I’ve been slow the past few weeks in posts and have a bunch of short notes and quips for the next couple of weeks. After three weeks of no writing, what sprung me back to write a post, not al Qaeda, but instead mainstream media.
Despite what one might hear on the news, al Qaeda, as of today, consists of many things rather than just one thing. Cable news shows and major newspapers cling to the hope that all terrorism attacks are the result of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a known quantity to viewers/readers and framing news stories as battles between the U.S. vs. al Qaeda makes for better narratives. The news business is about maximizing readers and viewers to increase views to advertising. Whether its al Qaeda or some other threat, it pays to consolidate threats rather than muddle them. The most important terrorism related story of last week was the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. The Abdallah Azzam Brigades took credit for the attack and this is where I start getting worked up. CNN says:
Really, this was an al Qaeda attack then? And we know because of Twitter? ugh! This sort of threat conflation can leave the average reader to think “Al Qaeda attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.” Its a casual linkage but the article then continues on and revisits the Abdallah Azzam Brigade much later citing other attacks they were involved in, but the article leaves me confused. (For a more expansive reading on AAB, see this Lucas Winter report at FMSO) I think this confusion over a relatively unknown group resulted in the story quickly drifting from the headlines despite being quite important. For more than a decade, media outlets have decided for the public without much examination that all Sunni militant groups, large and small, are part of al Qaeda. No doubt, if one looks, Back-To-Bin Laden linkages can be made between all groups. Why should we be concerned by this? I think there are several reasons.
- If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, it would be a big deal. Chances are that al Qaeda Central led by Zawahiri are not attacking Iran as Zawahiri recently, publicly told al Qaeda members to put aside local enemies to focus on the far enemy; the West.
- If al Qaeda were attacking Iran, Al Qaeda would be shifting their targeting from the U.S. to Iran and provoking a major local power to counter them. This would increase the number of actors and forces countering their actions. At a time where AQ Central sees lots of opportunities in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, why would they bring more heat on themselves? Zawahiri has warned al Qaeda in Iraq about this before. If al Qaeda as a whole were attacking Iran instead of the U.S., this could possibly be a good thing for the U.S. depending on where you sit. But this article’s threat conflation might lead you to think something else.
- This attack likely signals further fracturing of al Qaeda rather than consolidation of al Qaeda. If AAB, which does have links to al Qaeda by the way, were attacking the Iranian Embassy, it likely means they are not following Zawahiri’s guidance – another important development. As I noted a couple years ago, many of these al Qaeda veterans are “On Your Own” pursuing their own objectives first and al Qaeda’s objectives second.
- This media linkage to al Qaeda also masks what is essentially a shift from global jihad to a multi-country sectarian war. This is important, but in a very different way than we’ve come to know in the post 9-11 period.
- This attack may signal a further rise of al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS) who has expanded significantly into Syria, rebuffed Zawahiri and would likely take the fight in a sectarian direction. I don’t know that AAB is aligned with ISIS and I imagine if it were this would be a partnering rather than hierarchical relationship. But from this article, again, you would think this is all just “al Qaeda”.
I’ll stop for now as tomorrow’s post will point to an article that I think helps illuminate these nuances and presents a more robust view of the current state of al Qaeda.