Wednesday, June 17, 2015


By Katherine Zimmerman

The recent news that US airstrikes may have killed two senior al Qaeda leaders – including al Qaeda’s general manager – once again raises the question of the overall effectiveness of a strategy of attrition against the group. Certainly there have been some significant blows to al Qaeda, and most recently to al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. The US has taken four senior leaders off the battlefield in Yemen in the past six months, but there has been no obvious slowdown in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s activities there. Even as the US sees success in degrading al Qaeda’s leadership, al Qaeda has been able to grow and expand its insurgency across the Muslim-majority world.

Al Qaeda’s expansion is occurring even as the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) strengthens at an alarming rate. Both groups are exploiting conditions within the Muslim-majority world advanced in part by America’s current foreign policy positions. A muddled approach to the region has left the US with few strong allies there and even fewer good options for partners against the escalating extremist threat.

Newly-announced presidential candidate Jeb Bush aptly described the state affairs abroad: “crises uncontained, violence unopposed, enemies unnamed, friends undefended, and alliances unraveling.” The picture is bleak. Al Qaeda and ISIS have seized the momentum and are pushing forward. Any prospective 2016 presidential candidate should seek to answer these questions when considering how to reverse the tide.

  1. The US has been at war with al Qaeda for 14 years and hasn’t won yet. What will you do differently? Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have tried to defeat al Qaeda with limited success. Their counterterrorism strategies were essentially the same: degrade the leadership, disrupt operations, and defeat groups on the ground through local partnered forces. The US needs to admit that al Qaeda — and ISIS — are no longer just terrorist groups. They are insurgent forces that have armies in the field. Any strategy to defeat them must be designed to succeed in a counter-insurgent environment. The impact of leadership attrition has not been enough to knock the group back on its heels and ground losses are temporary. Local conditions, primarily local anti-government grievances or the lack of governance, have fostered environments conducive to the growth of al Qaeda and ISIS. Keep an eye out for AEI visiting scholar Mary Habeck’s forthcoming strategy paper.
  2. With whom is the US at war? Do we really need to care about locally focused radical Islamist groups? The US is at war with al Qaeda and it is at war with ISIS. Both of these groups are part of the global jihadist movement. Both of these groups consist of more than just a “core.” Al Qaeda is a network of groups with varying degrees of affiliation to the “core” and varying degrees of subscription to al Qaeda’s global jihadist vision. Does Jabhat al Nusra’s focus on the Syrian fight today and eschewal of attacks against American targets exclude it from those groups that the US must fight? A Jabhat al Nusra victory in Syria will embolden other al Qaeda groups and gives al Qaeda a safe haven from which to prepare attacks against the US. What about the rise of pro-ISIS groups in North Africa? They do not even threaten Americans at this point. But ISIS seeks to first establish itself in the Muslim-majority world and then to use that position to destroy the West. Both al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s extended network must be defeated, though the direct threat to the US that groups pose should determine prioritization of the fight.
  3. Why is what is happening in the Muslim-majority world America’s problem? The chaos in Libya and wars in Iraq and particularly in Syria and Yemen do not seem to affect American interests directly and have no easy solutions. The US cannot be expected to solve the world’s troubles. In fact, the US might see natural counterterrorism partnerships coming out of the wars. The Assad regime is actually fighting against al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria, as the al Houthis have promised to do in Yemen. But these ostensible counterterrorism partners are actually adding to the problem: the Assad regime cannot secure an outright military victory and its tactics have accelerated the growth of both al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria, and the al Houthis’ overreach in Yemen is driving local populations to support Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) presence and has created a security vacuum in the eastern port city of al Mukalla, Yemen, that AQAP now indirectly administers. They are also helping drive the region toward all-out sectarian war, which in turn drives radicalization. Allowing these conflicts to fester works against long-term American interests.
  4. What role should the US play in the region? The US cannot be the region’s policeman, nor is it being asked to be. No one is calling for the US to reinvade Iraq or to invade Syria. But the resounding ask is that the US be a leader and play an active role in shaping the future of the region. Leading from behind in Libya left behind an impotent Libyan government and empowered militia forces. Withdrawing from Iraq helped to set the conditions for ISIS’s rise. We are at risk that a similar withdrawal will enable the Taliban’s return in Afghanistan. American leadership is necessary to help moderate the influence of maligned actors and to protect the interests of the moderate majority. The US has recently led the retreat from region. It’s time to start leading with a vision for the region’s future.
  5. How will you protect American lives? The jihadist threat to Americans both abroad and at home is increasing. The threat is obvious abroad, and the US homeland remains a target for a planned and directed terrorist attack. But the growing danger of blowback from developments in the Muslim-majority world to the homeland is not as readily apparent. Foreign-trained individuals, those who fought with ISIS or al Qaeda, will increasingly pose a threat and may be able to carry out a small-scale attack like the one on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, France. Less deadly, but potentially more common, are individuals in the US who may heed al Qaeda’s or ISIS’s call to violence and try something on their own. Western intelligence services are simply overwhelmed by the volume of foreign fighters today and the US faces mounting vulnerabilities at home.


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