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September 2011 - 10 Years of a 'Morphing Threat'

Commentary, 12 September 2011
Since the 9/11 attacks, the group responsible has lost its main leader, decentralised itself but has kept its message alive. Western governments should continue to pursue the omnipresent threat, but it should deal lightly with the message itself - which is adequately being challenged organically by the Arab Spring.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the group responsible has lost its main leader, decentralised itself but has kept its message alive. Western governments should continue to pursue the omnipresent threat, but it should deal lightly with the message itself - which is adequately being challenged organically by the Arab Spring.

By Dr Tobias Feakin for

Osama Bin Laden

The Twenty-First Century security landscape has been dominated by terrorism, as much  as the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West did so in the 1980s. But unlike the 1980s, the security position has been both instigated and shaped by one -non-state actor Al-Qa'ida.  A group which was originally a highly hierarchical organisation comprising of Bin Laden and his close group of associates drawn from the ranks of the Mujahdeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, has now largely morphed and reshaped itself to pose a very different threat to that which it presented in 2001. There now exists disparate clusters of regional terrorist groups, small cells and individuals who look to AL-Qa'ida for both inspiration and at times leadership.

However, the tenth year after the attacks in the US has been significant for Al-Qa'ida counter-terrorism due to two pivotal events.  One of the core objectives of the invasion of Afghanistan has been achieved, when on 2 May, Bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces. This was followed by a series of further successful targets: a month later there were reports of his senior commander Ilyas Kashmiri being killed by a drone attack; on 22 August Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (who led the external operations wing and was reported to be the new Deputy leader of Al-Qa'ida's central leadership) was killed in the Waziristan border region and most recently, on 5 September, Younis al-Mauritani [1] was seized in Quetta along with two other operatives.  There is no doubt that the double-barrelled effort of drone attacks and high tempo Special Forces operations have  'Al-Qa'ida Core' (the term to ascribe Al-Qai'da central leadership) on the ropes. Yet we are still trying to understand how this will impact the focus and shape of Al-Qa'ida in the months and years to come.  Secondly, the Arab Spring has taken Al-Qa'ida by surprise and bypassed its ideology as much as it did most governments around the world: we are all still assessing the impact that this will have upon the terrorist landscape.

A vital element of theircore ideology was to move Al-Qa'ida from being a physical group of individuals geographically constrained, into an evolving ideology which could inspire others to take up arms against the 'West' and strike out globally. Bin Laden realised that this shift to becoming a 'movement' was the key to the success of Al-Qa'ida's long-term goals.

Throughout the 2000s, Al-Qa'ida's global presence and impact have dramatically widened as the organisation transformed into a network of loosely affiliated franchises operating more or less independently of a leadership on the run.  Al-Qa'ida's ideology, long-term strategy, training materials and justification of jihad are freely available on the Internet, enabling any independent cell or group to operate within its framework.  

The 'movement' which Bin Laden inspired has spread to new centres of focus, sprouting new franchises in North and Eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsular. Most prominent of these countries has been in Yemen where the growing influence of the charismatic preacher Anwar al-Awlaki and Al-Qa'ida has caused growing concern to international governments.  Recent attacks from 2009 onwards, in the UK, Europe and the US, have all demonstrated the influence that al-Awlaki and his organisation now have on driving forward the global jihad into the 2010s.  His effectiveness flows from his ability to reach new recruits and network and influence rather than offer the operational 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, influencing the young and disillusioned.  We are beginning to see increasingly the influence that he is having, especially when we look at individuals who have been acting relatively free of a networked group.

Both in the US and UK there have been a number of recent incidents that point to an increase in activity of individuals acting alone but with significant influence from the Al-Qa-ida ideology.  In the US during 2009 and 2010, there have been a number of examples of this pattern such as Nidal Malik Hasan, the US Army Doctor who allegedly shot and killed thirteen people and wounded thirty-one others at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009, Faisal Shahzad who tired to blow up a car bomb in Time Square in May 2010, also informed authorities he'd been influenced by Al-Awlaki.  In the UK we have Roshonara Choudhary who attempted to stab an Member of Parliament, Steven Timms in 2010, who had said she was radicalised by Al-Awlaki's sermons online. In addition, Rajib Karim, who was convicted of attempting to blow up British Airways aircraft, was also in touch with Al-Awlaki via email.

In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the US struggled to get to grips with the fact that they were vulnerable to external terrorist groups who could train, operationally plan, and inflict such serious damage on the US homeland.  Yet in recent years, the US has also been grappling with a danger which had morphed to the threat of US citizen's being radicalised by the Al-Qa'ida narrative and conducting attacks on fellow US citizen's, something the UK had to confront during the 2000s, especially in the aftermath of its own large scale terrorist incident in 2005.[2]

It means that the US is having to not only think about how it practically deals with such an internal threat in a way which does not inflame the situation, but also how it defines and projects itself as a global power in this new decade. Following the Arab Spring, that imperative to project an new form of power is urgent and needs to be far removed from the 'War on Terrorism'.  The Arab Spring has the potential to marginalise Al-Qa'ida so far that it becomes irrelevant, and US diplomatic assistance will be important in assisting these new democracies take shape and serve the people who demanded them.  It is certain that Al-Qa'ida will be watching closely to capitalise on mistakes made and will bide their time ready to fill any vacuum that appears.


[1] Al-Mauritani was a senior figure in the network's external operations wing and focused on hitting economically important targets in America, Europe and Australia.

[2] The US has in the past had to cope with attacks from the Blackpanther movement in the 1960s and individuals such as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma Bomber, in the 1990s, but not a seemingly frequent flow of radicalised individuals wanting to cause mass casualty attacks.


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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