Social Movement Theory and Terrorism: Explaining the Development of Al-Qaeda

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 09 | pg. 2/4 |

Applying Social Movement Theory to the Development of Al-Qaeda

This section argues that social movement theory has a significant explanatory value in the development of today's al-Qaeda. The appendix contains a graphical outline of the development of al-Qaeda as the basis of this analysis.

First of all, it is important to dissociate al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There is a tactical collaboration rather than a religious bond with both continuously in contact, especially geographically when al-Qaeda established its base in Taliban-governed in 199639. This tactical collaboration has however influenced both sides' rhetoric as well as conduct, when e.g. al-Qaeda soldiers were integrated into Taliban forces giving it stronger military capacities.40 The relationship between its leaders has affected the conduct and Bin Laden seems to have influenced Omar as early as 1998 with plans to adjust the focus from Afghanistan towards a broader consideration of 'Pan-Islamist' ideas.41 Even though blurring the borders in their media, US governments have tried dividing both by engaging in talks with the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s.42 However, American policies and interventions may have drawn the organizations closer together.43

Resource mobilization theory is especially useful in describing the first decade since its creation in 1988 whereas the previous decade has seen large elements of reaction to political opportunities and constraints as well as framing. The switch from a hierarchical to a decentralized structure is analyzed in this context. Going beyond social movement theory's short-comings in this respect the section will end by introducing research at the micro-level.

Resource Mobilization Theory and Al-Qaeda

Until the early 2000s evidence suggests that al-Qaeda's leadership took decisions with the primary aim of resource mobilization. Although early elements of 'political opportunity' and 'framing' to create joint Muslim identities44 can be observed, the structure was designed to ensure a long-term existence of the movement. 45

Figure 1: Hierarchical Structure of Al-Qaeda in the 1990s46

Figure 1

To support this statement by evidence from internal communications, the following chart based on Edwards and McCarthy is amended.

Table 1: Resource Mobilization and Al-Qaeda65

Table 1

As an example from table 1, in terms of organizational resources the religious background of the movement was favorable. Oberschall highlights the importance of an existing infrastructure to ensure low-cost and fast mobilization.66 Al-Qaeda could do so by arranging meetings at mosques which at the same time gave them legitimacy even in a repressive environment. Within a CIA document of 2001 al-Qaeda is called "… a sponsor … of a network of other semi-independent terrorist groups." This network is supplied by "sophisticated media propaganda" especially online, funding from own and donor sources, "global recruitment and covert transportation," "advanced training in espionage, sabotage, weapons, and explosives," a "pool of trained terrorists and Jihad fighters" and "a global cell structure … to assist transport …, acquisition of materials, attack operations, and provide safe havens."67 The military component includes both face-to-face training68 as well as providing self-training material.69

'Political Opportunity Processes' and Al-Qaeda

Figure 2 displays al-Qaeda's present-day decentralized structure which has changed significantly from the hierarchical organization of the 1990s. This may require less means of resource mobilization of al-Qaeda (with this task shifting to the satellite groups), but more strategic action driven by external opportunities and constraints. Al-Qaeda relies increasingly on framing to create a divide between Muslims and non-Muslims nourishing an environment of fear and increasing cohesion.

Figure 2: The Structure of Al-Qaeda al Oum and Al-Qaeda in 201170

Figure 2

Mohamedou71 and Farrall72 argue that al-Qaeda has envisioned this long-term strategy of providing oversight instead of actual decision-making to expand its geographical outreach. However, 'political processes' arguably provides a more plausible explanation in describing a movement that has adjusted according to opportunities and constraints since it is unlikely that al-Qaeda has anticipated a US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of 9/11.

Opportunities for the growth of al-Qaeda arouse as early as 1991 with US forces stationed in Saudi Arabia as a result of the intervention against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. An internal note for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describes al-Qaeda's capability of recognizing and benefitting from opportunities - one being its underestimation.73 With opportunities of harming US military personnel outside of strongly guarded army bases, Al-Qaeda built on its possibility to attack weak targets.74 Its conduct is also based on mentally affecting the opposing force with attacks orchestrated to reach an audience.75

The most surprising and skeptically viewed development has been the offer of two truces supporting al-Qaeda's political stance. In April 2004 and January 2006 Osama bin Laden addressed the European governments and the American people to agree to a "long-term truce" ensuring "security and stability" and the possibility to "rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the war." Osama bin Laden states that only "war merchants in America" will ultimately benefit from the continuation of the war.76 However, the immediate response by the US government announcing that there will be no negotiations with terrorists77 constrained these attempts at diplomacy.

Such constraints delimit the maneuvering room and can be analyzed to understand al-Qaeda's decisions. For example the expulsion of Osama bin Laden from Saudi Arabia by his own government caused the settlement in Sudan from late-1991 until mid-1996.78 After the US invasion of Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden established his base under the Taliban's reign, the central leadership decided to decentralize the organization. Although Osama bin Laden according to the CIA already allowed for more independent planning in the network's cells before, this strategy is mostly seen as a reaction to changing opportunities and constraints.79

Another constraint, the increasing number of drone killings, explains the abolition of hierarchical structures.80 Similarities can be drawn between this strategy and the splintering of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) into the Provisional IRA in the late 1960s to reduce the effects of infiltration and become more resilient against attacks.81

It appears to be on the basis of such cost-benefit decisions based on arising opportunities and constrains that al-Qaeda leadership continuously changed the structure of the organization and its role within it. In this context further research should analyze e.g. the increased importance of European and American cells and especially socially excluded so called 'lone wolf' individuals and the challenge of 'home-grown terrorism'.

The withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan and Iraq may intrude on the one hand a new constraint for al-Qaeda since it will no longer be easily possible to attack 'the enemy'. On the other hand it may present an opportunity which al-Qaeda is already preparing for as letter from al-Zawahiri82 suggest: "Establish an Islamic authority or emirate" and "[e]xtend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq." Political instability in Mali, Niger and southern Algeria may provide further opportunity of establishing bases in crisis-ridden territories83 and possible attacks in non-Muslim countries e.g. South Korea84 are mentioned. Nevertheless, the fact that the Arab Spring has (in some instances even without the extensive use of violence) been successful in achieving political goals this undermines the relevance of al-Qaeda and constraints the organization.85

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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Though somewhat counterintuitive given terrorist organizations' clandestine nature, such organizations do engage in strategic alliances and partnerships with one another. A handful of scholars have grappled with terrorist alliances, but a gap in the literature remains when it comes to how these alliances end. This study will examine... MORE»
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