The old al Qaeda is no more. At least 40 percent of its leadership circa 2001 has either been killed or captured. New faces have fared no better; since July 2008, 11 of the organization's 20 most wanted have been put out of commission. And middle management is almost gone, many of them victims of Predator strikes. What remains is probably a hollow organization, represented by a core of insulated figureheads, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, surrounded by eager cadres of jihadist newcomers. Before long, the West may just hold a barrel to al Qaeda's collective forehead. Should it press the trigger?
Gut instinct and righteousness scream "yes!" But a better answer might be "not yet." The world would be wise to keep al Qaeda alive, paradoxically enough, for security reasons. Like it or not, keeping a battered al Qaeda intact (if weak) is the world's best hope of funneling Islamist fanatics into one social network -- where they stand the best chance of being spotted, tracked, and contained. The alternative, destroying the terrorist group, would risk fragmenting al Qaeda into thousands of cells, and these will be much harder to follow and impossible to eradicate. It's the counterterrorist's dilemma, and the only real choice is the least unsavory: Al Qaeda must live.
Understanding this dilemma calls for a bit of network theory. Al Qaeda is a loose group of members who interact much like one does with peers on Twitter or Facebook; as in those platforms, al Qaeda members contact each other in sporadic and irregular bursts. And much like trading networks, the terrorist group is built around exchanges. Sure, some parts of the network are more powerful or central than others, but recruits seek membership for a fairly simple set of reasons: a fervent belief in waging jihad, a need for resources and know-how, and the chance to do it all under the mantle of the world's most famous subversive group.
Al Qaeda, for its part, is more than willing to meet its recruits' ideological, material, and prestige needs. The group is beset by high employee turnover, constantly in need of making up for members lost either to Western counter operations or successful suicide missions. Al Qaeda's mid level managers are crucial to filling this personnel gap. These central members link with more contacts than either the secluded leadership or the fresh recruits, while bridging the two groups. At the same time, their higher exposure makes them easier to hunt down.
Herein lies the danger. Unfortunately, if this middle layer of management goes extinct, so will any hopes of stemming terrorist attacks.
It is tempting to draw up an organizational chart of al Qaeda and think that if the important nodes can be identified and destroyed, the rest of the network will follow. But if al Qaeda is shut down and its middle management decimated, eager fanatics around the globe would no longer gravitate toward a centralized base. Their alternative? To form their own no-name networks and band up with any other al Qaeda survivors. Killing off al Qaeda would do little to reduce Islamist terrorism. It would only make the world of terrorism more chaotic.