Compiled by Paul Cruickshank, a New York-based investigative journalist and one of CNN’s top correspondents on terrorism, this monumental five-volume collection of previously published articles by leading analysts on al Qaeda is, to date, the most comprehensive resource published on the terrorist organization and its worldwide affiliates. Chronicled here are the acts of warfare al Qaeda and its affiliates pursue against their own societies, Western Europe and America.
Mr. Cruickshank introduces each of the five volumes with a 20-page editorial overview designed to place events in their historical and political context. On their own, his 100 pages of text constitute an invaluable information resource about his subjects.
The collection’s 108 chapters were written by more than 80 authors, with several contributing several articles each. Notable authors include Peter Bergen, Bruce Hoffman, Brian Michael Jenkins and Marc Sageman.
The five volumes cover al Qaeda’s evolving threat, al Qaeda before and after Sept. 11, the spread of al Qaeda’s affiliates (or “franchises”) around the world, the root causes underlying its insurgency, the organization’s aims and strategies and its administrative organization. Also included are how it raises funds, how its ideology was influenced by extremist interpretations of Islam and an analysis of its influential ideologues, led by the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (who also greatly influenced the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, currently governing Egypt).
Of particular note are articles that address the means al Qaeda uses to disseminate its propaganda via the Internet, how it radicalizes its supporters and recruits them into terrorist activities, the new trend of “homegrown” extremists in Western societies (many of whom have a loose affiliation with al Qaeda), the role of safe havens in maintaining al Qaeda’s viability and how it trains its recruits. Interestingly, as Mr. Cruickshank points out, with al Qaeda’s safe havens under constant bombardment, its training programs in Pakistan and Yemen have become compressed, resulting in less capable operatives, many of whom subsequently failed in attempts to execute attacks.
Numerous insights presented by the volume’s contributors help us understand the magnitude of the threats posed by al Qaeda. First and foremost, the al Qaeda threat is defined as “the danger posed by al Qaeda, the Jihadist-terrorist groups affiliated with it, and individuals inspired by its ideology.”
An important theme running throughout the volumes is that following the expulsion of al Qaeda from its safe haven in Afghanistan in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and additional setbacks, such as the killings of many of its top leaders, including Osama bin Laden, it nevertheless has succeeded in reconstituting itself as a viable transnational terrorist “corporation.” One of the ways it has achieved this revival has been by franchising its “brand” to local organizations that act on its behalf in disparate places such as Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.
Its franchises, in fact, even have succeeded in reasserting its global brand by exploiting the revolutionary upheavals and weakening of the security apparatuses of previously autocratic secular regimes created by the Arab Spring in countries such as Egypt, where their fighters have reconstituted themselves in the Sinai Peninsula, and Libya, where they maintain strongholds in the ungoverned eastern parts of the country. In fact, according to Mr. Cruickshank, al Qaeda fighters have succeeded in moving weapons from Libya to their brethren in the anarchic Sinai Peninsula in order to conduct warfare against Israel, one of al Qaeda’s primary enemies, although their likelihood of mounting major attacks against Israel is considered minimal.
Finally, the fall of Moammar Gadhafi also resulted in the well-armed Tuareg mercenaries previously employed by the Libyan government fleeing to Mali, where they ignited a Tuareg rebellion. The resulting upheaval subsequently was exploited by Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked group, which took control of much of northern Mali by the summer of 2012 and poses a major threat to regional stability. The United States is considering deploying troops against it.
In Syria, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, together with other foreign elements, has succeeded in joining the wider Sunni insurgency against the Bashar Assad regime, leaving many to wonder how they will be contained once the Alawite-dominated regime is toppled.
At its initial center of gravity in the aftermath of Sept. 11, al Qaeda has succeeded in reconstituting itself in Pakistan’s tribal regions, where its primary affiliate, the Taliban in their various configurations, are conducting a terrorist insurgency against the Afghanistan government and the U.S.-led military coalition. However, with the U.S.-led coalition scheduled to withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan in 2014, Mr. Cruickshank writes, “The prospect of the Taliban entering a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan or it again seizing control of southern provinces could offer al Qaeda greater opportunity to once again operate in the country and strengthen its position in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.”
Despite its ability to reconstitute itself in those parts of the world, however, Mr. Cruickshank and his contributors point out that al Qaeda and its affiliates are still subject to critiques by fellow Salafists and popular backlash. In the Middle East, for example, the revolutionary forces unleashed by the Arab Spring may not “move their way” with their tactics not necessarily “winning the hearts and minds” of young Muslims, who may opt for other, more responsible, movements to lead them. Nevertheless, their operatives and supporters are still present in those societies, where internal disorder provides them space to operate with relative ease in launching their attacks.
In today’s era, when multivolume printed reference sets are disappearing slowly with the rise of e-books and younger generations are accustomed to finding free content via online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, where the content is uneven at best, there still is no substitute to reading reference sets such as Mr. Cruickshank’s “al Qaeda.” With its carefully selected and definitive chapters, readers who crave comprehensiveness and accuracy and are willing to pay for it will not be disappointed.
• Joshua Sinai is a Washington-based consultant and educator specializing in counterterrorism studies. He is the author of “Active Shooter — A Handbook on Prevention” (ASIS International, 2013).