In December, 2001, Richard Reid – also known as Abdul Raheem – paid cash for a one-way airfare from Paris to Miami. He boarded American Airlines Flight 63 with the explosive PETN in his shoe, which he tried unsuccessfully to ignite until being subdued by fellow passengers.
That was then. Here is now: In December, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab paid cash for a one-way airfare from Amsterdam to Detroit. He boarded Northwestern Airline Flight 253 with PETN sewn into his underpants, which he tried to ignite. Until he was subdued by fellow passengers.
What that says about the dreaded global terrorist organization al-Qaeda – which has claimed responsibility for the actions of both men – is a great deal.
It says there appears to be no learning curve. No brains in the executive suite calling the plays. No intelligence atop al-Qaeda's hierarchy comparable to the luminous planning behind the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or the well-orchestrated East Africa bombings in 1998. Indeed, many experts who've studied al-Qaeda believe that the whole metaphor of head office and branch plants is wrong.
“Head office has gone missing,” says Janice Stein, director of University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies.
And, paradoxically, that may speak to an even more dangerous foe confronted by U.S. President Barack Obama this week with his words of war: Instead of an enemy whose behaviours were relatively familiar, there are now a multitude of unpredictable and even unknown al-Qaedas.
The image of the organization that's been emblazoned in the media since 9/11 was that of a bureaucratically multilayered organization run by fiat by Osama bin Laden and his clever, highly educated, tactical and theological privy council headquartered in the mountainous badlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It had its iron fingers of control on everything. It had a penchant for paperwork, budgets and titles. It had a shura, a war council. It had a finance committee, a religious committee, even a human-resources committee that monitored who was where in the hierarchy and the state of well-being and engagement of recruits.
Its word was law, and its singular voice of command spoke from every corner of its domain. And as far as anyone on the outside knew, that is how al-Qaeda worked.
In fact, information about it has been thin since its founding by Mr. bin Laden and a dozen or so others in 1988 – a fact readily acknowledged by scholars. University of Toronto's Wesley Wark, a specialist in security issues, describes its operational dynamics as “mysteries.”
Today – especially with the rise of a powerful faction in Yemen, making the country a sort of third global front after Pakistan-Afghanistan and Iraq in the war against al-Qaeda – its structure is the subject of heated debate.
Most, although not all, terrorism experts believe that there is now no al-Qaeda “central,” the pre-9/11 organization. The bin Laden cadre has been isolated militarily and many of its original leaders have been killed or captured.
What has replaced the pre-9/11 structure is an al-Qaeda brand, a spreading syndicate of autonomous al-Qaeda franchises and affiliates and a stunningly powerful media unit (as-Sahab, “The Clouds”) creating high-quality documentary films, iPod files, cellphone videos and websites – a six-fold production output since 2005, all of it aimed at radicalizing young Muslims.
The autonomous franchises and affiliates can be found in Iraq (al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia), Yemen and Saudi Arabia (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Somalia (the affiliated al-Shabaab), Indonesia (Jemaah Islamiyah), Sudan, Egypt, Turkey and South Asia as well as Pakistan-Afghanistan and elsewhere.
They are not linked by shura – or by anything else operationally. In a world of cellphones, satellite phones, e-mail and Skype, all of which can be monitored by high-tech snoopers, communication between Mr. bin Laden's inner circle and the rest of al-Qaeda – when it takes place – is mainly reliant on couriers, a means as old as humanity's two legs.
Mokhtar Lamani, a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., and a former Moroccan diplomat and senior officer with the League of Arab States, says that as far as anyone knows, franchise operational decisions are completely local, exemplified by the Yemeni assignment handed out to Mr. Abdulmutallab.
There is no hint of prior consultation with the bin Laden circle or the other dominions. In the Abdulmutallab case, the nature of the operation was the main tie-in to the al-Qaeda brand: an attack against the “Far Enemy,” the United States, and a readiness to incur mass casualties, by blowing up an airliner.
Yet at the same time, operational techniques vary.
If you're kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Iraq, said Mr. Lamani, the likelihood is you'll be killed without even a claim of responsibility being made for your death. If you're kidnapped by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb – like Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay – the likelihood is greater that your release will be negotiated for a ransom.
Why? It may be because the cultures are different, possibly because al-Qaeda in the Maghreb – or, more accurately, its predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – was founded in 1998 by Hassan Hattab, a former Armed Islamic Group regional commander who broke with the group in 1998 in protest against its slaughter of civilians. In contrast, al-Qaeda in Iraq has been notorious for ruthless tactics since the onset of its presence in the Iraqi insurgency.
But whereas the operational reach and effectiveness of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Pakistan is currently seen as limited, the operational capability of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is “scary,” says Prof. Max Taylor, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's St. Andrew's University.
It can do long-range reconnaissance and logistics and move around at ease, and plan an operation in Morocco that can be executed in Mali. No other al-Qaeda franchise has that capability. No one for sure knows why. No one for certain knows how numerically strong it is. It could be like al-Qaeda in Yemen – “which has either 50 or hundreds of members,” said Prof. Taylor.
Over and over, that same answer comes up: No one knows.
For now, says the University of Toronto's Prof. Wark, the ideological bonds that bind al-Qaeda are tight – a cohesiveness wrought by a consistent fundamentalist ideology: the objective of re-establishing the Islamist caliphate as the religious and political authority over all the peoples of the Muslim world and purifying it from Western, mainly American, contamination.
But that's hardly a complex theology needing centralized doctrinal control comparable, say, to Roman Catholicism's muscular Vatican vigilance. It's simple religious fundamentalism for simple folk.
By far the most significant bond, the essential glue that's made al-Qaeda the world's first global transnational terrorist organization, is the work of as-Sahab and the use of the Internet and other media for propaganda, proselytizing, for spreading the inspirational words and images of Osama bin Laden.
It is why fear of al-Qaeda remains, despite the demise of any clean, recognizable structure of hierarchy, such as that which characterized the Irish Republican Army. What's replaced it is dark anarchy without identity or borders.
It's those incredibly sophisticated media vehicles – Internet-posted or couriered out of Pakistan's wild country – that entice a seemingly endless stream of global wannabe jihadists into making a compact with violence. It is why the Americans keep hunting for Mr. bin Laden even though his hands no longer appear on the levers of operational power.
His idol power on the Internet and on television, his ability to ignite so-called homegrown radicalization, makes him a continuing threat.
It's a virtual seduction of young minds that scholars understand only imperfectly, says Dr. Taylor – a complex menu of ideology, religion, hero-worship and the serpentine attraction of the forbidden and appealing. Dr. Taylor, a psychologist, suggests the dynamic has parallels to images of child sexual abuse on the Internet: dangerous, doubtful, taboo and therefore enticing.
It is this threat that President Obama has declared war on – and it is this threat, says Dr. Taylor, that social scientists have far too little knowledge about how to combat.
*** The Westphalian frame is not appropriate for this conflict. Stop conceiving of the solution in terms of conventional military confrontation - the enemy does not, so why would we? MS ***