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The Devolution of Al Qaeda

     The Islamic Extremist movement has been undergoing a further devolution of late, one which prominent leaders within the network have been advocating for a number of years now.

If we look at the original Al Qaeda Core Group, we saw what we would recognise as a traditional hierarchical structure. The group had a political aim and centralized nature however following interdiction from the west, it was relegated to the ideological battlefield as oppose to the physical one.

Running concurrent to the core group was a 'franchise model' where groups, some of whom were already established, pledged allegiance to the Al Qaeda Core Group and carried out attacks in their area of operations using Al Qaeda's name (e.g. groups in Iraq, Yemen and Somalia). In return, they were able to access Al Qaeda core group resources such as established training camps and funding with some also benefiting from 'experts' within the core group who travelled to them in order to help plan and organise attacks. This franchising strategy worked well for Al Qaeda Core Group. It allowed them to increase their influence and status and take strategic advantage of franchise activities whilst allowing them to protect the Al Qaeda brand by providing them plausible deniability when needed.

For the past few years we have been seeing a devolution of this established trend to grassroots jihadists based in the west. This devolution is as a result of a number of issues including an adaptation round counter-terrorism measures in the west however it is also likely part of the strategic plan of Al Qaeda Core Group and as such should not necessarily be seen as a sign of weakness in the movement.

This initial devolution was characterised by largely inexperienced personnel, radicalised in local mosques who may then have been sent on to training camps in order to prepare them to go back to their homes and carry out attacks, or who reached out to the wider terrorist network for expertise. This model however, left them open to interdiction by security forces and increased costs as they looked to carryout 'grandiose' attacks which were generally outside their operational capabilities. In response, Al Qaeda Core Grouping and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have both spent the last few years advocating a change in approach, so far with little success however there are now indications this is changing. Publications like Inspire Magazine, produced by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have been advising jihadists to move away from planning large scale complex attacks such as 7/7 in the UK and instead to focus on attacks which are within their capabilities - less complex, expensive and high tech and more low key but high impact.

The Boston bombings in the US during April may be the first effective manifestation of this change in strategy. The attack was likely carried out by grassroots jihadists with few or no links to established terror groups, who planned and carried out an effective attack in an area they knew well, against a high profile target but which crucially, was within their capabilities - no grandiose attack plans here. Skill sets and knowledge, both ideologically and practically, may well have largely come from online sources and shaped the perpetrators planning of the attack. One other stark difference with the Boston bombers was their prioritisation over their own life and liberty. This, along with the amount of weapons they were allegedly in possession of when caught, may indicate that they were looking to mount a campaign rather than a one off attack in which they were happy to commit suicide.

Events on 22 May in Woolwich, UK would also fit this devolution; a two man team, carrying out an attack which was low in sophistication, would have required little planning and one which remained within their capabilities using weapons that they would have easily been able to get hold of. By insisting on passers-by filming them, they helped to ensure their actions and 'reasoning' went out to the world instantly via the web, ensuring direct communication with their target audience and also causing a significant number of 'secondary victims' to their actions. Unlike the Boston bombers, the men showed no signs of trying to evade capture and may well have hoped to capture the police response on camera as well to help galvanise support for their cause.

Just as the movement starts to realise this next stage of devolution however, its core has been threatened. Not by western forces, but by one of its own franchises. In April, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Baghdadi announced his organisation was merging with Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian based rebel group. Al-Baghdadi allegedly moved to a location in Aleppo to take up the reins of his newly expanded group however this move turned out to be less of a merger than a hostile takeover. What followed was an interesting public spat between Al-Baghdadi, the established leader of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the al Qaeda core organization. So far Al-Baghdadi, who has attracted the majority of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters to his new banner, has remained defiant, marking the first Al Qaeda franchise to publically defy Al Qaeda core. This indicates that Al Qaeda core may now be struggling to remain relevant on the ideological battlefield as well. Isolated and with restricted communications, the core has become alienated to the realities its franchises are facing on the ground and the global movement as a whole is now beginning to show at a franchise level, the devolution it has being experiencing further down the ranks.

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Southern Sands offers a number of security solutions to support your business including Crisis Management Planning, Security Threat and Vulnerability Assessments and Security Risk Mitigation Design and Security Plan Preparation.

Posted on 2013-07-05, By: *

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