Terrorists are their own worst enemy

Tracking its finances, adding members causes growing pains for terrorist organizations

Bassem Youssef
Bassem Youssef
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The criminal history of Al-Qaeda dates back to the Sept. 11 attacks, and includes bombing girls’ schools in Pakistan. Although many Arabs are among its leaders, we do not know anything about its problems or structure.

The organization, which has expanded worldwide, is suffering from diseases that usually hit prominent institutions, such as bureaucracy, administrative sterility, and disputes over the priority of leadership among “employees.”

In an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine, Jacob Shapiro highlights the most important weakness of terrorist organizations: the need to keep track of everything, and use records and charts to monitor expenditure.

It is normal for groups that use money to buy arms and loyalty to have strict supervision over their economies, just like public-sector companies.

Shapiro uses the example of the Red Brigades, an Italian organization whose members spent more time supervising their budget than actually training for attacks. From 2005 until 2010, Al-Qaeda in Iraq kept accurate records of the names and salaries of its members.

Shapiro highlights financial disputes in the 1990s between Mohammed Atef, a prominent Al-Qaeda leader, and Medhat Mursi al-Sayyed Omar, an explosives expert for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Atef criticized Omar for not providing the receipts of a family trip he made at the expense of the organization.

Al-Qaeda suffers from many structural problems, especially after Ayman al-Zawahiri took charge after Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri is being publicly criticized as a “failed boss” who cannot control the organization.

This is confirmed in an important report by William McCants, a researcher at the Brookings Institute in Washington. He says some factions that are supposed to be loyal to Al-Qaeda, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, no longer obey Zawahiri.

The problem lies in dealing with a terrorist organization that operates under the slogan of religion. You are dealing with groups of murderers. Each group competes with the other to prove its strength by killing people.

Sometimes, however, even a terrorist group thinks that murder has gone too far, such as in 2006 when residents of Al-Anbar province in Iraq rose up against Al-Qaeda leader Abu Mosab al-Zarqawi. This pushed Zawahiri (then the number two in the organization) to criticize Zarqawi. Seven years on, Al-Qaeda’s mistakes are being repeated while another faction, Al-Nusra, is trying to appear more civilized.

Is it possible for the situation to end by terrorist factions fighting? The answer lies in what happened to Al-Shabab in Somalia. Bin Laden rejected officially integrating Al-Shabab within Al-Qaeda because the former had a bad reputation in governance and harshly implemented Sharia rulings. Can you actually believe that this was Bin Laden’s opinion of Al-Shabab?!

It has been two years since Zawahiri took charge of Al-Qaeda...and its popularity is decreasing in the poorest of places.

Bassem Youssef

However, nine months after Bin Laden’s murder, Zawahiri accepted the integration of Al-Shabab after its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane vowed allegiance to Zawahiri. Godane then silenced his opponents by murder or detention, leading to major defections from Al-Shabab, which subsequently lost much of its territory in Somalia.

The situation reached the extent where Ibrahim al-Afghani, the second man in Al-Shabab, wrote an open letter and published it on jihadi websites. Afghani blamed Zawahiri for mismanaging the crisis, and accused Godane of dividing the mujahideen in Somalia and decreasing their popularity among the people.

It has been two years since Zawahiri took charge of Al-Qaeda, and the organization is suffering from defections and disputes, just like any political party. Its popularity is also decreasing in the poorest of places. This strongly indicates that terrorists are their own worst enemies that terrorists’ presence in an organization may speed up its demise.

Or it might lead to the emergence of small terrorist groups competing to blow themselves up across the world, while focusing on murdering Muslims and Arabs and maintaining their traditional distance from Israel. What a strange irony!

This article was first published in Egypt-based al-Shorouk on Dec. 17, 2013.

Bassem Youssef is is an Egyptian doctor, satirist, and the host of El Bernameg ("The Program"), a satirical news program broadcast by a private Egyptian television station. The press has compared Youssef with American comedian Jon Stewart, whose satire program The Daily Show inspired Youssef to begin his career. Despite all controversy and legal debates it has sparked, El Bernameg has been a major success. It is constantly topping the regional YouTube charts, making Youssef's YouTube channel one of the most subscribed to in Egypt.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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