Defeating al-Qaeda will require more than a military strategy that attacks the core the group’s top leaders. Even if the military were to eliminate Usama bin Laden and Ayman az-Zawahiri tomorrow, the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization would continue to wreak havoc. Al-Qaeda can do this because it can rely on a large peripheral network of cells and affiliate groups, which are local Islamist organizations with local grievances that are equally committed to global jihad.
The al-Qaeda leadership should be viewed as the corporate headquarters of the terrorist organization, while the cells and affiliate groups should be viewed as franchises. If and when the headquarters are destroyed, the franchises can easily continue to operate. In short, a holistic approach to defeating al-Qaeda is needed.
The Rand Corporation, a leading defense think tank, has provided an excellent two-volume analysis to that end. The first volume looks at the ideology of the movement, its tactics, finances, and the “nebula” of al-Qaeda that includes local affiliate groups from Southeast Asia, South Asia, North Africa, the Caucusus, and of course, Iraq. Part 1: the Global Jihadist Movement even provides illustrations and tables that help demonstrate the links between jihadists “clusters” and the al-Qaeda core. More importantly, Part 1 also addresses the problem of radical Islam (they call it Global Jihad), identifying it as the ideological enemy that must be defeated. In just 186 pages, this volume covers the al-Qaeda phenomenon in a competent and comprehensive way.
Part 2: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe is somewhat less integrated and less accurate, asserting that the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Egyptian Gamaa al-Islamiyya (GI) fall outside of the al-Qaeda network. Both groups, while now dwindling in numbers, were cornerstones of the original al-Qaeda affiliate network in the late 1990s. On the other hand, the editors were smart to analyze the Iraqi insurgency, the Palestinian Hamas terrorist organization, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and even some of the antiglobalization groups as potential members of the global terrorist phenomenon. Part 2 also addresses the “convergence of terrorism, insurgency and crime,” which is a worthwhile topic, but one that only adds to a feeling of disjointedness throughout.
The authors of these two volumes are not among the usual suspects who typically write about al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, their final products are sober, even-handed, and worthwhile reads.