The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda: Lessons in Post-September 11 Transnational Terrorism
GCSP Geneva Paper — Research Series n°3
July 2011 View this publication
Al Qaeda rose and fell between 1989 and 2011. Ten years after it conducted its most lethal operation in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, it had mutated into a movement that no longer resembled what it started as. From a hierarchical and centralised group, led by the bicephalous leadership of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Dhawahiri, it had become a regionalised and decentralised organisation with several competing leaders following the death of Bin Laden in May 2011.
The impact of Al Qaeda on global politics is then a long standing affair. Its inception reaches back decades to the contemporary emergence and transformation of a non-state armed group which has sought to create unprecedented regional and international dynamics anchored in a privatised usage of force for a political purpose. Beyond solely triggering domestic or foreign crises, this organisation has aimed, in particular, to adapt, achieve and prosper open-endedly as it pursued such novel strategy. It is in that sense that the metamorphosis of Al Qaeda was planned for all along. From the very beginning, this was an inevitable way for the group to ensure its perennation and set it apart from previous and subsequent Islamist factions.
Whereas traditional Islamist groups began establishing themselves through a combination of religious preaching, political discourse and, most importantly, networks of domestic social services, Al Qaeda’s first embodiment was to serve as a welfare service provider originating in the rentier state Arabian Gulf but one whose action was fundamentally oriented outwardly and militarily with the Jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The ascendancy of this rationale meant not the premorse of a frustrated local ambition but, rather, that domestic opposition to the “near enemy” should be separated strategically from the “far enemy”.
In such a general context of failed Arab and Islamic state-building, Al Qaeda sprang forth as a politico-religious project built upon (i) the relocation of authority, (ii) the circumventing of the state, and (iii) the militaristic empowerment of a non-state actor.
However, the early “successes” of Al Qaeda masked a self-inflicted structural defeat. If initially the rapid proliferation of the five regional representations of Al Qaeda were arguably an added indication of the organisation’s impressive global reach (in Europe, the Nile Valley, the Levant, the Maghreb and the Gulf) and its ability to operate transnationally years after a War on Terror had been launched against it, it gradually emerged that the regional entities differed significantly and their relationship to the mother Al Qaeda was, at best, tenuous.
Whereas in its first fifteen years Al Qaeda had been able to advance globally, cumulatively, and against important odds – for each tactical loss, Al Qaeda came to earn a strategic gain: retreat in Afghanistan but advance in Iraq; confined leadership but proliferating cells; curtailed physical movement but global, transnational impact; additional enemies but expanding recruits – in the period 2006-2011, its leadership had morphed into a meta-commandment ultimately offering only politico-religious and militaro-strategic commentary, not operational direction.
All in all, what can be read as a regionalisation strategy of Al Qaeda ended up confusing the global picture of the organisation. The necessary elasticity the group adopted, partly voluntarily, partly as a way to adapt to the international counter-terrorism campaign, created an ever-growing distance with already independent units.
Osama Bin Laden’s disappearance from Al Qaeda and the War on Terror scene marks therefore the end of the era of the original group set up in Afghanistan. It opens a new phase in which the regional franchises will enact further their existing independence and in so doing endow the conflict with a new configuration by stretching the centre of gravity of transnational terrorism.