Emerging details of last week’s Istanbul suicide bombings support the idea that al Qaeda is becoming more of a terror “consultancy” and less of a direct actor, security analysts say. Most see al Qaeda’s hand behind the car bombs that blew up two synagogues, the British consulate and the offices of British-based banking group HSBC, even if Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has cautioned that the link is not yet proven.
The car bombers were all Turks from the small southeast town of Bingol, known as a fundamentalist center, and Erdogan said they had global connections. Local people and media reports said three had attended al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
Experts said this fits a pattern of attacks since Sept. 11 in which al Qaeda’s core operatives have increasingly played a background role: supplying know-how, and possibly finance, but leaving it to local actors to carry out individual missions.
“Al Qaeda has moved to a ‘second generation’ of structures and operational capability,” said David Claridge, managing director of Janusian Security Risk Management in London.
“There clearly is some remaining (organizational) core, but that core is no longer involved in operations at the sharp end.”
Analysts offer competing metaphors to describe the modus operandi of al Qaeda since late 2001, when U.S. forces drove it from its Afghan bases and captured or killed key leaders as President Bush launched his war on terror.
Some see it as an international terror “university” or consultancy; others liken it to a franchising operation, endorsing approved operations around the world with the cachet of its feared global “brand.”
“The old, damaged military organization of al Qaeda has undergone a transformation to terror sponsor. That means Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri (his deputy) and others are more active today in the sense of franchising terrorism,” said Berndt Georg Thamm, a German writer on security issues.
This meant local groups could tap into Qaeda’s expertise to make contacts with like-minded networks and “order up” logistical support, financial help and advice on how to prepare and transport explosives.
“The re-organized al Qaeda consists of a very loose network of about 30 violent Islamist groups which are spread over the whole Muslim world,” Thamm said. “The network today is more virulent, essentially harder to grasp hold of and a lot harder to combat than a quasi-military terror group that is based in a single place.”
Some experts believe the obsession of Western media and public opinion with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden obscures the fact they have inspired a much wider global Islamist cause, dedicated to the waging of jihad (holy war).
BIN LADEN AS SYMBOL
Experts and intelligence chiefs see bin Laden still playing an important background role, but mainly as a symbol and preacher, periodically reinforcing the jihadist message with messages broadcast on Arabic television stations.
Individual militant groups have autonomous power to implement that agenda through specific attacks, with no need for specific central orders on what targets to hit.
“Al Qaeda has very successfully managed to create the conditions under which it can unleash these groups, either directly or indirectly,” Claridge said.
“By committing the September 11 attacks, in particular, it significantly radicalized and demonstrated to a whole range of groups around the world that they can have impact if they shift their focus away from immediate domestic concerns toward international concerns.”
Some experts argue that al Qaeda is already more of an ideology than an organization.
“I’m not sure there exists at all a centralist entity with command and control,” said French analyst Xavier Raufer.
“I think more and more (that) al Qaeda, if it is an entity at all, will become a clearing house for finances and intellectual resources,” Claridge said.