On Sept. 11, 2006, al Qaeda celebrated the fifth anniversary of its marquee terrorist attack by announcing that it had signed up hundreds of new members -- an impressive growth spurt for an organization whose membership is often estimated by American counterterrorism analysts to be in the low thousands.
But al Qaeda hadn't so much recruited its new members as acquired them: They were from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC by its French initials), a jihadist group that for years had almost exclusively targeted the ruling regime in Algeria. "The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat has joined the Al Qaeda organization," Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2, crowed. "May this be a bone in the throat of American and French crusaders, and their allies, and sow fear in the hearts of French traitors and sons of apostates." A few months later, the GSPC adopted the moniker "al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM). A minor-league guerrilla operation had rebranded itself as a franchise of the biggest name in Islamist terrorism.
AQIM is not alone in going from a local to a global focus. The popular image of al Qaeda is of an organization that draws its membership from disillusioned Muslims who, infuriated by U.S. support for Israel or intervention in the Muslim world -- and beguiled by the idea of a universal caliphate -- go off to join the fight. But in fact, much of al Qaeda's growth in the last decade has been the kind of expansion that any American businessman would recognize: They've systematically tried to absorb regional jihadist start-ups, both venerable and newly created, and convince them that their struggle is a component of al Qaeda's sweeping international agenda -- and vice versa. Zawahiri himself was once head of one such organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which he led from an exclusive focus on toppling the Egyptian regime to an embrace of al Qaeda's anti-American and pan-Islamic agenda. Al Qaeda branches have since popped up in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, and the organization is making inroads with groups in Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere.
Consider last year's Christmas Day bombing plot, in which a Nigerian recruit to the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) almost blew up a passenger airplane landing in Detroit. Yemen has long hosted al Qaeda-linked jihadists, but for most of the last decade they focused on local and regional targets. In 2009, however, jihadists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia announced a merger under the AQAP banner and took on a more global focus: one that included the Detroit plot and this October's plan to blow up two cargo planes as they neared U.S. cities.
The attacks emerging from Yemen have led some U.S. officials to believe al Qaeda's affiliates are more dangerous than the organization's core, isolated as it is in the Pakistani hinterlands. Making sense of this network is key to understanding the threat of terrorism today -- and how best to respond to it.
How Do I Sign Up?
Formally joining al Qaeda is a complex process and one that can take years. It is often difficult to tell when a true shift has occurred, in part because al Qaeda does not demand sole allegiance; it supports local struggles even as it pursues its own war against the United States and its allies. So group members can be half-pregnant: both part of al Qaeda's ranks and loyal fighters in their local organization. Zawahiri, for instance, had been part of al Qaeda since its founding in 1988, but for almost a decade he saw EIJ, not al Qaeda, as his primary charge. It took 10 years for Zawahiri to fully sign on to Osama bin Laden's "International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders," and three more years for his group to fully integrate with al Qaeda. For Algeria's GSPC, the process took at least four years, and the integration is still incomplete.
During this prolonged courtship, groups often straddle their old and new identities, trying to keep up the fight against the local regime while also attacking more global targets. Often this is a time of infighting, with key leaders pulling the group in different directions. Some seek to stay the course and continue to fight the local regime, while others are attracted by what al Qaeda has to offer. Somalia's al-Shabab, for instance, appears to be in such a phase today. Some parts of the organization cooperate with al Qaeda, with foreign jihadists playing leading roles in tactics and operations. But others within the movement -- probably the majority, in fact -- oppose the foreigners' control, with some even publicly condemning terrorism and even working with international humanitarian relief efforts. Al-Shabab could become "al Qaeda of the Horn of Africa," but this is not yet a done deal. And if it happens, it could split the group.
After a merger happens, command relationships between the affiliate and al Qaeda's central leadership vary. When al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula began attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2003, they were done at the direction of al Qaeda's central leadership, which was eager to strike at the kingdom. But groups like AQIM retain a high degree of independence, working with al Qaeda's core more as partners than as proxies. Many AQIM attacks still target the Algerian regime, particularly its security forces -- an aim more in keeping with the group's past priorities than al Qaeda's.