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.  

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ISIS’s Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards – Part 4 of “Smarter Counterterrorism”

(This is Part 4 of Smarter Counterterrorism, see Part 1 herePart 2 here, and Part 3 here)

Ayman al-Zawahiri must have awoke to the news of Bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 with the excitement of soon being al Qaeda’s global leader followed shortly by the anxiety of leading an organization and associated jihadi movement in sharp decline.  Zawahiri, while often described as an intelligent architect for al Qaeda’s violence and an aggressive influence on Bin Laden, lacked the traits of a charismatic leader able to reinvigorate a vast and varying network of affiliates populated by a younger generation more inspired to kill than pray.  Al Qaeda’s internal documents showed Zawahiri to be controlling; seen scolding al Qaeda’s most compelling leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and consistently trying to rein in an organization that by design was meant to be decentralized.  Zawahiri’s failures in Egypt always colored his view of al Qaeda’s future direction and where the group might misstep; fearful of excessive violence against innocent civilians eroding popular support and weary of wannabes loosely aligned or unknown to al Qaeda perpetrating bumbling plots of limited value.  In communiqués to Bin Laden, Zawahiri’s pushing for more control by al Qaeda’s central leadership appears to have been heard but either ignored or deemed too difficult to implement.  Adding to Zawahiri’s problems were his personality and history, which by many expert accounts, made him both difficult to work with and lacking the respect of al Qaeda’s frontline fighters.

By June 2011, al Qaeda’s conclave officially confirmed what was already assumed. Zawahiri became the group’s official emir and began receiving oaths of loyalty (Baya’t) confirming allegiance between al Qaeda affiliate leaders and al Qaeda Central’s new leader in Pakistan; that is with the exception of one affiliate – the Islamic State of Iraq led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a first sign of the divisive internal politics to emerge in al Qaeda’s ranks post Bin Laden. 

Zawahiri’s Tenure as al Qaeda’s Chief

To understand how al Qaeda has faltered since Bin Laden’s death and to anticipate where jihad will go in the future, we must examine the leadership transition to Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Through the summer of 2011, senior al Qaeda leaders and conduits to affiliates were being eliminated every month, Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, Ilyas Kashmiri in Pakistan and strangely the elusive Harun Fazul in Somalia.  Fazul, once Bin Laden’s personal secretary, died at a Somali government checkpoint similar to ones he likely passed through easily dozens of times before.  In the following months, rumors swirled that al Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, had arranged for Fazul’s timely death to settle a score with the ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda leader floating in his turf.  The mysterious pattern of al Qaeda foreign fighters being killed in Somalia continued through 2011 and 2012 and rumblings of internal rifts in Shabaab’s ranks grew while a plan for formal membership to al Qaeda was in the works. With Bin Laden gone, al Qaeda princes across many affiliates were making their own plays in a ‘Game of Thrones’ where politics and power became the priority over ideology and al Qaeda’s grand strategy. 

Months if not years in decline forced Zawahiri to act after Bin Laden’s death and his actions led to al Qaeda Central’s unravelingApparently the message was “Do Something” and the affiliates used their own initiative and some of Bin Laden’s final guidance to push for Islamic states in the Arabian Peninsula, the Sahel and by alliance in the Horn of Africa. First came al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who rebranded a parallel militia, Ansar al Sharia, and began securing turf in Yemen, instituting Sharia law and establishing an Islamic state; only to be met by a flurry of U.S. drone strikes and the remnants of the Yemeni army.  By late 2012, AQAP slipped back into the shadows leaving behind their attempts at an Islamic state as a new caliphate emerged in the Sahel.  Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with an array of local insurgents stormed northern Mali in a pattern similar to what had recently taken place in Yemen.  Through the fall of 2012, AQIM made their run at establishing an Islamic state until the French intervention of January 2013, which quickly dispersed AQIM back into the desert and in pursuit of irregular warfare from the hinterlands as splinter groups led by emerging leaders like Mokhtar Belmokhtar conducted the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria. 

Three significant challenges arose requiring Zawahiri’s management in 2013; each demonstrating Zawahiri’s limited ability to control al Qaeda and begging the question of whether there remained a centralized al Qaeda at all.

  • Shabaab’s killing of its own foreign fighters in Somalia

Stories of al Qaeda foreign fighters being killed in Somalia by Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, continued to surface via the social media pleas of American foreign fighter Omar Hammami.  While not the most important foreign fighter or American in Shabaab’s ranks, Hammami’s rants proved fortuitous of larger splits in al Qaeda’s ranks.  Shortly after Hammami’s public complaints came a call from an original Afghan mujihadeen member in Somalia, Ibrahim Afghani, begging Zawahiri to unseat Godane.  Al Qaeda stood silent as Godane’s loyalists killed off both Hammami and Afghani. Shabaab has since crumbled under Godane’s leadership and Zawahiri has publicly ignored these upheavals in Somalia.

  • Syria: The Great Jihadi Migration

By 2013, Syria became the ultimate jihad creating an unprecedented foreign fighter migration unmitigated by Western policy or intervention.  Fueled by Gulf money and motivated by calls for an Islamic state as well as sectarian fighting, young men flocked to join the ranks of a diverse set of Syrian militias.  While the FSA bickered, jihadists and Islamists groups grew strong on foreign cash and foreign men started carving out a stake in Syria’s rebel landscape and taking the attack to the Assad regime.  Zawahiri, as best he could, made a play to harness jihadi energy in Syria through its primary affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and with its estranged affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq).

Zawahiri dispatched emissaries to coordinate al Qaeda’s Syria mission, but likely lacked the pull to truly control the wide stretch of jihadis funded independent of AQ Central.  Al Qaeda’s second generation of fighters that fought in Iraq, saw their own vision in Syria and under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, seized on an opportunity to coalesce all jihadis under one roof.  In the summer of 2013, Baghdadi made the first ever public rebuttal of Zawahiri attempting to annex all jihadis in Syria.  Zawahiri, with few options, tried to reassert control going as far as to issue public guidance to jihadis everywhere hoping to communicate around rather than through disobedient middle managers.  Despite Zawahiri’s attempts to manage jihadists in Syria in the summer and fall of 2013, ISIS continued to grow and with each day since ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s star has faded. 

  • Egypt: Opportunity Lost

The third big dilemma for Zawahiri has been Egypt; where as he predicted, democracy has failed at the hands of authoritarians who’ve retaken control and suppressed both Islamists and Salafists alike.  Of all opportunities, Egypt likely presents the opportunity of greatest appeal to Zawahiri. At no time since being forced from his homeland with his fellow al Jihad members has there been such opportunity for al Qaeda in Egypt.  Persecuted Islamists and a somewhat permissive security environment in the Sinai have allowed for al Qaeda to make a play.  But even in Egypt, Zawahiri’s homeland where old networks could lead an organized jihadi rebellion, al Qaeda has floundered.  The Egyptian state has proven steadfast in fighting jihadism and al Qaeda’s ability to resource and coordinate a deliberate campaign has again shown to be limited.  The Nasr Cell was dismantled and spikes of violence in the Sinai have been met by military action. Zawahiri and al Qaeda so far have failed to create a sustained rebellion in Egypt despite the opportunity.

Zawahiri’s House Of Cards

Frustrated by his inability to rein in al Qaeda affiliates and outshined by a more aggressive and dynamic Baghdadi with ISIS, Zawahiri ultimately engineered what might have been unthinkable only a few years ago – open war on fellow jihadis to reassert his power and control. First came the open revocation of ISIS as part of al Qaeda. Then came the denouncements of ISIS by ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda clerics.  Finally, Zawahiri, through al Qaeda connections in the Islamic Front and coordination with the FSA, helped orchestrate an all out attack on ISIS in Syria. Smartly, Zawahiri’s primary affiliate Nusra held back from the initial engagements with ISIS allowing them to save face by appearing more neutral while seizing abandoned ISIS outposts and foreign fighter defectors.

While Zawahiri likely didn’t command each action on the ground in Syria, his plan ultimately became a house of cards.  Betrayed foreign fighters witnessing jihadi groups facilitating the attacks of more secular groups on fellow jihadists began speaking out.  Social media, a medium through which Zawahiri himself had tried to circumvent a belligerent ISIS, turned on al Qaeda’s leader detailing how it was ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda influence that had orchestrated the fitna (discord) in the ranks.  Zarqawi’s foreign fighter legions from Iraq, sided with their ISIS brothers over the opinions of clerics from Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s generation.

The outcome from Zawahiri’s retribution has been surprisingly to ISIS advantage.  Rather than punishing ISIS and regaining authority over the global jihad, Zawahiri and al Qaeda may soon become the second largest jihadist organization in the world.  Angered by Zawahiri’s betrayal and admiring of ISIS commitment to pursue an Islamic state, what were once thought to be al Qaeda Central affiliates are openly declaring allegiance to ISIS emir Baghdadi.  As seen in Figure 4, jihadist groups across North Africa and the Middle East have switched allegiances largely along the lines of the Iraq 2003-2009 foreign fighter distribution from Figure 3 in Part 3.  While al Shabaab in Somalia has reaffirmed its support for Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, the majority of contested affiliates have swung to ISIS’s favor. Ansar al Shariah in both Tunisia and Libya appear to be far more in ISIS camp. The younger generation of jihadis in AQAP/Ansar al Sharia in Yemen have sided up with ISIS (See Figure 6) even pushing at times in social media for AQAP’s emir al-Wuhayshi to shift his support from Zawahiri to Baghdadi –  I expected a transition, but this is occurring at a pace far quicker than I anticipated.  Zawahiri’s plan has backfired and his status has never been so diminished. 

Future Jihadi Scenarios: Best Case, Worst Case and which is most likely

Having reviewed al Qaeda Central’s efforts since Bin Laden’s death and recognizing the splits within jihadi ranks leading to ISIS’s rise, exactly anticipating the future direction of today’s jihadi landscape seems nearly impossible for there are too many variables, too many groups and too many countries to extract how this dynamic system will play out.  As a result, I’ll propose three potential jihadi scenarios and conclude with which one I think is most likely to occur as of today (probably a bad idea) and what might be the most dangerous scenario that would compel significant Western action. 

  • Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad

ISIS’s star has risen rather than fallen as al Qaeda Central, Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and other Islamist and jihadi militias have taken up arms against ISIS.  A month ago, I anticipated a battle for jihadi hearts and minds amongst two competing generations of jihadi fighters, particularly in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen (See here for background).  However, the shifting of sides to ISIS has occurred far faster than I could have anticipated.  The deputy commander of Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia surfaced with ISIS in Syria and ISIS support amongst Yemeni jihadis has been significant.  As seen in Figure 4, pledges of support to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi continue to roll in and this week ISIS announced in the coming weeks the merger of two additional groups and a new incarnation of their name – a name I would expect to be more globally oriented. As for the two groups merging in the ISIS announcement, the first appears to be the Central Region of AQIM in Algeria and I think the second might be a younger splinter group in Yemen (See Figure 6). Other candidates for the second merger might be Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia or Ansar al Sharia in Libya who’ve been pipelining folks into Syria, al Murabitun led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar who is a long-time Zarqawi fanboy, or a real wild card situation where AQAP in Yemen pulls out of al Qaeda entirely and joins with ISIS. A month ago, I would have expected this scenario to take at least six months to occur if it were to come to fruition.  Today, I think this scenario could occur in as little as one to two months, see Figure 5 below. 

Tipping Point for Scenario #1: AQAP’s leader Wuhayshi.  If Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s global second in command, shifts his loyalty to ISIS or just chooses to set AQAP on its own path, al Qaeda will crumble.  The remaining franchises of al Qaeda would have little incentive to stay under Zawahiri. 

  • Scenario #2: Sustained Competition – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda vs. Team ISIS

This scenario would be a sustainment of the al Qaeda civil war initiated two months ago.  Al Qaeda Central and its primary affiliate Nusra along with associated Islamist and jihadi groups (like Ahrar al Sham) continue to battle ISIS across multiple countries creating a jihadi civil war front stretching from Iran to the Sinai. Over the last two to three weeks, Nusra has openly discussed its intent to build its own operations in Iraq to compete with ISIS and has notably expanded its operations in Lebanon.  Meanwhile, ISIS has discussed potentially pushing operations into Iran; a logical step for an organization committed to killing Shia as much or more than Westerners.  I’m uncertain whether this competition might play out between AQC-minded versus ISIS oriented nodes in Egypt and Gaza but I would not be surprised if this occurred. Overall, I believe this scenario would weaken global support for jihad over the longer run, but could also render a more dangerous scenario that I alluded to in Part 3 of this series, where a desire to be seen as the more powerful jihadi element pushes both sides to execute attacks on Western targets abroad, Western targets in Europe or possibly aim at Israel.

Tipping Point for Scenario #2: Gulf donors coming to al Qaeda’s rescue would be the only way I think this scenario continues over the longer term.  Zawahiri has already rolled out lots of top clerical support and this hasn’t done much to overcome ISIS rise. I doubt Zawahiri’s ability to corral and then allocate resources makes this scenario possible.

  • Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

Two forces, al Qaeda Central and ISIS infighting and the continued trend towards self-funding, might dissolve common notions of large jihadi organizations and alliances.  Al Qaeda affiliates and regional upstarts may find little incentive to hitch their group to a volatile global jihadi alliance that would only erode their local popular support without bringing in outside resources, operational capability or ideological clarity.  Thus over the longer term, jihadi groups gradually distance from each other and focus on local governance and self-resourcing.  Affiliates will remain more tightly wound regionally, but might only maintain very loose connections between regions; more similar to how jihadi groups operated during the inter Afghan jihad period of the 1990s. (See Figure 7) 

I would still expect affiliates to send their fighters to Syria for experience and training as a way to entice local recruits to gain credibility and bring back knowledge – similar to how Lashkar-e-Taiba sent fighters to the frontlines in Afghanistan during the 2000s to maintain their recruitment and credibility vis-à-vis Taliban elements who were drawing more support to Pakistan’s western rather than its eastern border.  Affiliates will still maintain connections, but these linkages would be more person-to-person and leveraged when needed rather than in a unified way – a swarming network rather than a set of unified affiliates.

Tipping Point for Scenario #3: Assad tamps down the Syrian rebellion and achieves a ceasefire in some form while al Qaeda aligned elements like Nusra continue to battle with ISIS.  The failure to achieve a sustained jihadi state in Syria because of infighting turns off jihadi donors, diminishes global foreign fighter recruitment and leaves affiliates to operate on their own.

In conclusion, I’m certain there could be other scenarios and the actual outcome will likely be some variant of one of these three.  But for planning counterterrorism actions, I would assess the scenarios as follows.

  • The best-case scenario from the West’s perspective is Scenario 2 (Continued Competition) minus the most dangerous additional element of competitive attacks on the West by each side (AQ vs. ISIS).  Absent one-upping attacks on the West, this scenario severely tarnishes global jihadi visions in the eyes of future recruits, donors and passive supporters of al Qaeda.
  • The most probable scenario may be Scenario 1 (Rising ISIS).  I’ve been surprised by the pace of support shifting to ISIS. The physical relationships built amongst the younger foreign fighter generation in Iraq and Syria, ISIS actually pursuing an Islamic state and Zawahiri’s betrayal have all combined to truly give ISIS an edge moving forward.  I expected shifting but the magnitude so far suggests ISIS might become the new global jihadi leader.  I’d only give Scenario #1 a slight edge over Scenario #2 (60% – 40% as of now). I believe that Scenario #1 (Rising ISIS) is less preferable to Scenario #2 as ISIS, if left unchecked, is likely to push for spectacular regional and global attacks as they grow.
  • Scenario #3 (Regional Nodes), I believe, is the least likely in the near term because I don’t see an end to the Syria situation for some time.  Scenario #3 though may represent a longer-term phase of what would come if Scenario #2 were to come to fruition in the near term – a continued distancing of jihadi groups globally.

The past four installments (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and this Part 4) of the Smarter Counterterrorism series have been designed to build to the final installment on what strategy the West might pursue in a chaotic but still threatening jihadi landscape.  The fifth and final part will (hopefully) come out in the next two weeks.

To download the charts shown in this post, visit this link and click on the graphics.

**** Special thanks to J.M. Berger of Intelwire.com who not only helped me stay in tune with the ISIS vs. Nusra shifting the past month and chart development but also gave me the idea for this installment’s title to include a House of Cards reference.  See below in Figure 8, J.M. Berger’s updated “State of Play” chart and visit this link to download a copy.

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Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – The ‘Old Guard’, Team ISIS & The Battle For Jihadi Hearts & Minds

(Part 3 of Smarter Counterterrorism, see Part 1 here & Part 2 here)

Before deciding where to focus and how to counter terrorists threatening the U.S., we need to evaluate the terrorism environment that the U.S. now faces.  I doubt it’s ever been as chaotic and dynamic.  The fractures surfacing inside al Qaeda and its affiliates should be expected after Bin Laden’s death. Bin Laden compelled allegiance through long-standing relationships dating back to the 1980s Afghan jihad, created the organization’s justifications for targeting the U.S., boasted a string of successful attacks on U.S. targets, held unparalleled international prestige and controlled resource distribution to a global network. Ayman al-Zawahiri had big shoes to fill, and while I do think he’s made some recent gains in reasserting control, he is no Bin Laden and he faces challenges Bin Laden never had to contemplate.  I believe al Qaeda’s current divisions come from several forces that began to emerge prior to Bin Laden’s death in 2011. 

What forces keep al Qaeda together? What forces break al Qaeda apart?

Dynamics of Success and Failure  – Al Qaeda grows strong when things are going well.  As I discussed almost three years ago in an FPRI monograph, al Qaeda and its affiliates since about 2007 have struggled to execute a substantial, successful attack on the West.  Benghazi didn’t rally the troops and the Westgate attack (2013) killed only a few Westerners.  Both were blips in the al Qaeda landscape and don’t measure up to 9/11 or the 2005 London bombings.  The biggest boon to jihadi recruitment comes from the Syrian jihad where al Qaeda has not led the fighting but has instead piggybacked on the conflict’s attractiveness for foreign fighters. 

Lacking a big attack for six years at the time of Bin Laden’s death, I imagine many al Qaeda members (Like the leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)) were primed to move in their own direction and find their own success.  Today’s jihadi recruits observe Syrian conflict social media content and see ISIS committing violence on a broad scale and actually setting up an Islamic state in accordance with a harsh version of Sharia – an objective al Qaeda Central touts but seems reluctant to pursue. Jabhat al-Nusra who talks to similar goals, pursues them pragmatically and with less violence-–a method of lesser appeal to young boys attracted to the violence and glory of battle.  ISIS has done a better job of sharing their successes and to them has gone more recent jihadi support. 

Resource Distribution: Centralized vs. You On Your Own (YOYO) – Gregory Johnsen said it best in his book on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) The Last Refuge, “Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.” In the pre-9/11 period, Bin Laden was not the only jihadi leader plotting attacks or training foreign fighters, but he was doing it faster than any other group because he could pay his cadre and resource his fight independently.  Other jihadi leaders like Abu Zubaydah came to Bin Laden seeking funds and its likely key operational jihadi planners like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed sought Bin Laden out because he knew al Qaeda could staff and empower his plot. The Abbottabad documents attest to Bin Laden’s role as the key intermediary for resource distribution in al Qaeda and amongst the affiliates.

Fast-forward to 2011, al Qaeda resources were running dry.  With Bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda affiliates increasingly resourced themselves, or if they requested funds, they were left short handed.  In today’s al Qaeda, Zawahiri commands far fewer resources and for affiliates it’s harder to take orders from the boss (Zawahiri) when he isn’t paying you.

Physical Relationships: The Value of Shared Experience – “Old Guard” al Qaeda came about from shared experiences and physical relationships built during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s; where future al Qaeda leaders Bin Laden and Zawahiri mixed with foreign recruits in the guesthouses of Peshawar building life-long loyalty.  This likely occurred again in Iraq, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi built teams fighting Shia and Americans, but this time, Bin Laden and Zawahiri were not there to build physical relationships with the next generation of jihadis.  As a result, I suspect part of today’s al Qaeda splits result from two generations of veteran foreign fighter networks demonstrating preference divergence: 1) those that fought during the 1980s Afghan jihad and 2) those that fought during the Iraqi jihad of 2003-2010.

Many of the latter generation of foreign fighters have no true physical relationship with ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda members and have fought jihadi campaigns on their own with little resource support or guidance from al Qaeda Central.  While al Qaeda Central leaders like Bin Laden & Zawahiri focused on television pontificating while self-imprisoned in Pakistan, al Qaeda’s second generation of foreign fighters built strong bonds of shared consequence in the prisons of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  A quick look at the biographies of ISIS or AQAP leaders would suggest strong loyalty between men imprisoned together in Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca or Sana’a.

If forced to choose between “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s direction or that of al-Baghdadi and ISIS, who would a fighter on the primary battlefields of Syria and Iraq choose:

  1. an elder Zawahiri in Pakistan whom he has never met and rarely hears from, or
  2. the local al-Baghdadi who suffered in prison with him and fights in the trenches with him everyday? 

The decision rests on each individual jihadi. Those most devout to jihadi ideology and inspired by Bin Laden I’d suspect pick Zawahiri and “Old Guard” al Qaeda. Those more committed to their brothers they fought with in Iraq or Syria and inspired by abu Musab al Zarqawi, I believe, will side with al-Baghdadi and ISIS.  On the whole, I estimate today more young jihadis side with their brothers from the battlefield (ISIS) than with the less personally known “Old Guard” al Qaeda.  Interestingly, Omar Hammami hinted at this preference divergence dilemma from Somalia a year ago on Twitter and today one can witness this individual shifting of justifications for the Syrian jihad and siding with either Jabhat al-Nusra (AQ) or ISIS in social media. 

Common Situational Awareness and Frequent Communication – Sustaining a command and control relationship requires al Qaeda Central to constantly and consistently communicate with its affiliates.  Best explained by Dr. Jacob Shapiro in his new book The Terrorists Dilemma, constant communication jeopardizes al Qaeda leaders’ operational control.  From 2008 – 2011, al Qaeda Central’s leadership in Pakistan was decimated by drones and communication from Bin Laden & Zawahiri to affiliates became less frequent and increasingly delayed.  Affiliates were left to pursue jihad as best they could with limited guidance naturally breeding independence amongst affiliates.  AQIM documents recovered in the Sahel and the public dissension from Shabaab’s fractures illustrate how al Qaeda Central communication gaps created friction in the ranks as affiliate leaders competed for control and direction of their regional jihads.  Zawahiri’s communication challenge shown most in the fall of 2013 when he began publicly issuing his guidance to jihadis everywhere as a way to get his intent to the rank and file in Syria and bypass his rival ISIS-–one of several public signs of the splintering to come. 

Unity of Effort: Global over Local or Local over Global  – Al Qaeda’s original justifications for violence hinged on Western occupation of holy lands, Western support of corrupt local dictators and the desire to create an Islamic caliphate (state). The U.S. has withdrawn from sacred Muslim lands, allowed for apostate rulers to fall and has in some cases completely ignored or temporarily tolerated the establishment of Islamic states (e.g., Taliban in Afghanistan pre-9/11, AQIM in the Sahel and ISIS in Syria). Attacking the “far enemy” of the U.S. holds less appeal today than it did ten years ago. From the Abbottabad documents, we know Bin Laden recognized the need to re-brand for local appeal and incorporate more local issues into the ideology. In Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia and Syria, al Qaeda’s global agenda has mutated to accommodate local issues and garner local recruits and resources.  However, with each mutation, “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s reach and control has waned yielding more power to local leaders with less unity to al Qaeda’s Central leadership.  With al Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, AQIM in the Sahel, and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, local affiliates have implemented Sharia with such violence that it has tarnished al Qaeda’s image.  Overall, global al Qaeda issues carry less resonance with locals and affiliate members than local challenges encountered building an Islamic state. 

Marriage and Kinship – Kinship proved a binding force for al Qaeda’s “Old Guard” in Pakistan.  A decade of enduring fighting in Afghanistan (1980s) saw foreign fighters intermarry with local Pakistani and Afghani populations.  Al Qaeda’s intermarriage with local populations has been essential to sustaining their security in Pakistan.  This practice can be seen in some other jihadi campaigns, for instance Omar Hammami likely survived for a period by marrying into a local Somali clan, but the duration of jihadi campaigns up to Syria have been shorter and more intense in their combat (e.g., Iraq). While a lesser factor overall in al Qaeda unity, the bonds of family have likely weakened with more recent waves of foreign fighters. Will this dynamic of intermarriage return in Syria? Maybe, but it will likely be to “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s detriment and more supportive of ISIS and the newer generation of jihadis enduring battles in Syria & Iraq and pushing to build a state with locals. 

Today’s Jihadi Landscape: What does two competing jihadi networks and other freelance jihadi groups look like?

I’ve been wondering since Bin Laden’s death what a world without “One Big al Qaeda” might look like–see this for example.  Only now can we start to see the effects of a generational shift amongst jihadis representing two loosely formed larger networks surrounded by some, or maybe even many, loosely tied or unaffiliated jihadi groups with more regional rather than global orientations. 

With the environment changing rapidly and no good way to depict today’s jihadi landscape, I, with input from friends, have put together the following visual estimate of what today’s fractured jihadi landscape might look like.  I tried to avoid the vertical, top-down task organization chart models because I don’t believe these relationships represent command and control as much as communication and collaboration.  Today’s global jihadi landscape looks more like a swarm not a corporation: it is fungible, malleable and evolving.  For the purposes of the charts you see below (Figure 1 and Figure 3), I’ve created three categories, which should not be viewed as definitive or exact as I anticipate much shifting of allegiances in the coming weeks and months.  I put forth a discussion here, not an answer, and I’m open to input.  If a group appears left out, it’s likely because I was uncertain how to assess them.  The amount of overlap represents the degree to which I estimate the groups are interlinked in their communication & efforts.

“Old Guard” al Qaeda – Jihad’s First Generation

I believe allegiance to al Qaeda’s Central leadership in Pakistan rests largely on those recruits most ideologically committed to Bin Laden’s original vision for the organization and the founding members of al Qaeda were bound together by shared experiences from Afghanistan, Sudan and Pakistan (1980 – 2005). Even amongst the “Old Guard” stalwarts, a Zawahiri-led al Qaeda, I believe, relies heavily on Zawahiri’s closest allies, those physically sitting next to him in Pakistan, his original confidents from Egypt and former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members that migrated to Afghanistan in the 1990s. I’d imagine some of the remaining “Old Guard” North African al Qaeda members hovering in Iran the past decade and now migrating to places like Libya represent key interlocutors for Zawahiri.  Abu Khalid al-Suri with Ahrar al-Sham may be another example.

To sustain “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Zawahiri must cling to two affiliates above all others; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Jabhat al-Nusra, the key lever for the “Old Guard” to remain relevant. (Large Green circles – Figure 1.) Other “Old Guard” adherents may be a mish-mash of foreign fighters that fought more recently in Afghanistan since 2003–an example of this might be the uptick in German foreign fighters that made their way into Pakistan.  Zawahiri’s remaining loyalty comes from public oathes of allegiance (bay’a) from many leaders he doesn’t know.  As Frank Underwood in the recent American hit show House of Cards says, “The nature of promises … is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”  But promises, as seen in the show, can be interpreted differently depending on the circumstances. ISIS has interpreted Zawahiri’s role as emir of al Qaeda differently than most other affiliates. How will other affiliates interpret their promise to Zawahiri moving forward? Only time will tell.

Team ISIS – Jihad’s Second Generation

ISIS strength comes from its foreign fighter networks generated in Iraq from 2003 – 2010.  These foreign fighters revere Zarqawi; a man of action in their eyes who walked what he talked targeting both the U.S. and the Shia.  The Iraq foreign fighter networks provide great power to ISIS for they drew nearly equal parts from both North African and Persian Gulf countries.  (See Figure 2.) Unlike “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Team ISIS actually works to implement the vision of an Islamic state and their broader targeting of the Shia has brought wide appeal in the most important foreign fighter migration in history, Syria, based on the availability and immediacy of targeting Hezballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.  Team ISIS has surprisingly received oaths of loyalty from affiliates (Red Circles – Figure 1) and has received strong support from second generation foreign fighters across both North African and Persian Gulf affiliates. 

Independent Jihadi Groups – “You On Your Own”

Some jihadi groups have operated largely independently for many years receiving little guidance and constructing their own independent, illicit financing (e.g., AQIM) or even garnering their own donor relationships.  Syria and Libya represent two prime examples of how patrons from Kuwait and Qatar have backed jihadi groups outside of “Old Guard” al Qaeda. 

Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Those Who Sign With Blood” may be the first sign of how jihadi groups with cash and charismatic leaders set out on their own jihads establishing their own objectives.  The more independent jihadi groups have linkages to both sides of the “Old Guard” al Qaeda versus ISIS schism, may choose sides based on personal loyalties, or may wait out current debates to side with the winner rather than back a position outright.  Why should independent jihadi groups risk alienating a key ally in the future if they currently have no stake in the infighting? Groups in the Sahel, Libya, Tunisia and the Horn of Africa already operate and resource independently.  Why pick sides until one has to? Likewise, these lightly tied al Qaeda affiliates might want to rise up on their own, much like ISIS, and pursue an independent path to becoming the biggest force in jihad. An all out war between “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS might result in further separation of jihadist groups into three to five regional networks more integrated into local environments and less connected globally.  Either way, the future jihadi landscape will be in flux for many months if not years as networks reshape. 

Battleground for Jihadi Hearts & Minds – Libya, Tunisia, The Sahel & Yemen

Today’s jihadi fault lines likely represent the divergence of two jihadi generations. Looking at the breakdown of foreign fighters to Iraq discovered in the Sinjar records (Figure 2), there must be divided loyalties amongst those foreign fighters that returned home, reconstituted during the Arab Spring and now fuel both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria.  As I attempted to depict in Figure 1 with the dashed box, Libya and Tunisia were two large suppliers of foreign fighters to Iraq whose Zarqawi inspired recruits now influence Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (AST) and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (Benghazi, aka ASB).  AST and ASB have tight bonds with ISIS fighters and many of their fighters have been imprisoned together and were sprung together during recent raids in Iraq (see this Aaron Zelin post for evidence).  AST ideologues have been vocal supporters of ISIS.  Thus, I imagine a sub-surface battle is currently underway between Zawahiri’s envoys and North African foreign fighter veterans from Iraq.  I suspect Zarqawi’s legions rather than Zawahiri’s old dogs will win sway resulting in AST and ASB being more supportive of ISIS moving forward – although this support may not be overt. 

The decisive point between “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS may have been forecasted a few months back when Zawahiri formally and publicly promoted Nasir al-Wuyhashi al Qaeda’s second-in-command.  The logic for this selection was initially obvious; AQAP has attempted the only viable external attacks on the U.S. in years and the affiliate had assumed most of the functions of al Qaeda Central issuing operational guidance, coordinating with affiliates and even distributing resources.  More subtly, Zawahiri’s nomination may have signaled an attempt to maintain control over a successful affiliate more evenly manned by both generations of jihadi fighters; the “Old Guard” represented by Wuhayshi (a loyal Bin Laden man) and at the time Said al-Shihri and the new wave consisting of returning Saudi and Yemeni foreign fighters fromIraq that fueled AQAP’s 2009 resurgence.  By promoting Wuhayshi, Zawahiri (an Egyptian) may have sought an ally more proximate and representative of Arabian al Qaeda members who have larger taps into Gulf cash and can check the rise of an aggressive ISIS led by al-Baghdadi.  AQAP provides crucial coordination between al Qaeda Central with its affiliates al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Sinai.  Without AQAP and more specifically Wuhayshi, the outer orbits of “Old Guard” al Qaeda (Shabaab, the Sinai & maybe AQIM) may evaporate and Zawahiri’s great prize of an Egyptian jihadi uprising can easily fade. 

The Benefits and Risks of Jihadi Competition

I’ve been a strong, vocal advocate for keeping jihadis competing (see here for example) and still believe jihadi-on-jihadi violence in places like Somalia and Syria provide a net positive for counterterrorism as infighting burns up resources, turns off donors and sours foreign fighter recruitment flows.  Over an extended period and if large-scale jihads like Syria end, the chaos and confusion of jihadi fighting can permanently damage the appeal of a global al Qaeda message and ideas of jihadi unity, hopefully reducing targeting of the West and jihadi violence overall. 

Excessive jihadi competition, on the other hand, can in some scenarios produce great risk to the U.S. and the West.  If resources to both “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS remain constant, due to an unending Syria conflict for example, competing jihadi networks may present a most dangerous scenario where competition for notoriety and resulting perceived gains in manpower and resources push groups to seek more spectacular attacks on the West to demonstrate their prowess and assert their dominance.  (There is more to come on this dynamic in my next two posts.)  In contrary to counterterrorism pundits raising fears of a resurgent “One Big al Qaeda”, the most dangerous scenario is parallel, competing jihadi networks attempting to outpace each other through spectacular attacks on the West. 

This leads to next week’s post, Part 4 – “Anticipating ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s Plan”

See here, Figure 3, a chart put together by J.M. Berger, myself, Aaron Weisburd, Aaron Zelin and some additional friends.  We will update this chart in the coming weeks, but it attempts to map organizations, forums, clerics and their relationships to affiliates.  Its a work in progress, and we welcome feedback.

For those interested in downloading a larger version of this chart, click here

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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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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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