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Chapter Two: Al-Qa'ida's New Beginning?

Commentary, 29 June 2011
Americas, Terrorism
The 'information-space' is always vital for Al-Qa'ida's operational effectiveness. Its ability to make swift statements in the media and through the internet demonstrates the terror-network's potency and ability to reach a mass audience. Yet, since Bin Laden's death, we have seen the US dominate the media with stories about both the man and the organisation, demystifying both.

The 'information-space' is always vital for Al-Qa'ida's operational effectiveness. Its ability to make swift statements in the media and through the internet demonstrates the terror-network's potency and ability to reach a mass audience.  Yet, since Bin Laden's death, we have seen the US dominate the media with stories about both the man and the organisation, demystifying both.

By Dr Tobias Feakin, Senior Research Fellow / Director, National Security and Resilience, RUSI

Ayman al-Zawahiri


The long awaited statement that Ayman al-Zawahiri has assumed control of Al-Qa'ida (AQ) was finally made in a video from the new leader himself.  Realistically it was only a matter of time before this statement was made, yet the lapse between Bin Laden's death and the announcement of his replacement has been somewhat surprising and could perhaps point towards a slowing of AQ's ability to dominate the terrorist 'information' battle-space.  Will AQ remain a potent force in the years to come or are they on a terminal downward trajectory?

The aftermath of Bin Laden's death has led us directly into what will be a key element of the new battle front for at least the early part of this coming decade, one which is based on dominating the 'information space'. This will entail taking control of the narrative that pervades in the aftermath of Bin Laden's death, ensuring - amongst other things -  that the symbolism of his death itself is one which becomes synonymous with the demise of AQ rather than the rise of a hugely powerful Martyr ready to inspire a new wave of potential terrorists. 

Indeed, there are signs of success in this regard. Bin Laden's death came as a surprise to the world, including the Pakistani Government who had been kept in the dark about the highly secretive operation conducted in the dark of night.  This surprise stretches as far, one imagines, as al-Zawahiri himself, Bin Laden's long serving number two and key ideologue for AQ.  The killing, no doubt, caused those few remaining core leaders of Al-Qa'ida to disperse and relocate their hiding spots in order to evade any further strikes against them. 

During the intervening period, the US leadership has dominated the media narrative of the raid: from controlling the account of those who conducted it, the nature of the killing, the geopolitical implications of the death, along with leakages of background pictures and information about Bin Laden himself.  The 'information space' has been owned by the US, and seemingly they have learnt the harsh lessons from the early to mid-2000s where President Bush made statements which were quickly leapt upon and used by his adversaries to further their cause.[1]

Debunking the Mystique of Bin Laden

The actual role that Bin Laden was playing at the time of his death - and how central (or peripheral) he was in relation to AQ's current operational activities -may be less clear than Washington implies. Moreover the events of 2011 do not yet provide definitive evidence of the network's decline or of its inability to re-emerge in a new or adapted form.   What we know of AQ philosophy is that it is not based on short term goals and is not reliant upon one figurehead for its continuation as a force.  Indeed al-Zawahiri referred repeatedly to the long-term goals of AQ in his 30 minute address on 16 June, attempting to demonstrate the longevity of their aims and that this death was not a terminal setback to these.

The US has been highly adept in controlling the information space, be it re-building Bin Laden's role as an operational commander reinforcing the necessity of the operation, to then ridiculing him with stories of muffled lines on tape, and videos of him looking old, tired and self-obsessed watching news reports of himself on TV secluded from the outside world.  The constant drip feed of selected intelligence gained from computers seized at his hideout, has even gone as far as stories emerging of pornography being found on the hard drives of his computers.  The image of Bin Laden as the untouchable, mythic figurehead has transitioned to one of an individual with the same flaws as many human beings.  Dispelling the myth and mystique surrounding Bin Laden is a vital step in rebalancing the asymmetry that AQ has enjoyed in the last ten years and in trying to stem the influence that he could potentially have in the future.

By contrast, AQ has been somewhat slower to react to his death in the media.  It would be expected by an organisation that has always been quick to utilise modern media and technology to distribute its propaganda to rapidly project his image as a martyr, and exploit the symbolism of his death.  However, after his death a statement was slow to appear, finally being released on the 6 May, four days after his death.  On the 6 June however, we saw the beginning of a new drive to communicate AQ's intent with al-Zawahiri's public statement on Jihadist websites stating that Bin Laden will continue to terrify the US from beyond the grave, further demonstrated ten days later with his announcement that he was assuming control of AQ.  He mentioned repeatedly Yemen, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia during his announcement, highlighting his organisations presence in those countries: no coincidence that all these countries are either part of the Arab spring or central countries in AQs battle against the West.  Not long after his statement Somalia's al-Shabhab reconfirmed their support to the new leadership of AQ, and declared to al-Zawahiri that they 'await your instructions'.  But to what extend should we still fear AQ and does al-Zawahiri represent a potent new beginning for the organisation?

Potent Force for the Future or Force in Terminal Decline?

There is a growing confidence from Washington that they have AQ both on the run and in decline.  AQ core is decimated, with estimates that less than twenty of its core leaders are still surviving on the Af-Pak border regions.  One of Bin Laden's key senior operatives, Ilyas Kashmiri is believed to have been killed in a drone attack shortly after Bin Laden's death, and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the key operationally planner behind the East Africa US embassy bombings in the late 1990s was killed on 7 June when he stumbled into an enemy checkpoint in Mogadishu.  Mohammed was a key link to AQ core in Pakistan and also co-ordinated with Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), so his loss as an intermediary as well as operational planner is hard to underestimate.  It appears that these long standing members of AQs core have slowly been eliminated leading the US to feel increasingly confident in their battle against the organisation.

Part of AQs philosophy was to spread the word of a global jihad and to encourage strategic alliances with other terrorist organisations who take on the franchise of the AQ brand.  These groups have become increasingly a core concern for security forces in the West, perhaps the most prominent of these groups is AQAP. Recent attacks from 2009 onwards in the UK, Europe and the US have all demonstrated the influence that Anwar al-Awlaki and his group now have on driving forward the global jihad into the 2010s.

A character that we are all fast coming to know through his regular appearances on TV, his defining features in understanding the new shape of AQ are through his ability to exploit the world wide web with his sermons and writings. And his fluency in Arabic and English have assisted him in building a following among young Muslims in the UK and US.  His effectiveness flows from his ability to reach new recruits and network and influence rather than offer the kind of training that Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri previously provided.  Through the Inspire magazine we see a piece of propaganda which is well produced, and directs itself at the 'Jihadi cool' idea, which influences the young and disillusioned. 

Al-Awlaki's ability to communicate and connect with disaffected youth is not something that we are sure al-Zawahiri will be able to offer.  He is not known as a well-liked figure within AQ, and is often perceived as an individual with little charisma who writes very well but has difficulty rallying popular support.

Meanwhile the other franchises of AQ have their own problems to deal with.  AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have increasingly turned to kidnapping and extortion to gain finances for its dwindling economic position and al-Shabhab is more focused on gaining control of Somalia and fighting its own battles there.  However, should the situation in Somalia change in its favour and it begins to look outwardly for targets in the West, which we cannot discount; it would become a more prominent concern.

The ultimate test for both the US and al-Zawahiri will be the manner in which they can affect the mid-term outcome of the Arab Spring.  Clearly the relatively peaceful uprisings that spread across North Africa and the Middle East during the first part of the year caught both AQ and Western governments by surprise and also bypassed AQ's ideology.  The Arab Spring has the potential to marginalise AQ so much so that it will become irrelevant in the Muslim world, but conversely should the new regimes in these countries not capitalise on their popular support, it is certain that AQ will be waiting in the wings to take advantage.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not nessecarily reflect those of RUSI.



[1] For example, Bush's declaration of victory on board USS Lincoln after initial operations in Iraq in 2003, or the 'War on Terrorism' statements made in early 2000s.


Dr Tobias Feakin
Senior Associate Fellow

Dr Tobias Feakin is Australia's inaugural Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. He leads Australia's whole of government international... read more

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