The Blog

'Grading the Administration's Counterterrorism Policy'

10:17 AM, Apr 10, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Jihadist leaders are evil and, by our standards, insane. That does not mean they are stupid. They are well aware that any individual or group claiming to be part of al Qaeda is considerably more likely to be targeted by the US and many other states. They have even discussed such things—bin Laden opposed formally recognizing al Shabaab as an affiliate for fear of attracting attention to it. But the group continued to clamor for al Qaeda recognition, which bin Laden's successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, granted shortly after taking power. Jabhat al Nusra in Syria tried for some time to obfuscate its relationship with al Qaeda in order to portray itself as a Syrian nationalist group. Its leadership (and Zawahiri) was incensed when ISIS declared itself the single al Qaeda franchise in both Iraq and Syria, forcing JN to publicly accept or repudiate its al Qaeda affiliate status. JN not only affirmed its status, but also appealed to Zawahiri rather publicly to mediate the dispute with ISIS—which he did, ineffectively, ultimately "expelling" ISIS from al Qaeda, although the effects of that "expulsion" remain unclear.

The Syria case put sharply the issue of al Qaeda membership. JN recognized that al Qaeda is regarded throughout the Muslim world not simply as a radical Sunni fighting force, but also as an ideology with regional and global aspirations. All al Qaeda affiliates know that membership in the group antagonizes other local fighting groups and some local populations (there have been anti-ISIS popular uprisings in Syria, in fact), as well as exposing them to Western attack. Yet they fight—literally in the case of Syria—to retain the affiliation and reaffirm it when publicly challenged. Why?

None of the possible answers support the current Administration assessments of al Qaeda or the current strategy. Affiliates are certainly not fighting to join and stay with a group and brand they believe is "on its last legs" or losing or about to lose. Neither are they driven by any local imperatives, since those imperatives drive the other way. They surely are not taking risks and paying a price to be part of a group whose networks, leadership, shared resources, and cooperation are as tenuous and limited as some analysts have suggested. We should be comfortable with the idea that their motivations seem crazy to us, but not with the idea that they are just plain dumb.

There are two major reasons that make sense for groups to show this degree of loyalty to al Qaeda, and they are not mutually-exclusive: the affiliates get something from membership and/or they really believe in the ideology. The something they get is likely money in the form of donations from wealthy Gulfis who believe in and value the brand and the human networks that control it. Flows of “foreign fighters” from around the Muslim world are directed in part by the al Qaeda networks in ways that can favor or disadvantage particular local groups.  Those fighters bring zeal, expertise, money, and, frequently, either the desire for martyrdom or the psychological weaknesses upon which skilled handlers can play to produce suicide bombers.  But the affiliates seem also to seek some form of group governance that leads groups like JN to imagine that Zawahiri can and will mediate on their behalf with other affiliates. All these benefits suggest a network and leadership that is real enough to be worth risking life and group success to be part of.

We should also seriously consider the possibility that they really believe in the ideology, and, specifically in the part that is most dangerous to us. The global (and anti-US) objectives that lead to efforts to attack the US and Europe are precisely the things that distinguish the al Qaeda brand of Sunni violent extremism from all others. If you're just a takfiri who wants to make all women wear burqas, stop people from smoking, and implement a distorted and draconian interpretation of something you call Shari’a law, you do not need to join al Qaeda. Plenty of extremist groups have those goals, and some, like the Afghan Taliban, explicitly reject al Qaeda's global aims (without, however, repudiating its ties to al Qaeda in the Taliban’s case). The ideological reason for joining al Qaeda is precisely because you believe in global jihad at some point, even if you are currently caught up in local struggles. Sound threat assessment therefore requires assuming that affiliates that have consciously chosen to adhere to this global objective do, in fact, intend to attack the US and its allies at some point or at least to support such attacks. From which it follows that the capabilities those groups are developing may be used in the future to facilitate such attacks. 

And that is the most worrying thing of all, since multiple affiliates have shown the ability to plan and execute year-long campaigns at the operational level of war integrating improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs, suicide attacks, light infantry operations, crew-served weapons, and even, on limited occasions, armored vehicles. Nothing would please the US military more, of course, than the fielding of an al Qaeda armored division, which we could easily destroy even after the foolish decision to retire the A-10 without replacement. Nor will al Qaeda find it easy to set up vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) cells or infantry training centers in the US. The skills they have shown in planning, logistics, communications, direction and control of operations, training, and adaptability, however, are all transferable. The transfer has, in fact, already begun as fighters from Syria, Iraq, and the Maghreb have started to return to their homes in Europe, Ukraine, and Russia—and the U.S.  The U.S. intelligence community has put the number of foreign fighters in Syria at around 7,000.  What will happen when a lot of them start going home?  The good news is that the al Qaeda of 2001 is gone; the bad news is that Son of al Qaeda is a lot more lethal.

No discussion of the al Qaeda threat these days can be complete without considering the nature of our defenses. Here conditions are parlous and getting worse. I will not get into the merits of the debate over civil liberties, what the NSA is or is not doing, how complete or accurate is the Senate report on CIA interrogations, or what should be done about any of these important issues. Torture is bad and should be forbidden, and we can have a sensible conversation about where to draw the line. Civil liberties are vital to the American way of life and must be protected, even at the cost of greater risk to life and limb. Again, we can and must have a sensible discussion about how to draw the balance.

But NSA operations are already being curtailed by White House fiat even before we have completed that national discussion, and the CIA bids fair to become the “Central Self-Defense Agency” in the face of this Senate report. So the guardians on whom we rely to see and understand the minute changes in intent that alone distinguish potential from actual threats posed by al Qaeda groups with expanding capabilities will be distracted by internal debates, attacks, and requirements just as the danger grows most acute. And they will be further distracted by dramatic budget reductions that also constrain their abilities to keep up with the evolving threats. That is why I began this statement by saying that all conditions are set for future attacks. The threat is growing in size and capability while we are dismantling our defenses. Surely we should consider other approaches, and soon.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers