Why al-Qaida 4.0 is the Deadliest- and the Weakest

In October of 2008, The New America Foundation and the NYU Center on Law and Security held a symposium titled “al-Qaida 3.0” at the Capitol in Washington D.C. Amongst the security experts was Peter Bergen, whose presence in the event’s first panel included his brief forecast of al-Qaida’s roadmap:

I think the long-term prognosis for al-Qaida is that I think it’s conceivable we’ll have an al-Qaida 4.0 in 2012, but I think we won’t have one in 2016.

Bergen pointed out that al-Qaida’s murder of Muslims, loss of support amongst the Islamist public, lack of a positive vision, and the inability to turn al-Qaida into a a legitimate political movement. The hopes were high and in concurrence in 2008 that the operational capacity of the terrorist network had been significantly diminished, after two taxing wars in the Middle East, the Surge, implementation of COIN operations, and targeted killing of keystone leaders.

But since 2008, the United States and its allies have faced a Qaida more adept to change, despite significant blows to its leadership personnel. Terror and violence has spiked this year due to the expansion of Qaida-like operations. As the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya wound down with the rescuing of the hostages from al-Shabaab militants, what remains is the tragic image of an attack that has stunned the global community, but is not all uncommon. The attack bears significant resemblance to many others in that a small band of militants, targeting a high-traffic economic center, took a destructive toll upon innocents, turning the attack into a multi-day standoff rather than a single targeted instance.

The attack in Kenya is an instance of what Bruce Riedel described for himself as “al-Qaida 3.0”:

Like any CEO of a multinational company, Zawahiri is in regular communication with al-Qaida’s half dozen regional franchises… What is new is the rapid growth of these franchises—associated cells and sympathetic movements from Algeria to Aden. Now the revolutions [Arab Spring] have all but failed, creating more chaos than constitutions, and Twitter is not mobilizing reform. The pandemonium in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, are like a hothouse for al Qaida, which is thriving just as it has in Somalia and Afghanistan.

But the term Riedel has coined has come into its own meaning, due to the patterns emerging from al-Qaida attacks and the decisions made by al-Qaida chief Ayman Zawahiri, who the State Department says has directed the group’s operations from even before the US DEVGRU operation that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
Al-Qaida is reaching its operational tipping point, but it does seem to be progressing beyond the generation 3.0 described back in 2008. What we are seeing now is al-Qaida 4.0: a horizontal network of independently operated militant franchises rather than a distinct chain of command. And while the weak structure of the group might mark us a tactical achievement in the destruction of core Qaida’s network, this new decentralized al-Qaida has proved it will be its most dangerous, in its ability to conduct operations on a much more global level.

Outsourcing: For the Silicon Valley and the Tirah Valley

In the same 2009 State Department report that insisted on Zawahiri’s consolidation of power as al-Qaida’s operational commander, the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism did admit a change in al-Qaida capacity:

Terrorists consider information operations a principal part of their effort. Their use of the Internet for propaganda, recruiting, fundraising and, increasingly, training, has made the Internet a “virtual safe haven.” That said, bin Laden and Zawahiri appeared to be in the position of responding to events rather than driving them, particularly in the latter half of 2008. Several signs that core al-Qaida has been giving more blessings and advice rather than operational support to its franchises have developed since Zawahiri’s full assumption as the top commander of the organization.

Groups like al-Shabaab, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham all claim loose or direct association with core al-Qaida. It’s even common for more outlier individuals in the domestic situations to claim a link in hope of cueing in followers. The regional groups have assumed autocracy in their methods of recruitment, strategy, and practice- so much autocracy, in fact, that once-AQIM commander Mohktar Belmohktar was known to often be at odds with core-Qaida directives. The case of Belmohktar shows an expectation on core Qaeda’s part to have micromanagement abilities and oversight of satellite groups. This distaste of instruction is what led Belmokhtar to resign his post as the al-Qaida leader in North Africa and form his own band of jihadists, who successfully carried out the assault on the In Amenas Oil refinery in Algeria earlier in 2013.

Thus, local branches of al-Qaida must declare their intent not just with ideology but with action. The independence and isolation of al-Shabaab from core Qaida due to extensive telecommunications monitoring on both ends renders the difficult task of sending a message. This challenge has led to subtle workarounds, such as releasing videos to the public with hidden codes, meaning, and body language signals. It has also led to more dubious- and deadly- methods. The Westgate Mall attack, for instance, was just as much an attack on a symbol of Westernism as it was a way to let operatives around the world that al-Shabaab’s stake in the area was still maintained, despite ouch-back efforts by West African authorities.

Hence another signature of al-Qaida 4.0 is the change of funding policy. As the group’s liquid assets are increasingly harder to move without setting off alarms, more international groups are displaying al-Qaida branch affiliation without a direct source of income from core Qaida. Again, this furthers the independence of these new-wave groups of mujahideen, who must raise funds through local extortion, racketeering, ransom, and plain-old robberies, much like any organized crime in America. Franchises who conduct successful operations will thus receive what money and support there is from Qaida leadership, often creating strife between groups.

AQIM militants scope out terrain in Algeria. Source: Ali Agha Muhammad (@ALIUF)/Twitter
AQIM militants scope out terrain in Algeria.
Source: Ali Agha Muhammad (@ALIUF)/Twitter

Unfortunately for the organized elements of al-Qaida, the absence of the central leadership bin Laden wished for has created a vacuum in ideology and cooperation between militia groups. Jabhat al-Nusra, despite being the first recorded Qaida element in Syria by the international authorities, has come at odds withanother group with Qaida affiliation, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS, former elements of ISIL). ISIS has long waged jihad against Shia and Westerners in Iraq, receiving plenty of core Qaida’s material support in the past decade. Their standing with the leadership is older and more active than that of Jabhat al-Nusra, creating tension that only escalated when ISIS and al-Nusra militias recently exchanged fire.

This increasing horizontal structure begs the hypothesis that al-Qaida as an organization is weakening, and that ideological Qaida remains to be the most effective use of the group. Al-Qaida 4.0 is about consolidation and propagation: the reshuffling of a deck that gets smaller and smaller after each hand is played. And while the destruction of Qaida operational capability and networking might be a considerable achievement in the past decade, al-Qaida 4.0 may remain to be seen as the deadliest version of them all.

The Loaded Deck

Under Zawahiri, core Qaida has shifted from a mission of material support to an increased investment in propaganda and information presence. In a September 2013 directive titled “General Guidelines for Jihad,” Zawahiri begins in saying that

“It is not a hidden secret that our work in this stage has two aspects: The first is military and the second propagational.”

Propogational: Zawahiri dedicates most of the document to this goal rather than military instruction, focusing on the assumed ability of Qaida operatives to spread “awareness amongst the general public so as to mobilize it.” The propagational aspect of modern Qaida operations brings to mind the organization’s investment in Omar Hammami, the American “rapping jihadist,” or Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni cleric who spent more time updating inspirational YouTube and social webpages than fighting Western “Crusaders”. Al-Alwaki successfully inspired jihad at a global capacity that al-Qaida had not yet enjoyed, deeming him a substantial enough threat that he topped US kill lists until his death in a Predator strike in 2011. But in his legacy, he had inspired Nidal Hasan to kill 13 people in the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, and is known to have inspired multiple would-be terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies.

And in Kenya, the Westgate Mall served several objectives for al-Shabaab. The attack could be considered a reprisal for Kenyan, Somalian, and Ethiopian military campaigns to crackdown on Shabaab targets and camps in East Africa. It could also serve as a message to Qaida leadership that al-Shabaab is still a player in East Africa, waging a regional jihad that deserves support from core Qaida. And the logistics of the mall attack certainly proved some of the group’s ideology, with the attackers targeting non-Muslims as victims and hostages as opposed to a takfiri justified killing of Muslims. Al-Shabaab has reached global recognition as a terror organization, with governments, people and Qaida leadership. States and citizens around the world now are faced with an impossible choice: to either spend millions of dollars heightening security at every single mall, or to simply maintain current security procedures at the risk of another attack.

This predicament echoes a much-overlooked mission of al-Qaida, the economic jihad against Western economies and consumers. This is a concept constantly repeated in Usama bin Laden’s lectures, as well as al-Awaki’s. Al-Qaida doesn’t just want to kill Westerners and establish the Caliphate (Islamic State). Terror operatives understand geopolitical and economic patterns and plan attacks accordingly. Elections, markets, and lives can be ruined at the the price of a single bomb. Al-Qaida insists that the American economy is fragile, and that the jihad is all it needs to totally collapse the state; an strategy similar to one that the mujahideen insisted in 1980s Afghanistan against the crumbling Soviet empire.

Even bin Laden insisted that the exploitation of America’s weak economy, the wide dispersion of our armed forces, and the polity’s dedication to a consumer culture, would be key to taking down the West. There doesn’t seem to be any change to this imperative under Zawahiri. Since its inception, al-Qaida has made a distinction from the Far Enemy and the Near enemy, with the far enemy being that of the United States and its allies and the near enemy being that of the regional Middle Eastern governments that either seek or receive aid and alliance with the US or Israel. There seems to be no discrepancies from that mission today. But as stated in his General Rules for Jihad, Zawahiri did mention that for al-Qaida to earn respect from its regional hosts, like the Pakistani tribal region, they must discern the killing of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims and “crusaders”. While the thirst for violence remains, al-Qaida is making active changes to ensure its ability to survive this many hits to its organization and functional capacity.

What we can learn from the terror group’s upgrade is the trade craft used. Obviously American signals intelligence has come through plenty of times, and is an incredible obstacle for Qaida operatives seeking orders or information. But we can’t afford to put security guards in every mall- we can’t delay every passport and visa application- and we can’t monitor every signal we receive- without incurring incredible costs to the United States purse or national identity. Al-Qaida is generally weak- while the groups that fights in its name may be boosting their own glory and reputation, the core Qaida has seen its last days as the operational center of control. What remains is the ideals and founding principles of al-Qaida, and their propagational abilities.

Will al-Qaida be able to convert the movement into a regionally recognized political entity, such as Hamas or Hizbollah? Probably not. But a new generation of bomb technicians, militants, and propagandists have entered the scene, each with differing allegiances to a single group. We’ll have to watch and learn whether those differences further separate al-Qaida’s factions, or create a sense of pride and leadership in the name. Until then, our trust lies in our ability to successfully pick on each group’s individual vision, tactics, and actions, as they continue to define themselves in the new global jihad.

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