While we will be entering a world where the al Qaeda organization will come to matter less, today it still remains as the central point of reference. A scan of the current jihadi landscape reveals that there are roughly six degrees of al Qaeda affiliation, each of which poses its own threat and requires a different response.
1. Al Qaeda's original leadership. The first group is made up of al Qaeda's original leadership -- and it is shriveling up like the roster of the local VFW. This crew still has a few big names: still-at-large figures like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Yahya al-Libi. But the original core of al Qaeda is shrinking fast. No one knows the exact composition of this highest-level group, nor its exact whereabouts. But the best intelligence suggests the members live somewhere in the vicinity of Pakistan.
2. Al Qaeda's regional subsidiaries. Next, there are members of al Qaeda's regional subsidiaries, local terrorist or insurgent groups that have declared allegiance to the group. This includes outfits such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Sunnah in Iraq, al-Shabab in Somalia, and segments of the Taliban. These organizations do not take operational direction from al Qaeda's core, but accept broad strategic guidance. They are often critical to al Qaeda's efforts to expand its jihad throughout the globe. Al Qaeda, in turn, exploits these proxy groups, often mired in regional conflicts, to co-opt nationalist struggles into its broader narrative. Often, the senior leaders of these regional insurgent-cum-terrorist groups are in contact with original senior al Qaeda leadership.
3. Associated free agents. Associated free agents are individuals who are not official members of any terrorist group, but still have a connection, such as the radicals who carried out the 2004 Madrid train bombing. Their exact relationship to al Qaeda is often the most difficult to pin down because their affiliation tends to be fluid. Two days after the Madrid attacks, investigators found a video recorded by a man named Abu Dujan al-Afghani, taking credit for the attack and claiming to be al Qaeda's "European military spokesman." But a two-year probe into the plot found little evidence that the Madrid bombers really had al Qaeda support. Their exact relationship to al Qaeda remains clouded, though there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence.
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4. Entrepreneurial jihadists. Next, there are groups of entrepreneurial jihadists: radicals from outside conflict zones who nurse simmering grievances and conceive small-bore plots, rather than attempting spectacular attacks. These groups exist mostly in Europe, but also in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Entrepreneurial jihadists do not form organizations out of shared conflict experience or with the help of an al Qaeda associate, though they might try to establish contact with al Qaeda for training and equipment. Virtually any British terrorist cell, the Toronto 18, and the Somali immigrants involved in the recent plot out of Australia can be considered entrepreneurial jihadists. Often, these entrepreneurial jihadists come into violence through gateway groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Muslim Students Association. Former radical Islamist Ed Husain offers an excellent account of this dynamic in his memoir, The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left.
5. Lone wolves. Lone wolves are individuals who share al Qaeda's ideology but have no connection with al Qaeda or any terrorist organization for that matter. Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter, is a classic case of a lone wolf terrorist -- someone who was radicalized by jihadi ideology, but who did not take instructions from jihadists. Lone wolves develop their missions on their own; if they managed to connect with like-minded individuals, they could move up to the entrepreneurial jihadist category. Most often, their operations are limited in their scale, scope, and effectiveness.
6. "Armchair jihadists," or jihadist pundits. These individuals share al Qaeda's ideology, but have no operational role in the organization. Still, their threat is insidious; although these individuals do not conduct operations, their ideology is disseminated, often over the Internet, and helps to radicalize others. Radical Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki is a jihadist pundit who has been responsible for radicalizing not just Nidal Hassan, but others as well.