Killing of al-Qaeda’s No 2: good news and bad for CIA
New al-Qaeda branches open all the time – but can they still replicate the 9/11 atrocity?
August has ended on a high note for the CIA. On August 22 one of their Predator drones 'took out' al-Qaeda's second-in-command, the Libyan-born Atiyah Abdul-Rahman, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had held the position for less than 12 weeks.
But the news is not as good as it appears. Al-Qaeda's inspirational centre of gravity has moved to Yemen where a new generation of aggressive and committed leaders are generating imaginative methods of attack. They in their turn will be subject to 'death by drone', but for now the West is just cranking up its intelligence effort against them.
The other bigger, longer term, problem is that al-Qaeda's style of organisation makes it difficult to stamp out completely.
Al-Qaeda has often been likened to a franchise. Like the hamburger chain, McDonalds, it is always opening new branches. The most recent one to come to international attention is the Nigerian outfit, Boko Haram ('Western Education is a Sin'), which bombed the UN headquarters in the capital Abuja last Friday (above).
But in reality the al-Qaeda model is more like the Avon Lady and more dangerous as a result. Many terrorist groups start with a motivated, often charismatic, young man who begins to build a circle of like-minded types. He peddles his radical views and grievances to this eager audience, playing up local resentments as well as a global chippiness at Western influence.
Soon enough they act as a radicalising echo chamber to each other. Everyone who does not share their violent aspirations is a traitor or apostate. Eventually, they make contact not with a head office, but with a regional enabler who can supply money, expertise and moral sustenance. And then they start killing people. It's a management consultant's dream - self-starting, flat management, low overheads.
And so, ten years after 9/11, what is the future of al-Qaeda?
A clear-eyed assessment of the organisation's capabilities has always been difficult. De-mystifying 9/11 would be a useful start. The US authorities portrayed the attacks as more sophisticated and clever than they really were, in an attempt to explain to themselves and their people their humiliation at the hands of a few bearded fanatics.
Both the aircraft which slammed into the Twin Towers took off from Boston's Logan Airport that fateful morning. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but bog standard security of the type in use at European airports for a generation would have thwarted Mohamed Atta and his accomplices before they got near a plane. It is difficult to overstate just how easy the 9/11 hijackers had it.
It is not surprising, therefore, that al-Qaeda has had a disappointing subsequent 10 years, never managing to replicate 9/11 anywhere on western soil. Without the West's huge own goal of Iraq, which almost certainly inspired both the Madrid and London bombings, it is likely that the movement would have remained a sideshow in Europe - a scourge to be found in countries far away.
Al-Qaeda is like a failing Hollywood studio desperate for one more blockbuster which it cannot deliver. Its major audience in the Middle East is changing before its eyes.
Islamists may well have a place in whatever new order or disorder emerges. But it is hard to believe that even the most unsavoury and extremist elements in Libya's new provisional government would find a seat at the table for their erstwhile countryman, the late Atiyah Abdul-Rahman.
There have been intelligence jitters on both sides of the Atlantic over the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Perhaps Fate is quietly slipping the lead into the cosh. But it seems likely that al-Qaeda, at least in the West, is on the way to becoming a periodic nuisance rather than a showstopper - IRA men with beards. They will be able to kill from time to time but the epic, bloody and pitiful spectacle of 9/11 will be hard to replicate. ·
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