Why you should care

Because Al-Qaeda is a franchise more harmful to your health than any fast food joint, and you should know whether it’s coming to a location near you.

The aging and reclusive director of a small but once hugely influential international organization made a bold move last summer. He appointed an ambitious dark horse candidate as his apprentice, vaulting him ahead of the competition. Industry observers are keeping an eye on what this change will mean to the group, which made a profound impact in 2001 but has been struggling since the unexpected death of its founder two years ago.

Of course, this was no normal business transition when Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed Naser al-Wahishi as his general manager, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. At first glance, it just seemed like a promotion of another bad guy, but it really reflected a shift in how Al-Qaeda is doing business.

The days of Osama bin Laden’s large, centrally-managed movement are fading from memory…

For the first time, someone from outside core Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) has been chosen to become a leader in the upper tier of the organization. Wahishi is the head of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, better known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Rather than circling his wagons inside AfPak, Zawahiri reached out to choose a talented up-and-comer from the ranks.

Bi Ladin, left sitting in camouflage jacket and white shirt and turban. al_zawahiri in white outfit with brown tone robe and white turban.

Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in November 2001

Source Corbis

The reasons for the move may be varied. Experts point first to a weakened, almost dead Al-Qaeda core. The days of Osama bin Laden’s large, centrally-managed movement are fading from memory in a reality filled with drone strikes, communication intercepts and other effective counterterrorism efforts.

“[We’ve] been very successful at killing its leaders. The talent pool they had in Pakistan and Afghanistan has been depleted,” says Princeton Professor of International Affairs Jacob Shapiro. Drone strikes have killed more than 2,000 Islamist militants in Pakistan and have put a great deal of pressure on the others hiding there.

It’s Wahishi’s capacity for bridging both local and global jihadist agendas that set him apart…

In the same way a struggling firm looks to stay afloat by seeking refuge in a tax haven, Zawahiri may see Yemen as his Switzerland. Yemen suffers drone strikes, but far fewer than other countries, and al-Wahishi’s organization has kept the government on the defensive there.

“Pakistan remains unstable and unsafe so [Zawahiri] may think Yemen would be a better operating space,” says Dr. Sarah Marsden, lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Maybe the move was simply the last gasp of a dying beast. Marc Sageman, an independent researcher on terrorism, dismisses the notion of Al-Qaeda as an organization and thinks the promotion is meaningless. “Basically, Zawahiri has very little power,” says Sageman, who believes Al-Qaeda should be seen through a prism of a larger Islamic Jihad movement.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in white t-shirt and on gray background

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Whatever the motive for Zawahiri’s move, it marks a historic shift in how Al-Qaeda operates and may even signal a more aggressive approach to global terror. Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was a top-down organization with orders emanating from on high. He told those loyal to him where and when to strike. Most experts agree that the organization has become decentralized over the years and that communications between affiliates and the core are kept to a minimum, though with directions still generally emanated from the core to the affiliates.

That may soon be less and less the case. Al-Qaeda affiliates are increasingly driving the action, and the head of the so-called “core” seems glad to take a little bit of the credit. When Zawahiri dies, Wahishi will be positioned to take over and run the organization, possibly from Yemen.

…it marks a historic shift in how Al-Qaeda operates and may even signal a more aggressive approach to global terror.

Imagine the regional manager of a McDonalds in India being put in charge of McDonalds International. The goal of filling people with inexpensive fast food would remain the same, but with Indians not eating beef, the implementation would be very different. That is the sort of shift we are seeing with Al-Qaeda.

So why Wahishi, as opposed to heads of other affiliates? If you’re the manager of a neighborhood Taco Bell, for example, how do you get promoted to the top tier? It’s not enough to just make good burritos or a profit; you need to be good at promoting the Taco Bell brand.

“The art of success in management is to understand what the strengths and weaknesses of your organization are … It’s good to have people who can focus on the global brand, but you have to have those who focus on local issues as well,” says Dr. Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood, a research fellow in business management at the London School of Economics.

Zawahiri knows he must tread carefully through the minefield of Al-Qaeda affiliates. They are largely focused on their local struggles in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Mali and elsewhere, as opposed to bin Laden’s focus on the “far enemy,” the West. Zawahiri can’t control the affiliates, but they are using the Al-Qaeda brand so he needs to find a way to harness that.

Of the affiliates, Wahishi’s AQAP has proven the most successful at addressing its local agenda while also executing attacks against the West. AQAP was behind the attempted underwear bomber in 2009, a cargo plane bomb plot in 2010 and an airliner plot in 2012. In Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, they have an expert bomb maker whose devices have successfully bypassed Western security. AQAP has also shown progress locally, gaining and holding territory in Yemen. Moreover, Wahishi is known for having reached out to other affiliate leaders to offer guidance. Letters found last year, for example, revealed that he had offered suggestions to the head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

It’s Wahishi’s capacity for bridging both local and global jihadist agendas, as well as his advisory capabilities, that set him apart from other affiliate leaders.

Luckily for us in the West, it’s a long swim from Yemen. Changes in Al-Qaeda’s leadership structure are more about aspirations than reality, and few experts believe we need to fear another 9/11, because the groups are under pressure and attempting to exploit new opportunities in the Middle East and Africa. Intelligence agencies have also grown adept at disrupting terror plots.

Group of people protesting with black sign with white writing.

Yemeni protesters during an anti-US drone attacks protest in Sana’a.

Yahya Arhab/Corbis

The biggest threat, according to many experts, will be from individuals or small groups, mounting attacks akin to the Boston Marathon bombing. They are the franchise equivalent of terrorist lemonade stands – stands that lack funding, training and have no real links to a multinational concern. Fortunately, says Marsden, these would-be terrorists are “hard to find, motivate and train, making the attacks less likely.”

While the chances of large-scale attacks in the West are currently low, it is no time to be complacent. Dr Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies and Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, says that while Al-Qaeda has weakened its ideology and name have spread.

“Today, Al-Qaeda’s affiliates and associates are present in more places than Al-Qaeda was 10 years ago,” Hoffman said in an interview with the Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East. He noted that this expansion could lead to a “resurrection of the threat that Al-Qaeda poses.”

As a result, we need to stay ahead of the curve here in order to continue winning the war on terror, keeping in mind the terror group’s dynamism.

“Al-Qaeda demonstrates a remarkable capacity to reinvent itself,” says Dr. Rashmi Singh, a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St. Andrews.

The good news is that we’re currently ahead, but the world’s most-feared terror organization, albeit weakened, has spread and is regrouping. We can celebrate knocking bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda back on its heels, but we should consider that Wahishi’s Al-Qaeda may become a very different beast. There are more franchises bearing the Al-Qaeda name than ever before, and they are sadly peddling products far more dangerous than French fries and tacos.

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