In Pursuit of Al Qaida After 9/11
Hunting in the Shadows
Wednesday, November 23, 2011 10:21 AM
The death of Osama Bin Laden gave many Americans hope that organized jihadist groups like Al Qaida no longer posed a serious threat to Americans on American soil.
Seth Jones, a former Special Ops analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense, has a new book on the future of Al Qaida that will be published next spring. Photo by C. Parrish
That is not the case, according to Seth Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank that specializes in applied solutions.
"Al Qaida is not on the verge of strategic defeat," said Jones. Instead, it is a diffuse coalition that still may have the opportunity to grow stronger in the Middle East and Northern Africa and reach out again to attack the West. Whether that happens depends on several factors - only some of which the U.S. can control.
Jones, who specializes in counterinsurgency and counter terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the author of the 2010 book In the Graveyard of Empires:America's War in Afghanistan. Much of his recent work was with the Special Operations arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.
He was at the Midcoast Forum on Foreign Relations on November 16 to talk about his new book, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qaida Since 9/11, which will be published next spring.
"Al Qaida today is very different than Al Qaida of 2001," said Jones.
To understand how Al Qaida operates, said Jones, it is useful to think of it as a loose organization that is composed of five parts.
• The Al Qaida we tend to associate with Bin Laden is what Jones calls the inner circle to which the others are connected.
"That core is in Pakistan, partially in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal region and partially deep in?Pakistan. It's important to know that some of them are either U.S. citizens or have spent time in the U.S."
For example, American-born Adam Gadahn, a propagandist at a high level in Al Qaida, was raised in a Christian household in Orange County and spent his time listening to death metal music before he was recruited by Al Qaida in California.
The inner circle is well organized into committees, or shuras, that raise money, administer training camps for recruits, and center on religious activities such as issuing fatwahs, said Jones.
• Connected to the inner circle are the primary Al Qaida affiliate groups, such as Al Qaida in Iraq, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
"When you look at the major caliphate, the Umayyad, you can see that Al Qaida has established itself roughly in that same area."
The Umayyad Caliphate could trace its lineage back to a common ancestor of Muhammad, though that is disputed by some scholars. At its height, the Umayyad Caliphate was the fifth largest empire known to exist; it covered Spain, Northern Africa, all of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Iran, Iraq and up through central Asia where Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan are located. Arabic became the language used across the region.
"There is a very purposeful effort by Al Qaida to overthrow regimes and establish sharia law in those areas," said Jones.
Sharia, or Islamic law, governs personal and public life, but varies considerably in application from one country to the next. Turkey, for example, has a secular government and sharia law largely functions as part of religious practice. Al Qaida tends towards a narrow and punitive fundamentalist view of sharia law that is integrated into all aspects of society.
The regime changes as a result of the Arab Spring are worth watching, too, said Jones, because they may offer an opening for a resurgence of Al Qaida recruitment.
Some of the senior Al Qaida leaders who had taken refuge in Iran have moved now to countries that are in the middle of forming new governments. They are there to seek influence, said Jones.
• "The third connection are the allies of Al Qaida like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan," said Jones, noting these groups have expanded influence and power in Pakistan.
• "The fourth . . . are the networks, the individuals that radicalized through other networks that have some connection to Al Qaida."
The New York City subway bomb attempt and the underwear bomber were from the networks, said Jones.
• "Then the fifth . . . is the inspired network that has no connection to Al Qaida except that they are inspired by the message and turn to violence in support of it," he said. "Social media has played a big role in this. The jihadists have a massive effort to recruit people through Facebook and YouTube."
Jose Pimentel, 27, who was arrested in Manhattan this past weekend while he was constructing a bomb that The New York Times reported he planned to use in one of a series of bomb attacks in New York City, was an example of an inspired lone wolf militant: he was spurred to action by the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who became a leader in Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, reported The Times, but Pimentel was unaffiliated with any group. Al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in September.
"Since 2001, the role of the inner circle has become less important and more diffuse, more decentralized. There is less communication between the field and the head because of surveillance," said Jones. "So, the rise of the affiliates and the allies is important. You can't cut the head off and expect to destroy the group."The development of Al Qaida
The growth of Al Qaida as an organization has not been a straight line, said Jones. Instead, it has developed in a series of waves. At the peak of the wave, Al Qaida has been active and destructive. In the troughs, it has been dormant or sidelined.
The key, said Jones, is to understand the factors behind the peaks and valleys of these waves of activity and to try to control or influence them so another wave peak is less likely to occur.
To demonstrate the wave pattern, Jones reviewed Al Qaida activity since the group formed in 1988 in Peshawar, Pakistan, with Bin Laden, Egyptian radical fundamentalist Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the Egyptian intellectual Dr. Fadl.
"There have been three major waves," said Jones. "There have been a series of patterns of attack."
In 1998, the Al Qaida attack on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 223 people. In 2000 and 2001, the USS Cole was attacked off the coast of Yemen by a boat laden with explosives, and almost 3,000 people died when hijacked planes took out the World Trade Center, hit the Pentagon, and crashed in Pennsylvania.
"In 2003, they rise again," said Jones. In 2003, attacks targeted foreigners and dozens of people were killed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and in Casablanca. In Turkey, people affiliated with British interests were targeted.
"Then we see a dip in activity and then, in 2008 and 2009, another rise in attacks," said Jones.
To be sure, when the record of attacks is reviewed, the waves are not that clear until attacks on Americans are divided out from all attacks, including those on other Muslims.
Al Qaida most deadly when U.S. military most active
Jones said that the clandestine, behind-the-scenes operations of U.S. security and intelligence does not trigger Al Qaida attacks on Americans in the way that active military action does.
"We have seen Al Qaida activity go up when U.S. military action goes up," he said, noting that U.S. military activity serves as a recruiting cry for Al Qaida.
A second factor in the wave pattern exhibited by Al Qaida is the organization's own strategy.
"Al Qaida is very selective who they kill. They target embassies, boats, government officials, collaborators and spies. They tend not to cause much problem to the local population," said Jones.
"The problem comes when they kill large numbers of Muslim civilians," he said.
Al Qaida, a Sunni Muslim organization, has been intolerant of Shiia, Sufi and other Islamic denominations. In Iraq, after the American invasion, they went after the Shiia, resulting in a major revolt of the tribes in Anbar Province against Al Qaida.
"When Al Qaida killed civilians, it has decimated its support," said Jones.
The U.S. can influence the lack of popularity of Al Qaida by exploiting divisions between Al Qaida and the Shiia. It is a mistake, said Jones, to lump all Muslims together.
The third factor influencing the threat of Al Qaida attacks is the competence of the local government. Saudi Arabia, which has a strong government, kicked Al Qaida out. Yemen, which has a weak central government, has multiple insurgencies and is ripe for recruitment, said Jones. Afghanistan remains an open question. The connection between the Karzai government and the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Al Qaida are short links that indicate a possible resurgence in Afghanistan.
The United States, Pakistan and Al Qaida
The United States and Pakistan still need each other, said Jones, even while the U.S. knows and does not condone the Pakistani approach to using militant groups to push their foreign policy.
"Did Pakistan know where Bin Laden was? The ISI is a competent intelligence agency. I would be stunned if they didn't know Bin Laden was there," said Jones.
However, Pakistan has been helpful in catching a number of high-profile Al Qaida operatives, he said.
"Pakistan helped catch those involved in the plot to detonate bombs in the New York City subway in 2009," said Jones. "Most Americans don't realize we were a week and a half away from having bombs that would have worked."
Those bombs, which were to be detonated simultaneously at three major Manhattan subway locations, would likely have caused a high death toll and rocked the nation in a way not felt since 9/11, said Jones.
"The U.S. needs to continue a relationship and friendship with Pakistan," he said. That does not mean, however, that the goals of the two countries are the same. Pakistan continues to be worried not just about India, but about the growing ties between Afghanistan and India.
"A more creative use of carrot and sticks, with less military assistance and more public and social assistance, makes sense," said Jones.
What would it take for Al Qaida to surge again?
Putting conventional military forces in a Muslim country is a rallying cry for Al Qaida. Any overt action against Iran by the United States or Israel could rally young men to the Al Qaida cause, said Jones, in the same way that happened in Afghanistan.
If Al Qaida took a strategic stance not to target other Muslims, they would gain support. They are losing this effort right now in public arguments with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in a war of ideas that Jones said is closely followed in the international press but ignored in the U.S. media.
Still, the Arab Spring has opened up opportunity for Al Qaida and its affiliates and we need to work together to improve institutions as the Arab countries make government transitions, he said.
"If we get weak, unstable regimes, even if they are democratic, then militant groups could gain a foothold. That's not in our interest. To those who continue to argue that the Arab Spring is a good thing, I say, we'll see. Five years from now we will know if it was stabilizing or destabilizing," said Jones.
"It is in our interest to help strengthen new governments, encourage elections, and help with security reforms in the police and the military so they are competent in dealing with Al Qaida and others."
"In conclusion, Al Qaida still exists. It may be weak, at the ebb of the third wave. What we do here, what they do and what governments in key areas do will determine what happens."
"Hold on. This ride will take us through the next five to ten years. It's not over."