafficking also allows Al Qaeda the ability to effectively transport their foreign fighters effectively from one theater of war to another.

The insurgent factor, according to Cronin, is exemplified by the successful capabilities of Al Qaeda insurgency operations in Iraq. Al Qaeda has its roots as an insurgent force when Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam organized Arab volunteer forces in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Army. However, when AQ core was largely on the run (75 percent of the leadership either arrested or eliminated), the United States occupation galvanized many radical Arabs and Muslims to join Al Qaeda in its insurgent activities in Iraq. Disregarding national and ethnic differences, Al Qaeda affiliate Al Qaeda in Iraq utilized fighters from outside of Iraq and largely based their legitimacy in the form of pan-Islam to mobilize this support. However, as I pointed out earlier the Al Qaeda insurgency was a challenger amongst many others insurgent forces (Shia and Sunni Militias, and former regime Baathist insurgents, for example). They also weren’t particularly well liked by native Iraqis.

Whether as a criminal or an insurgent organization, Al Qaeda’s networks and periphery groups have effectively helped the global movement with these organizational transitions. Firstly, the core can now funnel fighters and money through criminal means to support and supply an insurgency. Likewise, veteran insurgent fighters will be able to recruit, train, and field future radical recruits and ultimately, transmit their experiences into creating furthermore Al Qaeda affiliates. If they transition further, splinter organizations may abandon terrorism all together and instead focus on profitable criminal activity or insurgent forces may become less irregular and more conventional, the former being a worsening scenario for the United States, whilst the latter being much more attractive scenario as conventional actors are less slippery and easier to deal with.

Thus in this section, I have shown the ways in which Audrey Cronin imagines as the means that may or may not destroy Al Qaeda. From my readings and experiences, I have effectively evaluated her findings and in conclusion, I largely agree with many of her sentiments.

III. Conclusion

            In conclusion, I believe the ability to end terrorism or at least the organizations that harbor terrorists can be dealt with certain strategies as Cronin as pinpointed in her case studies. The endgame for many terrorist organizations may come from internal fractures or from external government strategies. For the case of Al Qaeda, from this exercise I have found that Al Qaeda is and will continue to be a particularly sophisticated adversary well into the 21st century. The obvious ways in which the United States and other state actors can engage and defeat Al Qaeda is to exploit Al Qaeda’s apparent strength and weakness: its highly decentralized nature.

Ultimately, it is in my opinion, that in order to defeat Al Qaeda, state actors must isolate and utilize Cronin’s findings upon network affiliates and smaller periphery groupings and individuals as a way of moving forward.