With Osama bin Laden's death in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011, al-Qaeda lost not only its figurehead and once-useful recruiting tool, but also a sense of direction born of impotence. Six weeks after Bin Laden was killed, al-Qaeda announced that its long-time deputy, the uninspiring and uncharismatic doctor from Cairo, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was its new head. Writing in Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad — The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden, Peter Bergen observes of al-Zawahiri, "[he] had his work cut out for him; his predecessor had gifted him a bit of a lemon."
It is the period since al-Zawahiri has taken charge of al-Qaeda that is the focus of After Bin Laden: al-Qaeda, the Next Generation. It is a fascinating period in the history of the world's best-known terrorist group, and this absorbing survey does much to disentangle the many strands of the group that exist today. The al-Qaeda franchise continues to evolve, reinventing itself in new geographical and virtual spaces, so that any assessment of the group runs the risk of being out of date almost before it is published. By and large, After Bin Laden avoids this pitfall by devoting more space than the title suggests to the group's background in various parts of the world.
Before September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda was already widely known. It was responsible for, among other things, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, and the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. The last of these attacks killed more than 200, including 12 Americans. Though these attacks were highly lethal, it was 9/11 that made the terrorist group a household name, as instantly recognizable as any of the world's best-known brands.
Headed by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian-born son of a Yemeni-born billionaire businessman, al-Qaeda had grown enormously since its conception during the American-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Initially, al-Qaeda (in English, the base, with the possible added meaning of a training camp, or a database, of volunteer fighters) was set up to distribute funds and coordinate training of the foreign fighters who traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join in battle against the Marxist Russian infidels.
While as many as 250,000 Afghans fought against the Soviets, the number of foreign fighters was always relatively few. According to Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, there were never more than 2,000 foreigners in the field at one time. Research by the Jamestown Foundation puts the total number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan between 1982 and 1992 at no more than 35,000. Here, Bin Laden's organisational skills and cash were to prove invaluable to the far-from-home — more often than not, Arabic-speaking — young fighters.
Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait proved to be a pivotal moment for the burgeoning terrorist group, as Bin Laden offered to use his Arab legion, buoyed by their recent victory in Afghanistan, to fight the Iraqis and defend Saudi Arabia. King Fahd rejected Bin Laden's offer, instead inviting troops from America and other non-Muslim nations to lead the fight against Hussein in Kuwait. Viewing such a move as a betrayal of the Muslim faithful, Bin Laden railed against the House of Saud, moving to set up operations in Sudan. While there, in 1994, he was stripped of his Saudi nationality, thus fostering the image of an outlaw and satisfying both his sense of outrage and his personal destiny. Now he understood his mission as fighting both illegitimate Muslim rulers — the House of Saud being first among these in his eyes — and the irreligious and corrupt Western powers: the near and far enemies.
The attacks of 9/11 were not universally approved of by al-Qaeda's senior management. Many of them understood better than Bin Laden that the likely American response would prove devastating to their cozy set-up in Taliban-controled Afghanistan, which allowed them a secure base from which to plot a more considered, long-term strategy. The naysayers were right; Bin Laden was wrong. The day the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon was left smoldering — a day that was two years in the making — marked the beginning of the end of al-Qaeda as a potent terrorist force. This is not to deny the group's subsequent ability to launch an occasional attack in the West, but any plans they once had for long-term global relevance lay in tatters.
The result is that others came along from distant corners of the globe to claim affiliation with the group, individuals who saw the al-Qaeda brand as still having cachet. This is not, as Bin Laden makes clear in messages written while in hiding, an opinion that even he held to in his last years. Long before his demise, al-Qaeda's claims to greatness were baseless.
Region-specific, self-proclaimed branches of al-Qaeda covered in After Bin Laden range from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia and the Maghreb, including Libya. While unavoidable for anyone publishing a book of contemporary history, the author must regret that the manuscript was not completed just a little later, which would have allowed him to tackle events in Mali as they unfolded.
The author, Abdel Bari Atwan, is a prominent Gaza-born journalist and the editor-in-chief of al-Quds al-Arabi (Arab Jerusalem), a populist, pro-Palestinian, pan-Arab newspaper out of London. Some readers may question the author's inferences vis-à-vis culpability on the part of the West in the development of al-Qaeda. For any serious student of Islamist terrorism, however, reading such ideas is both apt and instructive. The author's opinions may be more common outside the United States, which is reason enough that one should be exposed to them.
After Bin Laden is a useful primer for anyone in need of a non-technical and readable introduction to most of those al-Qaeda-affiliated groups at work in the world today, as well as a valuable aide mémoire for those more familiar with the material that lies beyond these pages. What it sometimes lacks in close analysis it readily substitutes with some spirited writing. However, while this reviewer understands the need to protect sources, a critical reader may find it grating to be told about various reliable sources who must remain nameless.
Atwan is a journalist with a proven track record in covering al-Qaeda (he interviewed Bin Laden twice), and his work in this field remains important. In After Bin Laden, he has produced a solid, book-length piece of journalism that sometimes betrays more opinion than is ideal, but it is unquestionably a compelling read from first to last.