Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How does the U.S. counter al Qaeda while al Qaeda fights itself?

How does the U.S. counter al Qaeda while al Qaeda fights itself?

(This is the fifth and final installment of the “Smarter Counterterrorism” series.  See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here) 

The Syrian conflict has created an unprecedented foreign fighter migration, one that has surprisingly divided rather than united jihadi recruits under al Qaeda’s banner. Al Qaeda is only one piece of a multi-part terrorism threat picture where up to a dozen or more groups still retain some level of intent to attack the U.S.  Meanwhile, al Qaeda Central’s primary affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), participates in open battle with one of al Qaeda’s disavowed affiliates–the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).  In general, from a strictly Western counterterrorism perspective, if jihadis are killing jihadis who are also killing Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members and Hezbollah operatives, what is not to like?  But short-run benefits of al Qaeda infighting should not blind us to the longer run reality-–there are now thousands of trained jihadi foreign fighters, with access to Western countries empowering a dozen or more terrorist groups on many continents, all with varying degrees of commitment to attacking the West in the West or Western targets abroad.

In an era post-al Qaeda hegemony, how should the West and in particular the U.S. counter al Qaeda, with ISIS possibly over the horizon, and pursue any emerging terrorist groups empowered by returnees from Syria? By no means do I believe to have an exact solution. I don’t believe in the notion of a singular grand U.S. counterterrorism strategy (See Part 1 of this series). In the past, I’ve also debated with those who believe we should develop strategies or policy sets with regards to nations based on the presence of an al Qaeda threat in a country’s borders (i.e., Yemen, Pakistan, and many others).  I don’t believe that hinging U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis other countries based solely on a counterterrorism imperative is necessary or wise-–especially in countries where there resides little to no U.S. strategic interest outside of counterterrorism. 

For the rest of our lives, there will be disenfranchised people somewhere in the world who will want to kill Westerners and will pursue terrorism to achieve their goals.  We should not seek to stamp out every evil ideology on the planet but instead look to mitigate the threat each terrorist group presents while carefully calculating the costs and benefits of our actions.  Instead of grand counterterrorism strategy or a mish-mash of inconsistent policies constrained by counterterrorism objectives, I return to the assumptions put forth in Part 1 of this “Smarter Counterterrorism” series and recommend the following for counterterrorism moving forward:

  • Develop a counterterrorism plan explicitly designed to do a few tasks well, not several hundred tasks lightly.

  • Establish a general intent for the counterterrorism community to achieve its mission without micro-managing every action or confining agencies to a convoluted grand counterterrorism strategy that is outdated the moment it is published. (Note: I like current U.S. concepts of a “disposition matrix.”)

  • Undertake six actions now to disrupt and deter current and future terrorism threats.

General Counterterrorism Intent:

In the military, the “Commander’s Intent” provides an overall sense of direction for units to pursue a desired endstate.  The “Intent” can describe courses of action, limitations on methods, and key tasks for accomplishing the mission.  The “Intent” acts as guidance for subordinate agencies and practitioners to develop their own operations without constraining their actions; especially when the enemy situation is highly dynamic such as the terrorism landscape the West encounters today.  I put forth here four recommendations for what might be included in U.S. and Western “Counterterrorism Intent”: 

  • Keep jihadist groups competing –  As noted above and pushed by myself since 2012, if al Qaeda and its current or former affiliates want to compete and kill each other, the West should not get in the way. If there are actions that can be taken to encourage terrorist group competition, by all means we should take them.  However, this general intent only works in the long-run if the West and in particular the U.S. maintains sufficient intelligence capabilities to truly understand how groups are competing and when these groups might seek an attack on the West to one-up each other.  Additionally, the U.S. must not delude themselves into believing there will be no need whatsoever for counterterrorism action. For the foreseeable future, the West must disrupt terror groups that will continue plotting attacks; namely “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s external operations branches.

  • Prepare for the worst case scenario – As I discussed more in depth during Part 4 of this series, the U.S. and the West should prepare now for two “most dangerous” scenarios that might arise.  First, what would the U.S. and its partners do if the two major strains of jihad, “Old Guard” al Qaeda and Team ISIS, compete in such a way that they pursue parallel, escalating attacks on Western targets? Second, what would the U.S. and its partners do if “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s proxies in Syria converge to focus their energies to attack Israel?  (al Qaeda linked rebels recently seized locations in the Golan Heights.) The West should not sit back and hope that these most dangerous scenarios don’t arise.  Rather than get caught flat footed, the U.S. should make plans now for how we would intervene to derail these most dangerous scenarios. 

  • Avoid foreign intervention and nation building – As we in the West have come to realize the past decade, large-scale foreign intervention followed by nation-building has largely failed to root out terrorists.  Foreign intervention confirms jihadi ideological justifications for fighting the West, is extremely costly and ultimately results in a weak state prime for the creation of a terrorist operational safe haven.  The West has learned its lesson on this I’m sure. A better counterterrorism approach over the horizon is currently underway in the Horn of Africa, where limited military and intelligence support is provided to counterterrorism forces who pursue limited objectives.  

  • Sustain intelligence capabilities across all theaters – Sustaining our intelligence capabilities to understand the plethora of terrorist threats we face has never been more important.  Yet, the U.S. government has been desperately trying to hold onto these capabilities due to the Edward Snowden affair.  The U.S. government must continue to fight for these capabilities, and the American public must understand that the best way to protect Americans in the digital age is to harness our advantages in technical surveillance.  Americans, to keep you safe, the U.S. government may end up learning a little bit about your electronic life.  Security is a trade off, deal with it. 

Specific Counterterrorism Actions:

A delicate balance of counterterrorism actions should be pursued moving forward from 2014.  Some who have tired from the Global War on Terror years might believe we should do little to nothing in the counterterrorism realm. This would be foolish as the threat of terrorism has not evaporated, but has rather changed.  Others would argue the reverse, that al Qaeda (whatever that means!) is stronger than ever and requires accelerated military action to halt their advance.  This would be equally foolish as jihadis writ large have never been in such a self-destructive state.  Aggressively advancing military counterterrorism any direction would likely galvanize disparate jihadi factions together rather than keep them competing.  To effectively strike a balance between these two poles, I recommend undertaking only a few counterterrorism actions.  Many of these actions the U.S. government is already pursuing fairly well; a massive improvement over how counterterrorism was conducted a decade ago and hats off to those nimbly pursuing al Qaeda operatives today.

  • Quash Terror Financiers – No action may be more important today than getting control of the money and resources streaming in to Syria and other terrorist safe havens.  While it is good to see jihadis fighting each other, as long as resources remain constant, these groups (i.e. “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Team ISIS and other upstarts in other regions) will ultimately build sufficient capacity to conduct an attack on the West.  Extreme ideologies lacking resources become little more than a cult over time.  But al Qaeda and today’s jihadi variants persist because they sustain a steady supply of resources from the Middle East.  Today, I or anyone else can get on openly available social media and contribute money to jihadis in Syria or watch big money donors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar rally support for their favorite jihadi faction.  The U.S. government has pursued efforts to disrupt this stream and Saudi Arabia seems aware of the blowback dangers of their citizens’ financial and materiel support to the Syria jihad. One alternative being pursued appears to harness money flows to select Islamist groups vis-à-vis jihadi groups.  Whatever the specific actions end up being, my point is that countering terror finance has never been such an important element of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

  • Eliminate “Old Guard” al Qaeda and its external operations cells  – As I’ve advocated in Part 1 and later addressed in Part 3 and Part 4 of this “Smarter Counterterrorism” series, I believe U.S. counterterrorism strategy should focus on “Old Guard” al Qaeda whose external operations elements remain committed to attacking the U.S. and the West.  The kinetic elements of counterterrorism, military operations supported by robust intelligence and when possible law enforcement, should continue as they have in recent years, nimbly targeting the most dangerous elements of al Qaeda wherever they reside.  When feasible, the West should capture and try these al Qaeda operatives in courts of law. When a threat to the West is imminent and capture is infeasible, military operations should be pursued.   The U.S. has improved this counterterrorism triage process dramatically in the past decade and it will need to be sustained at today’s level of intensity for the foreseeable future.

  • Transition Russia & Iran as the far enemy – Moving forward, U.S. information campaigns in counterterrorism should consider redirecting al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy’ narrative. Today, the real far enemies of jihadis in Syria are Russia and Iran.  Russia has reinitiated its imperial ways and acts as a buffer to Western intervention in Syria.  Iran provides resources, troops, and technological capability to the Syrian regime.  For the sectarian ISIS, Iran is a natural far enemy.  For “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Russia was their first far enemy in Afghanistan; let’s encourage them to reboot that campaign.  Whether the U.S. likes it or not, Russia and Iran continue to target the U.S. in deliberate information campaigns.  Why shouldn’t the U.S. redirect some of the jihadi hatred towards those with the dirtiest hands in the Syrian conflict: Russia and Iran? (Note: I also have another recommended objective in the information space, but why should we cough up all of our best ideas here for jihadis to read?)

  • Sustain Foreign Fighter Tracking – The rapid resurgence of foreign fighter networks into Syria comes in large part from the second great foreign fighter migration to Iraq circa 2004–2010.  Those survivors of the Iraq battlefields today help facilitate new recruits to Syria and have provided fuel for ISIS splintering from core al Qaeda. A common estimate of the aggregate number of foreign fighters in Syria tossed about in the media is 10,000. Thomas Hegghammer has estimated that 1% to 10% of foreign fighters return home to commit violence. It is difficult to know how many of today’s 10,000 foreign fighters will survive and return home, but I would expect somewhere between 750-1000 members of today’s foreign fighter legions will be committed to violence against the West post-Syria. During the Afghanistan jihad, there was little to no way to track where the source of future foreign fighters would come from. Six years ago, we could see where today’s foreign fighter supplies would arise based on al Qaeda in Iraq’s human resources database captured by U.S. Forces in Sinjar, Iraq.  Today, however, an essential part of being a Syria foreign fighter is maintaining a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  If Western countries are not using this openly available information to track and estimate their risk of violence from returning jihadis, they are being foolish.  Today’s social media has helped empower foreign fighter recruitment to fight in Syria, why shouldn’t we use that same information to prepare ourselves for the third foreign fighter glut post Syria?

  • Eliminate Wuhayshi & Zawahiri (or not?) – One of the more perplexing dilemmas in the post al Qaeda hegemony period is where to focus efforts to eliminate key al Qaeda leaders.  One would expect Ayman al-Zawahiri to be the most important target for Western counterterrorism efforts, but ISIS rejection of Zawahiri and Zawahiri’s track record since Bin Laden’s death (see Part 3 – “Zawahiri’s Tenure“) suggest Zawahiri’s death or capture might actually help rather than hurt global jihadi unity (See this recent post). Zawahiri’s statement this past weekend illustrates how limited his control is of jihad’s competing factions. While I firmly believe the West and its partners in Pakistan should capture or eliminate Zawahiri at any point feasible for he is most certainly preparing a plot against the West or Israel, the most important leader for “Old Guard” al Qaeda and jihad as a whole is Nasir Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP in Yemen and al Qaeda’s deputy commander globally.  As discussed in Part 3, Wuhayshi remains committed to attacking the U.S., will be more effective as the leader of al Qaeda globally and is highly respected by the rank and file jihadis from the Sahel to South Asia. If anyone has the ability to reunite all jihadis, ISIS and other independents, it would be Wuhayshi.  Thus, I’d recommend focusing leadership decapitation efforts on Wuhayshi first to prevent a stronger more potent al Qaeda in the future. Eliminating Wuhayshi would likely further unchain a jihadi movement already moving in many different directions-–see Scenario #3 of Part 4 here. 

  • In Syria, Focus on Nusra first, Then Prepare For ISIS – Jabhat al-Nusra and its network of “Old Guard” al Qaeda liaisons amongst the Islamic Front should be the focus of counterterrorism in Syria. Nusra will be the vehicle for future attacks on the West and Israel after the Syrian conflict.  By directly checking Nusra first, the U.S. would be reaffirming that support for al Qaeda’s doctrine of targeting the U.S. as the far enemy will result in direct counterterrorism action. Overall, in terms of al Qaeda affiliates, I recommend the priority of effort go to (1) AQAP in Yemen, (2) Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and (3) al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. From Part 3 and Part 4 of this series, some might think I’m ignoring the threat of a rising ISIS. If the West were lucky enough to see the complete crumbling of “Old Guard” al Qaeda, ISIS would likely still present a threat to the West over time if allowed to create a sustainable safe haven in Western Iraq. But, I believe ISIS may recognize that as long as they avoid going toe-to-toe with the US in the near-term, they can avoid receiving a mouthful of missiles that might overtake their ambitions of establishing an Islamic State. Additionally, ISIS targeting is distinctly more sectarian, so why not let local populations, partners, or even adversaries like Iran deal with this rising group? ISIS’s rise must continue to be monitored and if they shift their targeting toward the West then the West should move to deter them. In the meantime, hit Nusra hard–an affiliate committed to “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s goals.

Western Counterterrorism Actions That Could Be Reduced

From my time working in government it was always the case that great new ideas were always advocated, but outdated or unproductive processes and concepts were rarely if ever eliminated from the repertoire.  Moving forward, I think there are two areas where the U.S. could reduce counterterrorism effort.

  • Messaging to undermine al Qaeda’s ideology – The United States has wisely declined to challenge al Qaeda’s religious justifications for its actions. And why bother? Jihadi ideology, much like communism during the 1980s, is failing right now because of its own weaknesses and flaws. The United States government should continue refuting al Qaeda’s misinformation about the United States and disseminating examples of al Qaeda’s hypocrisy and dissension in its ranks, but avoid efforts to challenge al Qaeda’s ideology on religious grounds.

  • Avoid Governance & Development as part of counterterrorism strategy – A decade ago, I supported the notion of using economic and governance aid and development as a part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.  However, more than ten years of counterterrorism has proven that I was wrong.  These development efforts have been extremely expensive and have not to my knowledge shown any measured effect in undermining al Qaeda and other jihadi groups.  I want children to be free of disease, girls to attend school and citizens around the world to enjoy liberty and human rights irrespective of terrorism rather than in spite of it.  Let’s devote our limited development resources in those locations that can ultimately share in Western values and host the requisite economic underpinnings and components of civil society for which democracy flourishes; not in those terrorist safe havens incongruent to democratic principles, unsustainable for future growth and of value to the West only through the lens of counterterrorism. At times, there might be good reason to pursue limited development projects in support of counterterrorism objectives in local environments that are hotspots for terrorist recruitment. But the scale should be small and the scope focused. For example, a development project in Nairobi, Kenya to thwart Shabaab recruitment might make sense if integrated with democratic governance efforts and a partner supporting U.S. democratic values.  However, trying to reform the justice systems of North African countries to undermine al Qaeda sympathies, an idea I once heard of in a counterterrorism context, does not make much sense.

As I reach the end of this series, I’d like to thank all those who have read the five installments and provided feedback  – I’ve learned alot from each of your insights. In conclusion, I hope we can all learn from the past decade’s counterterrorism lessons to continue improving our mission to deter and defeat al Qaeda and any future terrorist threats that spawn from it.  We will need to pursue counterterrorism for many years to come; hopefully we can do this in a measured and effective way unhinged from the fear of another 9/11.