By Brigitte L. Nacos
First, in May, Al Qaeda’s founder and boss Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals in his hide-out in Pakistan. Then, a U.S. drone strike ended the lives of one of the most notorious Al-Qaeda propagandist and recruiter, Anwar al-Awlaki and his side-kick Samir Khan, in Yemen. Finally, last week, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, mastermind of state terror and sponsor of non-state terrorism, was brutally killed by his own people who couldn’t have prevailed, however, without support from NATO, including an important role of the U.S. and its remotely controlled spy drones. Add to this the demise of many leading and rank-and-file members of Al Qaeda and allied organizations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq.
Do these unprecedented events signal a weakening or the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda Central and its real and virtual affiliates around the globe?
To discuss and try to answer this question, it is best to begin with bin Laden’s demise and its likely effects on Al Qaeda Central. The decapitation of a terrorist group by either the death or arrest of its leader(s) does not necessarily mean the organization’s end. The actions of the left-extremist Red Army Faction (RAF) became more numerous, more spectacular, and more lethal after the RAF founders Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader had been caught and imprisoned. In other cases, decapitation leads to temporary decline. This happened, after Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), was captured by Turkish authorities and received the death penalty, which was later changed to life imprisonment. But eventually, the PKK resumed its violence in various parts of Turkey. The most recent attacks have come at a time, when the Turkish government is trying to find a political solution to the "Kurdish problem." Terrorism by the Basque separatist group ETA in Spain subsided after several of its leaders were caught thanks to cooperation between Spain and France. Yet, it is far from clear whether ETA’s recent promise to end terrorist actions will be kept beyond the usual period of reorganization.
To be sure, Al Qaeda is a unique organizational creature. There is no doubt that Al Qaeda Central’s leadership has been weakened and is limited in masterminding terrorist operations. . But, as Peter Neumann, Ryan Evans and Raffaello Pantucci write in the latest issue of the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Al Qaeda’s middle managers are alive and well as they retain a close relationship with Al Qaeda Central and with new recruits and established foot soldiers in various parts of the world.
As the authors put it, these middle managers are “not permanently based in the tribal areas but have returned to their home countries or other non-battlefront states, sometimes traveling back and forth, building support networks and raising money for the global jihad.” Most troubling is that unlike Al Qaeda Central’s top echelon these middle-managers are much harder to identify and target than the limited number of members in Al Qaeda’s leadership strata.
As for Al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American, he had elevated himself into a leadership role that rivaled Al Qaeda’s top-strata in terms of the global effectiveness of his propaganda and recruitment campaigns. While Awlaki and Khan left a huge publicity gap for the time being, middle managers remain also in Yemen (for example Jamal Al-Badawi and Fahd Al-Quso, who were instrumental in planning the deadly bombing of the USS Cole in 2000) and the neighborhood.
Finally, the demise of Gadhafi ended relationships that the Libyan dictator had with Islamist terror groups in Southeast Asia, first of all the Abu Sayyaf and similar groups in the Southern part of the Philippines that also have ties to Al Qaeda. While Gadhafi was best known for his support for the PLO, other Palestinian organizations, the IRA, and other groups in the Middle East and Europe, he cultivated ties to and supported Islamist groups in Southeast Asia.
All in all, yes, terrorists took particularly hard hits in the last half year or so. But, no, all of this does not mean the end of this sort of terrorism.