Al Qaeda morphs into many new groups

Al Qaeda seen as wider threat

The network has evolved into a looser, ideological movement that may no longer report to Bin Laden. Critics say the White House focus is misdirected.

This from a Sunday LA Times front page story, no less. It details how al Qaeda has morphed and split, ameoba-like, into dozens of new groups that may have little or no contact with al Qaeda itself. As I’ve mentioned here before, the US military is a hierarchical organization, while al Qaeda is networked. As has been eloquently explained in The Rand Corp. book, Networks and Netwars (availble free in PDF form), hierarchies have a difficult time understanding how networks operate, and mistakenly assume they can confront them as being hierarchies.

Which is precisely what the US is doing now in the fight against al Qaeda. Get bin Laden. Kill the top leaders. Then we will win. Well, no. Networks don’t have heads that can be chopped off – no matter how much the Pentagon otherwise.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda was a loosely organized network, but core leaders exercised considerable control over its operations. Since the loss of its base in Afghanistan and many of those leaders, the organization has dispersed its operatives and reemerged as a lethal ideological movement.

The Madrid train station bombing provides an instructive example.

Top suspects in the Madrid bombings have long-standing ties to Al Qaeda cells in Spain, Morocco and elsewhere. Still, six months after the bombings, investigators have no evidence that the planners received instructions or money from outside for the attacks that killed 191 people.

The methods used in Casablanca and Madrid illustrate what a senior European counter-terrorism official described as “the most frightening” scenario: local groups without previous experience, acting with minimal supervision from an interchangeable cast of Al Qaeda veterans.

By now we have no evidence, not even credible intelligence, that the Madrid group was steered, financed, organized from the outside. So that might be the biggest success of Bin Laden.’ A senior European counter-terrorism official.

So, the Madrid bombers were operating on their own. The attacks by the US against al Qaeda merely caused them to create new organizations that are even more impervious to the US. Meanwhile, the US strategy of killing or capturing top al Qaeda members, while certainly high publcity, does little to stop attacks. 

U.S. and foreign intelligence officials said the Bush administration’s focus on the “body count” of Al Qaeda leaders and its determination to stop the next attack meant comparatively few resources were devoted to understanding the threat.

Of course, al Qaeda could not grow without new recruits. And why are so many willing to join? 

Moroccans and officials of other Islamic countries agree that anger over U.S. policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides much of the motivation for the attacks.

“If the Palestinian issue were settled, if Iraq were stable, 70% of the threats would disappear,” said Bouzoubaa, the justice minister.

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