Interpreting Al-Qaeda: Milbank Gets It Wrong

January 16, 2014

Earlier this month, I argued at Foreign Policy that U.S. commentary on al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring has largely misinterpreted what the revolutionary events meant for the jihadist group. I contended that the clandestine nature of the al-Qaeda network poses a major problem for analysts: its components attempt to keep their organizational structure, inner workings, and relationships hidden from view, and thus we have to be very modest about the limitations of our knowledge when writing about them. There is perhaps no better exemplar of the dangers of a hubristic approach to defining and analyzing the jihadist group than Dana Milbank’s most recent Washington Post column.

Milbank’s piece questions what the expansion of al-Qaeda’s franchises actually means for U.S. security. He concludes that al-Qaeda is now essentially an empty label, a name that lacks organizational meaning. However, Milbank’s method for reaching this conclusion is bound to confuse rather than enlighten.

Though many open-source researchers have made considerable contributions to our understanding of al-Qaeda and other violent non-state actors, I have noted that

some of the field’s most prominent current debates focus on topics that are most hidden from view, which are thus areas where open-source researchers are most disadvantaged—but also, given the nature of clandestine organizations, even analysts working from classified materials have an incomplete set of data. More problematic, analysts and pundits have offered extraordinarily definitive conclusions about these questions.

How capable is al-Qaeda’s core despite the attrition inflicted upon it by U.S. strikes? How frequently does the core communicate with the affiliates, how many operational directives does it give, and to what extent do the affiliates comply with its demands? Are the region’s seemingly new Salafi jihadist groups independent of al-Qaeda (or “purely local,” as David Kirkpatrick described Ansar al-Sharia in Libya in a recent high-profile report), or should they functionally be considered part of the network? These are the kind of questions on which the field is most stuck reading shadows.

These are also the precise questions where Milbank offers unwavering conclusions that he literally cannot know to be true. In a mere 727 words, he makes at least four major assertions that are either unprovable or that the available evidence suggests is wrong. I will examine them in the order in which they appear.

1. Writing about al-Qaeda’s apparent proliferation, Milbank asserts that it appears primarily to be a case of label proliferation… Now there are lots of groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the actual al-Qaeda, in dire straits, is happy to recognize sympathetic organizations.

The first unproven assertion is that “the actual al-Qaeda”—by which Milbank seemingly means al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan—is “in dire straits.” Of course, its leadership has experienced significant attrition at the hands of U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes, but the deeper question is what effect these have had on its ability to survive. There are reasons to think al-Qaeda’s leadership may not be in as desperate a position as Milbank portrays. Analysts have, after all, tended to underestimate its resiliency in the past. As Bruce Hoffman noted in a recent academic article documenting analytic perceptions of al-Qaeda dating back to 2003, “al-Qaeda Core has stubbornly survived despite predictions or conventional wisdom to the contrary.” Further, Derek Jones has shown in a valuable study that al-Qaeda’s network is designed precisely to be resilient in the face of attrition. So, is Milbank right that al-Qaeda’s core is in dire straits? The fact is, we know little about its internal workings, and some evidence suggests that it may be rebounding already.

Milbank’s debatable conclusion about the state of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership is intimately related to his second unproven assertion that al-Qaeda’s core has only recognized sympathetic organizations because it needs them to compensate for its own loss of capability. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has in fact only recognized two additional groups as part of its network since Osama bin Laden’s death and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ascension as emir: al-Shabaab in Somalia and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Since there is literally zero publicly available evidence from which we can understand the decision-making process that caused al-Qaeda to recognize these groups, it’s impossible to say that recognizing them is attributable to the weakness of al-Qaeda’s core rather than the strength and loyalty of the affiliates. Indeed, Shabaab had been an al-Qaeda ally for years before it officially joined.

2. Yet in all but a couple of cases, the original, “core” al-Qaeda has no control over—or coordination with or financial ties to—these organizations.

This is simply unknowable based on open-source information.

3. The vast majority of the so-called al-Qaeda organizations are focused on domestic affairs in their own countries and are not primarily concerned with the United States or international terrorism.

Many of the various jihadist organizations that proclaim their allegiance to al-Qaeda’s ideology are indeed primarily focused on the regions where they operate. Milbank concludes that this means they aren’t truly al-Qaeda; he assumes that whether a group should be considered al-Qaeda depends on whether it is “primarily concerned with the United States or international terrorism.” Rather than being unprovable, this assumption is wrong. As Thomas Joscelyn writes, “Such arguments miss the entire reason for al-Qaeda’s existence, which has always been to acquire power in ‘local’ settings. This is why al-Qaeda has always devoted most of its resources to fueling insurgencies.”

4. The terrorists who killed Americans in Benghazi, for instance, are obviously a menace. But insisting that they are tied to al-Qaeda, as Republicans such as House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) continue to do, is true in much the same sense that we are all connected to Kevin Bacon by six degrees of separation.

The timing of this claim is rather embarrassing for Milbank. The day after his column came out, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published a bipartisan report on the Benghazi attacks that concluded: “Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks.”

Milbank might respond that the word “affiliated” is vague, and does not disprove his assertion—an argument that assumes a bipartisan Senate committee with access to the relevant intelligence would feel compelled to note these connections even if the attackers’ proximity to these groups were no greater than my proximity to Kevin Bacon. While such an elaborate interpretation isn’t impossible, it comes across as tortured; and the question, of course, is not whether one can craft an imagined world where Milbank is right, but what the truth of the matter is.

That being the case, the Senate report highlights a fundamental problem with Milbank’s assertion that the Benghazi attackers were no more connected to al-Qaeda than Kevin Bacon is: Milbank doesn’t actually know what the underlying intelligence says. He doesn’t know which individuals were involved in the attack, nor what their connections to al-Qaeda are. Yet despite that, he’s confident that “insisting that they are tied to al-Qaeda… is true in much the same sense that we are all connected to Kevin Bacon by six degrees of separation.”

Richard Posner had an interesting observation about the Microsoft antitrust case that he was appointed to mediate in 1999. He noted that the case “had drawn a raft of public commentary from economists and law professors,” but that when he engaged the facts of that extraordinarily complicated case in detail, he “realized that most of the commentary by this segment of the public intellectual community, to the extent disinterested, reflected only a superficial engagement with the facts; it was little better than kibitzing.” This observation is distressingly applicable to much of the voluminous commentary about Benghazi, including Milbank’s assertions. Though couched in the language of an impartial analyst, and asserted in definitive terms, his most important conclusions are unknowable.

Milbank’s piece is largely emblematic of where our discussion of al-Qaeda and its affiliates stands in 2014. Because the inner workings of al-Qaeda’s core leadership and affiliates are hidden from view, many commentators seemingly believe that al-Qaeda is little more than a blank canvas upon which they can paint their own conceptions. But that is neither true of al-Qaeda nor the Benghazi attack; there are actual answers to the questions being debated so fiercely. While the answers may not be apparent based upon publicly available information, at some point we will know more.

This is not to say that Milbank’s conception of al-Qaeda as a radically decentralized organization—a brand slapped onto disconnected jihadist groups—deserves no place in current conversations. Especially given the lack of publicly available information about al-Qaeda’s shape today, we should consider many possibilities. Milbank’s article would have been unobjectionable had he said, “Well, I don’t have any evidence for this, but I think the al-Qaeda label may be meaningless because all these groups might actually have local agendas and no connection to each other.”

But, that’s not what he wrote. Instead, he offered one definite conclusion after another, each of which was either unproven or wrong. Though his succession of questionable data points will make his conclusion appear inevitable to the uninitiated, it is in fact not the only possible way to understand al-Qaeda.

Public discussion of al-Qaeda will continue to be every bit as lacking as it has been over the past three years so long as open source analysts don’t have basic information about the al-Qaeda network that can be found in such primary source documents as those recovered after the raid that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The seventeen Abbottabad documents that the U.S. government released in 2012 represent far less than 1% of the total cache of information, and they don’t even contain a single complete correspondence. If we want public sphere discussion about al-Qaeda to move beyond reading shadows on the wall of a cave to beginning to glimpse the thing itself, declassification of those documents should be sped up significantly.

And in the meantime, pundits and analysts should be more cautious about distinguishing between what we know to be true about al-Qaeda and what is merely possible.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of several books, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).