Is Al Qaeda Now Just a Brand?

Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith in an undated videotape broadcast on April 17, 2002 AFP-Getty Images

Three men arrested on terror charges in Norway today after a yearlong investigation were described as having "links to people abroad who can be linked to Al Qaeda." The bin Laden brand is still often attached to Islamic terrorists and wannabes. But what, in a new era of Islamic terrorism, does it mean?

Al Qaeda's leadership, once able to directly orchestrate attacks like the one of September 11, 2001, is now hunted and fragmented. Leaders like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are captured or dead. The group Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri started in the 1990s has now shifted and morphed, according to many experts, into a muddy assemblage of Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Pakistani Taliban, named in the Times Square bomb plot and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), widely believed to have planned the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

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And yet cases with claims of direct Al Qaeda links are common. Last September, authorities raided apartment blocks in Queens in connection with "a suspected Al Qaeda operative." Earlier this year a man with "alleged Al Qaeda ties" appeared in a Brooklyn court. The New York Post described one man, who sent socks, ponchos and sleeping bags to Afghanistan, as an "Al Qaeda buddy." And many of the men named in recent plots with connections to today's arrests, are tagged with phrases like "accused Al Qaeda facilitator" and "Al Qaeda links."

The truth may be more complicated, says Steven Simon, a former senior director at the National Security Council now with the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is a lot of cross-pollination. Abu Zubaydah, for example, who was pretty unambiguously an Al Qaeda leader, was arrested in an LeT safehouse," he says, referring to the 2002 arrest of bin Laden's operations chief in Pakistan. The groups often even intermarry and form bonds and kinships that make it difficult to draw distinctions, says Simon.

"To some extent," he says, "Al Qaeda has developed as a shorthand term for any radical Islamic extremist of the Sunni persuasion. It's so much easier than explaining where exactly on the spectrum of fundamental Islam a particular individual is."

A current FBI antiterror agent, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to talk to the press, says that "Al Qaeda is now much more a philosophy than anything else. Anyone can claim to be Al Qaeda and try and commit an act of terror." He says that the tags we see in news stories or police reports, in his experience, can mean anything from downloading videos of radical preachers, e-mails and postings on Islamic forums to making phone calls, meeting face-to-face, and even hands-on terror training. "It's become very muddy." 

The situation becomes even less clear, Simon argues, because many terror, or wannabe terror, groups claim the Al Qaeda badge, though they have little, if any, connection with the original organization. "It endows them with an aura of fierceness, competency and implacability that calling themselves 'the three musketeers' or something doesn't. That's the whole point of a franchise." Indeed, the British think tank Demos has argued that one way to defeat Islamic terrorism is to remove its cool and dangerous image and acknowledge that many aspiring terrorists are incompetent

But, warns the FBI agent, Al Qaeda may still be more than a catchphrase. There has been, he says, more than one recent instance where the group's leadership has had direct influence in U.S.-based terrorist plots. He declined to elaborate beyond saying that "there are definitely still areas where they have influence beyond the philosophical."