Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, which planned and executed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has morphed into an array of regional terrorist groups that are using the Internet to recruit and train members at home, according to a report released Tuesday.
The 25-page report even coins a term for the disparate groups - AQAM, for "al-Qaeda and Associated Movements." Groups lumped under that acronym include al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for mailing bombs disguised as printers in cargo packages last year, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is believed to have orchestrated the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.
"What was once a hierarchical organization composed of Osama bin Laden and his close associates has grown to include an array of regional terrorist groups, small cells, and even individuals," according to the report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Al-Qaeda has been diminished and has lost support, but its message still energizes diverse groups around the globe.
"The emergence of affiliates and nonaffiliated cells and individuals also presents a troubling paradox for the United States and its partners: Despite extensive counterterrorism successes against the group responsible for 9/11, the al-Qaeda 'brand' now resonates with an increasingly diverse (though still narrow) cross-section of Muslims around the world," the report said.
The document specifically cites the Internet as a critical and growing tool terrorist groups in recruiting, training, and funding individuals to carry out attacks.
The proliferation of social-media websites with user-generated content, for example, "has enabled AQAM to develop a new set of capabilities centered on the dissemination of propaganda and recruitment."
The Internet transcends geographical boundaries, so individuals no longer have to travel to terrorist training camps. They can sit at home with their computers, watch training videos on YouTube, interact with terrorist leaders on Facebook, and receive instructions via e-mail, the report warned.
The report notes that terrorist operative Anwar al-Awlaki has used the Internet to recruit individuals. "Once an al-Awlaki, or a YouTube video of terrorist violence, helps spark radicalization, e-mail, Facebook, and other forms of online communication can forge links between terrorist operatives and recruits thousands of miles apart," the report said.
Rick (Ozzie) Nelson, director and senior fellow of the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program, said that the U.S. should take into consideration that some of its counterterrorism policies may be fueling anti-American sentiment and inspiring groups or individuals to carry out terrorist acts.
Although the report does not single out specific policies that might be inflaming violent Islamic extremism, a follow-on effort later this year is expected to examine that issue, said Juan Zarate, a CSIS senior adviser who spoke on a panel with Nelson about the report.
Groups under the AQAM banner disagree about goals and ideology, such as who they consider their primary enemy, whether it's appropriate to kill Muslims, and what strategic approaches to follow. But, overall, the report concluded that the groups identify with al-Qaeda's narrative that Western civilization, led by the United States, is at war with Islam.
"Indeed, bin Laden and other senior leaders have seized on the presence of U.S. and allied forces in Muslim-majority countries, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, to underscore al Qaeda's stock narrative that the West is at war with Islam," the report said. "That narrative is central to the shared ideology that unifies AQAM's disparate components."
Nelson, who coauthored the report, said he believes that the most dangerous groups are al-Qaeda in Iraq, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He said he believes Lashkar-e-Taiba has the potential to destabilize the South Asian region and bring about a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India.
The report is part of a larger project by CSIS supported by the Defense Department and the Singapore government.