When Osama bin Laden’s body was buried at sea, many observers believed an era in transnational terrorism was buried with him. In truth, the era of transnational terrorism reached its pinnacle in the atrocities of September 11 a full decade ago. Over the last 10 years, the structure of terrorist groups has evolved, in part because of American and allied policies, and in part because new technologies have opened up a new model of terrorism. Gone are the days of a centralized, hierarchical international terrorist movement with Al Qaeda clearly in the lead. That system has been replaced by a much more diffuse network of regional terrorist groups and individual actors connected to terrorist leaders only by the Internet.
The breakdown of the hierarchical system of terror
When bin Laden organized Al Qaeda in the late 1980s, he envisioned the group as an army of the faithful, which he could train and mobilize to fight kuffar, or nonbelievers, throughout Muslim lands. He financed training camps in tribal Pakistan, developed a system of recruitment for would-be suicide bombers, and planned complex operations, which required adherence to a strict chain of command. The attacks on the Twin Towers in New York represented the pinnacle of organized, hierarchical terrorism and would have been impossible to execute without Al Qaeda’s deep pockets and operational expertise.
Since that day the United States has eliminated Al Qaeda’s operational safe haven in Afghanistan and decimated its core leadership. A combination of raids, police stings, and the increased use of drone strikes under President Barack Obama have led to the capture or killing of many of Al Qaeda’s mid- to senior-level leaders, most notably bin Laden, and most recently Atuyah Abd al Rahman, a key figure in the organization’s operations.
The death of Al Qaeda’s core leadership and its loss of a safe haven in Afghanistan puts the organization close to strategic defeat, according to White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan. While Brennan’s comments on Al Qaeda’s imminent demise are likely overly optimistic, the organization is clearly weaker than it was a decade ago and has become increasingly reliant on a variety of ideologically sympathetic affiliates in Yemen, Algeria, and Iraq who have adopted the Al Qaeda name brand.
While these affiliates, most notably the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, maintain close ties to bin Laden’s Pakistan-based core and adhere to its central message, these organizations operate independently of Al Qaeda Central and do not generally coordinate with one another. Further, the new leadership of Ayman al Zawahiri, an extremely divisive figure in the jihadist community, likely means Al Qaeda Central will have a more difficult time controlling operatives and affiliates around the world. The increasingly confederate nature of Al Qaeda has broken down the hierarchical system bin Laden built in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Lower barriers of access to terrorism
Al Qaeda has adapted to the increasing difficulty of maintaining a physical organization in an identifiable safe haven such as Afghanistan by relying on the Internet and public media to spread its ideology and give individuals the tools to become terrorists. Just as Twitter and blogs made everyone a potential journalist, Al Qaeda and its affiliates launched a variety of media outlets and websites with the hope of making everyone a potential terrorist.
Publications such as AQAP’s English-language magazine Inspire feature interviews with prominent leaders and how-to articles such as “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s media production house As Sahab produces “documentary-quality films, iPod files and cellphone video” for distribution across terrorist-sympathetic message boards and blogs.
The effect of this propaganda boom and the proliferation of easily attainable bomb-making instructions has been a further decentralization of international terrorism. While members of terrorist cells still actively recruit radicals to carry out attacks, such as the failed Times Square bomb plot last year, terrorism has become increasingly reliant on volunteers who are inspired by Al Qaeda’s ideology.
One example is Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people in 2009 and was inspired by AQAP’s Anwar al Awlaki. Hasan regularly emailed Awlaki for spiritual guidance and justification in the lead-up to the attack.
To an extent, the increasing decentralization of terrorism represents a loss in Al Qaeda’s operational capabilities. This means that they are less likely to pull off another expensive and complex attack like 9/11. But the decentralization of terrorism also poses a variety of new threats.
For one, it makes it significantly harder for the intelligence community to track would-be terrorists and thwart their efforts, which is why the only successful attacks in the United States since 9/11 have been gunmen acting alone inspired by the Al Qaeda ideology.
Al Qaeda’s ability to communicate and spread its ideology to a constituency of radicals is likely its most powerful remaining tool since 9/11, and now that a potential terrorist can Google an inspirational sermon and bomb-making instructions instead of needing to fly to a training camp in Kandahar, this tool has become even more potent.
The near enemy vs. the far enemy
One of the truly unique and dangerous elements of Al Qaeda’s brand of terrorism is its transnational nature. Bin Laden and many of his followers derided the governments of most Muslim-majority nations, in particular Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as apostates. Yet instead of targeting these governments, often referred to as the “near enemy,” Al Qaeda believed that destroying their U.S. and Western allies, the “far enemy,” would more effectively lead to the downfall of apostate Arab regimes. The group’s transnational aims and focus on the United States made it unique among terrorist organizations and brought jihadist terrorism to American soil.
Over the last decade, the United States has demonstrated the enormous costs associated with making it a target. When coupled with the death of bin Laden, the most effective advocate for this strategy, the near enemy/far enemy balance has shifted decidedly in favor of the near enemy. Al Qaeda affiliates, with the possible exception of AQAP, seem much more concerned about attacking domestic targets as opposed to spending their resources on a much more difficult attack on the other side of the planet.
Additionally, Al Qaeda’s membership now frequently loses recruits to organizations such as the Afghan Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, or Lashkar-e-Taiba who have purely national and not transnational aspirations. These organizations may be similar to Al Qaeda in that they use violence to kill civilians and seek to establish a conservative Islamist caliphate, but their goals only apply to the country they operate in.
Of the 48 groups designated by the Department of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, Al Qaeda is the only group left with truly global operations and aspirations. The remaining groups, such as the Kurdish PKK, the Colombian FARC, the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, and the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo have a distinctly national or semiregional focus. Many of these groups frequently target American citizens, soldiers, and interests in their countries, but they either do not possess the capabilities or desire to launch an attack on U.S. or European soil.
What do these changes mean for terrorism in America today?
Since 9/11 we have braced for the possibility of another catastrophic attack on U.S. soil and pursued policies that have thankfully prevented such an attack from happening again. But largely because of our success in decapitating and dismantling terrorist networks and organizations, the landscape of terrorism looks very different than it did 10 years ago. Today we are less likely to face a large, complex attack from an enemy organization abroad such as Al Qaeda. But we remain vulnerable to a smaller, less traceable attack from an individual or small group of individuals here in the United States.
Incidents such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, or the Oslo attacks earlier this year are likely to become the dominant strain of terrorism entering the next decade after 9/11. While many would-be terrorists are inspired by the ideology of Al Qaeda and Anwar al Awlaki, as we have seen, lone-wolf terrorists can draw their inspiration from antigovernment or xenophobic ideologies as well.
Unfortunately, we have scaled back our efforts to combat the variety of small domestic threats we face. The face and nature of terrorism looks starkly different than it did on September 11, 2001, and our counterterrorism strategy will need to evolve along with the threat if we want to prevent death by a “thousand cuts.”
Ken Sofer is the Special Assistant for National Security at American Progress.