FPI Bulletin: Why the Fight Against the Al-Qaeda Network Must Go On

May 22, 2014

As U.S. policymakers and lawmakers debate the future of the authorization for use of military force (AUMF) to prosecute the global war on terror, a key question looms:  is the al-Qaeda network in decline or on the rise?  Public statements by officials in the Executive Branch, the U.S. military, and the U.S. intelligence community suggest that, far from receding, the threat of the al-Qaeda network to America’s national security and international interests is evolving and growing.

To be sure, since al-Qaeda’s surprise attacks on 9/11, the United States has made progress in hunting down the terror group’s core leadership—most notably with the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.  However, al-Qaeda itself has evolved into a larger and more complex network of terror affiliates and associated movements located all over the world.  As the American Enterprise Institute’s Katie Zimmerman observed in an important study of the terror network, “Al Qaeda affiliates have evolved and now threaten the United States as much as (if not more than) the core group; they can no longer be dismissed as mere local al Qaeda franchises.” 

Key parts of the broader al-Qaeda network continue to pose grave dangers to the U.S. homeland and overseas interests, as senior U.S. civilian and military officials have told Congress.  In particular:

  • Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):  In January 2014, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper warned lawmakers that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate terrorist group that operates from a safe haven in Yemen, “has attempted several times to attack the U.S. Homeland.”  Clapper added:  “We judge that the group poses a significant threat and remains intent on targeting the United States and U.S. interests overseas.”
  • Al-Qaeda Affiliates in Syria:  In March 2014, Army General Lloyd J. Austin, III, who heads the U.S. military’s Central Command (USCENTCOM) with responsibility for the Middle East and South Asia, warned Congress that the conflict in Syria has become a magnet for Islamist terrorists and militants from across the world.  “When I took command of USCENTCOM in March of 2013, the intelligence community estimated there were ~800-1,000 jihadists in Syria.  Today, that number is upwards of 7,000,” he wrote in prepared testimony.  Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently wrote that the U.S. intelligence community now projects that extremists account for as many as a third of the country’s estimated 110,000 anti-Assad rebels.  As Aaron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed, “Even the anti-Soviet jihad [in Afghanistan] in the 1980s didn’t attract as many foreigners as Syria in the same period of time.”  What’s certain is that Syria’s parallels with 1980s-era Afghanistan have alarmed Western intelligence and counterterrorism officials.  Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson cautioned in February 2014 that Syria “has become a matter of homeland security,” with al-Qaeda affiliates and other terrorists in Syria now “actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission.”  FBI Director James Comey warned that the potential terror threat from Syria is “an order of magnitude worse” than Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and could lead to another attack on the U.S. homeland.
  • Al-Qaeda Affiliates in Africa.  In March 2014, Army General David M. Rodriguez, head of the U.S. Military’s Africa Command (USAFRICOM), warned congressional lawmakers that violent extremists are seizing opportunities to destabilize weak governments throughout Africa.  “Al-Qa’ida affiliate al-Shabaab remains a persistent threat in Somalia and East Africa,” Rodriguez said.  “Terrorist groups in North and West Africa have expanded their operations, increasing threats to U.S. interests,” he added.  “Al-Qa’ida affiliates and adherents operating in North and West Africa include al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, and Moktar Belmoktur’s al-Mulatheameem Brigade, which has morphed into al-Murabitum.”  In a February 2014 speech, General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, stressed the necessity of combating terrorism in Africa.  “You could turn your back on that part of the world, but you would rue the day you had,” he said. “Those kinds of threats will find their way around the world, and in some major cities of the world.”
  • Core Al-Qaeda Seeks Comeback if America Abandons Afghanistan:  While the broader al-Qaeda network poses the most immediate set of threats to the United States and its overseas interests, U.S. officials still worry that al-Qaeda’s core someday could try to mount a comeback.  As Director of National Intelligence Clapper told Senate lawmakers in January 2014, “Sustained counterterrorism (CT) pressure, key organizational setbacks, and the emergence of other power centers of the global violent extremist movement have put core al-Qa’ida on a downward trajectory since 2008.”  But he warned that al-Qaeda’s core “probably hopes for a resurgence following the drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan in 2014.”

While the threat of terrorism and violent extremism is growing and evolving, America’s resolve to combat these threats overseas may be waning.  A month after U.S. Navy SEALs hunted down and killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, President Obama went on television to persuade the American public that we can “take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” and tellingly added:  “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”  The emergence of a broader network of al-Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa counsels U.S. policymakers and lawmakers to remain vigilant—not complacent—in our nation’s counterterrorism efforts.

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.
Read More