Death Of Bin Laden May Change Al-Qaida's Tactics Osama bin Laden's death has led many experts to speculate al-Qaida's capacity to orchestrate terrorist attacks may be permanently weakened. John Arquilla, who teaches in the special operations program at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, thinks it would be unwise to write off the al-Qaida threat.
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Death Of Bin Laden May Change Al-Qaida's Tactics

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Death Of Bin Laden May Change Al-Qaida's Tactics

Death Of Bin Laden May Change Al-Qaida's Tactics

Death Of Bin Laden May Change Al-Qaida's Tactics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Osama bin Laden's death has led many experts to speculate al-Qaida's capacity to orchestrate terrorist attacks may be permanently weakened. John Arquilla, who teaches in the special operations program at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, thinks it would be unwise to write off the al-Qaida threat.


Leaks of the bin Laden paper suggest that the late leader of al-Qaida wanted to stage another spectacular attack against the United States, while others in al-Qaida preferred smaller and less difficult targets.

In a piece for Foreign Policy, John Arquilla argues that the death of bin Laden may accelerate a shift from a centralized network to loose-jointed cells distributed around the world, which could launch a series of coordinated strikes designed to confuse our defenses.

How do you think al-Qaida will adapt after the death of bin Laden? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Arquilla teaches in the special operations program at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. His recent piece in Foreign Policy is titled "The New Seeds of Terror," and he joins us from member station KAZU in Pacific Grove, California.

And nice to have you back on the program.

Professor JOHN ARQUILLA (U.S. Naval Postgraduate School): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And now that some details are emerging from the material seized from bin Laden's compounds, what are you learning?

Prof. ARQUILLA: Well, we see that he was continuing to try to control al-Qaida's global campaign. Of course, that's pretty hard to do without any phones or Internet. It slows you down to your couriers, and, of course, if the couriers are watched, they can lead you - lead your enemies on a trail of crumbs to find you and maybe also to find other operatives.

So I think, you know, in a funny way, the death of bin Laden is actually going to liberate a lot of al-Qaida cells to act more independently and follow a strategy that one of their other leaders, Abu Musab al-Suri, was pushing over a decade ago. He lost in those debates, and we captured him about a little over five years ago. But I think his ideas are not only going to live on, but they're going to catch on.

CONAN: What are his ideas?

Prof. ARQUILLA: Basically, there should be little cells developed all over the world, half a dozen, two dozen people, depending on what you want to do. They had a cell in Singapore a decade ago that was about 30 people who accumulated ammonium nitrate and were going to blow up buildings where American companies were located.

A little cell in Morocco was acquiring speedboats and TNT and was going to ram them into oil tankers in the Strait of Gibraltar.

They come up with their own ideas. And al-Suri's work, it's about a 1,600-page eBook, by the way. So don't look for it on Amazon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ARQUILLA: But basically, it was this idea that the network would be most effective if the core provided simply the guiding idea, which is to reduce the shadow cast by American power on the Muslim world and then allow others to pursue their aims in the ways they're best able in their parts of the world. Al-Suri thought that would be the most secure way for them to proceed but also the most effective way.

CONAN: Bin Laden's role was greater than that, though. He, yes, provided that guiding idea. He established some precedents, but he also provided inspiration. He also provided, in some important respects, funding.

Prof. ARQUILLA: I don't think he has to be alive to provide inspiration. He's now a dead hero, and, you know, frankly, we talk a lot about a war of ideas with al-Qaida. All along, they've been having a war of ideas about the idea of war.

Dr. Zawahiri, for example, didn't want to engage the far enemy, the United States. He'd rather go after those apostate regimes that they wanted to topple that were nearer to them. Bin Laden wanted to go after the far enemy, but he wanted to maintain central control. Al-Suri said, whichever way you go, don't try to centrally control things.

So they've had this debate unfolding. We shouldn't think of the enemy as monolithic in this respect, just as we've had our own arguments about strategy, whether to go to Iraq or not, whether to surge here or there or not, so the enemy has these debates. And I think in the wake of bin Laden's death, it's pretty clear that al-Suri's idea is the best shot they have.

CONAN: And Al-Suri's idea, so extreme that he says those who go and establish these cells should make sure that they are - never be able to be traced back.

Prof. ARQUILLA: He was very devoted to the idea of what we call operational security, and so was worried that the cell builders, the people who would go help recruit and provide a little expertise and some of that inspiration, might actually lead us to these cells or back to al-Qaida core.

And, yes, he thought, since suicide is a tactic that's very common that the cell builders themselves should do this, not all of them, but from time to the time this should be done and that would improve their security. Pretty extreme, no question.

CONAN: It's operational security taken to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: an extreme of point of - I'm not sure even the National Security Agency would go for that. But as you look at this idea of these separated - a flat organization, no hierarchy whatsoever is what you're talking about.

Prof. ARQUILLA: Very little. Again, the core would continue to provide inspiration. In some respects, bin Laden is now the best inspiration, a dead martyr, and so that will be there for a long time.

And why is he an inspiration? Because he was a man who was educated and wealthy and yet chose to live the life of an insurgent and to craft this concept of a large global insurgency, so that inspiration remains.

Now, the possibility is that they will move to far more effective means. And what we've seen, even since his death, is a lot of little attacks in a number of different places. In fact, we saw a swarm attack in Kandahar the other day. About a dozen targets hit in small scale attacks at the same time.

I think the al-Suri model, which includes the idea of all this networking and also swarm attacks that is simultaneous attacks in different places, this is coming to the fore now already.

CONAN: Swarm attack, let me explore that just a little bit more. The model, I guess, most of us would be familiar with is Mumbai.

Prof. ARQUILLA: Oh, sure. You know, look what happened there in November of 2008. Five two-man teams set loose in Mumbai with some firearms and a few small bombs, held the city hostage for four days, caused about 500 casualties and really demonstrated how, at very low costs in terms of the investment and the strike force, terrorists could create a huge amount of disruption.

If you just do the thought experiment for a moment, imagine a couple of these teams set loose in American shopping malls some weekend. We really need to be thinking about how to cope with this. And, unfortunately, our response concept at the moment through the Northern Command has a lot more to do with maintaining a quick reaction force of about brigade strength, two to 3,000 soldiers that we could get within several hours to a day to some location around the country. It's a little too slow. If we're going to fight this kind of war, we need to get smaller, quicker, closer.

CONAN: Our guest is John Arquilla, who teaches in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, the author of "Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits." And 800-989-8255, email us:, if you have questions about how al-Qaida may adapt following the death of Osama bin Laden.

And we'll start with - this is Tracy(ph), Tracy with us from Concord in North Carolina.

TRACY (Caller): Yeah. I was just going to ask how does your guest feel about the spread of terrorists into the Arabian Peninsula and in to other areas like Indonesia, and also the fact that they're - not lacking a central command. Are they - how are they organizing in small teams? And what is the point then of organizing in small teams if you lack sort of a corporate structure, that if it's every small team out for himself, do you think that the message and the hate message and the message they're trying to put forward will start to become deteriorated over time?

Prof. ARQUILLA: That's a great question. And the concept that I like to think about for this is what I call a panarchy. Anarchy is, you know, no control whatsoever. Panarchy like, Pan-Islamism, something that goes across all Muslims, the pan part of panarchy is a common goal, which is to cause this kind of disruption to the regimes that are seen apostates or to operate in the places where you want American forces to leave, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. And so they have that general goal.

The point of Abu Musab al-Suri's model is to allow them to operate with that goal in mind but without the risk of a central command and control. You know, a good example of this, Neal, would be the World War II battle of the Atlantic, where the German U-boats had a common goal, which was to go after the convoys coming across the ocean. The problem they had was they were controlled by radio by Admiral Donitz from a central place. And once we broke the German codes, we were able to tell where these U-boats were and were able to win that battle.

Admiral Nimitz, unlike Donitz in the Pacific, sent U.S. submarines out with very little command and control and a lot of freedom to act. And they sank about 80 percent of Japanese merchant shipping. So this flatter kind of organization has been used in military affairs before and quite effectively.

CONAN: Tracy, thanks very much.

TRACY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see. Let's go next to - this is Jodie(ph), Jodie calling from Sacramento.

JODIE (Caller): Yes. Hi. Hi. I think the timing of Osama bin Laden dying at the time when the Middle East is actually trying to gain their freedom - I mean, even people you've interviewed on your radio show from the Middle East have said things like, well, we're not - we don't want to blow ourselves up. We want freedom.

CONAN: Yeah. They're questioning his relevance anymore and have for some years in fact.

JODIE: Yes. So I think that the people who are motivated to continue the type of terrorism that he was espousing, they've lost their idol. They don't -they're not going to have a central idealism anymore. And I think they're going to be looking for money. And the only people who are going to be able to give them money are the drug traffickers and the sex traffickers and the people who are running, you know, basically criminal operations.

And I think they're just going to use the al-Qaida cells like - because these al-Qaida cells, it's like they're psychotic. They're in a psychosis. They don't know what reality is. They're basing their reality on this suicide mission.

I don't think they'll be able to tell that they'll be used by people who will give them monies just to divert the police and the international militaries and military intelligences just so the criminals can do what they want.

CONAN: John Arquilla, I wonder what you think.

Prof. ARQUILLA: I think we have to be careful about not misjudging the jihad. Again, bin Laden was educated and well-to-do and chose to live the life of a warrior; Abu Musab al-Suri came from a prominent Syrian family, well educated also; Dr. Zawahiri, a medical doctor. They're not all psychotics. They have a goal in mind, again, to reduce the shadow cast by American power on the Muslim world.

They're pursuing it as the only kind of war that they can wage. Yes, an idol has been lost, but a martyr has been gained. And what we know from history is very often, inspirational figures have had their greatest influence after their deaths, from Gandhi to Muhammad...

JODIE: Yeah.

Prof. ARQUILLA: Christ.

JODIE: You know what, I knew a guy - OK, I turned down military intelligence for satellite weapons targeting. And I have several members of my family who were military intelligence in nuclear submarine bases and et cetera. So I used to know a guy whose father was a Nazi, and he didn't see his father since the end of World War II. But he used to tell me things about the Nazis who went down to South America and got away from Germany because he actually went - he was with that group, but he wasn't a Nazi. So he told me the things they used to do, and they did purely criminal things - they prostituted women to make a living. They sold drugs. They did trafficking...

CONAN: So without Hitler, is what you're saying, they turn to criminal activities because they were on the outside and that was the only way they could fund themselves.


CONAN: OK. John Arquilla?

Prof. ARQUILLA: Well, we do see some of this kind of criminal activity to support the organization. On the other hand, we also see a lot of donations. I think, today, the Taliban gets more of their support from international donations than they do from the drug business, to which they've had a strong antipathy over the years. A lot of people believe in this cause. And they're -when we leave Iraq at the end of the year, they're going to raise their AK-47s and say we won, so that will be yet a new source of inspiration. We have to think very carefully about that status of forces agreement.

I just don't want us to underestimate or to misjudge the jihad here. It's not over. I know a lot of people - I'd love for it to be over, but, Neal, honestly, I think we're a nation fighting a network, the first great struggle between nation and network. And we ought to be really careful about declaring victory too soon.

CONAN: John Arquilla is our guest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you do point to one asset that the defenders in this case could reap from the death of Osama bin Laden, and that's the release of the very large resources that were devoted to finding him and capturing or killing him.

Prof. ARQUILLA: Oh, yes, Neal, this is a remarkable opportunity. If we build on something we're already doing, there's a phenomenon called the joint interagency taskforces - military, intelligence, law enforcement and not just Americans either, pulled together. We've built our own network, and we're laying this network down on top of the global al-Qaida network.

And if some of these freed-up resources now are allowed to flow to the agency taskforces, I think we have an opportunity to have a success, not once every 10 years - it took 10 years to get bin Laden - but we could be having a success once every other week against a training camp, a cell here and there.

The cells disrupted in Singapore and Morocco I spoke about before, just a couple out of a handful of successes in a decade, well we could have that level of success every month over the next year or two. And then, we could be talking about having defeated this network.

CONAN: And the kind of swarm tactics you see - say, we need to get smaller and closer as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a lot of people are saying we need to anticipate the effort to attack, and hopefully this can be preempted. But you say we need to depend not so much on this centralized force, this brigade-sized force that could be dispatched to some major incident around the country, but to much smaller, local forces.

Prof. ARQUILLA: Yeah, I'd like to see that broken up into many smaller teams so that they could reach anywhere in the country very quickly, but I think another point is that local law enforcements, with even a modicum of additional weapons training, could do a lot better.

When you look at Mumbai, you had someone with an old rifle, a vintage World War I rifle trying to stand off these reasonably well-armed terrorists. And had he been a little better armed and maybe a little trained in that train station could have saved a lot of lives.

So a little bit of increased arming up of the police, possibly National Guard and reserve unit training for this kind of contingency response, and, of course, packetizing the existing forces out of Northcom. We could get a lot better, a lot much more responsive to any kind of scale attack - small scale attack or even a larger one that might occur in an American city.

CONAN: When you say packetized as opposed to something brigade strength of 3,000 or so, company size? Platoon size?

Prof. ARQUILLA: I'd go down to the platoon level, for sure. I think 40 to 50 is an ideal number for dealing with almost any of the kinds of attacks that al-Suri speaks about in his global Islamic resistance call. And again, they'd be quickly complimented by other first responders. And in fact, first responders might be there before the specialists.

And again, I think if we take this approach, we become almost like the antibodies attacking this invading organism. And I think we have to look at ourselves more as in need of an immune system. That much more is - makes use of the kind of network I'm talking about.

CONAN: John Arquilla, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Prof. ARQUILLA: A pleasure, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: John Arquilla joined us from member station KAZU in Pacific Grove, California. Tomorrow, It's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at rising floodwaters on the Mississippi and the levees, dams and spillways meant to tame them.

That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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