A day after suicide bombers killed 29 people in Morocco in mid-May, that country's interior minister noted that the five nearly simultaneous attacks "bear the hallmarks of international terrorism." More strongly, the Moroccan justice minister asserted a "connection to international terrorism" and the prime minister spoke of a "foreign hand" behind the violence.
Westerners were more specific about the source: "Al-Qaeda is back with a vengeance," declared Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), referring to this attack and one a few days earlier in Saudi Arabia. "Al-Qaeda is back on the rampage" agreed the BBC and many others.
But they were caught out when the police investigation found every last one of the 14 suicide bombers in Casablanca, as well as all of their accomplices, to be Moroccan nationals. Local groups such as Assirat Al-Moustaqim and Salafia Jihadia, apparently carried out the operation. As Newsweek summarizes the situation, "While financed by Al-Qaeda, the Moroccan terrorists were an offshoot group."
This incident points to a routine overemphasis on shadowy international networks, Al-Qaeda in particular, to the neglect of local groups. Legal documentation, which provides our main window onto Al-Qaeda, points to its limited role in most instances. Consider information from two cases:
East African embassies: In a 2001 New York trial that convicted four Islamists of plotting the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, testimony established that Al-Qaeda serves as an umbrella organization for such groups as Islamic Jihad, al-Gama'a al-Islamiya and the Armed Islamic Group, each of which does its own recruitment and operations. Their leaders met periodically in Afghanistan and coordinated actions via Al-Qaeda. The trial transcripts showed how this network could survive the loss of any part of it, even the Afghanistan headquarters.
- Strait of Gibraltar warships: A 2002 Moroccan indictment of three Saudi Islamists for planning suicide attacks against U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar offers insight into Al-Qaeda's inner workings. Jason Burke of London's Observer reports how the group's leader, Zuher Hilal Mohamed Al Tbaiti, traveled in 1999 to Afghanistan to request Al-Qaeda funding for a "martyrdom mission" but was rebuffed and told he had to develop a detailed plan before receiving financial support. So Tbaiti went to Morocco, recruited suicide bombers, and then returned to Afghanistan armed with a specific plan. Satisfied this time, Al-Qaeda granted him funds for an operation.
When the Taliban regime fell in December 2001, Al-Qaeda lost most of its training, communications and funding capabilities. Some Al-Qaeda personnel moved to northern Iraq - until coalition forces took over there; others remain active in Iran. Elsewhere, the organization lacks a secure base, leading some informed observers to conclude it no longer operates effectively; one U.S. intelligence official calls it "a wounded animal." Burke of the Observer goes further: "Al-Qaeda, conceived of as a traditional terrorist group with cadres and a capability everywhere, simply does not exist."
Looking back, Al-Qaeda's role seems to divide into two: Some attacks (Somalia, East African embassies, the USS Cole, 9/11, perhaps the recent Riyadh bombings) it ran with its own staff, while depending on others for the key ingredients - energy, commitment and self-sacrifice. In most operations (the Millennial plot, Strait of Gibraltar, London ricin, perhaps the recent Casablanca bombings), Al-Qaeda provided some direction, funding and training, but left the execution to others. In Newsweek's colorful formulation, it "has always been more of a pirate federation than a Stalinist top-down organization."
The ultimate worry is not Al-Qaeda but a diffuse, global militant Islamic ideology that predates Al-Qaeda's creation, is locally organized and constantly recruits new volunteers. Even the usually maladroit Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, understands this: "We blame everything on Al-Qaeda, but what happened is more dangerous than bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. . . . The issue is ideology, it's not an issue of organizations." Bin Laden concurs, noting that his own presence is unnecessary for mounting new acts of violence. "Regardless if Osama is killed or survives," he said of himself, "the awakening has started."
Burke proposes replacing the concept of a structured, hierarchical Al-Qaeda organization with a more amorphous "Al-Qaeda movement." When law enforcement and intelligence agencies adopt this more flexible understanding, they can better do battle against militant Islamic terrorism.