Not another al-Qaeda article
Last week the LA Times and Washington Post both carried op-eds calling for an end to the so-called War on Terror, with two columnists at Foreign Policy making a similar plea. My colleague Mark Stout, here at the little web magazine that could, added an article predicting its demise in the not-too-distant future. These authors had the bad luck of publishing days before a threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula led the U.S. to close embassies across the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan. But that doesn’t negate the legitimacy of their larger arguments, or at least elements of them. Meanwhile, we can expect another slew of articles claiming, as Bruce Reidel did two weeks ago, that, “al-Qaeda is Back.” The content of such columns, while sometimes valid, still makes me wish we would stop talking about al-Qaeda like the proverbial B-movie villain who just won’t die.
Jihadist violence will be a feature of the security landscape for the foreseeable future. However, it does not pose an existential threat to the U.S. and this helps to explain the debates about whether we should repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), pull out of Afghanistan entirely, intervene in Syria, end drone strikes, trim our surveillance programs, close Guantanamo Bay, scrap the Department of Homeland Security or at least let me keep my shoes on when going through airport security. All of those debates are worth having. What I fear sometimes gets lost amid these discussions is the fundamental question of how we adapt our counter-terrorism architecture to nest within, rather than drive, our security policy.
Can We At Least Agree on the Threat?
First, we should all be able to agree at this point that the jihadist threat is becoming more diffuse and decentralized. Despite our collective fixation on the al-Qaeda label, we contend with a welter of jihadist organizations. The label, “al-Qaeda,” is important because it signifies intent, thought not necessarily the capability, to strike the U.S. But almost twelve years after 9/11, it can still blind us to the variegated nature of the jihadist movement. On narrative grounds, waging war against al-Qaeda is better than a “War on Terror” even if many observers, including this one, still fall back on that language. In reality, we continue to struggle to disaggregate the threats.
Second, the core al-Qaeda organization that attacked the U.S. has become a second order threat. The threat that led to a series of embassy closings should not disabuse us of this assessment. Although most AQ affiliates operate with a significant degree of autonomy and are fixated primarily on regional objectives, they continue to communicate with the core leadership. The recent threat warnings make that abundantly clear. Moreover, all of the branded affiliates have adopted al-Qaeda’s ambition to become what my colleague at American University, Tricia Bacon, calls an alliance hub. This refers to a single insurgent group that seeks out alliances and acts as a central node for multiple partnerships with other militant organizations.
Third, many existing and emerging jihadist group are thriving in places with ungoverned spaces, be they in North Africa, the Sahel, Syria or Yemen. The global jihadist genie is not back in the bottle. Most groups are mainly concerned with local and regional issues, but some are waging what I’d term a peripheral jihad against the United States. Again, one need look no further than the recent threat.
Finally, it would be naïve to suggest the threat of transnational attacks by al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other jihadist organizations, or people trained by any of them, against the U.S. homeland has disappeared entirely. But it would be disingenuous to suggest the likelihood of such strikes has not declined significantly. Inspired attacks by homegrown actors who have no physical contact with overseas militants are another story. Unless one believes we can kill our way out of that problem or that we should revamp U.S. foreign policy to suit a small number of disaffected individuals, preventing these attacks is primarily a domestic (read: internal security) issue. The main military threat, as we saw in Benghazi, is to U.S. citizens abroad. These are more tactical, not existential, but could have serious strategic effects. Finally, there are rising threats to regional stability U.S. interests, other than loss of American lives in terrorist attacks. In some instances, these can have a more profound long-term impact.
We need to realign resources away from targeting al-Qaeda to focus more on broader political and security phenomena, with the caveat that some resources also must be redirected toward existing and emerging jihadist threats that don’t wear the al-Qaeda label. This must happen in concert with the integration of our stove-piped counterterrorism architecture with broader security policy.
At present, everyone can easily identify the al-Qaeda threat. It’s the label that still generates the most counter-terrorism interest and so work on that portfolio gets done, whereas other sub-goals or emerging threats fall through the cracks. In talking with members of the Intelligence Community, I’ve often heard that if you want more resources for collection and analysis about a target then it needs one of two things: al-Qaeda in its name; or involvement in a plot to attack the homeland. There’s an increasing awareness of the overseas threat as well. Yet the dangers jihadist groups pose to regional stability, and the attendant costs for the U.S., are much more difficult to quantify, even though they can potentially have a more pernicious impact over the long-term.
Moreover, this is not just about collection and analysis. The U.S. has made significant progress breaking down barriers within the Intelligence Community, but obstacles still exist in terms of integrating counterterrorism practices with broader U.S. policies. Counterterrorism analysts and practitioners are often focused more on targets and networks and less on the regional environment. Meanwhile non-CT folks who look at the latter can be cut out of the process. Sometimes this is the result of priorities, such as with the use of drones in Pakistan. But even on a day-to-day basis back in D.C., information sharing is commonly restricted as a result of classification issues to take just one example. The net result is that counterterrorism objectives often trump other foreign policy interests. Even when they should take priority, CT efforts may suffer because they exist outside, rather than being fully integrated into and informed by, broader policies.
The United States engaged in a series of over-reactions after 9/11 and these have had deleterious effects across an array of areas. The pendulum is beginning to swing back toward the middle, as my colleague Mark Stout observed, and that’s a good thing.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that jihadist violence is likely to be with us for many years to come. To manage the threat we’ll need to revise our counterterrorism architecture in a way that situates jihadist groups in their respective ecosystems, accounting for their potential transnational strike capabilities and connections without being blinkered by them. Doing so is necessary not only for confronting evolving and emerging jihadist threats, but also to ensure that in our bid to do so we avoid actions which undercut our broader foreign policy objectives. Anything less is not sustainable, or at least should not be.
Stephen Tankel is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.