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Describe the evolution of the leadership and organization of the al Qaeda terrorist organization after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, including the rise of ISIS. Make sure to address psychological and behavioral factors within al Qaeda leadership and affiliate groups. 






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1.  After reviewing the assigned readings for the week, it is apparent the evolution of leadership and organization of al Qaeda after the September 2001 evolved into much more than just the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).

As we are all aware, Osama bin Laden was the founder of the terrorist organization known as al Qaeda.  Following bin Laden’s death in May of 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri was identified as his successor, creating his own group, ISIS.  This group stemmed from the initial al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) but separated from al Qaeda central, which was known to be the world’s most violent jihadist terrorist group. 

While the United States has invested a substantial amount of money, time, and lives into the war in Afghanistan, it has successfully compromised al Qaeda’s ability to employ attacks.  However, as stated in Al-Qaeda’s evolution since 9/11, “it has impelled the group to decentralize into regional  ‘franchises’ – including AQI, AQAP in Saudi Arabia and then Yemen, and AQIM in North Africa and the Sahel, and more loosely, al-Shabaab in East Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa – and to focus on regional objectives.” Even with the United States’ involvement, the terrorist organizations shifted their focus to other countries such as Africa and Syria.  After ISIS disassociated itself from al Qaeda in 2014 they managed to create a more aggressive and violent army in Syria (more so than the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra) and evolved into the most dominant jihadist group in Syria.

Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza, had risen to a leadership role, but was eventually killed by US forces in September of 2019. Hamza bin Laden was known just as his father as a charismatic leader.  He brought a sense of youth to al Qaeda that had been lacking for years prior.  Initially debuting in the world of terror during his late twenties, he enabled better recruitment utilizing social media, which ISIS had not invested a maximum effort in.  In addition to this, Zawahiri (OBL’s initial successor) was an Egyptian and lacked the respect from OBL’s initial followers who believed Zawahiri was worthy.  Whereas Hamza bin Laden was able to gain respect mostly due to his lineage.





2.  Over many decades, terrorist groups have either succeeded or failed in accomplishing their ideological goals. Either way, they eventually fade away, either after they achieved their purpose or after many failed attempts that cause groups to split apart from infighting. Al-Qaeda (AQ) has not met its ideological goal, nor has it had many successes. Still, it has not split asunder like others before it. Why is that? The answer lies within Osama Bin Laden’s (OBL) organizational structure, where leaders ensure AQ sticks around for a long time and why it will continue to remain a significant threat today. To some, mainly the general public, AQ is not a terrifying threat when compared to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is a huge misconception. However, when the world thinks like this, it is better for AQ. Think about it, with the world’s attention focused on ISIS; AQ can slide into the shadows and recuperate, rebuild, and evolve, and that is what AQ has done.

After coming off of a victory with the Soviet Union, OBL and other leaders felt invigorated and wanted to keep their momentum going. OBL took the fight against the west, while other leaders went home to make the conflict in their own countries. After amassing and training fighters in Sudan to strengthen AQ and then moving to Afganistan in support of the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, OBL’s desire grew more forceful. He knew that the only way to accomplish the goal of uniting all Muslims under a global caliph is to take the U.S. out. He planned the 9/11 attack based on a false assumption that the U.S. was weak due to its inadequate responses to the East Africa embassy bombings, the Black Hawk Down episode in Somalia, and the USS Cole attack (Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies [IUCTS], 2017). He believed that after a successful 9/11 attack, the U.S. would tuck-tail as the Soviets had, but the quickness of the U.S.’s military response after 9/11 caught him and AQ off guard (“Al-Qaeda’s Evolution Since 9/11,” 2017).

The U.S. military may have weakened AQ in its invasion, but it failed, however, to eradicate it. Former FBI Legal Attache in the Middle East, Dr. Wayne H. Zaideman, explains that AQ survives because it developed affiliates in other Muslim countries, which could still spread its ideology, fighters, and furnish assistance (IUCTS, 2017, p. 5). During the U.S. invasion, OBL became quiet and reclusive. He learned that he could not plan massive attacks anymore; he knew that counterterrorism efforts around the world had increased to hamper any other 9/11-like attack. Instead, he relied on global affiliate groups to carry AQ’s ideological goal across the globe while committing smaller offenses. In the years that followed 9/11, AQ amassed lots of affiliated groups. For example, al-Shabaab in Uganda and Kenya, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, and Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in West and North Africa, to include Jamaal Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia (“Al-Qaeda’s Evolution Since 9/11,” 2017). Through smaller attacks, these groups continue AQ’s global jihad.

Before the War on Terrorism, OBL met with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the future leader of AQ in Iraq (AQI), in Afghanistan in 1999. During the meeting, OBL grew to dislike al-Zarqawi for his views on Shi’a Muslims. Still, against better judgment, OBL allowed the non-pledging al-Zarqawi to train a group in Herat, Afghanistan. During the U.S. invasion, al-Zarqawi’s group joined with AQ and the Taliban to fight until ultimately fleeing to Iran and eventually into Baghdad, Iraq, where OBL asked that he, still a non-bayat pledger, stand up AQI (Michael, 2007). Al-Zarqawi’s AQI became the worst threat to U.S. troops in Iraq and killed more U.S. military members than any other terrorist organization. Their attacks were brutal and were not always solely against U.S. troops; many attacks were against Shi’a Muslims, which did not sit well with OBL or al-Zawahiri. Al-Zarqawi grew popular in Iraq, to a point where he could have outshined OBL, and after many years of AQ leadership insisting he pledge bayat to OBL, it was during this time he finally did. However, his pledge came with demands, and OBL granted them to keep AQ’s ideology alive in Iraq (Michael, 2007).

Al-Zarqawi disagreed with many of OBL’s strategies; he did not believe enough attention was on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Shi’a Muslims, or apostates and felt that too much focus was on other gulf state problems and the U.S. (Michael, 2007). His actions in Iraq against the Shiites and their shrines, and also attacks in Jordan brought discredit on AQ. Al-Zawahiri sent letters telling him to stop, OBL distanced himself from al-Zarqawi, and the U.S. ramped up its largest contingent of special ops to kill him, in which they succeeded in early June of 2006 (Michael, 2007). Al-Zarqawi primarily shaped the soon-to-be Islamic State that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would soon create using a new ideological goal that pitted Sunni against Shiites. After AQ denounced the group, ISIS was free to terrorize Syria and Iraq with the primary purpose of eradicating Shi’a Muslims.

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