The Terrorist Threat Five years after 9-11

The most noteworthy aspect of Al Qaeda in the post 9-11 environment has been its broadened appeal among the Muslim community. Five years after 9-11, we face a greater threat than at 9-11. What are the successes and failures of that campaign?

Rohan Gunaratna


The most noteworthy aspect of Al Qaeda in the post 9-11 environment has been its broadened appeal among the Muslim community. Its ideology and operational methodology of suicide (martyrdom) has become popular, widespread and accepted by like-minded jihad groups from Australia to Chechnya and Canada. Al Qaeda has maintained its course despite sustained pressure by the US and its allies. Al Qaeda's resilience, intransigence, and its failure to yield have surprised many. Al Qaeda has become even more committed in its jihad campaign (holy war). It has become more resolute in achieving its strategic goals.

In the face of adversity, Al Qaeda has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to integrate disparate jihadist groups into a post-9/11 vision of perpetual war against the West. The UK arrests in the first week of August 2006 demonstrate the adaptive nature of the group. It no longer needs to send operatives from Afghanistan, but there are young first and second generation politicized and radicalized Muslims living in the West willing to carry out its avowed mission. Even if Al Qaeda leadership is hunted down and the group destroyed, its mission of attacking the West articulated by bin Laden as a religious duty and popularized by Al Qaeda will continue.

The Context:

Struck by the horror of 9-11 the world community supported a US-led global campaign to dismantle Jamiat al-Qaida al-Jihad, the secret group responsible for attacking the United States. Al Qaeda has suffered severely during the last five years, but its leadership - bin Laden and Dr Ayman al Zawahiri - are still alive. These icons of terror are inspiring and instigating a global jihad against the US, its Allies and its friends. Five years after 9-11, we face a greater threat than at 9-11. What are the successes and failures of that campaign?

Three significant developments mark the post 9-11 threat environment.

First, the dismantling of a state-of-the-art terrorist and guerrilla training and operational infrastructure in Afghanistan.

Second, dispersal of Al Qaeda, diffusion of the threat, and formation of a multi-headed global jihad movement that is resilient and difficult to combat.

Third, the emergence of Afghanistan and Iraq, as two frontiers of jihad, with the potential to inflict a strategic defeat against the United States, its Allies and friends.

After Afghanistan:

Afghanistan was the base of training and operations for Al Qaeda even before its formation in 1988. In its previous life, Al Qaeda operated as Maktab-il-khidamat (est. 1984), the Arab group spearheading the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The loss of training camps in Afghanistan was a significant blow not only to Al Qaeda but also to multiple groups that relied on Afghanistan for training. Since the US-led coalition forces targeted the camps of Al Qaeda, Taliban and other foreign groups in Afghanistan, it has made it much harder for the jihadists worldwide to find first-rate camps for training. The training camps and training opportunities in the southern Philippines, southern Thailand, Eastern Indonesia, Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Azad Kashmir, Pankishi valley in Georgia, Chechnya, Somalia, and in the Pan Sahel region are poor substitutes to the training provided in the large complexes in Afghanistan.

Contrary to popular perception, Al Qaeda has been a numerically small group of about 3-4000 members. Although its ideology of global jihad has spread, after October 2001 at least 3000 members of Al Qaeda has been killed and captured in 102 countries worldwide. Al Qaeda "the operational organization" has been weakened and its command structure decentralized, but the group is still resilient. As an evolutionary organization, Al Qaeda has adopted new targets, new technologies and new tactics. With the hardening of diplomatic, political, military targets, Al Qaeda and its derivate groups are striking soft targets notably economic (tourist, financial) and transportation targets. Working together with its associated groups in Asia, Middle East and Africa, Al Qaeda has directed, supported or inspired attacks against Western targets in the global south. With extensive counter terrorist cooperation and collaboration between Western and other police, security and intelligence agencies, jihadist groups have suffered in the global south. As a result the threat has reduced to the continental United States, but the threat to US targets in the south remain significant. After the introduction of NATO and Australian troops to Afghanistan, the terrorist threat has increased to United Kingdom, continental Europe and to Australia.

The counter terrorist coalition made significant strides in 2002. From its key counter terrorist mission, the US-led regime change project in Iraq was a huge distraction. For every terrorist killed or captured, two new terrorists were radicalized and recruited. Furthermore, the grand diversion of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq enabled the Al Qaeda leadership to survive, divide the coalition and result in a decline in Muslim support for fighting extremism and terrorism. Although Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and Indonesia cooperated, the public support critical to fight terrorism declined and diminished. The best evidence of this is that five years after 9-11, the two principal architects of 9-11 bin Laden and al Zawahiri are still alive. Despite two huge rewards, they are still planning and preparing large-scale attacks. The hunt for these leaders is not fruitless.

The highly flawed strategic shift in the focus and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq resulted in two sustained insurgencies. First, a new land of jihad with worldwide implications was created in Iraq. Second, the conditions for the resurgence of Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami and Al Qaeda were created. These groups, regrouping along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, present an enduring threat both to Afghanistan and to Pakistan. Moreover, Saudi, Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni and other foreign jihadists joined Taliban and attacked the troops from the NATO International Security Assistance Force. The attacks in Helmand province in Sangin, Musa Qala, Nowzad and Kajaki illustrate the new threat. As a result of exchange of fighters between Iraq and Afghanistan, the jihadists in Afghanistan are copying the tactics from Iraq. Taliban that had banned photography and videography is now working with Al Qaeda video company Al Shahab to produce Iraqi-style execution videos. Classic Iraqi tactics - roadside bombs, suicide attacks, snatch and beheading operations - are becoming the norm in Afghanistan. The lack of support for Afghanistan after Iraq created a permissive environment for Al Qaeda's return with new technologies, tactics and techniques. Introduction of the Iraq expertise to Afghanistan has changed the complexion of the threat. Today, the jihadists in Afghanistan, can sustain a low level campaign sufficient to destabilize the Karzai regime. However, compared to Iraq, the premier jihadist front, there is limited support for the second jihadist front in Afghanistan.

After Iraq:

Unlike the US-led coalition intervention in Afghanistan, the US and UK invasion of Iraq received no widespread support. The images from Iraq of Muslims being killed, maimed, and injured, generated humiliation, resentment, and anger throughout in the Muslim world. Exploiting the agony, suffering and rage of the Muslims worldwide, terrorist and extremist groups became more influential. In the post-Iraq period beginning March 2003, Muslim public and government support to the West for fighting terrorism diminished. Moreover, the threat of extremism and its derivative terrorism increased exponentially. In addition to the strengthening of existing groups several new threat groups emerged in the post Iraq period. Today, the threat is not only from existing groups originating from the global south but also from homegrown groups spawned from the radicalized segments of migrant and diaspora communities in North America, Europe and Australia.

In the Muslim communities of the west and in the global south, invasion of Iraq has had a much more profound impact than intervention in Afghanistan. Iraq War is an effective recruitment poster for proselytizers across the world. The Iraq War makes it much easier to sell the jihadist message to young Muslims and thereby lure them into the movement. As evidenced by a dozen successful disrupted, aborted and failed attacks, the landscape of threat dramatically changed in the West. The attacks in Madrid (March 2004), London (July 2005) demonstrated the recurrent nature of the threat. The arrests in Australia (November 2005), in Canada (June 2006), and in the UK (August 2006) demonstrated that the migrant and diaspora hosting countries of the West were particularly vulnerable. In addition to the ideological impact, several new networks originating from Iraq operationally penetrated both Europe and the Middle East. Throughout 2005 and 2006, evidence of such networks penetrating North America, Africa and Asia. Despite the demise of Abu Musab al Zarkawi, both his group Tanzim Qaidat fi-Bilad al-Rafidayn and Abdullah Shafi's Jaysh Ansar al Sunnah are attracting foreign fighters that now return home with new skills sets. Iraq has emerged both as a magnet and a lightening rod. Like Afghanistan produced the last generation of mujahidin, Iraq will produce this generation of jihadists.

New Landscape:

Al Qaeda believed that 9-11 will galvanize the jihadist groups and Muslim communities. The spectacular galvanized the jihadist groups but not the Muslim communities. The impetus for mobilizing the Muslim world was Iraq and certainly the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. Although initiated by the killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, the international media reporting was able to sway the international public opinion against Israel. It is too early to conclude the degree of impact of emotive images of death and destruction in Lebanon in the Muslim World, but Al Qaeda is playing on it. Across the Middle East, Al Qaeda statements resonate forging a common front. Despite justifying the attacks on the Shia population for collaborating with the coalition in Iraq, Al Qaeda has commented on the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas gaining political power, and the growing Iranian influence.

Five years after, the threat to the world from terrorism, has clearly moved beyond Al Qaeda. With large scale Al Qaeda triggered propaganda and radicalization, there is greater support and sympathy for violence, among the migrant and diaspora communities as well as the territorial communities in the South. Today, the principal threat to the international community emanates from Global Jihad Movement. Consisting of local jihad groups and bound by a universal ideology, the movement created by Al Qaeda is driven by the global political climate.

Most of the structured jihad groups are in the conflict zones of the global south. They include Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), Takfir Wal Hijra, Asbat-ul-Ansar, Jemaag Islamiyah (JI), Riyadus Salihin Brigade, Lshkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jayash-e-Mohomed (JeM). Of the fewer structured organizations in North America, Europe, and Australia, many were dismantled after 9-11. Prior to 9-11, the terrorist infrastructures in the west supported attacks in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. They were mostly disseminating propaganda and funding the local jihads in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Egypt. As they were not directed against European targets, the terrorist infrastructures on western soil were not targeted but tolerated by the Western governments until 9-11. Today, many of the cells and network fragments have mutated from support to operational forms and present a significant threat to Western security. Homegrown groups - a more virulent strain of Al Qaeda - have emerged in the West. They are the ideologically inspired and instigated, new, young, and unaffiliated jihadi cells in the West very intent on hitting Western targets. As they are flat in structure, self financing, and have limited or no contact with bin Laden's Al Qaeda, they elude government intelligence coverage.

Overall, there is a general decrease in the sophistication of attacks. Within the movement, there are fewer structured organizations, high grade operatives and well known leaders. As they are being aggressively hunted, it has become difficult for the terrorists to successfully plan, prepare and execute large scale coordinated attacks. Nonetheless, with the atomization of Al Qaeda and spawning of numerous autonomous and semi autonomous cells after 9-11, the frequency of attacks planned by members of Al Qaeda and members of the global jihad movement has increased. The bulk of the attacks are being planned by small groups of committed young untrained individuals. In the regions of Asia, Middle East and Africa, where structured groups still exist we see an increase in the frequency of attacks and sophistication of attack.

Al Qaeda's Resilience:

As terrorist groups adapt in the face of threat, how did Al Qaeda classic evolve changing its shape, size and structure in the past five years? bin Laden's al-Qaida, the group responsible for mounting 9-11 has suffered severely, with the loss of its key operational leaders. After a US predator strike killed Abu Hafs alias Mohammed Atef, the military commander of Al Qaeda in Kandahar sustained intelligence action by the United States and its non-NATO ally Pakistan led to the capture of multiple operational chiefs of Al Qaeda. They included the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9-11 mastermind and his deputy Tawfiq bin Attash alias Khallad. Their successors, Faraj al Libi was captured and Hamzah al Rabbiyah al Masri were killed in a US predator attack in a village near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Khalid Habib al Masri and possibly Abdul Hadi al Iraqi succeeded them. Despite a sustained hunt against al Qaeda leadership, the group has maintained a succession of competent members as operational commanders.

Likewise, the leader and deputy leader of Al Qaeda, bin Laden and al Zawahiri are still alive, and directing both the group and the wider jihad movement from the apex. Despite a relentless hunt, these iconic leaders of jihad have survived. They have fought back with periodic attempts and intermittent attacks against the West. In the face of defeat, they have maintained alliances and built new friendships with jihad groups worldwide. For five long years, patiently and steadfastly, they have built a movement that will outlast them. Primarily through his writings and propaganda, al Zawahiri, the principal strategist of the global jihad movement has created a vision and a mission for radicalized and politicized Muslims. Al Qaeda's virulent ideology advocating violence has spread worldwide creating a global jihad movement, a conglomerate of groups, networks, and cells. This worldwide movement consists of about thirty groups operationally associated with Al Qaeda in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, networks in the West, and numerous ideologically affiliated cells. They are united by a common belief that the US, its Allies and its friends are attacking Islam and Muslims. With the death of bin Laden and al Zawahiri Al Qaeda is likely to die but Al Qaeda's core ideology will spawn and sustain the global jihad movement.

Understanding the Jihadists

Western leaders have often said that Al Qaeda has no political aim. Al Qaeda's aim is to create Islamic states wherever Muslims live. The strategic goal of Al Qaeda is two folds - one, destroy Israel, and second, wrest control of Saudi Arabia. Iraq is on the front doorstep of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two countries hosting the three holiest Islamic sites. Until the Western forces pull out of Iraq, the global jihad movement will continue to invest in Iraq. Like the Soviet forces were defeated in Afghanistan, the intention of Al Qaeda is to inflict a strategic defeat on US and coalition forces in Iraq.

Intelligence reports, telephone intercepts, court documents and open sources reporting indicate a previous alliance between the world's two most dangerous groups, Hezbollah and al Qaeda. In 1993, Ali Mohomed, a former US and Egyptian military officer arranged bin Laden to meet with Hezbollah's security chief, Imad Mughniyah, responsible for the bombing of the US and French forces in Beirut in 1983. That relationship led to training of Al Qaeda members in Lebanon and Iran. After bin Laden relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan in May 1996, the Iran-Al Qaeda relationship ended.

Dependant on US attitude and approach to Tehran, Iran will enable Al Qaeda. Iran hosts a number of highly capable Al Qaeda leaders - Saif Al Adel, the head of security and intelligence, Abu Mohomed al Masri, head of training, Abdul Aziz al Masri, head of WMD, and Suleiman Abu Gaith, head of Media. The quality of the Al Qaeda leaders in Iran is much higher than those operating on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. As Iran is a transit point for the jihadists to travel to Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, at least European engagement with Iran would help to reduce the global threat.
There is level of integration at a strategic level between the Shia and the Sunni with regard to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the Saudi royal family. Thereafter, the jihadists believe that the Arab and the Muslim world can be reunited. The strategic goals of the Shia and Sunni groups are complementary. Both the Shia and the Sunni groups aim to restore the Islamic Caliphate before the split. Muawiya was the 4th and the last caliph to rule over the Muslim world before the Sunni Shia split. Israeli attacks in Lebanon at the height of the Iraq War has created an indelible impression enhancing both anti-Israeli and anti-US feelings thus increasing the potential for Muslim Shia or Sunni cooperation.


To manage the contemporary wave of violence, the world faces three challenges.

First, there must be general recognition that the fight against terrorism is a battle against extremism. The post-9-11 measures have largely focused on building kinetic/lethal capabilities as opposed to investment in soft power. The challenge is to educate and re-educate the Muslim community, creating a norm and an ethic in society against extremism and violence. There is still a belief that terrorists fight for freedom. Freedom fighters do not kill, maim, and injure civilians. As opposed to guerrillas, terrorists create fear by deliberately targeting innocent men, women and children. As such, government must work with Muslim clerics to publicize that Al Qaeda and its associate groups that kill in the name of Allah are not Koranic. Muslim councils must expose the true face of jihad ideologues. Driven by personal and political power and not by public good, most of them masquerade as men of religion. Think of madaris not as jihadist schools but centers of opportunity to sow the seeds of peace. Without community engagement of the Muslims, the fight cannot be won.

Second, there must be recognition that governments have lacked the necessary knowledge and understanding to fight the contemporary wave of violence. There must be initiatives to formally and informally educate the leaders and officials the need to be sensitive to Muslim public opinion. Invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Danish cartoons and Israeli attacks in Lebanon have not helped. The West must build bridges to the wider Muslim community. As many as 40 leads from God-fearing Muslims prevented major terrorist attacks from London to Melbourne. As terrorism is a by product of extremism, it is important to work with the wider public. As there is significant misunderstanding between Muslims and non Muslims, there is no substitute for formal and informal public education. In most societies, less than 1% actively supports violence including terrorism. Without the goodwill of the Muslim community, the battle against terrorism cannot be won. The fight must be framed not as a clash of civilization between the Muslims and non Muslims, but a clash among a civilization between the moderates and extremists.

Third, governments must look at the threat strategically, operationally, and tactically. At a strategic level, governments must ensure that Iran is not put in a place where it will support the global jihad movement. If the United States of America or if Israel attacks Iran, Shia and Sunni extremist movements are likely to collaborate. Israeli's lack of foresight and US lack of understanding of the Middle East has already increased the potential for collaboration between the Shia and Sunni extremists and terrorists. At an operational level, governments must develop the technologies to surveil and disrupt the jihadists on the Internet. After the loss of Afghanistan, the Internet has become both a virtual battle space and also emerged as the principal source of knowledge for the jihadists. In addition to large scale politicization of young Muslims, the Internet today provide the recipes for the manufacture of HMDT, TATP and liquid explosives. At a tactical level, it is necessary to train and retrain the law enforcement, security and intelligence services, and the military to better understand and respond to the terrorist threat. There is a grave lack of knowledge and understanding of the ideologies, organizations and operations of the threat groups. For instance, instead of building the capabilities to disrupt terrorist operations at the launch phase, government enforcement agencies must develop indicators for early detection. As precursors can be procured commercially from pharmacies, chemist stores and hardware stores to manufacture explosives, police must work closely with the service sector to report suspicious procurement.


In 2008, Al Qaeda would be marking 20 years of its existence. Al Qaeda was founded in 1988, but the group came to the attention of the intelligence community only after it attacked the US embassies in East Africa in August 1998. Nonetheless, governments worldwide did not take the threat seriously even after the USS Cole attack in October 2000. Governments lacked the resolve to dismantle the high profile terrorist support and training infrastructures in Afghanistan until 9/11. Until then Al Qaeda alone had build a state-of-the-art infrastructure that ideologically and operationally trained at least 20,000 jihadists.

There must be recognition that the international neglect of conflict zones from Palestine to Afghanistan, Kashmir to Chechnya, and Mindanao to Algeria led to terrorist campaigns. In such conflict zones, humans suffer, their rights are violated, virulent ideologies spawn, people are displaced, refugees form, and, terrorists are produced. For instance in Afghanistan the failure to fill the vacuum created after Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to the current predicament. As much as Afghanistan, one of the world's worst conflict zones precipitated the contemporary wave of violence, Iraq is likely to precipitate the next wave. The lesson identified (and not learnt) is to build greater international will and capital to intervene in conflict zones. Proactive investment to prevent conflict formation, breaking the sustenance of violence, and good governance are paramount to reduce the future potential for global terrorism.

Finally, governments must constantly look into the future. Western nations that have the discipline, the resources and the staying power must develop a strategic vision and not be driven by the tactical successes. Western nations are dazzled by the costly technological tools of war that has only of marginal relevance to reducing the contemporary threat. In fighting the contemporary wave of violence, intelligence-led law enforcement operations have proved to be the most effective course of action. The fight against terrorism is a multi-dimensional fight requiring multipronged, multiagency, multinational and multijurisdictional efforts. On the ground, this formulae must be developed moving from cooperation to collaboration building common databases, exchange of personnel, joint training, joint operations, transfer of resources and expertise and sharing of experience. As there is no standard textbook for fighting the contemporary wave of terrorism, governments must maximize the successes and minimize the failures.

Dr. Rohan Gunaratna is Author, "Inside Al Qaeda, Global Network of Terror" (Columbia University Press).

(Contact details of Dr. Rohan Gunaratna is available to registered journalists)