The recent al-Shabaab terrorist attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall has been seized upon by commentators as indicative of al-Qaeda's resurgence. The Economist notes that al-Qaeda "now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history." Such a characterisation is analytically misleading; al-Qaeda does not exist as a homogenous entity pursuing a single strategic vision.
The popular perception of al-Qaeda and the ambiguously qualified al-Qaeda affiliatesas a unitary organisation belies operational reality. Applying a homogenous label to disparate and loosely affiliated groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Harakat ul-Mujahideen in Kashmir, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria neglects localised grievances, contexts, organisational goals and strategies. There are varying degrees of affiliation and most organisations that are characterised as al-Qaeda affiliates do not embrace al-Qaeda central's core global agenda or participate in joint campaigns.
Even within franchised al-Qaeda groups there is significant divergence. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is often considered demonstrative of al-Qaeda's strength and resilience. However, the name of the organisation itself demonstrates the clash between the broad international jihadist goals of al-Qaeda central and that of a group referencing the importance of a particular place. The problem with the al-Qaeda label is that it largely obscures the independent origins, fragmented nature and unique place within the broader jihadist movement of particular franchised groups. Al-Qaeda in Iraq consistently demonstrated contempt for attempts by al-Qaeda central to impose strategic direction on the group's activities. In 2005 Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered al-Qaeda in Iraq to stop targeting the Shia population. The group ignored the directive and intensified attacks against Shia institutions culminating in the al-Askari Mosque bombing. Indeed, the group maintained the al-Qaeda label for less than two years before renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006.
It is important to note that most groups affiliate with al-Qaeda primarily due to practical concerns (popular support, securing resources, access to publicity) rather than ideological similarity. As Boudali argues, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat's evolution to becoming the franchised al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb should be understood as an act of desperation. Despite being franchised groups, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic Maghreb exist as distinct organisations, with separate goals and almost complete independence from al-Qaeda central. Thus it is misleading to consider al-Qaeda affiliates and franchised groups as determinates of the strength or threat of al-Qaeda in general.
Academics such as Bruce Hoffman take one step further and argue that al-Qaeda exists as an ideology as well as a hierarchical group. Conceptualising al-Qaeda as an amorphous idea neglects contextual specificities and associates any nominally unaffiliated act of radical jihadism to al-Qaeda as an operational organisation. For example, proponents of this theory often accredit the 2004 Madrid train bombings to a Moroccan cell of al-Qaeda affiliates, despite a Spanish judicial inquiry determining that the bombings were not directed by al-Qaeda, nor did any of the group members maintain links to al-Qaeda. To ignore, or abstract away from, individual variation and environmental context neglects the localised character and dynamic inputs that are distinctive of self-radicalising groups. According to Europol, two thirds of individuals active in Islamic militancy on the European continent belong to small autonomous cells unconnected to any known larger groups such as al-Qaeda.
When considered cumulatively the spectre of terrorism can appear unyielding. Indeed, it is almost impossible to read an article about a terrorist attack that does not speculate links to al-Qaeda. However, a gunman attacking a college in North-Eastern Nigeria, a group holding hostages in a mall in Nairobi, and a suicide bomber in Peshawar all have nothing to do with the price of tea in China. Terrorist organisations across the world will continue to kill and intimidate, however each incident must be considered in isolation as a political act shaped by local context. Al-Qaeda central is on the ropes, paralysed by leadership decapitation strategies and unlikely to reconstitute itself into an influential force: it is difficult to exercise control when dodging drones in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
By expanding the categorisation of what al-Qaeda actually is, from a hierarchical operational organisation to almost any act of unaffiliated radical jihadism, commentators embellish the threat of al-Qaeda and sustain the popular misconception of terrorists as a unitary group. Al-Qaeda is thus portrayed as the inciter-in-chief of a coherent network of international terror, with Ayman al-Zawahiri presiding over a subterranean empire stretching from Morocco to Kashmir. This conceptualisation limits our ability to comprehend terrorism as a socially contingent phenomenon and promotes suboptimal counterterrorism strategies. In particular, the obsession with traditional terrorist organisations obfuscates the dynamics of homegrown radicalisation, which now constitutes the primary threat of terrorism in Western countries.
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