Readings on Networks, Leadership, and Politics
Future challenges for counterterrorism efforts won’t be Al Qaeda but what will follow Al Qaeda—a decentralized network of radical extremists that will be more difficult to identify and monitor, Paul R. Pillar wrote more than a decade ago.
Pillar, now a Brookings Institution scholar, is a former deputy chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counter Terrorist Center, and author of Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. He wrote in 2004 that the centralized organization that Osama bin Laden had headed before the September 11 attacks was already in disarray, with many senior and mid level leaders incarcerated or dead, and others on the run. But he warned that the roots of the extremism were very much alive and growing deeper in a global network that extended well beyond Al Qaeda itself.
Pillar predicted new threats would emerge from an eclectic and decentralized array of groups, cells and individuals, including jihadists who might not be attached to a particular group but who could draw support from networks of like-minded extremists He also suggested decentralization would increase the complexity of combating terrorism. Intelligence would become harder to gather and analyze, and lack of a large, visible and well financed centralized organization could make it harder to enlist foreign and domestic support for anti-terrorist initiatives.
Pillar’s essay, from a 2004 issue of the Washington Quarterly, was among the books, journals press clippings and other documents found. in Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbotabad when U.S. Navy SEALs captured him. The director of U.S. National Intelligence released a declassified list of the reading matter. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kukatani called the collection a “weird hodgepodge” that included mainstream scholarly works on economics and U.S. foreign policy and wild conspiracy theories. It’s not clear what Bin Laden actually studied or thought. But Kukatani and other reviewers say the material reflected Bin Laden’s ambitions and managerial concerns. AlQaeda had become a kind of giant corporation—prospective fighters had to submit a thee page job application and those accepted had to turn in expense reports. The library suggests the terrorist leader was trying to keep tabs on his own splintering organization and understand global issues, probably in search of wiser ways to attack his perceived enemies.
Pillar wrote that post Al Qaeda terrorism would have “more moving parts, more geographically disparate operations, and more ideological momentum.” He predicted new leaders would emerge. But he said the looser the network connections become, and the less terroristic activities are associated with a single individual, the harder it will be to identify operatives and track their movements and relationships. Given these limitations, he said, counter terrorism will have to rely on other policy instruments, such as physical security to thwart attacks and efforts to understand and address the appeal of the radical extremists. The growth Islamist extremism in the Muslim world, he asserted, was fostered by distrust of America and its Western allies, and by the lack of credible alternatives to oppose the despised established order.
In a 2014 essay, Pillar discusses ISIS as one of the organizations that emerged in the aftermath of Al Qaeda’s deterioration and the dispersal of its leadership. Despite the horrifying and highly publicized brutality of ISIS, Pillar warns against a U.S. policy narrowly focused on destroying it; he says we want to be sure that in going after one monster we don’t create another one. The lessons from Al Qaeda, he writes, illustrate that even though a particular organization might be destroyed, its methods and ideologies are likely to emerge elsewhere and take other forms as long as he underlying enabling conditions exist. .