Rand corp

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.