Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are still #1, Abu Faraj al-Libi has taken over from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the global operations chief, and Saif al-Adel is the grand strategist. All of the top four have a limited command and control due to a variety of constraints so a lot of the impetus for the attacks have been shifted to lesser lieutenants, but they’re still at the top of the pyramid and the US most wanted list.
There’s been a solid string of captured couriers with audio casettes or letters from bin Laden to his subordinates and senior lieutenants since roughly August 2002, nearly all of which have been intercepted coming out of the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Recent information recovered from Fallujah has led US intelligence to believe that bin Laden is also in touch with Zarqawi through electronic means, though I have no idea as to exactly how.
There’s still a lot of disagreement in the international intel community as far as how much control the al-Qaeda leadership actually has over the 40 or so groups that operate under its aegis, whether the al-Qaeda leadership = the militant Islamist internationale leadership, whether al-Qaeda is more a movement or ideology or brand name than it is an organization these days, etc. The US, Russia, and India, usually favor the broad definitions of al-Qaeda, while the Europeans tend to try to be nuanced in this regard, though France and Italy are shifting more and more away from that direction.
Al-Qaeda recruiting in Europe in particular has sky-rocketed since first 3/11 and then the Filippino withdrawl from Iraq, even more so than actually during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The main reason for this is that the group is now seen as having evicted at least two “Crusader states” from Iraq and as such is perceived among its “soft” sympathizers to have the momentum with it. Increasingly pessimistic Western commentary on the situation has also led many of these same “soft” supporters to believe that very soon the organization can defeat the US inside Iraq, thereby leading to the nucleus for the eventual restoration of the Caliphate in the Middle East. Second generation Muslim immigrants without any exposure to Islamist violence in the Middle East are far more likely to hold to extremely romanticized notions about al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism in general, as they have no real clue about what these guys do in the process of setting up their little utopia.
The core of the 3/11 cell was made up of seasoned al-Qaeda leaders like Amer Azizi, Serhane bin Abdelmajid Fakhet, Jamal Zougam, Adnan Waki, and the grand boss of the whole plot Rabei Osman Sayyid Ahmed, but most of the cannon fodder were recruited from among the European immigrant community and told only what they needed to know to carry out the attack. This kind of local autonomy and organization meant that there was no chatter or forewarning from outside of Spain prior to attacks, which is one of the reasons why the Spanish initially suspected ETA as the culprit. A number of the Moroccan 3/11 plotters, Zougam among them, were also involved in the Casablanca bombings and had to flee from Morocco into Europe when King Mohammed decided to clean house.
One of the things we’re very fortunate about is that al-Qaeda is not quite as unified as media coverage or the group’s own propaganda would lead one to believe – they can be divided. This is going to be quite important in the future as there is now a new branch to the organization – the al-Douri branch, led by none other than former Iraqi vice Revolutionary Command Council chairman Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
Al-Qaeda does have at least some kind of weaponized chemical capacity for cyanide and maybe mustard or sarin gas. All of the Darunta camp alumni were taught how to create at least the first of these, which is what Zarqawi was planning on using in Jordan (whether or not the method of dispersal was feasible or not is a matter of debate within the intelligence community – a lot of people are of the opinion that the blast used to destroy the Jordanian targets would have taken the cyanide along with it). Abu Khabab has worked on VX in the past, but he doesn’t seem to have gotten very far. Among the poisons in the group’s arsenal are ricin, arsine, phosgene, botulinum, and alfatoxin. The next round of al-Qaeda attacks on the US are likely to include at least some kind of chemical element to them.
The whole issue of foreign fighters, as I think I’ve noted before, is a lot more complex than most of the punditocracy likes to point out. These guys don’t volunteer themselves upon capture and while there are linguistic differences in the Arabic that one can discern, it isn’t as easy as it sounds to sort these guys out from the rest of the cannon fodder. Foreign fighters are also more likely to fight to the death than not, and identification of the enemy dead as Iraqi or foreigner is not exactly a top US priority at the moment. To further complicate the matter, there are also a sizeable number of native Iraqis serving in al-Qaeda and related groups and there are little if any differences between the Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish members of Ansar al-Islam. No doubt an anthropologist could better discern the differences between Iraqi and foreign elements of the insurgency, but as I said, body identification is not a top priority for the US at the moment, especially given the number of dead European nationals that such an accounting would turn up as well as for interrogation purposes (i.e. other countries tend to complain if their nationals are imprisoned or killed). As a result, those classified as foreign fighters are in many cases those who can be demonstrably shown to be non-Iraqi, such as possessing foreign identification, a passport, or in some cases such simple things as good dental work.
After the fall of Saddam, a major split developed among the Baathists over who got to be #1 now that their glorious leader was in chains. One group, led by Colonel Hani Abdul Latif al-Tilfah al-Tikriti and commanding the backing of the Special Security Organization, the Tikriti and Majidi tribesmen, and a good chunk of the former Mukhabarat, the other is made up of al-Douri and commands the loyalty of the Special Republican Guard and the Saddam Fedayeen. The split had more to do with power than anything else and is now at a somewhat interesting point, with al-Douri having recently traveled from Mosul to Syria (where the al-Tikriti faction got to hang out in return for recognizing Bashar al-Assad as the biggest, baddest, Baathist around) to reconcile the two Baathist factions under one banner in an effort to derail plans for the new Iraqi elections in January.
There is a whole lot more here so please go check it out. Also, a few weeks ago Dan suggested anyone interested in learning more about Al-Qaeda to pick up the book “Inside Al Qaeda” by Rohan Gunaratna. I Picked up that book last week and must say it is excellent. You should always know ones enemy so pick this book up.