The “al Qaeda” name game will not go away anytime soon. (See here, here and here for previous parts to this discussion.) Many different interests and perspectives drive the terminology that has dominated the U.S.’s principle adversary for more than a decade. The most recent emergence of several jihadi-like groups (Ansar al Sharia, Ansar al Dine, many more in Syria, etc.) only further complicates this difficult and often political question. Depending on where you sit, calling an upstart jihadi group “al Qaeda” may have a variety of pros and cons.
Following up on the “Should we call this group al Qaeda?” survey question and Dr. Bruce Hoffman’s NPR discussion, I’ve put together a chart here showing some of the pros and cons in calling or not calling emerging jihadi groups “al Qaeda”. The chart is by no means all encompassing and is meant strictly for generating discussion on the AQ name game.
In general, I’ve focused on three broad categories of perspectives shown in the left hand column: 1- Jihadi upstart groups and Existing AQ Affiliates with an AQ moniker, 2- al Qaeda Senior Leaders, both past (Bin Laden) and present (Zawahiri) and 3- U.S. government & CT pundits. For each, I tried to anticipate the Pros and Cons for calling or not calling an upstart jihadi group “al Qaeda”. This isn’t exhaustive; just a cursory stab for discussion.
For upstart groups, Richard Barrett, Coordinator of the Al-Qaida-Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations, rightly noted that choosing the AQ name comes with a level of credibility.
“Al Qaeda has become a useful label for any group that essentially pursues local aims but wishes to exaggerate its reach and sophistication.”
Meanwhile, many successful insurgent groups with ties to al Qaeda have since backed away from the “al Qaeda” name and followed the wishes of Bin Laden seeking to re-brand al Qaeda as a group that cares about the issues of local Muslims.
So where does that leave Zawahiri? If novice, unqualified and ideologically dubious groups continue to call themselves “al Qaeda” while more qualified affiliates leave the brand name, Zawahiri becomes decreasingly influential and tied to a hodge-podge of terror group misfits – something he complained about to Bin Laden. (see al Qaeda Doesn’t Know Who Is In al Qaeda)
Most interesting of all is what the implications of the “al Qaeda” name game is to the West. For the U.S., not having “al Qaeda” affiliates to pursue questions why the “War on Terror” continues. Ending the “War on Terror” would vastly limit the U.S. ability to pursue al Qaeda groups and members while also putting more pressure on the Department of State to designate foreign terrorists and foreign terrorist organizations; an important role that is bureaucratically intensive and operationally limiting further slowing the pace of pursuit.
More ironically, the discussion of the al Qaeda brand has a significant impact on the counterterrorism punditry and the media. How does one study something that may not really exist anymore? Who is an expert? Who can really understand a non-cohesive, amorphous, ill-defined terror threat and communicate the risks of such an entity to the public?
For the media, this is equally troubling, stories carrying the AQ moniker were easier to cover and grabbed wider audiences than stories describing “a jihadi group that may or may not have links to al Qaeda attacked a group of armed guards in a place that you could not pick out on a map and are not likely to care about if we don’t say al Qaeda is there.”
In conclusion, the al Qaeda name game has implications for lots of different stakeholders – terrorists, counterterrorists and the media.