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Al Qaeda's Decentralization
Al-Qaeda's Waning Influence Isn't an End to International Jihad

Al-Qaeda’s international leadership is splintering, but the threat from independent Islamist movements around the globe is growing. Ben Hubbard in the NYT argues that this decentralization doesn’t mean that the international jihadist movement is losing strength:

What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups (…)

“Al Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now,” said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. “It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilizing people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don’t have to join the actual organization anymore to get those benefits” (…)

As the power of the central leadership created by Osama bin Laden has declined, the vanguard of violent jihad has been taken up by an array of groups in a dozen countries across Africa and the Middle East…

Militant jihadist groups once thought to target only local governments and populations are adopting an increasingly international kill list. Al-Shabab, a Somalian group, attacked non-Muslims at a mall in Kenya this past September, and Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was once thought to be content with his trans-Saharan kidnapping business, recently led his al-Qaeda-inspired organization to an Algerian gas plant in search of foreigners to capture and kill. These local groups increasingly view themselves as part of a global struggle against non-believers, whether or not they receive support from al-Qaeda central command.

Hubbard adds weight to an argument that we’ve been making here for a while (and which will get feature-length treatment in the upcoming issue of the magazine), which is that the fight against Islamic militancy is going to continue for a long time, regardless of how much we all may wish it to end. Al-Qaeda’s role as an international command center may be undergoing a transformation, but the environments of hate and the areas of weak governance that help sustain the underlying jihadist movement remain strong. America’s counterterrorism policy needs to reflect this reality.

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  • free_agent

    I suspect jihadism is also driven by the social dislocations caused by industrialization, somewhat like the “anarchists” of the late 1800s in Europe and the US. And a huge fraction of the world is going to be industrialized over the next few decades.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It is best to let the enemy tell you how to defeat him. The things that terrorists most complain about, like UAV missile attacks, Democracy, other organized religions, women’s rights, education, vaccinations, etc… These are the things the terrorists find most threatening, and the west should focus on going after the low hanging fruit first.

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