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Treating America’s al Qaeda Addiction – Part 2 of “Smarter Counterterrorism”

Author:  Clint Watts
February 17, 2014

Treating America’s al Qaeda Addiction – Part 2 of “Smarter Counterterrorism”

(This is the second post in this series, see the initial post at “Smarter Counterterrorism in an Era of Competing al Qaeda’s”)

For a dozen years, Americans have suffered through endless debates about an amorphous al Qaeda and its current strength. One argument will consistently suggest al Qaeda is stronger, again on America’s doorstep waiting to pounce and presents a significant threat to U.S. National Security and the West.  More recently, a counterargument has emerged that al Qaeda is no longer, the war on terrorism is over, and that Americans can return to a 1990’s security posture where we focus on process (i.e. civil liberty protection, accountability, and transparency) rather than the end state of preventing another 9/11 attack. These two arguments represent the outcome of a hollow debate that relies on a false assumption; that al Qaeda is a singular unified threat to the U.S. and operates in a manner consistent with its structure at the time of September 11, 2001.  Thus, when television pundits vaguely say, “al Qaeda”, no one knows for sure what they are referring to; they are in effect saying nothing at all.

Today, al Qaeda exists only as a subset of a multi-faceted jihadi militant landscape strewn across three continents and at least a half dozen insurgencies.  While some warn of the dangers of a resurgent, singular al Qaeda, the real danger of terrorism comes from the unknown-–a plurality of armed jihadi groups spread throughout the Middle East and Africa lightly watched by the West due to a fixation on outdated models of al Qaeda and a persistent winnowing of Western surveillance and intelligence resources.  To wage smarter counterterrorism moving forward, the U.S. must deal with its al Qaeda addiction.

So how did we get addicted to “al Qaeda”?  A few factors converged to narrow our vision.

The Trauma of 9/11 – The most obvious reason is that we in the U.S. can’t move on from al Qaeda because of the trauma of 9/11. I shouldn’t discount it. But, Americans have fueled their fears with never-ending replays of this trauma. Since 2001, every perceived threat stirs up the images and pain of 9/11 and to always remain on the side of caution, we’ve let fear drive our actions.  We will never forget, but we must move on; move beyond al Qaeda and recognize that even if al Qaeda attacks the U.S. again, it will not bring an end to the United States.   I’m not calling for complacency, but instead reasonable awareness of the risks terrorism presents – a risk that is not adequately understood by the all-encompassing name “al Qaeda”.  Our media could help us move on, but…

One Big “al Qaeda” Threat Is Easier For the Media To Convey – Mass media has spent more than a decade priming audiences to the term “al Qaeda”.  When a story or report says “al Qaeda”, a mental image quickly forms – planes crashing into buildings, falling twin towers, hooded men shooting weapons, climbing monkey bars and crawling under barb wire.  The story quickly plays on emotion, neatly frames the argument in two parties (the U.S. & the West vs. al Qaeda) and makes for great “click bait” on websites. 

I feel for journalists and their editors as they are caught in a trap of engaging and maintaining an audience while trying to explain a highly complex set of issues in only a few hundred words or a 30-second sound bite.  They can’t succinctly describe how Ansar-al-Flavor-Of-The-Week may impact U.S. security and resulting policy. 

The latest in this conundrum comes from al Qaeda Central’s disavowing of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq) which presents a threat to both “Old Guard” al Qaeda and U.S. interests.  The term used most recently is “al Qaeda Splinter Group”, a name stripped from a Tom Clancy novel/video game spinoff I assume. This term also confuses the issue for the reader, as al Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri broke it off with ISIS, not the other way around – ISIS didn’t break off from al Qaeda, they were kicked out.  The media sits in a tough spot and normally they could look to academia and experts to help clarify the landscape and the issues.  Well, that would be in normal circumstances….

The Terrorism and Counterterrorism Industry crumbles without al Qaeda – The years since 9/11/2001 have created an unprecedented research and industrial buildup to support counterterrorism; a sea of money no academic or analyst ever imagined during the 1990s.  With the beginning of nation-wide campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need for expertise was apparent and the resources flowed freely.  Every corner of the U.S. government sponsored some form of ‘terrorism analysis’ or ‘counterterrorism planning’ where academia and the private sector brought specialists together to anticipate al Qaeda’s next move and implement an unwieldy counterterrorism plan. (Full disclosure: I am a product of this buildup.)

In the early years, this worked well, those with strong language skills tended to cover the hot conflict zones and others migrated to study jihadi ideology and al Qaeda’s pursuit of WMD. Many were former Sovietologists more adept at transitioning their psychohistorical and psycholinguistic analysis skills to a new threat in a different theater.  I ended up working on terrorist threats in Africa, for example, because I lacked Arabic language skills, was genuinely interested in learning more about Africa and because everyone else desperately wanted to get in on the action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Ironically, they are now scampering to become Africa or Syria experts today.  It’s a never-ending chase. 

This system progressed fine until the drawdowns in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.  As the big theaters closed, this forced analysts to chase the next big threat, rapidly research a new al Qaeda affiliate and region, reassert their relevance and publish prose on al Qaeda’s next rise – all done in an effort to protect our nation from terrorism and our own livelihoods in the process. (Remember, I am a member of this industry.)  The reports routinely prescribe one of three patent solutions for defeating al Qaeda: 1) the only way to defeat al Qaeda is to completely wipe the planet of al Qaeda’s ideology 2) we must win the hearts and minds of every disenfranchised community from Africa to South Asia or 3) both of these things.  In all three cases, a multi-billion dollar campaign of undetermined length, under-researched methods with fuzzy long-run objectives is required – completely infeasible, utterly unsustainable and not appropriately scoped for the more narrow and severe threat of ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda. 

The net result of this system has been a splurge of terrorism and counterterrorism punditry by analysts increasingly removed from the frontlines with al Qaeda, relying on less and less journalist reporting and primary documents, framing thinking based on notions of al Qaeda circa 2001 rather than 2011 and trying to piece together a global al Qaeda strategy from a noisy jihadi social media landscape.  Each report, if sufficiently scary, presents another opportunity for funded research or a speaking engagement.  Who wants to read a complicated report on the rise of the next serious threat presented by Lashkar-Fill-in-the-Blank or Ansar-Fill-in-the-Blank unless its “tied”, “connected” or “linked” to al Qaeda – and “al Qaeda” means whatever you need it to be.  The counterterrorism punditry isn’t doing anything devious or deliberate. They are not members of the top 1% nor trying to lead their country astray.  Most are passionate about their profession, genuinely well intentioned and highly competitive with one another.  Anyone that’s ever sat in a meeting of terrorism and counterterrorism analysts and academics knows its really a passive aggressive game to see who’s smartest – the equivalent of the TV Show “Survivor” for people that don’t like to go outside, where everyone protects or bluffs about their sources and builds alliances to protect their food (I mean funding). The outcome is al Qaeda threat conflation, an endless game of Back-to-Bin Laden or Zawahiri informed by limited sourcing and perpetuated by competition over relevancy. 

The worst part of today’s CT punditry is over the long-run it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: by over-classifying things as al Qaeda, we hunt for more al Qaeda, and we find more al Qaeda.  We end up over pursuing, making more mistakes, spreading ourselves thin and in fact creating more al Qaeda than we eliminate.  Today’s al Qaeda and the jihadi militants swirling around them are too diffuse, scattered amongst too many cultures and countries and evolving too quickly for any one counterterrorism pundit or TV talking head to maintain a persistent understanding.

The alternative to hoping the media can appropriately classify “al Qaeda” or that the counterterrorism industry can narrowly deduce the true threat of terrorism is to have a system where information can flow from multiple sources across every jihadi theater to one place where the world’s most experienced analysts can work together to determine the true nature of the terrorist threat to the U.S., and craft nimble policy and appropriate action to defeat those most dangerous threats to U.S. national security.  If only we such a system…hhmmm….that’s right we do, its called the U.S. counterterrorism community.  Could the U.S. government help focus discussions about the threat of terrorism? Probably not because the…….

U.S. Government Needs  “One al Qaeda” To Keep Counterterrorism Options Open – I think the only entity capable and actually informed about today’s threat of terrorism is the U.S. counterterrorism community (The Intelligence Community, State Department, FBI, DoD, etc.).  They see the open source reporting of the counterrorism industry, have the most important intelligence from higher classification levels and have cadres of operators and analysts with a decade-plus of counterterrorism experience.  They’ve learned many lessons the past decade and the recent, nearly simultaneous raids in Tripoli, Libya and Barawe, Somalia demonstrate just how nimble they can be.  I do believe the U.S. counterterrorism community is the only single entity sufficiently capable and resourced to decipher today’s chaotic terrorist landscape.  Unfortunately, three forces prevent them from curing America’s al Qaeda addiction.

  • Armed Use of Military Force (AUMF) hinges on the existence of al QaedaGregory Johnsen’s recent Buzzfeed article provides the best overview on how our counterterrorism capabilities continue to pursue terrorist threats that hinge on the existence of al Qaeda.  Without the AUMF, many counterterrorism authorities and tools necessary for protecting the U.S. from emerging jihadi variants would come off the table.  Thus the words “linked”, “connected” and “tied” in counterterrorism analyses and stories are essential for keeping the AUMF in place.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress appears completely incapable of updating the AUMF for today’s threat landscape.
  • Edward Snowden’s leaks – Snowden’s disclosures have called into question what counterterrorists view as crucial intelligence and surveillance tools and techniques.  Signals intercepts and sources essential for understanding the myriad of extremist groups around the world must be justified.  Most of these capabilities were built in response to al Qaeda, so now in the face of scrutiny, we must reaffirm there is an al Qaeda to justify their development and continued existence.
  • Politics – The American political climate stinks and its effect on national security is perverse. Neither party wants to be found weak on terrorism or downplaying al Qaeda as there is about a 100% chance al Qaeda or some entity connected to al Qaeda will kill an American in the future.  Congressmen in general so poorly understand terrorism to begin with that the U.S. counterterrorism community has to keep the “One Big al Qaeda” going to explain national security threats to those that approve their budgets.  For an example of this pointless dynamic, watch last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee discussion about al Qaeda. See minute 43:40 where Senator Inhofe asks “Yes or No, is al Qaeda stronger?” to which the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency LTG  Michael T. Flynn must answer.  Senator Inhofe even references an ominous map like I discussed in my first post.

 How do we cure our addiction to Al Qaeda?

For America to cure its “al Qaeda” addiction several things must happen.

For everyday Americans we must:

  • Accept that al Qaeda or other jihadi militant groups will ultimately kill Americans again sometime in the future. – When this happens, we must control our emotions, analyze what has happened and narrowly focus on retaliating against the actual perpetrators and not their “connections”.
  • Understand the threat of terrorism and America’s need to pursue counterterrorism will not end in our lifetimes. –  We cannot know when al Qaeda is defeated when we cannot agree on a definition of what al Qaeda is.  Even if al Qaeda were to cease to exist tomorrow, there would be some disenfranchised individual or group, boasting a jihadi ideology from a far off safe haven that would want to attack the U.S. for one reason or another.

For the media, please:

  • Expand your terms – Please expand beyond “al Qaeda” to describe the vast landscape of Sunni militant groups in the world.  As we see now with the separation of ISIS from al Qaeda, there will be serious terrorist threats to U.S. national security, and al Qaeda will be only one of them. The more you inform the public without the limitations of the al Qaeda mental model the better we will all be.
  • Stop using singular terrorism and counterterrorism talking heads. –  If you are relying on one or two experts to cover every story from domestic homeland security to al Qaeda in Pakistan, its time to make a change and build a bigger and broader set of experts you can call on. If your expert refers to everything as “al Qaeda” or “bad guys”, show them the door. This change has already started to happen somewhat, and it needs to continue if there is any hope for Americans to understand the threats facing them.

For the terrorism and counterterrorism pundit and academic community, I recommend the following:

  • Work collaboratively rather than individually – The academic community and industry could establish systems of cooperation and sharing rather than competition – seeking collective rather than individual funding.  Understanding al Qaeda or any emerging terrorist threat requires an interdisciplinary team with deep knowledge on dozens of regions, cultures, languages and extremist groups. For example, today, there are dozens of researchers creating open source datasets logging foreign fighters to Syria-–an important area of research.  But each researcher has only a partial dataset, all slightly skewed based on the collector, their skills, their sources and their funders.  When combined, these analysts and researchers likely have the insight needed to appropriately assess today’s complex terrorism environment.  Maybe the upcoming University of Massachusetts Center for Terrorism and Security Studies event “Communication and Collaboration for Counter-Terrorism” is a first step in the right direction.

For our government to pursue the terrorists of greatest threat to the U.S., I recommend the following:

  • Maintain our intelligence capabilities – Despite the post-Snowden trend to question the need for intelligence capabilities, they’ve never been more essential for keeping an eye on a diffuse terrorist landscape.  Rather than taking tools off the table, the U.S. should be reinforcing its most valuable capabilities.
  • Decouple politics from counterterrorism – This is impossible, I know. But as long as both political parties feel trapped in a zero defect climate of fear (such as the constant harranguing about Benghazi) then the U.S. counterterrorism community will be required to play the “is al Qaeda stronger?” game indefinitely. Additionally, Congress must move to update U.S. laws and policies to appropriately address authorities for countering terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. Only updated laws and policies will allow for the appropriate streamlining of processes, adequate oversight and desired transparency needed to appropriately counter the plethora of non-state threats we will face in the coming years.

Alright, enough big picture talk, in the next post (part 3 for later this week), I’ll focus on “Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony”  

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