Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Evaluating the war with al Qaeda

Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda’s ...

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda's core leadership in the near future. Leon Panetta was even more forthright in remarks to reporters a month later, arguing that the U.S. was within reach of "strategically defeating al Qaeda," that the group was "on the run," and that killing 10-20 key leaders would lead to its defeat. Two weeks ago DNI James Clapper reiterated the administration's view in his testimony before Congress that core al Qaeda was "diminishing in operational importance," that the movement could soon fragment, and that this would make the core largely of symbolic significance.

It is rather surprising, given this optimistic appraisal, that the second half of Clapper's testimony on terrorism -- as well as the next few lines of Brennan's speech -- detail the resilience and growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates -- the official designation for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (AQIM). Both statements warn that these groups are not just maintaining their activities, but are actually expanding in size and influence while now seeking to attack the U.S. How can the strategic defeat of al Qaeda be at hand if its affiliates are surging?

The apparent contradiction within these two statements suggests that there might be inconsistencies in how the U.S. assesses progress in the war against al Qaeda. Over the next few days I'll attempt to tease out these inconsistencies and provide some clarity on the four interrelated questions that the U.S. must answer if we want to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda: How do we define al Qaeda; what does al Qaeda want to achieve (i.e. what are its objectives); how well do we think al Qaeda is doing at achieving these objectives; and finally how well do we think we're doing at stopping al Qaeda.

Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda’s core leadership in the near future. Leon Panetta was even more forthright in remarks to reporters a month later, arguing that the U.S. was within reach of "strategically defeating al Qaeda," that the group was "on the run," and that killing 10-20 key leaders would lead to its defeat. Two weeks ago DNI James Clapper reiterated the administration’s view in his testimony before Congress that core al Qaeda was "diminishing in operational importance," that the movement could soon fragment, and that this would make the core largely of symbolic significance.

It is rather surprising, given this optimistic appraisal, that the second half of Clapper’s testimony on terrorism — as well as the next few lines of Brennan’s speech — detail the resilience and growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates — the official designation for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (AQIM). Both statements warn that these groups are not just maintaining their activities, but are actually expanding in size and influence while now seeking to attack the U.S. How can the strategic defeat of al Qaeda be at hand if its affiliates are surging?

The apparent contradiction within these two statements suggests that there might be inconsistencies in how the U.S. assesses progress in the war against al Qaeda. Over the next few days I’ll attempt to tease out these inconsistencies and provide some clarity on the four interrelated questions that the U.S. must answer if we want to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda: How do we define al Qaeda; what does al Qaeda want to achieve (i.e. what are its objectives); how well do we think al Qaeda is doing at achieving these objectives; and finally how well do we think we’re doing at stopping al Qaeda.

Let’s start with the most fundamental of these questions: What is al Qaeda? It might seem strange that more than ten years after 9-11 we are still struggling to answer this question, but understanding this enemy has never been an easy task. In their official remarks, both Brennan and Clapper provide the administration’s answer: Al Qaeda is cleanly divided into a core that has as its key objective attacking the U.S., affiliates that have shown interest in attacking us but generally focus on local concerns, and "adherents" — individuals who have been inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology, but have no organizational connection to the core. Given this description, if asked to choose between describing al Qaeda as a movement that inspires and motivates or an organization that directs, commands, and controls a global war, I believe that the administration would answer "movement."

This seems like a plausible answer, and it has been used to guide successful U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, but it leaves out a necessary piece of the puzzle: it ignores how al Qaeda defines itself. In multiple statements, al Qaeda’s leaders have consistently asserted that their group as an organization with a fully articulated bureaucracy and administrative committees, the vanguard or "High Command," of a global jihad against the Crusaders and Jews (and their allies). Another, more detailed, explication of their views is presented in a 2009 interview with Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the now dead "General Manager" for al Qaeda. Abu al-Yazid was asked how large al Qaeda was, and he used the opportunity to describe three tiers within the organization: the leadership and those who have sworn an oath of loyalty to the leaders (what we call the core); multiple groups and individuals that joined directly with the command to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and what he calls "branches," that al Qaeda has opened in "many Muslim countries."

Abu al-Yazid also claimed that the leadership had direct command and control over all these parts of its organization, despite the difficulties posed by distance and wartime conditions, ordering, for example, the branches to carry out attacks against the U.S. This was not just boasting. At the time of the interview, it was the official position of the U.S. government that AQAP, AQIM, and other affiliates were focused on local concerns and would never attempt to attack the homeland. Six months after Abu al-Yazid made this assertion, an AQAP member tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a U.S. flight into Detroit, and since then a series of plots have been disrupted involving various affiliates.

It’s now possible to understand, at least partially, the apparent contradiction between the two parts of Brennan and Clapper’s statements: the U.S. has attempted to disaggregate the "high command" from the troops that they claim to be commanding. Our current CT (counter-terrorism) strategy targets the high command (the Core), and thus the claim that "al Qaeda" is almost defeated, while leaving the forces in the field (the "affiliates") relatively untouched. A rough analogy to current U.S. strategy — although without the nation-state structures to provide a sturdy backbone — would be if in a future war, an enemy targeted the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Combatant Commanders in an attempt to decapitate U.S. forces in the field, but was unable to take on U.S. troops directly.

Of course it is one thing for al Qaeda to claim command and control over all these forces, and quite another thing to actually exert it. Measuring this will require a further investigation of al Qaeda’s objectives and the group’s ability to achieve these objectives.

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.