Leadership: Al Qaeda's Secret War With Itself


September 20, 2007: Recent reports about Ayman al Zawahiri taking control of al Qaeda from Osama bin Laden, missed some important points. The obvious one is that bin Laden was never more than a charismatic figurehead and source of funds for the movement, while al Zawahiri has been running the show all along.

More important to the debate about the future of the war against al Qaeda is that, as the organization suffers public defeats, with no off-setting impressive wins, there's a good chance that very real internal rifts will arise. Although difficult to monitor and measure, this is an important "front" in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

There's a solid history of radical ideological terrorist groups falling apart through internal upheaval, following reverses "in the field." Three decades ago, the Japanese Red Army Faction (JRAF) literally destroyed itself in a massive internal convulsion that was sparked by a series of major defeats. The reverses led to a round of "soul searching/witch hunting" to insure ideological purity; after all, "We know we're acting at the cutting edge of history. We cannot lose. So if we have been suffering defeats in the glorious struggle, it means that either we've drifted into ideological impurity or we're being betrayed. We must take corrective action." The group began an ideological "purification" that led to such extremes as debating whether it was ideologically more correct to kill policemen with bullets or with bombs. This may sound silly, but it was often fatal for the losers. And ultimately it doomed the movement.

There have been hints that defeat in the field has caused strains in both al Qaeda and the Taliban. It's generally believed that al Zarqawi, late head of al Qaeda in Iraq, ran afoul of the inner circle because he initiated violent attacks on Shia and even Sunni civilians. He died under curious circumstances, suggesting Coalition forces had been tipped off. In true revolutionary fashion (or maybe gangland style), al Zawahiri, who probably ordered al Zarqawi fingered, sang the dead man's praises. There have been a number of other deaths among al Qaeda and Taliban leaders over the past year or so that hint at internal rifts. There is a need to keep very careful tabs on the relationships and status of al Qaeda's principal field commanders and known leaders, in order to be able to monitor the internal strength of the organization. This sort of information is kept from the press, lest the enemy get an idea of how they are being observed, and take measures to hide themselves better. The need for secrecy means that intelligence victories must also be kept secret, for revealing these achievements turns them into defeats. But something is going on.




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