Shadow Government

Answering Objections: Is al Qaeda Really Dead? Part II

In an earlier post I noted that there have been strong protests to my thesis that al Qaeda has not been fatally damaged by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and in fact is stronger now than ever before. In the earlier post I listed five specific objections that I have heard from administration officials and from al ...


In an earlier post I noted that there have been strong protests to my thesis that al Qaeda has not been fatally damaged by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and in fact is stronger now than ever before. In the earlier post I listed five specific objections that I have heard from administration officials and from al Qaeda and terrorism experts (like Will McCants). Since then Seth Jones has published a piece that also argues al Qaeda is not dead, although he takes on different points of contention than I do.

At the center of the first three objections that I list — and that lead directly to the fourth — is a profound disagreement over what exactly al Qaeda is, how able "core" al Qaeda is to command and control its affiliates, and what the group can therefore hope to achieve (despite its boasts to far greater things). The objections also reflect a difference in opinion about the public statements made by al Qaeda’s leaders, seen by many as expressing aspirational — but unachievable — goals, or as rhetoric designed to inspire terror attacks, but by me and others as official statements of the group’s policy vision.

I’ve already discussed thoroughly the differing views of "what al Qaeda is" in this post, but would stress that I take al Qaeda’s leadership at their word, and agree that the "core" is the high command of a global organization that includes many branches (as al Qaeda calls the affiliates) and that these branches are an integral part of al Qaeda. Their relationship is somewhat like that between the Pentagon and the Combatant Commanders, although more decentralized and with latitude for splintering and serious disagreement-as in any insurgency. The oath of obedience that binds leadership and forces in the field — called "baya" — is one piece of evidence that both "core" and branches are precisely the same thing and that there is a command and control function built into their relationship. In theory, baya operates in much the same way as a feudal oath of fealty. When joining al Qaeda, only the overall affiliate military commander — and the head of shadow governance, if one exists — swear loyalty to the al Qaeda high command, subordinate commanders swear loyalty to these leaders, and the ordinary foot soldiers swear loyalty to the subordinates. Just as with feudal oaths where the meanest peasant could not argue that he did not have to obey the ruler because he had not personally sworn an oath to him, so the local forces of al Qaeda — through their oaths to their unit commander — are bound to obey as well the orders of everyone above them in the chain of command. One recent example of this theoretical hierarchy in practice is the baya sworn by Shaykh Atom to the Amir of the Shabab in Somalia, an oath that made him — and his men — as much a part of al Qaeda as the Shabab.

But these oaths, while suggestive, do not prove that the "core" is really able to command and control the affiliates. Again, there is evidence that tells us they are, but in the same way that all insurgencies are under the command and control (C2) of often distant superiors. In regular militaries and regular wars, C2 is a rigidly defined issue, with strict rules about who obeys whom, daily reporting by subordinates to officers, constant oversight to make certain that orders are obeyed, and set penalties for insubordination or direct disobedience. Irregular wars — such as insurgencies — are very different, however, as a recent publication by the Department of Defense on the insurgency in Afghanistan makes clear. As in other insurgencies, the Taliban leadership in Pakistan provides broad strategic guidance and resources as needed, but not specific daily orders with daily reportage back up the chain of command. Instead, tighter C2 is handled through the local shadow government and commanders on the ground, who report back to their distant superiors on a regular basis. This, in miniature, is how al Qaeda is controlling their forces in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel. Captured documents from Iraq show in action both the strengths and limitations of this sort of guidance. Zarqawi was directly ordered by his superiors to stop cutting off heads in public, to refrain from ever attacking neighboring countries again, to create the foundations for an Islamic state in Iraq, and to try harder to win over Sunnis to his cause. All these orders he obeyed. He was also ordered to stop killing Shia and Sunnis in large numbers, but events seem to show that he ignored this demand. From their distant headquarters, al Qaeda could not do much about this insubordination, although his subsequent demotion to a lesser position within al Qaeda in Iraq is suggestive, and I’m sure they did not mourn his passing a few weeks later.

Another example of this sort of C2 should give pause to those who argue that the "core" does not really control the affiliates. In the summer of 2009, the official view of the U.S. was that the affiliates were focused solely on local concerns (i.e. overthrowing the rulers of their own countries). That June, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the General Manager of al Qaeda, gave an interview in which he stated that the branches were an integral part of al Qaeda and that the leadership was ordering them to carry out attacks on the U.S. Six months later, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-assessed by the U.S. government as having purely local objectives-carried out an unsuccessful attack on the homeland. A few months later, Tehrik-i-Taliban, a Pakistani group tied to al Qaeda that was also viewed as having purely local concerns, attempted to blow up Times Square. Our failure to take seriously the "rhetoric" of al Qaeda leaders led to two near catastrophes.

This discussion also matters because the U.S. policy proposals that flow from these viewpoints are substantially different. If al Qaeda can be divided into a core leadership that has as its primary objective attacking the U.S. and affiliates that are not an integral part of that core (or at least not under real command and control), then it is possible to carry out a successful counter-terrorism (CT) strategy against the "core" and perhaps the leadership of the affiliates, while allowing regional partners to handle the local insurgencies of the affiliates themselves. If, however, al Qaeda is both core and affiliate, that is both high command and ground forces, and the leadership is able to exert real command and control functions, then CT methodologies — and its foundation of attrition — will not destroy al Qaeda or prevent its spread. The only method that we have for dealing with this sort of warfare is counterinsurgency.

In my next post, I’ll expand on this assertion and give my take on how the Arab Spring and the death of Bin Ladin have affected al Qaeda.

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