Measuring the Success of Terrorist Organisations: Reflecting on Al-Qaeda’s Public Discourse Post-9/11

Every year since the tragic events of 9/11 when nearly 3000 innocent American citizens lost their lives as a result of a terror attack planned and instigated by Al-Qaeda, countless articles are written about the terrorist organisation, as the events marked a watershed moment in the field of security studies, which precipitated a so-called War on Terror (WoT) in Afghanistan and Iraq. And after trillions of dollars invested in innumerable experts, academics, research institutions, agencies, national security measures and weapons against the backdrop of mass casualties and displacement of millions of innocent people in the Middle East, the most vulnerable of which include women, children, the elderly, minorities and disabled persons…the Western security discourse considers how the past 18 years have gone. Particularly in recent years with the death of Osama bin Laden and the rise (and fall…and now impending re-emergence) of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda is revisited with much reference or subtle insinuation of its demise or recent irrelevance leading to two schools of thought: that either Al-Qaeda is rebranding its radicalism on the basis of what it appears to have identified as the isolation of those it deems to be fighting for, restructuring and forming grassroots alliances and possibly preparing for a re-emergence, or that Al-Qaeda is considered to be suffering from a major crisis of leadership further exasperated by the alleged death of a likely successor, Hamza bin Laden, and without a charismatic, ideological figurehead approximating Osama bin Laden or even the organisation’s current leader, Ayman Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda is likely to maintain its relatively sedentary status.

As Al-Qaeda continues to be seen in a much weaker light as compared to the early 2000’s, I find the above mentioned debates and narratives informing the discourse’s reflection of Al-Qaeda quite interesting.  This actually isn’t the first time, as I undertook a research project in 2017 trying to reflect on the impact of the Islamic State as it began losing territory. On the one hand the media had spent the past 3 years doing a better job at spreading terror and magnifying the Islamic State’s capabilities to proportions I wasn’t quite sure were entirely accurate and on the other hand, (much to the annoyance of many experts) the advent of the Trump administration perpetuating a narrative of the defeat and failure of the Islamic State also wasn’t entirely accurate. Surely there must be some kind of balanced argument, although with the above mentioned perspectives on Al-Qaeda in recent times, either side don’t appear to be that extreme-except for some arguments presented in The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public Discourse by Donald Holbrook (2014), which was perhaps the perfect book to be completing in the early weeks of September as the reflective pieces on Al-Qaeda came streaming in, as none of what I read or saw addressed propaganda disseminated by Al-Qaeda’s leaders which formed an, if not the most, integral part of the organisation. Now, for the most part I enjoyed the book and was particularly impressed by the theoretical framework and methodology laid out quite thoroughly and clinically throughout the book, and will certainly be using some aspects of it in my own studies in addition to recommending it be read by scholars alike.

That said, I wouldn’t say I would agree with the arguments contained in the book, especially the last two chapters which summarised the study, its findings and key arguments: which essentially was an examination of over 260 public statements by bin Laden and Zawahiri between 1991 and 2013. It delved into the evolution of jihadi ideology informing the leadership’s public discourse, their overall problem diagnosis, solution, target audience and most importantly I would say, the blatant inconsistencies and contradictions made by the leaders in an effort to either justify mistakes made by members of their organisation and its affiliates or revise history and current events in order to perpetuate a narrative that (again) justifies its violent actions but also to stimulate collective urgency to support or join the organisation. And this is where Holbrook (2014) is informed to take the view that Al-Qaeda’s communication strategy could mainly be considered a complete and total mess if not an entire failure. One would be tempted to draw the same conclusions, as prompting a confrontation with the events of 9/11, that neither it nor the Muslim world was prepared for in the hope that it would inspire global solidarity of Muslims to  join forces against the West, marked the beginning of a series blunders that would require a considerable amount of factual misrepresentation, blatant lies, hypocrisy, doctrinal manipulation and re-interpretation in order to sustain its main message.

From being unable to justify the killing of innocent Muslims which it claimed to be acting in defence of, to the failure of compensating families of the deceased as promised in the event it occurred, to invoking a takfiri stance on Muslims that failed to endorse or support their actions and radical Islamic philosophy, sometimes to the extent they expressed anger and frustration towards them, bin Laden and Zawahiri isolated Al-Qaeda from the very the community it relied upon the most for support to fulfil its ambitions. Further examination of bin Laden and Zawahiri’s threats and promises appear to be rather inconsequential, particularly on the issue of Palestine which it has frequently used as a demonstration of oppression against Muslims in its public discourse but never actually managed to establish much of a presence. Additionally, in one of my favourite illustrations, Holbrook (2014: 107) makes a point to show how much of the statements directly threatening to target the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have only occurred in the aftermath of major attacks, not prior, thus demonstrating the inability of the organisation to follow through on its own threats. These, among many other examples in the book of bin Laden and Zawahiri’s communication blunders have largely informed the argument that the reception and material outcome of their public discourse could largely deemed a failure…perhaps due to the fact that Al-Qaeda has been unable to achieve its goals and whatever it has been able to do has been a result of maximising its opportunities in volatile arenas rather than a combination of resolve, strategic insight, and operational capacity.

However, I beg to differ on the abovementioned argument presented by Holbrook (2014). This is mostly because in either trying to determine, measure or assess the impact of any aspect of a terrorist organisation, its important to establish the metrics by which to assert a particular claim. What exactly is considered a failure, a blunder, a contradiction, or an inconsistency…from whose perspective? What exactly informs what’s considered to be a successful and effective propaganda campaign as opposed to one that isn’t? To what extent can one use findings on a particular aspect of an organisation to reflect on the entirety of the organisation? These were the questions that puzzled and to some extent bothered me, as for the most part I think Al-Qaeda’s most valuable qualities (again, not deliberately instigated by its leadership) is exactly what Holbrook (2014) considers to be its weaknesses.

Firstly, Al-Qaeda’s notoriety and impact by some of its major attacks have hardly required the mass mobilisation and support of the global Muslim community. Its evolution towards justifying even the most extreme acts of violence, even against its own constituents, still manages to radicalise individuals to be part of the propagation and enactment of its radical ideology and will continue to do so. If the events of 9/11 have taught us anything, it’s that it requires a relatively small cell to instigate attacks at such an enormous scale, and the same could be said with other terrorist organisations like the Islamic State, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. Secondly, Al-Qaeda’s inconsistencies and contradictions have created a considerable opportunity for ideologically adjacent organisations to shape their own public discourse to their environment and agendas whilst enjoying being part of the Al-Qaeda franchise with little to no accountability, thus allowing Al-Qaeda to occupy a larger presence than just its senior leadership which has been crucial at a time when its leadership is considerably weakened. Thirdly, the historic significance of Al-Qaeda emerging from an Afghan insurgency in the late 80’s with roots to ideological figureheads like Abdullah Azzam propagating not only the concept but practice of jihad to becoming the forerunner of global jihadism in the 21st century, will never be lost on Al-Qaeda in spite of its mistakes over the past 30 years. Fourthly, perhaps the most important aspect lost in Holbrook’s (2014) book is the strength of the Al-Qaeda brand originating not only from its historical and ideological roots, but the degree to which it highly revolved around the personality of bin Laden, which to some extend made the inconsistencies and contradictions of his public discourse relatively inconsequential. Arguably, Zawahiri has failed to enjoy the same privilege not only due to his proclivity to be far more detailed in his public statements, thus leaving much room for errors, but also for the mere fact that he is not bin Laden. Nonetheless, in his absence (and that of his son), the Al-Qaeda brand and its association to bin Laden to a large degree has sustained the authority and receptiveness of its public discourse.

Therefore, in what is widely considered to be a period in which we can reflect rather than grapple with the present threat of Al-Qaeda, it’s easy to diminish the impact of is initiatives and contribute to the latter narrative presented in my opening paragraph. There is no correct or incorrect narrative or argument, but rather it’s not that simple and singular narratives are not sufficient enough to explain a complex aspect of a phenomenon with numerous overlapping factors. Certainly, Al-Qaeda’s public discourse is a riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies, but as a terrorist organisation that gave rise to the current cohort of highly lethal terrorist organisations all of which emerged as mere affiliates in pursuit of their local agendas to considerable regional threats, it hasn’t done too badly at all.

Featured Image Source: BBC News (2015): Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri by BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13789286

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