Keeping Score in the War on al Qaeda

October 1, 2013

I was en route to the Reuters Global Security conference when al-Shabab launched its assault against the Westgate Mall.  During our panel discussion, Richard Barrett opined that from one perspective al-Qaeda is on the back foot, while from another perspective it appears on the march. In the days that followed, the commentariat was similarly dichotomous. Some commentary pointed to the siege as evidence that al-Qaeda was gaining strength and that its threat to the U.S. was growing. Others, including Ken Menkhaus, an expert on al-Shabaab, said that the Westgate attack was the latest sign of that group’s weakness. Squaring that circle requires we explore the underlying dynamics that can inform attacks like the one against the Westgate Mall.

Mixed Motives & Blended Attacks

The recent Al-Shabab attack is only the latest terrorist spectacular in a jihadist group’s area of operation that killed Westerners. Earlier this year, jihadists (formerly) associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb executed an assault on a natural gas facility in the Algerian town of In Amenas. Both were billed as responses to foreign aggression. Kenya contributed to the African Union forces and the Westgate attack was clearly intended to punish the regime in Nairobi. Similarly, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian militant responsible for engineering the In Amenas operation, said his attack was a response to the French invasion of Mali. Like Lashkar-e-Taiba’s 2008 Mumbai attacks, which primarily targeted the group’s main enemy, India, killing Westerners was the global icing on a regional cake.

Those three attacks share something else in common. Each occurred amid a period of internal tensions, which may have fueled the decision to execute them, suggesting that while disunity can weaken a group it can also lead to a ratcheting effect in terms of violence.

In the case of Mumbai, the 2008 attacks were initially intended to be more limited. David Headley, who conducted multiple reconnaissance trips to India, described fierce ideological debates within Pakistani militant outfits regarding where to focus their violence and disillusionment among some LeT members with the leadership’s decision not to devote greater attention to the jihad against the United States in Afghanistan or to become involved in the revolutionary struggle taking place in Pakistan. It was amidst this atmosphere that LeT’s leaders began considering a spectacular strike against multiple targets in Mumbai.

AQIM was beset by even greater internal rivalry. Its amir, Abdel Malek Droukdel, replaced Belmoktar as the group’s top commander in the Sahara, who responded by launching his own jihadist faction. Internal AQIM communications indicate Belmokhtar attempted to pledge allegiance directly to the al-Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan. AQIM senior leaders chastised him for failing to execute a terrorist spectacular against a Western target. Belmokhtar promptly executed the group’s most significant attack against Algeria in a half decade and one in which numerous Westerners were killed.  When he claimed credit for In Amenas, Belmoktar did so on behalf of al-Qaeda Central and not its affiliate in the Maghreb.

Finally, a few years ago, Al-Shabab controlled much of Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu. With U.S. support, African Union forces have since retaken significant territory. Meanwhile, al-Shabab has been beset by internal discord. Earlier this year, a former senior leader close to the group’s amir Ahmed Godane made a public appeal to Ayman al-Zawahiri to intervene and remove Godane from power. This followed similar public proclamations by the recently deceased American jihadist Omar Hamami in which he described conflicts between various al-Shabab factions and between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda elements. He also alleged that Godane was killing off al-Qaeda members and other foreign fighters in a bid to consolidate control over al-Shabab. Hamami and other dissidents were executed several weeks ago, meaning the Westgate attack is yet another to come amid internal tensions and a desire by leaders to consolidate their position.

Keeping Score

Since each of the aforementioned attacks appears to have occurred amid internal discord and, in the cases of AQIM and al-Shabab, the loss of territory, none of them necessarily indicate a jihadist group is on the march. In the case of al-Shabab, it could indicate a group in decline. Yet for the Washington, success is more complicated than that. It means negating the threat to U.S. allies and interests, to U.S. citizens and infrastructure overseas and to the U.S. homeland.

To achieve that end state, Washington maintains robust intelligence efforts and deploys direct action, primarily in the form of drone strikes, when necessary. Its efforts also increasingly entail security assistance in the form of training, equipping, sharing intelligence with, and otherwise supporting states engaged in conflicts with assorted jihadist groups. As WOTR contributors William Rosenau and Ghassan Schbley pointed out yesterday, Kenya is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. security assistance and has been since 1998.

The problem with the assistance model, and it is not one unique to Kenya, is that it relies heavily on local governments to execute counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policies effectively. Many fall short in a variety of areas for a multitude of reasons, some more easily understood and addressed than others. It’s tempting to call for the United States to “do more” in such instances, but the question is more of what? I won’t argue that in many cases our resources could be aligned more effectively, security assistance administered more wisely and leverage exercised more judiciously. Nor am I opposed to direct action when necessary. However, as I’ve written before, Washington’s objective should remain the pursuit of a sustainable counterterrorism approach that enables the United States to manage and degrade jihadist groups without becoming captive to the threats they pose.


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.