5 Questions with William Braniff on the State of Al-Qaeda


This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series.  Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy.  Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week I spoke with William Braniff, Executive Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).  Earlier this month, he testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the state of al-Qaeda and its affiliates and associated groups.  He agreed to answer a few questions for us about the research that formed the basis of his testimony.


1.  Your recent congressional testimony was based largely on the most recent terrorist attack data collected by START.  Can you summarize what you communicated to the committee?  What is the current state of the threat posed by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda?

According to the inclusion criteria that we use for the Global Terrorism Database, 2012 was both the most active and lethal year of terrorism dating back to 1970 (there are two important caveats here, so please see my testimony so I don’t get accused of hyping the threat!). In this most lethal and active year, the six most lethal groups (the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Shabaab ) are generally considered fellow travelers of the al-Qa’ida organization, and yet al-Qa’ida itself was not responsible for a single attack in 2012. This heightened level of violence, and al-Qa’ida’s lack of direct participation in it, continues into 2013 based on our preliminary data.  In my testimony, I try to explain the seemingly contradictory developments of the decline of al-Qa’ida, and record-setting levels of jihadist violence over the last two years. Did al-Qa’ida succeed by inspiring widespread jihadism, or has it lost to a variety of more popular, parochial actors?

Using preliminary START data from a project examining terrorist groups, the Big, Allied and Dangerous Project* (*that’s right, it’s BAAD), it appears that 12 of the 20 most lethal organizations and 10 of the 20 most active organizations in 2012 had alliance connections (ranging from direct collaboration to rhetorical support) to al-Qaida in 2012.So while al-Qa’ida did not conduct any attacks in 2012, preliminary data suggest it remained a central hub in a network of some of the most highly lethal and active terrorist organizations in modern history.

There are four historical reasons for these developments. Al-Qa’ida exploited interpersonal and inter-organizational relationships created during the anti-Soviet jihad and inserted itself into additional violent campaigns beginning in the 1990s and continuing until today. Similarly, veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad and follow-on conflicts returned to locally and regionally-oriented groups with a globalized understanding of their respective conflicts. Many of these highly networked veterans encouraged their respective organizations to establish a physical presence in other jihadist fronts as well, capitalizing on the associated ideological legitimacy for recruitment, access to training and battlefield experience, and access to fundraising and equipment pipelines pouring resources into those conflict zones. Finally, al-Qa’ida was forced to invest significant resources to communicate online to a geographically dispersed community and to protect its brand, but in the process it created an environment where countless organizations and individuals could voice competing and complimentary ideas. Just as in the physical world, the virtual landscape quickly became a place where local, regional and global forms of jihadism overlapped for a geographically, ideologically, and strategically diverse audience.

2.  Interestingly, as you testified, al-Qaeda itself was not responsible for any attacks in 2012 or the first half of 2013, the point to which START has collected and categorized data.  Is it time to stop thinking of al-Qaeda core as a terrorist group capable of or intent on conducting attacks?  Is it time to think beyond al-Qaeda?  Should we still be focusing on specific groups as the main locus of analysis, or should we begin with the idea of the jihadist movement as a whole with many sub-components?

I do not think we should stop thinking about al-Qa’ida as a group capable of violence because I doubt that members of al-Qa’ida have stopped thinking of themselves in that way. In our attempts to conceptualize complex phenomena, I think we often resort to binary distinctions: al-Qa’ida Core is a kinetic threat; al-Qa’ida core is not a kinetic threat.  Instead, I think that al-Qa’ida is remarkably consistent dating back to the early 1990s in that they have tried to conduct attacks, they have tried to enable the violence of other individuals and militant organizations through direct interaction, and they have sought to inspire individuals geographically removed from them through public media. While they do not appear to have the opportunity to conduct lethal attacks currently (because of counterterrorism pressures), there is no reason to think that they would hesitate if given the freedom of maneuver to do so. I believe they retain the motivation and the capability.

It’s also important to remember that this is not a prolific terrorist organization in terms of numbers of attacks. The GTD attributes 79 attacks to al-Qa’ida Core dating back to its establishment in 1988; that is a little more than 3 attacks per year on average, so an eighteen or twenty-four month hiatus does not mean the same thing as it would for a terrorist organization that averages dozens or hundreds of attacks per year.

That being said, it is certainly time to think beyond al-Qa’ida.  Al-Qa’ida’s long-running propagation of global jihadism and its vilification of the West has influenced other militant organizations and individuals to varying degrees through the processes described above.  As a result, in contested regions far from al-Qa’ida’s geographic center of gravity, violence targeting both local Muslim populations and Western targets persists making the resulting mix of jihadist violence very difficult to disentangle. While it is certainly a mistake to conflate every local and regional jihadist organization with al-Qa’ida, the interplay of local, regional and global jihadism presents a complex reality that counterterrorism professionals continue to address.  Al-Qa’ida is rarely successful in reorienting the violence of local and regionally-oriented organizations en toto, but it is frequently successful at reorienting sub-sets of violent actors towards global jihadist targeting and tactical preferences. Even if the al-Qa’ida organization fails to recover from the withering attacks made against it in recent years, it is no longer always possible or even useful to identify where al-Qa’ida ends and others begin. So while it is intuitive to think about terrorism through the lens of terrorist organizations, that lens can mask the fluidity of the jihadist landscape.  Individuals embark on trajectories of violence that cross the lines between local, regional and global jihadism, and often belie organizational-level analysis.

3.  The most recent full year for which your data has been published, 2012, was the most active year for terrorists on record, with 8,400 attacks globally.  While global jihadism has always exhibited a degree of networked form, this network has become more diffused.  With this in mind, where does the data suggest that al-Qaeda-associated groups are placing the most pressure on local political stability?  Which countries or regions are most vulnerable to potential destabilisation as a result of heightened violence?

I don’t think there are any surprising answers here.  Global jihadist organizations and networks live off of war economies like opportunistic parasites (I’m channeling Vahid Brown here), so it is not a surprise to find them integrated into local and regional conflicts in Muslim majority countries, exacerbating the other reasons why these states may be vulnerable. They may be fragile because of destabilizing occupations (Iraq, Afghanistan), because of decades of violence that have decimated traditional civil structures (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia), or because of recent political turmoil (Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, Mali).  According to preliminary data on terrorism-generated fatalities from the first six months of 2013 (fatal attacks as one proxy for destabilization) the states with the most terrorism-related fatalities and where global jihadists are salient actors include Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Syria, followed by Somalia, Kenya, Algeria, Yemen and Mali.

In terms of countries to pay attention to going forward – I am particularly concerned about Egypt.  Beyond Egypt’s traditional leadership role in the region as the most populous Arab nation, there are two other interrelated reasons. The historical relationship between crack-downs on the Muslim Brotherhood and spin-off organizations that adopt violent jihadism is worrying given the violent criminalization of the Brotherhood this winter. Then there is the concern that significant jihadist attacks into Israel from the Sinai could incite a military response from Israel and drag the region into yet another strata of war to complement the civil war in Syria, sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a regionally (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon), and the many underlying local, internecine conflicts between jihadists and traditional Sunni communities.

4.  How effective has U.S. counterterrorism policy and strategy been?  If you were advising the President on these issues, what would be your top three recommendations?

Given the record-breaking levels of terrorist violence globally, I would argue that U.S. counterterrorism policy and practice has been effective in the short-term if measured in the most straightforward way: protecting U.S. lives and property.  Domestically, we are at near record-lows in terms of numbers of incidents.   And abroad, we have not been the frequent target of violence despite horrific casualty and fatality numbers.  While neither of these observations provide solace for the victims of attacks, the U.S. has been successfully attacked much less frequently than other target communities.

These relative successes are not the same as having a successful counterterrorism strategy, however.  That would depend on whether or not the U.S. feels that curbing terrorism in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia is vital to our national interest.  Consider Syria. The mere presence of al-Qa’ida affiliates and erstwhile affiliates (even if they are fighting one-another) in the midst of an opposition movement that the United States might otherwise support paralyzes our ability to intervene decisively. A similar observation could have been made for Libya.  Global jihadists do not have to be strategically cohesive to frustrate our political will to act.  The proliferation of these groups stymies our ability to engage in some places (curtailing polio outbreaks in Pakistan, famine relief in the Horn of Africa), and demands that we engage in others(chemical weapons in Syria), while preventing us from engaging as we would want to in any of these places.

My recommendations would be as follows:

(A) Remember that al-Qa’ida is waging an attrition strategy.  They want us to disengage from the Muslim world so that they can carve out emirates and impose their will on Muslim communities.  The proliferation of highly lethal and active jihadist organizations can achieve al-Qa’ida’s strategic goal (attrition of our military, economic, and political will to remain engaged in the Muslim world) even if the al-Qa’ida organization itself is defeated.

(B) Avoid conflating all local and regional jihadist actors with al-Qa’ida, while recognizing that there are global jihadist actors within most of these movements.  In practice, exploit the tensions between these groups and avoid the kind of counterterrorism policy and practice that will incentivize local and regional actors to start thinking globally.  Two examples of problematic counterterrorism policy include excessive use of drones for lower and lower value targets, or using U.S. troops or contractors instead of investing in foreign internal defense.

(C) Never stop highlighting the victims of jihadist violence. Jihadism is exacting a devastating toll on Muslim society.

5.  Finally, where’s the best place in the greater DC metro area to find a stiff drink and talk all things terrorism?  And what’s your preferred drink with which to lubricate such a discussion?

I have children; I wouldn’t know.  I do most of my socializing at home these days, which is actually fine because my beverages of choice do not require a mixologist.  My table whiskey is Powers – a wonderfully affordable Irish whiskey by Middleton with a heavy dose of pot still (think Red Breast) in the blend. It makes Jameson look silly (Ryan Evans).


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  A former United States Army intelligence officer, he has been featured in print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada.  Follow him on Twitter @johnamble.