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e best way to end Al-Qaeda is to crush the group

with military force

Al-Qaeda has become metonymous with Islamic terror. e problem of how the west can deal,
and will deal, with Al-Qaeda thus opens much wider questions, and reveals broader answers.
is essay will discuss different approaches towards Al-Qaeda, with emphasis on the ability of
Western governments to defeat the group by military means. I will argue that the military force
has only a limited efficiency, and only when we de ne Al-Qaeda in narrow terms. If we choose
to understand Al-Qaeda as not a single group, but a loose and fragmented group of Islamist
terrorists, it is much more difficult to argue that it can be defeated with pure force.

In order to do this, it is very important to de ne exactly what is meant by the term “Al-Qaeda.”
Its de nition is controversial, and the group itself is ephemeral and what was true of it ten years
ago, much less twenty, can be false today. e main differences in the de nitions are scope,
organisation, power and size. All of these are crucial to our ability to destroy the organisation
(or the groups with the lack thereof ).

1 De ning terms

De ning what Al-Qaeda is can be notoriously difficult. Al-Qaeda’s name, itself, can be un-
derstood in more than one way. e noun qaeda means not only “foundation”, or (military)
“base”, but also “method” (Burke 2004, p. 18), and which, with Arabic article al, makes either

“the base” or “the method.” e dual meaning of the term echoes the dual understanding of the
organisation itself by western scholars, media and governments. is dichotomy is not shared
with the Islamist militants themselves, who have, according to Burke (2004, p. 18), “always
understood the term in the latter term.”

Hoffman (2003, p. 6) recognizes several different levels of how Al-Qaeda is understood today.
He asks if we can understand it as a “monolithic, international terrorist organization” that has
a clear command structure, and is controlled and operated from top to bottom. If so, it is can
also be de ned geographically, as where the organisation physically exists, and personally, as
speci c people who hold power and a commanding position in the organization. If understood
in these terms, Al-Qaeda can be loosely placed in Afghanistan, and connected to Osama bin
Laden, his commanders, several hundreds of “highly skilled and dedicated members”(Byman
2003, p. 148), and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of trained militants.

It is also important to take into account the wide, almost global reach of the organisation. In his
reviewByman (2003, p. 149) cites Gunaratna (2002, p. 54) who argues that Al-Qaeda “is nei-
ther a single group nor a coalition of groups: it comprised a core base or bases in Afghanistan,
satellite terrorist cells worldwide, a conglomerate of Islamist political parties, and other largely
independent terrorist groups that it draws on for offensive actions and other responsibilities”
us, while the small and tightly knit centre of the organisation is in Afghanistan, and the
organisation as a whole is under the command and control of Osama bin Laden or his col-
leagues, it also a much broader network of more-or-less independent groups, or cells. Byman
(2003, p. 150) notes that these groups will o en have different priorities, if not goals. He gives
the example of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which focuses mainly on the domestic
issues, and issues of Central Asia, and not on the struggle against the West. us, it may be
characterised as a terrorist group with a “identi able command and control apparatus” on one
hand, yet acting as a “franchise operation [of ] local representatives independently advancing
the parent organization’s goals” (Hoffman 2003, p. 6)

Alternatively, Al-Qaeda can be seen as a movement, an ideology or, indeed, a “virus” (Hoffman
2003, p. 6). Blitz (2010), in a recent article in the FT, notes that while “bin Laden still has huge
ideological sway over some Muslim extremists, experts argue that al-Qaeda has fragmented
over the years into a variety of disconnected regional movements that have little connection
with each other.” us, while the organisation could have once been what I described above,

it has morphed into a movement, and its organisation structure has become much looser, if
any structure exists at all. Blitz (2010) quotes Marc Sageman, a psychologist studying terrorist
networks, as saying that “there is no umbrella organisation” and that the name Al-Qaeda is
today merely a badge or label.

Burke (2004, p. 18) goes further. He calls Al-Qaeda merely an ideology, and points to Ab-
dullah Azzam, who was “the leading ideologue for modern Sunni Muslim radical activists” as
coining the term “al-qaeda al-sulbah”, which translates to “a vanguard of the strong”, and giv-
ing the people that today are known as Al-Qaeda their ideological background. Indeed, Burke
(2004, p. 18) credits the United States with the groups name. It was speci cally the FBI, which,
according to Burke, “dubbed the loosely linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and
his aides had formed as “al Qaeda.”” is was done in order to frame the organisation in con-
ventional antiterrorism terms. He likens the group in this time to a venture capital rm which
provides money, contacts and expertise to different groups with a similar aim.

However, a er the offensive in Afghanistan, this core group of ’venture capitalists’ was scat-
tered, arrested or killed. What survives, however, is the ideology of ‘al Qaedaism.’ is ideology
breeds various new groups and individuals who, as Burke (2004, p. 18) notes, “act in the style
of al Qaeda” and yet “are only part of al Qaeda in the very loosest sense.” In a similar vein, Feiser
and Stroupe (2004) write that Al-Qaeda’s fall from power in Afghanistan meant that groups
pursued their goals and strategies independently, but still inspired and ideologically “rooted in
the political radicalism of Sunni Islam” that were pioneered by Al-Qaeda. us, their assertion
that Al-Qaeda is simply a ’brand name’ and its ability to give an impression of real or imagined
power lies in the ability to maintain its “manufactured symbolism” and propaganda

It is my opinion, that the modern Al-Qaeda is more of the latter than the former, and that if
it ever existed as a, clearly structured, organisation with international involvement and global
reach, this is no longer the case. If a hard-core of Al-Qaeda ghters and commanders still exists,
it is, according to (Blitz 2010), in the mountains of Waziristan and in Pakistani tribal areas on
the border. Blitz (2010) notes that Western governments believe that Osama bin Laden is
still alive, and that he is surrounded by several hundred followers. However, this “core group”
is under constant attack by the US forces from Afghanistan, and thus “its capabilities have
been degraded”, according to John Brennan, the U.S. president’s most senior counter-terrorism

2 e use of military force against Al-Qaeda

In his article Hoffman (2003, p. 11) notes that it is clear that “one of bin Laden’s aims in the
9/11 attacks was to draw the U.S. into a costly ground campaign in Afghanistan.” is was
done with the aim of bogging the American forces down with Guerilla warfare, in the same
way that the mujahideens had been able to do with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Osama Bin
Laden was a fan of Guerilla tactics, and considered them the “most Powerful Weapon Muslims
have.” e idea obviously back red, and the relative ease with which the U.S. and  were
able to overrun the Taliban and Al-Qaeda meant that bin Laden’s Guerilla warfare tactic was
not successful in Afghanistan. According to Byman (2003, p. 156), what is important it that
while bin Laden “clearly underestimated U.S. resolve, power, and skill, in both his small and
large actions he has attempted to manipulate and use the American response to suit his ends.”
e use of military force against Al-Qaeda was, therefore, expected and welcomed by the Al-
Qaeda leadership.

e military force in Afghanistan was swi , and effective. e U.S. military, a er starting the
offensive in October 2001, was able to quickly capture a signi cant area, including Mazar-i
Sharif, a key city in the Balkh province and Kabul to the south east. e last remaining area of
resistance for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was in the Tora Bora mountains, where the coalition
troops came close to capturing important Al-Qaeda gures including Osama bin Laden, who
ed thanks only to a feigned truce, on the pretext of surrendering weapons.

e war against Al-Qaeda, at least in its initial stage had been surprisingly successful. Accord-
ing to a speech by Tenet (2003), more than a third of Al-Qaeda operatives have been killed or
captured, including, Walid bin ’Attash, who planned the bombing of the USS Cole, and other
high ranking commanders. Tenet (2003) claimed that by capture of these operatives has lead
to the disruption of operations of Al-Qaeda, and that information gathered from the detainees
will prove valuable in the war against it. Tenet also notes that “Al-Qa’ida’s loss of Afghanistan,
the death and capture of key personnel, and its year spent mostly on the run have impaired its
capability, complicated its command and control, and disrupted its logistics.”

3 Evaluating possible alternatives and supplements to military

It is clear that military force alone cannot crush a terrorist organisation, at least not in the
Clausewitzian terms in which we understand conventional military force. Because, as Cronin
and Ludes (2004, p. 172) note, the theoretical aim of military force is to strike and destroy
the ‘centre of gravity’ of the opponent, it is impossible, or at least very difficult to apply to an
organisation that does not have, or no longer has a centre of gravity. e attack on Afghanistan
showed that even if one destroys the centre of gravity of a terrorist organisation, it can continue
to carry out terrorist acts. Indeed, it can easily “emerge in force elsewhere” or, more likely, “it
will establish a less permanent presence in an ungovernable region of a weak or failing state–if,
indeed, it chooses to make such a strategic error again.” (Cronin and Ludes 2004, p. 173)

If, however, we believe the optimistic words of the then director of the CIA, the War on Terror
has disrupted the functioning of the organisational structures of the central Al-Qaeda, based
in Afghanistan. e U.S has been successful in Afghanistan because some parts of the military
are still very useful: Cronin and Ludes (2004, p. 173) give the example of special operations
forces, which are highly effective in light infantry warfare.

It would therefore be a mistake to completely discard military force. us the idea of not replac-
ing, but supplementing the war on terror. e idea is not novel, and military force is, obviously
supplemented by a number of different forces. Because of the guerilla tactics that terrorists
groups employ, they are light and agile and thus cannot be mapped to a speci c geographical
area. Cronin and Ludes (2004, p. 172) note that because the Al-Qaeda does not “rely on a
single state for sanctuary–and indeed, may be found embedded in friendly states–combating
them requires considerable international cooperation.” ey go on to list these forms of in-
ternational cooperation: it includes law enforcement and intelligence coordination, and, of
course, joint military operations.

In his essay Naím (2003) gives some answers to how we can combat what he considers the
ve wars of globalisation: “the illegal trade in drugs, arms, intellectual property, people” Naím
(2003, p. 29). ese answers are also good starting points for the war against terrorism, which

is clearly the sixth war of globalisation. is is due on one hand, to the similarity of a terror-
ist group to a criminal organisation, and on the other on the close connections between, or
sometimes unity of both.

e answers Naím (2003, p. 36) gives are in four broad categories: rethinking sovereignty,
strengthening multilateral institutions, devising new institutions, and moving from repression
to regulation. Because the last is only tangentially related to terrorism, I will concentrate on
the rst three answers and see how they can be applied to terrorism, and particularly Al-Qaeda.

Sovereignty, Naím (2003, p. 36) notes, is compromised constantly not by different national
governments, but by “stateless networks” and terrorists. States must recognise the changing
nature of sovereignty, and their ability to enforce it, especially with regards to these actors.
ey must recognise that what may seem like a surrender of sovereignty to another state, es-
pecially legally, may in fact strengthen the states actual sovereignty, and especially its ability
to effectively police its borders. Some progress on this can be seen on the Afghan-Pakistani
border, where American forces operate o en behind Pakistani borders to strike terrorists who
give little heed to them.

Naím (2003, p. 36) argues that states must strengthen existing multilateral institutions. He
gives the example of Interpol, which operates with only 112 police officers and a budget of
only $28 million. e budget today is much larger: in 2009 it was 47.4 million euros, or
about $65 million (Anonymous 2009), so some progress has been made. ese institutions
must become the forums in which countries share information and effectively cooperate on
counter-terrorism. As mentioned above, terrorists groups, and Al-Qaeda especially, operate
internationally, and o en have bases and operations in countries that are friendly to the West.
Naím (2003, p. 36) sees the fear that “today’s allies will become tomorrow’s enemies” as a bar-
rier towards cooperation, but I believe that cooperation is necessary precisely so that they do

Because the world is a much different place to what it was when many of these organisations
were created, it is necessary to create new ones that better re ect current realities. ese need
to incorporate and de ne the functions and responsibilities of intelligence agents, soldiers and
police officers, and also reassess the de nition of a combatant, and a terrorist. (Naím 2003, p.
36) ese new institutions must be given reasonable power to act against international organ-

isation, and give relevant information about their state.

4 Conclusion

e question of how best to destroy terrorist groups cannot be answered simply or de nitely.
While it is obvious that military force is essential to a degree, it is also clear that it is able to
accomplish only limited goals. It can strike and destroy the terrorist centre of gravity, and its
main leaders, but it cannot dismantle a fragmented and loosely organized group of ghters.
While the west has so far been successful at preventing the ‘central’ Al-Qaeda from striking
important targets, it has been less successful at stopping terrorists that have very little to no
contact with it.

us it is important to move beyond seeing the War in Afghanistan as the central front against
terrorism, and recognise that no front exists. In a globalised world, it will be cooperation, mul-
tilateralism, the sharing of information and a common approach that will lead to a safer world.
We must build and support international organisation that are able to foster such cooperation,
and we must rethink our understanding of sovereignty and its place in the international order.


Anonymous: 2009, INTERPOL: an overview.


Blitz, J.: 2010, A threat transformed, Financial Times, 19 January.

Burke, J.: 2004, Al Qaeda, Foreign Policy (142), 18–26.

Byman, D. L.: 2003, Review: Al-Qaeda as an adversary: Do we understand our enemy?, World
Politics 56(1), 139–163.

Cronin, A. and Ludes, J.: 2004, Attacking terrorism: elements of a grand strategy, Georgetown
University Press.

Feiser, J. and Stroupe, W. J.: 2004, Evolution of the al-Qaeda brand name, Asia Times, 13 Au-

Gunaratna, R.: 2002, Inside Al Qaeda, Berkley Books, New York.

Hoffman, B.: 2003, Al-Qaeda, Trends in Terrorism and Future potentialities: An Assessment,
e RAND Corporation.

Naím, M.: 2003, e ve wars of globalization, Foreign Policy (134), 28–37.

Tenet, G.: 2003, e Worldwide reat in 2003: Evolving Dangers in a Complex World, DCI’s
Worldwide reat Brie ng, 11 February.