Friday, May 30, 2014

Al-Qaeda's Evolving Threat and U.S. Strategy to Combat It: Part I

     Thirteen years and two wars later, the United States is still at war, or "engaged in an armed conflict" as some describe it.  Yet they are not at war in the typical sense of the word especially in terms of how the United States Constitution defines war and war making ability; which is Congress declaring war on a sovereign nation.  The United States is still involved in the "War on Terror," a broad term that has come to describe certain practices the United States engages in to keep its citizens safe against radical militants.

     After the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress authorized the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against those responsible for the attacks.  However, since the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), two key problems have arisen: 1) the threat, a.k.a terrorist groups (al-Qaeda in particular), has since evolved into an amoeba of their former 2001 selves, and; 2) the AUMF has been interpreted and widely expanded unilaterally by the executive branch since 2001 and used to justify a myriad of counterterrorism operations abroad.

[Note: Part I discusses the first point raised above - However, since the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), two key problems have arisen: 1) the threat, a.k.a terrorist groups (al-Qaeda in particular), has since evolved into an amoeba of their former 2001 selves]

Who is al-Qaeda?

     Since 2001, the terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda has significantly changed.  It has evolved from the organization led by Osama bin Laden and headquartered in Pakistan to several splinter groups with a few groups pledging an oath of allegiance to "core-al-Qaeda's" new leader Aymen al-Zawahiri while virtually enjoying regional autonomy.  Thomas Joscelyn, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, stated at a Senate Subcommittee hearing last year that al-Qaeda focuses on regions rather than a more central control or command.


     When President Obama asserted that al-Qaeda was "on the run," he was referring to what is known as "core-al-Qaeda" or al-Qaeda's central command located in Pakistan who sends orders down to each of its affiliates.  While the killing of al-Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden crippled their core, al-Qaeda's affiliates remain resilient especially in Syria.  Mr. Joscelyn stated at a recent House Subcommittee hearing that in his opinion, the counterterrrorism strategies of the Bush and Obama administrations made a key mistake in combating al-Qaeda in that they assumed al-Qaeda has a pyramid hierarchical leadership structure - a fallacy according to Joscelyn.

     Mr. Joscelyn stated that since its founding, al-Qaeda has decided not to employ this type of leadership and it is even more evident now.  While few branches have actually pledged allegiance to Zawahiri, many have their own leader and enjoy regional autonomy.  In his written statement  for Congress that Mr. Joscelyn provided last week, he wrote that there is no "commonly accepted definition of al-Qaeda."  When writing about its structure, he described the organization as:

operate[ing] what it calls a “general command,” which consists of the organization’s senior leadership and their lieutenants, several (advisory) council of the group’s most trusted advisers, as well as a supporting staff that includes, for example, couriers...The “general command” performs various administrative functions, in addition to overseeing the organization’s international operations. For instance, al Qaeda’s amniyat is part of the group’s internal security and counterintelligence apparatus. The amniyat in northern Pakistan is notorious for hunting down suspected spies...Jihadists who are, by any reasonable definition, “core” al-Qaeda members are dispersed throughout the world.
The “general command” of al Qaeda has designated several regions for waging jihad, and an emir is appointed to oversee the organization’s efforts in each of these regions. The emir of each region has much latitude in deciding how to organize his group’s day-to-day efforts, but he swears bayat, an oath of allegiance, to al Qaeda’s overall emir (currently Zawahiri).


    Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP and also referred to as Ansar al-Sharia), Jabhat al-Nusra (the official Syrian branch also referred to as the Nusra Front), and al-Shabaab in Somalia, have all pledged allegiance to Zawahiri.  However, as JM Berger of IntelWire stated recently in a Google+ hangout hosted by "War on the Rocks" regarding al-Qaeda, only the leaders of these three groups have pledged these oaths to Zawahiri.  If these leaders where to be killed on the battlefield or by a drone strike, it is not clear if their second in command would pledge the same oath insinuating that the al-Qaeda system is not as structural or loyal as some may perceive.

     Other groups include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia (who has several branches across northern Africa such as Tunisia), Boko Haram, which is located in Nigeria and maintains a loose affiliation with al-Qaeda and its ideology, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) who has recently been excommunicated from the al-Qaeda network for being too extreme.  It is important to point out that al-Qaeda is not the only terrorist organization facing the United States but for the most basic terms of analyzing AUMF, al-Qaeda was the organization that took credit for the 9/11 terror attacks and thus falls under AUMF's scope.


     ISIS poses regional threats to sovereign governments as well as the overall al-Qaeda organization and the West.  ISIS is led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi who was originally the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until he wanted to expand his enterprise into neighboring Syria.  Given the security vacuum the ongoing civil war created, Baghdadi believed his organization could flourish in Iraq and Syria.  However, Baghdadi's views conflicted with those of Zawahiri who wanted AQI to remain in Iraq as the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria is al-Nusra.  

     ISIS has since been excommunicated from al-Qaeda and continues to spar with the Nusra Front in Syria for regional dominance.  ISIS is very dangerous because their extreme ideology has allowed them to attract a large number of foreign fighters.  In fact, Brian Fishman, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, stated in a Google+ hangout recently that ISIS has been much more successful under their more recent guise than when they were limited to Iraq because they now control territory in northern Syria.  According to Mr. Fishman, this type of territorial control has not been seen since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Mr. Fishman also pointed out that ISIS has real leaders, a staple for gaining regional control.

     ISIS also poses a legal conundrum of sorts because they are no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda, thus lying outside the bounds of AUMF.  In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing recently, ranking member Bob Corker (R-TN) raised this issue to legal representatives of the Obama administration (more on this later.)

Foreign Fighters    

     The civil war in Syria has eclipsed the number of foreign fighters seen during the Iraq War.  Thousands of individuals from around the world have flocked to Syria to join in jihad, which many fear is now the world's terrorism capital.  The danger posed by these foreign fighters is that once they return to their countries, and some already have, they will use their battlefield experience and knowledge gained to wage attacks against their own government either under their own volition (lone wolves) or under direction from senior al-Qaeda members.

     According to Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, ISIS has received the largest number of foreign fighters and puts them through a vetting process, which demonstrates some level of sophistication to their operation.  Mr. Maher also warns that governments who turn away foreign fighters returning to their home countries may run the risk of exasperating the problem because alienating them will force these fighters to join together and provide them with a "cause" similar to what happened with Mujahideen fighters after the Afghan conflict with Russia in the 1980's.

     Some US officials are weary, however, about the large numbers of Americans traveling to Syria to join the fight and that many have western passports allowing them to potentially slip through the cracks and gain easy entry into western countries.

     Al-Qaeda has shifted and evolved into an organization significantly different from the one that attacked the United States on 9/11.  In fact, the entire terrorism community has changed and expanded to regions as far west as Nigeria and Mali.  Despite the varying concerns regarding al-Qaeda's affiliates, the United States has maintained that al-Qaeda has been on the run and US efforts have been sufficient in quelling concerns.  However, legal concerns regarding how and who the president can target under AUMF and the Constitution have complicated matters.

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