During the past four years, two seemingly distinct and ostensibly contradictory narratives have emerged regarding the capability, positioning, and operational strategy of al-Qa`ida. On the one hand, many government leaders and counterterrorism experts have asserted that al-Qa`ida is weakening and too impotent to conduct large-scale attacks—as evidenced by the dearth of al-Qa`ida fighters in Afghanistan, its decreasing financial coffers, and its perceived operational incompetence in executing major attacks against the United States and the West. On the other hand, there are clear examples of al-Qa`ida’s ability to successfully influence and facilitate smaller scale attacks against the United States and around the world—as evidenced by Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood, the recent airliner packages plot, and Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab’s attempted attack on an airliner near Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

How does one reconcile these seemingly paradoxical reflections of al-Qa`ida and gain greater conceptual clarity into how al-Qa`ida has evolved as an organization?

Understanding Al-Qa`ida Today
Analysts and policymakers alike tend to use “yesterday’s metrics when trying to comprehend al-Qa`ida today,” which can lead to faulty assumptions and a flawed analysis that the al-Qa`ida-led global jihadist movement is weaker, ineffectual, or less viable than it likely is.[1] Analysts and policymakers often measure al-Qa`ida’s effectiveness through the number of attacks, number of fighters, and lethality of attacks.[2] For example, many analysts argue that al-Qa`ida only has a couple hundred operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan.[3] While this may be true, al-Qa`ida does not have to fight in Afghanistan because it can rely on other militant groups to perform this role. Many policymakers argue that al-Qa`ida is receiving increasingly diminished financing from the global diaspora of jihadist sympathizers.[4] Yet, al-Qa`ida has adapted its “business model” accordingly (thereby diminishing its cost structure) and no longer has to acquire as much money to fund operations. Still others contend that al-Qa`ida is contained in Pakistan due to the U.S. drone aircraft program.[5] While this also may be true, these dynamics do not necessarily indicate that al-Qa`ida cannot facilitate the violence of its franchises, as well as other jihadist actors, to launch attacks against the United States. In short, all of these reflections of al-Qa`ida’s situational context are correct—yet to assert that al-Qa`ida no longer possesses the capacity to foment violence or lacks relevancy in the global jihadist movement suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategic advantages associated with the group’s unique positioning within that movement today. Therefore, while these metrics can prove useful in understanding the capacity of al-Qa`ida to launch attacks independently, they do little in providing insight into al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership’s positioning within the global jihad, current organizational strategy, or consciousness of the exogenous environment in which they are operating today.

Unraveling the Paradox
These seemingly inconsistent and paradoxical understandings of al-Qa`ida today are, in part, due to a tendency to evaluate al-Qa`ida one-dimensionally and apart from a broader context, and an under-appreciation of the fact that al-Qa`ida has fundamentally shifted its organizational approach as well as its parochial/elitist goals within the global jihad. Rather than a one-dimensional, exclusively metric-based approach to understanding al-Qa`ida, the organization should be viewed as operating within a highly competitive environment via-a-vis other jihadist groups—not to mention the United States. To remain relevant and to endure as a leading jihadist brand, al-Qa`ida must diversify to survive and evolve in order to thrive; it must diversify toward leveraging other groups to carry out its violent agenda against the United States and the West, and it must evolve toward focusing on its unique value within the global jihad given its history, branding, and increasingly constrained environment due to U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

In fact, al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership does not even evaluate itself through the threat-based metrics that Western analysts tend to use to evaluate them. Instead, al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership evaluates the exogenous environment in which they operate, and then dynamically looks inward to their organization to derive the most optimistic outcome given the reality of their constraining context. This multifaceted and emotionally intelligent capability of al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership to understand the world around them and optimize the outcome within a given context exemplifies the very essence of al-Qa`ida’s aptitude to survive. To be sure, analysis of al-Qa`ida should begin via traditional, observable metrics; however, analysis cannot stop there. Analysts must situate al-Qa`ida within a broader competitive context and observe how al-Qa`ida is positioning itself within the highly competitive jihadist landscape in which it operates to gain insight into how al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership: 1) views itself internally, 2) operates within the milieu of global jihadist groups, and 3) positions its unique and differentiated value to the overall global jihadist movement. One can begin to gain clarity in this manner by analyzing al-Qa`ida through the lens of a business and how it captures value for the overall global jihadist enterprise.

Al-Qa`ida’s Business Model” and its Positioning within the Value Chain Framework
To gain greater conceptual clarity into al-Qa`ida today, one must assess al-Qa`ida’s unique value, differentiated role, and strategic positioning within the competitive landscape of the global jihadist enterprise as well as how it maintains its relevancy within the milieu of militant groups engaged in local, regional, and irredentist jihad. This analysis could provide a unique window of insight into how al-Qa`ida views itself and its unique value proposition to the global jihadist enterprise.

Ordinarily applied to business enterprises, Michael Porter conceptualized the value chain framework to describe the spectrum of activities in which value is captured and competitive advantage furthered. Porter’s framework presents a continuum of value-creating activities that an enterprise can be engaged in, including reception, production, and distribution of raw materials in addition to marketing and professional services. Porter argues that competitive advantage is ultimately realized through optimizing and coordinating these linked, value-creating activities.[6]

In considering Porter’s framework, one can observe that al-Qa`ida continues to engage in all aspects of value-creating activity within the milieu of the violent jihadist enterprise—from recruiting “raw material” recruits for violence to marketing its brand and expertise to other jihadist actors. Due to constraints on al-Qa`ida’s freedom of movement imposed by the United States and Pakistan, al-Qa`ida’s leadership appears to have made a calculated decision to privilege  its organizational branding and expertise and, thereby, move along the value chain toward almost exclusively engaging in professional consulting or advisory entrepreneurial activity. As a result, this positioning relieves al-Qa`ida from bearing the cost—opportunity or otherwise—of violent activity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or around the world. Al-Qa`ida core has effectively de-emphasized the resource-intensive portion of value-creating activity (training, equipping, and deploying fighters around the world) and is leveraging other violent movements to carry out these operational activities. Al-Qa`ida provides value as a consultancy in two critical ways: by serving as a financial adviser and facilitator to the global jihadist financial coffers, and by providing the ideological coherence within the global jihadist movement.[7] To that end, al-Qa`ida core appears to have largely abandoned investing its resources in the raw materials (or recruiting fighters), production (or training and indoctrination), and distribution (or global jihadist violence) portion of the value chain—for now.

To that end, al-Qa`ida’s approach to the Afghan jihad is a microcosm of how al-Qa`ida actualizes its “professional services” role more broadly. Al-Qa`ida operatives have a small footprint in Afghanistan because they do not have to act on their own there: they can simply leverage and facilitate the violence of their jihadist brethren. In al-Qa`ida’s assessment, militant groups in Afghanistan still would be fighting the perceived U.S. occupation regardless of whether al-Qa`ida existed or not. To that end, al-Qa`ida is largely abdicating the responsibility of violently resisting the United States on the battlefield to other jihadist actors in Afghanistan, thereby promoting its expertise as a leading brand in the global jihad and solidifying its relevancy to, and underpinning the purpose of, violent defensive jihad. Al-Qa`ida is leveraging this critical dynamic to further part of its grand strategy and compel the United States to change its foreign policy and remove itself from traditionally Muslim lands by providing train-the-trainer expertise, financial networks, strategic communication infrastructure, and ideological support to materially shape the very nature of the violence in Afghanistan as well as the manner in which the jihadist community understands the Afghan jihad. While al-Qa`ida’s presence appears to be small, the impact of its presence is reverberating across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the West. Al-Qa`ida provides vital resiliency and ideological ammunition to the Afghan jihad through providing critical services that these groups could not provide as robustly themselves, while concurrently providing ideological cohesion to the global jihadist movement. In other words, al-Qa`ida is actualizing its operational ends via a consultancy approach.

For example, Fazul Abdullah Mohammad (also known as Fadil Harun), believed to be a leading al-Qa`ida operative in East Africa, noted in his book War Against Islam that although he did not want to become a formal member of al-Shabab, he was nevertheless prepared to work with them.[8] Fazul essentially saw himself as a consultant to al-Shabab on behalf of al-Qa`ida; someone who “helps every Muslim who desires jihad; we train him and offer him advice about the truth of jihad.”[9] Fazul took it upon himself to consult with al-Shabab in establishing, among other things, advanced training courses for the elite forces, specialized courses to train snipers, courses in information technology and spying, as well as establishing a budget.[10] Therefore, al-Qa`ida core leverages other militant actors, including its affiliates, to conduct these efforts.[11] Al-Qa`ida realizes that the resource intensive (or recruiting, training, equipping, and deploying) portion of the value chain does not embody its value proposition to the global jihadist effort—particularly because it no longer possesses the freedom of maneuver to conduct these efforts due to the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan and global counterfinancing efforts. In short, al-Qa`ida understands that given the constrained context in which it exists today, it is able to provide more robust and enduring value (and solidify its long-term relevancy) to the global jihadist movement through its unique infrastructure and expertise in the marketing (media and fundraising) and services (provision of strategic vision, outreach, advising, and consulting services) portion of the value chain activities.

Al-Qa`ida’s professional services business model extends beyond the Afghanistan context. Globally, al-Qa`ida core has been able to amplify, foment, and re-orient the violence of local and nationalist jihadist groups through consultation with and augmentation of other militant jihadist groups. Al-Qa`ida uniquely understands how to play this role effectively, even though these groups may not wholly share the same agenda due to their shared experiences and ideological vision from the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s. These local jihadist groups’ membership often includes veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad who serve as a bridge between al-Qa`ida core and the local jihadist groups. In other cases, these groups require augmentation for specialized skills and/or resources that they cannot provide for themselves. Yet, in all cases, al-Qa`ida core has been able to demonstrate the ability to provide value to these groups and, in doing so, nest the local, regional, or irredentist grievance of these groups within their global jihadist narrative.[12]

The Efficacy of the Al-Qa`ida Consultancy Model
By positioning itself as a professional services or consultancy entity, al-Qa`ida is able to be an effective player within the global jihad—even within the constrained security paradigm in Pakistan. Moreover, al-Qa`ida’s return on investment (given its limited freedom to invest in jihad) is higher than it would be anywhere else along the value chain because resource “costs” (financial and human capital) are generally lower due to the nature of the consulting business model.

Al-Qa`ida must continually ensure that it remains relevant to these local and regional jihadist groups; in exchange, these groups effectively “are” the al-Qa`ida movement. Thus, al-Qa`ida’s consultancy approach allows it to credibly claim that it is actively engaged in waging violence against the “far enemy” across the globe, while remaining unburdened by the actual costs associated with waging the violence. Moreover, this approach ensures that a local face remains fully imprinted on violence in each theater, thereby increasing the resiliency and legitimacy of various insurgencies; this is a crucial lesson learned from al-Qa`ida’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. At present, al-Qa`ida core’s reliance on leveraging networked and affiliated organizations presents a strength, but also a potential weakness to ensuring the longevity of the movement.

Today, al-Qa`ida cannot lead within the global jihadist movement without providing unique capacities to these groups (media and financial networks), remaining relevant to their grievances, and connected to the realities of their local or regional environment. Ultimately, local groups have the freedom to operate in the manner that they see fit. This can be detrimental to the integrity of al-Qa`ida’s brand if, like Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, their mismanagement damages al-Qa`ida’s global image.[13] As a result, while al-Qa`ida core appears to be successful in inspiring, promoting, and re-orienting the violence of its jihadist brethren, actually remaining relevant continues to be a significant challenge and vulnerability for the group. In recognition of this challenging dynamic of their consultancy business model, al-Qa`ida’s speeches have taken on a more populist tone by lamenting the lack of aid for the floods in Pakistan and blaming the United States and other industrialized states for global warming.[14] While this rhetorical approach has led to more diversity within the current ranks of jihadists, al-Qa`ida’s brand runs the risk of becoming adulterated as it tries to incorporate and cohere together the increasingly diverse and fragmented nature of the global jihad. In short, by trying to stand for everything and by appealing to populist jihadist sentiment, the al-Qa`ida-led jihadist movement may come to stand for nothing and implode due to conflicting interests and risky ideological rhetoric.

The fundamental consequence of al-Qa`ida’s evolution toward this consultancy business model is that the jihadist profile and the type of groups who attempt to attack the United States will increasingly become fragmented, diffuse, and unpredictable. In fact, Faisal Shahzad’s attempted attack in Times Square on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban arguably could be viewed as the ultimate manifestation of al-Qa`ida’s success as a consultancy because the Pakistani Taliban’s violence was opportunistically and successfully reoriented toward the U.S. homeland for the first time. Hakimullah Mehsud validated this point in a statement released after the Times Square attack by situating the group’s fight against the Pakistani state within al-Qa`ida’s grievance narrative.[15] As a result, the Times Square attack shows the increasingly global orientation of a local jihadist group, which can be attributed to al-Qa`ida’s positioning within the services portion of the value chain, allowing it to possess greater ideational influence over jihadist actors such as the Pakistani Taliban. In aggregate, the reorientation of local, regional, and irredentist jihadist actors could create a critical mass that overwhelms U.S. counterterrorism systems and, in al-Qa`ida’s view, a policy change that removes the United States from supporting regimes that jihadists have declared to be apostate in the Arab world.

At a micro-level, it is this shift by al-Qa`ida toward the services end of the value chain that, at a macro-level, has materially altered the very nature of the violence toward the United States as well as the strategic “feel” of the global jihadist movement. These micro and associated macro level shifts are, in part, a reflection of the success of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign, but it also embodies a paradigmatic evolution in jihadist violence that will offer unique challenges for law enforcement to precisely identify and target future threats to the homeland.

In the final analysis, this symbiotic co-evolution of al-Qa`ida, and the broader jihadist milieu in which it exists, exemplifies the dynamism and complexity of the challenge that U.S. law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals currently face. To combat against this continued disaggregated threat, counterterrorism and law enforcement practitioners in the United States must rigorously comprehend both al-Qa`ida’s grievance narrative as well as the grievance narratives and associated trajectories of a myriad of local, regional, and irredentist jihadist groups who are situating their violence within al-Qa`ida’s global jihadist vision.

Alex Gallo is an associate at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[1] Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sawyer used this phrasing in a conversation with the author within the context of his perspective on the evolution of al-Qa`ida in March 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, “Inside al-Qa’ida,” Newsweek, September 4, 2010.

[4] Greg Bruno, “Al-Qaeda’s Financial Pressures,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 1, 2010.

[5] Kristen Chick, “CIA Director Says Al Qaeda on the Run as Leader Killed in Drone Strike,” Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 2010.

[6] Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance (New York: The Free Press, 1985).

[7] Fadil Harun, War Against Islam (al-Harb ‘ala al-Islam) 2, 2009, p. 69, translated by Dr. Nelly Lahoud; “Treasury Targets Taliban and Haqqani Network Leadership: Treasury Designates Three Financiers Operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” U.S. Treasury Department, July 22, 2010.

[8] Harun, p. 69.

[9] Ibid., p. 138.

[10] Ibid., pp. 69-70.

[11] Examples include al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabab, Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Haqqani network, the Islamic Jihad Union, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to name a few.

[12] Scott Helfstein, “The Third Way: A Paradigm for Influence in the Marketplace of Ideas,” CTC Sentinel 3:6 (2010).

[13] “Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 9, 2005.

[14] Wissam Keyrouz, “Bin Laden Concerned by Climate Change, Pakistan Floods – New Audiotape,” Agence France-Presse, October 2, 2010.

[15] Don Rassler, “Al-Qa`ida’s Pakistan Strategy,” CTC Sentinel 2:6 (2009).

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