“Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US,” the declassified version of the 2001 report reads. The subsequent struggle against what has been dubbed ‘core Al Qaeda’ has relied on both the massive commitment of troops just winding down in Afghanistan and the use of remotely-piloted drones launching missiles in neighboring Pakistan. The result, according to Obama administration officials, is that the group’s leadership is “decimated” and the organization on the run.
At the same time, other members of the administration have warned that the fight against Al Qaeda could go on for another “ten to twenty years.” What then to make of the recent threats to embassies throughout the Middle East and Africa? The answer comes down to a determination of just what makes up Al Qaeda in this day and age and whether the various groups sharing the name are only linking onto a well-known brand or cooperating in an overall plan of action against the West.
The latest embassy warnings were launched following an electronic intercept between Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of core Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arab Penninsula (AQAP). Operating out of Yemen, analysts have described AQAP as the most threatening and operational of the off-shoots that have sprung up over the last decade. According to the New York Times, in the intercepted communication, Zawahri urged AQAP to take action against the West, discussing details of a plot in its final stages.
It’s the exact ties between AQAP and Al Qaeda core — given Wuhayashi’s recent elevation to the number two spot in Al Qaeda overall — that have government officials scrambling and experts grumbling over the nuance between the groups the administration has been stumbling to explain. “The question I have is, If the Obama administration is confident that its strategy in Yemen is correct, then why is Al Qaeda growing in Yemen and why is the group still capable of forcing the United States to shut down embassies in more than a dozen countries?” said Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen scholar currently studying at Princeton, to the New York Times.
Meanwhile, other Al Qaeda off-shoots are proving to be threats, if not to the United States directly, to the regions in which they operate. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was founded in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and has become one of the longest lasting legacies of that conflict. Last month, AQI facilitated a massive jailbreak from Abu Ghraib prision in Baghdad, freeing hundreds of imprisoned fighters. AQI is also linked with Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the strongest rebel fighting forces in neighboring Syria, complicating policy decisions in Washington over how to best end the three year-old civil war there.
Likewise, the group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has grown into a challenge for the West African territory in which they operate. AQIM has been eyed as a potential target for drone strikes and other retaliatory measures, particularly given their role in the takeover of Mali’s northern half last year. The Associated Press months later found a set of discarded documents in Mali that evinced a tighter link between Al Qaeda core and the African branch than many scholars had previously predicted.
Heightening the difficulty in gauging the threat are the various jihadi movements that — while following ideologies close to those of Al Qaeda — are not linked in name or practice to the organization. Just who the country considers to be a threat, however, is a classified matter. “Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Gregory told ProPublica last month. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”
The level of confusion among policymakers and scholars alike over what to make of Al Qaeda has a concrete impact on how the United States moves forward in fighting terrorism. In his counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in May, President Obama argued that the time of overreacting to terrorist threats is coming to an end.
“Groups like [Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States,” Obama said. “Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.”
This pledge has come at the same time as a movement to reconfigure the reach of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allows for targeting “those nations, organizations, or persons” who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 2001 attack — but not necessarily the “associated forces” that make up groups like Al Shabaab and AQIM.
Lost in the debate as well is the much greater threat to the homeland that domestic terrorism plays compared to foreign terrorism. Since the Oklahoma City Bombing, the threat of right-wing extremism has eclipsed that of Islamic terrorism in the majority of years in that period. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that in 2012 the number of radical anti-government groups in the United States reached an “all-time high,” mirroring the results of a study from the West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center on the threat that far right-wing groups pose to the U.S.
Unfortunately, the overall discussion about terrorism may wind up buried in the political maneuvering already taking place inside the Beltway. Republicans are already lashing out at the Obama administration over the embassy closures, including Rep. Peter King (R-NY) saying, “Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11.” While this is demonstrably false, Fox News has been aiding the cause, freaking out over the closures and yet simultaneously pushing the idea that President Obama is exaggerating the threat to improve his own standing.
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