Al-Qa`ida’s Center of Gravity in a Post-Bin Ladin World

Nov 30, 2011

A group of men spend their formative and early adult years in Western urban settings such as London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, New York or Sydney. They take the initiative to travel overseas and then return to the West to launch terrorist attacks in the name of al-Qa`ida. Can this be considered an al-Qa`ida plot? What criteria determine that designation? What is the nature of the relationship between radicalized men in the West and the core al-Qa`ida organization in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan? For it to be identified as an al-Qa`ida plot, does one of the plotters have to attend an al-Qa`ida training camp or meet with an al-Qa`ida trainer, or can they simply be inspired by al-Qa`ida’s ideology?

These are critical questions. To truly understand the nature of the threat posed by the transnational jihad, led in the vanguard by al-Qa`ida, it is essential to have a greater and more nuanced understanding of the genesis and attempted execution of plots directed against the West.[1] Al-Qa`ida core’s role should not be overestimated or underestimated, as important resource allocation questions for Western governments derive from the answers to these questions. It affects military, intelligence, and policing activities that are dedicated to preventing the next attack. In a sense, determining “where the action is for the conspiracy” before a plot is launched should drive Western counterterrorism efforts. In military terms, this would be akin to identifying what Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called the “center of gravity,” or critical element of strength of al-Qa`ida plots, to provide insights on how to thwart them.

Dissecting 16 of the most important jihadist terrorist plots launched against the West since 1993 provides a deeper and more precise understanding of the role that al-Qa`ida core has had in jihadist plots over this time period—or, the “al-Qa`ida factor.” A variety of criteria were assessed for the 16 plots examined in this article.[2] These plots include: 1993 World Trade Center attack, 1999 Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) millennium plot, 2001 9/11 attacks, 2001 shoe bombers’ plot, 2002 Lackawanna cluster arrests, 2004 Madrid train system attack, Britain’s 2004 Operation Rhyme and Operation Crevice plots, The Netherlands’ 2004 Hofstad Group plots, Britain’s 2005 July 7 and July 21 attacks, Britain’s 2006 transatlantic liquid bomb plot, Australia’s 2005 Operation Pendennis plot, Canada’s 2006 Operation Osage plot, Denmark’s 2007 Operation Dagger plot and the 2009 New York City subway plot.[3]

To determine where the center of gravity lies for the al-Qa`ida threat in a post-Bin Ladin world, this article will examine al-Qa`ida’s role, or lack thereof, in the formation of the network in each of these 16 cases, as well as each network’s inspiration, recruitment, training and mobilization to violence.[4] It finds that individuals in the West, rather than al-Qa`ida core, underpinned the majority of these plots, as these men sought out militant training overseas and then were redirected by al-Qa`ida core operatives to plot against targets in Western cities. The article concludes with an overall assessment of the al-Qa`ida threat in the wake of key leadership losses recently suffered by the group.

Creating the Local Network, Providing Inspiration
To determine if al-Qa`ida core had a role in the formation of the local networks or “scenes” from which a subgroup of men (cluster) emerged who subsequently became involved in a terrorist plot, it must be acknowledged that al-Qa`ida could have influenced the development of these local extremist social networks in the West in two ways: either actively through direct efforts like sending emissaries (“al-Qa`ida preachers”) abroad, or more passively through the spread of its ideology via the internet and the creation of a heroic narrative that inspires individuals.

After examining the set of 16 plots, it is clear that what was replicated in many Western cities (New York, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Montreal, Toronto, Sydney/Melbourne and Madrid) demonstrated a passive role for al-Qa`ida and a much more organic effort by local self-anointed “al-Qa`ida preachers” in the West.[5] These “preachers”—such as `Umar `Abd al-Rahman in New York, Abu Hamza al-Masri in London, or Abu Dahdah in Madrid—distributed literature at the mosque about the activities of Muslim militants in Algeria, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, and Afghanistan, including communiqués issued by Usama bin Ladin. Furthermore, they began to indoctrinate young Muslims who expressed interest in the literature.

The “al-Qa`ida preachers” in the West were often Islamist-oriented political asylum seekers from the Middle East, with weak links to al-Qa`ida core. They did, however, provide a local context in which young men from varied demographic and economic strata, seeking political and religious answers, began to adopt al-Qa`ida’s ideology and radicalize. The narrative of a “war against Islam,” the individual obligation to participate in militant jihad, and the rejection of Western democracy were doctrinal tenets of the worldview that was advocated.

These men created an environment that fostered gravitation to reactionary Islam as well as politicization of these new beliefs. They brought politics into the mosque and called on members of the congregation and Muslims in general to mobilize and come to the aid of their fellow Muslims around the world. As a result, over time these “al-Qa`ida preachers” promoted travel overseas to fight in a variety of places such as Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other “fields of jihad” which now include Yemen and Somalia.

Linking with Al-Qa`ida from the Bottom Up
Did a worldwide network of al-Qa`ida recruiters spot promising individuals in the West, induct them into al-Qa`ida, and direct them to al-Qa`ida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or did individuals take the initiative, mobilize, and seek out al-Qa`ida to carry out their jihadist ambitions? Were there al-Qa`ida facilitators in certain cities? What was their role and who were they? What role did travel to a “zone of conflict” play?

The case studies support a paradigm of al-Qa`ida plots against the West that is underpinned by a “bottom up” process, driven by individuals in the West who radicalize and then take the initiative to go overseas for training or to get into the fight. Although there may be local “fixers” in Western cities who have overseas links and can facilitate or enable an overseas connection, typically they are not recruiters in the traditional sense of the word—they are not soliciting individuals from the top down on behalf of an overseas terrorist organization. Instead, they are an important node in a facilitation network with links to terrorist groups overseas. In only one case, the Lackawanna cluster, did an al-Qa`ida member, Kamal Derwish, arrive in town and as a result deliver recruits to the core organization in Afghanistan.

In most of the cases, individuals in the West sought to travel overseas to zones of conflict for the primary purpose of training or fighting in Afghanistan and ended up joining al-Qa`ida more by coincidence than design—al-Qa`ida core was not always their primary destination. This pattern has persisted with the operational leaders of a number of plots from 1998/1999 in Montreal (Ahmed Ressam) and Hamburg (Muhammad `Atta and the rest of the Hamburg cluster), during 2001-2006 in London (Omar Khyam, Mohammed Siddique Khan, Mukhtar Ibrahim, Ahmed Abdulla Ali), Copenhagen (Hammad Khurshid) and then New York City in 2008 as demonstrated by the fortuitous connections made to al-Qa`ida by Najibullah Zazi, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay.

Recruitment on Al-Qa`ida’s Doorstep
Rather than specifically recruiting operatives in the West, al-Qa`ida core and other groups have been opportunistic and relied on whatever batch of young Western volunteers was able to make it to South Asia and subsequently arrive at the doorstep of al-Qa`ida-linked training camps (whether enabled by a facilitation network or familial links). Rather than using these motivated men on the battlefield against coalition forces, these “would-be warriors” with Western passports were turned around and sent back to their country of origin or another Western country to carry out terrorist operations.

Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, al-Qa`ida’s mili¬tary commander in Afghanistan, did precisely that for the Operation Crev¬ice conspirators via his deputy. According to one of the conspirators, “[Omar] Khyam had been told that, when he was in Pakistan, there was no room for him to fight in Afghanistan and that what he should do is to carry out operations in the UK.”[6] Ostensibly, it was Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi’s deputy who provided this “suggestion” to Khyam on behalf of Abdul Hadi.[7]

This pattern of opportunistic al-Qa`ida recruiting of Westerners who had arrived in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then convinced to target the West, is a model that repeated itself in the 1999 LAX millennium plot, 2001 9/11 attacks, 2001 shoe bombers’ plot, Britain’s 2005 July 7 and July 21 attacks and 2006 transatlantic liquid bomb plot, Denmark’s 2007 Operation Dagger plot and the 2009 New York City subway plot. Interestingly, although not part of the data set, this pattern was seen in the operations of al-Qa`ida affiliates (al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula) and allies (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) in the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot and the 2010 Times Square plot. In both of these cases, Western “would-be warriors” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad took the initiative to travel overseas and then were similarly “recruited” and redirected once they arrived in Yemen and Pakistan, respectively.

Al-Qa`ida “Training”
In the 16 case studies examined, conspirators from the West can be stratified among four different training camp experiences, some directly linked to al-Qa`ida, others not. Conspirators from the 1993 World Trade Center attack, 1999 LAX millennium plot, the 9/11 attacks, the 2001 shoe bombers’ plot, Britain’s 2004 Operation Rhyme, Australia’s 2005 Operation Pendennis, and the cluster from Lackawanna all attended one or more al-Qa`ida facilities in Afghanistan. Until late 2001, al-Qa`ida core funded or controlled most of the training camps in Afghanistan, such as Khalden, al-Faruq, and Darunta. Individuals who had traveled to Afghanistan for training before the fall of the Taliban in 2001 likely trained in an al-Qa`ida core camp. Those camps, however, were subsequently destroyed by coalition airstrikes. While they were in existence, the range of training the camps provided varied from basic infantry training to more advanced military training to improvised explosive device construction.

Following the destruction of these camps and al-Qa`ida’s flight from Afghanistan to Pakistan, makeshift camps were created in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province). Although there was some small-arms training for Westerners, explosives training was a key element of the curriculum. Accounts from Westerners have described these camps as melting pots of Afghan Taliban, al-Qa`ida, Pakistani Taliban, and Kashmiri groups.[8] Ongoing intelligence gaps mean that these determinations are difficult to make with complete certainty, but there is a high degree of confidence that conspirators from the 2005 July 7 and 21 London metro attacks, the 2006 transatlantic liquid bombs plot, the 2007 Operation Dagger plot in Copenhagen, and the 2009 New York City subway plot all attended these types of al-Qa`ida-associated training camps, most likely in FATA or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan.

For a few conspirators among the 16 major operations covered, there was an evolutionary process to their training. They initially attended training camps operated by Kashmiri groups that were allied with al-Qa`ida—such as Harkat-ul-Mujahidin (Mohammed Siddique Khan: July 7 London metro attack), Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (Dhiren Barot: Operation Rhyme), and Jaysh-i-Muhammad (Shane Kent: Operation Pendennis)—before they were properly vetted or able to make the links necessary to attend an actual al-Qa`ida camp.

Finally, there were plotters who traveled to Pakistan and received training at militant camps run by al-Qa`ida allies, such as Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (Australia’s Operation Pendennis and Canada’s Operation Osage) and Jaysh-i-Muhammad (The Netherlands’ Hofstad Group), but not al-Qa`ida camps. One group of conspirators (Britain’s Operation Crevice) arranged with a local religious teacher to set up their own paramilitary training camp for light weapons. The men provided money, and the local teacher and his son were to provide guns, food, tents, ammunition, and other training equipment.[9]

Looking Forward
Today, in late 2011, with the recent deaths of al-Qa`ida chief Usama bin Ladin, top operational planner Atiyah Abdul al-Rahman, and a steady attrition by arrest or death of senior core leadership, how should the changing nature of the al-Qa`ida threat to the West be understood?

Due to the rise of other important nodes in al-Qa`ida’s worldwide network of allies and affiliates, the threat from al-Qa`ida-type terrorism has not ended. Rather, it has devolved into an expanded, diffuse network of affiliates, allies and ideological adherents. Since 2001, the core networked laterally with other like-minded groups on the periphery who were aligned ideologically and formed a loose coalition of allies and affiliates to include al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT), al-Shabab, and al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), among others. Each group serves as a power center, node, or hub that has an informal and loose relationship to al-Qa`ida core. As the core may continue to fade, other nodes in the network will seek to raise their profile and may even surpass the core’s ability to project a threat outward against the West. Since 2009, some of these affiliates and allies have already begun to attract “would-be warriors” radicalized in the West who otherwise might have attempted to join al-Qa`ida core, but chose alternatives and then were sent back to plot against the West (such as AQAP’s 2009 Christmas Day plot and the TTP’s 2010 Times Square plot).

Although al-Shabab in Somalia has not launched attacks against the West to date, the attack in Uganda in 2010 served as a proof concept of the group to act outside of its primary theater of operations and may have been a preview of targeting selection to come.[10] It has already attracted to the cause diaspora Somalis, converts and other mobilized Westerners from Toronto, Minneapolis, Seattle, New Jersey, Chicago, London and Melbourne. Also, LeT, TTP and the alphabet soup of other Pakistan-based jihadist groups to include Harkat-ul-Mujahidin (HuM), Jaysh-i-Muhammad (JM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam (HuJI) operate in the same sanctuaries that al-Qa`ida survived in and have already attracted Westerners to train and plot with them. How long will it be before other groups from Pakistan follow the lead of LeT with David Headley and the TTP with Faisal Shahzad and target the West?

In conclusion, as long as individuals continue to radicalize in the West—whether it is New York, London, Hamburg or Toronto—and take the initiative, mobilize and seek out paramilitary training and the opportunity to fight overseas, al-Qa`ida will continue to have a center of gravity in the West. The pattern of al-Qa`ida-type plots utilizing redirected Westerners will continue, and thwarting them will require combined vigilance, commitment of resources and staying power of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Mitchell D. Silber is the author of the forthcoming book, The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West and is the Director of Intelligence Analysis for the New York City Police Department (NYPD). This article does not necessarily represent the opinions of the New York City Police Department.

[1] In this case, “West” refers specifically to Europe, North America, and Australia.

[2] This article is based on studies presented in the author’s forthcoming book, The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West. The source material, which is presented in the book, includes legal documents, trial transcripts and media reporting.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Although they are identified as “al-Qa`ida preachers,” that does not mean that they were part of the al-Qa`ida organization. They did, however, pursue the same ideology as al-Qa`ida today. Additionally, they may have had connections to al-Qa`ida members.

[6] Regina v. Omar Khyam et al., Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, 2006.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Paul Cruickshank, “The 2008 Belgium Cell and FATA’s Terrorist Pipeline,” CTC Sentinel 2:4 (2009).

[9] Regina v. Omar Khyam et al., Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, 2006.

[10] In July 2010, two suicide bombers from al-Shabab attacked crowds watching the FIFA World Cup in Kampala, Uganda. One of the sites attacked was a restaurant called Ethiopian Village.