In the summer of 2008, Barack Obama, senator and presidential candidate, toured the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama had endeared himself to the antiwar left by denouncing President Bush’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein and repeatedly claiming that the war in Iraq had diverted resources from defeating al Qaeda and its allies in South Asia. Obama did not tone down this criticism even as he spoke with CBS News from Kabul on July 20, shortly before proceeding to Saddam’s former abode. “We got distracted by Iraq,” Obama said. Afghanistan “has to be the central focus, the central front [in] our battle against terrorism.”
Some top U.S. military commanders, including General David Petraeus, then the face of the American war effort, disagreed with Obama’s assessment. And in Iraq, the general and the senator squared off. The contentious meeting between Petraeus and Obama has been recorded in The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor.
Obama repeated that “Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror,” and therefore a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq was necessary. Petraeus disagreed: “Actually, Senator, Iraq is what al Qaeda says is the central front.”
Obama was unpersuaded. “The Al-Qaeda leadership is not here in Iraq. They are there,” Obama said, pointing to Pakistan on a map.
Petraeus, of course, knew this. The general did not need the senator to point out the obvious. And besides, Petraeus argued, Obama was missing the point. Whatever one thought of the decision to invade Saddam’s neo-Stalinist state in the first place, al Qaeda had made the fight for Iraq its main priority.
Obama pressed forward, questioning “whether Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] presented a threat to the United States,” Gordon and Trainor write. “If AQI has morphed into a kind of mafia then they are not going to be blowing up buildings,” Obama said. Petraeus pointed to a failed terrorist attack in Scotland in 2007 as an example of why Obama’s thinking was wrong. “Well, think about the Glasgow airport,” Petraeus warned. The general, according to Gordon and Trainor, “also noted the potential of AQI to expand its influence to Syria and Lebanon.”
The debate between Obama and Petraeus may seem like ancient history after more than five years have passed. And Obama went on to “end” the war in Iraq, or so he claimed during his reelection campaign and thereafter, by withdrawing all of America’s forces at the end of 2011.
The truth, however, is that the disagreement between Obama and Petraeus still resonates today. Al Qaeda has come roaring back in Iraq, capturing significant territory in Fallujah, Ramadi, and elsewhere. Obama does not believe this is a major concern. And, just as Petraeus warned, AQI has “expanded its influence” in neighboring Syria as a result of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Other al Qaeda affiliates have joined AQI in the fight for Syria.
But there is something even more fundamental about the Obama-Petraeus debate. It goes to the heart of how we define al Qaeda itself.
More than a dozen years since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States is still confused about al Qaeda’s goals and even how the group founded by Osama bin Laden is organized. The intellectual confusion is pervasive—and some of it is deliberate.
Osama bin Laden will always be remembered for his success in attacking the United States within its own borders, thereby shattering Americans’ illusion of security. To this day, if you listen to many commentators, this is al Qaeda’s principal reason for existence. It is widely thought that if al Qaeda is not striking targets in the West, then the group must be close to defeat. This is simply not true.
Terrorizing the United States and its Western allies was always a tactic, a step toward achieving al Qaeda’s real goal—power for its leaders and their ideology in the heart of the Islamic world. Al Qaeda’s jihadists are not just terrorists; they are political revolutionaries. They have sought, since al Qaeda’s founding in 1988, to overturn the existing political order in various Muslim-ruled countries.
Al Qaeda’s ideologues believed that the status quo before the 2011 Arab uprisings was heretical. They believed that Muslim rulers had abandoned true Islam by neglecting to implement sharia law as defined by al Qaeda. They also believed, and continue to believe, that an imaginary Zionist-Crusader conspiracy has prevented the real believers from achieving success. Therefore, al Qaeda deduced, the conspirators must be confronted.
By striking America, al Qaeda’s most senior leaders believed, they could cause the U.S. government eventually to withdraw its support for various Muslim rulers and Israel. According to bin Laden and other al Qaeda thinkers, American support was the main reason why early jihadist efforts to overthrow Muslim dictatorships ended in bloody fiascos.
Strike America, al Qaeda argued, and it will crumble just as the Soviets did after their embarrassing loss to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As America’s influence wanes, al Qaeda’s theory of the world continued, the apostate tyrants who rule throughout the Muslim world will become susceptible to the jihadists’ revolution. Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists can then replace the dictators with pure Islamic states based on sharia law. And these states can then link up to resurrect the Caliphate, a supranational Islamic empire that was dissolved in 1924 and that has taken on a mythical status in al Qaeda’s thinking.
This is how al Qaeda has long seen the world and why America was struck on September 11, 2001. It is why U.S. interests were attacked well before 9/11 and have continued to be targeted ever since. Al Qaeda’s conspiratorial view of Middle Eastern politics, its deep hatred of the West, and its resentment of Western influence in the Islamic world made such attacks necessary.
Al Qaeda has repeatedly made this strategy clear. In his 2002 letter to the American people, Osama bin Laden emphasized that “our fight against these [Muslim] governments is not separate from our fight against you.” Removing “these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Ummah [community of believers], to make the Shariah the supreme law and to regain Palestine.”
In private correspondence recovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound nine years later, the terror master repeatedly made the same point. Bin Laden emphasized the necessity of striking American interests as a step towards building a true Islamic state. Bin Laden worried that, however much the United States had been weakened since 9/11, the world’s lone superpower retained the ability to destroy an al Qaeda-style nation should it arise. The “more we can conduct operations against America, the closer we get to uniting our efforts to establish an Islamic State,” bin Laden or one of his top lieutenants wrote in 2010. Still, al Qaeda’s leaders believed that the “time to establish an Islamic state is near, and the jihadist ideology is spreading abroad.”
Al Qaeda adjusted its tactics in the post-9/11 world, especially with American troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden wrote in another letter that his organization must “concentrate” its “jihad efforts in areas where the conditions are ideal for us to fight.” Bin Laden concluded that “Iraq and Afghanistan are two good examples.”
The centrality of the Iraq war, from al Qaeda’s perspective, was emphasized in a letter from Ayman al Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s top deputy, to the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2005. Zawahiri wrote: “I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam’s history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.”
The very fight that Barack Obama has long seen as tangential to al Qaeda’s operations, and even similar to Mafia-style crime, was viewed quite differently by al Qaeda’s leaders. It was the “greatest battle of Islam in this era.”
This was not empty rhetoric. Numerous public and private statements from al Qaeda emphasized the centrality of Iraq and their desire to establish an Islamic state in the heart of the Middle East.
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.