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The Case Against Incrementalism
Nineteen years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, does al Qaeda still pose a significant threat to U.S. national security? Among researchers, military and intelligence officials, and policymakers who study the group, there is little consensus. But very few experts on Salafi-jihadi movements would dismiss the group outright. So when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confidently declared in a March interview on Fox & Friends that “al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self,” we were startled and concerned.
By portraying al Qaeda as more of a nuisance than a threat, Pompeo helped President Donald Trump’s administration make the case for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and making peace with the Taliban. Unfortunately, politically motivated threat assessments can be very dangerous, and Pompeo’s characterization of al Qaeda reflects wishful thinking at best and naiveté at worst. The United States must trade its rose-tinted glasses for a sober assessment of al Qaeda’s trajectory—and of the organization’s enduring ties to the Taliban.
An accurate assessment of al Qaeda’s organizational health must take into account the group’s recent and dramatic resurrection. Just four years ago, al Qaeda’s leadership was decimated and its capabilities were severely degraded as a result of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. The rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) dealt al Qaeda another blow: once loyal allies and affiliates in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Somalia, and Syria broke away from al Qaeda; many joined its chief rival. As Western and other foreign fighters flocked to ISIS, al Qaeda lost its status as the world’s preferred jihadi brand.
But since 2017, while international attention was focused on ISIS, al Qaeda has worked assiduously to reverse these downward trends. It has improved relationships with local power brokers from the Levant to the Indian subcontinent, fusing local and transnational aims in an effort to strengthen cohesiveness and broaden its support base. Now, this strategy shows signs of bearing fruit: al Qaeda has reconstituted its network in South Asia and Syria, and it appears more unified than before. It has also become more adept at balancing transnational aims and regional priorities, working at the local level in Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and the Sahel while preserving its focus of confronting the West.
The Trump administration’s claim that al Qaeda is in terminal decline overlooks the group’s stubborn resilience.
Although al Qaeda was attenuated by personnel losses after ISIS poached large numbers of militants in various theaters where both organizations operated, under Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership, al Qaeda stayed the course and worked to cultivate ties with potential recruits more focused on parochial grievances in select regions beset by civil conflict. In both the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, al Qaeda-linked militants have strengthened their ties with the group’s central leadership and remain responsive to its direction. There is also growing evidence that at least some of al Qaeda’s franchises are once again attracting foreign fighters.
It is true that al Qaeda no longer boasts the same ability to plot and execute the kinds of spectacular transnational terrorist attacks that it carried out in the years leading up to 9/11. But the Trump administration’s claim that al Qaeda is in terminal decline overlooks the group’s stubborn resilience and fails to account for its political resolve. According to the United Nations, al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Yemen remain focused on attacking the United States (and U.S. counterterrorism forces remain focused on targeting them). The group has even managed to hit the United States on its home turf: in December 2019, an al Qaeda-linked Saudi air force pilot in the United States for military training carried out an attack on a U.S. naval base in Pensacola, Florida, underscoring the group’s commitment to playing the long game while working to inspire, facilitate, and direct terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
In addition to reinforcing its affiliates throughout the globe, al Qaeda central appears to be focused on leveraging an increasingly permissive environment in Afghanistan, where its long-standing ally the Afghan Taliban could gain political power. Al Qaeda has welcomed the February 2020 Doha deal between the U.S. government and the Taliban, describing it as the “enemy acknowledging its defeat.” The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has particular salience in al Qaeda-aligned propaganda, which portrays it as a watershed in the history of jihad.
The Trump administration maintains that the Afghan Taliban will uphold the Doha deal and break with al Qaeda. But the Taliban have neither publicly renounced al Qaeda nor taken any discernible action to limit al Qaeda or other transnational terrorist organizations inside Afghanistan. In fact, since the deal, the Taliban’s representatives have conspicuously sidestepped even the mere mention of al Qaeda when pressed to clarify their position on the group. Far from disowning al Qaeda’s fighters, Taliban leaders have in off-the-record conversations with the International Crisis Group portrayed them as “oppressed Muslim dissidents, forced out of their own countries because of their beliefs.” And according to the United Nations, the Afghan Taliban have privately promised al Qaeda their continued support.
Pompeo’s comments notwithstanding, al Qaeda continues to pose a major challenge for U.S. foreign policy and national security. But Washington’s ability to respond has long been constrained by domestic pathologies. The current administration has politicized assessments of groups like al Qaeda to overstate its own gains in counterterrorism and deflect questions about the withdrawal process in Afghanistan. Partly in response to intensifying domestic opposition to open-ended military commitments, there is growing concern that an earnest troop drawdown is haphazard. This does not mean that the United States should not withdraw from Afghanistan, but Washington needs to be more transparent about the challenge posed by al Qaeda and similar groups.
Finally, the United States must be more realistic about the political trajectory of the Taliban. As the events of the past few months indicate, the Taliban’s ties with al Qaeda are deeper than the administration would like to admit, and future Afghan policy needs to prepare for the likelihood that the Taliban will continue to facilitate al Qaeda on some level. The United States cannot afford to maintain large numbers of troops in the country indefinitely, so it will need to find a way to use carrots and sticks to limit the Taliban’s support for al Qaeda. This will require multilateral diplomacy with both allies and adversaries, especially those countries in the region that maintain a vested interest in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a source of international terrorism.
One lingering question for policymakers is whether the United States will remain a primary target of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda even as it cedes its position of global preeminence. To be sure, the United States has gone from an uncontested global hegemon to a country in retreat from its overseas commitments and struggling to manage cascading domestic instability related to COVID-19 and protests against police brutality and racism. China, meanwhile, is a rising power with a ubiquitous presence, especially through its Belt and Road Initiative, which brings China in close contact with areas where jihadis hold sway in Central and South Asia. Furthermore, Beijing has featured in jihadi propaganda for its mistreatment of its Uighur Muslim population. China presents an opportunity for al Qaeda, but for now, the group’s leadership remains focused on maintaining the fight against the United States.
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