A central tenet of President Obama’s foreign policy platform is that al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat.” The death of Osama bin Laden, drone strikes in northern Pakistan and elsewhere, the Arab Spring, and Obama’s more conciliatory approach to the Muslim world have all supposedly come together to sound the death knell for al Qaeda.
But what if none of that is actually true and al Qaeda is, in reality, a more durable foe than the administration wants us to believe?
The numbers don’t lie. Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its allies still kill and wound thousands of people worldwide each year—on a scale that is on par with, if not greater than, years past. But even this only tells part of the story. Al Qaeda’s ideology remains potent. And the organization itself is becoming stronger in some countries, not weaker.
In the wake of this year’s September 11 attack in Benghazi, consider Libya. A report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) released in August that was prepared by the research division of the Library of Congress (LOC) under an agreement with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office outlines al Qaeda’s strategy for building up its network in post-Qaddafi Libya.
While some administration officials and outside analysts argue that al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan (AQSL) has been entirely marginalized, the authors of “Al Qaeda in Libya” find otherwise. AQSL “issued strategic guidance to followers in Libya and elsewhere to take advantage of the Libyan rebellion,” the report reads.
AQSL ordered its followers to “gather weapons,” “establish training camps,” “build a network in secret,” “establish an Islamic state,” and “institute sharia” law. This plan is being executed.
“AQSL in Pakistan dispatched trusted senior operatives as emissaries and leaders who could supervise building a network,” the report notes. They have been successful in establishing “a core network in Libya,” but they still hide their efforts and refrain from brandishing the al Qaeda name. The report finds that al Qaeda “will likely continue to mask its presence under the umbrella of the Libyan Salafist movement, with which it shares a radical ideology and a general intent to implement sharia in Libya and elsewhere.”
The al Qaeda operatives do this, the report’s authors contend, to avoid more international scrutiny. And even before the events of this past September 11 their plan was working. Al Qaeda is still moving forward.
“The al Qaeda clandestine network is currently in an expansion phase,” the report reads, “running training camps and media campaigns on social-media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube.” Things are going so well for al Qaeda inside Libya that it is in the final phase of creating a fully operational network.
A stunning graphic prepared by the U.S. military for the report, included below, tells the story. The bracketed triangles on the red arrow show that al Qaeda has already completed much of the groundwork necessary for its long-term survival in Libya.
After the consulate attack in Benghazi, press reports quickly fingered the Ansar al Sharia brigade as one of the prime suspects. One of Ansar al Sharia’s leaders is Sufyan ben Qumu, who is suspected of playing a direct role in the terrorist attack on the consulate.
Ansar al Sharia is not just the name of a brigade; it is the overall brand name being used by al Qaeda to grow its presence inside Libya and elsewhere. In June, Ansar al Sharia held a demonstration at Liberation Square in Benghazi. 15 militias showed up for the demonstration, which was held to support the implementation of sharia law. Some of the militias appear to be under direct al Qaeda control, while others share at least some of al Qaeda’s goals.
The report goes on to detail how al Qaeda is infiltrating and coopting Libya’s militias, which are heavily armed. The weak Libyan government has made little progress in disarming them. Al Qaeda-linked brigades have acquired self-propelled antiaircraft guns, mobile rocket launchers, and other heavy armaments. The al Qaeda-linked militias control security in various parts of the country.
And al Qaeda’s network inside Libya is hooking up with other al Qaeda branches, too. “Al-Qaeda affiliates such as [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] are also benefiting from the situation in Libya,” the report reads. “AQIM will likely join hands with the al Qaeda clandestine network in Libya to secure a supply of arms for its areas of operations in northern Mali and Algeria.”
Al Qaeda is growing inside Libya, not dying. Of course, there are many other factions inside Libya. The rebellion against Qaddafi’s regime was not an al Qaeda-only affair. But some, including inside the Obama administration, have naively assumed that the Arab Spring has already doomed al Qaeda and its ideology.
The opening sentences of the report warn otherwise.
“Al Qaeda has tried to exploit the ‘Arab Awakening’ in North Africa for its own purposes during the past year,” the report’s authors argue. AQSL is pursuing a “strategy of reinforcing its presence in North Africa and the Middle East, taking advantage of the ‘Arab Awakening’ that has disrupted existing counterterrorism capabilities.”
“Leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere will not stop al Qaeda’s widely-ignored expansion.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.