Osama bin Laden may be dead but the global jihad network is still up and running. The last few years have seen the terrorism research community in the US divided on the question of whether al-Qaeda is still a dangerous and active organisation, capable of executing major attacks or whether it’s obsolete and no longer capable of executing even minor attacks.
One part of the group points out that in the past few years, al-Qaeda has failed to generate major attacks, let alone attacks as monstrous as 9/11.
They add that it was transformed from an organisation with a clear command and control structure into an informal network based on cells and local networks, which relies on inspiring radical elements and homegrown terrorism in the Muslim and western worlds.
These local networks and radical Islamist individuals execute self-initiated attacks inspired by al-Qaeda.
The seconds group of scholars emphasise that it’s too early to eulogise this dangerous organisation since despite its forced change of modi operandi due to operational constraints, the organisation is still capable of carrying out complex and dangerous terrorist attacks.
Truth be told, both groups have merit. While al-Qaeda promoted and advanced the idea of ‘global jihad’, it has also generated local ideological imitators throughout Arab and Muslim States and in Muslim communities in the West.
Local jihadist terrorist organisations allied themselves with al-Qaeda and defined themselves as its branches in their local arena, be it AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) located in Yemen, AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), al-Qaeda in Iraq etc.
Other local jihadist organisations affiliated themselves to the al-Qaeda model and its leaders as a symbol, being inspired by — but not being directed by — al-Qaeda. At the same time, the third circle of the global jihadist network included ‘homegrown terrorists’ — incited and agitated Muslim youth, who formed local independent networks or acted as ‘lone wolves’, intensified and bolstered these phenomena.
The global jihad phenomenon is, therefore, a complex worldwide network. Their symbol — the man at whom all the operatives looked for inspiration, was eliminated on May 2, but the network’s other components are still operational and their motivation for reprisal attacks even increased.
The spontaneous festivities in the US only added fuel to the fire. Even President Barack Obama’s soothing words on the war not being waged against the Muslim world but against the members of al-Qaeda are unlikely to satisfy the global terrorist network’s operatives or many of their supporters in the Muslim world.
Therefore, it should be taken into account that in a short time frame incited extremist individuals might attempt to attack American symbols — embassies, American corporations and tourists in Muslim countries.
At the same time self-initiated homegrown terrorists and local networks in western countries may conduct terrorist attacks in crowded areas, tourist attractions and public transportation. Al-Qaeda’s proxy organisations will attempt to conduct in the mid-term better planned and more lethal attacks against American targets around the world — against the air transportation to and inside the US, and against targets in the US.
The hardcore of al-Qaeda, under bin Laden’s successor, will attempt to avenge the killing of their leader by executing a mega-attack on the the scale of 9/11.
The motivation of al-Qaeda to conduct such an attack is now at its peak. Al-Qaeda probably took into consideration that its leader might be killed by its enemies and prepared a contingency operational plan for a mega-terrorist attack that could now be executed.
But in recent years, al-Qaeda leaders threatened time and again to conduct such attacks against the US and other western countries. So far they haven’t managed to repeat a 9/11. The question, therefore, remains unanswered — does al-Qaeda have the operational capability needed to conduct a mega-terrorist attack, which would materialise its motivation for revenge?
Only time will tell.
(Boaz Ganor is founder and executive director, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, The Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya, Israel. The views expressed by the author are personal)