Fred Kagan gave the following testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade on "Is al Qaeda Winning? Grading the Administration's Counterterrorism Policy."
All conditions are set for a series of significant terrorist attacks against the US and its allies over the next few years. But that's not the worst news. Conditions are also set for state collapse in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and possibly Jordan. Saudi Arabia, facing a complex succession soon, is likely to acquire nuclear weapons shortly, if it has not already done so. Turkey and Egypt confront major crises. Almost all of Northern and Equatorial Africa is violent, unstable, and facing a growing al Qaeda threat. And Vladimir Putin's assault on Ukraine is likely to empower al Qaeda-aligned jihadists in Crimea and in Russia itself. That eventuality is, of course, less worrisome than the prospect of conventional and partisan war on the European continent, likely threatening NATO allies. The international order and global stability are collapsing in a way we have not seen since the 1930s. There is little prospect of this trend reversing of its own accord, and managing it will require massive efforts by the US and its allies over a generation or more.
This distressing context is essential for considering the al Qaeda threat today. On the one hand, it makes that threat look small. The long-term effects of global chaos and conflict among hundreds of millions of people across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East on US security, interests, and way of life are surely greater than any damage al Qaeda is likely to do to us in the immediate future. Yet the two threats feed each other powerfully. Disorder and conflict in the Muslim world breed support for al Qaeda, which is starting to look like the strong horse in Iraq and even in Syria. Al Qaeda groups and their allies, on the other hand, powerfully contribute to the collapse of state structures and the emergence of horrific violence and Hobbesian chaos wherever they operate. They are benefiting greatly from the regional sectarian war they intentionally triggered (the destruction of the Samarra Mosque in 2006 was only the most spectacular of a long series of efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq to goad Iraq’s Shi’a into sectarian conflict, for which some Shi’a militants, to be sure, were already preparing)—and have been continuing to fuel. Al Qaeda is like a virulent pathogen that opportunistically attacks bodies weakened by internal strife and poor governance, but that further weakens those bodies and infects others that would not otherwise have been susceptible to the disease. The problem of al Qaeda cannot be separated from the other crises of our age, nor can it be quarantined or rendered harmless through targeted therapies that ignore the larger problems.
Yet that is precisely how the Obama administration has been trying to deal with al Qaeda. Neither the White House nor the intelligence community has offered anything approaching a clear definition of al Qaeda, as a forthcoming paper by Mary Habeck from AEI’s Critical Threats Project (CTP) shows in detail. But such statements as the Administration has made—and its actions and inactions, which speak louder than its words—make the scope of its definition pretty clear. This White House, like its predecessor, focuses on al Qaeda as a terrorist group aiming to attack the US homeland. It appears to have narrowed the scope of what it considers to be al Qaeda even more than did the Bush Administration, by observing an extremely limited and legalistic reading of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution that requires individuals and groups to have been al Qaeda members on 9/11/2001. There are several problems with this approach that ensure that it will be ineffective against al Qaeda in the long run.
To begin with, this administration is compounding an important mistake made by the Bush White House by seeing al Qaeda as a terrorist group. It certainly is that, of course, but that is not its main focus. As my fellow panelists and many other colleagues have shown, al Qaeda never conceived of itself as a terrorist group and has long devoted the lion's share of its global resources to what it regards as its main effort—seizing and governing terrain and populations in the Muslim world. Al Qaeda has always seen itself as a global insurgency that uses terrorism, and its ability to field small irregular armies in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere demonstrates the seriousness with which it takes that self-conception.