Al Qaeda's Strategy

By: Professor Bruce Hoffman

Al Qaeda's senior leadership is indisputably being pressed to an extent not seen since the opening phases of the war on terrorism ten years ago. Members of the CTFP community should recognize that the systematic killing of well over thirteen key senior al Qaeda commanders in unmanned drone attacks since July 2008 has appreciably thinned al Qaeda's once deep bench of battle-hardened operatives, to say nothing of their loss of Osama bin Laden himself. Reports that U.S. Treasury Department initiatives have seriously impacted al Qaeda's finances are also often cited as proof of the movement's faltering capabilities. At the same time, however, throughout the past few years, al Qaeda has made fresh inroads in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Algeria, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Al Qaeda's success in this respect is the product of an identifiable strategy. More disquieting, its progress in these diverse arenas has again raised the threat of a significant terrorist attack occurring in the United States, Europe or elsewhere. The foiled attempt to blow-up Northwest Airlines flight # 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 was a sober reminder both of the al Qaeda movement's continued vitality and the threat it still poses.

Al Qaeda continues to seek out citizens of enemy countries, especially converts to Islam, who possess "clean" passports and thus can be more easily deployed for attacks I Western countries...

Four Functioning, Longstanding Operational Levels

Al Qaeda's continued survival has been facilitated in large measure by a loose organizational structure that uniquely embodies both top down and bottom up approaches. Unlike most other terrorist groups, which tend to be organized hierarchically—in a rigid pyramidal fashion with a commander at the top, issuing orders to the individual cells arrayed below—from its beginning, al Qaeda was conceived to function as a flatter and more linear-type network. This bi-furcated structure has served the movement well and likely accounts for its continued longevity despite the significant measures directed against it. The al Qaeda movement thus comprises four distinct, but not mutually exclusive, dimensions. They are:

1. Al Qaeda Central Senior Leadership. This category comprises the movement's core leadership. It is believed that this hardcore remains centered in or around the Afghanistan and Pakistan borders and continues to exert actual coordination, if not some direct command and control in terms of commissioning attacks, directing surveillance and collating reconnaissance, planning operations, and approving their execution.

2. Al Qaeda Affiliates and Associates. This category embraces formally established insurgent or terrorist groups that over the years have benefited from al Qaeda's largesse and spiritual guidance and continue to receive training, arms, intelligence, and other assistance. Among these groups who are ones who have adopted the al Qaeda moniker (e.g., al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb [aQIM], al Qaeda in Iraq, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); as well as key allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks; or the al Shabaab ("the youth") group in Somalia, among others. Both the number and geographical diversity of these entities is proof of al Qaeda's continued influence and vitality.

3. Al Qaeda Network. These are sleepers or local, dispersed cells of al Qaeda adherents who have or have had some direct connection with al Qaeda, including training.

4. Al Qaeda Galaxy. These are home-grown Islamic radicals—from North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia—as well as local converts to Islam mostly living in Europe, Africa and North America as well, who have no direct connection with al Qaeda (or any other identifiable terrorist group), but nonetheless are prepared to carry out attacks in solidarity with or support of al Qaeda's radical jihadi agenda.

Al Qaeda's Six Core, Subordinate Strategies

In service to its global strategy, al Qaeda today pursues six separate lines of operation or subordinate strategies:

1. Attrition. Al Qaeda seeks to overwhelm, distract, and exhaust its adversaries. Given both the U.S. and the world's profound economic travails and attendant financial upheaval, al Qaeda likely perceives the imminent success of this strategy of attrition as more tangible than at any previous time.

2. Division. In tandem with the above, al Qaeda also actively seeks to create, foster, and encourage fissures and divisions within the global alliance arrayed against it.  This entails the selective targeting of coalition partners in the U.S.-led war on terrorism both in operational theatres like Afghanistan and at home—through attacks on mass transit and other "soft" targets in the national capitals and major cities of European countries allied with the U.S.

3. Failing states. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continues to conduct local campaigns of subversion and destabilization in critical operational theaters where failed or failing states provide new opportunities for al Qaeda to extend its reach and consolidate its presence. Countries and regions such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria, the Sahel, East Africa, and Somalia fall within this category.

4. Force Multiplier. Al Qaeda also actively provides guidance, assistance, and other help to local affiliates and associated terrorist movements. Al Qaeda thus works behind the scenes in these theaters "plussing-up" the capabilities of indigenous terrorist groups both in terms of kinetic as well as essential non-kinetic operations—including information operations, propaganda, and psychological warfare.

5. Converts and "Clean Skins." Al Qaeda continues to seek out citizens of enemy countries, especially converts to Islam, who possess "clean" passports and thus can be more easily deployed for attacks in Western countries without necessarily arousing suspicion.

6. Opportunism. Al Qaeda continues to be as opportunistic as it is instrumental: seeking to identify defensive gaps that can be quickly and effectively exploited for attacks.

In sum, al Qaeda stubbornly continues to pursue strategies that, however unrealistic or fruitless, extend its longevity, and sustain its potential to cause death, destruction, and global disruption.

About the Author(s): Bruce Hoffman is the Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service.