A Tangled Net Assessment of al-Qaeda

Yesterday, Mary Habeck posted a net assessment of al-Qaeda’s fortunes. After I said something uncharitable about it on Twitter, Mary was understandably annoyed. In the spirit of fairness, I will give her argument a full airing here and respond.

Mary first states the facts that she believes most AQ experts agree on:

  1. “al Qaeda is primarily the small “core” located somewhere in Afghanistan-Pakistan”
  2. “the affiliates have an ambiguous relationship with this core and are generally focused on local concerns”
  3. “the objective of the core is to attack the U.S. and its allies”
  4. “because of our excellent counter-terrorism (CT) efforts, we have thwarted all such attempts on the U.S. since 9-11”
Like Mary, I do not subscribe to 1, 2 and 3 and I know many other AQ experts, inside and outside government, who don’t as well. Al-Qaeda is the small group in Af-Pak and its affiliates who have pledged an oath to AQ Central that the latter has ratified. That’s “al-Qaeda”: AQ Central, AQI, AQIM, AQAP, and a faction of the Shabab (it’s still not clear if the whole organization is on board with the recent merger). These affiliates share AQ Central’s desire to attack the United States and its allies although they differ in their capability to do so. AQ Central and its affiliates also wish to control territory in Muslim-majority countries in order to establish Islamic states (not necessarily contiguous with current states). These two lines of effort are not mutually exclusive.

In addition to mischaracterizing the facts that AQ experts agree on, Mary puts forward her own set of facts about al-Qaeda:
  1. “has multiple safe-havens (in northern Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel)”
  2. “controls branches in many countries that share al Qaeda’s global aspirations”
  3. “holds territory through shadow governments that force local Muslims to follow al Qaeda’s version of sharia”
  4. “is waging open war on numerous battlefields (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, etc.)”
  5. “is involved — sometimes weakly, at other times in strength — in every Muslim-majority country in the world”

Leaving aside Af-Pak, where AQ’s presence is all but gone, #1-4 seem to be variations on the same theme: two al-Qaeda affiliates (Shabab and AQAP) control territory in Somalia and Yemen, and a third (AQIM) is connected with an independent group that controls a city in Mali. These are all countries where the state is weak or collapsed. In Yemen AQAP holds territory at the pleasure of local tribes; thus, its control is tenuous.  The same could be said for AQIM’s ally in Mali. In Somalia, the Shabab has been on the retreat, and it is not clear that the entire organization has agreed with the al-Qaeda merger.

As for al-Qaeda being “involved — sometimes weakly, at other times in strength — in every Muslim-majority country in the world,” that strikes me as a throw away line with no hope of truly assessing through open sources. Even if it is the case, what does it matter? If al-Qaeda is not setting the agenda in those countries, it is just another terrorist organization grinding it out.

Since I disagree with the substance and interpretation of Mary’s facts, I obviously don’t agree with her conclusion that “the group is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history.” I also don’t agree that al-Qaeda has “made real progress” toward “the greater ends of overthrowing Muslim rulers, imposing their version of sharia, and controlling territory.” Al-Qaeda Central and its affiliates have overthrown no Muslim rulers. In fact, the Islamists (even the Salafis) in Arab Spring countries are opting for parliamentary democracy, which al-Qaeda hates. It is true that AQAP has tenuous control of a few towns in Yemen but it is at the pleasure of the local tribes. The Shabab certainly controls territory and is imposing its version of sharia but it is unclear how much of the organization is under al-Qaeda’s wing. Moreover, its hold on Somalia is slipping.

Mary concludes her piece by asking, ” If al Qaeda is indeed spreading itself across broad swathes of territory, can the U.S. continue to depend solely on regional partners and a counter-terrorism strategy to stop the group?” Outside of Somalia, who is really in charge in these broad swathes of territory? It’s not al-Qaeda. Asking policymakers to make decisions based on faulty generalizations is going to lead to some very bad policy.

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3 Responses

  1. So basically, Mary’s argument is: “Because…Al Qaeda.” Which is a rehash of the Cold War “Because…Commies.” See also “Because…zee Germans.”

    Her analysis seems to be a rehash of the drumbeat that Amb. Crocker and others are currently engaged in: AQ is THE looming threat, and letting them get a foothold in the AfPak (which as you ably point out isn’t going to happen) will result in chaos.

    So the argument is: “Because Al Qaeda, therefore drones and JSOC-y ninjas. Otherwise…9/11.”

    It’s another weak sauce argument for the expansion of SOF and drone operations in Afghanistan, since she’s ultimately trying to make this argument that we of necessity must protect ourselves against a threat so shadowy it’s not actually real.

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