The author of the 2,300-year-old treatise The Art of War, Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, warned, "If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat." To be sure, we have had victories in the war on terrorism:
But despite these successes, we still do not know our enemy and are thus likely to suffer defeat.
Al-Qaeda is not a top-down, centralized hierarchy according to one U.S. intelligence official, "The strength of the group is they don’t need centralized command and control." And we already know that as elements of its leadership have either been captured or killed, new leaders have emerged. For example, in the fall of 2002 it was reported that with the main al-Qaeda leadership (e.g., bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri) either in hiding or on the run, new leaders were filling the void to run the network. This was seen as evidence that al-Qaeda could rapidly adapt to changing circumstances and regenerate its leadership to respond to those changes. So while dismantling al-Qaeda’s leadership is a necessary action, it will not be sufficient.
Instead of a centralized hierarchy, al-Qaeda is both a decentralized and distributed organization that can be better understood as a network. Decentralized means that complete reliance on a single node (such as al-Qaeda’s leadership) is not always required for the network to function. In a decentralized network, instead of a single leadership node, there may be several different nodes, each with an ability to lead and direct the organization. As such, even if the main leadership is destroyed, the other leadership nodes can continue to operate independently because the cells connected to them are not dependent on the main leadership to function.
Distributed means there is a network of redundant paths that can connect in different ways for the network to function. The more redundant the network is, the more difficult it is to destroy. Thus, even if a significant number of nodes in the network are destroyed, it is possible for the network to function as long as the nodes can find a path between those that need to be connected. In the case of al-Qaeda, it may be that no single operative or cell can be guaranteed its survivability, but the network is large enough that destroying or severely degrading it will require the destruction of a large number of nodes approaching the total in the network.
A useful metaphor for understanding al-Qaeda as a network is the Internet. In one way, it is a literal description because the Internet appears to have replaced Afghanistan as a virtual rather than physical sanctuary and a means of communication for al-Qaeda and other radical Muslims. Also, al-Qaeda can be thought of as a network of networks, which is exactly what the Internet is: a global collection of big and small networks that are connected. The Internet may also be a template for understanding how the al-Qaeda network is evolving. The connections on the Internet are not hardwired: they are not a function of individuals creating permanent physical connections between themselves. Instead, people connect to each other at times and places of their own choosing. Moreover, the actual routing of the connection is not a predetermined path it is the path of least resistance between the two points and will be different each time the connection is made. Similarly, the al-Qaeda network may not be a permanent physical structure. Connections may exist only when they need to exist. Individuals and cells may drop in or out of the network at will or by direction. Snapshots of the network at two different moments in time may look completely different.
And more important than understanding al-Qaeda in organizational or structural terms is understanding that al-Qaeda is more than just a terrorist organization, it is also representative of a radical Islamic ideology. According to Omar Bakri Mohammed, the London-based leader of the radical Islamic group al-Muhajiroun, "Al-Qaeda is no longer a group. It’s become a phenomenon of the Muslim world resisting the global crusade of the U.S. against Islam." As a result, even without any direct connection to or contact with al-Qaeda (e.g., planning, training, financing), individuals or groups may conduct terrorist attacks citing al-Qaeda’s ideology (this appears to be the case with both the March 2005 Madrid train and
July 2005 London tube bombings). Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden and The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda’s Leader believes "al-Qaeda has now mutated into an ideology with many adherents who may have never traveled to bin Laden’s Afghan training camps. Rather, al-Qaeda, the organization, has also evolved into an ideology of ‘bin Ladenism’ or ‘al-Qaedaism.’"
Thus, al-Qaeda, which means "the base" in Arabic, has become something more than a terrorist group that serves as a physical or structural base (as it did in Afghanistan) for Islamic extremists. According to Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, al-Qaeda is an ideology that radical Muslims can subscribe to and act upon on their accord: "In very broad terms they share the key ideas, and the key objectives, of bin Laden and the ‘al-Qaeda hardcore.’ They subscribe, whether involved in a radical group or not, to the ‘al-Qaeda’ worldview."
Like the Chinese concepts of yin and yang complementary opposites that express a pervasive unity al-Qaeda as an organization and as an ideology cannot be separated. They are inextricably intertwined with each other. Al-Qaeda exists as both an organization and an ideology. To focus only on al-Qaeda as an organization is to miss the larger picture and to misunderstand the nature of the threat. The al-Qaeda organization is representative of a larger radical Islamic jihadist ideology. In effect, al-Qaeda is the vanguard of a larger movement and a source of inspiration. Other Muslims either individuals or groups do not have to formally be a part of al-Qaeda, but simply believe in the ideology and be willing to carry out attacks in the name of al-Qaeda in what amounts to a kind of reverse franchise effect. The ideology is the basis for expanding the organization, even if there are no direct links to bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership. In turn, the organization perpetuates the ideology.
If Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a better guide for strategy than Clausewitz’s On War, and if the Chinese concepts of yin and yang provide a useful frame of reference for a more complete understanding of al-Qaeda, then the Chinese book of practical wisdom the Tao Te Ching offers some sage advice: "No calamity is greater than underestimating opponents." Yet because we still do not know our enemy more than five years after 9/11 that is exactly what we have done.