The Dangers of Success
Why it's not so simple to crush and kill al Qaeda affiliates.
Al-Shabab has seen better days. The Somali group that perpetrated the horrific attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya that killed over 60 people controlled much of Somalia, including the capital, in 2009. Forces from the African Union and neighboring states like Kenya — backed by the United States and working with rival Somali factions — chased al-Shabab out of Mogadishu and many other parts of the country, while splits and defections further weakened the group. Then, in 2012, after years of flirtation, al Qaeda formally embraced al-Shabab. Setbacks for an al Qaeda ally is good news for U.S. friends, but one of the ironies of American counterterrorism is that helping our allies win changes the nature of the threat.
Acknowledging these shifting sands, President Barack Obama observed this May that "the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11," but warned that al Qaeda affiliates are emerging, from "Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa." Counterterrorism accordingly has shifted, with attention focused less on the al Qaeda core and more on affiliates and potential allies, which are present in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, among other countries. Many of these groups are locked in life and death struggles against local governments, which is why Washington is arming, training, and providing allied regimes support. But al-Shabab’s experience suggests that we must prepare for "success" — because locally focused groups respond to failure in dangerous ways.
Some terrorists keep fighting while their comrades fall one by one: Basque Fatherland and Liberty, better known by its acronym, ETA, took years to embrace a ceasefire despite the killing or arrest of many of its senior members. Other terrorists simply drop out and at times even reject violence: Leaders of Egypt’s Gamaat al-Islamiyya, which was responsible for attacks in Egypt that led to almost 1,000 deaths in the 1990s, declared a ceasefire from jail in 2003 and later issued a stunning self-critique that rejected violence. After President Hosni Mubarak fell, Gamaat al-Islamiyya even formed a political party.
Many groups respond to failure, however, by doubling down and changing their agendas. Like Gamaat al-Islamiyya, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), whose leader Ayman Zawahiri now heads al Qaeda, initially focused exclusively on Egypt to the point that it argued that even the struggle against Israel should be secondary. EIJ fought alongside, and at times with, the Gamaat al-Islamiyya and also imploded in the late 1990s, with its leaders dead, jailed, or in exile. But in its death throes, fragments of EIJ became even more extreme and, in so doing, further alienated the Egyptian public. Hounded at home and abroad and out of money, Zawahiri embraced Osama bin Laden’s global agenda and directed the remnants of his organization against the United States.
The leading jihadist organization in Algeria today, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which killed almost 40 foreigners in an attack on the In Amenas oil facility in January 2013, grew out of the Algerian jihadist movement that has been around for two decades. In the mid-1990s, the Armed Islamic Group, the most prominent of the many jihadist organizations, rebuffed bin Laden’s offers of cooperation, thinking that it would triumph on its own. A decade later, however, Algeria’s jihadists found themselves weak and divided, reduced to sporadic terrorist operations and banditry with some accepting the government’s amnesty program. The remnants joined al Qaeda, but only after they had abandoned hope of success at home.
Part of why groups fight under al Qaeda’s banner is because they find its ideology and anti-Americanism inspiring. But the presence or absence of inspiration is only part of the story. The al Qaeda core can offer affiliates new resources ranging from money and training facilities to ties to fundraising and logistics networks. Joining al Qaeda also brings new recruits, particularly foreign fighters, eager to sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers. Perhaps most importantly, swearing allegiance to Zawahiri allows local groups to rebrand themselves, identifying with a cause that is bigger and more important. The al Qaeda name still has cachet in many circles, and groups like al-Shabab try to stress their similarities to Zawahiri’s organization rather than dwell on their own failings and abuses.
The price of joining, of course, is that the remit changes: groups are then encouraged to go beyond the local struggle and take up arms against the United States and commit terrorist attacks against other al Qaeda enemies. Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch almost downed a U.S. civilian airliner on Christmas Day 2009. More commonly, as al-Shabab did in Kenya, affiliates go beyond their own borders and attack in their region, targeting nearby enemies and Western visitors or symbols.
There are no simple choices when confronting al Qaeda affiliates. Ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode — and vulnerable to a surprise attack. But too aggressive an approach (in the hope of nipping their power in the bud) can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al Qaeda and other jihadist groups by validating the global Islamist narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement.
We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can lessen it. When possible the United States should work behind the scenes as a high-profile U.S. role may lead remnants to direct their ire against the United States even more. Also, when possible, the United States should encourage its allies to offer groups a way out when they fail, encouraging them to take on a peaceful political role, and reincorporating those willing to give up violence. In addition, United States should recognize the risks that come with allied success and intelligence and homeland defenses should prepare accordingly, particularly if the losing groups have large diasporas in the United States.
In the end, helping defeat a real or potential al Qaeda ally is a good thing. They pose threats to U.S. allies, and their barbarous and bloody tactics should condemn them in any event. Yet successful counterterrorism is often ambiguous, and successfully reducing one problem often means creating or worsening other ones.