Al Qaeda – From bin Laden’s cave command to regionalised “franchise company”?

October 23, 2008

Osama bin Laden is no longer involved in the day-to-day planning of attacks, Germany’s spy chief says, arguing that al Qaeda has turned from a centralised force into a regionalised “franchise company” with power centres in Pakistan, North Africa and the Arab peninsula. Does this weaken or strengthen the Islamist militant group? And how does it influence its operations, planning of attacks and its efforts to recruit new followers?

Ernst Uhrlau, who heads the BND foreign intelligence agency, Germany’s equivalent of the CIA, says al Qaeda’s “concept” has changed significantly over the past few years. “After the centralisation phase and the break-up of its bases in Afghanistan, when it had the backing of the Taliban government, we have seen a regionalisation over the past four years — something like a franchise company.”    “Today, there is al Qadea in the Maghreb, al Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula, in Iraq, in Yemen,” Uhrlau told Reuters in an interview this week.

Uhrlau said many militant groups in those regions had decided to come under the roof of al Qaeda and were applying the group’s strategy to “internationalise the victims and move beyond national struggle.” Security analysts say they are closely watching the Maghreb region, highlighting recent attacks in Mauritania and Algeria for which al Qaeda claimed responsibility. “With this differentiated concept, they are more able to use regional strengths … for the global jihad,” Uhrlau said, mentioning recruiting efforts.

Pakistan had special significance for al Qaeda, with the group aiming to “attack the United States via Pakistan”, Uhrlau said. “That’s also being reflected in travel movements by Islamists. We see (them) not only (heading) to Iraq, but also to Pakistan and African regions.” Some analysts say American success in Iraq against al Qaeda militants may also have diverted some recruits for the anti-Western cause to the Afghan conflict. U.S. General David McKiernan told Reuters in a recent interview foreign militants had imported sophisticated tactics to invigorate the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Overall, however, Uhrlau said al Qaeda had suffered serious setbacks through the arrests or killings of senior leaders in past years, which made it unlikely the group would be able to stage another attack of the scale of Sept. 11.  “International networks, and al Qaeda in particular, have been hurt in their ability to act and in their long-term ability to plan since Sept. 11. They have suffered significant and sustainable losses,” he said, citing better intelligence. “That’s why long-term preparations, movement of groups of people across borders are today a lot more difficult to organise,” he said.

However, despite the setbacks for Qaeda and despite its decentralisation and structural changes, Uhrlau said one thing remained clear: “That does not mean that the aim of causing the largest
possible damage is no longer an al Qaeda concept.”

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