Photo by New York Times/Wikimedia Commons
By Jamie Geller and Jeff Burdette |
Recently, al Qaeda-core (AQC) announced their upcoming publication of an English-language magazine, Resurgence, in a video disseminated from their official media outlet, as-Sahab. The slickly produced video is set to a speech by Malcolm X announcing the need to “learn to speak the language they [al-Qaeda’s enemies] understand” and leaves no mystery about what they mean. The video closes by stating “when they come knock on our doorstep, we can talk,” overlaid on a clip of a massive Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonation.
Based on the content and tone of the announcement, Resurgence represents a clear shift toward encouraging homegrown terrorism in the West. Such a shift follows in the footsteps of AQC’s affiliate organizations, most prominently al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Western counterterrorism efforts, intra-jihadist schisms, and the present media landscape have significantly degraded AQC’s operational capabilities and control over the jihadist narrative, and Resurgence could ostensibly signal an attempt to reverse this operational damage. Traditionally, AQC has remained at best ambivalent toward lone-wolf jihadists, concerned that they distort the message. Resurgence’s focus on individual jihad represents a shift in the broader AQC strategy and an adaptation to the present operational atmosphere.
While the shift to English, lone-wolf-centric outreach is new for AQC, it is a move that AQC’s affiliate organizations have already made. In 2010, AQAP launched its English-language magazine Inspire, which authorities believe influenced the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers. Former AQAP member Anwar al-Awlaki was also associated with a number of attacks or attempted attacks, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting perpetrated by Nidal Hasan and Faisal Shahzad’s 2010 attempted Times Square Bombing. Similarly, al-Shabaab uses English outreach in the form of videos and magazines to encourage Western recruits to join the jihad through lone-wolf attacks. In an October 2013 recruitment video, al-Shabaab calls young jihadists to “lone-wolf action” by praising both successful and unsuccessful attacks as strategic successes.
Historically, AQC has worried that lone-wolf attacks would have a marginal impact while distorting its message. For instance, in a 2010 letter to Attiyah abdel Rahman, bin Laden worries, somewhat humorously, that Faisal Shahzad had damaged the image of the jihadist movement by breaking his oath of citizenship when he attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. In other released documents, he argues that lone wolves acting in the name of al-Qaeda may mischaracterize its ideology and goals. Moreover, in the years following 9/11, bin Laden and AQC believed that spectacular attacks that intended to incur steep damage to the target’s economy were the most effective. Bin Laden stated in a September 2009 correspondence disseminated through AQC’s official media production wing as-Sahab: “This war was prescribed to you by doctors Bush and Cheney as medicine for the events of 11 September and it has been a bitter and losing war, more bitter than the events themselves for its structured loans have almost ruined the economy of all of America. As it has been said: Disease is sometimes easier than the cure.”
Under bin Laden, AQC also traditionally lamented lone wolf strategies for attracting attention from counterterrorism authorities and potentially thwarting larger-scale attacks employing similar tactics. But after more than a decade of sustained pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan, AQC has gradually moved toward a more decentralized model of jihad. Some al-Qaeda strategists have long advocated a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy, and as early as 2003, some al-Qaeda linked propaganda encouraged homegrown, lone-wolf attacks. In an audio message released on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Zawahiri urges jihadists to commit lone-wolf attacks: “These dispersed strikes can be carried out by one brother, or a small number of brothers.”
Resurgence’s true importance lies in what it tells us about how al-Qaeda sees its position within the movement it has spawned. The magazine represents al-Qaeda the organization’s attempt to regain ideological control over the jihadist message. Today, the Al-Qaeda movement has arguably never been stronger. It now has a geographic foothold in more than a dozen countries throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. But at the same time, al-Qaeda the organization is weak and has been forced to outsource its operations to affiliates. As a result, AQC has had trouble forcing its affiliates to adhere to its ideology and narrative. This tension burst into public view recently when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) formally broke away from al-Qaeda.
In this context, Resurgence is likely viewed by AQC as a way to reassert itself and regain some control over the narrative that has slipped away. First, it demonstrates a recognition that, at least in the near term, persistent counterterrorism pressure is likely to make lone-wolf attacks inspired but not directed by AQC the most viable option. Second, Resurgence is an attempt to mimic the success AQAP has enjoyed with Inspire, which has received extensive media notoriety and been linked to several attacks in the West. Based on the announcement video, Resurgence is at the very least heavily influenced by Inspire in both style and tone, and given the close ties between AQAP and AQC, it’s possible there has been more formal coordination. Third, Resurgence may be fueled by concerns over ISIS’s emergence as al-Qaeda’s ideological rival. The ‘al-Qaeda’ brand remains strong, but there may be some worry that it will diminish if other affiliates follow ISIS’s lead. These concerns will push al-Qaeda to conduct attacks to cement its claims to leadership of the jihadist movement, and Resurgence’s emphasis on lone-wolf terrorism offers a way to pursue this strategy.
For the U.S. government, the question is: does this new propaganda pose an imminent threat to U.S. national security? And if so, how should the United States respond? Lone wolf attacks usually claim far fewer lives than spectacular attacks such as 9/11 and London’s 7/7 bombing. However, such attacks often provoke government and media overreactions. For instance, the manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombing was arguably as damaging – on both financial and psychological levels – as the bombing itself. This overreaction by government officials plays into the group’s logic, potentially radicalizing already disillusioned youth residing inside American borders. Moreover, it is not clear how effective Resurgence will be at encouraging lone-wolf attacks inside the United States. Despite intense concerns over Inspire, the number of plots it has actually been connected to is quite small. In fact, the government and media alarm over Inspire may have inadvertently helped it by bestowing added credibility.
As Resurgence is released, the United States should monitor it for information about potential shifts in AQC’s messaging and tactics and inferences about how AQC views its position within the broader jihadist movement. But the U.S. government must also be realistic about the true threat of the new magazine and avoid costly and counterproductive overreactions.
Jamie Geller is an MA candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the GSSR Associate Editor for the Middle East. Jeff Burdette is an MA candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program; his research interests include jihadist terrorism and Middle East and North African security issues.
 Jamie Geller, “Countering al Shabaab’s Virtual Western Recruitment,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, 7 March 2014, http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2014/03/07/countering-al-shabaabs-virtual-western-recruitment/.
 West Point Counterterrorism Center, “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?” (2012), http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Letter-from-UBL-to-Atiyatullah-Al-Libi-3-Translation1.pdf.
 Osama bin Laden, “Statement to the American People By the Lion Shaikh Usama bin Laden,” as-Sahab Media Production, 13 September 2009, http://worldanalysis.net/modules/news/article.php?storyid=1016.
 Shiraz Maher and Samar Batrawi, “What Jihadists Thought About Boston, ‘Allah Akbar. Let’s Move On.’” Foreign Affairs, 7 May 2013, http://. ww.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139368/shiraz-maher-and-samar-batrawi/what-jihadists-thought-about-boston.
 Gabriel Weimann, “Lone Wolves in Cyberspace,” Journal of Terrorism Research, Vol. 3, Iss. 2 (2012). The prominent al-Qaeda strategist Abu Musab al-Suri is particularly well known for advocating a strategy of a large number of small, individually planned and executed attacks.
 Gordon Corera, “Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri urges ‘lone-wolf’ attacks on US,” BBC News, 13 September 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24083314.
 This shift towards relying on the affiliates was made especially apparent by the elevation last summer of, Nasir al-Wihaysi, commander of al-Qaeda’s most loyal affiliate, to be Zawahiri’s deputy.
 Jeff Burdette, “It’s Not You It’s Me: Key Questions on the al-Qaeda-ISIS Breakup,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, February 25, 2014. Available at: http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2014/02/25/its-not-you-its-me-key-questions-on-the-al-qaeda-isis-breakup/.
 This is a common terrorist strategy known as outbidding. For more information, see Andrew Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism,” International Security, Volume 31, Number 1, Summer 2006, pp. 49-79.
 The Boston Marathon bombing tragically claimed the lives of 3 individuals, but wounded over 100. “2 Blasts at Boston Marathon Kill at Least 3 and INjure more than 100,” New York Times, 15 April 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/us/explosions-reported-at-site-of-boston-marathon.html.