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.