Why al Qaeda isn't dead
May 13th, 2013
10:31 AM ET

Why al Qaeda isn't dead

By Cindy Storer, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Cindy Storer is a 21-year veteran analyst of the CIA who specializes in terrorism and intelligence education. She is currently a lecturer in Intelligence and National Security at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. The views expressed are her own.

Was the Boston Marathon bombing preventable?  Are we actually arming al Qaeda if we give weapons to rebels in Syria? Was al Qaeda responsible for the Benghazi attack, and are they or aren’t they spreading through central Africa?

The answers we are likely to give depend on the stories we tell ourselves. Not the immediate story of who did what in the last few days, but the big stories about how the world works – our mental models.  We all have them, though most of the time we don’t (and probably even shouldn’t) think about them.  For example, most Americans expect that if they obey the laws and are generally good people, the major disruptions in their lives will be rare and not anything they could have prevented – car accidents, cancer, natural disasters, and so on.  For many Americans, however, the world is actually a more dangerous and uncertain place, where one wrong word to the wrong authority can land you in jail, or even get you killed.

But changing our own mental models is hard. When reality changes around us, or if we began our story with a critical flaw that becomes an impediment, we resist changing our story. It’s hard work, it makes us uncomfortable, we can no longer trust ourselves, and we might have to admit that we were wrong.

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Intelligence officers, like all humans, form different mental models of the same phenomenon. Get any five in a room and they may give you five different stories about what causes radicalization, how easy it is to make a bomb from directions on the Internet, or what relationship two groups have with each other.  This is especially true if key pieces of information are missing and we have to fill in the gaps with what we think we know about how things work.  It’s like a computer program that fills in the background of a fuzzy picture.

Our internal models then inform how we connect the dots.  When the whole page is black, we choose which “dots” to focus on, and where to place them in the story.  You can literally connect just about anything, so we choose what makes sense in the light of our pre-existing mental models, the quality of the information, and a dozen other factors. This is the crux of the disagreements between the intelligence community and the Bush administration. We were operating on the basis of two completely different models of how the world works.

So what stories do we tell about Boston, and Syria, and Africa?

It is popular these days to pronounce al Qaeda dead; no more than an ideology that is spreading with little connective tissue between groups around the world. My mental model tells me otherwise. I see a group that has been declared dead three times, but each time adapted and rose from the ashes. I see continuities as well as discontinuities, strong relationships as well as infighting, a constant trend towards joining al Qaeda, not leaving it.

Al Qaeda has always worked on multiple tracks, so attacks like Boston are not necessarily a sign that al Qaeda is weak and its ideology is doing no more than inspiring non-professionals. The group is inspiring non-professionals, true, but it is also supporting groups that eventually formally join them, sending leaders out to gain better control of those groups, and planning their own, larger attacks – witness the cell just wrapped up in Canada for allegedly plotting to blow up trains. At the same time, they are wearing out their welcome in some parts of the world. This story is complex.

In time, we will know more about what led to the attack in Boston. But what we believe and what lessons we draw will to some extent be based on the story we already hold in our heads.

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Topics: Terrorism

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Cindy is a CIA analyst the same as a CIA plant? Everybody knows now that Al Quaida was created by you guys. And when are you coming to clean that there was a live drill going on in Boston at the same time as a bomb went off. Why are we supposed to believe that the secret services are working in our interest when they lie about everything, 'fail to prevent' attacks and are seemingly above the law?

    May 13, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • wjmccartan

      Thank you, matslats. I couldn't have said it better!

      May 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • wjmccartan

        The fact that neither of you addresses the actual article means you can be left out of the intelligent part of the conversation. That goes double for you Joseph McCarthy

        May 14, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
  2. hehe

    hehe 😀

    May 13, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  3. Clarence


    May 13, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  4. Hahahahahahahaha

    I guess Towel Heads like to wear dresses? Hahahahahhahha

    May 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  5. Quigley

    The main reason Al Qaeda isn't dead is because of the burning resentment of the Western occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq plus the meddling of the U.S. in the affairs of other countries over there. Moreover, they resent having the West trying to replace Islam with big business Capitalism.

    May 13, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Al Qaeda is not dead, but it isn't as it was before the 9/11 attacks. Since the US waged war on terrorism, senior members had been eliminated in the course of time. Today al Qaeda's strength is mainly felt in North Africa, across the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, attracting members from Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Senegal as well as from within Mali, in alliance with other Islamists. Their agenda is local. The same agenda have the lone wolves in the West, radicalised on the internet. Their targets are also local.

    May 14, 2013 at 7:31 am |
    • wjmccartan

      In fact j. von hettlingen, Al Qaeda never had the finances nor the sophistication to pull off 9/11 on their own! It was made out to be more of a bogeyman than it actually was by the right-wing news media to further frighten the public!

      May 14, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
      • wjmccartan

        The fact that you can't use your own name speaks volumes about what you have to say, and because your kinda slow Joseph McCarthay, that means its worthless.

        May 14, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
  7. Tuula

    Very insightful. Thank you!

    May 15, 2013 at 5:43 am |
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