How does a regional terrorist group get "ties to al-Qaida"?

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July 20 2009 6:43 PM

How Does a Terrorist Group Get "Ties" to Al-Qaida?

Here's one way: Make a video.

Bombed hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. Click image to expand.
Bombed hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia

Friday's dual suicide bombings in Jakarta, Indonesia, are being blamed on a splinter group of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terror group. According to CNN, the organization has "ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network." Last year, Turkish police claimed a man who attacked the U.S. consulate in Turkey had "ties to al-Qaeda," and early reports after the Mumbai, India, bombings implicated Lashkar-e-Taiba, another group suspected of having "ties to al-Qaeda." How does a terrorist group get "ties" to al-Qaida?

By swearing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, seeking help from al-Qaida on Internet message boards, or simply acting like an official member of the terrorist network. Al-Qaida's closest affiliates compose a handful of groups spread throughout Asia and North Africa—al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The leaders of each of these have pledged bayat (an oath of allegiance traditional in Islam) to Bin Laden either in person or via videotape. We don't know the precise operational relationship between these affiliates and the small group of al-Qaida leaders, but they seem to coordinate attacks and exchange strategic advice and money. (Leaders of the affiliate groups occasionally appear in broadcast messages with the al-Qaida bigwigs.) Among the terrorist groups that haven't publicly pledged bayat, the phrase "ties to al-Qaeda" can mean anything from "they received technical guidance from al-Qaeda via a shady network of operatives and sympathizers," to "they share al-Qaeda's violent anti-Western ideology and goal of a global Islamic empire." While former Jemaah Islamiyah operatives are known to have pledged bayat to Osama Bin Laden, there is little evidence that its splinter groups have substantive connections to al-Qaida.

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The sole criterion for acceptance into the al-Qaida network seems to be a desire to attack Westerners. Its affiliate groups tend to begin as local insurgencies with focused objectives and eventually make contact with al-Qaida operatives through Internet message boards or personal connections. Then the group internationalizes its mission, vowing to attack Western targets and establish a global caliphate. Finally, it releases a video in which the group swears allegiance to Bin Laden. The videos usually contain promises to protect Muslims and attack apostates, as well as exhortations to jihad from al-Qaida leaders. Membership does not appear to be competitive: Al-Qaida has never rejected a hopeful insurgent applicant.

News organizations, passing on information from government sources, often refer to "ties" between al-Qaida and groups other than the official affiliates. Some of those might be harboring al-Qaida-trained operatives (although, with the closure of most training camps in Afghanistan, those are a vanishing breed), or they could have gotten financial, strategic, or technical help from al-Qaida in support of a locally grown plot. There are also like-minded terrorists who self-identify as al-Qaida affiliates despite having no contacts inside the group. Finally, investigators might assume the al-Qaida link on the basis of nothing more than a similarity in tactics. (Any group that plans simultaneous suicide attacks against Western targets will probably get the "ties to al-Qaida" claim, even without evidence of consultation or coordination.)

Training camp closures, dried-up financial networks, and a loss of prestige on the Muslim street seem to be undermining al-Qaida's appeal as a franchiser. Earlier this month, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group became the first affiliate organization to depledge, ending its two-year membership in the network. In 2006, al-Qaida in Iraq changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq, in part to de-emphasize its international ties and attract local recruits.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, and Bernard I. Finel of the American Security Project.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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