Ever since the September 11 attacks, some in counterterrorism and intelligence circles have tried to define al Qaeda narrowly, thereby limiting the scope of the organization’s threat. We’ve seen this in the recent debate over the number of al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, for instance. CIA Director Leon Panetta said that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda terrorists are operating in Afghanistan. That estimate does not make any sense when compared to various facts, and the real number is certainly far greater.

But even if that number is right (and it isn’t), it is still based on a misleading definition of al Qaeda. Some define “al Qaeda” such that its ranks are confined to senior leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, and the terrorists who have sworn bayat (an oath of loyalty) to them. This does not make any sense either, as senior al Qaeda terrorists such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah did not swear bayat to al Qaeda’s senior leaders for years. But that did not stop them from being master terrorists responsible for thousands of deaths in al Qaeda’s name.

Al Qaeda has always been the tip of a much longer jihadist spear – a coalition of like-minded terrorist organizations that share common traits and practices (ideology, training, funding, and cooperation in attacks). This coalition has its internal rivalries and disagreements, but it is still a coherent alliance. Part of what makes Osama bin Laden so lethal is that he and his immediate cohorts receive support and cooperation from jihadist groups around the globe, from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s roots inside Pakistan and Afghanistan are particularly deep.

We were reminded of this basic fact earlier this month when the Obama administration designated the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) a foreign terrorist organization, and released its indictment of the organization for various terrorist attacks.

On September 1, the State Department announced that the TTP had been added to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The State Department reported:

TTP and al-Qa’ida have a symbiotic relationship; TTP draws ideological guidance from al-Qa’ida, while al-Qa’ida relies on TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both al-Qa’ida’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their relationship, TTP is a force multiplier for al-Qa’ida.

That same day, the Justice Department announced that the Pakistani Taliban and its senior leadership had been indicted for their role in an attack on an American military base in Afghanistan on December 30, 2009. That attack killed seven Americans, and was aimed directly at the CIA because of the agency’s involvement in Predator strikes in northern Pakistan.

In its announcement, the Justice Department described the contents of an affidavit filed in support of the charges (emphasis added):

The affidavit alleges that the TTP has had alleged roles in, or claimed responsibility for, a number of acts of violence, including the December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the September 2009 suicide attack on the Bannu, Pakistan, police station and numerous attacks on NATO supply lines throughout the FATA. These attacks are often coordinated with other insurgents or terrorist groups, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In other words, TTP is part of al Qaeda’s jihadist coalition. Osama bin Laden’s not-so merry men are simply the vanguard of this coalition. And to define the threat to American interests as coming from “al Qaeda” alone, without accounting for all of the other organizations that make up the spear, is a crucial mistake. In May, when Faisal Shahzad tried to blow up a car bomb in the middle of Times Square on behalf of the TTP, we learned just how short-sighted the “al Qaeda only” focus can be.

Still, even more evidence of the relationship between the TTP and al Qaeda comes from Newsweek, which interviewed a young recruit who was convinced to wage jihad at the age of 15. In a piece titled “Inside Al Qaeda,” Hafiz Hanif explains how he was initially recruited by the TTP but was redirected to al Qaeda’s training camps and went on to participate in joint operations in Afghanistan.

“Those Arab mujahedin impressed me,” Hanif said. Newsweek continues:

[Hanif] introduced himself in fluent Arabic, mentioning his uncle, the senior Taliban official. The man in charge, a senior Al Qaeda trainer and operations specialist from Libya known as Sheik Abdullah Saeed, looked him over. “You can stay if you want,” the man said. “I was happy,” Hanif says. “I love speaking Arabic.” The [TTP] recruiter traveled on without the boy.

Newsweek goes on to explain how Hanif received “grueling” training along with dozens of other al Qaeda recruits from around the world.

Hanif’s story is hardly unique. This type of terrorist cross-pollination has occurred for decades. The lines between many jihadist groups have been substantially blurred. That’s why it was always deceptive to talk of the number of “al Qaeda” operatives in Afghanistan. How do you define “al Qaeda” – as Osama bin Laden and his immediate followers, or as the tip of a much longer jihadist spear?

Only the latter definition adequately takes into account the available evidence. And the relationship between the TTP and al Qaeda is just one of the alliances that make up the jihadist coalition. There are dozens of others.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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