Terrorism and the Exceptional Individual

By Scott Stewart

There has been a lot of chatter in intelligence and academic circles about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri and his value to AQAP. The disclosure last week of a thwarted AQAP plot to attack U.S. airliners using an improved version of an “underwear bomb” used in the December 2009 attempted attack aboard a commercial airplane and the disclosure of the U.S. government’s easing of the rules of engagement for unmanned aerial vehicle strikes in Yemen played into these discussions. People are debating how al-Asiri’s death would affect the organization. A similar debate undoubtedly will erupt if AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi is captured or killed.

AQAP has claimed that al-Asiri trained others in bombmaking, and the claim makes sense. Furthermore, other AQAP members have received training in constructing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while training and fighting in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. This means that al-Asiri is not the only person within the group who can construct an IED. However, he has demonstrated creativity and imagination. His devices consistently have been able to circumvent existing security measures, even if they have not always functioned as intended. We believe this ingenuity and imagination make al-Asiri not merely a bombmaker, but an exceptional bombmaker.

Likewise, al-Wahayshi is one of hundreds — if not thousands — of men currently associated with AQAP. He has several deputies and numerous tactical field commanders in various parts of Yemen. Jihadists have had a presence in Yemen for decades, and after the collapse of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, numerous Saudi migrants fleeing the Saudi government augmented this presence. However, al-Wahayshi played a singular role in pulling these disparate jihadist elements together to form a unified and cohesive militant organization that has been involved not only in several transnational terrorist attacks but also in fighting an insurgency that has succeeded in capturing and controlling large areas of territory. He is an exceptional leader.

Individuals like al-Asiri and al-Wahayshi play critical roles in militant groups. History has shown that the loss of exceptional individuals such as these makes a big difference in efforts to defeat such organizations.

Exceptional Individuals

One of Stratfor’s core geopolitical tenets is that at the strategic level, geography is critical to shaping the limits of what is possible — and impossible — for states and nations to achieve in the long run. Quite simply, historically, the strategic political and economic dynamics created by geography are far more significant than the individual leader or personality, no matter how brilliant. For example, in the U.S. Civil War, Robert E. Lee was a shrewd general with a staff of exceptional military officers. However, geographic and economic reality meant that the North was bound to win the civil war despite the astuteness and abilities of Lee and his staff.

But as the size of an organization and the period of time under consideration shrink, geopolitics is little more than a rough guide. At the tactical level, intelligence takes over from geopolitics, and individuals’ abilities become far more important in influencing smaller events and trends within the greater geopolitical flow. This is the level where exceptional military commanders can win battles through courage and brilliance, where exceptional businessmen can revolutionize the way business is done through innovative new products or ways of selling those products and where the exceptional individuals can execute terrorist tradecraft in a way that allows them to kill scores or even hundreds of victims.

Leadership is important in any type of organization, but it is especially important in entrepreneurial organizations, which are fraught with risk and require unique vision, innovation and initiative. For example, hundreds of men founded automobile companies in the early 1900s, but Henry Ford was an exceptional individual because of his vision to make automobiles a widely available mass-produced commodity rather than just a toy for the rich. In computer technology, Steve Jobs was exceptional for his ability to design devices with an aesthetic form that appealed to consumers, and Michael Dell was exceptional for his vision of bypassing traditional sales channels and selling computers directly to customers.

These same leadership characteristics of vision, daring, innovation and initiative are evident in the exceptional individuals who have excelled in the development and application of terrorist tradecraft. Some examples of exceptional individuals in the terrorism realm are Ali Hassan Salameh, the operations chief of Black September, who not only revolutionized the form that terrorist organizations take by instituting the use of independent, clandestine cells, but also was a visionary in designing theatrical attacks intended for international media consumption. Some have called Palestinian militant leader Abu Ibrahim the “grandfather of all bombmakers” for his innovative IED designs during his time with Black September, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and his own group, the 15 May Organization. Ibrahim was known for creating sophisticated devices that used plastic explosives and a type of electronic timer called an “e-cell” that could be set for an extended delay. Another terrorism innovator was Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh, who helped pioneer the use of large suicide truck bombs to attack hardened targets, such as military barracks and embassies.

In the jihadist realm, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is being tried by a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was such an individual. Not only did Mohammed mastermind the 9/11 attacks for al Qaeda in which large hijacked aircraft were transformed into guided missiles, but he also was the operational planner behind the coordinated attacks against two U.S. embassies in August 1998 and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mohammed’s other innovations included the idea to use modular IEDs concealed in baby dolls to attack 10 aircraft in a coordinated attack (Operation Bojinka) and the shoe bomb plot. Mohammed’s video beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in February 2002 started a grisly trend that was followed not only by jihadists in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia but also by combatants in Mexico’s drug war.


One of the places where exceptional individuals have been most evident in the terrorist realm is in leadership roles. Although on the surface it might seem like a simple task to find a leader for a militant group, in practice, effective militant leaders are hard to come by. This is because militant leadership requires a rather broad skill set. In addition to personal attributes such as ruthlessness, aggressiveness and fearlessness, militant leaders also must be charismatic, intuitive, clever and inspiring. This last attribute is especially important in an organization that seeks to recruit operatives to conduct suicide attacks. Additionally, an effective militant leader must be able to recruit and train operatives, enforce operational security, raise funds, plan operations and methodically execute the plan while avoiding the security forces that are constantly hunting down the militants.

The trajectory of al Qaeda’s franchise in Saudi Arabia is a striking illustration of the importance of leadership to a militant organization. Under the leadership of Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, the Saudi al Qaeda franchise was extremely active in 2003 and 2004. It carried out a number of high-profile attacks inside Saudi Arabia and put everyone there, from the Saudi monarchy to multinational oil companies, in a general state of panic. With bombings, ambushes and beheadings, it seemed as if Saudi Arabia was on its way to becoming the next Iraq. However, after the June 2004 death of al-Muqrin, the organization began floundering. The succession of leaders appointed to replace al-Muqrin lacked his operational savvy, and each one proved ineffective at best. (Saudi security forces quickly killed several of them.) Following the unsuccessful February 2006 attack against the oil facility at Abqaiq, the group atrophied further, succeeding in carrying out only one more attack — an amateurish small-arms assault in February 2007 against a group of French tourists.

The disorganized remaining jihadists in Saudi Arabia ultimately grew frustrated at their inability to operate on their own. Many of them traveled to places such as Iraq or Pakistan to train and fight. In January 2009, many of the militants who remained in the Arabian Peninsula joined with al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen to form a new group — AQAP — under the leadership of al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen who served under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before being arrested in Iran. An extradition deal between the Yemeni and Iranian governments returned al-Wahayshi to Yemen in 2003. He subsequently escaped from a high-security prison outside Sanaa in 2006.

Al Qaeda in Yemen’s operational capability improved under al-Wahayshi’s leadership, and its operational tempo increased (although those operations were not terribly effective). Considering this momentum, it is not surprising that the frustrated members of the all-but-defunct Saudi franchise agreed to swear loyalty to al-Wahayshi and join his new umbrella group, AQAP. The first widely recognized product of this merger was the attempted assassination of Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef on Aug. 28, 2009, using a device designed by al-Asiri and carried by his brother, Abdullah al-Asiri.

As with the Saudi group, the fortunes of other al Qaeda regional franchises have risen or fallen based on the ability of the franchise’s leadership. In Indonesia, for example, following the arrests and killings of several top jihadist commanders, the capabilities of the regional jihadist franchise there were deeply degraded. Al Qaeda announced with great fanfare in August 2006 that a splinter of the Egyptian jihadist group Gamaah al-Islamiyah had become al Qaeda’s franchise in Egypt, and in November 2007 al Qaeda announced that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had become a regional franchise. But neither of these franchises ever really began operations. While a great degree of the groups’ ineffectiveness could have resulted from the oppressive natures of the Egyptian and Libyan governments — and those governments’ aggressive efforts to control the new al Qaeda franchises — Stratfor believes the groups’ failures also stem in large part from their lack of effective, dynamic leadership.

Arms Race

Leadership is not the only factor that influences a militant group’s ability to carry out terrorist attacks. Groups planning to conduct bombing attacks also require a proficient bombmaker, and an innovative bombmaker like Abu Ibrahim or Hamas’ Yahya Ayyash can greatly expand a group’s operational reach and effectiveness. This is especially true for groups hoping to conduct attacks in the United States and Europe.

As outlined in last week’s Security Weekly, those planning terrorist attacks against aircraft have been in a continual arms race with airline security measures. Every time security is changed to adapt to a particular threat, whether it be 9/11-style hijackings, shoe bombs, liquid bombs or underwear bombs, the terrorist planner must come up with a new attack plan to defeat the enhanced security measures. This is where innovation and imagination become critical. A master bombmaker might be able to show a pupil how to build a simple IED or maybe even something like a shoe bomb. The pupil may even become quite proficient at assembling such devices. But unless the pupil is innovative and imaginative, he will not be able to invent and perfect the next technology needed to stay ahead of security countermeasures.

There is a big difference between a technician and an inventor, and perhaps the best way to illustrate this principle is by drawing a parallel to the music world. A student can learn to play the saxophone, and perhaps even to mimic a jazz recording note for note. But it is quite another thing for that student to develop the ability to improvise a masterful solo like saxophonist John Coltrane could. In music, individuals like Coltrane are rare, and in terrorism, so are exceptional bombmakers — masters of destruction who can create imaginative and original IEDs capable of defeating security measures.

Following the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP’s English-language preacher, we noted that we did not believe his death would have much operational impact on the group due to his role as the group’s English-language ideologue. That argument was based upon the fact that al-Wahayshi, al-Asiri and AQAP operational leader Qasim al-Raymi, who were much more responsible for the group’s operations, were still alive. However, if the group were to lose an exceptional individual — such as its dynamic and effective leader, al-Wahayshi, or its imaginative and creative bombmaker, al-Asiri — the loss would make a significant difference unless the group could find someone equally capable to replace that individual.

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