Osama Bin Laden, the presumed mastermind behind the creation of Al Qaeda, originally formalized a global network of militants mostly comprised of Muslim Brotherhood members. These Brotherhood members, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, tapped into their own personal networks which later socially conditioned and recruited a mass movement of followers. Many were active militant fighters while many more were passive supporters to a newly established global terror network. That original Al Qaeda no longer exists.
As Al Qaeda grew long after the Russian-Afghan war, many of its leaders became empowered. They split off moving into strategically positioned bases around the world. Their mission was to embolden Al Qaeda’s radicalized views of Islam in an attempt to create a “World Caliphate.” Needless to say, many leaders in this movement sought to achieve this strategic objective through government infiltration, passive social conditioning, and even through means of violent terror activities.
With time, an internal struggle existed within the original Al Qaeda network. Some members believed joining forces with non-Sunni Islamic persons would only strengthen their end-stated goals. Others believed working with such persons was off limits. Still, additional terror groups aligned with former Al Qaeda elements. An example of these non-Sunni factions comprise of Hezbollah, Colombia’s FARC, and even cartels such as Los Zetas in Mexico. Of course, many times these “joined forces” are not always direct. Many times, the joining of forces comes through third party initiatives.
Like most mass movements, they are formed by a handful of individuals simply seeking power. These individuals groom members; yet, like street gangs, when certain members feel they have enough power, they move onto their own initiatives. These initiatives often comprise of the creation of their own groups. These groups are separate from their original mother group yet at times maintain some allegiance as seen in several Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs. Such a move has been seen between Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Muslim Brotherhood recently.
This means that Al Qaeda is no longer the terror network we once knew it to be. Today, Al Qaeda can arguably be construed as a label for radical Sunni Islamic factions. As an example, Somalia’s Al Shabaab Islamic terror group is a single terrorist organization yet members have a history serving within the Al Qaeda network. It is a completely separated organization yet often labeled as one falling within the Al Qaeda domain due to some continued ties between the two.
Understanding an elementary example of Al Shabaab, one should ponder then whether it is reasonable to include the non-Sunni factions known to be aligned with Al Qaeda as elements within Al Qaeda itself. As an example, it is known that Hezbollah, an Iranian backed Shiite terrorist group, has close ties with Al Qaeda. In fact, today, many CT professionals understand how closely tied Al Qaeda has become with Iran itself.
The Iranian-Hezbollah-al Qaeda relationship is known. Most recently, U.S. courts revealed the 9-11 alliance. Surprisingly, no counterterrorist specialist will ever claim Hezbollah or Iran is part of Al Qaeda.
Why won’t an agreement be made claiming Hezbollah falls under Al Qaeda? The simplest reason often obtained could be that “Hezbollah is Shiite and Al Qaeda is Sunni.” Amazingly, professionals will observe one ideology stemming from religious differences but not through any other known ideology–especially the ideology of power.
So a few key questions must be asked when attempting to understand what Al Qaeda truly is today. First, is Al Qaeda still the terrorist network it was once believed to be? Secondly, has too much emphasis on ideology been placed on today’s different radical Islamic terrorist organizations? Lastly, should counterterrorist professionals even stress about Al Qaeda any longer as one large terror movement or should they simply concentrate on the hundreds of terrorist groups in existence?
The later of these questions is likely the most debatable of those listed needing to be answered. Unfortunately, an entire shift in critical thinking would need to occur throughout an entire global system of those attempting to defeat a possible monster that, well, may no longer exist as we once believed. Shifting cognition within such a mass global system would entail a complete overhaul of social and cultural constructs. As any social psychologist knows, making such a move takes a long time to achieve.
A maven is needed to take the lead in grabbing a handful of key followers willing to pitch this meme onto others. The maven and his/her salespersons would likely jeopardize their own names to those opposing such thoughts. This in itself comes with serious risks.
In the end, Al Qaeda is possibly no longer who we once knew it to be. Arguably, Al Qaeda is nothing more than a label placed on Sunni Islamic terrorists groups. We now know that these groups have joined forces with non-Sunni terrorist factions. Who will be the Maven and more importantly, who will be the Maven’s salespersons to pitch this thought in an attempt to change counterterrorist’s ways of thinking?
Kerry Patton, a combat service disabled veteran, is a senior analyst for WIKISTRAT and owner of IranWarMonitor.com. He has worked in South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, focusing on intelligence and security and interviewing current and former terrorists, including members of the Taliban. He is the author of Sociocultural Intelligence: The New Discipline of Intelligence Studies and the children’s book American Patriotism. You can follow him on Facebook.