My last four posts, and particularly the concluding paragraph of the final post (here), have received some critical attention. The claim that al Qaeda is in far better condition now than on 9-11 seems especially egregious to some experts, so I'd like to take this post to state fairly the top five objections to my thesis. In follow-up posts, I'll answer each of these.
1) The al-Qaeda core does not command and control the affiliates, who are still primarily concerned with local matters.
Al Qaeda consists of the "core," a group of a few hundred men located somewhere in South Asia. Of course the core claims to control the affiliates -- groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- however, a close look at the development of the affiliates suggests that this is nothing but propaganda, used to make al Qaeda look bigger and more successful than it actual is. All the affiliates evolved out of local conditions, have overwhelmingly local memberships, and have local objectives. Many of them were failed terrorist groups, who seized on a relationship with al Qaeda to give them a new lease on life, and do not have any real commitment to al Qaeda's global objectives. The dispersion of al Qaeda core members out to these affiliates shows just how effective our war against them has been and demonstrates the fundamental weakness of the group.
Another line of argument judges that AQAP and others who have sworn fealty to the al Qaeda core are indeed part of al Qaeda, but argues that only in Somalia has al Qaeda -- through the section of the Shabaab that has sworn fealty -- been able to hold ground. In Yemen and other places they do not have any real base and even in Somalia, the Shabaab are now on the defensive from the regional forces that have boots on the ground. This line of argument would also agree with the other described above about command and control: It is impossible for the "core" to effectively control the actions of these distant affiliates.
2) The main objective of the al Qaeda core is to attack the U.S. All the other expressed objectives are mere propaganda by al Qaeda, used to radicalize Muslims and to inspire attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
The argument here is that no one should take seriously the outrageous propaganda spouted by al Qaeda's spokesmen. They naturally want to make themselves out to be more than they are, and claim all sorts of "achievements" and capabilities that they do not in fact possess. In addition, the larger objectives that they say they are aiming for are clearly fantasies (world domination -- really?) and unachievable. The actions of the affiliates, meanwhile, are judged to be either really aimed at local issues, or to be so ineffective that they can be safely left to capable partners.
3) The means that al Qaeda core has used to carry out its main objective are either cells trained in South Asia or adherents ("lone wolves"), who are radicalized through the internet or extremist preachers.
The U.S. has successfully prevented al Qaeda from operationalizing any large cells designed to attack U.S. persons since 2001. Because of these successes, al Qaeda was forced to rely on the far less effective "lone wolves," showing just how weak the group has become.
4) Based on these three points, the correct strategy for dealing with al Qaeda is counter-terrorism plus countering violent extremism.
Al Qaeda is little more than a small group of frightened men in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and thus to use the military against them is to over-react to a limited problem. It is also extremely expensive to involve the military and leads to the unnecessary loss of American lives. Instead, the U.S. should depend on a counter-terrorism strategy to defeat the group. This would entail law enforcement means and methods to take out the criminals, with the main aim of attrition (i.e. killing or capturing al Qaeda members), until the group is so weak that local law enforcement can handle them on their own (as they are doing in places like Indonesia and Turkey). We also need to stop the radicalization of individual Muslims (like Major Hasan) by countering the propaganda of al Qaeda and killing off its most charismatic leaders (see the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaqi and Bin Ladin himself).
For the affiliates, it is enough to involve regional and capable partners, who can be our surrogate "boots on the ground" in places like Somalia.
5) Without its charismatic founder, chief propagandist, main radicalizer and inspiration -- Osama Bin Ladin -- al Qaeda is doomed. In addition, the Arab Spring shows just how irrelevant al Qaeda has become for the life of the Muslim community.
The death of Bin Ladin and the Arab Spring were game-changers. Without its chief radicalizer, al Qaeda core will not be able to replace losses and will not be able to inspire young Muslims to carry out attacks against the U.S. This shows that the U.S. has nearly won the war on al Qaeda. The revolutionary events that we call the Arab Spring also demonstrate that al Qaeda -- once seen as so influential in the Muslim community -- has become largely irrelevant. Al Qaeda neither began nor influenced the course of the uprisings, and was ignored by those who participated in them. We can also see that (in general) the outcomes of the Spring have not favored al Qaeda's resurgence in these areas, and have in fact opened the path for a far more optimistic future for the Muslim world.
Now that I've convinced you that my last four posts are completely and egregiously wrong, you will need to come back over the next few days to see how I'll answer each of these objections.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.