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Is al-Qaeda Still a Threat?

A new study suggests that the dangers of terrorist networks have been greatly overstated.
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On Nov. 13, CIA Chief Michael Hayden told an audience in Washington that al-Qaeda still remains a growing threat, and that the terrorist network is, in fact, extending its reach. Though the al-Qaeda of 2008 looks very different from the hierarchical organization that existed before the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan, Hayden, like many experts, sees al-Qaeda as drawing strength from its ability to fan out as a network and operate in multiple places at once, from North Africa to Somalia to Yemen to Pakistan.

It is in this networked form, with its supposed capacities for flexibility and adaptation, that many experts worry al-Qaeda might be most dangerous — a nimble David with a distinct advantage in taking on the lumbering, bureaucratic Goliath that is the United States and its allies.

But can such a decentralized terrorist network really be that effective? International relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones have some words of caution: Don't believe the hype. Illicit networks are not all that they are cracked up to be. After all, look at their historical performance: Most have turned out to be remarkably brittle and quite short-lived.

Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, a lecturer in international studies at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge, and Jones, a doctoral student in the department of international relations at Yale University, turned their attention to the subject when they found themselves frustrated by what Eilstrup-Sangiovanni called "the poor quality of much current work in security studies that take network as a starting point."

The popularity of networks as a flashy concept for explaining everything, they worried, was leading to facile comparisons that weren't well developed or well supported — international relations scholars were throwing around network ideas with faddish abandon, but it wasn't equally hip to be precise.

"There's a lot of jargon," Eilstrup-Sangiovanni said, "but often too little careful research into what a networked structure actually implies for an actor's cohesiveness and capacity."

In the world of business, networks are said to be powerful because they make for efficient communications and information processing. They are easily scalable. They are resilient and adaptable. And they have a great capacity for learning. But do these benefits translate to illicit terrorist networks?

The scholars think not. "Most clandestine networks," they write in an article in the most recent issue of International Security, "are not as agile and resilient as they are made out to be."

Illicit networks are not, as it turns out, good at communications and information-sharing. Members tend to be isolated in nodes with little centralized communication, making it difficult for these networks to come to coherent decisions. The organizational structure also makes illicit networks prone to excessive risk-taking, especially if the leaders are relatively insulated from the outside world (as they often are).

Moreover, they argue, given the high levels of interpersonal trust required for networks to be effective, once previous kinship and other close relations are brought in, it becomes hard to find additional trustworthy members.

And even if the network does find ways to expand, spreading networks too thin leads to splintering. As the networks get bigger and more decentralized, more competing factions arise. And when they are hit by authorities, they are likely to blame each other. Finally, illicit networks do not learn well as organizations, again because the isolated splinter nodes do not share information and experiences well.

The scholars built their case both by carefully assessing the theories behind networks as well as conducting research on a wide range of illicit networks, ranging from Montreal criminal networks to the Egyptians who assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat, from the Algerian insurgency group the Islamic Salvation Front to Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that carried out a deadly Tokyo sarin gas attack.

All these groups started strongly as more tightly controlled hierarchies. But once they took on more networked forms, they quickly fractured. Their demise was often aided by authorities who were able to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in their organizational form.

The scholars similarly argue that al-Qaeda had its heyday as a hierarchy. But now, they note, "it appears to be losing unity," and "many more plots have been foiled." Like most other once-formidable terrorist networks, al-Qaeda is now succumbing to the difficulties inherent in being so decentralized.

If Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Jones are right, how did many smart people come to ascribe so much power to terrorist networks with so little empirical evidence?

"The characterization comes from a certain enthusiasm for the Information Age and Net-centric technology," Jones said, blaming "quick analogies to the global economy, where flatter, networked firms have indeed outperformed vertically integrated hierarchies in certain fields."

"The network perspective has so far been very appealing," she added, but noted, "it exaggerates and oversimplifies the strengths of networks while ignoring weaknesses."

However, despite some misguided thinking, the scholars do not see grave miscalculations in the efforts to pursue al-Qaeda. Eilstrup-Sangiovanni thinks that by going after the leaders, the U.S. and its allies "have forced groups like al-Qaeda to adopt a more networked form, which may have lessened its effectiveness."

Jones, however, worries that the U.S. military has made a mistake in stressing "the great need for bureaucratic restructuring and reorganization, rather than a fuller understanding of the threat and its weakness."

Going forward, both have some advice for a new administration: "Do not cast al-Qaeda as a new, monolithic or great historic enemy of the United States with a viable alternative ideology," Jones warned, noting a parallel to mistakes the U.S. made in dealing with the Soviet Union, ignoring the internal fragmentation existing there.

Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, meanwhile, urges the U.S. to exploit the known weaknesses of illicit networks, noting that they are "vulnerable to a variety of tactics designed to disrupt communications and sow mistrust among members."

Rather than build the network itself up as a grave threat, she said it would be smarter to look at why al-Qaeda is able to recruit at all.

"At the risk of sounding trite," she said, "if terrorism has broad appeal in some parts of the world, we need to think about why and how that can be countered."

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