Is this Al Qaeda’s JV Team?

January 31, 2014

Is Al Qaeda fielding its JV team? The answer depends on what game we’re playing.

The President’s recent characterization of Al Qaeda in an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, and the subsequent discussion it has sparked, illustrates a basic misunderstanding on the part of many self-proclaimed foreign policy thinkers about the on-going conflict between the U.S. and its allies, and the global network of Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist organizations. As the President put it, “…if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant… I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” The President’s implication here is that Al Qaeda’s highest aspiration, which would require their “varsity” level of effort, is to strike against the U.S. homeland, while less capable versions of Al Qaeda must satisfy themselves with fighting local conflicts having peaked at their maximum operational reach. However, what the President’s assessment of modern jihadism fails to take into account is the distinction and the interrelation between decisive and shaping operations. Without a greater understanding of the difference, this conversation will remain an echo chamber of cross-purposed argument.

Decisive and shaping are two doctrinal terms which originally defined and clarified the efforts of various forces fighting traditional, linear, force on force wars. Decisive operations are those that serve to accomplish the specified task at hand—seizing key terrain, destroying a specified enemy formation, etc. Shaping operations, on the other hand, serve to shape the battlefield in a manner more advantageous to the main effort. These could include artillery fire to attrite enemy forces or infantry seizing nearby high ground from which to provide supporting fires. Understanding the distinction between these two often has little to do with the form which these attacks or efforts take. Rather, one must understand that the shaping attack sets the conditions for success by the decisive effort, not the other way around. A commander will allocate his assets and array his forces in a way that will most likely achieve success in his decisive effort. To return to the President’s basketball analogy, sinking baskets is any team’s decisive effort. Passing and defense would be shaping efforts. While all of these are important, a varsity team would be one which best accomplishes its decisive goal of scoring more points than an adversary.

To look closer into the question of whether Al Qaeda is or is not JV these days, one must first understand the roots and original vision for the organization. Bin Laden, Zawahiri and the other founders had sought to create a knowledge base of techniques which were to be shared by Al Qaeda to regional, like-minded jihadist organizations looking to conduct holy war against what they viewed as the “apostate” regimes ruling Muslims countries (e.g. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc)—“The Near Enemy.” By toppling these regimes, Al Qaeda leadership hoped to create the kind of Muslim societies they envisioned. It is key to remember then that Bin Laden’s original vision was of a loose confederation of like-minded regional jihadist groups, not necessarily taking direct orders from a central command authority, but still acting towards the same intent. Further, the means by which Bin Laden envisioned accomplishing this intent was through the “local power struggles” to which the President made reference.

However, two things changed this and have subsequently tainted American understanding of what Al Qaeda is. The first was Al Qaeda’s decision in 1996 to focus instead on the “Far Enemy” instead of the “Near Enemy,” and the subsequent 1998 declaration of war against the United States. The second was, obviously, the attacks on September 11. Believing that the “apostate “ rulers of the Middle East would remain in power as long as they were sponsored by the United States, Bin Laden sought to make this sponsorship too costly by attacking U.S. interests in the region and, ultimately, in the U.S. homeland. He hoped this toll would cause the American people to lose their appetite for involvement in the Middle East and withdraw from their role helping to stabilize friendly regimes there. Without this support, Al Qaeda believed these regimes would fall to the various local jihadist affiliates. In other words, Al Qaeda hoped operations against the U.S. would shape the Middle East to facilitate their decisive effort of overthrowing local regimes.

So, is the Al Qaeda of today, composed as it is of multiple loosely affiliated franchises, JV compared to the Al Qaeda of 2001? Maybe. It depends what we are using as a metric. Are they as capable as they were a decade ago of conducting complicated attacks against the U.S. homeland? Probably not. But few of the regional AQ affiliates have shown an interest in doing this in recent years (with the exception of AQAP). A more pertinent question might be whether they can strike at U.S. interests in the Middle East (e.g. diplomatic facilities and military installations). The Benghazi attack and the recent attempt to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv suggest so.

However, the fundamental question is: has AQ, along with the varied bands of likeminded jihadists, expanded its reach throughout the Middle East in a way that makes it more likely to achieve the stated goal of overthrowing “apostate” regimes? With the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Baghdad to Beirut and the growth of similar Sunni extremist organizations throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Until we realize that the goals which Al Qaeda set forth in the early 90s are closer to being realized than at any point in their history, the questions of whether current AQ is JV, or whether Ansar Al Sharia is “core Al Qaeda,” remain pointless. We must always remember Al Qaeda did not strike at America just for the sake of doing so; it did so out of a belief that the strike would help it win its long war in the Middle East. It seems logical that Al Qaeda’s leaders will be just as happy not to strike America if they can advance their goal of victory in the Middle East without such attacks.

Unfortunately, with our current focus on distracting and pedantic questions, and lack of strategic vision, the march towards Al Qaeda’s original goal, whether executed by “core Al Qaeda” or a “JV” team, remains constant.


Major Mike Nelson is a Special Forces officer currently serving as Company Commander in the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He has completed multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Jordan. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or U.S. Special Operations Command.


Photo credit: Magharebia