WASHINGTON // A new tactical shift by al Qa'eda to court low-level operatives, including amateurs with no formal training, could make it harder for the militant network to control its message of jihad, some experts say.
In its latest propaganda video, "A Call to Arms", the group's US-born spokesman, Adam Gadahn, signals a new willingness to embrace so-called "lone wolf" attackers, encouraging amateurs to emulate Nidal Malik Hasan, the US army psychiatrist who is accused of killing 13 people last year in a shooting rampage in Fort Hood, Texas. Mr Gadahn, who is thought to be living in Pakistan, praises Mr Hasan as a "pioneer, a trailblazer and a role-model who has opened a door, lit a path and shown the way forward". He also praises the small-scale and relatively unsophisticated attacks carried out by Mohammad Bouyeri, who murdered the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, and Aimal Kansi, who shot and killed two CIA employees in 1993.
Although counterterrorism experts believe a shift towards smaller scale operations has been under way for months or even years, Jarret Brachman, the author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice and a consultant to the US government on terrorism, said the video message marks the "first official top-down sanctioning of grass-roots operations". "In essence, al Qa'eda has just released the hounds," he said, calling the video "revolutionary". But, he added, the shift also means more opportunities for the group to be seen as sanctioning "the wrong type of operation", or those that backfire politically and undercut its support.
Such was the case in 2005 when an Iraqi suicide bomber attacked a wedding in Amman, Jordan, killing dozens and generating a fierce backlash among Jordanians, who referred to the coordinated attacks that day as their country's "9/11." That attack was orchestrated by al Qa'eda in Iraq, an affiliated group that was sometimes at odds with centralised al Qa'eda leadership. "They are allowing their reputation to be used by individuals who may not be vetted or sensitive to the kinds of attacks that really tend to backfire," Mr Brachman said. "Lone wolves are not often as aware of the broader consequences of their actions, so they can pose a serious management challenge if they make bad decisions out in the field."
"The more decentralised, the less control," said Christopher Boucek, a terrorism expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Being more diffuse is more of a challenge." Al Qa'eda has not given up its goal of plotting spectacular 9/11-style attacks, counterterrorism experts say. But the new emphasis on smaller acts of jihad may be a reflection of its diminished capacity.
Joint US and Pakistan counterterrorism efforts have led to the deaths of more than half of the top 20 al Qa'eda leaders, Leon Panetta, the CIA director, said in a recent speech at the University of Oklahoma. In testimony before Congress last month, Mr Panetta cited lone wolf attackers as the "main threat" to the United States. Some of the most devastating recent attacks against the United States have involved small-scale plots. Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al Balawi, a Jordanian physician, killed eight people in December when he detonated a suicide bomb on a CIA outpost in Afghanistan. Even unsuccessful attacks, such as the thwarted Christmas Day bombing of a US-bound passenger jet, are seen as valuable by al Qa'eda for the hysteria and political backlash they cause.
In the recent video, Mr Gadahn points out that the skills and tools needed for a successful attack can be "acquired at home, or indeed, deduced by using one's own powers of logic and reasoning". "A little imagination and planning and a minimal budget can turn almost anything into a deadly, effective and convenient weapon which can take the enemy by surprise and deprive him of sleep for years on end," he says.
Some experts caution that Mr Gadahn's missives do not carry the same heft as directives from al Qa'eda's top leaders, or those of the Yemen-based cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer who has long studied terrorism networks, said Mr Gadahn tends to receive outsize attention in the US media because journalists are infatuated with the unlikely story of his radicalisation.
Mr Gadahn, who comes from a family with Jewish roots, was raised in California and was obsessed with death metal music before converting to Islam in the 1990s. "I don't know of anybody who is actually reading or watching Adam Gadahn, except journalists," Dr Sageman said. Mr Brachman, however, noted that the recent video was released by the official propaganda arm of al Qa'eda, the As-Sahab Media Foundation, which is also the source of audio and video recordings from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
"It's got to be Zawahiri-approved if it comes out on As-Sahab," he said. "This is a really big deal." firstname.lastname@example.org