The Big Question: Is al-Qa'ida really cash-strapped, and is the threat it poses diminishing?

Why are we asking this now?

The US Treasury says that al-Qa'ida is facing a financial crisis which is weakening it. It claims that the group is making appeals for funds and is saying that lack of money is hurting its training and recruitment.

The Treasury contrasts al-Qa'ida's problems with the robust financial health of the Taliban. It has also been several years since there has been a spectacular attack on a western target by the group along the lines of 9/11 or the bombings of trains in Spain in March 2004 or the London transport system in July 2005. This may mean that the vastly expensive and pervasive security measures introduced since 9/11 have had some impact. It appears that al-Qa'ida is not the force it once claimed to be in Iraq or at an earlier stage in Afghanistan.

Is al-Qa'ida weaker than it used to be?

Yes, it is, but then it was never as strong as President Bush and Tony Blair declared after 9/11. In the minds of many in the West it was a coherent and tightly-knit organisation of fanatics, armed to the teeth and with hundreds of bases in the Afghan/Pakistan border region. In fact there were a dozen militants around Osama bin Laden who had concentrated another hundred or so men capable of providing the expertise for attacks on Western and other targets. Many of these had fought previously in Afghanistan against the Soviets as well as in Bosnia and possibly Chechnya.

It was never a big organisation and its strongest card was its ideology of militant resistance to the West and to allied Muslim governments at a time when both were becoming more and more unpopular across the Islamic world. At times al-Qa'ida was reduced to hiring local Afghan tribesmen at a daily rate to appear in its propaganda videos showing its militants in training.

Does it have less support now than at the time of 9/11?

It has been under constant pressure from western and local security forces. It has always been less of an organisation than a series of franchises in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere in which local groups call themselves al-Qa'ida and owe it nominal allegiance. But these groups do not answer to a central leader and their success and failure depends very much on local conditions.

Does that mean the world is safer from attacks by al-Qa'ida?

Not really. Many conspiracies attributed to al-Qa'ida develop among a small group of locally based fundamentalists. It may not matter to them what al-Qa'ida does or the extent of its organisational strength or lack of it. Some money is required, but not much.

The degree of provocation felt by the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world also matters if al-Qa'ida is to win the support of a small minority. Anger was high after the occupation of Iraq; this lessened after the US said it would withdraw and Barack Obama was elected president. An escalation of the US war in Afghanistan may once again lead to more backing for al-Qa'ida-style attacks. But this would probably happen regardless of the fate of the al-Qa'ida organisation.

What happened to al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq?

In all three countries the sort of massive suicide bombing which used to be the trademark of al-Qa'ida is now used by other organisations. Even if it languishes, its Jihadi ideology has been disseminated among militants.

What are its weaknesses?

Al-Qa'ida and kindred organisations tend to overplay their hands. They have the advantage of a core of committed fighters. But their fundamentalist ideology is often parasitic on national and social discontents. Attempts to impose fundamentalist and sometime barbaric religious norms may lead to a reaction against the Jihadis. This happened in Chechnya in the second war against Russia starting in 1999. Religious militants, the Wahabi, were ferocious fighters but also alienated many Chechens.

In Iraq, al-Qa'ida, always rooted in the Sunni community, provoked bloody retaliation by the Shia majority. Insurgent Sunni leaders who had brought the group into Iraq switched sides and allied themselves with the Americans. The limited appeal of their fundamentalist brand of Islam was obvious. In Pakistan initial support for local Taliban in the Swat valley was likewise eroded by brutal enforcement of their beliefs.

So are British troops in Afghanistan there to defend the UK from al-Qa'ida attack, as Gordon Brown says?

No, we are there because the priority of British foreign policy is to stick close to the Americans. The Americans are still trying to work out why they are there, but President Obama is also citing the need to deny al-Qa'ida a base. Undermining this argument is the fact that al-Qa'ida and similar groups are primarily located in Pakistan these days and there they can tap into support from fundamentalist groups not just in the borderlands, but far to the east and south in Lahore and Karachi.

Has al-Qa'ida failed?

On the contrary, an aim of 9/11 and other attacks was to lure the US and its allies, essentially Britain, into an over-reaction and a direct occupation of Muslim counties. This would enable the Jihadis to mobilise support and fight the infidels directly. Television screens across the Islamic world would be filled with the sight of burning Humvees. The confrontation al-Qa'ida wanted to bring about has happened. 9/11 was essentially a trap into which President Bush and Tony Blair promptly jumped. The interrogation of would-be suicide bombers in Iraq shows that their prime motivation is not Islamic fervour but anger over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Will al-Qa'ida rise again?

Possibly not, but its formula for political and religious action is likely to live on. The Taliban in Afghanistan now distance themselves from the group, but their actions increasingly mirror those of Osama bin Laden's followers.

Could it mutate into something different?

Some Islamic militants see Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza as showing the way forward rather than al-Qa'ida. In both cases there is a militant core, but it is one that reaches out to a wider constituency. The unpopularity of existing governments across the Arab world – and most of the Muslim world – is even greater than it was a decade ago. The departure of President Bush meant that the demonic enemy whom it was so easy for al-Qa'ida to rally support against was no longer there. This was bad news for al-Qa'ida, but its leaders must be relieved to see the US committing itself to a wider war in Afghanistan.

So has al-Qa'ida had its day?


* That the organisation is on the run is clear from the lack of any big attacks recently.

* Western security measures have worked, and the bombers can no longer get through.

* Its presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq is much weaker than a few years ago.


* Suicide bombings are still easy to organise and could happen at any time.

* As the IRA showed when bombing the City of London, security can never be 100 per cent effective.

* The group is more of a franchise than an organisation and may re-emerge anywhere.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate / Junior C# Developer

£18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Drama Teacher Required! The jobWe are ...

Nursery Worker

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Worker (permanent) Greater ...

English Teacher - long term assignment in Cheshire

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: English Teacher - long term job opport...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits