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Inspiring Terror

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
June 30, 2006

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With much of its leadership captured or killed, its financial networks disrupted, and the sanctuary offered by the Taliban government gone, al-Qaeda has been forced to adapt. Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, now appear less like generals and more like talking heads, disseminating their violent ideology via satellite television (Terrorism Focus) in hopes of inspiring others to do their bidding. As this new Backgrounder explains, al-Qaeda has become more of an ideological movement than an organization.

This ideology, which some experts have dubbed "al-Qaedaism" (Freedom Institute), has manifested itself as self-generating terrorist cells around the world. U.S. authorities say the most recent example is the "Miami Seven" (Stratfor), a group of men arrested June 22 for conspiring to attack Chicago's Sears Tower, among other targets. FBI officials characterized the threat the group posed as "more aspirational than operational." Another variant may have emerged in Canada, where officials last month arrested seventeen men in an alleged plot to bomb several buildings in southern Ontario (Terrorism Focus).

Law enforcement officials say they thwarted these plots, but similar terrorist cells have succeeded in major European cities. The group that carried out suicide bombings in London's mass transit system (BBC) last July stands as the most obvious example. Though al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, the official report to the British House of Commons found "no firm evidence to corroborate this claim" (PDF).

Though some say the loss of its operations base in Afghanistan makes al-Qaeda less dangerous than it was five years ago, others point to its ability to inspire terror as evidence of its staying power. Jason Burke, a terrorism expert and reporter for Britain's Observer newspaper asks, "What's easier to fight, an organization or an idea?" Indeed, efforts to counter al-Qaeda's ideological appeal have lagged far behind the military component of the "war on terror." Particular evidence of this can be found just a click away. As this Backgrounder explains, the web provides terrorist leaders with a medium to broadcast their message to a global audience with virtual impunity. A CRS Report (PDF) analyzes such statements, which offer insight into al-Qaeda's overriding ideology.

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