Original post: https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/al-qaedas-master-plan
Osama bin Laden would be a happy man were he still alive. His hopes and dreams have seemingly come to fruition. And, the master plan that one of his closest disciples devised for him a decade ago to reverse al Qaeda’s then waning fortunes and launch it on a trajectory to eventual, divinely-ordained, triumph appears—according to the movement’s propaganda—to be falling neatly into place.
How can it be that after nearly a decade-and-a-half of waging war on terror—the greatest global onslaught in fact ever directed against a terrorist group—that al Qaeda believes that they’re on the path to victory?
A combination of patience, perseverance, opportunity, and plain good luck have combined to effect a transformation that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago in the aftermath of both bin Laden’s death and the popular protests of the Arab Spring that many thought had sounded the death knell for terrorism’s power and influence over the region.
In a long-forgotten 1998 interview, bin Laden asserted that he did not fear death since he was certain that his martyrdom would produce “thousands more Osamas.” With the 25 thousand foreign recruits from some 80 countries now fighting for al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as their respective franchises and branches in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Mali, his death wish has arguably been achieved.
Moreover, unlike on 9/11, the threats these fighters pose are now internal as well as external. No longer it is a matter of having to infiltrate attack teams into targeted countries. Homegrown violent extremism abetted by the reach and power of contemporary social media has completely changed national security today.
“We have two kinds of threats,” Bernard Bajolet, the head of French intelligence lamented on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., “an inside threat” posed by radicalized individuals living in France and “the threat from the outside, either through terrorist actions which are planned [and] ordered from outside or . . . through fighters coming back to our countries.”
It was of course the latter category that was responsible for last weekend’s carnage in Paris. They fulfilled yet another longstanding bin Laden edict: that the cities of Europe should run red with infidel blood. In September 2010, when the al Qaeda leader issued that command, his orders had fallen on deaf ears as none of bin Laden’s followers had the capability to do so. But, today, with the rise of ISIS, that desideratum has been satisfied—with fears of future attacks now consuming both Europe and the U.S.
But perhaps bin Laden’s greatest satisfaction is the opportunity created by the Syrian civil war to re-brand al Qaeda and thus endow it with an image of comparative moderates when contrasted to ISIS. Among the documents seized by U.S. Navy Seals in bin Laden’s Abbottabad villa was one where he expresses concern that the al Qaeda brand had outlived its usefulness.
Bin Laden complained that the group’s name had become universally associated with violence: to the extent that its core ideological and political goals were completely ignored.
Accordingly, bin Laden must be very pleased indeed that al Qaeda’s Syrian wing is widely known as Jabhat al Nusra—the very anodyne-sounding “Support Front.” Rarely is it ever referred to as al Qaeda’s Syrian arm or, it seems, directly associated with its justly maligned parent organization.
The fact that Jabhat al Nusra is in fact even more dangerous and capable than ISIS seems completely immaterial to those across the region who not only support it, but actively seek to partner with what they perversely regard as a more moderate and reasonable rival to ISIS.
This banishment of the name al Qaeda extends remarkably even to the group’s elite, shock force that Ayman al Zawahiri ordered to Syria some two years ago. Known as the Khorasan Group (the ancient Persian name for Central Asia and Afghanistan) it too appears to have been linguistically estranged from the al Qaeda moniker.
These deliberate obfuscations, both to eschew the al Qaeda name and portray its most important franchise as more benign than ISIS, is a reflection of a calculated strategic choice taken by al Zawahiri at a pivotal moment of al Qaeda’s history. In 2013 he instructed the movement’s fighters to avoid mass casualty operations in order not to cause the death of Muslim civilians and innocent women and children. The legacy of this edict is evident in a recent tweet by a Dutch fighter in Jabhat al Nusra who eagerly reminded his followers that, unlike ISIS, “Al Qaeda focuses mostly on political & military targets instead of civilians.”
This development thus fits neatly into al Zawahiri’s broader strategy of letting ISIS take all the heat and absorb all the blows while al Qaeda quietly re-builds its military strength and basks in its paradoxical cachet as “moderate extremists” in contrast to an unconstrained ISIS.
The discovery last month of a vast al Qaeda munitions storage complex carved into a hillside in the Shorabak District near Kandahar provides incontrovertible evidence that the group is stockpiling weapons and husbanding its resources in preparation for a new terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. Only the most inveterate optimist would believe that this is the only facility of its kind that al Qaeda maintains along the remote border area straddling the Durand Line.
Al Zawahiri’s stunning announcement in January 2014 of the creation of yet another al Qaeda franchise—this time in the Indian subcontinent—is further proof of both the movement’s re-vitalization and its interest in cultivating new opportunities for expansion.
Taking advantage of resurgent Hinduism nationalism in a country with the world’s second largest Muslim population, recruits from India along with those from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Burma are re-making al Qaeda from its once predominant Arabian and Middle Eastern demographic to a distinctly South Asian one.
Meanwhile, al Zawahiri approvingly watches as the seven-phase strategy articulated by al Qaeda’s operational chief, Saif al Adl, in 2005, progresses. The fifth phase which al Adl—who is currently in Syria directing al Qaeda operations in the Levant—had foreseen as occurring between 2013 and 2014 would result in the declaration of the Caliphate. In this respect, ISIS has temporarily stolen al Qaeda’s thunder: but al Zawahiri doubtless is confident that when ISIS eventually either falters or is crushed as a result of its bloody assaults in the West, he and his fighters will be ready to take over and absorb the renegade splinter: thus resuming its position at the cynosure of Salafi jihadi aims and aspirations.
This will then set the stage for the implementation of the final two phases of al Adl’s hitherto remarkably prescient strategy. The sixth iteration in this progression he described as “The Total Confrontation Stage,” when sometime between 2016-2020 the various jihadi franchises and branches scattered across North, West and East Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and South and South East Asia will all come together to form an “Islamic Army.”
The way will now be paved for the final "fight between the believers and the non-believers" thus leading to the “Definitive Victory Stage” when, no later than 2022, the Caliphate will decisively vanquish its enemies.
Propaganda, of course, doesn’t have to be true: it just has to be believed. And, however half-baked or even quarter-baked this narrative may be, it is nonetheless fundamentally disquieting to map al Qaeda’s strategic trajectory from 2000 to the present and realize that, far from having receded as a threat, the movement is stubbornly preparing for what its fighters and followers firmly believe will be the epic last battle and final confrontation with the West.
Professor Bruce Hoffman is a tenured professor at Georgetown University and the Director of the Center for Security Studies. He has served as a commissioner on the Independent Commission to Review the FBI’s Post-9/11 Response to Terrorism and Radicalization, a Scholar-in-Residence for Counterterrorism at the CIA, and an adviser on counterterrorism to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2004.