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What does Al Qaeda want?

What does Al Qaeda want?

In my last post, I argued that evaluating progress in our war with al Qaeda is possible, but that we must first answer a series of questions, beginning with "What is al Qaeda?" In this post, I’ll look at the second issue — the problem of al Qaeda’s objectives in their war. Only by understanding what the group aspires to achieve can we determine if they have succeeded in attaining their goals or not. As with the issue of defining al Qaeda, there are a variety of opinions within the expert community and the government about the group’s strategic vision, a term that includes both objectives and plans for achieving them. Consistently, however, the U.S. government — including both the Bush and Obama administrations — has concluded that carrying out terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies is the key objective for "core" al Qaeda, while the affiliates are focused on local agendas (although they now also desire to carry out attacks on the U.S.).

There are, however, hints in official U.S. statements of quite a different set of objectives for the group. The declassified part of an April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), for instance, asserts that al Qaeda’s political goal is an "ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world." In 2010, an official statement for the record of then-DNI Dennis Blair, listed the objectives for al Qaeda, besides attacking the U.S. and its allies, as "driving Western influence from Islamic lands" and "facilitating the establishment of sharia law in South Asia." A speech by John Brennan in 2011 gives a detailed look at how the U.S. defines al Qaeda’s goals, proposing four separate objectives: first, to terrorize the U.S. into retreating from the world stage; second, to use long wars to financially bleed the U.S. while inflaming anti-American sentiment; third, to defend the rights of Muslims; and finally, claims al Qaeda has "a feckless delusion" and "grandiose vision" for global domination through a "violent Islamic caliphate."

A look at the public and private statements of al Qaeda’s leaders supports the view that the group seeks to achieve far more than simply attacking the U.S. and its allies. In multiple statements, leaders like Zawahiri have consistently presented a series of objectives that al Qaeda is actively pursuing: liberating all "Muslim lands" from occupation by both non-Muslims and "apostate" rulers; imposing their version of sharia (Islamic law) on Muslims and non-Muslims alike in these lands; erecting then a state that they call the "caliphate;" and eventually making God’s word the highest. This phrase, which means many things to Muslims, signifies just one thing for the extremists: that the entire world is ruled by their version of sharia.

It is significant that al Qaeda’s lists of objectives do not mention attacking the United States or its allies. Rather, attacking the U.S. is presented as a way to achieve these goals, suggesting that U.S. evaluations of al Qaeda’s effectiveness have a serious error at their very foundation: a confusion of our enemy’s means and ends. The importance of this mistake cannot be understated. If al Qaeda’s main goal is to attack the U.S. and our current counter-terrorism (CT) efforts have prevented the group from doing so, then we have succeeded not only in saving lives, but also have found how to stop the terrorists entirely. If, on the other hand, killing Americans was just one of the methods that al Qaeda has been employing on its way to other, larger goals, then our CT work might have only partially thwarted the group and there might be other areas where they have been more successful in reaching their goals.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at the objectives that al Qaeda has said that it is pursuing, and attempt to bring some clarity to the question of how well the group has been doing in achieving them.