The U.S. has intensified its physical fight against al Qaeda, this time with “Operation Valiant Strike” in southeast Afghanistan. As more and more al Qaeda members are captured, the question remains, are we actually destroying al Qaeda? To say that al Qaeda, for example, has been devastated by the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems to be an act of hubris or wishful thinking. To be sure, Mohammed’s arrest and full-blown attacks like “Valiant Strike” will radiate throughout al Qaeda’s tentacles, hopefully leading to the identification and dismantling of several clandestine cells and the al Qaeda network. But al Qaeda is not anything, if not a resilient organization by its very design, and its coterie of leaders have no doubt planned and prepared for any of the top officials’ captures or deaths. And al Qaeda has had 15 unfettered years to mold its network into a self-sufficient, terrorist machine whose members no longer need a centralized command to carry out terrorist attacks.
“Operation Valiant Strike” comes at a transitional period for al Qaeda. Gone are its centralized command and its large-scale training camps. In some ways, al Qaeda has grown beyond Osama bin Laden. From Afghanistan, al Qaeda has waged a quiet war, spreading their hatred for the United States and the West to places all over the world, from Indonesia to Canada, from Miami to Moscow. Al Qaeda has succeeded in creating a global movement against the United States and its allies, one that transcends country borders, nationalities, or race. Today, individuals like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or bin Laden are only a part of the movement — not the head. Their capture or death will temporarily disable sectors of the movement, but al Qaeda is no longer purely a terrorist group. It is an ideology that transcends the name “al Qaeda” and in many ways serves as a religion that has proven far too seductive for much of the world.
Al Qaeda, like any business, operates on a long-term plan and sacrifices short-term losses for future gains. To this end, the group has embarked on a systematic propaganda campaign that dates back to the roots of al Qaeda. Since before al Qaeda officially took its name in 1989, ideology played an important role in the organization. Glorious stories of martyred mujahideen, religious justifications for their military activities, and the strong belief that the United States is the great Satan all abound in al Qaeda literature, which is widely available to anyone with an even cursory interest in the subject. Even today, al Qaeda strives to maintain a constant media presence. Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Ramzi Binalshibh have all made media appearances on both television and print in the last year. A recent al Qaeda tract published this year in Arabic, The Truth about the New Crusader War, is an entire book dedicated to the rationalization of the group’s terrorist activities. Chapters like “The Conditions that Allow to Kill the Innocent from Among the Infidels” provide specious reasoning and spurious religious arguments to justify the murder of women and children. Yet, their twisted rhetoric remains ever-convincing to hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world.
Al Qaeda’s propaganda and recruitment program is now at its most intense in years on the web. The explosion of the internet almost obviates the need for a centralized terror-training camp, as al Qaeda’s websites provide a one-stop shopping experience for any would-be terrorist. The websites provide the ideology, community, and logistics to carry out terrorist attacks. The web provides instant real-time communication between terrorists on websites that vacillate between servers, making them almost impossible to monitor constantly. While reading online how it is legitimate to “martyr” oneself to cause damage to the enemy, a bomb-making manual is only a click away. Today, terrorist operatives need not receive proper terrorist training or speak Arabic; they can now coordinate attacks and obtain training manuals by utilizing an internet-enabled computer at their local Kinko’s, just as the 9/11 hijackers did.
All of this propaganda resulted in thousands of individuals being trained at al Qaeda camps since the 1980s, studying bomb-making, assassination techniques, chemical weapons, and how to ingratiate oneself into Western society. The web has replaced training camps, and we are only beginning to see the fruition of al Qaeda’s work. Jemaah Islamiyya’s terrorist activities, nurtured by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who in the early 1990s resided in Southeast Asia, resulted in the Bali bombing, leaving hundreds dead. Attacks like the one in Bali will not stop with Mohammed’s capture, let alone bin Laden’s. The threat of an attack on as large a scale as September 11 may be diminished, but smaller, strategic attacks can cause significant damage, if not only psychological.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s reign of terror may be over and our troops may further dismantle the network in Afghanistan, but new disciples of al Qaeda are being born every day, in internet cafes and living rooms. Mohammed probably knows where several al Qaeda operatives and cells reside, but al Qaeda’s genius is that its future ranks will most likely never meet Osama bin Laden. To al Qaeda’s posterity, bin Laden will be spiritual paradigm, a glue that will bind the consciousnesses of those affected by al Qaeda propaganda. These new operatives may never meet one another, but through the web or other means, they will reinforce each other to continue bin Laden’s crusade, as bin Laden continued Abdullah Azzam’s. We must face the reality that al Qaeda is not dead, but very much alive and thriving in people’s minds and hearts.
— Rita Katz is the director of the SITE Institute, based in Washington, D.C. Josh Devon is an analyst at the SITE Institute.