The Magazine

Misjudging al Qaeda

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

What is also true is that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations represent a continued threat to the United States, to our allies, to Americans stationed abroad, as well as Americans here at home. And for that reason we have focused a great deal of attention on those affiliated organizations. 

There are two problems with this new argument. First, it’s a bit of revisionism that seeks to obscure the almost cavalier way the administration spoke about the coming death of al Qaeda. Second, and more important, the latest revelations make clear that the administration’s understanding of al Qaeda was almost completely wrong.

It’s certainly true that the administration made distinctions between al Qaeda core and its affiliates. They did so, however, not in order to emphasize the new, growing threat from the affiliates but because separating the core from the affiliates allowed them to argue that the weakening of al Qaeda core meant a weakening of al Qaeda more broadly. Thus, the elimination of many core al Qaeda leaders meant the coming demise of al Qaeda. Far from sounding alarms about the strengthening of the affiliates, administration officials frequently noted that the affiliates’ ambitions were regional and their resources were minimal. Brennan made this case in his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “As the al Qaeda core falters, it continues to look to its affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause. Yet these affiliates continue to lose key commanders and capabilities as well.” The al Qaeda brand was so badly tainted that bin Laden considered abandoning the name, Brennan argued. The ability of al Qaeda and its affiliates to rebuild, he said, had been badly damaged by their willingness to kill fellow Muslims.

One day after Brennan’s speech, the administration authorized the release of 17 documents captured during the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden. In interviews, speeches, and background briefings, administration officials portrayed the al Qaeda leader as impotent and isolated, cut off from other core al Qaeda leaders and powerless over the group’s affiliates. They emphasized parts of the released documents—themselves a tiny fraction of the several hundred thousand documents recovered—that seemed to bolster its case. The future for al Qaeda was bleak.

Eighteen months later, it’s clear that this judgment was wrong. The al Qaeda affiliate in Syria—the al Nusra front—is taking over vast swaths of the country and adding new members at an alarming rate. Al Qaeda in Iraq is sending reinforcements into the Syrian battle and still managing to increase carnage in Iraq. Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia is operating more or less freely in its native country. Ansar al Sharia in Libya helped carry out the deadly attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. In recent weeks, radicals affiliated with al Qaeda freed hundreds of jihadists imprisoned in Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya.

Obama administration officials badly misjudged the future trajectory of al Qaeda because they badly misunderstood its past. The president and his advisers believed the fate of “al Qaeda core” was ipso facto the fate of al Qaeda broadly. So the ability of the U.S. government to kill members of that core—the one in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the one Obama was briefed about before he took office—meant we were succeeding in our efforts to eliminate al Qaeda. We were succeeding, that is, in Obama’s non-war on terror. But such assessments never reflected reality.

This latest series of threat warnings makes that clear. According to early reports attributed to U.S. intelligence officials, the warnings came as a result of intercepted communications between the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda’s most effective affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Daily Beast later reported that the communications were actually broader than that and included leaders of both core al Qaeda and its franchises. The communications included discussions of the structure of the organization and future operations. In the course
of these communications, Zawahiri elevated Wuhayshi to the position of “general manager” of al Qaeda, a position whose responsibilities include managing the affiliates.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers