Bruce Hoffman

How Can I Miss You if You Won't Go Away?

In recent years, a heated debate has raged both inside and outside government over whether the most consequential terrorist threats today are “top down” or “bottom up.”

That is, whether they are organizationally driven by existing identifiable groups and their leaders or instead emanate from spontaneous collections of unaffiliated individuals (e.g., “bunches of guys”).

A prominent feature of this debate has been the argument that al Qaeda has ceased to exist as either an organizational or operational entity and that its founder and preeminent leader, Osama bin Laden, is no longer of any operational importance.

What became known as the leaderless-jihad theory instead claimed that our main security problem came from these self-recruited and mostly self-trained wannabes with a limited capacity for violence.

Still more consequentially, this canard suggested that formal terrorist organizations had become as immaterial as they were superfluous. As such, it dismissed more traditional conceptions of terrorism as a process involving existing organizations that guide recruitment, direct information operations, and actively plan, plot, and implement attacks.

The reports this past week of a major terrorist operation involving simultaneous attacks on cities in Europe—and perhaps even—similar to the lethal November 2008 assault on Mumbai, where multiple terrorist teams killed nearly 200 persons and wounded more than 300 others—yet again provide fresh evidence that terrorist organizations and leaders still matter.

The story, originally broken on Tuesday by Wall Street Journal reporter, Siobhan Gorman, detailed how some combination of al Qaeda, its allies in the Taliban and the so-called Haqqani network and perhaps even the al Qaeda clone calling itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, were behind the series of deadly attacks planned for Germany, France, Britain, and possibly the U.S.

Now, however, new information uncovered by National Public Radio’s Dina Temple-Raston points not only to the involvement of the terrorist organizations detailed in the Wall Street Journal article, but also of another al Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan but of bin Laden himself.

More significantly, however, intelligence officials tell Temple-Raston that some months ago, Osama bin Laden himself dispatched couriers to al Qaeda’s affiliates and associates across the globe. His message was simple. According to Temple-Raston’s sources, bin Laden “told them that he would like to see a Mumbai-style attack on at least three strategic targets—the United Kingdom, Germany and France.”

As Temple-Raston explains,

Osama bin Laden's directive is meaningful because it suggests that the core leadership of al-Qaida still has influence over its followers and that the group has added a new style of attack to its repertoire . . . .

‘We know that Osama bin Laden issued the directive,’ said an official familiar with the intelligence surrounding the plot. ‘And if he issued the directive, we just don't believe that the U.S. wouldn't be on his short list of strategic targets. It has to be.’

The London newspaper, the Guardian, reported yesterday that two British brothers—one of whom was killed in a recent drone airstrike in Pakistan—and eight German nationals were to have executed the simultaneous, multi-national assaults. The article cited an Associated Press story from Pakistan claiming that the death of one of the brothers likely derailed the plot.

Much still remains unknown. But, if true, the long list of terrorist organizations believed to have been involved in the plot; its unique—indeed contemporaneous—bin Laden pedigree; and, the plan to stage a series of Mumbai-like attacks in multiple international locations, all would suggest that the war on terrorism is still far from being won.

Reports of al Qaeda’s demise and bin Laden’s irrelevance, like those of Mark Twain’s death, will thus have also proven to have been exaggerated.