- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

As we near the fourth anniversary of that horrible September morning in 2001, terrorism analysts have seen an unprecedented expansion in both the sheer number of individuals in the field, and the range of explanations, theories and strategies for dealing with terrorism.

Like the great Cold War-era debates over Soviet intentions and capabilities, the assumptions behind different approaches in academically examining Islamist terrorism are quickly forming very separate schools of thought about al Qaeda’s nature. The London attacks helped clarify the differences between analysts who believe al Qaeda remains an effective terror organization and those who believe it is better seen as a globalized Islamist ideological movement.

The “Al Qaeda as organization” school describes Osama bin Laden as the commander in chief of an extensive global network of professional terrorists. Using a large database created in the formative years of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri were able to create an elaborate and robust organization staffed by full-time fanatics who either followed bin Laden across the Middle East or deployed throughout Europe, Asia and North America. Establishing sleeper cells and support networks for the various battles under way in Afghanistan, the Balkans or Central Asia, al Qaeda quickly came to rival Hezbollah as one of the world’s most fearsome terror networks.

When a member of this school interprets attacks by al Qaeda, he or she looks for evidence of extensive surveillance, professional operational planning, effective use of high-tech arms and large service and support networks organized and led by jihadists trained in one of many pre-September 11, 2001, training camps. An analyst of this school will tend to argue that while the network has surely suffered greatly since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, reports of its past, imminent or eventual destruction are greatly exaggerated. Instead, they see evidence of a robust network continuing to react, innovate and adapt to a newly difficult operating environment.

They decry efforts to focus on anything other than al Qaeda’s continuing as a very dangerous global terror organization.

The “al Qaeda as social movement” school describes Osama bin Laden as the revered leader of an Islamist ideological movement that is very much the answer to the Western historical narrative. Through al Qaeda, bin Laden was able to export animosity and hatred throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia. By attacking symbols of Western power such at the World Trade Center, bin Laden was able to prove to the Muslim world it was possible to confront the infidel hegemon.

He hoped to spark both a revolution in the Muslim world and an overreaction by the U.S. and its allies that would essentially prove his anti-Western narrative.

While bin Laden was surely surprised by how quickly he was pushed out of Afghanistan, he undoubtedly rejoiced at the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which has made an Arab land both an incubator for new jihadists and a continuous example of “Crusader aggression.” An analyst of this school will tend to argue that while professional terrorists played an important role in early development of al Qaeda, their role has been entirely eclipsed by the ideological fanatics driven to suicide bombings by a complex mixture of social isolation, religious confusion, peer pressure and ideological certainty.

Analysts in this school look for trends in the dynamics of radicalization within Muslim communities and among young males in particular, for indications of germinating clusters of friends who may rapidly evolve into violent extremists.

These developing schools within the community of terrorism analysts are much more amenable to each other than were the opposing schools of Cold War-era analysts. However, the emergence of Europe as a very real theater in the global war on terror is driving the schools further apart.

The “al Qaeda as social movement” school sees the London attacks as dramatic evidence the Madrid “self-starter” phenomena were not an aberration but portends what the future holds for radicalizing Muslim populations throughout Europe. Those in the “Al Qaeda as organization” school see professional planning, sophisticated bomb designs and a support network that may extend to Italy and Egypt.

The truth, as in most things, is in between these positions. Al Qaeda is an organization that can still effectively attack Western targets and a social movement that has captivated millions of Muslims and created thousands of extremists.

The truth is more dangerous and deadly than either school is willing to admit. Iraq has become key to developing al Qaeda as an organization through its training and networking possibilities. Iraq is also fundamental to al Qaeda as a social movement through daily reinforcement of the jihadist historical narrative.

Moreover, the recent London attacks likely indicate both paradigms. The attackers were British Muslims radicalized at mosques where jihad and hatred were preached. The attackers also clearly were helped by at least one bomb technician and what seems to be a large support network.

What is disturbing about London is the appearance of a real nexus — a synergy between al Qaeda as social movement and al Qaeda as a very real network of like-minded and professional terrorists. We ignore that nexus at our peril.

If terrorism analysts are unwilling to deconstruct the nascent walls they have placed between their differing paradigms, they will become ineffective in accurately analyzing and interpreting the phenomenon to U.S. policymakers and the public.


Research associate,

Center for Strategic

and International Studies

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