Discovering bin-Laden’s Replacement in al-Qaeda, using Social Network Analysis: A Methodological Investigation

Discovering bin-Laden’s Replacement in al-Qaeda, using Social Network Analysis: A Methodological Investigation

by Edith Wu, Rebecca Carleton, and Garth Davies


The removal of Osama bin-Laden created a leadership void within al-Qaeda. Despite the group’s autonomous cell structure, an authorative figure remains essential for promoting and disseminating al-Qaeda’s ideology. An appropriate replacement should exhibit traits comparable to bin-Laden and have similar positioning within the structure of the group. Using a media-based sample and social network analysis, this study attempts to uncover the most probable successor for bin-Laden by examining the dynamics within al-Qaeda. The results indicate how the differential embeddedness of al-Qaeda members affects social capital, which in turn provides insights for leadership potiential.

Keywords: social network, Al-Qaeda, leadership, methodology


Following the death of Osama bin-Laden in May 2011, speculation immediately turned to the future of al-Qaeda. What would bin-Laden’s death mean for the group he founded? Unsurprisingly, opinions varied. However, analyses tended to posit that al-Qaeda would survive bin-Laden’s demise, in one form or another. Even before bin-Laden’s death, al-Qaeda’s core was already considerably weaker than it was on September 11th. Owing to the success of counter-terrorist strategies, particularly the CIA’s drone strike program, the core of al-Qaeda has been further diminished; it is unlikely that it has the capacity to perpetrate complex, large-scale attacks in the West.[1] Instead, al-Qaeda has “transformed into a diffuse global network and philosophical movement.”[2] Operations are now more the purview of the various organisations affiliated with al-Qaeda, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Shebaab.[3] If al-Qaeda core proves incapable of maintaining its “single-minded focus on its ideology,” it is possible that it could dissolve into a number of localized movements.[4] However, its more decentralized, diffuse structure may also allow al-Qaeda to continue to exist as an ideological catalyst. As evidenced by the appellations of various affiliates, the al-Qaeda brand still has cachet, particularly in relation to the global Islamist movement.

There is no doubt that bin-Laden was a formidable leader, unique in his ability to raise money, inspire recruits, and speak for the Islamist cause with authority. Yet he was not indispensible. For years prior to his death, he had been to a considerable extent cut off from the outside world, unable to engage in operations in any practical way; still, al-Qaeda persisted. There are numerous instances where the death or incapacitation of a charismatic leader has decimated a group. The Shining Path, for example, nearly collapsed with the arrest of its architect, Abimael Guzman, in 1992.[5] More generally, the targeting of extremist leaders, or decapitation, can be an effective element of counterinsurgency campaigns.[6] But the loss of a standard-bearer, even one with the mystique of bin-Laden, need not prove fatal for a movement. Several studies have concluded that decapitation is ineffectual, and may even be counterproductive.[7] Jordan argues that large, older movements rooted in religion are the least susceptible to destabilization via the decapitation strategy.[8] In other words, al-Qaeda is precisely the type of group that might be expected to survive the loss of its leader.

Inextricably linked to the question of group perseverance is the issue of leadership. The social dynamics of terrorist organisations are rarely studied,[9] and few studies have explored the question of replacement. This study proposes to identify the most suitable candidate to replace bin-Laden, based on social network analysis (SNA). It assumes that bin-Laden occupies a unique position within al-Qaeda’s network and uses SNA to try to better understand that position. It further presumes that the best successor would be the individual that is most like bin-Laden, in terms of his structural characteristics. Of course, this analysis was not conducted in a vacuum. With bin-Laden in seclusion, Ayman al-Zawahiri had been directing al-Qaeda for years. It was presumed that he would succeed bin-Laden.[10] Yet al-Zawahiri is a divisive and polarizing figure, and it is unclear whether he will be able to hold together al-Qaeda’s various factions.[11] By including an evaluation of al-Zawarhiri’s qualities, this analysis further assesses the utility of SNA in the prediction of leadership replacement.

 Conceptual Framework

Social capital is the ability to harness resources within an individual’s social network to effect change.[12] Importantly, social capital is more than who you know; rather, it is derived from the cumulative resources that can be accessed through your immediate connections. Conceptually, social capital has both a tangible element (entity) and an intangible component (process): “as an entity, social capital originates in interactions within relationships, and as a process, it is mobilized by individuals or collectives in the pursuit of valued outcomes”.[13] Social capital exists in all networks, both legal and illegal. Regardless of whether the network is criminal or not, “social capital is not the private property of the individuals who benefit from it, but it is a consequence of particular relationships; thus, it is not easily transferred or exchanged”.[14]

The development of social capital is dependent upon the characteristics of the relationships between individuals within a network. As McCarthy, Hagan, and Martin note:

These [characteristics] include the type of relationship (e.g., family and kin versus others), its closeness or intimacy (e.g., strong versus weak ties), its durability (e.g., long versus short term relationships), the status differences between the people involved (e.g., associations with others from more prestigious occupations), and the location of the relationship and the participants’ larger networks (e.g., creating a link between two distinct networks).[15]

Owing to their secretive nature, understanding social capital within illicit networks has proved more difficult than understanding social capital within legitimate networks.[16] Because the actors deliberately try to conceal the structure of their organisations, it is hard to understand the configuration of these illegal groups. Koschade contends that the objective of social network analysis research is to discern individual behaviours through an understanding of group dynamics.[17] In other words, illicit network analysis understands people through their relationships in terms of: the type of relation; closeness; durability; status differences; and location within the network.

Research demonstrates that the configuration of illegal organisations resembles a spider web.[18] Morselli suggests that such a structure presents flexibility, affording criminal networks the ability to adapt to situations in a more fluid manner than those offered by rigid hierarchies.[19] Because network positioning can change,[20] the focus then shifts to the relationships between the actors. The ties and associations within a network may provide a better explanation for the management and function of these criminal entities. As van der Hulst states, “social ties and connections are to a large extent crucial determinants for the performance, sustainability and success of both criminal and terrorist organisations.”[21] Accordingly, social network analysis will be used to expose the terror network. With the removal of Osama bin-Laden, the primary objective is to assess the most likely subsequent successor within al-Qaeda.



A purposive sampling [22] technique is used to gather the data for the current analysis. The sample originates from a website which contains information about known al-Qaeda members and associates along with terrorist activities within the Middle Eastern region.[23] Although this non-random technique does not allow for generalization to a larger population, the sample provides an opportunity to explore the characteristics of known al-Qaeda members and is appropriate to answer the question of interest. Data are supplemented through additional sources, including websites, newspapers, media sources (e.g. Reuter’s database), and government reports. The final network of high-profile individuals (n=54) is the result of a selection process which includes those who have strong associations with the initial sample, and excludes those who have

no additional evidence to illustrate a connection to al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations.

The vast majority (75.9%) are of Middle-Eastern origin (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen). A lesser portion (29.6%) are associated with the Northern African region (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Sudan), and some actors hold multiple nationalities (16.7%; see Table 1).

All of the individuals are male, and the majority of the sample members are between the ages of 26 and 55 (65%), with the overall mean age of 42. At the time of this study, and based on the known status of these individuals, 17 (31.5%) are at large, 15 (27.8%) have been captured and detained, while 22 (40.7%) are deceased. Those who are deceased and captured (68.5%) are retained in the sample. While they cannot become bin-Laden’s replacement, their relational ties remain pertinent to the overall structure of the organisation. Though physically removed from al-Qaeda, their embeddedness within the network has implications for social capital and possible connections among the individuals currently active within the organisation. In the sample, each member’s relationship to bin-Laden is identified as either i) family (5.6%), ii) close friend (14.8%), or iii) professional associate (5.6%). As these ties are not mutually exclusive, the strongest relationship is recorded.[24]

Given the covert nature of al-Qaeda, the exact involvement of each member is difficult to determine; therefore, data are included only if they can be corroborated. The majority of the sample (n=54) are recognized al-Qaeda members (74.1%). A small number participated in the Afghanistan-Soviet War (14.8%), and one-third have affiliations with other terrorist organisations, such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Table 2).

An assessment of the roles within the network reveals a range of designations. A large portion of the members are involved with operations (29.6%; planners and leaders) and the military department (22.2%; trainers and researchers). Public relations and politics are merged because al-Qaeda’s ideological propaganda is primarily informed by politicians (11.1%) and theologians (9.3%). About 11.1% of the sample can be considered senior al-Qaeda members, while an additional 7.4% are designated as assistants. Though not official members, financiers share a common role within al-Qaeda (11.1%). As the sample is inevitably incomplete, the liaisons of the organisation (3.7%) may receive less emphasis than deserved. Finally, given the restricted knowledge regarding covert networks, it is not surprising that the role of 14 individuals (25.9%) remains unknown.

Although a large portion of the sample have no known ties to terrorist incidents (46.3%), the majority of participants have engaged in a terrorist attack, including: the September 11 attacks (25.9%), the USS Cole bombing (9.3%), the 1993 World Trade Center assault (7.4%), the Bojinka Plot (5.6%), the decapitation of journalist Daniel Pearl (3.7%), as well as the assassination of U.S. diplomat, Laurence Foley (3.7%). Other events were not taken into consideration because they lacked relevant connections among other actors in the sample network.

 Analytical Technique – Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis is useful because it is capable of revealing group dynamics, patterns, and the collective actions of organisations. Researchers suggest that network analysis complements conventional approaches through its insights into terrorist organisations and their internal processes.[25] SNA views terrorist networks as social structures, with particular emphasis on the relations among network actors. This is especially useful in examining affiliate networks. SNA investigates multiple levels of analysis simultaneously.[26] That is, SNA assesses how actors are embedded and the manner in which structures emerge from micro-relations via nodes (actors) and links (associations).[27] Given that this research is both exploratory and predictive, traditional centrality measures are supplemented with a core/periphery analysis and an evaluation of similarity measures.

Al-Qaeda’s composition and structure are examined through centrality measures. Centrality is useful for the analysis of criminal networks as it identifies key players within a group.[28] These measures highlight the structural importance of a node’s embeddedness in a network.[29] Three common types of network centrality are used for the current work.[30] Degree centrality corresponds to the number of direct contacts, or ties.[31] It is a measure of quantity and in this context may be understood as connectedness. Those with high connectedness are in an advantageous position to access information due to the greater number of connections they have to others within the network. Betweenness indicates a position of brokerage. These liaisons control the flow of information and broker resources based on collective, as well as personal, interests.[32] Lastly, eigenvalue centrality indicates how strategically connected an individual is to “key players”.[33] This is a measure of importance and is arguably the strongest indicator of influence. Important players are able to reach a larger portion of a network with less effort than those with diminished eigenvalue centrality.

Core/periphery analysis is used to partition the network into two distinct categories, a dense cluster (core) and more loosely connected affiliates (periphery). This technique allows for an assessment of patterns of ties.[34] Finally, similarity measures, which examine comparable relationships based on binary relations, are used to identify possible candidates. This analysis compares the relational profiles of dyadic nodes, recording the number of times, or occurrences, where alters share a tie with an ego. An ego, according to Granovetter, is an arbitrarily selected individual.[35] Around each ego, there may be close friends and a collection of acquaintances, which are referred to as alters. For example, if A knows B (AB) and C (AC) then the alters, B and C, both have the same tie to the ego, A (AB º AC). The result is expressed as a percentage: that is, the number of nodes in common divided by the total number of possible connections.

Results and Discussion

The data are dichotomised and incorporate affiliations, missions, associations, roles and specialisations, nationality, and participation in wars. The sample al-Qaeda terrorist network is illustrated in Figure 1. Osama bin-Laden is highly linked with other members and is embedded within the cluster. In contrast, Yasser Fathi Ibraheem, Obaidullah, and Salem Sa’ed Salem bin-Suweid are the most isolated individuals, with fewer than three associations each. The nodes are positioned relative to one another using spring embedding,[36] where the proximity of actors indicates similar patterns of contacts. Several patterns are readily identifiable; most notably the large off-centered cluster of participants. This dense interconnectivity may be attributable to al-Qaeda members (74%), while associated nodes are on the fringe of the network.

Figure 1: al-Qaeda Terrorist Network, members and links between members

In terrorist networks, high degree centrality, or connectedness, may identify influential actors who are most at risk of detection by law enforcement due to redundant ties. The centrality measures for individual network members shown in Table 4 reveal a notable amount of variability. At the lowest end of the continuum, Salem Sa'ed Salem in-Suweid is only connected to two actors (3.7%). Conversely, Said Bahaji is linked with 48 others (88.9%). The relative differences in connectedness offer varying advantages and disadvantages. Bahaji is the most able to significantly influence the network, but he also has the greatest exposure and so is most vulnerable to detection.[37] On the other hand, bin-Suweid is least susceptible to detection, but he is also the most isolated and therefore the least able to exert leverage.

Extending beyond direct ties, betweenness centrality reveals liaison or gatekeeper positions. Liaisons act as bridges between members and control the flow of information. The six individuals that have betweenness scores of 0 are heavily reliant on brokers to gain access to information. Brokers facilitate the transmission of ideas between actors who would otherwise be disconnected. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi holds the highest brokerage; however, his high degree centrality indicates an abundance of redundant ties and mitigates his brokerage position. In other words, although he appears to be in a optimal liaison position, his removal would be inconsequential. Ahmad Fadeel Nazal al-Khalayle may be a more efficient liaison; he has the second highest betweenness score, but he has fewer connections than al-Libi.

Eigenvector centrality reveals which actors are associated with other well-connected members of the network. Among the 15 lowest ranked actors, 14 are not al-Qaeda members and are situated on the edge of the network. This confirms that the important individuals are those within the cluster. Abu Salah al-Yemeni and Said Bahaji share the highest score, while Salem Sa'ed Salem bin-Suweid has the lowest. Al-Yemeni and Bahaji are thus the most central and important figures in the network, as depicted in Figure 1.

Bahaji consistently scores high in centrality measures, ranking no lower than third in all three categories. Conversely, bin-Suweid has the lowest score in two of the three centralities (degree and eigenvector). To the extent that overall strength is indicated by high centrality measure scores across all three domains, the ranks suggest that Bahaji has considerably more strength within the network than bin-Suweid. Stronger terrorist members have more freedom, control, and leverage; however, their redundant ties affect brokerage. Actors with fewer connections, on the other hand, have more security, but also limited avenues and restricted access to information and resources. These centrality measures illustrate the variation in the levels of independence, opportunity, and influence within the sample network.

According to the centrality measures, there are several potential candidates to replace bin-Laden. Tawfiq Attash Khallad’s rank is most comparable to bin-Laden in terms of importance; however, he was captured in 2003 and is currently detained in a CIA black site located in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.[38] In terms of connectedness, Nawaf Muhammed Salim al-Hazmi, Midhat Mursi, and Abu Mohammad al-Masri have equivalent rankings to bin-Laden, but none of the three are viable replacements. Two are deceased: Al-Hazmi hijacked the American Airlines Flight 77, which struck the Pentagon on September 11th;[39] Mursi was a chemist and weapons researcher who was killed in Pakistan by a drone attack in 2008.[40] The third, Al-Masri, is currently being pursued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with a five-million-dollar bounty for an attack in 1998.[41] Bin-Laden’s liaison status, on the other hand, is not equivalent to any other in the sample. The terrorists who have the closest ranks are Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Salah al-Yemeni. Mohammed is associated with a number of terrorist events (including the Bojinka plot, Daniel Pearl assassination, September 11th, and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993). He was captured in 2003 and also being held in a CIA black site.[42] Al-Yemeni, a logistics specialist and terrorist operations facilitator, was killed in Khost in 2002.[43]

From this assessment, one individual is at large and would appear to be capable of filling the leadership void. Al-Masri’s similar connectedness to bin-Laden alone, however, is insufficient. Connectedness only considers the absolute number of ties, regardless of quality. By itself, it is a weak predictor of leadership potential. Ideally, the member to replace bin-Laden would have comparable centrality measures in all three domains. To further explore the research question, it is necessary to examine the patterns of connections within the network via a core/periphery analysis and evaluate the types of ties between actors.

The assessment of the embeddedness of nodes within the larger structure was further explored with core/periphery analysis. As expected, Figure 2 depicts a core (n=40) consisting of individuals presumed to be in al-Qaeda, and a periphery (n=14) containing the remainder of the sample.[44] It has been suggested that due to the secrecy involved with criminal networks, such organisations would prove most successful if decentralized.[45] A decentralized group has no distinct clusters. In contrast, a centralized network “is divided into a small core ("ringleaders") and a large periphery.”[46] This type of structure is characterized by a concentrated group, where members are densely interconnected. Their peripheral counterparts have fewer associations and accordingly, these networks position leaders on the periphery to evade detection.[47] By this logic, bin-Laden would have been expected to be in the peripheral section of the network to avoid exposure. This is not the case with the current sample.[48]

Figure 2: al-Qaeda Terrorist Network Core/Periphery, core indicated

Morselli, Giguère, and Petit argue that “[t]errorist networks lack a core, whereas criminal enterprise networks, such as drug trafficking operations, are built outward from a core.”[49] The addition of members to an organisation, with the intent of insulating the core from detection, produces a sparse network. This does not hold true in the present study of al-Qaeda, however, as a distinct core emerges from the analysis. Moreover, contrary to expectation, bin-Laden is within the core. Although speculative, these results appear to point to structural differences between economically-based criminal enterprises and terrorist movements. Increasingly, al-Qaeda’s primary contributions to global terrorism have involved the dispersion of ideology and the provision of inspiration. These tasks are best accomplished by individuals with some type of relative standing within the movement. Presumably, prominence and standing are attributes vested in core membership.

Whereas the use of centrality measures helped identify each node’s positioning, core/periphery modeling helped narrow the range of possible leadership candidates. What remains unknown is the potential replacement’s ability to harness network resources as a function of network positioning. Similarity measures are concerned with direct relationships rather than positional embeddedness. An evaluation of bin-Laden’s comparable ties demonstrates that both Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Mafouz Ould Walid [50] share 83.5% of the same contacts as bin-Laden. Figure 3 illustrates the relationships relevant to bin-Laden. Having similar contacts to bin-Laden suggests that al-Nashiri and Walid have comparable abilities to harness social capital. Because social capital is derived from the cumulative resources that can be accessed through their immediate connections, those individuals identified as having similar connections to bin-Laden would share 83.5% of the same potential resources.

Figure 3: al-Qaeda Terrorist Network, similarities


Given that al-Nashiri and Walid are essentially indistinguishable in terms of their similarity measures, supplemental considerations are necessary to determine who is the more likely successor. A native of Saudi Arabia, al-Nashiri was in charge of the terrorist operations in the Persian Gulf, a Taliban affiliate, the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, and a participant of the French tanker attack in 2002.[51] The other candidate, Walid, is also a terrorist operations leader, as well as senior leader, respected Islamic theologian, scholar, and a close friend of bin-Laden and al-Zawahiri.[52] In the aftermath of September 11th, the Pentagon listed him as one of bin-Laden’s top aides.[53] Aside from his known participation in illicit ventures, Walid is associated with the Institute of Islamic studies in Afghanistan and the el-Hijra Construction.[54] Given their characteristics, both in terms of network measures (social capital) and personal attributes (human capital), the two appear to be fairly well matched. Though seemingly an appropriate successor, the 47-year-old al-Nashiri was captured in 2002 and is detained in a CIA black site; he is thus not in a position to assume bin-Laden’s role in the al-Qaeda network. This leaves Walid as the most probable replacement.

Based on similarity comparisons and the exclusion of improbable candidates, the 37-year-old Walid emerges as the presumptive leadership candidate. However, there are three reasons to be cautious of this conclusion: 1) Walid’s ambiguous role within al-Qaeda; 2) his inconsistent application of the Islamic faith to the organisation; and 3) advancement within al-Qaeda may be based on a hierarchical or a chain-of-command structure. To lead a group, criminal or otherwise, the individual must be a member of the organisation. According to the United Nations,[55] Walid has been listed as an associate of al-Qaeda since October 6, 2001.[56] His status was last amended in 2011. Some media reports, however, indicate that Walid may have disassociated himself from Islamic radicals and al-Qaeda.[57] As well, he was under house arrest in Iran between 2002 and 2012. There is some question, then, as to whether Walid considers himself to be part of al-Qaeda.

Since a key function of terrorist organisations is the promotion and dissemination of a particular ideology, the leader should promote a consistent dogma. Walid has made dissonant pronouncements. Prior to the September 11th attacks, Walid was one of three al-Qaeda seniors to oppose the assault, only to defend and justify it months later. He was known to try to persuade bin-Laden to desist from large-scale attacks against the United States, yet he has also made peculiar statements that indicate otherwise.[58] In a televised al-Jazeera interview, shortly after September 11th, Walid announced that

We [al-Qaeda] are not responsible for this act and therefore we are not responsible for [issuing] religious explanations for it … However, many clerics … have proved that if this act was carried out by mujahedeen Muslims, then it was an unblemished act of jihad.[59]

Despite claiming to oppose the September 11th attacks, as it involved civilians, Walid publicly praised the attack but denied the organisation’s involvement soon after.[60] Inconsistencies such as this would make it unlikely that al-Qaeda would embrace Walid’s leadership.

Although hierarchical structures are rarely found within other criminal networks,[61] it is possible that they are more salient for terrorist organisations. With hierarchies comes an increased likelihood of advancement based on seniority or rank. The difference between al-Zawahiri and Walid can be attributed to the nature of leadership; that is, to an emphasis on personal attributes and the context, in addition to an individual’s connections. Media accounts of al-Zawahiri’s succession of bin-Laden refer to al-Qaeda’s official statements and discuss this transfer of command as a logical default.[62] Al-Zawahiri is the former second in command, head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad,[63] advisor, and personal physician of Osama bin-Laden.[64] Furthermore, his role as al-Qaeda’s public relations officer has intensified since the September 11th attacks. In 2008, he stated that Muslims should

attack the interests of the Jews and the Americans. Select your targets, collect the appropriate funds, assemble your equipment, plan accurately and then charge towards your targets. There is no place today for those who claim that the battlefield with the Jews is limited to Palestine. Let us hit their interests everywhere.[65]

Following bin-Laden’s assassination in June of 2011, al-Zawahiri issued the following declaration:

We must continue on [bin-Laden's] path of jihad to expel the invaders from the land of Muslims and to purify it from injustice. The man who terrified America in his life will continue to terrify it after his death. You will continue to be troubled by his famous vow: You shall not dream of security until we enjoy it and until you depart the Muslims' lands. America is not facing an individual or a group, but a rebelling nation, which has awoken from its sleep in a jihadist renaissance.[66]

These assertions reveal al-Zawahiri’s stance within al-Qaeda and are indicative of statements that would be made by somebody acting in a leadership capacity.

In comparison to Walid, who is currently being monitored after renouncing his ties with al-Qaeda,[67] al-Zawahiri is the spokesman and maintains the most prominent position within the terrorist organisation.[68] Though centrality measures suggest that Walid is the most apt replacement for bin-Laden, it is evident that leadership has a qualitative dimension that is not completely captured by numerical results. The analysis of networks is, however, inherently linked to the qualities of the relationships between nodes to greater or lesser degrees. In the case of al-Qaeda, historical considerations and the specifics of interpersonal relationships figured more prominently than did the metrics captured by SNA.

Given that there is support for the al-Qaeda network within other countries, such as Somalia; [69] future research could extend the sample to include a larger global distribution of al-Qaeda supporters. This would be particularly advantageous in understanding the geographical links within the network structure. Because the identified network excluded a number of possible network members, future research should be directed to building an even larger and accordingly more comprehensive data set. This would allow for both the re-testing of the current results and exploration of the characteristics of a larger structure. While the present analysis did not identify the correct new al-Qaeda leader, this research does highlight some of the advantages to using social network analysis for understanding terrorist organisations. In particular, the analysis was able to identify two likely candidates which could have implications for law enforcement in terms of directing scarce resources to focus upon far fewer likely offenders. That is, a social network analysis approach lets us narrow down the pool of possibilities for network disruption practices.


Whether law-abiding, criminal, or terrorist, social networks are goal-oriented, and structural positioning within the network indicates a particular role. While non-terrorist networks could require the dissemination of a shared ideology, terrorist networks differ from other illicit networks in that the goal is not economic “but the destabilization of political, constitutional, economic or social structures.”[70] Accordingly, terrorist network structures place a particular demand upon a leader in that the positioning of a leader must be central enough to allow for the dissemination of influence and ideology. Social network analysis is useful for understanding the relations between actors within a network, but it also provides a tool with which the positioning of a leader can be systematically measured for the assessment of similarities in terms of the roles prescribed to individuals within the network.

The death of bin-Laden created a gap within the al-Qaeda network that required a replacement. While existing research into economically motivated criminal networks suggests that a leader would ideally be positioned on the periphery of such a network and thereby avoid detection, others have suggested that a terrorist network would not have a core at all. This did not appear to be the case for bin-Laden. Not only was a core group of network positions evident but the past leader was positioned within the core. Given the requirement that a terrorist leader occupy a central position to dissiminate ideology, and given bin-Laden occupied such a position, it was hypothesized that any replacement would share a similar position and thus be able to act as a successor.

Several candidates were identified for purposes of succession. The ability to harness resources by virtue of a network position (social capital) was considered an important characteristic for the identification of a successor. However, an assessment of an actor’s social capital cannot be divorced from an assessment of the actors human capital. Human capital results from an appropriate “fit [between] the right people with the necessary competencies, skills and expertise into the right jobs in order to optimize overall performance.”[71] While SNA provided an indication of the possible candidates, or narrowed down the list, an assessment of human capital was useful in supplementing this insight.

Acknowledgments. The authors thank Cristina Pastia for her research assistance, as well as Dr. Sheri Fabian and Dr. Gail Anderson for their feedback on previous drafts of the paper.

About the Authors: Edith Wu is currently an M.A. student at Simon Fraser University. Rebecca Carleton is a Ph.D. Candidate at Simon Fraser University. Her research interests include rural and urban crime; she is particularly interested in innovative uses of quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as social network analysis. Garth Davies is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. His primary field of study is advanced statistical analysis. He is currently collaborating on the development of the Terrorism and Extremism Network Extractor (TENE), a web-crawler designed to investigate extremist activities on the internet. He is also interested in the policing of disorderly crowds and the intersecting issues of immigration, segregation, and crime.


[1] James Clapper. (2013). Worldwide threat assessment of the US intelligence committee. Testimony delivered to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligenceon April 11, 2013.

[2] John Rollins. (2011). Al Qaeda and affiliates: Historical perspectives, global presence, and implications for US policy. Report prepared for Congressional Research Service.

[3] Daniel Byman. (2012). Breaking the bonds between Al-Qa’ida and its affiliate organization. The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings: Washington, DC.

[4] Brian Jenkins. (2012). Al Qaeda in its third decade: Irreversible decline or imminent victory. Rand Corporation: Santa Monica, CA.

[5] Leonard Weinberg. (2012). The end of terrorism? Routledge: London.

[6] Patrick Johnson. (2012). Does decapitation work?: Assessing the effectiveness of leadership targeting in counterinsurgency campaigns. International Security, 36(4), pp. 47-79.

[7] Audrey Cronin. (2006). How al-Qaida ends: The decline and demise of terrorist groups. International Security, 31(1), pp. 7-48; Aaron Mannes. (2008). Testing the snake head strategy: Does killing or capturing its leaders reduce a terrorist group’s activity? The Journal of International Policy Solutions, 9, pp. 40-49; Bryan Price. (2012). Targeting top terrorists: How leadership decapitation contributes to counterterrorism. International Security, 36(4), pp. 9-46.

[8] Jenna Jordan. (2009). When heads roll: Assessing the effectiveness of leadership decapitation. Security Studies, 18, pp. 719-755.

[9] Victor Asal and R. Karl Rethemeyer. (2006). Researching terrorist networks. Journal of Security Education, 1(4), pp. 65-74, 66; Arie Perliger and Ami Pedahzur. (2011). Social network analysis in the study of terrorism and political violence. PS: Political Science and Politics, 44(1), pp. 45-50, 45.

[10] Frank Gardner. (June 16, 2011). Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed as al-Qaeda leader. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from:

[11] Manori Ravindran. (May 2, 2011). What bin Laden’s death means to al-Qaeda. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from:

[12] Nan Lin. (2001). Social capital: A theory of social structure and action. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, NY.

[13] Bill McCarthy, John Hagan, and Monica J. Martin. (2002). In and out of harm’s way: Violent victimization and the social capital of fictive street families. Criminology, 40(4), pp. 831-866, 833.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 834.

[16] Peter Klerks. (2001). The network paradigm applied to criminal organizations: Theoretical nitpicking or a relevant doctrine for investigators? Recent developments in the Netherlands. Connections, 24(3), pp. 53-65; Carlo Morselli. (2010). Assessing vulnerable and strategic positions in a criminal network. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 26(4), pp. 382-392; Marc Sageman. (2008). Leaderless jihad: Terror networks in the twenty-first century. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.

[17] Stuart Koschade. (2006). A social network analysis of Jemaah Islamiyah: The applications to counterterrorism and intelligence. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29(6), pp. 559-575.

[18] Valdis E. Krebs. (2002). Mapping networks of terrorist cells. Connections, 24(3), pp. 43-52; Aili E. Malm, J. Bryan Kinney, and Nahanni R. Pollard. (2008). Social network and distance correlates of criminal associates involved in illicit drug production. Security Journal, 21, pp. 77-94; Marc Sageman. (2004). Understanding terror networks. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia; Renée C. van der Hulst. (2009). Introduction to social network analysis (SNA) as an investigative tool. Trends in Organized Crime, 12, pp. 101-121.

[19] Carlo Morselli. (2009). Hells Angels in the springtime. Trends in Contemporary Organized Crime, 12, pp. 145-158.

[20] C. Morselli, op. cit., (2010).

[21] R.C. van der Hulst, op. cit. (2009), p. 102.

[22] While randomized sampling is usually preferred to establish the generalizability of results, this approach was not appropriate for the current work as the research question required data relevant to a particular network structure

[23] MidEastWeb. (April 2004). Inside al-Qaeda: The Islamist terrorist network. Retrieved from:

[24] For example, a person who is both a bodyguard and a close friend would fall under the category of close friends.

[25] A. Perliger and A. Pedahzur, op. cit., (2011).

[26] Stephen P. Borgatti and Virginie Lopez-Kidwell. (2011). Network theory. In John Scott and Peter J. Carrington (Eds.), pp. 40-54. The Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis. Sage Publications: London, Thousand Oaks, CA.

[27] Wu-Jun Li, Dit-Yan Yeung, and Zhihua Zhang. (2011). Generalized latent factor models for social network analysis. Artificial Intelligence Journal, 2, pp. 1705-1710.

[28] Penelope Hawe, Cynthia Webster, and Alan Shiell. (2004). A glossary of terms for navigating the field of social network analysis. Journal of Epidemiol Community Health, 58, pp. 971-975.

[29] Stephen P. Borgatti and Daniel S. Halgin. (2011). Analyzing affiliation networks. In John Scott and Peter J. Carrington (Eds.), pp. 417-433. The Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis. Sage Publications: London, Thousand Oaks, CA.

[30] C. Morselli, op. cit., (2010).

[31] S.P. Borgatti and D.S. Halgin, op. cit., (2011).

[32] C. Morselli, op. cit., (2009), p. 153.

[33] Stephen P. Borgatti. (2005). Centrality and network flow. Social Networks, 27(1), pp. 55-71.

[34] Stephen P. Borgatti and Martin G. Everett. (1999). Models of core/periphery structures. Social Networks, 21(4), pp. 375-395.

[35] Mark Granovetter. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory, 1, pp. 201-233, 202.

[36] The spring embedding algorithm assigns force between each pair of nodes [Giuseppe Di Battista, Peter Eades, Roberto Tamassia, and Ioannis G. Tollis. (1999). Graph drawing: Algorithms for the visualization of graphs. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ.] that repels those that are too close while attracting those that are too far apart. The algorithm then uses an iterative process in which the network nodes are positioned, the fit is measured, then one point is adjusted and the fit is re-measured and so forth in order to produce a graphic representation that both minimizes and maximizes the distance between the points.

[37] Lin C. Freeman. (1979). Centrality in social networks: Conceptual clarification. Social Networks, 1, pp. 215-239.

[38] John Lumpkin. (2006). Homeland security: Tawfiq bin Attash. Global Security. Retrieved from:

[39] David Stout. (June 16, 2004). Original plan for 9/11 attacks involved 10 planes, panel says. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

[40] Al Qaeda: Weapons expert among dead ‘heroes’. (August 3, 2008). Cable News Network. Retrieved from:; Craig Whitlock and Munir Ladaa. (2006). Al-Qaeda’s new leadership: Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, Weapons Expert and Trainer. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

[41] Most wanted terrorists. (2013). The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from:

[42] CNN Library. (February 13, 2013). Khalid Sheikh Mohammed fast facts. Cable News Network. Retrieved from:;Andrei Scheinkman, Margot Williams, Alan McLean, Jeremy Ashkenas, and Archie Tse. (December 11, 2012). The Guantanamo Docket: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The New York Times.Retrieved from:; The Guantanamo Trials. (2013). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from:

[43] John Lumpkin. (2006). Homeland security: Abu Salah al-Yemeni. Global Security. Retrieved from:; The status of al Qaeda’s leaders. (September 10, 2002). The New York Times. Retrieved from:

[44] A successful block model should partition into two groups, in which although core members are apt to participate in periphery activities and vice versa, the core should be doing so in a lesser degree than the periphery. Core block 1 (0.967) and periphery block 1 (0.208) show a marked difference (core concentration=0.973).

[45] Bonnie H. Erickson. (1981). Secret societies and social structure. Social Forces, 60(1), pp. 188-210.

[46] Wayne E. Baker and Robert R. Faulker. (1993). The social organization of conspiracy: Illegal networks in the heavy electrical equipment industry. American Sociological Review, 58(6), pp. 837-860, 855.

[47] Ibid.

[48] The analysis was re-run with and without the 9/11 highjackers – the results were substantively the same.

[49] Carlo Morselli, Cynthia Giguère, and Katia Petit. (2007). The efficiency/security trade-off in criminal networks. Social Networks, 29(1), pp. 143-153, 148.

[50] Also known as Abu Hafs al-Mauritanian. [51] Charley Keyes. (September 29, 2011). Guantanamo prepares for next military trial of terrorism suspect. Cable News Network. Retrieved from:; John Lumpkin. (2006). Homeland security: Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Global Security. Retrieved from:; Karen Parrish. (November 9, 2011). Nashiri Reserves plea in USS Cole Bombing Case. U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved from:

[52] Robert Windrem. (October 30, 2010). Al-Qaida leaders, associates: Top operatives, bin Laden advisors sought by U.S., others. National Broadcasting Company. Retrieved from: .

[53] Ibid.

[54] Thomas Joscelyn. (July 10, 2012). Senior al Qaeda ideologue freed in Mauritania. The Long War Journal. Retrieved from:; John Lumpkin. (2006). Homeland security: Abu Hafs the Mauritanian. Global Security. Retrieved from:; United Nations. (August 7, 2009). QI.A.15.01. Mahfouz Ould Al-Walid. Retrieved from:

[55] United Nations. (2013). Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011) concerning Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities. Retrieved from:, 16.

[56] The United Nations Security Council Committee does not differentiate between the “individuals associated with al-Qaeda” and members of al-Qaeda.

[57]Alastair Jamieson. (July 10, 2012). Al-Qaida’s ‘Mr Theology’ Abu Hafs al Mauritani released from prison. World News on National Broadcasting Company. Retrieved from:; Former member of al-Qaeda Shura Council, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani: ‘I advised the Americans… to reach an agreement with the Taliban’. (October 19, 2012). The Middle East Media Research Institute. Retrieved from:; Thomas Joscelyn. (April 11, 2012). Senior al Qaeda ideologue leaves Iran for Mauritania. The Long War Journal. Retrieved from:

[58] 9-11 Commission Report. (n.d.). National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Retrieved from:, 252; Former member of al-Qaeda, op. cit., (2012); Jemal Oumar. (November 4, 2012). Former al-Qaeda leader returns to Mauritania. Magharebia. Retrieved from:

[59] Brad Sherman. (2006). The Arab and Iranian reaction to 9/11 five years later. The Middle East Media Research Institute. Retrieved from:, 83.

[60] It is worth noting that OBL first also denied authorship of the Manhattan raid.

[61] C. Morselli, op. cit., (2009).

[62] F. Gardner, op. cit., (2011).

[63] The Egyptian Islamic Jihad merged with al-Qaeda in 2001.

[64] Günther Birkenstock and Greg Wiser (Editor). (May 2, 2013). Al Qaeda branches strengthen as center weakens. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from:; F. Gardner, op. cit., (2011); Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri. (June 16, 2011). British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from:; Craig Whitlock. (2006). Al-Qaeda’s new leadership: Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

[65] Ayman al-Zawahiri in his own words. (June 16, 2011). British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from:

[66] Ibid.

[67] A. Jamieson, op. cit., (2012); Former member of al-Qaeda, op. cit., (2012); T. Joscelyn, op. cit., (2012).

[68] Pam Benson. (July 10, 2012). Osama bin Laden confidant released from prison. Cable News Network. Retrieved from:; F. Gardner, op. cit., (2011); Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri, op. cit., (2011).

[69] David Smith. (October 28, 2013). Al-Shabaab rebuilds forces in Somalia as African Union campaign stalls. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

[70] R.C. van der Hulst, op. cit. (2009), p. 101-102.

[71] Ibid., p. 105.



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