The Middle East Channel

Interpreting Al Qaeda

The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly. Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in ...

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly. Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield. Jihadist groups also executed a series of daring jailbreaks in three countries in a 10-day period, mounted a major offensive in Egypt’s Sinai, and drove Tunisia’s government to declare an internal war.

This is not what most analysts expected at the height of the revolutionary events popularly known as the Arab Spring. The overwhelming majority of U.S. commentary asserted that al Qaeda had suffered a major, if not lethal, blow to its fortunes — although this triumphalism was not unanimous. The fact that al Qaeda wasn’t a real part of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions ostensibly sidelined it, and the two revolutions’ nonviolent methods were said to discredit al Qaeda’s narrative. It wasn’t unusual to hear proclamations that the combination of Osama bin Laden’s death and the uprisings meant "the end of al Qaeda in any meaningful sense," and claims that these events were the "bookends to the war on terror — the final bookends." Academics described al Qaeda as "the palest shadow of its former self," news reports stated that "the franchise’s grand vision is unlikely to regain the appeal it once held," and analysis from specialists concluded that al Qaeda had been diminished in every measurable way. Such views were embraced by the U.S. government, and top officials issued similar statements about al Qaeda’s impending demise. 

Such views left little room for dissent. As Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s security studies program and a luminary in the field of terrorism studies, recently told me, "The triumphalism of Osama bin Laden’s death coinciding with the ending of the first phase of the Arab Spring created a concatenation of judgment where anyone who stood in the way was kind of bowled over or knocked aside." But now such views are on the wane. A new conventional wisdom is emerging, encapsulated by retired U.S. Marine Corps general James Mattis’s comments at the Jamestown Foundation’s annual conference in December 2013 that "the congratulations that we heard two years ago on the demise of al Qaeda were premature and are now discredited."

It is worth reviewing what went wrong whenever the majority view in a field largely misreads significant developments. Such reflection is even more necessary here, where there can be tremendous real-world consequences. Unexpected geopolitical developments invariably produce a host of predictions that prove inaccurate. However, several aspects of efforts to interpret al Qaeda and the uprisings suggest a deeply flawed analytic climate. That dominant analytic lines largely failed to consider scenarios in which al Qaeda and other jihadist groups might be strengthened stands out; as does the fact that jihadist strategists’ own conception of the uprisings was largely absent from the literature. Indeed, many people involved in these debates consider the analytic climate to have been noticeably poor.

What does it mean to say that the dominant opinion in the field got al Qaeda wrong? One way of making this claim is approaching it as a simple binary, focusing on the capacities of jihadist groups and environmental effects on their trajectory, and determining whether analysts correctly assessed the two dimensions. But this is an unnecessarily limited view, which incorrectly sees the outcome of the past three years as an inevitability.

A better way of evaluating the performance of the field is thinking in terms of contingencies and branching points. What if Egypt’s transition had succeeded, and found a place for both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nour party in a stable democratic structure? What if Libya had consolidated into some kind of state? What if the situation in Syria had been resolved diplomatically before descending into civil war? Might the predictions of al Qaeda’s demise have looked more prescient had one or more of these occurred?

Al Qaeda’s demise may indeed have been one possible outcome of the revolutionary upheaval. But the lens of contingencies and branching points highlights problems in the analysis of al Qaeda and the Arab Spring: Most analyses of the revolutions’ impact on jihadism failed to examine alternative possibilities. Instead of assessing how governance and economic failures, or jihadist groups’ strategies for exploiting newly-won freedoms, might cause the movement to grow, most analyses took the most optimistic reading of the situation as the most likely and discounted views that didn’t fit this paradigm.

I recall one panel at a government-sponsored conference in the summer of 2011 where the panelists ticked off a litany of reasons that the revolutions discredited and marginalized al Qaeda. When a government analyst asked the group in the question and answer period if there were any ways the revolutions might actually help the jihadist cause, they could think of none. On the subsequent panel, I outlined some rather modest reasons jihadists might actually enjoy a rosier future. Al Qaeda might have a more permissive operating environment in terms of dawa (evangelism) efforts and militants who were released from prisons; rising unemployment rates and food prices, coupled with bad governance, might upend the sky-high expectations that citizens had. In response, one of the speakers from the previous panel, outraged, refused even to exchange pleasantries with me after my session concluded.

That was when it really struck me that something was terribly wrong with the analytic climate. When the notion that a different future is even possible is seen as an affront, we are no longer truly involved in analysis. And as I spoke to other analysts involved in assessing jihadism and the Arab Uprisings, I increasingly encountered a similar set of complaints. Bruce Hoffman told me that he found these debates "more contentious" than the norm. "I think you just had a large cadre of government officials, analysts, and others who were tired of the war on terrorism," he said. "As it dragged on they thought it had been, if not a mistake, then at least an overreaction. They therefore resisted any but the most positive interpretations of the Arab Spring."

Not only was the climate for analysis extraordinarily contentious, but also descriptive and prescriptive conclusions were often conflated. It was typical to see critiques attack the alleged politics of an assessment of al Qaeda rather than its substance. One can perhaps empathize with why this was so: Seeing populations peacefully throw off the yoke of dictatorship is inspiring, and the suggestion that al Qaeda might benefit from these changes might seem like opposition to the revolutions themselves. But in a healthy analytic climate, a clear-headed assessment of the revolutions’ second-order consequences should not be seen as taking sides.

Furthermore, the vast majority of expert analysis of the Arab Uprisings’ impact on al Qaeda failed to explore the jihadist group’s strategies (and some analysts are skeptical even of the idea that the group has one). Prominent jihadist strategists wrote openly about their interpretation of the revolutionary events — in contrast to Western analysts, they universally believed that their movement would gain from the upheaval — and also explained how they thought jihadists could capitalize on the new environment. To be sure, jihadists’ interpretation of developments cannot be taken as authoritative, and movement thinkers often confuse their own best-case aspirations with strategy. Despite this, it would be virtually impossible for analysts to perform a competent assessment of how al Qaeda would be affected by the Arab Spring — with the multitude of second-order consequences that the revolutions brought — without reference to the group’s own perceptions. If nothing else, jihadist strategists could have served as a kind of "red team" challenging dominant interpretations — and indeed, comparing their writings to on-the-ground developments would have highlighted dangers at a time when U.S. analysts were still writing al Qaeda’s obituary.

These problems only hint at a deeper epistemological challenge that the field needs to confront. Over the past decade, numerous critiques of the field of terrorism studies have been advanced. Some are unpersuasive, such as those suggesting that anyone involved in studying terrorism possesses grave moral flaws; while other critiques, focusing on methodology, data, and rigor within the discipline, have more merit. But these critiques increasingly seem to miss the biggest problem plaguing some of the field’s most contentious debates.

The central epistemological problem in the study of al Qaeda, and violent non-state actors (VNSAs) more generally, is that analysts and scholars often attempt to interpret actors that are clandestine in nature. VNSAs try to keep their organizational structure, inner workings, and much of their activities hidden from the view of hostile state actors. They aren’t always successful in doing so; but even when more information is gleaned than they would like, it is generally placed behind a wall of classification and thus unavailable to open-source researchers.

This is not meant to dismiss the valuable work done by many open-source analysts. Researchers working exclusively from open sources — including J.M. Berger, Thomas Hegghammer, Thomas Joscelyn, Andrew Lebovich, Phillip Smyth, and Aaron Zelin — have contributed to our understanding of al Qaeda, jihadist networks, and other VNSAs. However, some of the field’s most prominent current debates focus on topics that are most hidden from view, which are thus areas where open-source researchers are most disadvantaged — but also, given the nature of clandestine organizations, even analysts working from classified materials have an incomplete set of data. More problematic, analysts and pundits have offered extraordinarily definitive conclusions about these questions.

How capable is al Qaeda’s core despite the attrition inflicted upon it by U.S. strikes? How frequently does the core communicate with the affiliates, how many operational directives does it give, and to what extent do the affiliates comply with its demands? Are the region’s seemingly new Salafi jihadist groups independent of al Qaeda (or "purely local," as David Kirkpatrick described Ansar al-Sharia in Libya in a recent high-profile report), or should they functionally be considered part of the network? These are the kind of questions on which the field is most stuck reading shadows.

The community working on al Qaeda and VNSAs is obviously not the only one in which the analytic climate has been problematic: Other issues have produced their own pathologies. Nonetheless, the field needs to think hard about how it can address this fundamental epistemological challenge.

The first step is simply recognizing the clandestine nature of these organizations as an inherent barrier to the analysis of VNSAs, and addressing some of the problems associated with the misinterpretation of the uprisings’ impact on jihadism. Analysts should routinely use contingencies and branching points to conceptualize the questions they confront; and, given both the complexity of the subject matter and limitations of our knowledge, dissent should be encouraged rather than shunned. Assessments that are descriptive rather than prescriptive shouldn’t become so personalized. And when evaluating VNSAs, it’s vital to pay close attention to the perceptions and strategies of the actor being assessed — particularly if, as with the Arab Spring, those perceptions are relatively easy to find.

But ultimately, while we can work to improve the analytic climate, the limitations to our knowledge caused by the clandestine nature of the actors being examined will remain. Recognizing the limits of our knowledge should produce greater analytic humility, and assessments should make special note of areas where there is a paucity of evidence, other uncertainties, or dissent within the field. We should be open to the possibility that outcomes that we do not like might be more possible — even likely — than we care to believe.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of 12 books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011). This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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