Eight months ago, Thomas Joscelyn and I debated CNN‘s Peter Bergen and Thomas Lynch, a National Defense University Researcher Fellow and former Special Assistant to Admiral Mike Mullen when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on the state of al Qaeda. They argued that al Qaeda has been defeated as it was incapable of striking on US soil and we merely are facing local Salafist groups disconnected from al Qaeda. We of course argued that they are wrong, that al Qaeda has always used local insurgencies to expand its power base, and that the group has only spread in the Muslim world after 9/11.
Since the time of the debate, al Qaeda has taken over (and then lost) northern Mali, formed a powerful affiliate in Syria, reignited the insurgency in Iraq, made significant inroads in the Egyptian Sinai and North Africa, and forced the US to close more than 20 diplomatic facilities across the Muslim world.
Thomas was quoted extensively at The Jerusalem Post on this very issue over the weekend. Here is an excerpt from the report:
Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst specializing in al-Qaida and a senior editor of The Long War Journal as well as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Sunday said that many people in the US have been trying to argue that al-Qaida is dead, but this news demonstrates that this was not a correct assessment.
Recent reports indicate that the intelligence that led to the warning was above the level of general chatter and that it coincides with the naming of a new al-Qaida general manager.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, according to a report by CNN on Saturday, appointed Nasir al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for the role. Consequently, Wuhayshi rose to number two in the terrorist organization, a position held by Libyan Abu Yahya al Libi before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in June 2012.
The report states that the move could be meant to help the organization remain focused in the Arab world and raise funds from Gulf States. Wuhayshi previously was Bin Laden’s private secretary during the latter’s time in Afghanistan, fleeing to Iran, where he was arrested and sent to Yemen in 2003.
Joscelyn says that this position is incredibly important because it “manages infrastructure and affiliates.” It could be that “this plot is tied to his appointment as a big coming out party,” he said.
“The Arab Spring was said to be the death knell for al-Qaida, but this idea was false all along,” he said adding, “just look at Syria, which has one of the most thriving al-Qaida affiliates on the planet – more fighters are there now than have been in any one location in a long time.”
Just because al-Qaida was not behind the revolutions does not mean that al-Qaida is not smart and does not know how to take advantage of them, he added.
Some in the US sought to differentiate between the core jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan and their affiliates in various countries, argues Joscelyn noting that it is true that each affiliate has its own unique history and development, but these “are not local nationalist movements that are disconnected from the global threat.”
He goes on to assert that many of these al-Qaida affiliates threaten the West though it may not be their primary motive at this point as they are primarily trying to seize territory. But this is not less worrisome, he says.
Asked how effective US president Barack Obama’s drone strikes are, he responds that it has been effective at taking out select commanders and dealing with immediate threats, but it is a tactic, not a strategy.
From Israel’s perspective al-Qaida and its affiliates are gaining a greater presence than they probably have ever had on Israel’s borders, he says. Look at what is happening in Sinai, Gaza, Syria, and al-Qaida logistical operations run out of Lebanon and Jordan and you see an organization that is far from dead, concludes Joscelyn.
Readers of The Long War Journal will know that we have consistently argued that reports of al Qaeda’s demise have been premature, and that its relationship with its affiliates and allies is a strength of the organization. For the best take on our view of al Qaeda, read Thomas’s testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, on al Qaeda, the nature of the group’s central command and its relationship with its affiliates, and the future challenges the West faces in battling the terror organization.
We like to think that the Bergen/Lynch view of al Qaeda has been thoroughly been discredited at this point, but will let you be the judge.
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