This comment was published in The Guardian on 8/11/2010
In recent weeks there has been a flurry of "al-Qaida" activity. We have seen alleged plots in Europe fomented in the Pakistani tribal areas, package bombs found on planes bound for Chicago from the Yemen, various arrests in America and elsewhere, and the sentencing of a 21-year-old British woman who stabbed a member of parliament, Stephen Timms, who had supported the war in Iraq. The latter, Roshonara Choudhry, was labelled al-Qaida in the media. It is thus a good moment to review where, nine years after the 9/11 attacks, we are with al-Qaida. Here are six points that may suggest some different perspectives on the reality of this kind of activism.
1) Al-Qaida needs to be seen as a component part of global Islamic militancy. We should not see all global Islamic militants as potentially or actually part of al-Qaida. The fundamental paradigm of the extremist threat coming from a single terrorist organisation has proved remarkably resilient over the years but actually the threat comes from a dynamic and increasingly fragmented phenomenon that has roots running back decades, if not centuries, in the Islamic world and in the Islamic world's relations with the west. Al-Qaida is simply one component of this phenomenon.
2) Contemporary Islamic militancy is all about networks. Like any human social activity, it is composed of innumerable links between individuals which create communities of varying sizes and extents. It is also largely unorganised. Power and capability in modern Islamic militancy comes from the capacity of any given individual or group of individuals to draw together those networks and focus them on a given goal. This is what al-Qaida was temporarily able to do in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The result was the 9/11 attacks. Since, Islamic militancy has reverted to its more anarchic former state. The recent European threat – which involved German, French or British volunteers being sent by senior militant leaders into Europe to conduct operations similar to those seen in Mumbai in November 2008 – was described as originating in al-Qaida's havens in Pakistan. In fact, a whole range of interlocking and largely disorganised networks were involved: those that brought together groups of volunteers in Europe in the first place; the networks of Pakistani groups which channelled them to the tribal areas; the personal connections that drew together senior leaders in the latter, such as Ilyas Kashmiri; and only finally those of al-Qaida.
4) At a higher level too, groups depend on friendship, personal associations and contacts – networking – than almost anything else. The Pashtu- and Arab-speaking al-Qaida veteran militant Mustafa Abu al Yasid was well liked by a range of Taliban commanders and was thus instrumental in building closer co-operation between the international predominantly Middle Eastern group and the local Afghan fighters through 2008 and 2009. Since he was killed by a drone in May, relations have suffered.
In conclusion, a new way of looking at al-Qaida as a phenomenon would be to abandon the idea of a central group, an ideology and even of affiliates, and to see instead a huge matrix of interlocking networks all of which evolve simultaneously and in response to each other and to outside pressures informed by a common culture. Naturally individuals with particular resources – charisma, cash, learning, security, credibility – draw networks together and create nodes.
Clusters of these nodes form something that, at least from outside, looks like an organisation. One such cluster is currently centred on the Pakistani tribal zones. Another, somewhat less dense, is centred on Yemen. A third, less dense still, is in Somalia. Nodes that existed earlier in the decade in Algeria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have now largely broken up. In the chaotic, shifting, multivalent world that is contemporary Islamic militancy we can expect the nodes that currently exist to break up too at some stage. Others inevitably will reform elsewhere. Predicting how and when they do so will not be an easy task.