Resurgence of al Qaeda

Seth G. Jones on the ongoing global threat
Seth Jones is a RAND senior political scientist.

President Obama often takes credit for having initially shifted the focus of America’s military efforts away from Iraq and toward defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under his watch, U.S. military and intelligence operatives killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and the United States has orchestrated an intense drone campaign in Pakistan, killing many of al Qaeda’s senior leadership. But Obama has started to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and indicated that U.S. combat operations there will end by 2014.

Governor Romney argues that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been jeopardized by establishing a timetable for withdrawal that, he contends, is against the advice of America’s top military commanders. Romney promises that, under his administration, withdrawal would be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by his commanders.

Addressing U.S. interests in the Far East is important, but not if it means losing focus on America’s most pressing danger zone.
Even as they debate the appropriate U.S. military role in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the presidential candidates need to address the fact that al Qaeda has expanded its global presence. Since its establishment in 1988, al Qaeda’s strength has risen and fallen in a series of waves. Despite the death of Osama bin Laden, the Arab Spring has ushered in a fourth wave as al Qaeda has tried to push into North Africa and the Middle East.

One significant trend is the expansion of al Qaeda’s global network. The leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in Iraq, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (in North Africa) have sworn bayat, or loyalty, to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and provided him with funding, global influence, and a cadre of trained fighters. None of these affiliate organizations existed a decade ago. But, over the past several years, attacks by these affiliates have increased.

In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has established control over some areas in the south as the central government faces a leadership crisis and multiple insurgencies. From this sanctuary, al Qaeda plots attacks against the U.S. homeland. In Somalia, militants of the al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab are trying to expand their foothold. With a growing number of American citizens from cities such as Minneapolis and Phoenix traveling to — and from — Somalia to fight alongside al Shabaab, there is a possibility that radicalized operatives could perpetrate an attack in the United States.

Al Qaeda has also established relationships with a growing number of allied groups, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. While these are not formal affiliates of al Qaeda, a loose arrangement allows them to cooperate with al Qaeda for specific operations or training when their interests converge. Several of these groups have been actively recruiting in the United States.

Over the Past Several Years, al Qaeda Has Expanded Its Global Network

View enlarged version of this figure.

Pakistan poses a particular challenge. As America’s relationship with Pakistan deteriorates, how long will the United States be able to pressure a state whose intelligence service has ties with some of al Qaeda’s allies, such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba?

Despite the evidence that al Qaeda is regrouping, the Obama administration is turning its attention toward the Far East. The first tranche of U.S. Marines to be withdrawn from Afghanistan has already landed in Australia, as part of America’s most significant expansion in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. The U.S. Department of Defense’s new strategic guidance, released in January with a forward by Obama, concludes that the United States will continue to conduct some counterterrorism but now “rebalance toward the Asian-Pacific region.”

Addressing U.S. interests in the Far East is important, but not if it means losing focus on America’s most pressing danger zone: the arc running from North Africa to the Middle East and South Asia that is the heart of al Qaeda’s territory. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. special operations and other combat forces will be needed to target militants and to train Afghan forces well after 2014. The same is true in Yemen, Somalia, and other countries across the region, where U.S. forces — especially clandestine special operations forces, intelligence units, and law enforcement — must play a long-term role in targeting al Qaeda and building local capacity.

The struggle against al Qaeda has persisted for over two decades, providing an opportunity to learn what has worked — and what has not. The historical evidence suggests that al Qaeda waves have tended to rise when the United States has deployed large numbers of conventional forces to Muslim countries, when al Qaeda has minimized civilian casualties, and when the United States has weak or incompetent allies in areas where al Qaeda has a support base.

Conversely, these waves have ebbed when the United States has utilized a “light footprint” strategy that focuses on intelligence and special operations forces, when al Qaeda has killed large numbers of civilians and thereby undermined its support, and when local governments have developed competent police and other security agencies.

As the fourth wave of al Qaeda surges into new areas of the greater Muslim world, it will become even more important for U.S. policymakers to remember the lessons learned and to continue applying them. If anything, they will need to be applied in more places and more often.

Related Reading
Afghanistan’s Local War: Building Local Defense Forces, Seth G. Jones, Arturo Munoz, RAND/MG-1002-MCIA, 2010, 114 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4988-9.
Full Document
“Al Qaeda Is Far from Defeated,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2012, Seth G. Jones.
Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa’ida Since 9/11, Seth G. Jones, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, 544 pp., ISBN 978-0-3930-8145-9.
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In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan, Seth G. Jones, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009, 352 pp., ISBN 978-0-3930-6898-6.
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