Degrading al Qaeda’s leadership is central to US counterterrorism strategy. But the leaders today are not the same as they were in 2001, are no longer necessarily connected by formal relationships, and are defined by their common purpose and experiences. AEI’s Critical Threats Project is engaged in an effort to rethink our understanding of al Qaeda and our strategy to fight its network.
►Isn’t al Qaeda’s leadership group already decimated? US and partnered direct-action operations have killed many of al Qaeda’s senior leaders, but this has not had a lasting impact. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been able to reconstitute their leadership groups, including players added to the bench since 2001. Al Qaeda’s leaders today remain dedicated to Osama bin Laden’s vision, have incorporated lessons learned, and collectively possess many years of experience. The leaders today are not, as President Barack Obama intimated, al Qaeda’s “jayvee team.”
►Why do we need to focus on identifying al Qaeda’s leaders? A core pillar in current US strategy to defeat al Qaeda is degrading its leadership. The leadership is a force that drives members of the al Qaeda network to act in support of its objectives within both the local and global context. Al Qaeda’s leaders coordinate and advise on operations, enhancing the network’s overall capabilities. Our strategy rests on correctly identifying the members of this group in order to take action against it.
►How can we identify al Qaeda’s leaders? Today, al Qaeda’s leaders are no longer necessarily connected, but they do continue to subscribe to al Qaeda’s ideology and actively support it. They share the same overall purpose, which is revealed by their actions and interactions with the al Qaeda network. Changes to formal group affiliation do not affect leaders’ overall purpose, and they continue to coordinate activities to further al Qaeda’s objectives. It is insufficient to rely on membership or public identification to define al Qaeda’s leadership group.
►How is this different from how we currently identify leaders? US identification of al Qaeda leaders presently relies on a now-dated understanding of the al Qaeda network and on individuals publicly identifying with al Qaeda. Our counterterrorism policies are targeting only a fraction of the leadership because al Qaeda purposefully obfuscates relationships with various groups and individuals. We must adapt our understanding of al Qaeda’s leadership just as it has adapted its practices.