How should we think about al Qaeda? Mortal enemy or troublesome pest? Are they the same now as 5 years ago? What is their strategy?
The answer to these questions was given in a testimony last year before the House Armed Services, Subcommittee on Terrorism. The author was terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman.
Hoffman says that we should think of al Qaeda as four different types of organization.
First, al Qaeda central. This is the “remnants of the pre-9/11 organization”; Bin Laden, Zawahiri and their followers. This group is believed to be in Pakistan, possibly in the Northwest near the border with Afghanistan, and to retain the ability to coordinate and command attacks. President Bush today stated that bin Laden had attempted to coordinate activity with sympathizers in Iraq.
Second, al Qaeda affiliates and associates. These are local insurgent or terrorist groups who bin Laden has attempted to establish links with. These groups are across the globe, in countries such as Uzbekistan, Indonesia, the Phillipines, Bosnia and Kashmir.
Third, al Qaeda locals. These are experienced al Qaeda members, who have fought in Algeria, the Balkans, Chechnya, and Iraq. They may have trained in an al Qaeda camp, but are unlikely to be in direct contact with al Qaeda central.
Fourth, the al Qaeda network. These are home-grown radicals who seek to join or support al Qaeda for ideological reasons. They are unlikely to be known to local authorities, or even to be part of an organized group. Some evidence suggests that this network could be substantial, especially in Europe. Last year, the then head of the British domestic intelligence service, Eliza Manningham-Buller, said that they were keeping 1,600 individuals under surveillance.
So what does this mean? The nature of al Qaeda has changed since 9/11. Thinking about the organization as “a bunch of guys in a cave” in Pakistan is a serious mistake.