Counter-terrorism experts have long debated the relationship between al-Qaeda headquarters in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region and its numerous "spin-off" groups: al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, et
Some of the best work on the subject comes from US Army Captain Josh McLaughlin, a field artillery officer who blogs at al-Sahwa (Arabic for "The Awakening"). McLaughlin has written a series of articles examining two popular theories on the nature of al-Qaeda: the "franchise" model and the "conglomerate" model. In an article posted to Small Wars Journal in January, McLaughlin discussed the relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, a Somali-based terrorist network.
According to McLaughlin, franchises—the usual term applied to al-Qaeda affiliates all over the world--operate with a high degree of central control, generally taking marching orders from a corporate headquarters. Conglomerates, on the other hand, allow subsidiaries to receive support and guidance from a higher headquarters, yet retain a high degree of autonomy.
McLaughlin argued that the "conglomerate" model was the appropriate context through which to view al-Qaeda's "spin-offs".
Another article published at Small Wars Journal would seem to confirm the conglomerate model. According to Deane-Paul Baker of the US Naval Academy, al-Qaeda had sought to achieve a spectacular terrorist act during the World Cup in South Africa, the largest sporting event in the world, with the final game watched by over 700 million people. Al-Qaeda's regional affiliate, al-Shabaab, has a considerable presence in South Africa, and could have reasonably conducted a spectacular event during the series. Yet, al-Shabaab bombed an Ethiopian restaurant in Uganda during the final game.
Why? Baker notes that Uganda is the largest contributor of forces to the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia, backing al-Shabaab's enemy, the Somalia's Transitional Federal Government. By scoffing at al-Qaeda's insistence on acting in South Africa and attacking its regional enemies, al-Shabaab would seem to pay scant attention to al-Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan.
Baker, like many commentators, believes that al-Qaeda's diversification—the conglomerate model, if you will—is further evidence of al-Qaeda greatly weakened by constant drone strikes and years of war.
Mission accomplished or mission changed?