Bin Laden was a symbolic leader, but his death could still devastate al-Qaida.

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May 2 2011 6:23 PM

The Jihad Spaghetti Theory

Al-Qaida is hopelessly complex and decentralized, but losing Osama could still be a major blow.

Also see Chris Wilson's five-part series on how social networking led to the capture of Saddam Hussein.

A propoganda poster of Osama Bin Laden. Click to expand image.
An al-Qaida propaganda poster

There are two competing narratives about how al-Qaida is organized. The first, often repeated today, is that Osama Bin Laden was the living embodiment of the terrorist organization, a man whose charisma and godlike status can never be replaced. When you join al-Qaida, analysts have noted, you don't swear fealty to the organization or to the cause. You swear Bay'ah, an oath of loyalty, to Osama Bin Laden himself. His longtime consigliere Ayman al-Zawahiri will probably take the reins, but that old jihadist magic is gone.

The other version is that al-Qaida is a hydra, and Bin Laden long ago lost direct control of its many heads. Losing the spiritual leader might be a blow to morale in the immediate term, but the virus of Salafist jihadism has long since spread out of control. As the New Yorker's Steve Coll wrote last year, "In its third decade, under severe pressure, [al-Qaida] has evolved into a jihadi version of an Internet-enabled direct-marketing corporation structured like Mary Kay, but with martyrdom in place of pink Cadillacs." (Mary Kay, you may be interested to learn, died in November 2001. Her company lives on.) 

The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Unlike insurgencies that grow out of rogue governments, like the Baathist loyalists who sheltered Saddam Hussein until his capture, al-Qaida is not a traditional network that can be diagrammed and exploited. The interrogator who extracted the information that led the U.S. military to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi once described a map of al-Qaida this way: "Imagine you drop a plate of spaghetti and meatballs on your kitchen floor. That's what al-Qaida looks like organizationally." In other words, it's a tremendous mess, and it's extremely difficult to assess how much Osama Bin Laden's death will disrupt its operations.

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So far, the spaghetti theory has tended to dominate in the long run. We caught Saddam and dismantled the Baathist mafia that organized the insurgency in Iraq, but al-Qaida moved in and took over. So we took out Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, but by that time he had alienated many less radical insurgents and marginalized himself, and the deadly attacks went on anyway. We've killed or captured the No. 3 leader of al-Qaida so many times that I've even heard guys in the Pentagon joke openly about it. At the moment, the story is all about how devastating Bin Laden's death is to the organization. But already the second-day stories are expressing a note of caution. "Bin Laden's Death Doesn't Mean the End of Al Qaeda," the New York Times warns. Reuters cautions that it "may have little practical impact on an increasingly decentralized group that has operated tactically without him for years."

But there are a few reasons to be modestly optimistic that things won't be quite so springy this time. The interrogator who caught Zarqawi, who goes by the pseudonym "Matthew Alexander," told me that, even if the removal of Osama's meatball doesn't disrupt too much of the spaghetti, he predicts al-Qaida's recruitment efforts will be severely diminished. When Zarqawi died,  "it was a sign to the Sunni tribes that Zarqawi was not invincible," Alexander says. Zarqawi's survival up to that point didn't necessarily convince would-be jihadists that they would be protected if they joined up—terrorists get killed all the time—but his ability to elude the United States did suggest that "this organization has Allah's blessing," he says. Before his team located Zarqawi, he recalls, a young boy had told him that he wanted to be Zarqawi when he grew up, because he believed Zarqawi was predestined to win the war.

Killing a mythical figure punctures that illusion and damages al-Qaida's farm team. It also brings some measure of peace to those who have no interest in violence but don't want to back the wrong horse. Even though the United States and its allies quickly defeated the Iraqi armed forces in 2003, it wasn't until Saddam had been apprehended that many Iraqis felt comfortable removing his portrait from the wall. Retired Col. James Hickey, who commanded the 4th Infantry Division brigade that caught Saddam, recalls that across the Tikrit area where he operated, the weeks and months immediately after Saddam's capture were abnormally quiet, save for a few flare-ups immediately after Saddam was detained. Without Saddam, the "Baathists lost control of the insurgency," says retired Lt. Col. Steve Russell, who commanded the battalion that identified many of Saddam's protectors.

Russell, who has since reconstructed that hunt in a memoir, likes to compare the process of gathering information about a network to speeding down a road at 100 mph while trying to read every sign on the shoulder. The reason the mission that included Saddam's detention is still considered a success, even if it couldn't be replicated across the country or sustained once al-Qaida moved in, is that they were able to read enough of those signs at the time to build on every success. Even symbolic leaders leave a power vacuum when they're removed, and the network is most vulnerable when its members are scrambling to rebuild their organizational ties. Killing Osama bin Laden is only the first step in the deadly blow to al-Qaida that so many have declared his death to be. Whether military and intelligence sources can stay on the tail of the middle men left behind will determine which narrative wins in the end.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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