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Al-Qaeda Senior Leadership: Central Command or Leaderless Jihad?

ThreatsWatch recently participated in a symposium on the significance of al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL) published today by FrontPage Magazine. It is a pretty good conversation on the subject with Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, Sayed Adnan Ali Shah Bukhari, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and me.

Following Dr. Gunaratna, the first question posed to ThreatsWatch and my response is below.

FP: Steve Schippert, what accounts for the failure to successfully target and neutralize the core leadership of al-Qaeda? And how relevant is this core leadership?

Schippert: There is no single point of failure, if we want to use that term, to successfully target and liquidate bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and the rest of al-Qaeda's principal actors. There have been many dynamics involved. In my view, beginning in 2002, it simply came down to choices.

Step back in time and recall that, in the midst of cries - much from within America itself - of impending doom and quagmire for us in Afghanistan, our military made rather shockingly short work of the fabled mujahideen on their home turf in Afghanistan. The problem after was one of invisible lines in the sand. As spectacularly as our military and intelligence performed, they were not and are not omnipotent. Much of the very wily and experienced terrorist leadership chose to stay ahead of the sword's edge and fled into Pakistan or Iran, where they largely remain still today in welcoming or forged sanctuaries.

We could have invaded Pakistan and we could have invaded Iran. But even still, there are no assurances for the armchair generals that the senior leadership of al-Qaeda would have stood still in either place for us to kill. They fled for a reason and they likely would have continued to move. How far do we then send ground forces from the original center of gravity in military pursuit? How many invisible lines do we cross into other sovereign territories?

There are no Panzer lines and this is not the European campaign of World War II.

As to the relevance of al-Qaeda's senior leadership (AQSL), they are as critical today as they were September 10, 2001. Many like to further the notion that AQSL is no longer important, that al-Qaeda has transformed into a 'leaderless jihad' and a global decentralized movement from a centralized controlled cadre of terrorists. To put it succinctly, it's not one or the other and it's not a zero sum game.

Today, al-Qaeda resembles a fan. The senior leadership - bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Abu Hafs (Atef), et al - are the motor in the center. They drive the speed and direction of activity. Their aligned movements (AQAM) such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are the blades of the fan, most directly attached to the AQSL motor and most immediately reactive to its drive. The AQAM blades' mission is to push the wind. And that air around the blades represents the broader and less connected 'movement' of al-Qaeda. And the closer each individual molecule is to one of the blades - physically and ideologically - the more likely they too will become influenced and driven, once removed from the AQSL motor. The farther outlying air away from the blades sees some movement, but is more scattered and moves with decidedly less velocity. Yet still capable of blowing nonetheless.

For those who would still contest that al-Qaeda is simply a decentralized movement, they must then also answer why the movements are still reactively driven by Internet propaganda communications that still come primarily via al-Qaeda's senior leadership through al-Qaeda's established - and quite centralized - production organizations, such as as-Sahab. Nothing is official - such as the recent death of Abu Laith al-Libi - until as-Sahab says so...because as-Sahab is AQSL. And AQSL has lost zero relevance.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Kyle Dabruzzi have written an excellent article on their continued significance, and I hope that Daveed will elaborate more here.

Be sure to read the rest, including the excellent exchange among the other notable participants.

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The Destruction of Sarposa

Like in real estate sales, in insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, location is vital — and Kandahar is quite an interesting location.
While Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, Kandahar has been the spiritual and physical capital of the Taliban.

Even when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan and assumed control of the government, their real headquarters remained in Kandahar, the place where they first emerged as a force in Afghan politics and where their leader Mullah Omar resided. Osama bin Laden also resided in Kandahar with many of his al Qaeda followers.

Although the Taliban and al Qaeda militants were quickly forced to flee the city following the U.S. invasion in October 2001, much of the population in the area has remained ideologically committed to the Taliban, and we have long considered Kandahar city and province to be Taliban strongholds.

From the perspective of the Afghan government and coalition forces, Kandahar is very much hostile territory.