The Al Qaeda factor, and the fate of a Jihadi group

The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West by Mitchell D. Silber.

One reason terrorism watchers have often been wrong about some of the critical issues within their field is that so much occurs within the shadows. Over the past eleven years, we can see that multiple near-consensus views crumbled as new data became available. After al Qaeda’s loss of its Afghanistan safe haven, for example, the predominant view was that the jihadi group had become “more of an ideology than an organisation.” This was reflected in the U.S. intelligence community’s April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate, which held that “the global jihadist movement is decentralised, lacks a coherent strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.” During the next fifteen months new data came to light, most dramatically the disruption of a large-scale plot designed to blow up seven transatlantic flights bound for the United States from Britain with liquid explosives. Evidence suggestive of al Qaeda command and control in that plot, coupled with other new data, caused the intelligence community to reverse course in July 2007 and conclude that the jihadi organisation had “protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability.”

There have been other reversals, other areas where new information has managed to uproot assumptions that were widely and strongly held within the field. A comparison of available data versus what terrorism analysts would like to have at their disposal makes these reversals unsurprising. Terrorist groups’ organisational dynamics are largely hidden. They are clandestine organisations, even their methods of communication designed to thwart their enemies’ signals intelligence. Further, terrorist plots are rare enough that there is always a danger of inferring too much based on the last plot or last several plots: this is what social scientists call the “small N problem.”

One way to create better analysis is assembling all the data available on the plots that have occurred, and using this starting point to infer broader organisational dynamics. This is precisely what Mitchell D. Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department, does in his valuable book The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West.

Silber’s main concern in this study is determining how much of a role al Qaeda’s senior leadership (which he dubs “al Qaeda Core”) had in plots that are typically referred to as “al Qaeda plots.” Thus the book’s title: he wants to understand the “al Qaeda factor” in plots against the West. In doing so, Silber establishes a logical framework for understanding the role that al Qaeda Core could play. The three categories he utilises are al Qaeda command and control, in which the organisation conceptualises a plot, gives operatives specific guidance and continues to communicate with them after they return to the West; al Qaeda suggested or endorsed plots, in which someone of rank provides the suggestion and/or endorsement to carry out an attack, but does not provide specific guidance on “means, timing, and targets”; and al Qaeda inspired plots, where plotters did not receive suggestions or endorsements from the leadership, but nonetheless wanted to carry out an attack “based on their desire to act on behalf of al Qaeda’s ideological and strategic goals.”

Silber examines sixteen different plots against the West, and in doing so draws on a rich array of sources and data. His study makes a noteworthy substantive contribution from its analysis of the plots themselves, with a framework for understanding the plots that goes beyond the simple calculus of the role played by al Qaeda Core. Silber also examines the social context from which the schemes emerged, how the plotters’ beliefs became politicised, the anatomy of the radicalised cluster (including the active core of plotters, followers, and their periphery), overseas travel to link up with al Qaeda, how the plotters trained and acquired their skills and the plots’ operational cycle.

A number of lessons can be drawn from Silber’s study. Like other researchers, including Marc Sageman, Silber finds that plotters’ connection to al Qaeda Core was in almost all cases the result of “bottom-up” initiative—individuals choosing to reach out to al Qaeda—rather than the organisation dispatching recruiters to lure Westerners. Silber is able to chronicle four different kinds of training camp experiences. Intriguingly—consonant with the view of researchers like Peter Neumann, Ryan Evans, and Raffaello Pantucci, who hold that al Qaeda’s “middle managers” may be the organisation’s true center of gravity—Silber finds that “there often was a person who played the role of intermediary between the conspirators, once they returned to the West, and al Qaeda’s Chief of External Operations.” Rather than using the parlance of middle manager, Silber describes a person in this role as the “link man” or “control officer.”

Silber’s book comes at a time when analysts are again debating whether al Qaeda is dying. Silber argues that while the threat is far from over, the group is becoming more decentralised. “Other than the Operation Overt transatlantic airlines plot in 2006, the period from 2002 to 2009 did not see a plot that was under al Qaeda command and control,” he writes.

However, in the fall of 2010 a large-scale terrorist plot linked back to South Asia aspired to carry out multiple Mumbai-style urban warfare attacks in Europe. This plot’s inclusion would have benefited Silber’s study. If it were classified as an al Qaeda “command and control” plot (rather than simply “suggested/endorsed”), that gives rise to another organisational possibility prior to Osama bin Laden’s death: an al Qaeda Core that focused primarily on generating catastrophic acts of terror (the transatlantic air plot, urban warfare attacks), while letting affiliates and others keep the enemy on its toes through disruptive acts of terror.

Further, though Silber refers to them, he does not make specific case studies of the December 2009 plot in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a flight to Detroit with explosives hidden in his underwear, but experienced a painful detonator failure or the October 2010 plot where explosives designed as printer cartridges were loaded onto UPS and FedEx planes in Yemen. Both plots were the work of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which analyst Leah Farrall has described as more of a branch of al Qaeda than a franchise, because it “was created by, and continues to operate under, the leadership of core al Qaeda members.” How would these plots fit within Silber’s three overarching categories?

One question Silber does not ask, but which is highly relevant to debates about the future of the jihadi threat, is the relative efficacy of plots in which al Qaeda Core played a strong role. Do plotters who are merely inspired by al Qaeda tend to be less dangerous? Even if they have large ambitions, does their competency gap make them less of a threat? This is a vital question strategically.

While there are many more questions this study could have addressed, any book is by necessity a finite endeavor. If anything, it speaks to the strength of Silber’s work that his study raises so many relevant questions. He has provided a solid framework for understanding the al Qaeda factor in plots against the West, and made an important substantive contribution in the process. Other terrorism watchers should pay attention to Silber’s work, and build upon it.