It was a summer of successes for Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. A planned attack shut down the entire US diplomatic apparatus in the Middle East, his organization made headlines in disturbing news reports about new attack methods, and he generated publicity for his ambition to free the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, this “summer offensive” clearly unsettled the US security establishment, with several pundits and US officials claiming that the group is “back”, has morphed into a “3.0” version and is “stronger than ever since 9/11”. What makes these successes all the more remarkable is that Zawahiri and his associates won them without having to fire a single shot.
When it comes to Al-Qaeda, we always assume the very worst. All threats and rumors pertaining to the group are taken seriously, anxious as we are to avoid underestimating them again. However, closer examination of the events of this summer shows that the threat from what is called “core Al-Qaeda”, the group around Zawahiri, is grossly exaggerated.
When Zawahiri stated his ambition to free the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, even serious media seriously discussed his plans without questioning its credibility. He was taken at his word, and it was assumed that his threat was realistic. What we should do, however, is ask ourselves how Al-Qaeda is supposed to gather the necessary operational intelligence about Guantánamo Bay, how it is going to overpower the massive numbers of security guards, and how it is going to let the prisoners know about the plans. Zawahiri has decades of experience as a jihadist, so he probably knows that what he suggested is impossible, but he rightfully calculated that not everyone in the West knows this too.
This tendency to overestimate Al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities was also clear in various news reports about new technologies that Al-Qaeda supposedly adopted. Shortly after Zawahiri informed the world of his bold plans for the liberation of his incarcerated brothers, several media reported on Al-Qaeda’s intended use of surgically implanted improvised explosive devices (SIIEDs) and an explosive liquid that can be sprinkled on an operative’s cloths to turn him into a human bomb. Here, too, the operational ambitions were dutifully reported, and very reasonable reservations about the feasibility of such plans were ignored. For instance, much of the explosion of a SIIED will be absorbed by the human body that carries it. Also, the first rumors about the SIIED emerged in 2011, but there is still no evidence that Al-Qaeda has the expertise and facilities to carry out an SIIED attack. As for the explosive liquid, it spreads a very distinctive odor and it is extremely unstable. A terrorist who uses it would have to be very lucky not to be noticed and not to cause a premature explosion. In other words, these terrorist innovations may sound impressive, but are likely to be hamstrung by practical difficulties.
Another aspect of the Al-Qaeda threat that has been blown out of proportion concerns the coherence of the global jihadist movement. The threat against the US embassies in the Middle East emanated from Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which supposedly acted on orders from Zawahiri himself. Also, US intelligence claims to have intercepted a conference call between Zawahiri and the heads of the local Al-Qaeda branches, which would suggest that Al-Qaeda is orchestrating an international fight against the West. That Zawahiri instructed or advised AQAP is possible, but it is, frankly, hard to believe that the reports about the teleconference of “the Legion of Doom” are true. The leaders of the various jihadist groups that are linked to Al-Qaeda are well aware of the risks of digital communications, and tend to opt for low-tech solutions, such as networks of couriers, who physically take messages from sender to recipient.
But what is more important than the truth about the teleconference is that Al-Qaeda, even right after 9/11 when the group was at the zenith of its popularity and operational capabilities, never represented more than a mere fringe of the jihadist movement. Most jihadist groups are only interested in installing shari’a in their own countries, and are at best lukewarm to Al-Qaeda’s ambition to target the US and to create a caliphate that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia. The groups that declared affiliation with Al-Qaeda did so for shock value and for materialistic reasons, such as access to finance and resources. These motives do not suggest a deep-seated belief in Zawahiri’s notion of global jihad. Indeed, several groups, for instance the Somali insurgent group Al-Shabaab, have fallen prey to infighting over the leadership’s decision to declare loyalty to Al-Qaeda. The idea that Zawahiri is the head of a coherent international movement that is waging a coordinated campaign against the West is based on a highly simplistic reading of the situation.
This is not to say that the terrorist threat is insignificant. In many ways, the Arab Spring’s worst case scenario is indeed playing out, as jihadist groups thrive in weak states that are no longer able to maintain order, control weapon flows, and keep convicted terrorists in prison. This is reason for concern, as the jihadists’ newly-won assertiveness contributes a great deal to the instability that currently plagues the Arab world. Therefore, instead of bestowing superhuman powers on Al-Qaeda, we have to work towards a more refined understanding of the various local jihadist groups in the Middle East and North Africa. We should focus on groups that seriously undermine security and stability, and we should not get carried away every time Zawahiri opens his mouth. It’s about time we stop letting the memories of 9/11 get the best of us.