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Al-Qaeda Central Command: Like Blades of a Fan

Reading reports on Joseph Padilla's terror conviction in Miami, one thing kept coming to mind: So many people still think al-Qaeda is a 'decentralized' gaggle of cave-dwelling terrorists, capable but limited by the inhospitable terrain they've secluded themselves within in the Pakistani Hindu-Kush. Then something jumped out from a VOA report; the central role of an al-Qaeda application form signed by Padilla in his conviction.

At The Tank on National Review Online, I took a few minutes to jot down and remind what this form means, including a view that surely such administrative organization still exists inside the rebuilt al-Qaeda infrastructure in Pakistan.

The 2006 NIE stated that the US had "seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations." Yet, only months later, a new NIE — one in which another 'view' clearly won the internal IC debate — significantly toned down the language to read that US counterterrorism efforts had only "constrained the ability of al-Qa’ida to attack the US Homeland again." It went on to note the resurrection (my language) of al-Qaeda's global headquarters, this time inside Pakistan. Nearly all of this infrastructure was in place at the time the 2006 NIE was written and released (hence the heated internal IC/CT debate).

So while the 2006 NIE also assessed that "the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse," let's not confuse the 'global jihadist movement' at al-Qaeda's periphery with the al-Qaeda central command structure clearly in place inside Pakistan. Al-Qaeda most certainly operates with a "coherent strategy." They simply exercise little direct control of the periphery they in large part have inspired, but rather trust that their message (as-Sahab videos, etc, etc.) will rightly guide those fellow travelers beyond their direct management.

The al-Qaeda infrastructure and senior leadership (AQSL) in Pakistan are like the spinning blades of a fan. The "global jihadist movement" is then the air before it, beyond the blades' direct reach but influenced, pushed and guided nonetheless.

Rest assured, al-Qaeda central command is decidedly not 'on the run' in Pakistan (though its wing in Iraq is), and their infrastructure reconstituted - surely including their administrative overhead as they resumed pumping jihadis through their labyrinth of new camps.

Americans should be quite careful not to confuse the loosely organized nature of the outer-lying jihadist movement (which certainly exists) and al-Qaeda's central management now inside Pakistan (which also certainly exists).