A witches' brew of Islamic jihadists is stirring up trouble across the continent. But is that America's problem yet?
It has been over a year and a half since Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but now it seems like al Qaeda is everywhere: from Algeria to Somalia, from Mali to Yemen, from Pakistan to Iraq. In July 2011, arriving in Afghanistan on his first trip as U.S. defense secretary, Leon Panetta said, "We're within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda." But on Wednesday, Jan. 16, Panetta seemed to express a good deal less optimism, making clear that the Algerian hostage crisis currently unfolding was "an al Qaeda operation." So has al Qaeda really become this web of linked groups around the world pursuing a common jihad against the West? And what is the relationship between the al Qaeda core and its affiliate organizations?
These are important questions; the debate about whether the United States should join the French and step up involvement against jihadi groups in Mali centers on these complicated ties. For while al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area consume much of our thinking on al Qaeda, the United States is also fighting al Qaeda affiliates like al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Shabab in Somalia, which is also linked to al Qaeda.
In 2012, the United States conducted more drone strikes on AQAP targets than it did against al Qaeda core targets in Pakistan. In Mali, U.S. concern is heightened by reports that some among the wide range of local jihadi groups like Ansar Dine have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). If groups in Mali and other local fighters are best thought of as part of al Qaeda, then an aggressive effort is warranted. But if these groups, however brutal -- and despite the allegiances to the mother ship they claim -- are really only fighting to advance local or regional ambitions, then the case for direct U.S. involvement is weak. The reality is that affiliation does advance al Qaeda's agenda, but the relationship is often frayed and the whole is frequently far less than the sum of its parts.
Al Qaeda has always sought to be a vanguard that would lead the jihadi struggle against the United States. Abdullah Azzam, one of the most influential jihadi thinkers and a companion of bin Laden, wrote, "Every principle needs a vanguard to carry it forward" and that this vanguard is a "solid base" -- a phrase from which al Qaeda draws its very name. At the same time, al Qaeda sought to support and unify local Muslim groups as they warred against apostate governments such as the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. Convincing local groups to fight under the al Qaeda banner seems to neatly combine these goals, demonstrating that the mother organization -- now under Zawahiri -- remains in charge, while advancing the local and regional agendas that the core supports.
More practically, in the past, the al Qaeda core has offered affiliates money and safe haven. In Afghanistan, and to a lesser degree in Pakistan, jihadists from affiliated groups came to train and learn and proved far more formidable when they returned to their home war zones. They also returned with a more global agenda, advancing the core's mission of shaping the jihadi movement. It also gave the core a new zone of operational access to conduct terrorist attacks in other places. Perhaps most importantly, the core al Qaeda managed to change the nature of the affiliates' attacks, so that in addition to continuing to strike at local regime forces, they also select targets more in keeping with the core's anti-Western goals. AQIM's attack this week on Western tourists and foreign oil workers in Algeria mimics the change in strategy. AQAP has taken this one step further and gone after the United States outside its region, twice launching sophisticated attacks on U.S. civil aviation.
Yet affiliation is risky for all concerned. Some groups come to al Qaeda as damaged goods: AQIM, for example, largely lost its struggle in Algeria before it came under the core banner. AQI committed a series of brutal atrocities in Iraq despite the chastisement of al Qaeda leaders and in so doing provoked a firestorm of criticism from previously sympathetic clerics in the Muslim world. In documents captured in the Abbottabad raid, one jihadist had warned bin Laden, "The problem is that al Qaeda has become a broad field; each can enter." The implication: By absorbing these far-flung franchises under its banner, the core could not disassociate itself from the actions of far-flung affiliates. Perhaps unsurprisingly, al Qaeda leaders explored whether they could cut ties to some of these groups.
For the local groups, going global brings a host of downsides, particularly the wrath of the United States and other strong powers. Journalist Jason Burke quotes the jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri who lamented the 9/11 attacks cast "jihadists into a fiery furnace.… A hellfire which consumed most of their leaders, fighters and bases." Similarly, because the core is less in tune with conditions and realities on the ground in the countries in which its far-off satellites operate, mistakes at the local level are more likely to occur when the core is calling the shots. And when al Qaeda sends its own operatives and other nonlocals to join an affiliate, these foreign fighters may alienate locals through their personal behavior or attempts to alter local traditions. In Iraq, Burke reports that one local jihadist shot a foreign fighter who had said that he could not pray at the grave of his ancestors, because doing so would be considered a form of idolatry.
Ultimately, there are no simple choices when confronting al Qaeda affiliates. On the one hand, ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving intelligence and security officials -- not to mention Barack Obama's administration -- in a defensive and reactive mode and vulnerable to a surprise attack. On the other hand, too aggressive an approach can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al Qaeda and other jihadi groups by validating the collective narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement. But the United States needs to pick its battles. It is vital to distinguish between those groups that are full-fledged affiliates and those groups that have just limited interaction with al Qaeda.
In Mali, the verdict is still out. There are a hodgepodge of local groups with shifting alliances and unclear links to Zawahiri and the core. They pose a danger to Mali and its neighbors -- and to Americans in this turbulent zone -- but for now they lack the capacity and perhaps the interest in striking the U.S. homeland. It is sensible for U.S. officials to worry that this could change over time, but supporting the French -- rather than leading the effort in Mali -- is the most prudent course at present.