Is the United States safe enough? That is the fundamental question being asked by the public, policymakers, and members of the Obama Administration after the Boston bombing. What shape is al Qaeda in now and how does it affect those of us living in the United States?
While working at the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Counterterrorism Center as an analyst and targeting officer I focused on a loose network in Iraq that eventually grew into the al Qaeda we recognize. From my perspective, we are almost witnessing—today—the reverse engineering of al Qaeda back into its initial state in the 1990s, when U.S. officials observed the organization as a collection of independent groups with a central financier, Osama bin Laden. The current-day exception: al Qaeda has spread a central message through propaganda and a few high-profile attacks that are inspiring regional affiliates, lone-wolf individuals, and small groups that don’t necessarily wage jihad for the same reasons that bin Laden did.
The question we keep hearing and asking over and over again: Is al Qaeda finished or is this the beginning of al Qaeda 2.0?
But where does that leave the American public in terms of risk of terrorist activity? The large al Qaeda franchises are bound by geographic constraints and interests and are less likely to pull off a high-profile attack similar to 9/11 than they were a decade ago. And the lone-wolf adherents of al Qaeda’s ideology are unlikely to have the training, financing, and capability to execute anything on a large scale. But is their inability to do significant damage enough to make us feel secure here at home? We have to ask what it is we are trying to protect ourselves from. Is it the dissemination of an ideology to lone-wolf actors who are not part of al Qaeda? Is it the terrorist acts themselves, acts that can be carried out by anyone of any affiliation? Is it both?
The question we keep hearing and asking over and over again: Is al Qaeda finished or is this the beginning of al Qaeda 2.0? I would argue it’s neither. Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated, but that doesn’t mean the dogma they used for recruitment efforts died with them. Using the term al Qaeda 2.0 insinuates an evolution of the pre-9/11 al Qaeda that just isn’t there. Instead, it’s two-fold. First, there are affiliates overseas with possible aspirations of transnational attacks working to adopt al Qaeda’s ideology to fit their current circumstances. And second, there are small groups and lone-wolf individuals who are inspired by and adopting al Qaeda’s message to justify their own violent actions. We understood al Qaeda core’s ideology, but the group’s current network is using the ends to justify their means, which makes those ends harder to detect and predict.
The offshoot in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the perfect example of an ideological separation from al Qaeda’s dogma. They are settling disputes and providing food, services, and security where needed—similar to Hizballah. Citing their doctrine of “defensive jihad,” al Qaeda historically rejected becoming part of a political process that would help build an infrastructure. The lone-wolf ideologues, like the Tsarnaev brothers or other small groups, just adopt al Qaeda’s message. The common denominator for all followers of al Qaeda is a never-ending list of reasons why their version of jihad justifies violence against the U.S.
Where does that leave the United States in combating what we used to know as al Qaeda but is now more of an ideological network? After 9/11, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was passed by Congress to give the President of the United States the authority to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those who committed the attacks on the World Trade Center. The AUMF created a traditional militarized response against a defined actor, similar to a state, expecting a definitive end after collapse. It was a useful tactical tool that was employed to great effect. But the imminent threat al Qaeda once posed has diminished, and the U.S. needs to develop a more encompassing strategic response.
The ideology al Qaeda espouses is not confined to one named group or organization. Today, whether or not someone is a part of al Qaeda is almost irrelevant. You can't kill an ideology with a drone. A war on an ideology doesn't result in a definitive end by fighting it through traditional militarized means.
The threat of terrorism will not go away; societies have been grappling with violence since the beginning of time. But our efforts against al Qaeda’s dogma have been restricted and the CIA is bound by policy and legal findings to conduct counterterrorism options—the responsibility is on the intelligence community to use the tools provided. Congress and the current administration need to ensure funding and prioritize the development of new tools, like counter-radicalization strategies with host countries and strategies to identify and prevent self-radicalization in the United States, and work to better integrate the strategies used to combat illicit networks and communicate the risk versus cost of security to the American public.
It's time to re-evaluate the United States’ definition of victory against the War on Terror. Is defeating al Qaeda's central leadership considered a victory when the ideology fosters a following of lone individuals and loose networks? Given my experience following Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s network and evolution as the lead Targeting Officer on the CIA’s Zarqawi Operations team, it’s my opinion that we need to step back from the reality we came to terms with right after 9/11 and evolve with the extremism we hope to combat.