With Osama bin Laden dead and the war on terror "winding down," there's a growing sense that al Qaeda's ability to threaten America is waning. But this confidence is unfounded. While the Pakistan-based core has been degraded, AQ's regional offshoots have adapted to US pressure, evolving into a resilient and potent network. AEI senior analyst Katherine Zimmerman argues that a new framework is imperative to effectively target and defeat al Qaeda.
► Aren’t we dealing with al Qaeda remnants at this point?
While the Pakistan-based al Qaeda core that masterminded the USS Cole, 9/11, Madrid, and London attacks has been significantly weakened, the threat from the broader network remains acute, as the recent spate of embassy closings across the Middle East attests. The balance of power between center and periphery has clearly shifted as the network has adapted to increased pressure, and American strategy must shift with it.
► Does it really matter how we label the network?
Unfortunately, the target of the "war on terror" has always been somewhat fuzzy. A successful strategy must be based on a true understanding of the network that has been the most lethal enemy of the United States since the end of the Cold War. Clear definitions will permit critical evaluations of the intents and capabilities of al Qaeda affiliates from Mali to Yemen to Somalia. Otherwise, the US will merely engage in tactical battles without any real prospect of winning the larger war.
► What’s the biggest misconception about al Qaeda today?
Policymakers often fall into the trap of relying on a narrow and static range of indicators to assess the threat of a particular group. The al Qaeda network is adaptive and complex: there is an organizational structure within the network and within individual groups, but there are also human networks that cut across the formal structure. Policymakers must recognize that the growing affiliate-to-affiliate links and core-like behavior of many groups pose new threats to US national security interests.
► Does this mean our strategy is wrong?
Our strategy is premised on a bad model. Policymakers must begin to undertake what will be a substantial effort to develop a strategy that is both global and tailored to AQ's local associates and affiliates. Nonetheless, the argument to include associated groups within the al Qaeda network does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the US must deploy forces wherever the al Qaeda network is active.
To learn more, please read Katherine Zimmerman’s latest report, “The al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy.”