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Whatever the full truth, the Soviet-Afghan conflict, directly exacerbated by the CIA, provided bin Laden with a platform. He helped set-up an organisation called Maktab al-Khidamat, which opened offices as far afield as Brooklyn, New York, was used to raise and channel funds for the war in Afghanistan.

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MAK is generally considered a precursor to al-Qaeda, which bin Laden co-founded in four years later, in However, despite a number of Islamist attacks in that decade, including the World Trade Center bombing which killed six people, and the devastating bombings of two US embassies in Africa in , US intelligence agents were wrong-footed by the sheer ruthlessness of the new threat.

Senior bosses simply failed to take the warnings seriously. The level of the involvement of al-Qaeda in various atrocities has often been opaque and ambiguous.

However, it would be foolhardy to write off al-Qaeda as a spent force. And, as recently as September this year, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video calling on potential terrorists to strike Western targets, while a UN report has warned of the possibility of would-be ISIS recruits turning to al-Qaeda instead. Damian Lewis: Spy Wars. Monday 7 October. Damien Lewis: Spy Wars.

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Related articles. Features Escape from Tehran. Features The man who saved the world. What remains is probably a hollow organization, represented by a core of insulated figureheads, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, surrounded by eager cadres of jihadist newcomers. Should it press the trigger? Gut instinct and righteousness scream "yes! The alternative, destroying the terrorist group, would risk fragmenting al Qaeda into thousands of cells, and these will be much harder to follow and impossible to eradicate.

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Understanding this dilemma calls for a bit of network theory. Al Qaeda is a loose group of members who interact much like one does with peers on Twitter or Facebook; as in those platforms, al Qaeda members contact each other in sporadic and irregular bursts. And much like trading networks, the terrorist group is built around exchanges.

The group is beset by high employee turnover, constantly in need of making up for members lost either to Western counter operations or successful suicide missions.

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These central members link with more contacts than either the secluded leadership or the fresh recruits, while bridging the two groups. At the same time, their higher exposure makes them easier to hunt down. Herein lies the danger. Unfortunately, if this middle layer of management goes extinct, so will any hopes of stemming terrorist attacks. It is tempting to draw up an organizational chart of al Qaeda and think that if the important nodes can be identified and destroyed, the rest of the network will follow.

But if al Qaeda is shut down and its middle management decimated, eager fanatics around the globe would no longer gravitate toward a centralized base. Their alternative? To form their own no-name networks and band up with any other al Qaeda survivors. Killing off al Qaeda would do little to reduce Islamist terrorism. It would only make the world of terrorism more chaotic.

All this can be dismissed as fanciful theorizing. But what theory predicts, history confirms. Consider the case of the Aryan Nations AN , a white supremacist movement in the United States which the Federal Bureau of Investigation recognized as a terrorist threat since at least In September, , AN lost its headquarters in Hayden Lake, Idaho, due to a court order, but this did little to eliminate the group.

Instead, it splintered into at least three organizations. Now, he asserted, he and his like-minded colleagues are "much harder to watch. With their compound gone, they fell off the grid. Dismantling a network, then, is often less a dream security fix than a reoccurring nightmare.

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The alternative to destroying al Qaeda is to keep it weak — but alive. The West would need to refrain from attacking all its central parts, choosing to monitor and watch them instead. Al Qaeda would continue to attract Islamist militants into its clustered network, where the fight against terrorism is at least manageable. Assuming the United States and its allies learn more about the network over time, al Qaeda recruits could be shadowed through their training and eventual deployment.

New operatives could then be neutralized once they move "downstream" — away from the network.

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This timing prevents scattering the higher echelons of al Qaeda, while still eliminating the direct security threat. Meanwhile, al Qaeda middle managers must live on, if as an endangered species.