Leah Farrall (who is running the highly recommendable All Things Counter Terrorism blog) landed a big one. She managed to get an article into the current issue of Foreign Affairs, in which she analyses al-Qaeda's current status. Her general argument—al-Qaeda might in fact be stronger today than it was on 9/11—will certainly be met with scepticism in large parts of the academic world. Her bottom line is that in assessing al-Qaeda's strength one needs to take its local subsidiaries into account—from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The conclusion is obviously compelling, but academics of the school that likes to refer to itself as critical terrorism studies will certainly disagree and maintain that far too often this approach has led to a confusion of organisations that might very well call themselves al-Qaeda-something into a single organisation with overriding goals and ideologies. A proposition that does not hold up to closer scrutiny and I've got to say on this (and in all probability only on this) the critics are correct, for at least three reasons:
First, Farrall overstates the influence of al-Qaeda's senior leadership. For instance, I am not quite convinced that the merger of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda in 2001, as she maintains, is in any way similar to the adoption of the al-Qaeda label by organisations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Shabaab in Somalia. In fact, al-Shabaab has operated largely without any supervision whatsoever by al-Qaeda's central command and successfully so.
Second, the sort of unity achieved by adopting the al-Qaeda label is superficial at best. It does not in any way mean that all regional allies share al-Qaeda's central agenda or interpretation of Islamic law. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has on numerous occasions abducted European tourists to negotiate for a ransom, whereas al-Qaeda in Iraq has specifically targeted European and American nationals to execute them. Al-Shabaab in Somalia also executes foreigners but does not necessarily want to re-establish the global Ummah. Instead, it has long been suspected of following a nationalist agenda of a Greater Somalia that would unify all Somalis currently living in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia and Kenya in a single state. Put differently, modi operandi and agendas might differ so strongly among al-Qaeda's allies that Farralls argument might simply be misleading.
Finally, al-Qaeda might well be weaker than it has been on 9/11. The mere fact that its strength now rests with its local subsidiaries is quite indicative for a lack of capabilities on the part of al-Qaeda. But even al-Qaeda's local allies no longer are as strong as they used to be. Al-Shabaab has come under enormous military pressure and might well have passed its peak in Somalia this year. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has only adopted the al-Qaeda label and a regional agenda, because the Algerian state apparatus has basically crushed it within the Algerian states. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is basically beaten. And that is the overall weakness in Farralls argument, nearly all of al-Qaeda's local allies are weaker today than they have been only a couple of years ago.