Facts on the ground just don't square with talk of an al Qaeda comeback.
Seth G. Jones (“Think Again: Al Qaeda,” May/June 2012) makes some bold claims about the fortunes of al Qaeda that aren’t supported by the evidence he supplies. He claims “the terrorist organization is now riding a resurgent tide” thanks to its “affiliates” engaging in violence in the Middle East and North Africa. But a closer look at the region shows that this just isn’t the case.
Jones refers to an uptick in attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates. However, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), in its report on global terrorism in 2010, warns against “placing too much emphasis on the use of attack data to gauge success or failure against the forces of terrorism.” In arguing his case, Jones refers only to last year’s increase in violence by al Qaeda in Iraq; the NCTC’s Worldwide Incidents Tracking System, on the other hand, shows a slight decrease globally in terrorist incidents in 2011.
Jones also argues that al Qaeda and its affiliates “are increasingly capable of holding territory.” He mentions Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, but only Yemen’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is gaining territory. Al Qaeda in Iraq does not control any ground. And al-Shabab is actually losing ground in Somalia. On what basis can Jones argue that al Qaeda is expanding its control?
Jones’s article is rife with such gaps in data and flaws in argumentation. Reading his essay, one is left with the impression that the United States and its allies have not had any successes against al Qaeda and that the terrorists are more active and dangerous than ever before.
Reality just doesn’t bear out such an overly gloomy assessment. Examining the data empirically, which the American Security Project has done annually since 2006, shows a mixed bag of successes and setbacks in the struggle against terrorism. There is no factual basis on which to claim that al Qaeda is resurgent.
Fellow for Asymmetric Operations
American Security Project
Seth G. Jones replies:
I thank Joshua Foust for his excellent comments. Unfortunately, he misconstrues my argument in several cases. My primary contention is that al Qaeda is not on the verge of “strategic defeat,” as some have argued, and that it has been more resilient than many expected.
I do not argue that the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab has gained ground in Somalia. Rather, I argue that it has retained control of territory in southern Somalia in the face of military action by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the African Union Mission in Somalia, and the U.S., Ethiopian, and Kenyan governments. Contrary to Foust’s claims, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has established a foothold in several parts of Iraq, allowing it to perpetrate an average of 25 suicide and car-bomb attacks per month since December 2011, up from 19 monthly in 2011, according to U.S. government estimates. AQI has also been involved in recent attacks in Syria.
In addition, the data Foust cites from the NCTC mix apples and oranges. The data show a decline in violence from all terrorist groups, not al Qaeda. I used data from the University of Maryland’s START database, which show a slight increase in attacks by central al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq, North Africa, Somalia, and Yemen, between 2001 and 2010, the most recent year these incidents were reported. Contrary to Foust’s claim, I point out that attacks are only one of several indicators of al Qaeda’s capabilities. Others include the number of global franchises, control of territory, and popular support.
Al Qaeda is not a 10-foot-tall monster, and, as I argued, al Qaeda Central in Pakistan has been weakened. Its affiliates and allies, however, have attained a newfound status in areas like North Africa, consolidated a presence in places like Somalia, expanded in countries like Yemen, and propagated new links in countries like Nigeria. Policymakers and analysts have prematurely written al Qaeda’s obituary too many times during the past decade. Let’s not make this mistake again.