The Changing Face of Al Qaeda

In a new era of terrorism, divided enemies merge.

Osama Bin Laden, the presumed mastermind behind the creation of Al Qaeda, originally formalized a global network of militants mostly comprised of Muslim Brotherhood members. These Brotherhood members, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, tapped into their own personal networks which later socially conditioned and recruited a mass movement of followers. Many were active militant fighters while many more were passive supporters to a newly established global terror network. Interestingly enough, many have argued that the original Al Qaeda Network no longer exists.

As Al Qaeda grew long after the Russian-Afghan war, many of its leaders became empowered. They split off moving into strategically positioned bases around the world. Their mission was to embolden Al Qaeda’s radicalized views of Islam in an attempt to create a “World Caliphate.” Needless to say, many leaders in this movement sought to achieve this strategic objective through government infiltration, passive social conditioning, and even through means of violent terror activities.

With time, an internal struggle existed within the original Al Qaeda network. Some members believed joining forces with non-Sunni Islamic persons would only strengthen their ultimate goals. Others believed working with such persons was off limits. Still, additional non-Sunni terror groups aligned with former Al Qaeda elements. Examples of these non-Sunni factions include Hezbollah, Colombia’s FARC, and even cartels such as Los Zetas in Mexico. Of course, many times these newly “joined forces” are not always direct. Many times, the joining of forces comes through third party initiatives.

Like most mass movements, they are formed by a handful of individuals simply seeking power. These individuals groom members, yet, like street gangs, when certain members feel they have enough power, they move onto their own initiatives. These initiatives often involve the creation of their own groups. These groups are separate from their original mother group, yet at times maintain some allegiance, as seen in several Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs.  Such a move has been seen between Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Muslim Brotherhood recently.

This means that Al Qaeda is no longer the terror network we once knew it to be. Today, Al Qaeda can arguably be construed as a label for radical Sunni Islamic factions. As an example, Somalia’s Al Shabaab Islamic terror group is a single terrorist organization yet members have a history serving within the Al Qaeda network. It is a completely separated organization yet often labeled as one falling within the Al Qaeda domain due to some continued ties between the two.

Understanding an elementary example of Al Shabaab, one should ponder then whether it is reasonable to include the non-Sunni factions known to be aligned with Al Qaeda as elements within Al Qaeda itself. As an example, it is known that Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group, has close ties with Al Qaeda.  In fact, today, many CT professionals understand how closely tied Al Qaeda has become with Iran itself.

The Iranian-Hezbollah-al Qaeda relationship is known. Most recently, U.S. courts revealed the 9-11 alliance. Surprisingly, no counterterrorist specialist will ever claim Hezbollah or Iran is part of Al Qaeda.

Why won’t an agreement be made claiming Hezbollah falls under Al Qaeda? The simplest reason often obtained is that “Hezbollah is Shiite and Al Qaeda is Sunni.” Amazingly, professionals will observe one ideology stemming from religious differences but not through any other known ideology—especially, the ideology of power.

So a few key questions must be asked when attempting to understand what Al Qaeda truly is today. First, is Al Qaeda still the terrorist network it was once believed to be? Secondly, has too much emphasis on ideology been placed on today’s different radical Islamic terrorist organizations? Lastly, should counterterrorist professionals even stress about Al Qaeda any longer as one large terror movement or should they simply concentrate on the hundreds of terrorist groups in existence?

The later of these questions is likely the most debatable of those listed needing to be answered. Unfortunately, an entire shift in critical thinking would need to occur throughout an entire global system of those attempting to defeat a possible monster that, well, may no longer exist as we once believed. Shifting cognition within such a mass global system would entail a complete overhaul of social and cultural constructs. As any social psychologist knows, making such a move takes a long time to achieve.

In the end, Al Qaeda is possibly no longer who we once knew it to be. Arguably, Al Qaeda is nothing more than a label placed on Sunni Islamic terrorists groups. We now know that these groups have joined forces with non-Sunni terrorist factions. Who will be the maven to pitch this thought in an attempt to change counterterrorists' ways of thinking?

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