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Know Your Enemy

Al Qaeda’s grand strategy

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Al Qaeda has continued to adjust its operations in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. In Syria, the organization has devoted a substantial amount of its resources to defeating Bashar al-Assad’s regime and establishing a new Islamic regime. Elsewhere, in countries ruled by newly installed Islamist governments, such as Tunisia, al Qaeda initially advised jihadists to refrain from fighting altogether. In such countries it was best, al Qaeda said, to concentrate on recruiting and to build a base of popular support for its ideology. Over time, that strategy has evolved, however, as the Tunisian government has cracked down on al Qaeda-allied organizations.

But everywhere, the goal is the same: to advance a political revolution that al Qaeda sparked more than a quarter of a century ago. 

Al Qaeda’s Global Network

Once you understand al Qaeda’s true aspirations, the structure of its organization begins to make sense. Although much of al Qaeda’s network remains clandestine, a vast amount of information on its operations is available to the public.

The days when al Qaeda was a small cadre have long since passed. From its earliest days, al Qaeda devoted a substantial share of its efforts to insurgencies ranging from Chechnya to North Africa. Before 9/11, most of the recruits who passed through al Qaeda-sponsored training camps in Afghanistan were tasked with doing something other than attacking America. “Some experts even believe that the ratio of insurgent fighters to terrorists in al Qaeda’s camps may be 15 to 1,” notes the START Database’s website, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This created a deep well from which al Qaeda could draw manpower. Estimates of the number of jihadists trained in al Qaeda’s camps prior to 9/11 vary, but easily totaled 10,000. (U.S. intelligence estimates cited by the 9/11 Commission range from 10,000 to 20,000 fighters. Other estimates are much higher.) Only 19 of these trainees attacked the United States on 9/11.

Going back to his days in Sudan in the early 1990s, bin Laden believed that his al Qaeda was the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. According to the 9/11 Commission, bin Laden “had a vision of himself as head of an international jihad confederation.” Bin Laden established an “Islamic Army Shura,” which “was to serve as the coordinating body for the consortium of terrorist groups with which he was forging alliances.” The Shura “was composed of his own al Qaeda Shura together with leaders or representatives of terrorist organizations that were still independent.” As of the early 1990s, bin Laden and al Qaeda pursued a “pattern of expansion through building alliances” and thus had laid the “groundwork for a true global terrorist network.”

Throughout the 1990s and thereafter, al Qaeda continued to pursue versions of this original vision. In some cases, other jihadist groups were outright absorbed into bin Laden’s joint venture. In other instances, al Qaeda remained closely allied with jihadist organizations that did not formally merge with it. Al Qaeda also deliberately spawned new groups to expand its influence.

Al Qaeda’s policy of aggressive geographic expansion has been largely successful of late. While the group once relied almost entirely on a network of secret operatives embedded within countries ruled by hostile governments, al Qaeda now has formal branches (often called “affiliates”) operating in Africa, throughout the Middle East, and in South Asia. Each branch is fighting to create an Islamic state and has openly declared its loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as the head of al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is headquartered in Yemen and led by Nasir al Wuhayshi, Osama bin Laden’s former protégé. In August 2013, Zawahiri appointed Wuhayshi as the general manager of al Qaeda’s global operations. This gives Wuhayshi great power across the network. Wuhayshi has been experimenting with al Qaeda-style governance, even creating a new brand (Ansar al Sharia, or Defenders of Sharia) for his efforts. Ansar al Sharia in Yemen was the first of several similarly named jihadist groups to emerge following the Arab uprisings.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took over much of Mali in 2012 until the French intervened in January 2013. The group continues to operate throughout West and North Africa. In Somalia, another al Qaeda branch, Al Shabaab, continues to hold some territory and wage an insurgency against African forces.

The war in Syria has been a boon for al Qaeda. Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq, have thousands of fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq. The two have quarreled over leadership and other matters. But they are still doing a considerable amount of damage while probably controlling more territory than al Qaeda has ever held before. There are other al Qaeda-allied groups operating inside Syria as well.

In addition to these five official branches, there are numerous jihadist groups that have said they are part of al Qaeda’s global jihad. And in South Asia, al Qaeda continues to operate as part of a terror “syndicate,” owing to its decades-long ties to extremist organizations that share its ideology. Al Qaeda continues to cooperate closely with the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and an alphabet soup of other groups based in Pakistan. They are jointly seeking to re-establish the Taliban’s Islamic state in Afghanistan.

The degree of command and control exercised by al Qaeda’s senior leaders over this global network is hotly debated. But the minimalists have to ignore a substantial body of evidence showing that Zawahiri and his lieutenants maintain a significant amount of influence, despite the management problems that any human organization faces.

The Enemy Gets a Vote

The debate between Obama and Petraeus in 2008 has not been resolved. If anything, Obama now defines al Qaeda more narrowly than ever before, even as al Qaeda’s many branches have become more virulent.

To hear the Obama administration explain the current state of the war, you would never know that al Qaeda seeks to establish Islamic states, or that the group has made stunning advances toward this end. Instead, the president and his surrogates consistently draw a hard line between al Qaeda’s “core” in South Asia and “affiliated” groups everywhere else. Some are quick to brand virtually any jihadist group, even if it is openly pro-al Qaeda and has well-known ties to one or more of al Qaeda’s branches, as a “local” nuisance that should not be considered part of al Qaeda’s network. Such arguments miss the entire reason for al Qaeda’s existence, which has always been to acquire power in “local” settings. This is why al Qaeda has always devoted most of its resources to fueling insurgencies.

It would be naïve to assume that the Obama administration’s definition of al Qaeda is not directly tied to its preferred policies. President Obama is dedicated to decreasing the American military’s footprint, even as al Qaeda has increased its own. U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq by the end of 2011. And a short-lived surge of forces in Afghanistan was ended, with the goal of removing most of America’s forces in the near future. While Obama argued in 2008 that Afghanistan, not Iraq, must be our “central front,” it quickly became apparent that this was political rhetoric, not a real strategy. Drone strikes, Special Forces raids, and other covert activities are sufficient, in the Obama administration’s view.

This is not to suggest that large-scale American military deployments are necessary everywhere al Qaeda’s branches prosper. But in the coming months, there simply will be no central front in America’s fight against al Qaeda and its allies.

President Obama’s plan for fighting al Qaeda, therefore, rests on a gamble. As long as al Qaeda’s various branches do not successfully attack the continental United States, then the United States will not treat them as first-order security threats. In countries where America has semi-reliable allies, others will take the fight to al Qaeda. In countries where no allied forces exist, such as Syria, America and the West will simply hope for the best. Well over 100,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s regime began; thousands of them have been killed by al Qaeda’s branches. In Obama’s estimation, al Qaeda’s victims inside Syria and Iraq are not America’s concern.  

But there are already indications that Obama’s understanding of the enemy cannot be sustained. Al Qaeda’s branches, especially Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and closely allied groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, now threaten the U.S. homeland. The threats to American security from al Qaeda’s global network are multiplying, not receding.

And during a press briefing on October 30, an anonymous senior White House official explained to reporters that Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria is “really a transnational threat network” now. “This is really a major and increasing threat to Iraq’s stability, it’s [an] increasing threat to our regional partners, and it’s an increasing threat to us,” the official continued.

That is, General Petraeus had a point about Iraq all along.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda strives on towards its real goal. It is a difficult course, and success is far from certain. But history tells us that a lot of carnage can be wrought in pursuit of violent fantasies.

In one of the documents recovered in his Abbottabad compound, Osama bin Laden wrote that “the jihad war is ongoing, and on several fronts.” The strategy is simple: “Once America is weak, we can build our Muslim state.”

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

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