Necessity is not always the mother of improvement
Posted by aogThursday, 20 November 2003 at 20:58 TrackBack Ping URL

Via Instapundit, we have Phil Carter who is worried about the evolving structure of Al Qaeda.

I agree with his basic analysis, that Al Quaeda has become even more distributed, although this is more of an emphasis. Al Qaeda has always been somewhat distributed, although previously it was more of a “hub and spoke”“: model with a number of semi-autonomous groups under the direction of the center (Bin Laden). With the destruction of the Al Qaeda hub in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, by necessity the structure has changed to a more peer-to-peer style.

While Mr. Carter is concerned about the advantages of this to Al Qaeda, he doesn’t consider the downsides. Among these are

  • Factionalism and cross purposes
  • Lack of scale for large attacks
  • Invitation of defeat in detail

The first is probably the most significant. As the anti-Western protestors have learned, one big effort makes a lot more difference than a hundred smaller ones. There is also the strong probability that different groups / factions will operate at cross purposes thereby reducing the overall impact. We can already see hints of this with the claims, counter claims and denials over the bombings in Riyadh. The timing of the recent bombings in Istanbul against primarily British targets during the anti-Bush demonstrations is suboptimal as well. Note only will it steal some of the media spotlight, but it’s likely to make some of the protestors wonder whether it’s a good idea to support the same goals as people who blow up their fellow citizens. The problem what leadership of Al Qaeda is left has is that in the new structure, this kind of thing can not only not be turned off but it probably cannot even be slowed down. In some sense that’s fine for nihilists, but that kind of ideology won’t survive for any extended period.

Secondarily, a distributed structure makes it more difficult to gather resources for truly large scale attacks (like the 11 Sep attacks) and greatly increases the risks from infiltrators and counter-intelligence. In the original structure, central command was as group of hard core jihadis who knew each other intimately. While bozos like Suleyman al-Faris could get physically close to Bin Laden and the rest of the ruling circle, I find it difficult to believe that the latter viewed him as other than fodder. Now, however, with disparate groups the leadership has to take a lot more risks with people they don’t know or who may have changed loyalties since the last meeting.

Finally, an organization that is every can be attacked everywhere. This has been a problem for the USA, but now Al Qaeda will have to contend with the same problem, of supporting far flung operations on a limited budget of money, material and cannon fodder.

This isn’t to say that Al Qaeda won’t remain dangerous, but I view this shift as one of tactical survival, not an improving strategic picture for Al Qaeda.