Argument

The Iraqi Re-Awakening

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is making all the same mistakes that the United States once made in Anbar. Can he change course before al Qaeda overruns the restive province?

Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein -- and lived.

The incident occurred during a high-level briefing in the summer of 2002. A war with the U.S. was looming, but Saddam told Hamdani not to worry. There won't be a war, he said confidently, because the American people "have no taste for blood." 

Hamdani, who commanded six divisions in Saddam's elite Republican Guard Corps and was viewed as one of his country's toughest fighters, disagreed. The Americans would not only invade, he responded -- their plan was to occupy Baghdad after a lightning campaign. The only way to fight them, he argued, was to "bleed them slowly" in a series of delaying actions.

Saddam might easily have lost his temper, but he smiled and dismissed his general's prediction. After all, there was good reason to value Hamdani's knowledge: He not only owned a library filled with books on America's World War II campaigns, he was known for his obsessive study of U.S. military tactics. Saddam regularly taunted him about his obsession, calling him "my American General."

After his conference with Saddam, Hamdani returned to his command. Less than a year later, his divisions fought the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyeh, but failed to hold the southern Iraqi city's bridges. Without air power, Hamdani's army didn't stand a chance; most of his units were destroyed. After Saddam was toppled, Hamdani returned to his home in Baghdad where, one night, American soldiers burst through his door, wrestled him to the ground, and questioned him. Hamdani was enraged.

The experience didn't rob Hamdani of his courage. After his questioning -- and after receiving death threats from Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government -- he moved to Amman. From there, he worked with Anbar tribal leader Talal al-Gaood to kick-start a political opening with the U.S. military that led to the Anbar Awakening. Hamdani's idea, proposed in a quiet meeting with U.S. Marine Corps officers in an Amman hotel in July 2004, was to arm Anbar's Sunni militias to face off against Islamic extremists flooding into the province from Syria. Anbar's insurgents, he told his U.S. military interlocutors, had at least one thing in common with their American occupiers -- they both hated al Qaeda. 

Gaood established a think tank called the Iraq Futures Foundation in Amman in the summer of 2005, and signed Hamdani on as the organization's military advisor. The think tank's goal was to unite Anbar's tribes against the al Qaeda threat. While it took many months for this vision to be realized, their pioneering work -- alongside officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division -- resulted in the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council. The council fought off al Qaeda, empowered Anbar's Sunnis, and returned the province to political and economic stability.

Hamdani, who is still living in Amman, is now increasingly concerned that his achievements in Anbar are unraveling. Over the last few months, he's watched with growing alarm as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on an anti-government protest movement in the province, laying the groundwork for the resurgence of al Qaeda.

His worries are shared by current and former U.S. military officials, who believe that Iraq will need to build another Awakening to defeat al Qaeda, but are convinced the obstacles to doing so will be even more daunting this time around.

Maliki appears to be preparing the Iraqi Army for a renewed assault on Anbar province. His forces shelled the outskirts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on Monday, Feb. 3, and the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks killed 57 militants. The violence has returned Anbar to the dark days of 2004 and 2005, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers lost their lives battling a jihadist insurgency there.

"People who know Iraq and Anbar best saw this coming as early as this last summer," a former senior advisor to both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates told me. "Maliki kept poking at Anbar, inflaming the tribes. It was an absolutely cynical power play. He figured the angrier Anbar got, the more he could pose as Iraq's strongman. He thought he'd be viewed as the defender of the Shias and win himself another term as prime minister."

But by cracking down on Anbar's Sunnis, the Iraqi premier set the stage for a full-blown uprising.

On Dec. 28, Maliki declared martial law in Ramadi, Anbar's capital, and sent his security services into the city to arrest Iraqi parliamentarian Ahmed al-Alwani, one of the leaders of the protest movement. In the ensuing melee, five of Alwani's bodyguards were killed, along with his brother and sister. Two days later, after accusing the protest leaders of consorting with terrorists, Maliki imposed a curfew on the province.

A call went out among Anbar residents to resist the curfew, and gunmen soon attacked government security forces, burning police cars and Humvees. The fighting was intense across the province, with Iraqi military units facing off against well-armed local militias.

Maliki soon realized that he had overreached and, on Dec. 31, withdrew his forces from Anbar's largest cities. However, his move only compounded his earlier mistakes -- Fallujah and Ramadi were now left undefended. Over the next several days, much of the province was overrun by tribal militias, as well as by fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In Amman, Hamdani was incensed. "Terrorism is born from the womb of despair," he wrote to me in January, "and is made worse by poor political decisions and bad policies. We are seeing this in Iraq now, when the people of Anbar who were protesting for their rights were called terrorists. The current problems weren't caused by terrorists, but by Nouri al-Maliki's poor political judgment. This didn't need to happen."

* * *

The Marine Corps officers and senior Pentagon officials who met Hamdani for the first time in Amman in 2004 share his bleak assessment.

Among these is Col. Mike Walker, the former commander of the 3rd Civil Affair Group (CAG), a Marine Corps reserve unit that deployed to Anbar after being activated in March 2004. Walker, who spent his career as a California public school math teacher, argues that Maliki's actions are the result of American miscalculations that began when the U.S. failed to make Iran pay for crushing the 2009 Green Movement.

Walker, who maintains sporadic contact with the Anbaris he met in Amman and Iraq, ticks off the resulting series of events, like a row of toppling dominos. The "failure to show resolve" in backing the Green Movement, he says, "signaled American disengagement from the region, emboldened the Assad government in Syria and forced Maliki into Tehran's grasp. As Washington retreated from the region, the vacuum they left behind was filled by Tehran's hardliners. That forced Maliki to tilt further toward Iran, and away from other Arab States and the West."

"Maliki was never a Sunni 'hater,'" Walker adds, "but in seeking a modus vivendi with Iran, he had to pander to their surrogates in Iraq, the radical Shiite members in his ruling coalition. In doing so, he unwisely wasted much of the good will and trust he had developed with the Iraqi Sunni minority."

Walker's thinking reflects the views of the Marines he served with nearly a decade ago. These men are now haunted by news that al Qaeda has re-established a presence in Fallujah, after so many U.S. soldiers lost their lives to drive the jihadist group from the city in 2004. Much like the tribal leaders they met during their deployment, they once again find themselves caught between contending fears -- of Iran on the one hand, and extremist Islamists on the other.

"Once you're engaged in that kind of thing, you never forget it," says Marine Col. Dave Harlan (ret.), who was the 3rd CAG's liaison in Amman. "We forged a political opening because we knew that would save lives. It was the right thing to do. But we should have at least maintained our contact with the tribes. If we'd have built on those contacts, there's no way al Qaeda would have come back." 

But the Anbar Awakening also involved another battle: The struggle between senior U.S. military commanders and powerful political forces within the American government, who opposed the opening for ideological reasons.

Marine Corps Maj. Patrick Maloy (ret.), a 1st Marine Expeditionary Force staff officer who was deployed to Anbar in 2004, says that those conflicts meant that the U.S. military was pursuing the Awakening with one hand tied behind its back.

"Extraordinary efforts were made to deliver Anbar by a select few," Maloy says of the 3rd CAG's efforts in Anbar, "but were then rejected by the State Department and White House. We delivered it anyway, without funding, without support and mostly in the face of those who thought the Awakening was going to go away. But that was never going to happen; the Awakening was the one thing that could have a stabilizing effect."

Top U.S. military and diplomatic officials initially were extremely hostile to the idea of working with Anbar's tribes. When Gen. George Casey, the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, learned that the 3rd CAG was talking to Anbar's leaders, he quickly strung up red tape: He barred the Marines from having any future meetings with the tribes without approval of the State Department, reassured interim Shiite Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that the meetings had been stopped, and accused 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Cmdr. James Conway of engaging in "a goat rope."

Conway was enraged, particularly since it was Casey who had suggested that his commanders try to co-opt the insurgency. "Conway was so angry I thought he was going to have a stroke," recalls Maloy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went even further: After learning that Col. John Coleman, Conway's chief of staff, had met with Hamdani in Amman, she directed that he be detained, placed under house arrest, escorted out of Jordan, and flown to Baghdad to explain his actions. Coleman had no trouble justifying his behavior once back in the Iraqi capital, telling American officials that talking with Anbar's tribes was better than fighting them house to house in Fallujah.

Conway agreed with his chief of staff and supported continued contact with Anbar's tribes. "Gen. Conway didn't like being laughed at, and he didn't like the implication that his staff officers were amateurs," says one of his former senior officers. The general continued to support contact with Anbar's tribes and quietly did his best to overcome the political obstacles that Washington put in his way. He eventually succeeded: In September 2006, the Anbar Awakening Council was formed, uniting 42 of Anbar's clans.

Jerry Jones, an official who worked in the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and who steered the 2004 Anbar opening through the department's treacherous shoals, believes that Anbar served as "a laboratory for what is happening from Morocco to Yemen." The province is a testing ground for Iraqi unity, a battleground between Arab extremists and moderates and forms the borderland where the majority Sunni and Shia worlds rub up against each other.

But Jones, like Hamdani and the Marines of the 3rd CAG, comes down hard on Iraq's prime minister. "It's great that we're going to send Iraq military help to fight al Qaeda," he says, "but what the country really needs is some political tutoring" for its leaders. "If I were Nouri al-Maliki," Jones adds, "and I had a choice between tying my country's future to the mullahs in Iran or to the peoples of Anbar, I'd choose Anbar every time. Hands down."

Maliki, however, seems to be making the opposite decision -- his government is now throwing up the same obstacles to a rapprochement in Anbar as top U.S. officials once did. Baghdad has opposed a rollback of de-Baathification requirements (one of the key demands of the Ramadi protests), a greater share for Anbar in Iraq's resource wealth, and the release of Anbari detainees held in Baghdad's jails.

The language being used now by Baghdad is eerily similar to the rhetoric coming out of Washington a decade ago: No matter how justified their demands, Anbar's leaders are "terrorists."

* * *

The real question is whether Maliki's government will learn any faster than Washington that giving Anbar's Sunnis a share in governing Iraq is the best way to fight Islamist extremists.

If it doesn't, Baghdad could reverse the significant economic and social gains that followed the Awakening. Since 2008, Iraq has been one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world, more children are in school than ever before, and the country is undergoing the biggest building boom in its history. And if it remains politically stable, the central bank governor projects that GDP could grow more than 9 percent in the coming year.

For James Clad, a former National Defense University instructor and Department of Defense official who participated in the Amman meetings in 2004, the question now is whether Nouri al-Maliki "will build on what was started, or whether he will squander it away for political reasons."

"The key to political stability is economic growth," Clad adds, "but for that to happen, Anbar needs to be united."

But that's very much in doubt now, as a result of Maliki's heavy-handed actions in Ramadi. "A good portion of Anbar's leadership and about half of the tribes are lined up against Baghdad," a serving U.S. military officer at the Pentagon told me. "That's very bad news. To fight al Qaeda effectively, as they did starting in 2005, the tribes have to be united. Maliki botched this."

Watching from Amman, Raad al-Hamdani is pleased that the Pentagon, at least, is not underestimating what's at stake in the province. "Anbar is only 28 percent of the area of Iraq," he says, "but its influence goes much deeper. The people of Anbar are fighting for their rights, their civil rights. It's the same fight that can be seen on the streets of every Arab country."

The Arab Spring, in his reading, first sprang to life during the Anbar Awakening -- and is being squandered by the machinations of Maliki and Iraq's central government. "The fight for Anbar," he concludes, "is a fight for the soul of the Arab world." 

AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

War on Error

We're fighting al Qaeda like a terrorist group. They're fighting us as an army.

One of the most active fronts in the war on terror is Washington, D.C., where skirmishes over our understanding of al Qaeda have grown increasingly frequent and bloody.

Although this battle has raged for years, recent events have raised the stakes. From the president of the United States on down, analysts, scholars, and pundits have been confounded by the evolution of al Qaeda from a single, central group based in Afghanistan into a hydra with heads in (at minimum) Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, and most importantly, Syria.

The debate has grown ever more acrimonious since the maybe-or-maybe-not al Qaeda attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but it reached new and unprecedented heights this weekend when al Qaeda Central (AQC) issued a statement to fire one of its affiliates, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.

The terse, unequivocal statement came after months of bloody infighting among jihadi groups in Syria, and it makes it clear that defining al Qaeda isn't just an "inside the beltway" problem. Not even al Qaeda has a firm grasp on the question.

Attempts to pin down AQC's health and influence too often focus on a specific moment in time, rather than examining it as a transition in progress. Perversely, evaluations of al Qaeda's threat as a global terrorist organization suffer from the opposite problem, focusing too much on what it once was and what it could be again in the future -- an organization whose main priority is carrying out terrorist attacks.

Lost between those poles is al Qaeda as it exists today, a movement and an organization in the midst of dramatic structural transformations that is primarily focused on fighting wars and insurgencies.

Who's in charge?

On Sept. 12, 2001, al Qaeda existed as a single organization with a clear chain of command and employees numbering in the hundreds to low thousands, depending on exactly where you draw your lines. Then, the leader of al Qaeda was Osama bin Laden. Today, it's Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It is almost certain that al Qaeda, the organization -- the specific group that carried out the 9/11 attacks -- still exists in some form, based on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan with an unknown number of employees answering directly to Zawahiri and under heavy pressure from U.S. drone strikes.

Data on the size and strength of that organization is scarce, but opinions are plentiful. Can AQC itself carry out major terrorist attacks against the United States or does it rely on its officially acknowledged affiliates -- al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabab, Jabhat al Nusra, and a host of groups often lumped under the amorphous label of "al Qaeda-linked"? Understanding and accurately describing these inter-group dynamics has plagued analysts, myself included, for years.

For instance, in the 1990s, bin Laden's al Qaeda coordinated closely with Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad, so much so that Islamic Jihad members were paid a salary by al Qaeda, according to testimony in the 2001 trial of the East African embassy bombers. That salary was higher than the one paid to actual al Qaeda members. Yet many analysts maintain that these were two separate organizations until June 2001, when they formally announced their merger.

Around the same time in Bosnia, the Egyptian Islamic Group led by the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who inspired the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, played a crucial role in controlling foreign fighters who had come to fight the Serbs, while al Qaeda moved money and operatives in and out of the conflict. Today, many people still talk about al Qaeda in Bosnia as if that encompasses the whole landscape, when the reality is far more nuanced.

After the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda began to designate official affiliates, further complicating matters. These organizations swore loyalty to bin Laden, and later, to Zawahiri. In return, they were officially recognized as affiliates, theoretically under the command of AQC.

While there is much we don't know about the current size and operational status of AQC, there is ample evidence that the top-down command structure -- with Zawahiri's organization on top of the pyramid -- is, at a minimum, under tremendous pressure.

We can debate whether it has completely collapsed, whether it is severely damaged, whether it is still hanging on, and whether it might mount a comeback, but the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that control of al Qaeda's affiliates is slipping out of Zawahiri's hands. This weekend's disavowal of ISIS by AQC is only the most recent and explicit example.

We sometimes talk about al Qaeda and its affiliates as if this structure has a clear precedent, deep roots, and a long history of cohesion. In fact, the "affiliate program" was barely off the ground before cracks began to form. Al Qaeda in Iraq, and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, went off the rails almost immediately, and AQC tried -- futilely -- to rein him in through private correspondence, which was captured in Iraq and Afghanistan and later published by the U.S. government. The conflict was only resolved with Zarqawi's death in 2006.

Today, Zawahiri has indisputably lost control of AQI, now known as ISIS. In June, ISIS tried to take control of al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra. When Zawahiri came down in support of the powerful newcomer, ISIS openly defied him, with its emir posting a video online explicitly rejecting the order to confine its activities to Iraq.

Al Nusra has remained loyal to Zawahiri, but since the al Qaeda chief has ruled in its favor not once, but twice, that loyalty costs nothing. It's decidedly unclear who holds the whip hand in the relationship between AQC and al Nusra, but the latter undoubtedly has more men, more money, and more popular support than the former. If Zawahiri had ruled against al Nusra, the only difference in outcome might well have been the name of the affiliate that broke with AQC. Al Nusra doesn't really need al Qaeda, but al Qaeda desperately needs al Nusra to remain relevant at a global level.

Zawahiri has few tools at his disposal with which to influence his junior partners. Prior to 9/11, bin Laden was able to use money and terrorist expertise -- coupled with the promise of mobility and a safe haven for training -- to exert influence over organizations that were not formally pledged. Zawahiri can no longer offer a safe haven, and all of al Qaeda's official and unofficial affiliates have their own independent income streams, some of which are competitive with AQC's bankroll at its height.

Before 9/11, al Qaeda was small enough for bin Laden to police its members, and there were no alternative power centers within the organization that offered him meaningful competition. Today, Zawahiri has plenty of competition but no leverage for enforcement. Likewise, his ability to create financial incentives is likely too limited to sway his well-funded affiliates.

What limited authority AQC enjoys today derives from the religious weight of the loyalty oaths he has collected, his elder statesman status, and his personal charisma, such as it is.

That said, Zawahiri has not faded into complete irrelevance. Open-source intelligence is scarce on AQC's command-and-control structures, but recent reports suggest he still exerts something like control over the organization's Yemeni affiliate, AQAP, whose emir Nasser al-Wuhayshi was reportedly named second-in-command for the al Qaeda global network in 2013.

But with the loyalty of other al Qaeda affiliates falling along a rapidly diminishing spectrum, Zawahiri has largely refrained from interfering in their internal affairs in a way that exposes his weakness. At times, this has meant keeping mum even after senior AQC figures are killed. When a senior jihadist with long ties to al Qaeda publicly called on Zawahiri to intervene in a violent fitna (a theologically-charged Arabic word for dissent among Muslims) in Somalia last year, his petition received no public response, and the leader of al Shabab, Ahmed Godane, solved the problem by killing the petitioner.

More recently, when called on to end the infighting among Syrian jihadi factions, including conflicts between two purported al Qaeda affiliates and a third group that has telegraphed its desire to be seen as part of al Qaeda, Zawahiri in January issued a statement that invited the combatants to find a solution, but articulated no specific orders. Rather than appoint a leader in Syria, he told the jihadi groups to decide on one themselves, saying he would approve of whomever they picked. It was an extraordinarily weak statement for someone who purportedly commands loyalty from at least one of the most important groups in the theater.

In Syria, Zawahiri is starting to resemble a guide more than a military commander -- a spiritual influencer like jihadist cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi or an intellectual influencer such as Islamist Yousef Al Qaradawi. After al Qaeda disavowed ISIS over the weekend, ISIS members tracked by the author on social media spent far more time viciously attacking another influential critic, Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, than complaining about the change in status.

Despite all this, Zawahiri is still important as an influencer -- profoundly so. His January statement on Syria -- issued concurrently with statements by a number of other jihadi influencers including Muhaysini and Maqdisi -- may well have contributed to a pause in the infighting. Being a respected voice, however, is not the same as being commander-in-chief.

To manage an organization with tens of thousands of employees and branches all over the globe would be a daunting task for anyone, let alone someone whose travel, communication, and information-gathering opportunities are severely curtailed. It's not surprising that Zawahiri is losing control of the organization and the movement. It would be surprising if he did not.

One last factor might matter very much to this calculus. Zawahiri has years of experience running covert terrorist organizations, but he has never run or participated significantly in an overt military campaign.

That's a crucial gap in his experience, because the al Qaeda of 2014 does a lot more warfighting than terrorism.

Is al Qaeda still primarily a terrorist organization?

The heated debate over command and control can obscure the most fundamental evolution of al Qaeda, which is the easiest to describe and quantify but rarely discussed on its own merits. It has morphed from a discrete terrorist group into a wide-ranging fighting movement that conducts insurgencies, recruits foreign fighters into conflicts, raises funds, and conducts terrorism on the side -- almost certainly its least-resourced component.

This conclusion requires no stroke of genius; it is patently obvious. But the political and emotional freightage that accompanies the word "terrorism" makes it hard to utter. Even the New York Times refers to al Qaeda as the "world's most notorious terrorist organization." But while technically true, the label is increasingly misleading.

This isn't a question of tactics -- al Qaeda's insurgent activities frequently include horrific terrorist tactics. It's about goals. Although there is no clear consensus, most experts define terrorism, in part, by the indirectness of its objectives: exerting political influence through intimidation and violence generally directed at noncombatants.

What we see today are al Qaeda militias whose objectives are extremely direct -- to capture, hold, and govern territory, along with attacks of a genocidal nature.

To be sure, al Qaeda has always had a close relationship to war. It was founded on the remains of the jihad against the Soviet Union and it has consistently recruited terrorists from the veterans of wars and conflicts involving Muslims, as it did in Bosnia. But it was not traditionally a primary combatant in these conflicts. That has changed.

No matter what estimate you're working with, there are far more people currently fighting with an acknowledged al Qaeda affiliate than belonged to the pre-9/11 organization during its entire history -- by multiples.

The vast weight of al Qaeda manpower and funding (the sum of both AQC and its official affiliates) currently goes to support insurgencies and warfighting, including both foreign fighters and regional residents under the same flag. While this activity is obviously concentrated in Syria, every major al Qaeda affiliate has followed the same course to some extent, deploying forces to hold territory and attempt governance from Mali to Somalia to Yemen.

Al Qaeda is clearly still in the terrorism business, but terrorism is no longer its flagship product -- in the same way that the Mac no longer dominates the Apple brand. Terrorism is the product on which the organization was built -- and it still matters -- but it is no longer the main line of business.

Thousands of al Qaeda fighters have died on battlefields in the last couple of years, but scores at most have been arrested or killed while carrying out plots against the U.S. homeland. This is true even when you include people whose terrorist ambitions are inspired by al Qaeda without a direct network link, and when you expand the set to include other forms of non-insurgent terrorism against other targets.

Based on these figures, admittedly much less concrete than we would like, the number of formally al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist operatives bent on attacking the West compared to al Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Muslim lands may be as low as a fraction of 1 percent, or using the absolutely broadest criteria, perhaps as high as 10 percent.

The new al Qaeda is still radical, extremist, and incredibly violent. It certainly has not forsaken terrorism, and it may shift the balance of its activities toward terrorism again in the future. But overwhelming evidence suggests that terrorism is now decidedly secondary in al Qaeda's portfolio.

Does al Qaeda's evolution into a fighting group mean there will be less terrorism?

Prior to 9/11, nearly all of al Qaeda's resources were devoted to terrorism, but only a few hundred people could be credibly considered members of AQC, the only al Qaeda that existed then. Today, terrorism occupies a much smaller percentage of al Qaeda's portfolio -- but the portfolio itself is much bigger since it includes the activities of al Qaeda affiliates. As a result, the terrorist threat could still be higher despite the change in focus. But this is not necessarily the case.

There are a number of variables, especially in the short term, that factor into the overall al Qaeda threat. The above estimates of size and focus are largely unscientific and based on sometimes sketchy open-source information. There is no reliable open source estimate for the total number of al Qaeda fighters and terrorist operatives worldwide, and classified estimates may not be much better. Evaluation is further hampered by disagreements among analysts, scholars, and policymakers over who should be included.

The ratio of fighters to terrorists is also a guesstimate. For instance, it's possible that international terrorism is considerably less than 5 percent of al Qaeda's overall portfolio, but it could be higher as well. A margin of error of just a couple percentage points is enough to tip the balance.

There is also the question of what the baseline comparison should be. Do you compare al Qaeda of 2014 to the 2009 edition, or the 2000 edition? Or do you try to compare it to highly relevant hypotheticals. For instance, what would today's al Qaeda look like in the absence of the Syrian conflict -- the single biggest factor in its transformation? While these questions are, to some extent, made moot by the actual flow of events, the proliferation of conflicting opinions of whether al Qaeda is stronger or weaker stem in part from a failure to define a baseline. As such, it is worthwhile to briefly flesh out the scenarios that lie beneath these claims.

On the one hand, Syria has been a recruiting bonanza, creating thousands of armed supporters for al Qaeda's brand of radical jihad. On the other hand, if the Syrian civil war had not broken out, it's not clear what the veterans of al Qaeda in Iraq would be doing now. Some would have tried to resume normal lives, no doubt. But others would be left with their rage, training, and weapons in search of a target, whether in Iraq or abroad.

Finally, we have never really had a good grasp on the mechanics of radicalization. One thing, however, is fairly clear: Becoming a warfighting jihadist is a much more appealing moral choice than terrorism. Individuals who would never have volunteered to fly airplanes into civilian buildings can be swayed to take part in the Syrian jihad, where there is a clearly rational -- and even morally defensible -- line of argument for action. The decision to fight in Syria is not automatically radical or extreme.

How many people now fighting in Syria would simply have stayed home if the conflict had not erupted in the way it did? This question is unanswerable, of course, but it's probably not an insignificant number. Those people are now surrounded by others who have a considerably more extremist view of the world. An individual's network of associates is one of the few reliable indicators of terrorist radicalization. If you hang out with violent extremists, you are far more likely to become a violent extremist. The best available research suggests that some number of foreign fighter recruits will turn to terrorism who would not have otherwise.

It's possible that al Qaeda's new focus on warfighting will suck the oxygen from its terrorist operations in the short and medium term, but that is far from certain. And when (or if) the Syrian civil war ends, we will face a whole new set of variables -- and likely an increased terrorist threat.

Is a fighting organization a more desirable adversary than a terrorist organization?

Putting aside the still-unrealized specter of nuclear or biological attacks, war has always been far more disruptive and destructive than terrorism. It is more destructive in terms of lives lost, property destroyed, and economies ruined. It causes more civilian casualties, even when it does not specifically target civilians. This has been the case in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and now Syria.

The economies of these countries have been laid to waste, and for many residents, there is little hope for a return to peaceful existence any time soon. All told, these warfighting activities have an immensely higher human cost than terrorism. In the long term, however, that steep price buys some opportunities for Western and Middle Eastern countries opposed to the spread of extremism and terrorism -- cold comfort for sure, but better than none.

A critical difference between terrorist organizations and fighting groups lies in the scope of conflict: For warfighters, the conflict eventually draws to a close, whereas for terrorists, it can drag on indefinitely.

Violent extremism tends to arise when a weak movement with a small number of followers pits itself against an impossible foe with no realistic expectation of success. As such, some violent extremist movements can linger for decades or longer, moving through periods of increased and decreased activity. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, which still persists in the United States despite the impossibility of its political goals and the contempt with which it is viewed by the vast majority of Americans.

Wars can also continue for decades, of course. But often they are defined around goals which -- if achieved -- can change the equation and create possible avenues for closure.

In Syria, that goal is currently the ouster of Assad. It is far from certain that Assad's ouster will lead to peace in Syria -- in fact, the odds are stacked against it (consider Libya). But the nature of the conflict is likely to change and evolve if and when the Syrian dictator falls. Some combatants will be satisfied with some outcomes. Others will change their goals to reflect new realities. Still others -- the real diehard extremists -- will not be satisfied until they have created a new global caliphate.

The motivations and objectives of the majority of fighters currently carrying black flags into battle may be fundamentally different from the nihilistic ideology of al Qaeda, in which fighting must continue until the end of the world, regardless of victory or failure. Warfighters have exit opportunities that are unavailable to most terrorists, particularly those of al Qaeda's stripe.

Is an embryonic al Qaeda state a more desirable adversary than a stateless radical group?

One of those exit opportunities is especially unpalatable for the West -- the emergence of islands of sovereignty governed under al Qaeda's outlier interpretation of Islamic law.

This development would be interpreted as a victory by al Qaeda supporters and would result in great suffering for those unfortunate enough to live in a region under such a brutal and authoritarian regime. But it also comes loaded with pitfalls and challenges for the theoretical conquerors.

For starters, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern for long without a certain critical mass of consent by the governed (though it need not be a majority). Effective tools to rule in defiance of popular support include vast wealth and resources, an existing power base, an aura of invincibility, and the promise of stability and security. None of these tools can be found in al Qaeda's belt.

This leaves few options. In the instances where it has gained control over significant territory -- as it has in Mali, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia within the last five years -- al Qaeda affiliates have thus far opted to govern as purists on the theory that their ideology is divinely ordained and obviously superior to the alternatives. This has largely backfired, resulting in quick losses of territory through a combination of internal dissatisfaction and external military pressure.

Should al Qaeda succeed in staking a persistent claim over a significant amount of land in the future, it portends further evolution. Organizations that hold territory have an interest in protecting their control of that territory. None of al Qaeda's territorial gains thus far have been stable enough to exist as anything but a war zone. If one of al Qaeda's emirates were to survive long enough to do anything except hold on by the skin of its teeth, its leaders may find that ideological purity is inadequate to feed and protect an infrastructure and a population, not to mention cultivate a tax base. Successful governance requires attention to issues other than purist ideology.

If al Qaeda succeeds in establishing an emirate but fails to moderate, a valuable global learning moment may occur: Rather than being unseated by Western military force, al Qaeda's experiment in governance could fail on its own terms -- laying bare the fact that black flags and beheadings are of limited utility in preventing polio, building roads, or sustaining an economy. There would of course be a terrible human cost for those forced to live through the experiment, and a host of second-order consequences to consider -- mostly deriving from the perils associated with weak states, which tend to foster regional unrest, instability, and criminal activity, while creating problems with refugees, famine, and cross-border epidemics.

But a hypothetical al Qaeda nation with a specific geographic locale may actually present a more manageable adversary than a stateless terrorist group, making strategic approaches such as containment, destruction, isolation or negotiation more straightforward. America's problems dealing with the Taliban regime in the 1990s are well-documented, but it's hard to look at the current situation in Afghanistan and argue that the outlook is at all promising. There may be options for dealing with terrorist threats emanating from extremist Islamist states that stop short of regime change.

Can al Qaeda withstand its challenges from within?

The final transformative factor in the evolution of al Qaeda is the rise of social media, which is currently rewriting the infrastructure of how jihadi organizations operate.

Al Qaeda's foot soldiers in the pre-9/11 era were carefully selected and even more carefully indoctrinated, usually in remote training camps, where psychological techniques -- including the isolation of new recruits from contact with the outside world -- were applied to produce cultlike devotion. This process was not universally successful, but it was pretty effective.

Today, al Qaeda's recruits are overt soldiers rather than covert terrorists, and they often arrive on an active battlefield intent on picking up a gun and joining the fray. This is a far cry from the lonely mountain camps in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, where terrorist recruits endlessly grumbled about the long wait for action.

And good luck isolating these new warriors from the outside world. Syria's civil war is an unprecedented exercise in the documentation of a conflict on social media, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram. Fighters also stay in touch with friends and family using a variety of instant messaging platforms and SMS texts.

Al Qaeda members and supporters have been online for some time. But in earlier years, they were heavily concentrated in the controlled environment of jihadist message boards, where administrators suppress dissent and encourage the talking points preferred by al Qaeda's leadership.

But over the last two years, those control mechanism have also fallen by the wayside. Users who were banned from the forums for discussing controversial topics (such as accusations against ISIS or the rebellion of Omar Hammami) have moved to social media, where they thrive and find audiences, and where they can't be banned for speaking their minds. Some jihadis have even adopted a stance in favor of freedom of expression, although it's pretty easy to find their red lines.

This trend has even spilled back into the forums, according to sources who track such activity. The two most important jihadist forums, al Fidaa and al Shamukh, have split over the Syrian infighting. Administrators of the former have suppressed posts critical of al Nusra, with admins at the latter doing the same for ISIS. Both of these forums are thought to be controlled by AQC, so the fact that they are pushing different narratives is significant.

You could call this trend the democratization of jihadism, but it might be more apt to call it unionization. Jihadists on social media have a platform to present their collective grievances, and to "vote" by tweets and Facebook likes about the issues and problems that concern them most.

The leaders of al Qaeda's affiliates have not had a uniform response to this new form of feedback, but most of them have responded in some way. In the case of al Shabab, the response was to kill the complainers and ban the Internet, which has lessened but not eliminated open dissent. In Syria, various jihadist influencers and leaders have pleaded with the members to stop airing their complaints on Twitter and show some unity, with only sporadic success.

Because jihadists are raising vast amounts of money on social media, these grievances threaten them where it hurts the most. If donors hear of infighting or injustices, they might send their money in a different direction or withhold it altogether.

And if the tide is visibly shifting against one group or another, the organization itself turns to social media to fight back and argue its case. ISIS, for example, maintains a very aggressive and disciplined presence on social media, constantly pushing back against its enemies in fairly coordinated ways, most recently with a series of coordinated tweets and hashtags attacking cleric al Muhaysini.

It's too soon to evaluate how this new dynamic might change al Qaeda, but it seems certain to speed the organization's evolution. As individual fighters develop large followings and question certain tactics -- such as the morality of fighting other jihadists or the wisdom of banning cigarettes -- the leadership will eventually have to adapt, either by suppressing these voices or by learning from the wisdom of the masses and trying new approaches.

So what happens next?

The most immediate priority for the United States and its allies is to make sense of the rapid changes al Qaeda is undergoing and then make the necessary policy adjustments.

While there are many different dimensions to the course corrections the United States needs to consider, the most important questions are these:

  1. 1. Do we believe jihadist warfighting organizations present a national security threat on a similar order to terrorist groups?
  2. 2. What policy tools do we need to deal with such organizations?
  3. 3. If such organizations are a national security threat by their nature, does it matter whether a group calls itself al Qaeda or not?
  4. 4. How do we address our concerns about these groups without embroiling ourselves in a series of counterproductive wars all over the globe?
  5. 5. What can we do to mitigate the risk that future terrorist organizations might emerge as successors to these fighting groups?

As the points raised herein suggest, these are not simple questions -- but the United States must venture answers. The fundamental nature of al Qaeda has shifted, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. But U.S. policies -- most notably the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that empowers the so-called war on terrorism -- remain fixated on the brand name and organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Although these policies allow for broad powers -- perhaps overly broad -- they are geared toward fighting a terrorist mission that has become secondary to our adversaries.

When a group joins al Qaeda, U.S. policy options treat it as if it is part of the broader terrorist organization. Although there is a certain amount of nuance about how the United States goes about this in practice, the black-and-white nature of the policy structure presents significant complications when it comes to particulars, such as the question of whether to designate Syrian rebel groups with al Qaeda sympathies as terrorist organizations subject to sanctions.

The last question is probably most salient in the eyes of policymakers. Although relatively few foreign jihadist fighters take up careers in terrorism, the rate is still much, much higher than the general population, making participation in jihadist warfare one of the few statistically significant indicators of who will become a terrorist in the future.

Whether al Qaeda becomes more splintered or re-coheres around new leaders, it will almost certainly continue to evolve -- and those changes could come very quickly. The West in general, and the United States in particular, must become more agile. The rhetorical heft of the word "terrorism" can cloud the significance of the change in al Qaeda's strategies and objectives. The organization's terrorist product is still important and the United States still needs policies to address that threat -- but it must develop them with a fuller understanding of its adversary.

If al Qaeda is truly one of the defining policy challenges of the 21st century, our strategies must address it as it exists today, not as a remembrance of things past. America's inability to process the changes in al Qaeda has already introduced profound complications in its ability to influence events in Syria. As al Qaeda becomes more variegated and splintered, we will only face additional dilemmas, including some we cannot yet foresee. If we can't define the parameters of the problem we face -- and answer the policy questions that derive from current realities -- we have scant hope of making any progress on this front.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images