They kidnap Westerners in the deserts of Africa, turn Western-born Muslims into radicals, send bombs to the United States from Yemen and mount bloody attacks in Iraq and Pakistan.
These homegrown terrorist groups worldwide are informally dubbed al Qaeda “franchises” - affiliates that do most of their own fundraising, recruiting and killing.
The question now is this: What impact will the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden have on the ability and willingness of the franchises to mount attacks?
Emails found on flash drives from bin Laden’s hide-out in Pakistan this month show that he was communicating more than Western intelligence had thought. But al Qaeda’s ideology plays a much bigger role in fostering terrorism than bin Laden’s personal involvement, said Gen. David Richards, Britain’s top military chief.
“Yemen, Somalia and other places in the Middle East are today more important in a counterterror context than what was going on … in Osama’s compound,” Gen. Richards told British lawmakers.
Several al Qaeda franchises have vowed retaliation for bin Laden’s death, but it’s not clear how much of a threat they pose. The biggest terrorist plots to date have been pulled off or directed by al Qaeda itself, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the 2005 London suicide bombings.
However, al Qaeda franchises were responsible for the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166, and the 2002 attacks on a Bali island night club that killed 202 people, many of them foreign tourists.
The head of Britain’s domestic spy agency MI5, Jonathan Evans, has said it’s only a matter of time before “we see terrorism on our streets” from the al Qaeda movement in Somalia, known as al-Shabab. He also said it is likely that al Qaeda supporters in the Arabian Peninsula will step up attacks on Western targets.
The fight to bring down al Qaeda franchises will depend on painstaking coordination among intelligence agencies worldwide. Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, predicted that al Qaeda and the franchises are “likely to pose an enduring threat in the foreseeable future.”
Al Qaeda now has about 10 major franchises, although the Afghanistan-Pakistan group has splintered into smaller and more dangerous ones. Al Qaeda provides ideological inspiration and sometimes direct training and funding. The franchises have goals within their own regions, but also international aspirations, which include U.S. and European targets.
Among the first franchises to spring up was al Qaeda in Iraq in about 2003, formed to attack U.S. forces. However, this franchise took some of the luster off al Qaeda’s message because of its massacre of thousands of Shiite Muslims.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is now thought to be much smaller than in its heyday, although there is no reliable estimate on the number of members. Yet in a show of strength, a front group called the Islamic State of Iraq boasted recently that extremists had slipped guns and messages to inmates for weeks before an unsuccessful prison break that left 17 dead.
Three days before the attempted prison breakout, the group staged a suicide bombing at an Iraqi police station, in which 20 officers died. On the same day that it claimed responsibility for the bombing, it called for revenge for bin Laden’s death.
“The martyrdom of the sheik will increase the determination and steadfastness among his brotherly mujahideen,” read the statement, signed by Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, a pseudonym for the militant whom the U.S. identified Wednesday as taking the helm of the Islamic State of Iraq.
The al Qaeda faction in Yemen is viewed as perhaps the most threatening to the United States and some European countries because of its history of attempted attacks.
It is thought to be responsible for the failed 2009 bid to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner by a would-be suicide bomber with explosives sewn into his underwear, along with last year’s unsuccessful plot to send mail bombs on U.S.-bound cargo planes.
The Yemen faction has taken advantage of protests calling for the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to build up strength in the country’s weakly governed provinces. Last week, two armed men thought to belong to al Qaeda opened fire on security posts outside the town of Mukalla, killing three people.
The al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen has been boosted by inspiration from American-born operative Anwar al-Awlaki, who has radicalized a younger generation of extremists.
A British woman who stabbed a lawmaker last year had watched about 100 hours of al-Awlaki videos, British officials said. Al-Awlaki also is thought to have inspired and even plotted or helped coordinate attacks on the U.S., including the failed 2009 airline bombing and last year’s mail bombing.
In Somalia, the al-Shabab offshoot taxes ships coming into port, extorts portions of crops from farmers and has links to pirates.
It is putting out increasingly sophisticated propaganda, with flashy videos in English featuring a rapping American named Omar Hammami, one of around 20 American members of Somali descent.
Hammami, known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, or “the American,” said at a recent news conference that militants would seek revenge for the death of Osama bin Laden.
Also of threat to Europe is another al Qaeda faction that is raising tens of millions of dollars via kidnappings and ransom in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Libya.
This group, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, targets France and seeks to overthrow the Algerian government, seen as a key defense against terrorist attacks in Europe just across the Mediterranean Sea.
Mathieu Guidere, a professor at the University of Toulouse who trained French military officers to monitor al Qaeda communiques, puts the group’s income since 2008 at a staggering $72 million.
Ransom is set according to each captive’s nationality, with Americans and Canadians fetching $2.5 million to $5 million each and starting prices for French captives at about $2 million.
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