The Balkanization of Al Qaeda

Time to target entities, not ideologies.

This month, Al Qaeda officially disenfranchised one of its affiliates, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In fact, ISIS is now in open warfare with al Nusra Front, another Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. These events reveal an Al Qaeda more Balkanized than unified. They also undermine the generally accepted view of a global Al Qaeda network expanding its reach. As opposed to a single organization bound by a common ideology, we should view the Al Qaeda network for what it is: a loose coalition of separate terrorist groups with their own individual causes. Our current strategy to defeat the Al Qaeda network by countering its ideology will likely fail. These other groups will continue on, perhaps under different names, long after Al Qaeda is militarily defeated.

The Obama administration’s 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism distanced itself from Bush’s “Global War on Terrorism” by accurately describing terrorism as a tactic, not an enemy. The enemy is now defined as Al Qaeda core (the organization established by Osama Bin Laden now largely located in Pakistan), its affiliates (other groups aligned with Al Qaeda) and its adherents. “Adherents” includes individuals who are inspired to take action based on the ideology of Al Qaeda. Adherents includes any terrorist or group who claims to share Al Qaeda’s ideology, leading to the conclusion the only way to defeat such a networked organization is to destroy this one common link—the ideology. While terrorist organizations can be destroyed and individuals can be imprisoned or killed, it is unlikely that we will ever achieve victory defined as stamping out an objectionable creed.

Terrorist groups are paramilitary organizations and behave as rational actors. Their strategies are directed specific political end states, or “causes.” While a group’s end state and ideology are related, they are not synonymous. For example, Al Qaeda and the Palestinian group Hamas share similar Islamist ideologies, but their end states are completely different. Likewise, the causes of most of the Al Qaeda’s affiliates are regional, differing from Al Qaeda core’s focus on the West. When these groups assume the Al Qaeda moniker, they anticipate a predictable counterterrorism response from the United States; however they do so to attract funds, recruits and media attention.

Al Qaeda’s propaganda machine went into high gear as military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan pushed it into survival mode. With little more than public pronouncements, other terrorist groups rebranded themselves as Al Qaeda. Counterterrorism officials and media outlets began to refer to these groups as Al Qaeda “branches,” “franchises” or simply “Al Qaeda.” However, these terms overstate the relationships between these groups and the Al Qaeda organization. Counterterrorism officials will often use the term “Al Qaeda linked” but will rarely define the term. While some affiliates have a few former Al Qaeda core members among its leadership, others are organizationally distinct. There is some communication between the affiliates; however, these connections are tenuous.

All groups which call themselves “Al Qaeda” do not have the same level of operational connectivity with Al Qaeda core; nor do they warrant the same counterterrorism attention from the United States. For example, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in northwest Africa attracted considerable attention after it changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007. However, this group still does not appear inclined to target the homeland or Western Europe. Similarly, al Shabaab remains focused on fighting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and African Union Forces for territory and power. Conversely, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen is clearly intent on targeting the homeland, as demonstrated by the plots to destroy an airliner and two cargo planes in flight.

Instead of a single strategy which treats all of these groups as Al Qaeda, the United States needs tailored strategies for each. Instead of focusing on ideology, these strategies should prevent these groups from achieving their individual causes by applying the appropriate combination counterterrorism tools: intelligence, strategic messaging, diplomacy, financial sanctions, law enforcement, and, under certain circumstances, military force and covert action. Through these tailored responses, the United States has the best chance to defeat this diverse range of actors which threaten our people, our interests and our allies.

Charles E. Berger is an Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and is currently on sabbatical at the Council on Foreign Relations as the National Intelligence Fellow. These are his views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the FBI.