Does al Qaeda Still Have a Hierarchy?

CNN senior producer Henry Schuster — who spent part of July and August in Saudi Arabia investigating terrorism with CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson — provides some insight on bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Does al Qaeda still have a hierarchy? (CNN)

Since Osama bin Laden praised the terrorists who stormed the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last week during his audio message, does that mean he ordered the attack?

Not likely. Al Qaeda’s hierarchy may be a thing of the past. Up until September 11, 2001, the flow chart used to be clear. Osama bin Laden ran al Qaeda. His deputy was Ayman al-Zawahiri. His military commander was Mohammed Atef. All the elaborate plots, including the U.S. Embassy attacks in 1998 and on September 11, had to be approved by bin Laden.

Then came the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after September 11. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were forced to go on the run. Mohammed Atef was killed by a missile attack.

There were some al Qaeda-sponsored attacks after September 11, carried out at the behest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was behind the September 11 attacks. These included an attack on a synagogue in Tunisia. Then Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was nabbed in Pakistan in early 2003. But even as the old al Qaeda was put on the run, a new al Qaeda was emerging. CNN’s terrorism analyst Peter Bergen dubs it al Qaeda 2.0 and it is more of a movement than the pre-September 11 organization.

Now the attacks are coming from al Qaeda-affiliated groups or those who want to be:

  • The Madrid attacks on March 11, 2004, were done by al Qaeda sympathizers.
  • The series of attacks in Saudi Arabia, including the recent one in Jeddah, were done by a group that calls itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Its propaganda videos include heavy doses of old bin Laden speeches.
  • Even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose relationship with bin Laden is not entirely clear, has just renamed his group al Qaeda in Mesopotamia So even if there is no real hierarchy or flow chart anymore, the attacks keep coming.

Which raises the question: Is Osama bin Laden in the position to order attacks or is he trying to make himself relevant by becoming the symbolic leader of this new terrorist movement?

While this is reasonably well understood, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this whenever bin Laden tapes surface, as happened again overnight. He’s a dangerous man, even as a symbol. But this war is not about one man.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Figures says:

    That’s right. This is not a one man war. This a war of ideologies. A war of religions and paradigms. Bin laden is just the hopeful star.