FPI Bulletin: “End of the Beginning” in War on Terror

April 10, 2014

Although al Qaeda has suffered serious setbacks in recent years—punctuated by the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011—it’s wrong to say that al Qaeda’s defeat is inevitable.  Indeed, a deadly network of al Qaeda affiliates has emerged in the Middle East and Africa.  In testimony before a House panel this week, former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (ID-CT), former Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), and other experts warned lawmakers about the evolving threat posed by al Qaeda and associated forces, and urged renewed determination if the United States is to defeat the broader al Qaeda network in the long run.

Core al Qaeda is Down, But Not Out

Since 9/11, the United States has made significant advances in targeting al Qaeda’s core leaders and members in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  However, while core al Qaeda is down, it is not yet out of the fight.  As Senator Lieberman warned the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade:  “To borrow a phrase used by David Petraeus, the progress we have achieved against core al Qaeda is real and significant.  But it is also fragile and reversible.”

Indeed, the presence of American and NATO-led military forces in Afghanistan has enabled the U.S.-led coalition’s progress in combating core al Qaeda in South Asia.  However, U.S. and allied troops have steadily drawn down since 2011, and could withdraw completely by year’s end if Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s successor doesn’t quickly sign the pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).  This agreement would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, continue training Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and conduct counterterrorism operations in the region. 

While U.S. military leaders have recommended that Washington maintain a post-2014 force of at least 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is mulling a “zero option” in which all U.S. troops would leave by the end of the year.  A total withdrawal would deal a serious blow not only to the country, which held a successful first round in its presidential election in early April, but also to America’s regional efforts to combat terrorism.  As Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper bluntly warned the Senate in January 2014, al Qaeda’s core already “hopes for a resurgence following the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2014.”

Threat of the Broader al Qaeda Network

Although much public attention has focused on advances against al Qaeda’s core in South Asia, witnesses at the hearing warned Congress about how the broader network of al Qaeda affiliate groups threaten the United States and its allies.  As Senator Lieberman cautioned, the “territory where al Qaeda affiliates can find sanctuary has grown elsewhere during the same period, including in the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation argued that “the broader Salafi-jihadist movement has become more decentralized among four tiers: (1) core al Qa’ida in Pakistan, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri; (2) formal affiliates that have sworn allegiance to core al Qa’ida, located in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa; (3) a panoply of Salafi-jihadist groups that have not sworn allegiance to al Qa’ida but are committed to establishing an extremist Islamic emirate; and (4) inspired individuals and networks.”

Some panelists stressed the al Qaeda network’s broader strategic goals, which include control of territory and wealth.  Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute noted that al Qaeda “never conceived of itself as a terrorist group and has long devoted the lion’s share of its global resources to what it regards as its main effort—seizing and governing terrain and populations in the Muslim world.”  Kagan’s insight helps to explains why the al Qaeda “brand” is spreading “like wildfire” as “the groups affiliating themselves with it control more fighters, land, and wealth than they ever have, and they are opening up new fronts.”

Panelists cited how the regional conflict in Syria is not only yielding safe havens for al Qaeda-aligned groups, but also creating a new generation of battle-hardened foreign fighters.  Former Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA) cautioned House lawmakers, “In a perverse twist, thirteen years after the U.S. entered Afghanistan—a country with little governance that served as a safe-haven for al Qaeda to plan the 9/11 attacks—we may be seeing its sequel in Syria.”  Senator Lieberman concurred, adding:  “Syria has become the most dangerous terrorist sanctuary in the world today—and the United States has no coherent or credible policy for dealing with it.”  Indeed, Army General Lloyd Austin, who commands U.S. military forces in the Middle East, recently warned Congress the estimated number of foreign fighters in Syria has risen from upwards of 1,000 a year ago to as high as 7,000 today—and even that may be a conservative estimate.  In a public speech in February 2014, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson bluntly warned that Syria “has become a matter of homeland security,” with al Qaeda affiliates “actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission”

Witnesses also noted that the al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen is seeking to both export terrorism within the region and attack the United States.  “The most significant inflection point occurred in 2009 when al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), established a new model for the role of groups in the al Qaeda network,” Kagan argued.  “AQAP focused its efforts on the far war against the United States and began to foster relationships with other groups....  These connections facilitate broader coordination and cooperation within the al Qaeda network, and have increased its overall resiliency.”


After more than twelve years, the Global War on Terror is at a turning point.  Although President Obama has claimed that the “tide of war is receding,” combating al Qaeda, its broader network, and other terrorist groups will remain a core national security interest of the United States for many years to come.  In this long struggle, America must work to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat the al Qaeda network, while simultaneously bolstering the capabilities of partner nations to deny terrorist groups safe havens.  At the same time, Washington must find new ways to advance economic prosperity and political freedom as an alternative to al Qaeda’s extremist ideology. 

In summing up the challenge we face, Senator Lieberman quoted Winston Churchill’s summation of the Allies’ first victories in late 1942:  “Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  War weary or not, this is the nature of the task that Americans face. 

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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