An expert's point of view on a current event.

War on Error

We're fighting al Qaeda like a terrorist group. They're fighting us as an army.

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

One of the most active fronts in the war on terror is Washington, D.C., where skirmishes over our understanding of al Qaeda have grown increasingly frequent and bloody.

One of the most active fronts in the war on terror is Washington, D.C., where skirmishes over our understanding of al Qaeda have grown increasingly frequent and bloody.

Although this battle has raged for years, recent events have raised the stakes. From the president of the United States on down, analysts, scholars, and pundits have been confounded by the evolution of al Qaeda from a single, central group based in Afghanistan into a hydra with heads in (at minimum) Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, and most importantly, Syria.

The debate has grown ever more acrimonious since the maybe-or-maybe-not al Qaeda attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but it reached new and unprecedented heights this weekend when al Qaeda Central (AQC) issued a statement to fire one of its affiliates, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.

The terse, unequivocal statement came after months of bloody infighting among jihadi groups in Syria, and it makes it clear that defining al Qaeda isn’t just an "inside the beltway" problem. Not even al Qaeda has a firm grasp on the question.

Attempts to pin down AQC’s health and influence too often focus on a specific moment in time, rather than examining it as a transition in progress. Perversely, evaluations of al Qaeda’s threat as a global terrorist organization suffer from the opposite problem, focusing too much on what it once was and what it could be again in the future — an organization whose main priority is carrying out terrorist attacks.

Lost between those poles is al Qaeda as it exists today, a movement and an organization in the midst of dramatic structural transformations that is primarily focused on fighting wars and insurgencies.

Who’s in charge?

On Sept. 12, 2001, al Qaeda existed as a single organization with a clear chain of command and employees numbering in the hundreds to low thousands, depending on exactly where you draw your lines. Then, the leader of al Qaeda was Osama bin Laden. Today, it’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It is almost certain that al Qaeda, the organization — the specific group that carried out the 9/11 attacks — still exists in some form, based on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan with an unknown number of employees answering directly to Zawahiri and under heavy pressure from U.S. drone strikes.

Data on the size and strength of that organization is scarce, but opinions are plentiful. Can AQC itself carry out major terrorist attacks against the United States or does it rely on its officially acknowledged affiliates — al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabab, Jabhat al Nusra, and a host of groups often lumped under the amorphous label of "al Qaeda-linked"? Understanding and accurately describing these inter-group dynamics has plagued analysts, myself included, for years.

For instance, in the 1990s, bin Laden’s al Qaeda coordinated closely with Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad, so much so that Islamic Jihad members were paid a salary by al Qaeda, according to testimony in the 2001 trial of the East African embassy bombers. That salary was higher than the one paid to actual al Qaeda members. Yet many analysts maintain that these were two separate organizations until June 2001, when they formally announced their merger.

Around the same time in Bosnia, the Egyptian Islamic Group led by the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who inspired the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, played a crucial role in controlling foreign fighters who had come to fight the Serbs, while al Qaeda moved money and operatives in and out of the conflict. Today, many people still talk about al Qaeda in Bosnia as if that encompasses the whole landscape, when the reality is far more nuanced.

After the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda began to designate official affiliates, further complicating matters. These organizations swore loyalty to bin Laden, and later, to Zawahiri. In return, they were officially recognized as affiliates, theoretically under the command of AQC.

While there is much we don’t know about the current size and operational status of AQC, there is ample evidence that the top-down command structure — with Zawahiri’s organization on top of the pyramid — is, at a minimum, under tremendous pressure.

We can debate whether it has completely collapsed, whether it is severely damaged, whether it is still hanging on, and whether it might mount a comeback, but the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that control of al Qaeda’s affiliates is slipping out of Zawahiri’s hands. This weekend’s disavowal of ISIS by AQC is only the most recent and explicit example.

We sometimes talk about al Qaeda and its affiliates as if this structure has a clear precedent, deep roots, and a long history of cohesion. In fact, the "affiliate program" was barely off the ground before cracks began to form. Al Qaeda in Iraq, and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, went off the rails almost immediately, and AQC tried — futilely — to rein him in through private correspondence, which was captured in Iraq and Afghanistan and later published by the U.S. government. The conflict was only resolved with Zarqawi’s death in 2006.

Today, Zawahiri has indisputably lost control of AQI, now known as ISIS. In June, ISIS tried to take control of al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra. When Zawahiri came down in support of the powerful newcomer, ISIS openly defied him, with its emir posting a video online explicitly rejecting the order to confine its activities to Iraq.

Al Nusra has remained loyal to Zawahiri, but since the al Qaeda chief has ruled in its favor not once, but twice, that loyalty costs nothing. It’s decidedly unclear who holds the whip hand in the relationship between AQC and al Nusra, but the latter undoubtedly has more men, more money, and more popular support than the former. If Zawahiri had ruled against al Nusra, the only difference in outcome might well have been the name of the affiliate that broke with AQC. Al Nusra doesn’t really need al Qaeda, but al Qaeda desperately needs al Nusra to remain relevant at a global level.

Zawahiri has few tools at his disposal with which to influence his junior partners. Prior to 9/11, bin Laden was able to use money and terrorist expertise — coupled with the promise of mobility and a safe haven for training — to exert influence over organizations that were not formally pledged. Zawahiri can no longer offer a safe haven, and all of al Qaeda’s official and unofficial affiliates have their own independent income streams, some of which are competitive with AQC’s bankroll at its height.

Before 9/11, al Qaeda was small enough for bin Laden to police its members, and there were no alternative power centers within the organization that offered him meaningful competition. Today, Zawahiri has plenty of competition but no leverage for enforcement. Likewise, his ability to create financial incentives is likely too limited to sway his well-funded affiliates.

What limited authority AQC enjoys today derives from the religious weight of the loyalty oaths he has collected, his elder statesman status, and his personal charisma, such as it is.

That said, Zawahiri has not faded into complete irrelevance. Open-source intelligence is scarce on AQC’s command-and-control structures, but recent reports suggest he still exerts something like control over the organization’s Yemeni affiliate, AQAP, whose emir Nasser al-Wuhayshi was reportedly named second-in-command for the al Qaeda global network in 2013.

But with the loyalty of other al Qaeda affiliates falling along a rapidly diminishing spectrum, Zawahiri has largely refrained from interfering in their internal affairs in a way that exposes his weakness. At times, this has meant keeping mum even after senior AQC figures are killed. When a senior jihadist with long ties to al Qaeda publicly called on Zawahiri to intervene in a violent fitna (a theologically-charged Arabic word for dissent among Muslims) in Somalia last year, his petition received no public response, and the leader of al Shabab, Ahmed Godane, solved the problem by killing the petitioner.

More recently, when called on to end the infighting among Syrian jihadi factions, including conflicts between two purported al Qaeda affiliates and a third group that has telegraphed its desire to be seen as part of al Qaeda, Zawahiri in January issued a statement that invited the combatants to find a solution, but articulated no specific orders. Rather than appoint a leader in Syria, he told the jihadi groups to decide on one themselves, saying he would approve of whomever they picked. It was an extraordinarily weak statement for someone who purportedly commands loyalty from at least one of the most important groups in the theater.

In Syria, Zawahiri is starting to resemble a guide more than a military commander — a spiritual influencer like jihadist cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi or an intellectual influencer such as Islamist Yousef Al Qaradawi. After al Qaeda disavowed ISIS over the weekend, ISIS members tracked by the author on social media spent far more time viciously attacking another influential critic, Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, than complaining about the change in status.

Despite all this, Zawahiri is still important as an influencer — profoundly so. His January statement on Syria — issued concurrently with statements by a number of other jihadi influencers including Muhaysini and Maqdisi — may well have contributed to a pause in the infighting. Being a respected voice, however, is not the same as being commander-in-chief.

To manage an organization with tens of thousands of employees and branches all over the globe would be a daunting task for anyone, let alone someone whose travel, communication, and information-gathering opportunities are severely curtailed. It’s not surprising that Zawahiri is losing control of the organization and the movement. It would be surprising if he did not.

One last factor might matter very much to this calculus. Zawahiri has years of experience running covert terrorist organizations, but he has never run or participated significantly in an overt military campaign.

That’s a crucial gap in his experience, because the al Qaeda of 2014 does a lot more warfighting than terrorism.

Is al Qaeda still primarily a terrorist organization?

The heated debate over command and control can obscure the most fundamental evolution of al Qaeda, which is the easiest to describe and quantify but rarely discussed on its own merits. It has morphed from a discrete terrorist group into a wide-ranging fighting movement that conducts insurgencies, recruits foreign fighters into conflicts, raises funds, and conducts terrorism on the side — almost certainly its least-resourced component.

This conclusion requires no stroke of genius; it is patently obvious. But the political and emotional freightage that accompanies the word "terrorism" makes it hard to utter. Even the New York Times refers to al Qaeda as the "world’s most notorious terrorist organization." But while technically true, the label is increasingly misleading.

This isn’t a question of tactics — al Qaeda’s insurgent activities frequently include horrific terrorist tactics. It’s about goals. Although there is no clear consensus, most experts define terrorism, in part, by the indirectness of its objectives: exerting political influence through intimidation and violence generally directed at noncombatants.

What we see today are al Qaeda militias whose objectives are extremely direct — to capture, hold, and govern territory, along with attacks of a genocidal nature.

To be sure, al Qaeda has always had a close relationship to war. It was founded on the remains of the jihad against the Soviet Union and it has consistently recruited terrorists from the veterans of wars and conflicts involving Muslims, as it did in Bosnia. But it was not traditionally a primary combatant in these conflicts. That has changed.

No matter what estimate you’re working with, there are far more people currently fighting with an acknowledged al Qaeda affiliate than belonged to the pre-9/11 organization during its entire history — by multiples.

The vast weight of al Qaeda manpower and funding (the sum of both AQC and its official affiliates) currently goes to support insurgencies and warfighting, including both foreign fighters and regional residents under the same flag. While this activity is obviously concentrated in Syria, every major al Qaeda affiliate has followed the same course to some extent, deploying forces to hold territory and attempt governance from Mali to Somalia to Yemen.

Al Qaeda is clearly still in the terrorism business, but terrorism is no longer its flagship product — in the same way that the Mac no longer dominates the Apple brand. Terrorism is the product on which the organization was built — and it still matters — but it is no longer the main line of business.

Thousands of al Qaeda fighters have died on battlefields in the last couple of years, but scores at most have been arrested or killed while carrying out plots against the U.S. homeland. This is true even when you include people whose terrorist ambitions are inspired by al Qaeda without a direct network link, and when you expand the set to include other forms of non-insurgent terrorism against other targets.

Based on these figures, admittedly much less concrete than we would like, the number of formally al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist operatives bent on attacking the West compared to al Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Muslim lands may be as low as a fraction of 1 percent, or using the absolutely broadest criteria, perhaps as high as 10 percent.

The new al Qaeda is still radical, extremist, and incredibly violent. It certainly has not forsaken terrorism, and it may shift the balance of its activities toward terrorism again in the future. But overwhelming evidence suggests that terrorism is now decidedly secondary in al Qaeda’s portfolio.

Does al Qaeda’s evolution into a fighting group mean there will be less terrorism?

Prior to 9/11, nearly all of al Qaeda’s resources were devoted to terrorism, but only a few hundred people could be credibly considered members of AQC, the only al Qaeda that existed then. Today, terrorism occupies a much smaller percentage of al Qaeda’s portfolio — but the portfolio itself is much bigger since it includes the activities of al Qaeda affiliates. As a result, the terrorist threat could still be higher despite the change in focus. But this is not necessarily the case.

There are a number of variables, especially in the short term, that factor into the overall al Qaeda threat. The above estimates of size and focus are largely unscientific and based on sometimes sketchy open-source information. There is no reliable open source estimate for the total number of al Qaeda fighters and terrorist operatives worldwide, and classified estimates may not be much better. Evaluation is further hampered by disagreements among analysts, scholars, and policymakers over who should be included.

The ratio of fighters to terrorists is also a guesstimate. For instance, it’s possible that international terrorism is considerably less than 5 percent of al Qaeda’s overall portfolio, but it could be higher as well. A margin of error of just a couple percentage points is enough to tip the balance.

There is also the question of what the baseline comparison should be. Do you compare al Qaeda of 2014 to the 2009 edition, or the 2000 edition? Or do you try to compare it to highly relevant hypotheticals. For instance, what would today’s al Qaeda look like in the absence of the Syrian conflict — the single biggest factor in its transformation? While these questions are, to some extent, made moot by the actual flow of events, the proliferation of conflicting opinions of whether al Qaeda is stronger or weaker stem in part from a failure to define a baseline. As such, it is worthwhile to briefly flesh out the scenarios that lie beneath these claims.

On the one hand, Syria has been a recruiting bonanza, creating thousands of armed supporters for al Qaeda’s brand of radical jihad. On the other hand, if the Syrian civil war had not broken out, it’s not clear what the veterans of al Qaeda in Iraq would be doing now. Some would have tried to resume normal lives, no doubt. But others would be left with their rage, training, and weapons in search of a target, whether in Iraq or abroad.

Finally, we have never really had a good grasp on the mechanics of radicalization. One thing, however, is fairly clear: Becoming a warfighting jihadist is a much more appealing moral choice than terrorism. Individuals who would never have volunteered to fly airplanes into civilian buildings can be swayed to take part in the Syrian jihad, where there is a clearly rational — and even morally defensible — line of argument for action. The decision to fight in Syria is not automatically radical or extreme.

How many people now fighting in Syria would simply have stayed home if the conflict had not erupted in the way it did? This question is unanswerable, of course, but it’s probably not an insignificant number. Those people are now surrounded by others who have a considerably more extremist view of the world. An individual’s network of associates is one of the few reliable indicators of terrorist radicalization. If you hang out with violent extremists, you are far more likely to become a violent extremist. The best available research suggests that some number of foreign fighter recruits will turn to terrorism who would not have otherwise.

It’s possible that al Qaeda’s new focus on warfighting will suck the oxygen from its terrorist operations in the short and medium term, but that is far from certain. And when (or if) the Syrian civil war ends, we will face a whole new set of variables — and likely an increased terrorist threat.

Is a fighting organization a more desirable adversary than a terrorist organization?

Putting aside the still-unrealized specter of nuclear or biological attacks, war has always been far more disruptive and destructive than terrorism. It is more destructive in terms of lives lost, property destroyed, and economies ruined. It causes more civilian casualties, even when it does not specifically target civilians. This has been the case in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and now Syria.

The economies of these countries have been laid to waste, and for many residents, there is little hope for a return to peaceful existence any time soon. All told, these warfighting activities have an immensely higher human cost than terrorism. In the long term, however, that steep price buys some opportunities for Western and Middle Eastern countries opposed to the spread of extremism and terrorism — cold comfort for sure, but better than none.

A critical difference between terrorist organizations and fighting groups lies in the scope of conflict: For warfighters, the conflict eventually draws to a close, whereas for terrorists, it can drag on indefinitely.

Violent extremism tends to arise when a weak movement with a small number of followers pits itself against an impossible foe with no realistic expectation of success. As such, some violent extremist movements can linger for decades or longer, moving through periods of increased and decreased activity. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, which still persists in the United States despite the impossibility of its political goals and the contempt with which it is viewed by the vast majority of Americans.

Wars can also continue for decades, of course. But often they are defined around goals which — if achieved — can change the equation and create possible avenues for closure.

In Syria, that goal is currently the ouster of Assad. It is far from certain that Assad’s ouster will lead to peace in Syria — in fact, the odds are stacked against it (consider Libya). But the nature of the conflict is likely to change and evolve if and when the Syrian dictator falls. Some combatants will be satisfied with some outcomes. Others will change their goals to reflect new realities. Still others — the real diehard extremists — will not be satisfied until they have created a new global caliphate.

The motivations and objectives of the majority of fighters currently carrying black flags into battle may be fundamentally different from the nihilistic ideology of al Qaeda, in which fighting must continue until the end of the world, regardless of victory or failure. Warfighters have exit opportunities that are unavailable to most terrorists, particularly those of al Qaeda’s stripe.

Is an embryonic al Qaeda state a more desirable adversary than a stateless radical group?

One of those exit opportunities is especially unpalatable for the West — the emergence of islands of sovereignty governed under al Qaeda’s outlier interpretation of Islamic law.

This development would be interpreted as a victory by al Qaeda supporters and would result in great suffering for those unfortunate enough to live in a region under such a brutal and authoritarian regime. But it also comes loaded with pitfalls and challenges for the theoretical conquerors.

For starters, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern for long without a certain critical mass of consent by the governed (though it need not be a majority). Effective tools to rule in defiance of popular support include vast wealth and resources, an existing power base, an aura of invincibility, and the promise of stability and security. None of these tools can be found in al Qaeda’s belt.

This leaves few options. In the instances where it has gained control over significant territory — as it has in Mali, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia within the last five years — al Qaeda affiliates have thus far opted to govern as purists on the theory that their ideology is divinely ordained and obviously superior to the alternatives. This has largely backfired, resulting in quick losses of territory through a combination of internal dissatisfaction and external military pressure.

Should al Qaeda succeed in staking a persistent claim over a significant amount of land in the future, it portends further evolution. Organizations that hold territory have an interest in protecting their control of that territory. None of al Qaeda’s territorial gains thus far have been stable enough to exist as anything but a war zone. If one of al Qaeda’s emirates were to survive long enough to do anything except hold on by the skin of its teeth, its leaders may find that ideological purity is inadequate to feed and protect an infrastructure and a population, not to mention cultivate a tax base. Successful governance requires attention to issues other than purist ideology.

If al Qaeda succeeds in establishing an emirate but fails to moderate, a valuable global learning moment may occur: Rather than being unseated by Western military force, al Qaeda’s experiment in governance could fail on its own terms — laying bare the fact that black flags and beheadings are of limited utility in preventing polio, building roads, or sustaining an economy. There would of course be a terrible human cost for those forced to live through the experiment, and a host of second-order consequences to consider — mostly deriving from the perils associated with weak states, which tend to foster regional unrest, instability, and criminal activity, while creating problems with refugees, famine, and cross-border epidemics.

But a hypothetical al Qaeda nation with a specific geographic locale may actually present a more manageable adversary than a stateless terrorist group, making strategic approaches such as containment, destruction, isolation or negotiation more straightforward. America’s problems dealing with the Taliban regime in the 1990s are well-documented, but it’s hard to look at the current situation in Afghanistan and argue that the outlook is at all promising. There may be options for dealing with terrorist threats emanating from extremist Islamist states that stop short of regime change.

Can al Qaeda withstand its challenges from within?

The final transformative factor in the evolution of al Qaeda is the rise of social media, which is currently rewriting the infrastructure of how jihadi organizations operate.

Al Qaeda’s foot soldiers in the pre-9/11 era were carefully selected and even more carefully indoctrinated, usually in remote training camps, where psychological techniques — including the isolation of new recruits from contact with the outside world — were applied to produce cultlike devotion. This process was not universally successful, but it was pretty effective.

Today, al Qaeda’s recruits are overt soldiers rather than covert terrorists, and they often arrive on an active battlefield intent on picking up a gun and joining the fray. This is a far cry from the lonely mountain camps in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, where terrorist recruits endlessly grumbled about the long wait for action.

And good luck isolating these new warriors from the outside world. Syria’s civil war is an unprecedented exercise in the documentation of a conflict on social media, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram. Fighters also stay in touch with friends and family using a variety of instant messaging platforms and SMS texts.

Al Qaeda members and supporters have been online for some time. But in earlier years, they were heavily concentrated in the controlled environment of jihadist message boards, where administrators suppress dissent and encourage the talking points preferred by al Qaeda’s leadership.

But over the last two years, those control mechanism have also fallen by the wayside. Users who were banned from the forums for discussing controversial topics (such as accusations against ISIS or the rebellion of Omar Hammami) have moved to social media, where they thrive and find audiences, and where they can’t be banned for speaking their minds. Some jihadis have even adopted a stance in favor of freedom of expression, although it’s pretty easy to find their red lines.

This trend has even spilled back into the forums, according to sources who track such activity. The two most important jihadist forums, al Fidaa and al Shamukh, have split over the Syrian infighting. Administrators of the former have suppressed posts critical of al Nusra, with admins at the latter doing the same for ISIS. Both of these forums are thought to be controlled by AQC, so the fact that they are pushing different narratives is significant.

You could call this trend the democratization of jihadism, but it might be more apt to call it unionization. Jihadists on social media have a platform to present their collective grievances, and to "vote" by tweets and Facebook likes about the issues and problems that concern them most.

The leaders of al Qaeda’s affiliates have not had a uniform response to this new form of feedback, but most of them have responded in some way. In the case of al Shabab, the response was to kill the complainers and ban the Internet, which has lessened but not eliminated open dissent. In Syria, various jihadist influencers and leaders have pleaded with the members to stop airing their complaints on Twitter and show some unity, with only sporadic success.

Because jihadists are raising vast amounts of money on social media, these grievances threaten them where it hurts the most. If donors hear of infighting or injustices, they might send their money in a different direction or withhold it altogether.

And if the tide is visibly shifting against one group or another, the organization itself turns to social media to fight back and argue its case. ISIS, for example, maintains a very aggressive and disciplined presence on social media, constantly pushing back against its enemies in fairly coordinated ways, most recently with a series of coordinated tweets and hashtags attacking cleric al Muhaysini.

It’s too soon to evaluate how this new dynamic might change al Qaeda, but it seems certain to speed the organization’s evolution. As individual fighters develop large followings and question certain tactics — such as the morality of fighting other jihadists or the wisdom of banning cigarettes — the leadership will eventually have to adapt, either by suppressing these voices or by learning from the wisdom of the masses and trying new approaches.

So what happens next?

The most immediate priority for the United States and its allies is to make sense of the rapid changes al Qaeda is undergoing and then make the necessary policy adjustments.

While there are many different dimensions to the course corrections the United States needs to consider, the most important questions are these:

  1. 1. Do we believe jihadist warfighting organizations present a national security threat on a similar order to terrorist groups?
  2. 2. What policy tools do we need to deal with such organizations?
  3. 3. If such organizations are a national security threat by their nature, does it matter whether a group calls itself al Qaeda or not?
  4. 4. How do we address our concerns about these groups without embroiling ourselves in a series of counterproductive wars all over the globe?
  5. 5. What can we do to mitigate the risk that future terrorist organizations might emerge as successors to these fighting groups?

As the points raised herein suggest, these are not simple questions — but the United States must venture answers. The fundamental nature of al Qaeda has shifted, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. But U.S. policies — most notably the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that empowers the so-called war on terrorism — remain fixated on the brand name and organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Although these policies allow for broad powers — perhaps overly broad — they are geared toward fighting a terrorist mission that has become secondary to our adversaries.

When a group joins al Qaeda, U.S. policy options treat it as if it is part of the broader terrorist organization. Although there is a certain amount of nuance about how the United States goes about this in practice, the black-and-white nature of the policy structure presents significant complications when it comes to particulars, such as the question of whether to designate Syrian rebel groups with al Qaeda sympathies as terrorist organizations subject to sanctions.

The last question is probably most salient in the eyes of policymakers. Although relatively few foreign jihadist fighters take up careers in terrorism, the rate is still much, much higher than the general population, making participation in jihadist warfare one of the few statistically significant indicators of who will become a terrorist in the future.

Whether al Qaeda becomes more splintered or re-coheres around new leaders, it will almost certainly continue to evolve — and those changes could come very quickly. The West in general, and the United States in particular, must become more agile. The rhetorical heft of the word "terrorism" can cloud the significance of the change in al Qaeda’s strategies and objectives. The organization’s terrorist product is still important and the United States still needs policies to address that threat — but it must develop them with a fuller understanding of its adversary.

If al Qaeda is truly one of the defining policy challenges of the 21st century, our strategies must address it as it exists today, not as a remembrance of things past. America’s inability to process the changes in al Qaeda has already introduced profound complications in its ability to influence events in Syria. As al Qaeda becomes more variegated and splintered, we will only face additional dilemmas, including some we cannot yet foresee. If we can’t define the parameters of the problem we face — and answer the policy questions that derive from current realities — we have scant hope of making any progress on this front.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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