The Three Versions of Al Qaeda
By Clint Watts, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute
Review by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
In a recent lecture for FPRI’s Butcher History Institute conference held at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Clint Watts, a former U.S. Army infantry officer and FBI special agent assigned to a joint terrorism task force, explained the evolution of Al Qaeda from 1988 to the present.
Watts evaluated Al Qaeda through three “incarnations”: from 1988 to 2001; 2002 to 2011; and 2011 to the present. During this time period Al Qaeda, Watts explained, “has harnessed the collective energy of various conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.” Islamic jihadists from throughout the region and the world have become “ensconced in Al Qaeda’s ideology and operational umbrella.”
Pakistan and Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 attracted Muslim jihadists to fight in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Watts identified Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian Sunni Islamic scholar, as a key figure in the formation of a global jihadist network. One of his followers was Osama Bin Laden, who learned about fundraising and organization from Azzam then established a separate organization called Al Qaeda.
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia where he condemned the Saudi regime’s decision to permit U.S. forces to use Saudi Arabia as a base from which to wage war in Iraq. Bin Laden was exiled to Sudan from where he launched attacks in Yemen and Somalia. From Sudan, Bin Laden went to Afghanistan where he struck an alliance with the Taliban and declared war on the United States. Al Qaeda launched a series of attacks at U.S. embassies in Africa and later on the USS Cole near Aden. Next came the attacks of September 11, 2001.
After the 9/11 attacks, according to Watts, Al Qaeda transitioned as a result of being hunted by American forces. Bin Laden found safe havens in Afghanistan and later Pakistan and was able to direct attacks in Kenya, Morocco, turkey, Tunisia, and London. This period also saw the growth of Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region, including Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The internet was used to recruit foreign fighters around the world to join in jihad.
After Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, Al Qaeda decentralized and took advantage of the so-called Arab Spring by seeking to undermine regimes in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Syria. Watts is especially concerned about Syria which “has likely produced the largest migration of foreign fighters in history.” He believes that the future of Al Qaeda will likely be determined by what happens in Syria.