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'Grading the Administration's Counterterrorism Policy'

10:17 AM, Apr 10, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Mis-defining al Qaeda as a US-focused terrorist group has important ramifications for US policy. It encourages the belief that the "real" threat from the "real" al Qaeda—that is the portion of the group actively planning and preparing for further attacks on the US—is very small and susceptible to attrition and disruption by targeted strikes. The corollary is that the much larger, more organizationally-sophisticated, better-equipped, and wealthier "franchises" such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the erstwhile al Qaeda in Iraq are either not "real" al Qaeda groups or are part of the network in a way that means that the US can largely disregard them as threats apart from isolated individuals within them, who can be removed as needed.

Since al Qaeda does not define itself in this way, it should be no surprise that it has not behaved as expected in the face of the massive attrition of its "core group" largely in Pakistan. The killing of Osama bin Laden certainly warranted a victory lap, although not one as grandiose and full of leaks of highly-sensitive details as this White House took. But the sequel highlights the falsity of the narrow conception of the threat. If al Qaeda really were a small group of extremists hiding out in the mountains—or villas—of Pakistan and dreaming of flying planes into more American buildings, then the death of bin Laden and the deaths of most of the leaders who were active in 2001 should have demoralized the group and its supporters. Al Qaeda’s failure, despite repeated efforts, to carry off any other mass-casualty attacks in the US should also have been devastating to group cohesion, support, morale, and activity. Above all, it should have damaged the al Qaeda brand severely. Al Qaeda supporters are fanatics, and in some cases, willing to die (although not the leaders, interestingly, who take great pains to avoid the martyrdom toward which they encourage their followers), but they don't like losing any more than normal people do. On the contrary, Islam has a very strong tradition of seeing divine blessing or curse manifested in this-worldly success or failure.

Yet the brand is spreading like wildfire, the groups affiliating themselves with it control more fighters, land, and wealth than they ever have, and they are opening up new fronts. The Syrian civil war—and the refusal of this White House and the West generally to support the moderate Sunni opposition materially and meaningfully early on, has allowed and encouraged the emergence of a new al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra (JN), alongside al Qaeda in Iraq, which precociously and mutinously now calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS; al Sham refers to the land that is now both Syria and Lebanon). African Union forces drove affiliate al Shabaab from many of its strongholds in Somalia, although it is fighting to defend those it still has and to regain some of the ground it has lost. But al Shabaab has also metastasized throughout the region, activating and expanding cells in Kenya (such as the one that conducted the Westgate Mall attack), in Burundi, and in Uganda.

AQIM has seen the most dramatic expansion of its capabilities and operating area of any al Qaeda franchise in recent years. Not long ago, AQIM was little more than a small terrorist cell sitting atop a large kidnap-for-ransom and smuggling apparatus. Now it is a fighting force organized into “battalions” and “brigades” that operate in Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, and Libya. AQIM has excelled at putting sub-components through branding bankruptcy periodically, presenting a bewildering array of group names. But as a recent product by CTP's Andreas Hagen shows, the human networks have remained the same despite multiple rebrandings.[1]

AQIM, ISIS, JN, AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), al Shabaab, the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, and the rest of the al Qaeda alphabet soup, are primarily engaged in regional conflicts to which they devote the overwhelming proportion of their resources. The Obama administration has consistently indicated that it does not see those "locally-focused" groups as major threats to the US or even, depending on the briefer, part of the "real" al Qaeda.  Katherine Zimmerman, Senior Analyst and al Qaeda Team Lead at the Critical Threats Project, has shown the degree to which such a parsing of the networks is simply wrong.[2] The very fact that all of these groups retain their formal al Qaeda affiliations and branding speaks volumes.

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