The Rise of Al-Qaeda 2.0

The terrorism network is now diffuse and lacks a coherent center, but it is still just as deadly.
The site of an Al-Qaeda-linked suicide bombing outside the United Nations compound in Mogadishu, Somalia (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

Early on, Al-Qaeda was a close-knit band of extremists with common cause, a centralized leadership, and a base from which to launch global operations.

With the death of Osama bin Laden, the loss of a host of top commanders, and its retreat from Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda has become a diffuse group with no coherent center. But the emerging network of Al-Qaeda offshoots, with operations around the world, is no less dangerous.

Call it Al-Qaeda 2.0 -- the evolution of a group whose directives once came from the top into a network of affiliates who are essentially on their own to export a fundamentalist brand of Islam and upstage secular governments in the Muslim world.

Al-Qaeda's growing list of affiliates, by feeding off local grievances and exploiting political turmoil, are showing their strength in a number of countries, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Mali.

Their rise, which has come with little tutelage from what remains of the Al-Qaeda brain trust in Pakistan, has sparked fears that they will continue to expand by exploiting local conflicts as battlegrounds for global jihad.

U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman (California), the top Democrat at the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, said during a hearing on July 18 that the evolved Al-Qaeda remains a viable threat.

"Al-Qaeda has failed to carry out a major attack in the United States since 9/11," Sherman said. "However, the danger posed by Al-Qaeda to the United States is still significant. Al-Qaeda's structure has become more decentralized, less of an integrated corporation, and closer to a franchise. Its chief terrorist activities are now being conducted by its local and regional affiliates."

This week, hundreds of militants were back on the streets following coordinated, military-style attacks on prisons that were carried out by Al-Qaeda's main affiliate in Iraq. The prison breakout was seen as a potential boost to Al-Qaeda's fight in Syria.

Nowhere is Al-Qaeda's evolution more apparent than in Syria, which has become the new battleground for extremist groups. Al-Qaeda's local affiliates have sided with Sunni rebels fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite Shi'ite sect, which Sunni extremists regard as heretical.

Shamila Chaudhary, a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, says the lawlessness in Syria has given Al-Qaeda a new home and a base from which to carry out its activities. She says it is Al-Qaeda's presence in conflicts such as Syria that still make it a potential threat to the region and the West.

"The real threat to a lot of countries now is what other pockets of vulnerability exist around the globe that could give Al-Qaeda and its affiliates a home base. That creates new problems," Chaudhary says. "The Afghanistan-Pakistan environment was very much complicated by the fact that Al-Qaeda was living there. Now that few of them are there, it becomes a much more regional and domestic conflict. That means [Al-Qaeda] had to go somewhere else and that internationalizes conflicts because Al-Qaeda threatens the U.K., U.S., and other countries."

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