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al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat

109th Congress
2d Session
Union Calendar No. 355
Report 109-615

al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat







Understanding the Strategic Threat

Today, the remnants of al-Qaeda and radical Islamist terrorist groups with like-minded goals and ideologies remain the single most important threat to the national security of the United States. Although al-Qaeda has suffered significant setbacks since 9/11, the organization is constantly evolving, and its leaders patiently wait for the right opportunity to direct another attack against the United States. As evidenced by Usama bin Laden's statement from January 2006, al-Qaeda's leadership still possesses the desire to carry out further attacks. Breaking a fourteen-month silence, bin Laden said:

"As for similar operations taking place in America, it is only a matter of time. They [the terrorists] are in the final stages, and you will see them in the heart of your land as soon as the planning is complete."5

The enemy we face today is not the same enemy that attacked the United States in 2001. Al-Qaeda has been forced to adapt to its changing environment and has relinquished some of its operational control to an extended network of like-minded terrorist groups to ensure the movement's longevity. Today, the war on terrorism is being fought on multiple fronts. First, we are fighting al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by Usama bin Laden. Usama bin Laden formally declared war against the United States in a 1996 letter urging Jihad against America. In his 1996 letter, and in subsequent statements, Usama bin Laden cites the United States and its allies for their military presence in the Middle East, support for Israel and the occupation of Iraq as reasons to attack the U.S. His 1998 statement expanded on the 1996 fatwa to sanction attacks on all Americans, including civilians. Usama bin Laden justified attacks against the American people because "they are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq" He further states, "The American people are the ones who employ both their men and their women in the American Forces which attack us."6

Successful operations against al-Qaeda's core have created new problems in the sense that al-Qaeda is no longer a hierarchical organization run by bin Laden. Rather, the terrorist threat has evolved into what some experts refer to as "franchised" terrorism. In this new phase, previously identified al-Qaeda leaders serve as examples and provide ideological rather than organizational and material support to terrorist operatives around the world. Al-Qaeda acts as an inspiration to groups from Chechnya to the Palestinian territories, as well as to individuals in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom that have minimal contact with the network.7

Al-Qaeda's ability to export its ideology to terrorist organizations around the world has created a second front in the war on terrorism. In addition to the central group, "al-Qaeda" has become a network of loosely affiliated individuals that subscribe to its ideology, but have little, if any, contact with its core leaders and sometimes differ on end goals and agendas.8 In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by Coalition forces on June 8, 2006, declared allegiance to bin Laden, al-Qaeda and an extreme interpretation of Islam. Although bin Laden and al-Zarqawi's supporters in Iraq have their differences, they share the same end goal and are willing to put these disagreements aside as they work to create a Muslim state under a new Caliphate.9 Al-Qaeda has also benefited from the rise of homegrown terrorist cells in Europe and North America, as well as its ability to exploit the Internet to increase support among Muslims and other sympathizers worldwide.

We are no longer fighting a war against just al-Qaeda. Rather, we are now fighting a war against various entities inspired by al-Qaeda and radicalized in various areas around the world, including in the United States. Al-Qaeda's ability to recruit large support networks should not be overlooked. As long as al-Qaeda can spread its ideology to other groups, the movement will continue to grow and threaten to change the way the Islamic world is governed. To win the war on terrorism, the United States and our allies will have to not just kill and capture key terrorist operatives, but also identify ways to discredit the radical ideology that supports these groups. Organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah, the Libyan Islamic

Fighting Group and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat have shown willingness to support al-Qaeda's global operations. Although the core element of al-Qaeda is still dangerous, it may increasingly look to leverage support from affiliates to carry out attacks against the United States. Today, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda associated groups maintain a presence in dozens of countries worldwide, including the United States (See Figure 1).

Of particular concern is a relatively new phenomenon-the rise of homegrown Islamist extremism. In London, Casablanca, Madrid, the Netherlands and elsewhere, homegrown terrorist cells comprised of second and third generation radicalized Muslims have proven difficult for authorities to track or preempt their activities.10 Such homegrown cells have been able to train and prepare in secrecy, escaping detection even from the local community. Although the United States has not yet seen this phenomenon on the same scale as our European allies, the potential for America to face homegrown terrorism is real. This threat calls for a more robust, capable, and empowered Intelligence Community.

Islamist extremism, as it is discussed throughout this report, refers to the political philosophy that says that, in order to defend a carefully defined vision of Islam and protect pious Muslims around the world, one has to impose, essentially, a 7th century political structure over the people of the Islamic world, and that this political structure must be implemented by violent jihad, or Holy War. We are not looking at Muslims who practice their faith fundamentally -there is nothing wrong with practicing religion in a fundamental way. 11

In preparing this report the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held numerous hearings (both open and closed), briefings and meetings with representatives from the Intelligence Community, academia, and the private sector to enable Members and staff to better understand the threat presented by Islamist extremist groups. Due to the unclassified nature of this report, the Committee has only drawn from publicly available sources. In no way does this undermine the threat facing the United States-the Committee would reach the same findings and conclusions using classified information.

5 Usama bin Laden, "There is No Shame in This Solution,", January 20, 2006.
6 Usama bin Laden, "Usama bin Laden's Letter to the America" Observer Worldview, November 24, 2002.
7 Raymond Whitaker, "Bin Laden Hunt Stepped Up," Canberra Times, March 22, 2004.
8 Kenneth Katzman, "Al-Qaeda: Profile and Threat Assessment" Congressional Research Service, February 10, 2005. pp. 7-8.
9 James Phillips, "The Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat," The Heritage Foundation, March 17, 2006. The Caliphate is the system of succession in Islam that combined both religion and state under the rule of one Caliph (the term or title for the Islamic leader of the Umma, or community of Islam). The dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey in 1924 by the British signaled the end of the pan-Islamic Caliphate system.
10 Bruce Hoffman, Testimony before the Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, Feruary 16, 2006.
11 Ambassador Francis Taylor, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, "Emerging Threats to Homeland Security," May 10, 2004.



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