"Al Qaeda's Mergers Are a Sign of Weakness."
Wishful thinking. In recent years, al Qaeda leaders have consciously developed a strategy to expand their presence in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Rather than weakening the organization, this mergers-and-acquisitions strategy has been fairly successful in allowing al Qaeda to expand its global presence.
Today, al Qaeda has evolved from a fairly hierarchical organization at its 1988 founding to a more decentralized one composed of four main tiers. First, there's al Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan. Zawahiri took over as emir after bin Laden's death, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, the head of al Qaeda's religious committee, became his deputy. They are flanked by a new cast of younger operatives, such as Hassan Gul, Hamza al-Ghamdi, Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, and Abu Zayd al-Kuwaiti al-Husaynan -- figures charged with plotting al Qaeda operations, managing its media image, and developing its religious dogma.
Security concerns, however, have prohibited this core group -- al Qaeda Central -- from playing a major strategic and operational role. Its leaders can't meet together anymore, are unable to provide timely information or guidance to operatives, and spend an inordinate amount of time simply trying to survive. This reality makes the proliferation of al Qaeda franchises critical to the network's survival. Still, as documents seized from bin Laden's home in Abbottabad show, al Qaeda Central is not entirely isolated. It has remained in contact with its affiliates overseas and provided strategic advice on issues from leadership appointments to fundraising, as well as mandates for attacks. Before his death, bin Laden himself instructed deputies to focus "every effort that could be spent" on targeting the United States and even to plot the assassinations of Obama and Gen. David Petraeus.
The next tier of al Qaeda includes a growing list of affiliated groups in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, and Somalia. Al Qaeda's most recent merger was this February, when it publicly announced a formal relationship with Somalia's al-Shabab. These affiliates benefit from al Qaeda Central's ideological inspiration and guidance. Take al-Shabab. In announcing his group's official merger with al Qaeda, al-Shabab's emir, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair, gloated that his group's prestige had now been lifted in the jihadi world and beckoned Zawahiri to "lead us to the path of jihad and martyrdom that was drawn by our imam, the martyr Osama."
The third tier incorporates more than a dozen allied groups that remain formally independent but work with al Qaeda on operations when their interests converge. One example is Pakistan's Tehrik-i-Taliban, which, though focused on South Asia, has been involved in terrorist plots overseas, notably the failed 2010 attack in Times Square. Al Qaeda has assisted in several Tehrik-i-Taliban-led attacks, including the May 2011 siege of the Pakistan Navy's Mehran naval base in Karachi. In Nigeria, the Salafi group Boko Haram has emerged as an increasingly deadly threat -- most spectacularly killing more than 200 people in January -- and has also developed relations with al Qaeda. Since 2009, according to U.S. government officials in the region, Boko Haram operatives have traveled to Mali to train with members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in explosives manufacturing and suicide attacks.
Finally, al Qaeda draws on support from inspired networks -- groups and individuals that have no direct contact with al Qaeda Central but are motivated by the movement's cause and outraged by the perceived oppression of Muslims. Lacking direct support, these networks tend to be amateurish, if occasionally lethal. The quintessential example is Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major who in November 2009 gunned down 13 people and wounded 43 others at Fort Hood, Texas. There are more recent cases as well. In February 2011, Khalid Aldawsari was arrested in Lubbock, Texas, on charges of planning terrorist attacks after purchasing sulfuric acid, nitric acid, wires, and other bomb-making material. Last September, Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.
Sure, al Qaeda's mergers could eventually create fissures among increasingly autonomous groups. For now, though, these mergers have allowed al Qaeda to survive -- and expand.