Al Qaeda's affiliates are not on their heels

Daniel Bynum:
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Al Qaeda is best understood as a set of circles. At the center, the bullseye, is a relatively small organization of perhaps several hundred fighters who swore loyalty to Osama Bin Ladin and now to his successor, Ayman Zawahiri. They are often referred to as the “al Qaeda core,” “Al Qaeda Central,” or the “Al Qaeda Senior Leadership” (of course, this being Washington, this immediately became AQC or AQSL). At the outer circles are a loose set of groups and individuals who share at least some of the core’s ideology and goals: so the “D.C. Five” who traveled from the United States to Pakistan, reportedly to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan, had no operational links to the core but accepted its key tenet that U.S. forces were engaged in an oppressive struggle against Islam and should be fought with all means. In the middle circles are individuals who received some al Qaeda training and support but who have not sworn loyalty to Zawahiri.

Perhaps the most important, and most ambiguous, category today is al Qaeda affiliate groups. For even as the al Qaeda core has been hit hard, affiliate groups have prospered. Al Qaeda of Iraq, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (based in Yemen), Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (which grew out of the Algerian struggle), and the Shebaab in Somalia all have some formalized relationship with the al Qaeda core. In addition to taking on the al Qaeda name, they have also vowed to attack Western targets and implement an Islamic state. In some cases they have struck at Americans and Europeans in their region and used al Qaeda methods, like suicide bombings. And one affiliate, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, has tried twice to down U.S. aircraft in sophisticated operations that, if successful, would have been major coups for the jihadist cause. Outside these immediate affiliates, groups have emerged in Mali, the Sinai peninsula, and Nigeria that espouse al Qaeda ideas even though the groups themselves are not (yet) operationally close to the al Qaeda core in Pakistan.

Ansar al-Sharia, blamed for the Benghazi attacks, is inspired by al Qaeda’s ideas but does not appear to have direct links to the al Qaeda core and otherwise appears close to the edge of the target than to the bullseye. The attack it pulled off was hardly a spectacular – basically, it assaulted a weakly defended American diplomatic facility. So it is hard to infer that the terrorism threat to Americans outside Libya from this group is strong. (As terrorism analyst Peter Bergen acidly remarks, “If you buy that, I have a bridge in Benghazi I'd like to sell you.”)

Groups like Ansar al-Sharia, and even more direct affiliates, like Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, pose a threat that is quite distinct than that of the al Qaeda core. The good news is that they are far less able, and for the most part far less interested, in hitting the U.S. homeland. Much of their effort is local, fighting the government where they live and rival groups that contend for the same turf. The bad news is that they are often eager to target Americans in their neighborhood, whether it be official facilities like the consulate in Benghazi or assassinating Americans with the bad luck to stumble in their paths. Perhaps the biggest overall threat they pose is to regional stability. In Mali, that may matter little, but in the Sinai peninsula they could spark another clash between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, while in Iraq their violence might lead to a renewal of the sectarian civil war.

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Al Qaeda in places like Mali matter because of their indirect threats.  For example, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred finances its operations by transporting South American dope from West Africa through Mali and Algeria for distribution in Europe.  They took control of Mali because that government tried to do something about their trafficking operations.  Ansar al-Sharia is believed to have attacked our Benghazi operation because of the attempts by the CIA to contain Qaddafi's weapons which they were distributing to al Qaeda affiliates elsewhere as well as Hamas in Gaza.

The loose interconnections of these circles should be a serious concern.  We need a comprehensive strategy for al Qaeda that goes well beyond just hitting Zawahiri's inner circle with Hell Fire missiles.  What should be clear is that Obama is either misinformed or is attempting to mislead Americas about the dangers posed by all of al Qaeda.

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