Defeating Al-Qaeda will require more than a military strategy that attacks the core group's top leaders. Even if the military were to eliminate Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri tomorrow, the world's most dangerous terrorist organization would continue to wreak havoc. Al-Qaeda can do this because it can rely on a large peripheral network of cells and affiliate groups, which are local Islamist organizations with local grievances that are equally committed to global jihad.
Al-Qaeda's leadership should be viewed as the corporate headquarters of the terrorist organization while the cells and affiliate groups should be viewed as franchises. If and when the headquarters are destroyed, the franchises can easily continue to operate. In short, a holistic approach to defeating Al-Qaeda is needed.
The Rand Corporation, a leading defense think tank, has provided an excellent two-volume analysis to that end. The first volume looks at the ideology of the movement, its tactics, finances, and the "nebula" of Al-Qaeda that includes local affiliate groups from Southeast Asia, South Asia, North Africa, the Caucasus, and of course, Iraq. Part 1: The Global Jihadist Movement even provides illustrations and tables that help demonstrate the links between jihadist "clusters" and Al-Qaeda's core. More importantly, Part 1 also addresses the problem of radical Islam (they call it global jihad), identifying it as the ideological enemy that must be defeated. In just 186 pages, this volume covers the Al-Qaeda phenomenon in a competent and comprehensive way.
Part 2: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe is somewhat less integrated and less accurate, asserting that the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Egyptian Gamaa al-Islamiyya (GI) fall outside Al-Qaeda's network. Both groups, while now dwindling in numbers, were cornerstones of the original Al-Qaeda affiliate network in the late 1990s. On the other hand, the editors were smart to analyze the Iraqi insurgency, the Palestinian Hamas terrorist organization, Lebanese Hezbollah, and even some of the anti-globalization groups as potential members of the global terrorist phenomenon. Part 2 also addresses the "convergence of terrorism, insurgency, and crime," which is a worthwhile topic but one that adds to a feeling of disjointedness.
The authors of these two volumes are not among the usual suspects who typically write about Al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, their final products are sober, evenhanded, and worthwhile reads.