By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister
How has al Qaeda changed in the last decade - and what does that tell the world's counter-terrorism experts about what it will look like ten years from now?
As Congress prepares to hold a joint House and Senate Intelligence Hearing on the threat Tuesday, U.S. counter-terrorism officials tell CNN that al Qaeda today would find it very difficult to repeat an attack on the scale of 9/11 - but it has become a more diffuse and complex organization. The very name has become a label and an inspiration for terror cells on three continents. Even if, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserts, Osama bin Laden's organization is mortally wounded, tracking and countering Islamist terrorism will continue to consume billions of dollars and some of the best minds in western intelligence for years to come.
And that's precisely the goal of al Qaeda new generation of leaders - in their 30s and 40s. They are focused less on the spectacular - hijackings and "dirty" nuclear bombs - and more on a war of attrition. And they see opportunities for establishing new bridgeheads as the Arab revolts undermine authoritarian rulers and their ruthless intelligence services.
Ten years ago al Qaeda was a bureaucratic organization headquartered in Taliban-run Afghanistan which had its own personnel and IT departments.
It comprised mainly Arab fighters and had loose ties to other jihadist outfits - in Chechnya and south-east Asia for example. Today groups proclaiming their affiliation to al Qaeda find a home in ungoverned spaces in Somalia, Yemen, the Russian Causcasus and the Sahara. There are even al Qaeda cells in Egypt's Sinai desert, according to Egyptian military intelligence.
Under pressure, al Qaeda "central" - the remnants of bin Laden's group - has developed links with militant groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba - all of which are well entrenched in Pakistan.
The battle against al Qaeda in the next ten years will be on a much broader canvas.
The Rise of the Affiliates
In the last two years, three groups - al Qaeda in Pakistan, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) based in Yemen, and the Pakistani Taliban - have tried to carry out attacks in the United States, while Europe has been threatened by an even wider constellation of jihadist groups. Al Shabaab staged its first attack beyond Somalia with a double bombing in Kampala, Uganda in 2010.
"The affiliates are playing a greater role today - a more menacing role today - than in quite some time," U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin told a recent conference of the New America Foundation. "While the AQ core has weakened operationally, the affiliates have become stronger and consequently the broader AQ threat has become more geographically and ethnically diversified."
Better intelligence and a relentless campaign of drone attacks has weakened al Qaeda central and cut off its sources of funding. In one video that emerged from his compound in Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden cut a lonely, isolated figure - hunched over a TV screen. It seemed like a metaphor for his organization. While jihadists still travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training and the opportunity to take part in attacks on western forces, a growing number are heading to Yemen and Somalia - just as they headed to Iraq at the height of the insurgency there.
U.S counter-terrorism officials already see AQAP in Yemen as the most immediate threat to the United States. Under the guidance of American cleric Anwar al Awlaki, the group attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and in October 2010 dispatched two printer bomb packages from Yemen's capital Sanaa that were timed to explode over the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
The group has taken advantage of political turmoil in Yemen to expand its safe haven in the south. "Our highest priority is the United States. Anything there, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the United Kingdom, would be our choice, " Anwar al Awlaki told an operative based in the UK in an encrypted internet communication in 2010.
While Osama bin Laden thought in terms of weapons of mass destruction and mass casualties, Awlaki's template recognizes that western intelligence has vastly improved its ability to detect such ambitious plots. Instead, his group looks for vulnerable niches: in air cargo, or using explosives such as PETN that are difficult to detect. It is less about the destruction such attacks might cause and more about the expense in defending against them, and the psychological effect should they succeed. It is less about establishing bin Laden's dream of a global Caliphate and more about disrupting western economies.
Above all, it's about attacks by individuals, some of them directed and mentored in the mountains of Yemen, others self-radicalized by the slick online propaganda being produced by AQAP. And it seems this approach is finding favor elsewhere. Al Qaeda central's media arm As Sahab recently released a video titled "You are Only Responsible for Yourself," encouraging followers to carry out acts of individual terrorism in the West - by buying weapons at gunshows in America for example, where background checks are not carried out. In it, American al Qaeda propagandist Adam Gadahn said: "It's simply a matter of taking precautions, working in total secrecy, and making use of all means to do damage to the enemy."
Gun attacks by terrorists are one of the scenarios that are now causing most concern to Western-counter-terrorism officials because of the relative ease with which such weapons can be acquired. Their potential lethality was demonstrated by alleged Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik in his shooting rampage outside Oslo in July, an attack that has drawn comment on jihadist forums.
Counter-terrorism sources in Europe and the United States tell CNN that their greatest concern is the vulnerability of soft targets such as hotels and shopping malls to gun attacks and hostage-taking. The Mumbai attack in November 2008 captivated global media attention for three days, as a small group of Lashkar-e-Taiyyiba terrorists held off Indian security forces in two of the city's luxury hotels. A total of 164 people were killed.
Senior al Qaeda figures have publicly called for the Mumbai model to be exported.
The New Global Al Qaeda Network
If al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seems the most potent affiliate today, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may not be far behind it. It has established a presence in areas of Mali, Mauretania and Niger where government is weak - and has made millions of dollars through kidnapping westerners and working with drug smugglers. It could take advantage of chaos in Libya to obtain sophisticated weaponry including surface to air missiles. So far relatively few of its fighters appear to have entered Libya but that could change. Libya's National Transitional Council has also been grappling with the increasing assertiveness of Salafi Islamists in the east of the country, some of whom they fear are sympathetic to al Qaeda, according to a former Libyan jihadist.
AQIM may also forge links with other jihadist-terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria which has claimed responsibility for killing dozens in a suicide car bombing of a U.N. building in Abuja last month.
"What is concerning about AQIM is that it's a group that's Africanizing and is trying to extend its zone of influence - making contact with Boko Haram in the north of Nigeria and with [Somali group] Al Shabaab, says EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove. Its reach may not yet extend to the West, but nor did that of AQAP two years ago.
Like AQIM, al Shabaab in Somalia is beset by internal rivalries and lost one of its key operatives Fazul Abdullah Mohammed in a fire-fight in Mogadishu recently. But it also has plenty of recruits from north America and Europe in its ranks. And there are signs that it is co-operating with al Qaeda in Yemen, a short distance across the Arabian Sea.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali citizen captured in April and interrogated aboard a U.S. navy ship for two months before being taken to New York to face terrorism charges, had been in direct contact with Anwar al Awlaki and had attempted to broker a weapons deal between the groups according to the indictment in his case. Warsame has pleaded not guilty.
In Iraq, the U.S. strategy to turn Sunni tribal sheikhs against al Qaeda vastly degraded the group, but under the title Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) it is still able to launch co-ordinated bombing attacks, as was illustrated by a wave of deadly bombings across the country in August. If allowed to re-establish itself, the group would try again to ignite sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, and sabotage the investment Iraq badly needs to revive its economy. In a recent paper for the New America Foundation, Brian Fishman argued that ISI "will have to look outside Iraq's borders to engage directly in al-Qaeda's global strategy of bleeding and weakening the United States."
Globally, the only unambiguously positive picture in the fight against al Qaeda terrorism is in South East Asia where groups affiliated with al Qaeda - like Jamma Islamiya - have been significantly weakened by counter-terrorism operations by security services and by a hemorrhaging in local support because of the number of Muslim civilians killed in its attacks.
Al Qaeda Central – trying to adapt
Al Qaeda central has suffered one blow after another this year. Besides the death of Osama bin Laden, drone strikes have taken out several top al Qaeda commanders in Pakistan, most recently Atiyah al Rahman, al Qaeda's chief of operations. A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told CNN that from an operational standpoint the death of al Rahman was a more severe blow to the terrorist organization even than the death of bin Laden. Another senior figure, Younis al Mauretani, was detained by Pakistani authorities in August, and Ilyas Kashmiri, one of the most effective terrorists in the world, was reported killed in a drone strike in June.
But al Qaeda central remains the "policy-making" authority and has the allegiance of its regional affiliates. It has powerful associates who thrive on Pakistan's inability to control its border territory and its ambivalence towards the "new" Afghanistan. A grand bargain that led moderate the Taliban to join the political process and sever links with al Qaeda – – and at the same time injected new stability into Pakistan - would further shrink al Qaeda's space. But that seems a distant prospect.
And there are signs that al Qaeda is adapting to its new circumstances. It appears to have moved some of its operations to Pakistan's settled areas to escape drone strikes. Al Mauretani and two other operatives were captured in the teeming city of Quetta in south-western Pakistan. And both al Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban have established a foothold in Karachi, Pakistan's violent metropolis on the Arabian Sea. In May an al Qaeda unit attacked and occupied a Pakistani naval station in the city.
In recent years al Qaeda has tried to 'turn' western jihadists intent on fighting in Afghanistan, training them to return to Europe and the United States to carry out attacks. Najibullah Zazi, a young Afghan living in Denver, was one such recruit. Bryant Neal Vinas from Long Island was another. And it's not just al Qaeda. Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad who tried to blow up a car bomb in New York's Times Square on May 1, 2010 was recruited and trained by the Pakistani Taliban, not al Qaeda. British authorities say hundreds of Western militants are currently training or operating in Pakistan.
Al Qaeda has also promoted new recruits who have a keen understanding of Western vulnerabilities. One of them is American but Saudi-born Adnan Shukrijumah, who is thought to have orchestrated Zazi's bomb plot against the New York subway system. And the organization appears to be using increasingly sophisticated encryption techniques in internet communications with operatives dispatched to the West.
Even so, it is now a more fragmented organization. Rami Makanesi, a militant from the German city of Hamburg who spent time in al Qaeda camps in Waziristan in 2009-2010, and was subsequently convicted of involvement in plans to attack European targets, told German interrogators that al Qaeda had split up into 30-40 subgroups. He said al Qaeda was now a "title" for a constellation of jihadist groups in the area, including militants from the Arab world, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and "even the Taliban." Vinas, the American al Qaeda recruit, convicted of helping to plot an attack on the Long Island Railroad in 2008, said cooperation was so close between al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and other Pakistani militant groups that lines blurred between them.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials say it is this blurring between different jihadist groups - together with the danger posed by completely homegrown "al Qaeda inspired" terrorists - that makes the terrorist threat to the United States so complex today.
"The fact that the threat can now come at us from so many directions means that our work is more challenging than ever," a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told CNN.
The New Al Qaeda Strategy
New al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's strategy is to harness the energies of al Qaeda's affiliates but to exert greater direction over them, according to Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist once acquainted with bin Laden, Zawahiri, and several other al Qaeda leaders.
While every al Qaeda affiliate has recognized Zawahiri as al Qaeda's new leader, counter-terrorism analysts believe it will be difficult for Zawahiri - long a polarizing figure in the jihadist movement - to exert strategic direction over them. The death of Libyan operative Al Rahman appears to have been a further blow in this regard. "Atiyah was the one affiliates knew and trusted, "a U.S. official told CNN.
According to Benotman, now a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a UK counter-terrorism think-tank, Zawahiri is determined to take advantage of political turmoil in the Arab world. "Their top priority right now is not Afghanistan or Pakistan or launching attacks against the United States, but re-organizing themselves in the Arab world," Benotman told CNN.
Benotman says he has detected a noticeable softening in Zawahiri's ultra-hardline rhetoric in recent months, and believes he may be trying to revive support for the organization in the Arab world after a backlash against it because of the barbaric violence of its Iraqi affiliate.
In the short term Benotman predicts that al Qaeda will devote significant energy to building up a capability to strike Israel from the Sinai, Gaza, and neighboring countries because of the group's ideological view that Israel props up what it views as a secular Arab political order that it seeks to topple. Launching attacks against Israel would also be a calculated attempt by the group to re-energize its support base, according to Benotman.
The Importance of the Arab Spring
Most counter-terrorism analysts agree that key to al Qaeda's fortunes will be the evolution of the Arab Spring. The dismantling of oppressive security and intelligence police in several Arab countries has given it an opportunity to re-organize and more easily transit operatives though the region.
"Some of their comrades from the Afghan days are now commanding rebel units in Libya. They see Islamist-only rebel brigades being formed there. They see what is going on in Yemen - of course they feel they have a huge opportunity," Benotman told CNN.
While the origins of the protests made al Qaeda seem irrelevant for a period, the well-organized young professionals who led those protests are vastly outnumbered by poor, conservative Muslims who - in Egypt at least - are beginning to display their political muscle. For al Qaeda the Arab revolts are a double-edged sword. Prolonged instability and a deepening economic crisis would work in its favor. But a new political model in the Arab world, where popular Islamist parties play a constitutional role, would undercut al Qaeda's appeal.
U.S. State Department Counter-terrorism Coordinator Benjamin says that should events in the Arab world lead to "durable, democratic, elected, non-autocratic governments then AQ's single-minded focus on violence as an instrument of political change will be severely, and I think irretrievably delegitimized."
But the Arab Spring is like a ladder whose rungs are far from secure, and the events of 2011 are just a couple of steps up that ladder.