Al Qaeda: pyramid or hydra?

2 May 2011

The world’s most wanted terrorist™ is dead. We are in the tenth year since the WTC towers were destroyed, and it does feel like that this could be a turning point. Many analysts have claimed that al Qaeda has been on the wane for some time, and this could be the beginning of its terminal end. However I think that would be too an optimistic reading of the situation.

There have been many arguments regarding al Qaeda’s organization. Is it organized in a pyramidical hierarchy with Osama bin Laden at the top, and that his death will make the whole thing collapse? Or does it resemble a hydra, and now only one, even though the most important, head of many is decapitated? I tend to believe in the latter. According to what I have read about al Qaeda’s activities, its organization is based on a large number of more or less autonomous cells that act independently. Given some of its failed attacks in the recent years, there are doubts as to how effectively and tightly the activities were co-ordinated from the bunker in Pakistan.

If anything, the fate of al Qaeda in the medium to long term, as it is currently constituted, may depend more on the outcome of the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East, than on the death of bin Laden. There are many reasons why people joined al Qaeda, and each person had a different set of reasons for doing so, however it is arguable that dictatorships, either propped up by the US, e.g. Saudi Arabia, and until recently, Egypt, or that are too secular (i.e. not Islamic enough), such as Syria, or both, e.g. Pakistan under President Musharraf, were major recruitment sergeants for al Qaeda. Some of the underlying grievances may be addressed by the results of the regime changes occurring across the Middle East.

In the short term, there does seem to be an increased likelihood of retaliatory attacks by al Qaeda. Such acts may not be large-scale outrages but targeting relatively soft targets, and there will be a need for more vigilance.

Today may be the beginning of a small window of opportunity to render al Qaeda powerless and insignificant. This is because bin Laden has been killed, and because of the situation in the Middle East. It’s probably impossible to eradicate an ideology — whatever those who joined al Qaeda subscribe to — but an organization can be reduced into insignificance. It needs to be starved of money and material, but above all, men. Depending on the course of history in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the broader Middle East, there is a chance to address some of the fundamental grievances that drove people to al Qaeda, thus deprive it of new recruits. The West can and should aid, but not force, the transition that would lessen the complaints people have about their lives.

As indicated earlier, I think it makes sense to think of al Qaeda as a hydra. What the policy-makers and military strategists have to ensure is that two heads do not grow from the neck that had its head cut off, by making sure that the neck stump is cauterized, and beware of other heads.