Bin Laden Is Dead . . .
But al Qaeda isn’t. We should build on our success in Abbottabad by redoubling our efforts to defeat his movement.
On the contrary, withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and cutting all aid to Pakistan would merely reinforce two of the most prevalent conspiracy theories in South Asia—that the United States will always abandon those who rely on it, and that we were only there to get bin Laden anyway. We should, instead, build on the symbolic victory of killing bin Laden by following through with the president’s strategy to dismantle and defeat the militant Islamist groups supported as proxies by some in the Pakistani security apparatus. Only by defeating those proxies can we reasonably hope to compel Pakistan to reevaluate its security interests and develop a policy to oppose and suppress all militant Islamists operating within its borders.
But al Qaeda has not confined itself to its sanctuaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda thrives in political weakness and has been in the process of expanding around the globe. The core al Qaeda group of which bin Laden was the head (often referred to as Al Qaeda Central) has long had at best only a tenuous control over the operations of its dispersed franchises. That control rested partly on resources Al Qaeda Central directed, partly on the value of its recognition of a particular group as worthy of the al Qaeda brand, but largely on the symbolic importance of the charismatic bin Laden. Bin Laden’s likely successor, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, is far less charismatic. His accession to the leadership role could prompt a competition between Al Qaeda Central and its franchises over which group really is at the center of the movement. Such competitions, unfortunately, unfold in the form of spectacular attacks, particularly those conducted on the territory of Western states.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in Yemen, is the most active and perhaps the most dangerous al Qaeda franchise in the world. The Arab Spring has reached Yemen with a vengeance—massive protests have led to the defection of elements of the Yemeni military, with the result that armed forces are concentrating for potential civil war in and around the capital and elsewhere in the country. Attempts to broker a negotiated departure for Yemen’s hated president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have broken down. It is far from clear that any such agreement would keep the peace there for very long in any case. Already Saleh has brought back to his capital some of the elite, U.S.-trained Special Forces units supposedly dedicated to the fight against AQAP. As the work of Katherine Zimmerman at AEI’s Critical Threats Project has shown, almost any likely scenario going forward will give AQAP more freedom to train, plan, stage, and conduct attacks from increasingly lawless tribal areas in which it has considerable local support. The combination of Yemen’s slide toward state failure and bin Laden’s death could create a tremendous opportunity for AQAP. His death may also lead to an increase in AQAP’s efforts to conduct spectacular attacks against the United States and the West.
Another al Qaeda affiliate already has control over large portions of a state: Al Shabab is the de facto government of much of southern Somalia outside of Mogadishu. It has not been formally recognized as an al Qaeda franchise, but its ties with AQAP are long and deep, and its ideology closely mirrors al Qaeda’s. Shabab is kept from controlling all of southern and central Somalia only by the presence of peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, who have been barely able to hold parts of the capital. Shabab is unlikely to suffer at all from bin Laden’s death, but it may see a chance—or feel the need—to expand the reach of its strikes in sympathetic retaliation.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, fortunately, remains relatively ineffective, despite efforts to revive itself as American forces withdraw. But the continued presence even of American military trainers in Iraq after the end of this year remains in doubt, and it is not clear that the Iraqi military on its own will be able to maintain the necessary degree of pressure on that al Qaeda franchise. If the complete withdrawal of American forces now underway leads to the explosion of ethnic conflict between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, as some analysts fear, Al Qaeda in Iraq could find fertile ground to reestablish itself, undoing the progress we have made since 2006.
A protracted stalemate in Libya could also set conditions for al Qaeda groups to pose again as the only reliable allies of eastern fighters feeling abandoned by the United States and the West. Although the current Libyan resistance leadership is not penetrated by al Qaeda or supportive of that organization or its ideology, eastern Libya is the area that has produced the most al Qaeda fighters in that country and that has the conditions most conducive to the injection of al Qaeda’s ideas and leaders.
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