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Smarter Counterterrorism in The Age of Competing Al Qaeda’s

Author:  Clint Watts
February 10, 2014

Smarter Counterterrorism in The Age of Competing Al Qaeda’s

Last week Ayman al- Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s global leader publicly dissolved the relationship between al Qaeda Central and the group currently known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) and formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.  Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s General Command said in what was effectively a press release: 

“[ISIS] is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,”

Zawahiri’s announcement comes only two weeks after Dr. Michael Doran, Dr. Will McCants and I addressed the challenges accompanying the premature designation of al Qaeda affiliates in an article entitled “The Good and The Bad of Ahrar Al Sham”.  

Our thesis put forth that today’s terrorism threat picture looks far different than a decade ago–more complicated and subsequently more challenging to navigate.  Appropriately understanding the true terrorist threats to the U.S. and the West requires in-depth analysis from multiple disciplines and an open mind to pursue counterterrorism strategies informed by the lessons learned from the past decade but not constrained by past models of al Qaeda activity. 

This post and several to follow represent my assumptions and opinions on how the U.S. might push forward in counterterrorism against al Qaeda and those jihadist groups emerging from al Qaeda’s wake. (These are my opinions and not necessarily shared by my co-authors Drs. Doran and McCants-–I speak only for myself here.)  The posts are meant to stir discussion and debate; I have no illusions that I have all the answers or am exactly correct in my prescriptions. 

For my first post in this series, I have six assumptions and/or principles that shape my opinions to come in future posts.  

  •  Al Qaeda is not one big thing 

Analysts and pundits should stop focusing on building links between al Qaeda affiliates seeking to present loose networks as one large insurmountable threat.  Billing al Qaeda as “One Big Thing” over the past decade resulted in the U.S. pursuing strategies, such as military occupation and backing corrupt dictators, which galvanize competing al Qaeda adherents and unify disparate affiliate actions. The US should pick its fights wisely and for the greatest counterterrorism return at the lowest cost. Since Bin Laden’s death, we’ve seen unprecedented al Qaeda infighting in Somalia, Syria and the Sahel. Rather than build new fears of an al Qaeda juggernaut, we should instead be employing our vaunted “smart power”–that’s if the U.S. can act smartly rather than in a partisan manner and still has power in a region where it has pursued a campaign of disengagement in recent years.  

  • All al Qaeda affiliates are not equal in intent, commitment and capability

Most all Sunni militant groups from Africa to South Asia will express some level of support for al Qaeda and targeting of the West.  However, their commitment to al Qaeda and its objectives varies considerably depending on local agendas and operating environments.  An upstart al Qaeda affiliate constantly weighs the costs and benefits of attacking the U.S.-–comparing the resulting credibility and support produced by a successful attack against the immediate and intense U.S. counterterrorism pressure to follow any attack.  For most affiliates, its better to wave the al Qaeda banner and passively allow safe haven of “Old Guard”, core al Qaeda operatives than to actively pursue their own attacks on the U.S. Beyond intent and commitment, the capability of affiliates to attack the U.S. is limited to only a few nodes.  Even if an al Qaeda affiliate wanted to attack the U.S., most are limited to picking off the stray, undefended American or Westerner that floats through their area of operations.  If an al Qaeda upstart affiliate lacks the commitment and capability to attack the U.S., should the U.S. expend millions of dollars to destroy ten guys waving an al Qaeda flag?  I think not, most of these gun-toting disenfranchised youth do not pose a direct or immediate threat to U.S. national security. But I also don’t think these upstarts should be ignored.  Intelligence collection and analysis will be essential to understanding when these nascent groups cross the line and become a significant threat to the U.S. 

  • Destroy al Qaeda’s core, “Old Guard” network 

Rather than chasing every militant from Morocco to Pakistan, the main effort should remain on the “Old Guard” al Qaeda network committed to attacking the U.S. I estimate this network consists of the following elements plus or minus a few people:

  • Ayman al Zawahiri and his closest advisors of “Old Guard” al Qaeda in Pakistan. I’d estimate this to be no more than a couple dozen individuals.
  • AQAP’s top leadership in Yemen led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi as well as AQAP’s external operations branch, which includes the talented bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri.  Since 2005, this element has presented the most credible and significant threats to the U.S.  
  • al Qaeda leaders and foreign fighters embedded in al Shabaab in Somalia as an external operations force executing attacks regionally and in the West. This includes al Shabaab’s top leaders (i.e., Godane and key deputies) as well as those known Western passport holders plotting attacks (see, for example, Ikrima).
  • AQIM’s top remaining leadership in the Sahel to prevent their reconstitution in the desert and resulting push for attacks against the West and in particular Europe (i.e., Yahya Abou el-Hammam,  Sultan Ould Badi, Ould Kheiru). This includes Mukhtar Bel Mukhtar’s “Those Who Sign With Blood” who have been a divisive force in AQIM, but have also demonstrated clearly their intent to attack the West.
  • Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, al Qaeda’s most important affiliate today who seeks a long-run strategy of building al Qaeda’s next safe haven and tapping into the greatest foreign fighter migration in history.  Also in Syria, al Qaeda envoys to other group’s in the Islamic Front must be interdicted or disrupted (see, for example, Abu Khalid al Suri worming into Ahrar al Sham).
  • al Qaeda operatives and foreign fighters from Syria moving into Egypt that are building a jihadist force to destabilize Egypt and antagonize Israel with cross-border attacks designed to unify Islamists, Salafists and Jihadists under one banner.   

 In addition to these leadership elements, I also believe that the U.S. should take steps when appropriate to interdict:

  • Occasional envoys dispatched from al Qaeda seeking to expand the group’s influence into second-tier affiliates in Libya, Tunisia, the Sahel, Nigeria and other places.
  • Americans or U.S. persons in al Qaeda or its orbit with the ability to infiltrate back into the U.S. or specifically target the U.S. homeland (see these three as examples: Abousamra, Mostafa, Gadahn).

When I hear the words “al Qaeda”, I think of the above elements consisting of a few hundred “varsity” players rather than 10,000 disenfranchised young boys firing guns in the air, toting black flags and posting YouTube videos. Only a few of the smartest survivors of the Syrian jihad will be a threat to the West in the future.  I’m not advocating ignoring emerging affiliates; persistent intelligence collection will be critical, but go after the bigger fish that threaten the U.S. rather than every small fish floating in the stream. Groups like ISIS may pose a threat to the U.S. and should be countered if necessary, but in the meantime, ISIS and other faltering groups hurt “Old Guard” al Qaeda as much as any U.S. action–let partners with a larger stake in defeating ISIS take the lead. Despite media stories suggesting al Qaeda’s rise, I think the U.S. counterterrorism community is actually focused appropriately on the right al Qaeda targets.  I hope public and Congressional pressure to fight last decade’s al Qaeda won’t push them off course. 

  • When we designate groups as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), we should destroy them.

During the discussion on Ahrar al-Sham, Dr. Doran, Dr. McCants and I were trying to illustrate the complications that come along with designating a group an FTO.  The designation restricts U.S. options for dealing with the group in non-military ways and can actually strengthen al Qaeda’s hand.  For me personally, I believe in the concept of FTO designation but only if the U.S. is serious about countering the FTO. Designating a FTO and then doing nothing to destroy the group results in the FTO getting the credibility of fighting the U.S. without any adverse effects.  Over the long-run, failing to destroy a FTO makes the U.S. look ineffective and weak. Designation of a FTO or foreign terrorist (FT) for that matter should come with decisive action commensurate with what one should expect from a global superpower.

  • Effective counterterrorism strategy focuses on doing a few tasks well, not several hundred tasks lightly.

Lumping each pseudo-jihadist under an all encompassing Al Qaeda banner dilutes US counterterrosm efforts resulting in a repeat of the strategic complications of the 2004-2007 era–when defeating al Qaeda could only be accomplished by solving all of the developing world’s problems via a 500-700 point implementation plan spread across a massive bureaucracy. Nineteen al Qaeda hijackers executed the 9/11 attacks, not 19 million. More than twelve years after 9/11, we should look back on US counterterrorism and recognize that protecting our country and Americans overseas has come from one task far above all others: killing or capturing core al Qaeda members.  Further quelling al Qaeda or what it is to become also comes via two important supporting elements: conducting counterterrorism consistent with American values (i.e., minimizing the killing of innocent bystanders, ending indefinite detention, supporting democratic principles & abandoning corrupt dictators) and maintaining dominant intelligence capabilities that help distinguish the most dangerous elements of al Qaeda for targeting separate from those more innocent and less threatening to U.S. national security.  Ironically, the American public’s overriding self-interest in civil liberty protection has likely rendered it more difficult for the US government to distinguish friend from foe.  Lastly, putting an end to our notions of regime change via military occupation, abandonment of Arab spring dictators and renewed commitment to American values further eroded the last decade’s fodder for al Qaeda’s narratives. Unfortunately, the U.S. has more recently backed Arab Spring uprisings through inaction. The battle between democracy and Sharia has only just begun and further dimming opportunities for “Old Guard” al Qaeda requires a long-run strategy in countries where democracy is not likely to flourish in the near-term. Until the U.S. can figure out its strategic interests in the Middle East (assuming it can, I’m not convinved this is possible), I recommend a narrow counterterrorism strategy focused on a small set of tasks executed by a limited set of actors.     

  • Terrorism is a lesser threat to our national security compared to other long-run issues.

The media and counterterrorism pundits are notorious for maps of al Qaeda where entire countries are shaded ominous colors when there are maybe only a half dozen al Qaeda members/supporters in a country consisting mostly of uninhabitable desert. Al Qaeda threat conflation convinces Americans that terrorism is a national security threat more dangerous than all others leading to over extension of counterterrorism efforts. (My next post will further discuss why we are hooked on one big “al Qaeda”). Terrorism poses a less serious threat than many other national security issues such as climate change, excessive US national debt, Chinese cyber theft of intellectual property, an aggressively resurgent Russia, Iranian nuclear gamesmanship and a hothead North Korean supreme leader with daddy issues. Each of these threats poses a far greater threat to long-run US national security than lost young boys trapped amongst al Qaeda affiliates that are just as likely to kill their own members as they are Americans.

Next post later this week: “To Say al Qaeda Is To Say Nothing At All”. 

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