December 20, 2007

Al Qaeda in 2008: The Struggle for Relevance

On Dec. 16, al Qaeda's As-Sahab media branch released a 97-minute video message from al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the message, titled "A Review of Events," al-Zawahiri readdressed a number of his favorite topics at length.

This video appeared just two days after As-Sahab released a 20-minute al-Zawahiri message titled "Annapolis -- The Treason." In that message, al-Zawahiri speaks on audio tape while a still photograph of him is displayed over a montage of photos from the peace conference in Annapolis, Md. As the title implies, al-Zawahiri criticizes the conference.

After having been subjected to two hours of al-Zawahiri opinions in just two days, we cannot help but wonder whether anyone else is listening to this guy -- and, if so, why? This question is particularly appropriate now, as we come to the time of the year when we traditionally prepare our annual forecast on al Qaeda. As we look ahead to 2008, the core al Qaeda leadership clearly is struggling to remain relevant in the ideological realm, a daunting task for an organization that has been rendered geopolitically and strategically impotent on the physical battlefield.


The theme of our 2007 al Qaeda forecast was the continuation of the metamorphosis of al Qaeda from a smaller core group of professional operatives into an operational model that encourages independent "grassroots" jihadists to conduct attacks, or into a model in which al Qaeda provides the operational commanders who organize grassroots cells. We referred to this shift as devolution because it signified a return to al Qaeda's pre-9/11 model.

We noted that the shift gave al Qaeda "the movement" a broader geographic and operational reach than al Qaeda "the group," but we also said that this larger, dispersed group of actors lacked the operational depth and expertise of the core group and its well-trained terrorist cadre.

Iraq's Contribution

Events in Iraq likely will have a significant impact on the global jihadist movement in the coming year. Since the death of al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq's operational ability steadily has declined. Furthermore, the organization appears to be losing its support among the Iraqi Sunnis and apparently has had problems getting foreign fighters into the country as of late. This could indicate that there will soon be an exodus of jihadists from the country. These jihadists, who have been winnowed and hardened by their combat against the U.S. military, might find the pastures greener in the countries they enter after leaving Iraq. Like the mujahideen who left Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, they could go on to pose a real threat elsewhere.

Additionally, since 2003 Iraq has been a veritable jihadist magnet, drawing jihadists from all over the world. If there is no possibility of seeking "martyrdom" in Iraq, these men (and a few women) will have to find another place to embrace their doom. The coalition's list of foreign jihadists killed in Iraq shows that most of the fighters have come to the country from places such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco, but jihadists also have come from many other countries, including the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. Jihadists in these places might opt to follow the example of the July 2005 London bombers and martyr themselves in their countries of residence.

The Year Ahead

Given the relative ease of getting an operative into the United States, the sheer number of soft targets across the vast country and the simplicity of conducting an attack, we remain surprised that no jihadist attack occurred on U.S. soil in 2007. However, we continue to believe that the United States, as well as Europe, remains vulnerable to tactical-level jihadist strikes -- though we do not believe that the jihadists have the capability to launch a strategically significant attack, even if they were to employ chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

Jihadists have shown a historical fixation on using toxins and poisons. As Stratfor repeatedly has pointed out, however, chemical and biological weapons are expensive to produce, difficult to use and largely ineffective in real-world applications. Radiological weapons (dirty bombs) also are far less effective than many people have been led to believe. In fact, history clearly has demonstrated that explosives are far cheaper, easier to use and more effective at killing people than these more exotic weapons. The failure by jihadists in Iraq to use chlorine effectively in their attacks has more recently underscored the problems associated with the use of improvised chemical weapons -- the bombs killed far more people than the chlorine they were meant to disperse as a mass casualty weapon.

Al-Zawahiri's messages over the past year clearly have reflected the pressure that the group is feeling. The repeated messages referencing Iraq and the need for unity among the jihadists there show that al-Zawahiri believes the momentum has shifted in Iraq and things are not going well for al Qaeda there. Tactically, al Qaeda's Iraqi node still is killing people, but strategically the group's hopes of establishing a caliphate there under the mantle of the Islamic State of Iraq have all but disappeared. These dashed hopes have caused the group to lash out against former allies, which has worsened al Qaeda's position.

It also is clear that al Qaeda is feeling the weight of the ideological war against it -- waged largely by Muslims. Al-Zawahiri repeatedly has lamented specific fatwas by Saudi clerics declaring that the jihad in Iraq is not obligatory and forbidding young Muslims from going to Iraq. In a message broadcast in July, al-Zawahiri said, "I would like to remind everyone that the most dangerous weapons in the Saudi-American system are not buying of loyalties, spying on behalf of the Americans or providing facilities to them. No, the most dangerous weapons of that system are those who outwardly profess advice, guidance and instruction …" In other words, al Qaeda fears fatwas more than weapons. Weapons can kill people -- fatwas can kill the ideology that motivates people.

There are two battlegrounds in the war against jihadism: the physical and the ideological. Because of its operational security considerations, the al Qaeda core has been marginalized in the physical battle. This has caused it to abandon its position at the vanguard of the physical jihad and take up the mantle of leadership in the ideological battle. The core no longer poses a strategic threat to the United States in the physical world, but it is striving hard to remain relevant on the ideological battleground.

In many ways, the ideological battleground is more important than the physical war. It is far easier to kill people than it is to kill ideologies. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on the ideological battleground to determine how that war is progressing. In the end, that is why it is important to listen to hours of al-Zawahiri statements. They contain clear signs regarding the status of the war against jihadism. The signs as of late indicate that the ideological war is not going so well for the jihadists, but they also point to potential hazards around the bend in places such as Pakistan and Lebanon.