Adapt-Qaeda: Analyzing the Relationship Between Ideology, Organizational Transformation, and the Exploitation of Information Technology

By Sandeep S. Chhabra
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

Al-Qaeda is now actively adhering to al-Suri's understanding of the role information technology can play in the global and mass indoctrination and mobilization of Muslims.19 It employs web forums where members can discuss relevant issues and that link to manuals that provide guidance on various topics, including software packages and explosives. Videos of beheadings, sniper kills, and speeches, as well as other vehicles of propaganda such as online videogames that have strong jihadi sentiments, are continually uploaded and broadcasted.

Al-Qaeda has also used the Internet to spread scholarly writings that support al-Qaeda's worldview and discredit figures and writings that criticize their position. It has also exploited the Internet for fundraising, surveillance, and operational communication (Saltman 5; "Al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat" 27). yTimothy L. Thomas has labeled this array of online activities as "cyberplanning." According to Thomas, cyberplanning "provides terrorists with anonymity, command and control resources, and a host of other measures to coordinate and integrate attack options… [it] refers to the digital coordination of an integrated plan stretching across geographical boundaries that may or may not result in bloodshed. It can include cyberterrorism as part of the overall plan (Thomas 112-113).

A US Army Sergeant receives road activity reports from a local and his interpretor in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.

A US Army Sergeant receives road activity reports from a local and his interpretor in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda's strategic exploitation of the Internet has resulted in the realization of al-Suri's vision of bringing jihad to the masses. Unable to conduct violent operations as a result of tactical limitations and forced to rely on independent-minded organizations that are apt to contradict its vision, al-Qaeda has turned to the Internet to ensure the coherence of its ideology and network with Muslim and non-Muslim "lone wolves" committed to the furtherance of its tenets.

Anyone interested in joining the al-Qaeda cause can access these web products and learn and understand the ideological underpinnings of the organization's efforts, discover operational tactics such as how to form an autonomous cell or create explosives, learn about propaganda and recruitment techniques, and acquire financial and other types of assistance for terrorism-related activities from al-Qaeda ("Al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat" 26-27).

Al-Qaeda's strategic exploitation of the internet has resulted in the realization of al-Suri's vision of bringing jihad to the masses.

As we can see from the above discussion, Al-Qaeda's exploitation of the Internet is directly related to the "dune" organizational qualities it exhibits. AlQaeda has strategically overcome its chaotic communication structure and minimal command and control by exploiting the Internet and other digital technologies. Indeed, this exploitation and advance use of technology is one attribute that separates alQaeda from other hierarchical and network terrorist organizations (see Intentions v. Capabilities in Appendix).

Thus, despite the crippling of al-Qaeda's leadership and the weakness present in its organizational structure, al-Qaeda has adopted an entrepreneurial and opportunistic approach to technology that provides for the globalization" of its ideology.20 The jihadi ideology espoused by al-Qaeda is now embedded in online discourses that are accessible by anyone interested in joining the cause. According to the Saudi researcher Khaled al-Faram, "[t]here are now about 5,600 Web sites spreading al Qaeda's ideology worldwide, and 900 more are appearing each year" (Hassan).21

Indeed, it is arguable that al-Qaeda's ideology no longer requires the support of a centralized organization to maintain its relevance. The Internet, rather than a hierarchical or network organization, contributes to the proliferation of al-Qaeda's Al-Qaeda's strategic exploitation of the internet has resulted in the realization of al-Suri's vision of bringing jihad to the masses. A US Army Sergeant receives road activity reports from a local and his interpretor in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. "clash of civilization" paradigm.22 Paul Eedle has succinctly made this point: "Whether bin Ladin or al Qaeda's Egyptian theorist Ayman al-Zawahiri and their colleagues are on a mountain in the Hindu Kush or living with their beards shaved off in a suburb of Karachi no longer matters to the organization. They can inspire and guide a worldwide movement without physically meeting their followers— without knowing who they are" (Thomas 122).

Implications of the E-naissance

Most commentators concur that alQaeda has incorporated the Internet and other technologies into its propaganda, recruitment, and operations arsenal, but the extent to which "e-jihad" has translated into actual attacks—that is, terror—is debatable. The emergence of Muslims residing in the West engaging with al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates and executing attacks is directly related to alQaeda's ideological activities on the Internet: Recent cases show clearly how al-Qaeda's traveling, transnational ideology bridged the divide between class, space and recruitment techniques.

It served as an attractive magnet for high-achievers like the Christmas day bomber, Nigeria's Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, an engineering graduate of London University; Fort Hood's Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan; five integrated American Muslims from northern Virginia; and a Jordanian doctor, Humam al-Balawi, an informant-turned suicide bomber who killed seven U.S. intelligence agents on the CIA base in Khost province, near the Afghan-Pakistan border. What these individuals had in common was that they were radicalized online, on their own, while living an integrated life mostly in the West (Gerges).

After discovering al-Qaeda's ideologies, the various individuals listed above contacted and sought guidance from al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates. The 7/7 bombings that targeted the London transportation system also illustrate the impact of al-Qaeda's Internet activities. Al-Qaeda provided no financial assistance to the terrorists that conducted this attack. Al-Qaeda's involvement in the attack was restricted to its posting of bombmaking instructions that the London terrorists had downloaded from an al-Qaeda website (Bruno). As evident from the above examples, the "networking" between Muslims in the West and al-Qaeda has been minimal and, in its current form, is unable to produce a wellcoordinated, devastating attack (Blair 11).

Evidently, the mass mobilization that al-Suri envisioned has not materialized. Whether this trend will continue, however, is unknown and likely dependent on the activity of other actors and other geopolitical considerations.23 Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Internet continues to serve as a repository and amplifier for al-Qaeda's ideology and an access point for individuals inside and outside the Muslim world seeking to join al-Qaeda's efforts and engage in terrorist attacks. AlQaeda's Internet activity has also factored into its relationship with its affiliates and other organizations and its funding.

Conclusion

This paper has traced the organizational transformation of al-Qaeda. It has noted that al-Qaeda initially exhibited a hierarchical system and then a hub network approach. Following 9/11 and the U.S assault in Afghanistan, the environment in which al-Qaeda acted within was drastically altered and organizational changes became necessary. Employing the concept of a "dune" organization to explain the unique and fluid organizational features al-Qaeda now exhibits, it was demonstrated that al-Qaeda no longer maintains an institutional presence and lacks effective command and control and communication chains.

In order to overcome these organizational limitations and their tactical disadvantages, al-Qaeda reconsidered its use of the Internet in particular and information technology in general. Al-Qaeda has established an institutional presence on the Internet by employing videos, forums, speeches, and other publications that support West and al-Qaeda has been minimal and, in its current form, is unable to produce a wellcoordinated, devastating attack (Blair 11). Evidently, the mass mobilization that al-Suri envisioned has not materialized. Whether this trend will continue, however, is unknown and likely dependent on the activity of other actors and other geopolitical considerations.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Internet continues to serve as a repository and amplifier for al-Qaeda's ideology and an access point for individuals inside and outside the Muslim world seeking to join al-Qaeda's efforts and engage in terrorist attacks. AlQaeda's Internet activity has also factored into its relationship with its affiliates and other organizations and its funding.


References

Al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat, Report: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat, Report. (2006). Washington, DC: United States House Of Representatives.

Arquilla, J. & Ronfeldt, D., eds. (2001). Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy. Rand Corporation.

Blair, D. (2010, February 2). Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Office of the National Direction of Intelligence. Retrieved May 1, 2010, from http://www.dni.gov/testimonies/20100202_testimony.pdf.

Brachman, J. M. (2006). High-Tech Terror: Al-Qaeda's Use of New Technology. The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, 30(2), 149-164.

Bruno, G. (2010, February 1). Al-Qaeda's Financial Pressures Council on Foreign Relations.Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved May 1, 2010, from http://www.cfr.org/publication/21347/alqaedas_financial_pressures.html

Bruno, G. & Jeffreys, J. (2010, April 26). Profile: Al-Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a. al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia) Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved May 1, 2010, from http://www.cfr.org/publication/14811/

Crumpton, H. A. (2006, August 21). Al-Qaeda Crippled But Resilient. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved May 1, 2010, from http://www.cfr.org/publication/11318/alqaeda_crippled_but_resilient.html

Downing, W.A. & Meese, M.J. (2006, 14 February). "Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al' Qa'ida's Organizational Vulnerabilities." Combating Terrorism Center, Department of Social Sciences, United States Military Academy.

Economist. (2010, January 28). The resurgence of al-Qaeda .Economist.com. Retrieved May 1, 2010, from http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15393634

Fishman, B. (2006). After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Washington Quarterly, 29(4), 19-32.

Gerges, F. A. (2010, February 5). Lone wolves signal al Qaeda's weakness CNN.com.CNN.com . Retrieved May 1, 2010, from http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/02/05/gerges.al.qaeda.alienation/index.html.

Hassan, Ibithal. (2007, December 4). Al Qaeda-linked Web sites number 5,600. Reuters. Retrieved May 1, 2010, from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL0488465620071204.

Kaldor, M. (2001, December 6). Beyond Militarism, Arms Races and Arms Control. Social Science Research Council. Retrieved May 2, 2010, from http://essays.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/kaldor.htm

Katzman, K. (2005). Al Qaeda: profile and threat assessment.: An article from: Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports and Issue Briefs. Chicago: Thomson Gale.

Mishal, S., & Rosenthal, M. (2005). Al Qaeda as a Dune Organization: Toward a Typology of Islamic Terrorist Organizations. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28, 275-293.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. 2004 Overview of the enemy [electronic resource] : staff statement no. 15 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. Washington, D.C.

Saltman, S. S. (2008). The Global Jihad Network: Why and How al–Qaeda Uses Computer Technology to Wage Jihad.Journal of Global Change and Governance, 1(3), 2-10.

Thomas, T. L. (2003). Al Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of "Cyberplanning". Parameters, XXXIII(Spring 2003), 112-123.

Wilson, C. (2008). Botnets, Cybercrime, and Cyberterrorism: Vulnerabilities and Policy Issues for Congress: An article from: Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports and Issue Briefs.


Endnotes

  1. Mary Kaldor defines netforces as “armed networks of non-state and state actors. They include: para-military groups organised around a charismatic leader, warlords who control particular areas, terrorist cells, fanatic volunteers like the Mujahadeen, organised criminal groups, units of regular forces or other security services, as well as mercenaries and private military companies.”
  2. “al-Qaeda” at http://www.cfr.org/publication/9126/#p7.
  3. According to some experts, Dr. al-Azzam is responsible for the creation of the intellectual foundation underpinning jihad and the “clash of civilizations” worldview it presents. See Katzman (2005), p. 3.
  4. Once the expulsion of the Soviets in Afghanistan became a certainty, the leaders of the mujahidun (Osama bin Laden and al- Azzam) were faced with an existential crisis. Al-Azzam sought to use the volunteer network as a rapid response organization that could assist endangered Muslims. Bin Laden, however, sought to use the network to actively topple secular regimes in the Muslim world. Al-Azzam’s assassination in November 1989 ensured that Bin Laden’s vision for the organization would triumph. Ibid.
  5. Mishal & Rosenthal p. 284.
  6. For an explanation of these network types, see Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001, p. 7-8.
  7. Mishal & Rosenthal p. 278.
  8. Bin Laden initially operated out of Saudi Arabia, but was expelled from the country following increasing tensions between him and the royal family in 1991. These tensions were the result of accusations made by Bin Laden that the Saudi government was betraying Islam by cooperating with the U.S. Bin Laden shifted to Sudan following his expulsion. In May 1996, the Sudanese government expelled bin Laden in response to demands by the U.S. and Egypt. That bin Laden remained in Sudan for several years and was only expelled in response for foreign pressure indicates that the government viewed bin Laden as a profitable partner, perhaps one that could enhance its image among the country’s Muslim citizens. See Katzman (2005), p. 3.
  9. According to Gerges, al-Qaeda maintained a force of “about 3,000 to 4,000 fighters” in the late 1990s, but now only has “about 400 to 500 operatives” dispersed in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  10. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt define “netwar” as “an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies and technologies attuned to the information age.”
  11. According to General Petraeus, Al-Qaedas leaders “are using sanctuaries in Pakistan’s lawless frontier regions to plan new terror attacks and funnel money, manpower and guidance to affiliates around the world.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124182556238902393.html
  12. According to State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator Henry A. Crumptor, “Al-Qaeda aspires to have the type of global network it did prior to 9/11. It works toward that end but because of our partnerships around the world, because of our collective operational success, al-Qaeda is crippled and is certainly not the organization it was. Al-Qaeda, however, has placed extra emphasis on inspiring other groups and trying to mobilize other groups and when and where possible, establishing links to these affiliated networks to have them help drive their agenda.” Crumpton.
  13. Since the concept of a “dune” organization is relatively new and largely empirically unsubstantiated, I feel it is necessary to elaborate on the applicability of this concept to al-Qaeda and its activities.
  14. “Ansar al-Islam” at http://www.cfr.org/publication/14811/.
  15. Other organizations, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have also joined the al-Qaeda “franchise.” Not all organizations that al-Qaeda cooperates with, however, with adopt the al-Qaeda name. For example, despite its cooperation with al-Qaeda, the Islamists Shabaab militia in Somalia maintains its name.
  16. See Steven Hick and John G. McNutt, eds., Advocacy, Activism, and the Internet: Community Organization and Social Policy (Chicago: Lycecum, 2002); Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayers, eds., Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Quintan Wiktorowicz, Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).
  17. As Timothy L. Thomas notes, “The Internet allows a person or group to appear to be larger or more important or threatening than they really are.” Thomas p. 121.
  18. Kaldor provides an elaborate description of the use of violence by netforces: “In the new wars, mobilising people is the aim of the war effort; the point of the violence is not so much directed against the enemy; rather the aim is to expand the networks of extremism… The strategy is to gain political power through sowing fear and hatred, to create a climate of terror, to eliminate moderate voices and to defeat tolerance. The political ideologies of exclusive nationalism or religious communalism are generated through violence. It is generally assumed that extreme ideologies, based on exclusive identities - Serb nationalism, for example, or fundamentalist Islam - are the cause of war. Rather, the spread and strengthening of these ideologies are the consequence of war.”
  19. For specific examples of al-Qaeda’s use of the Internet (as well as other digital technology) for recruitment and other purposes, see Saltman p. 4-7; Brachman p. 152-162; and Thomas.
  20. Reports to Committees concerned with terrorism have acknowledge al-Qaeda’s use of technology for indoctrination purposes: “The increasing use of technology, especially the use of the Internet, by Islamist extremist groups has led to a new phenomenon known as “glocal” issues, whereas global issues are now becoming local issues. Usama bin Laden could not have his current, and increasing, level of success if Muslims did not believe their faith, brethren, resources, and lands to be under attack by the United States and, more generally, the West. The Internet has helped al-Qaeda reach Muslim communities around the world with this very message.” “Al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat.”
  21. Since tracking websites is quite difficult, these numbers should be regarded as lower baseline estimates.
  22. This is not to say that the ideology no longer requires some organizational or elite presence. In order to maintain the ideology’s unity, legitimate actors (leaders) must rebuke potential detractors who could possibly undermine the ideology’s appeal. There are other reasons why elite presence is still necessary for al-Qaeda, including the importance of charisma, the direction of activities, obtaining funding, etc.
  23. For example, many commentators note that Yemen is nearing failed state status. If Yemen does become a failed state and external actors do not rapidly respond to the situation, the al-Qaeda core may seize the opportunity to establish a base in the country and frame its actions as a resurgence of the organization. If this does occur, al-Qaeda’s internet activities will likely contribute to an influx of volunteers who are willing to join the resurrected al-Qaeda. Even if other actors respond (for example, the U.S. decides to intervene), al-Qaeda may frame these actions as Western intrusions into an exclusively Muslim affair in its online publications other communications. Another issue that may contribute to the success of al-Qaeda’s Internet ideology is the increasing social exclusion of Muslims and the negative attitude towards Islamic attire in particular and Islamic culture in general in Europe. If this trend continues, it is possible that some disaffected Muslims will turn to fundamentalists for consolation and purpose. A third issue worth considering is the U.S.’s fatigue towards the “War on Terror.” If the U.S. decides to disengage or drastically reduce its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is possible that al-Qaeda will be able to reclaim its strongholds in the regions.

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