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Al Qaeda Isn’t ‘On Its Heels’

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This just in (for those of you who get your news from MSNBC) from reporter Reza Jan:

The president’s optimistic characterization of the al Qaeda threat in South Asia is increasingly outdated. The terrorist group is regenerating due to a pause in U.S. drone activity and the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops.

President Barack Obama told U.S. troops in Afghanistan on May 25, 2014 that the United States has “decimated the al Qaeda leadership in the tribal regions” of Pakistan. While conceding that the al Qaeda network elsewhere in the world poses an increasing threat to U.S. interests, the U.S. government frequently touts the progress it has made in neutering al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan — as it narrowly defines it.

These talking points increasingly seem based on a picture of al Qaeda’s South Asian network that is at least several months out of date, however. They do not appear to account for al Qaeda’s well-known ability to repair damage to its network, that network’s improving position in Pakistan, or an apparent strategic pause in both U.S. and Pakistani operations against al Qaeda in the region. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and all it entails, not only increases al Qaeda’s operating room in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but has already severely degraded the intelligence infrastructure that helped support the drone and covert operations campaign that contributed heavily towards the success now claimed by the president.

Rhetoric Based on an Old Snapshot of the Network

President Obama described al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan variously as being “on its heels” and “on the ropes” in his speech on Sunday.  The president and members of the administration have often used similar language to describe the effects of U.S. policies on al Qaeda in South Asia, though they have moderated these optimistic assertions with admissions that al Qaeda elsewhere in the world continues to pose a threat to the United States.

The administration attributes Al Qaeda’s supposed near-defeat in Pakistan to the death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a one-off Special Operations Forces strike deep inside Pakistan in 2011 and to the U.S. drone campaign inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, which has been underway since 2004.5

The U.S. drone program has, in fact, inflicted heavy casualties on al Qaeda in Pakistan over the years.  It has killed top al Qaeda leaders and facilitators including Ilyas Kashmiri, Abu Yahya al Libi, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, and Abu Zaid al Kuwaiti, as well as successive leaders occupying the organization’s operational command or “number three position,” a feat that has had a serious impact on al Qaeda attempts to conduct attacks from Pakistan against U.S. interests outside the region. Before Kashmiri’s death in June 2011, bin Laden had reportedly tasked the senior operative with plotting an attack against President Obama.

Al Qaeda has shown a remarkable ability to regenerate itself and survive shocks caused by the deaths of senior leaders in drone attacks.

There are problems with using drone kills as metrics for success against the network, however. The first concerns the definition of what is, in fact, considered to be “al Qaeda.” The Obama administration has defined the group in extremely narrow terms: it considers al Qaeda primarily to be the group of individuals comprising its leadership during, and having involvement in, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, as laid out in a recent report by Mary Habeck. This narrow definition excludes new leaders and operatives who have since come to prominence in the network and key facilitators and supporters that make possible al Qaeda’s survival and reconstitution.10 Current U.S. strategy against al Qaeda fails to account for the change in the group’s basic structure from a rigid, hierarchical organization into a more fluid organism, interconnected with and often dependent upon local affiliates with which it does not necessarily have a formal association, but with which it shares an ideology, fighters, facilitators, infrastructure, and space, as laid out in an AEI Critical Threats report by Katherine Zimmerman.

Read more: The American

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