Al Qaeda Reorganizes Itself for Syria

It may be returning to its deadlier, more centralized pre-9/11 structure.

According to testimony by CIA director John Brennan before a House panel last week, Al Qaeda recently deployed mid-level planners from Pakistan to Syria. Intelligence officials fear these planners would be used to recruit some of the estimated 1,200 fighters from the United States and European and redirect them to attack the West. In addition to portending a higher likelihood of attacks on the West emanating from Syria, this development may represent efforts by Al Qaeda to shift its organization away from its current networked organization back to the more lethal structure it had before September 11, 2001.

If Al Qaeda is already well established in Syria, as reported in the media, why would it send planners from Pakistan? Core Al Qaeda, the organization of Ayman al-Zawahri and the late Osama Bin Laden, is not the same organization as the jihadis currently fighting the Assad regime. As of about a month ago, there were two “Al Qaeda affiliates” in Syria. However, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was officially disenfranchised by Al Qaeda leadership. ISIS is now in open warfare with both the Assad regime and al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s remaining affiliate in Syria. As I described in an earlier article, what some call the “Al Qaeda network” is not a unified organization, but actually a loose confederation of separate groups using the Al Qaeda brand.

Since 2001, Al Qaeda has not been able to launch a successful centrally directed attack on the West. In order to maintain relevance, Al Qaeda leaders allowed other terrorist groups to use its name while these groups often pursued their own local objectives. Al Qaeda also called on individuals who were not members of any terrorist group to carry out attacks. While Al Qaeda pointed to attacks by others to claim it was expanding its reach, a claim often repeated uncritically in the Western media, these developments were actually indicators of a terrorist organization in decline. By 2010, Al Qaeda was humiliated by the raid that killed an isolated Osama Bin Laden. That same year, Al Qaeda saw itself on the sidelines of the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda’s ideology, which was based on the proposition that they only way to remove despotic dictators was through terrorism directed at the West, was laid bare.

As the Arab Spring waned from waves of democratic change toward convulsions of violence; Al Qaeda claimed the successes by its affiliates as its own. While Islamists have seized the opportunity to fill the power vacuum in places like Libya and Syria, the fighting between Al Nusra and ISIS highlights an Al Qaeda network in mass disarray. The reported deployment of true Al Qaeda planners to Syria demonstrates the organization recognizes the disharmony and ineffectiveness of its current network organization. It also indicates that Al Qaeda’s affiliate, al Nusra, is not able or willing to do what Al Qaeda needs it to do—that is, to attack the United States or Europe.

This reported deployment of Al Qaeda planners to Syria may indicate a return to a pre–September 11, 2001 organizational model for Al Qaeda. In the late 1990s, Al Qaeda established a cell in Somalia known as Al Qaeda in East Africa (AQEA). Unlike Al Nusra, ISIS and other Al Qaeda affiliates, AQEA was an actual extension of core Al Qaeda and was comprised of actual Al Qaeda members. AQEA successfully attacked U.S. interests, including the bombings of the U.S.S. Cole and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. After the dismantlement of AQEA by the United States and its allies, Al Qaeda recognized a local group, al Shabab, as the affiliate to carry Al Qaeda’s banner in Somalia. While al Shabab has recruited Americans, it remains focused on overthrowing the transitional government in Somalia, not attacking the West.

Al Qaeda may not yet be ready to completely abandon the outsourcing of terrorism operations to individuals and groups over which it has little control. However, this deployment of actual Al Qaeda operational planners to Syria may indicate Al Qaeda senior leadership recognizes the limits of its network structure and is taking steps to return to a more centrally directed organization focused on attacking the United States and Europe.

Charles E. Berger is an Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and is currently on sabbatical at the Council on Foreign Relations as the National Intelligence Fellow. These are his views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the FBI.