A couple of days ago, while pondering why AQ hasn't struck the U.S. itself since 9/11, I wrote that neither I nor some former spook types think Osama really controls more than a few hundred men. (Large numbers are inspired by him, but apparently don’t have the capability and/or level of commitment or desire to target the U.S. itself. ) I mentioned that the LAT's Terry McDermott is writing a book and the 9/11 plot and has come to a similar conclusion. I’ve now spoken with McDermott, who’s offered up the following excerpts from his upcoming book, Perfect Soldiers, (HarperCollins, April):
Al Qaeda itself was never the huge organization its opponents sometimes portrayed. Its core was at most a couple hundred men, but they sat at the heart of a sprawling web of other like-minded organizations spread across the globe. At its peak, there were operational off-shoots in 60 countries, a network of networks that was able to take advantage of traditional Muslim customs of hospitality and aid to co-religionists. Al Qaeda sat at the center of this web but was never in any sense in control of it.
American analysts sometimes likened it to the Ford Foundation of terrorism, suggesting it sat back and waited for plans to be proposed, then accepted or denied them. This did happen, especially in the early years when it collaborated with other organizations rather than running operations on its own, but after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan he and his top deputies – his number two, Zawahiri, and military chief, Muhammed Atef, both not coincidentally Egyptians - transformed Al Qaeda into a small operational organization, as well, that worked in cooperation or sometimes competition with other terror groups. Its own small size, with which came severe limits on the skills available from within its ranks, virtually required it to reach beyond its members for specific needs.
One under-appreciated aspect of Al Qaeda operations was how crude many of them were. Intelligence analysts sometimes cited the plans’ complexities and sophistication, as if blowing up buildings or boats or vehicles were high-end science. In fact, many Al Qaeda plots have been marked by the haphazardness of their design and execution. Over the years, many of the plots seemed hare-brained at worst, ill-conceived at best, pursued by ill-equipped and unprepared, inept men. Some were almost comical in their haplessness: boats sank, cars crashed, bombs blew up too soon. Some of the men virtually delivered themselves to police. The gross ineptitude of the execution often disguised the gravity of the intent, and hid, also, the steadfastness of the plotters. Whatever else they did, they did not go away.
The fact that Khallad was brought in to help direct the Cole attack, and that Mihdhar was involved illustrates again one notable aspect of Al Qaeda – how small the organization actually was. Over twenty-plus years, tens of thousands of men went through the Afghan training camps. In the same period, nearly a dozen attacks attributed to Islamic fundamentalists occurred around the world. But most of those men and most of those attacks had little, other than overlapping intent, to do with Al Qaeda. Most were independent groups running independent, often local, operations.
In the attacks that were instigated by Al Qaeda, the same handful of people was involved in virtually every one. Even foot soldiers were recycled to new operations. The organization was so small almost everybody in it at one time or another had personal interactions with top leadership. Men who went to the Al Qaeda camps almost casually would end up meeting bin Laden. Some men who trained at the camps but never joined the organization reported repeated meetings with bin Laden, Mohammed, the military commander Mohammed Atif and the recruiter Abu Zubaydah. Shared values enabled the organization to amplify its power by aligning with similarly politicized fundamentalist groups, many of them completely autonomous, around the globe. This made the group at times seem ubiquitous, but, in fact, it was a few men persistently pursuing a few deadly enterprises.