Al-Qaeda, the MENA uprising and Bin-Laden’s successor

Al-Qaeda (AQ) is a movement rather than a single, structured group. It consists of a number of elements linked by shared ideology, rather than hard networks (although these do exist). Its success has been to get fundamentally regional Islamist groups to subscribe to a coherent global agenda. Al-Qaeda’s intent is to found a pan-Islamic Caliphate centred on Jerusalem, in line with Islamic Prophecy. The hierarchy believe that Allah has laid down a plan to achieve this. As a result the “Tyrannies” of the Arab world are technically the major targets, rather than the West. However, local factors rather than overarching strategy are more important when considering the motives of junior operatives. Al-Qaeda Central is based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some plots in the West still link to here although fewer than in mid-2000s. Central now serves more as a centre of inspiration/media messaging than anything else. Formal franchises exist in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Algeria/Mali/Mauretania/the Sahel (AQ in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM) and Iraq. These tend to be most active in their own regions but all have ties into the West and provide training. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades meanwhile form a small but potent independent structure in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories and the Gulf. The movement has more or less totally invested allies in Somalia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia. Inspired groups also exist in South and South-East Asia, but have few if any tangible ties other than shared purpose and Islamic requirements to help each other out.

Inspired individuals exist world-wide. These now form the most significant danger due to unpredictability and likelihood of attack, although their capability/effect is often limited. The most dangerous franchise is AQAP in Yemen, which has launched the most effective recent plots against the West, and has the best messaging. It also has a strong focus on maritime/aviation and Saudi Arabia. AQ in the Islamic Maghreb meanwhile focuses mainly on kidnappings. Despite raising £10m from such activity it has conducted few foreign operations. However, it has obtained equipment from Libya and may have been linked to the Marrakesh bombing. Independent cells exist elsewhere, notably in Egypt, Lebanon/Syria and possibly Libya. Egyptian elements may have been behind a recent attack on the controversial gas pipeline to Israel.

AQ has been suffering a crisis of credibility for a number of years, increased by recent events in MENA, although protracted chaos and confusion offers potential regional opportunities. Should the Arab Spring fail to deliver on people’s desires then a move towards violent jihad remains possible.

Bin Laden was obviously AQ’s key inspirational figure, although operational importance was marginal, he will continue to have value as a martyr. His natural successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been more operationally active but is a divisive figure to jihadists. Thus a leadership crisis is also likely, not least because other senior elements will almost certainly be concerned about compromise following the bin Laden operation. However, semi-autonomous elements will not be affected by this.

Al-Qaeda already has strong intent to target the West but has always been limited by capability. Therefore whilst the desire to avenge bin Laden will be high large plots will still be hard to deliver. Whilst franchises may bring forward and re-brand planned operations, the main threat remains from self-motivated jihadists. In this regard English-language web resources have opened up new avenues of threat, particularly from the Bangladeshi community in the UK.

For more information please contact Matom’s intelligence partner Sybylline: