Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
Al-Qaida decentralized, but not necessarily weaker
First Published Jun 01 2014 12:18 pm • Last Updated Jun 01 2014 03:53 pm

Washington • Al-Qaida has decentralized, yet it’s unclear whether the terrorist network is weaker and less likely to launch a Sept. 11-style attack against the United States, as President Barack Obama says, or remains potent despite the deaths of several leaders.

Obama said in his foreign policy speech last week that the prime threat comes not from al-Qaida’s core leadership, but from affiliates and extremists with their sights trained on targets in the Middle East and Africa, where they are based. This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-type attacks against America, the president said.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

"But it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi," he said, referring to the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Experts argue that this restructured al-Qaida is perhaps even stronger than it has been in recent years, and that the potential for attacks on U.S. soil endures.

"We have never been on a path to strategically defeat al-Qaida. All we’ve been able to do is suppress some of its tactical abilities. But strategically, we have never had an effective way of taking it on. That’s why it continues to mutate, adapt and evolve to get stronger," said David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Decentralization does not mean weakness, he said.

"I think Americans think al-Qaida is no longer a threat — that Osama bin Laden’s death means al-Qaida is not a big thing anymore," Sedney said.

He believes al-Qaida is gaining strength in Pakistan, is stronger in Iraq than it was three or four years ago and is stronger in Syria than it was a year or two ago.

"This is a fight about ideology. Al-Qaida is not this leader or that leader or this group or that group," he said.

The experts say al-Qaida today looks less like a wheel with spokes and more like a spider web stringing together like-minded groups. But they believe there are several reasons that those who track al-Qaida warn against complacency.


story continues below
story continues below

While bin Laden was killed and his leadership team heavily damaged by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, the drawdown of American forces in neighboring Afghanistan will dry up field intelligence and restrict the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism operations. There is a worry that a pullback could allow al-Qaida to regroup.

Moreover, they worry about the thousands of foreign fighters flocking to the civil war in Syria, which has emboldened the al-Qaida breakaway group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to expand its cross-border operations into neighboring countries such as Iraq.

U.S. officials also are concerned about Westerners who have joined the Syrian fight because they may be recruited to return home and conduct attacks.

When the U.S. counterterrorism strategy was conceived, it was thought that if al-Qaeda’s core leadership was dismantled or killed, then affiliated groups would simply become localized threats, said Katherine Zimmerman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

At that time, there wasn’t a network of connections among all the groups, said Zimmerman, who specializes in the Yemen-based group, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabab.

"As the network has become more decentralized, it’s become much more reliant on these human relationships and the sharing of resources, advice and fighters, which means that you no longer need bin Laden sitting in Pakistan dispersing cash to various affiliates," Zimmerman said. "They have developed their own sources. ... You can’t simply pound on part of the network and expect to see results."

Tom Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of The Long War Journal, a website that tracks how al-Qaida and its affiliates operate around the globe, said he thinks the Bush and Obama administrations mistakenly defined al-Qaida as a top-down pyramid with a hierarchal structure — that "if you sort of lop off the top of the pyramid, the whole thing crumbles."

Al-Qaida leaders have scattered to other parts of the world, he said, noting that Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is headed by a former aide to bin Laden, who is now general manager of al-Qaida globally.

More recently, the Treasury Department penalized a senior al-Qaida operative on al-Qaida’s military committee who relocated from Pakistan to Syria and is involved with a group plotting against Western targets, he said. U.S. officials have tracked communication traffic going back and forth between Syria and Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said.

Next Page >


Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.