Al Qaeda – Targets, tactics and methodology

Trademark Al-Qaeda attacks involve multiple, simultaneous or near-simultaneous bombings using conventional explosives and striking at Western and, in particular, US targets. The group’s use of suicide bombers in a global context may be seen as an important contribution to the Islamist extremist arsenal. Defence against the suicide bomber is virtually impossible without creating a ‘state of siege’ in societies that place a high value on their perceived freedoms and rights. From the terrorist perspective, the suicide bomb also serves to emphasise the moral and spiritual divide between Islam’s ‘holy warriors’ who embrace death and the Western ‘infidels’ who fear it. This may be reflected in the use of suicide bombers in operations that could be conducted by other means, though the loss of the perpetrator also hinders detection and helps preserve the cell.

Prior to 11 September 2001, Bin Laden and Zawahiri directed a number of high-profile support and strike operations, such as the August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in East Africa and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, using their own activists and attack teams.

The methodology of Al-Qaeda’s core leadership has shifted since 11 September 2001. Operations have been carried out by distinct terrorist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda through their training experiences in Afghanistan or direct connections to Al-Qaeda’s mid-level leadership, or by autonomous units that adhere to Al-Qaeda’s core principles but do not have any direct connections to Bin Laden, Zawahiri or the mid-level core leadership. The UN Monitoring Team on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban noted in its sixth report to the Security Council on 8 March 2007 that the reliance on like-minded affiliates “is in line with the ambition of the core leadership to play a more direct role in determining strategy while encouraging local groups to do whatever they can as opportunity arises at the tactical level”. This cell-based structure consisting of a few activists held together by bonds of kinship as well as faith has also proven extremely difficult, although not impossible, for security services to disrupt.

Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism, posted 18 May 2007


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