Has al-Qaeda Ceased to Exist?

Osama bin Laden, the presumed mastermind behind the creation of al-Qaeda, originally formalized a global network of militants mostly comprising Muslim Brotherhood members.  These Brotherhood members, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, tapped into their own personal networks which later socially conditioned and recruited a mass movement of followers.  Many were active militant fighters, while many more were passive supporters of a newly established global terror network.  But that original al-Qaeda no longer exists.

As al-Qaeda grew long after the Russian-Afghan war, many of its leaders became empowered.  They split off, moving into strategically positioned bases around the world.  Their mission was to mainstream al-Qaeda's radicalized views of Islam in an attempt to create a "world caliphate."  Needless to say, many leaders in this movement sought to achieve this strategic objective through government infiltration, passive social conditioning, and even violent terror activities.

With time, an internal struggle manifested within the original al-Qaeda network.  Some members believed that joining forces with non-Sunni Islamic persons would only strengthen progress toward their stated goals.  Others believed that working with such persons was off-limits.  And additional terror groups aligned with former al-Qaeda elements all the while.  An example of these non-Sunni factions comprises Hezbollah, Colombia's FARC, and even cartels such as Los Zetas in Mexico.  Of course, many times these "joined forces" are not always direct.  Many times, the joining of forces comes through third-party initiatives.

Most mass movements are formed by a handful of individuals simply seeking power.  These individuals groom members; yet, like with street gangs, when certain members feel that they have enough power, they move onto their own initiatives, often including the creation of new groups.  These groups are separate from their original mother group, yet they sometimes maintain some allegiance, as seen in several outlaw motorcycle clubs.  Such a move has been seen between Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Muslim Brotherhood recently.

This means that al-Qaeda is no longer the terror network we once knew it to be.  Today, "al-Qaeda" can arguably be construed as a general label for radical Sunni Islamic factions.  As an example, Somalia's Al Shabaab Islamic terror group is a single terrorist organization, yet members have a history serving within the al-Qaeda network.  It is a completely separate organization, yet it is often labeled as falling within the al-Qaeda domain due to some continued ties between the two.

In light of an elementary example of Al Shabaab, one should ponder, then, whether it is reasonable to include the non-Sunni factions known to be aligned with al-Qaeda as actual elements of al-Qaeda itself.  As an example, it is known that Hezb'allah, an Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group, has close ties with al-Qaeda.  In fact, today, many CT professionals understand how closely tied al-Qaeda has become with Iran itself.

The Iranian-Hezb'allah-al-Qaeda relationship is known.  Most recently, U.S. courts revealed the 9-11 alliance.  Yet no counterterrorist specialist will ever claim that Hezb'allah or Iran is part of al-Qaeda.

Why won't an agreement be made claiming that Hezbollah falls under al-Qaeda?  The simplest reason could be that Hezb'allah is Shiite and al-Qaeda is Sunni.  Amazingly, when it comes to terrorist groups, professionals will make classifications based on one ideology stemming from religious differences, but they will ignore any other known ideology -- specifically, in this case, the ideology of power.

So a few key questions must be asked when attempting to understand what al-Qaeda truly is today.  First, is al-Qaeda still the terrorist network it was once believed to be?  Secondly, has too much emphasis on ideology been placed on today's different radical Islamic terrorist organizations?  Lastly, should counterterrorist professionals even stress about al-Qaeda any longer as one large terror movement, or should they simply concentrate on the hundreds of smaller terrorist groups now in existence?

The last of these questions is likely the most debatable in the list.  Unfortunately, an entire shift in critical thinking would need to occur throughout an entire global system of those attempting to defeat a monster that...well, may no longer exist as we once believed.  As any social psychologist knows, making such a move takes a long time to achieve.

In the end, al-Qaeda is quite possibly no longer what we once knew it to be.  Indeed, arguably, al-Qaeda is now nothing more than a label placed on various and sundry Sunni Islamic terrorist groups.  We now know that these groups have joined forces with non-Sunni terrorist factions. Is it time, then, to restructure our understanding of al-Qaeda -- perhaps to the point of dispensing with the label altogether?

Kerry Patton, a combat service disabled veteran, is a senior analyst for WIKISTRAT and owner of IranWarMonitor.com.  He has worked in South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, focusing on intelligence and security and interviewing current and former terrorists, including members of the Taliban.  He is the author of Sociocultural Intelligence: The New Discipline of Intelligence Studies and the children's book American Patriotism.  You can follow him on Facebook.