Who is a card-carrying member of Al-Qaeda? Where can one find applications? Is there a hazing ritual? What is rush like? This piece is quite sharp in considering the complexity of the present day--that AQ labels are applied in ways that may be deceptive. To call AQ a coherent organization is a big mistake. I used to think of it as the Ford Foundation of terrorism--providing grants for projects that match the mission of the funders. Another model is McDonalds-that each branch of terrorists out in the world can have the AQ label as a franchise operation--locally owned, locally run, but some level of coordination with home office, and that the brand means something.
But the reality is that there are folks who are labeled as tied to AQ that are simply not. Either outsiders (like Western governments or the media) have an interest or a simplistic model that leads to application of the AQ label. Or the folks themselves want to tie themselves into a larger movement, whether or not they have any connection with the home office. Or AQ identifies folks as members even though they have no connection just to promote itself.
The relevance of all of this is that it reminds us that fighting terrorism is fighting a tactic, not a movement, not an organization, not something that can be defeated. Terrorist strategies can be countered, their impacts can be minimized (or maximized by overreacting), and so forth. AQ as an organization/network can be and should be attacked, but this will not stop individuals with loose or non-existent ties from being inspired by AQ or just trying to make themselves more important.
Countering terrorism and fighting AQ require multidimensional efforts, heaps of intel to discriminate between bigger and less threats, and some awareness that there may be other things that may be more important, like remaining relatively true to one's values, preserving alliances against other threats, maintaining healthy economies and so forth. Overreacting is playing into the hands of the terrorists, even if it is also good politics in the short run.