The concrete abstraction of Al-Qaedaism
Arije Antinori 11 May 2011

While for the United States Bin Laden’s death marks the closing of a circle painfully opened with the 9/11 attacks, the “Big Bang” of Al-Qaedaism does not actually mean a safer world and may lead to the birth of a new and more dangerous Al-Qaeda.

Bin Laden, the co-founder of Al-Qaeda together with the Egyptian al-Zawahiri, cannot be described as a Commander-in-Chief, the military leader of a homogeneous and specifically localized organisation, but rather as an ideological leader of a vast and varied group, whose personality post-9/11 became progressively characterized by the media and virtualized to the extent that it coincided with Al-Qaeda’s ideology itself. Thus, one can envisage the simplicity of the rhetorical creation of a legend within the violent extremist imagination.

In 1988, Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri founded Al-Qaeda, originally a compact and powerfully vertical structure, which from the very beginning distinguished itself by having an international dimension, as well as a dual criminal strategy. On one hand Al-Qaeda focused its interests on Afghan territories, to be defended by resorting to asymmetrical guerrilla warfare carried out by Mujahidin. On the other hand, it propagated terror within the Arab world by carrying out significant and bloody terrorist attacks with the objective of gathering consensus for the project involving a transnational Umma and the creation of a new caliphate.

Today Al-Qaeda seems increasingly more like a magmatic and multiform universe made up of Chechens, Arabs, Pakistanis, Uzbeks and Pashtuns, that in a reductive and simplistic manner is portrayed as a jihadist “monolith.” Instead it really consists of criminal organizations that differ both in the manner in which they were founded, as well as in their tactics and operations. Hence there has been a move from a project, to a group and therefore to a network with a media-reported ideology and vision of the globalised contemporary world, and finally to a multiform galaxy of terror.

The statement with which Al-Qaeda confirmed the death of its charismatic leader marks an underlying will to keep alive the link to the network’s historical nucleus through the imaginative commemoration of the indissoluble bond between Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, strengthened over the course of the years.

It is precisely within this context that in the immediate future we may well observe a schizophrenic phase of disorganized and de-structured “violent spontaneity,” in which young individuals and small groups integrated in social fabrics, especially European and/or American, might autonomously decide to carry out attacks using rudimentary, improvised and homemade means on objectives linked to Western interests and alliances.

There may be a later period of “terrorist spontaneity,” in which international terrorism’s locally organized Islamist extremist cells and groups will try to improve their positions in the global terrorist ratings by carrying out spectacular attacks at a local level. These attacks would likely involve civilian objectives and populations, so as to ensure for themselves, thanks to the media, functional accreditation in the process involving affiliation with the “al-Qaeda” terrorist brand name as they await an announcement (that may well come as a video-statement) concerning the reorganization of al-Qaeda’s leadership,

According to the disquieting revelations provided by Wikileaks, Al-Qaeda allegedly is in possession of fissionable material and a device capable of ensuring the detonation of a “dirty bomb” in Europe or in a large American city, as an immediate, compact and centralized answer to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. However, in addition to this marking a “point of no return” for the Al-Qaeda project, it would mark a significant change in strategy and tactics for the terrorist network, characterized in the past by a modus operandi involving coordinated suicide-bombings, as well as a decisive abandonment of its Nihilist school of thought. This would deprive the network of its transnational political-religious project, weakening its strategic centrality and encouraging the atomization of a less-organized spontaneity. In this sense, the organization’s leadership may perhaps wish to carry out an attack so resounding that it would act as a centrifuge force at a global level, capable of bringing under its direct control and functional dependence the Islamist terrorist and pseudo-Al-Qaeda groups that are currently operational.

At a geopolitical-criminal level, for the moment, the problem for terrorists does not appear to be taking advantage of the emotional wave arising from the death of their charismatic leader, but to, at a later date, be able to present themselves as a real alternative to other forms of government within a context such as the current one, characterized by the so-called “Arab Spring,” in which citizens, especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, are demanding their rights and want a society very different from the Wahabi and Salafite models.

Authoritarianism and the centralization of power in one person are the two political elements against which the young, who inspired and are still inspiring, Arab uprisings in recent months are battling. They want change, and extremism does not represent change. Al-Qaeda wants to stop this democratic haemorrhage that is killing authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. Within this framework, the recent attack carried out by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), today one of the groups with the most branches in the Mediterranean, as well as the most operationally important groups in the Al-Qaeda galaxy, emphasises the terrorist groups’ inability to control the democratizing and liberalizing process that Arab populations have embarked upon with violence, as Al-Qaeda does not effectively possess the political-religious authority needed to ride the wave of dissent and establish itself in a position of leadership in the Maghreb region.

Should the distance become smaller between the two powers currently influencing the Arab world, on one hand the democratic and ‘renaissance’ movement and on the other the minority violent extremism movement, Al-Qaeda’s terrorism could fuel the fire of destabilisation and create areas in which the void would allow the group to take root and also to govern its own recruiting, supply and economic interests through illegal trafficking.

Even with the 2005 attacks in London, the idea of Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization with a strongly organized leadership-tentacular structure capable of operating globally in a capillary manner did not seem reflected by reality. This appears to be confirmed by the strategic discontinuity and operational modalities with which later terrorist operations were carried out, first in Madrid and then in Sharm el-Sheik, Bali, Casablanca, Bombay and more recently in Marrakech.

As far as the issue concerning Bin Laden’s successor to the leadership of Al-Qaeda, it is important to specify that for some time there has been a rift between those supporting Bin Laden and the group led by al-Zawahiri. This rift increased after dissent concerning the bloodbath involving a great loss of Muslim lives resulting from the criminal strategy implemented by the “sheikh of terror.” In this sense, moving the front of Al-Qaeda objectives to Europe, with attacks in London and Madrid, allegedly emphasized a fall in the leadership’s influence and hence the need to strengthen “authoritativeness” within the terrorist organization. Furthermore, the lack of a generational follow-up at the strategic summit could result, within the framework of perceived vulnerability, in a stagnation of Al-Qaeda’s network-like structure, strengthening the rise on the international stage of new Salafite groups, characterized by a significantly aggressive capacity, but above all, provided with significant, if not absolute, organizational autonomy.

Presumably over the medium-term Al-Qaeda will try to achieve a silent “African colonisation,” especially by managing a number of weak borders in the sub-Saharan area. This process is believed to be addressed at establishing important alliances with subjects, groups and/or local criminal elites, such as, for example, the Muhajirun, or the Nigerian Taliban. These alliance intend to create trans-national tension, ready to then cause the implosion of social-demographic systems already compromised, such as the ones in Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudan. In this case, one will observe the mark of an Al-Qaeda command in the hands of one of two main figures, the Egyptian al-Zawahiri or the Yemeni al-Awlaki.

As far as communications and organisation are concerned, Al-Qaeda has never chosen the form of a maximalist and revolutionary political movement but has tried progressively to expand and increase consensus through the portrayal of terror seen as a media construction of the terrorist event, hence thanks to the effective emotional link identifiable in the triangulation of the image, the event and the rhetoric. At this point, the network will have to decide whether to maintain the dual level involving a real and a virtual battle, or whether to privilege one or the other.

According to long-term strategies, one will see on one hand a progressive de-territorialisation and individualisation, if not even an “intimist privatisation” of Al-Qaeda, in a new and more effective globalising pseudo-doctrine with an antagonistic and para-violent basis. This strategy would attempt to increase its membership at a global level, perhaps even gathering around the figure of the martyr Bin Laden. There could, on the contrary, be a creation of a “real Al-Qaeda,” probably following endogenous conflict-based dynamics and/or feuds, led by al Zawahiri’s group of Egyptians, proclaiming itself the only repository of the original myth, with fewer members and characterised by flexible and selectively operational capabilities and greatly compartmentalised top-down dynamics.

In this last scenario, the “alliance game” would acquire significant importance, especially in crisis regions and destabilized areas, with other terrorist organisations, first among them the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Finally, one must not underestimate the possibility of operational links used to share specific criminal interests that could result in hybrid groups representing significant danger and unpredictable operations.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Arije Antinori is a researcher in sociology and criminology at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”. He is an expert on terrorism and organized crime.



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