The mythical al-Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.
The real al-Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed the limited hierarchy al-Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al-Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*
The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.
My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al-Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al-Qaeda entities.
Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:
(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al-Qaeda Central remained potent.
Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al-Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.
The White House seems conflicted about which view of al-Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al-Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al-Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.
(2) Media reports often give the impression that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al-Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al-Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.
The point is not that we should ignore al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.