The distressing news of the U.S Consulate attack in Libya and the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens continues to confound pundits and news outlets in the U.S. desperately searching for a global al Qaeda conspiracy to explain the recent wave of violence.
The latest NPR story, “U.S., Libyan Versions of Consulate Attack Diverge”, seems to have appropriately balanced the debate. My estimate of the attack goes as follows:
- A group of jihadi militants, a very small number of whom are foreigners with al Qaeda connections and experience, have for several months conducted rudimentary surveillance of potential U.S. targets in Libya and even conducted low level attacks at times on Western targets in Libya.
- A protest broke out at the U.S. Consulate in Libya on September 11. With that as cover, some group of jihadis, potentially from a group known as Ansar al-Sharia, launched an opportunistic attack on the consulate in Benghazi and an additional safe house they were previously aware of through surveillance.
- The attack may have received some coaching from members of AQIM. As Dina Temple-Raston notes, “Officials say AQIM placed calls to several key leaders of Ansar al-Sharia on Sept. 11. While the group has said it had nothing to do with the attack, it has not ruled out that some of its members may have been at the consulate that night as part of the protests.” Essentially, an AQIM guy or two heard about the protests and put a call into some buddies in Benghazi telling them to get out there and shoot it up.
- The attack, from the perspective of al Qaeda, turned out to be a wild success resulting from a divergent phenomenon, a public protest at the Consulate providing cover, rather than a convergent phenomenon, deliberate planning coordination and execution by al Qaeda’s central leadership.
Here are my reasons for why I don’t believe this is a global al Qaeda plot nor a sign of a “rising al Qaeda”. Instead, I feel the attack in Libya represents the problems with a weak Libya security environment, the availability of soft American targets and the emergence of a new threat environment the U.S. has not properly assessed. If this were a real al Qaeda plot typical of past events, I would have expected:
- …a very public media announcement from al Qaeda coinciding with the attack. If really planned far in advance, I’d expect all jihadi media outlets would have received a prepared announcement of considerable scale timed for release shortly after the attack. The videos and announcements I’ve seen thus far and the alleged reprisal for the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi all seem haphazardly put together at the last minute trying to exploit the unexpected success of a meeting engagement. Preparing and distributing these messages take weeks in preparation. I imagine there will be AQ propaganda in the coming weeks taking credit for this. If Zawahiri publishes a video in two weeks taking credit for the Consulate attack, you’ll know he wasn’t even in on it – he’s just reacting. In fact, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is trying to distance itself from the attacks. It doesn’t mean they are innocent, but its not very like al Qaeda.
- …the group would have tried to take the Ambassador alive, taken the body or staged a public execution. I’m not convinced they even knew the Ambassador was there or that he had died. It’s possible they did, but I’m not convinced yet. Hopefully the investigation will yield more clarity on this. The kidnapping of a U.S. Ambassador would have been far more devastating to the U.S. Sadly, this attack suggests that had they planned a kidnapping, they might have been able to pull it off.
- …the attack to be quite a bit more sophisticated. The reports I’ve read make it seem fairly straight forward – a rapid attack on known locations following a diversion. Bigger, planned AQ attacks tend to hit public targets in high profile ways exploiting the media potential of the event. While this was an unfortunate success for the perpetrators, I think a well planned AQ attack would have actually been much more successful from AQ’s perspective and more devastating to the West.
- …they would have filmed the attack. AQ attacks are often filmed by AQ members for their media value and then quickly posted online. I’m sure this attack was filmed in parts but not in a pre-planned way to exploit it for media value.
The compulsion of media and pundits to position this as an “al Qaeda is rising again” chapter in a never-ending saga of good versus evil is frustrating. There is no al Qaeda. To call someone al Qaeda today literally means almost nothing as we have no collective understanding in the U.S. as to what constitutes al Qaeda.
Just last month, I posted a question asking readers “Who should we call al Qaeda?” based on a hypothetical small band of jihadi militants operating in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia calling themselves “Ansar al-something”. More than 80% said “No”. See graph below.
Senators Lieberman and Collins appear to be doubling down on their amorphous “al Qaeda is everywhere” philosophy, but I bet if you asked them what constitutes “al Qaeda” they would probably struggle to explain it:
“I have come to the opposite conclusion and agree with the president of Libya that this was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the anniversary of 9/11,” she said, adding that classified briefings she had seen supported her conclusion. “I just don’t think that people come to protests equipped with RPG and other heavy weapons. I think the report from the president of Libya is more likely the correct one.”
Lieberman quickly sided with her, saying, “My own inclination is to agree with Sen. Collins, as I usually do, but I will await the investigation.”
Of course, Senators Lieberman and Collins strongly prefer the “one equals many” theory of al Qaeda.
The West and particularly the U.S. is doing itself a great disservice viewing the current threat environment via an “al Qaeda only” lens. What we are seeing is a new post-al Qaeda security environment where a host of militant groups on more than three continents purportedly follow the al Qaeda ideology but ultimately choose their own violent path forward. An upstart militant group leader (like one in Libya) competing for funding and popular support amongst a sea of militant groups has no reason to wait for a far off al Qaeda leader (Zawahiri for example), whom they likely don’t even know nor receive any funding from, to issue orders about who to attack.
Jihadi militant group leaders have now entered the “O.Y.O.” era – On Your Own. Militant groups are rebuilding, consolidating, finding new bases of support and new financial backers. I again return to my stance from this past July hoping smart analysts and pundits will learn and move on from al Qaeda exploring each group as its own entity. In so doing, the U.S. should develop new policies, strategies and tactics which prevent us from over-reacting, allow us to expand our thinking on counterterrorism and adequately mitigate threats without building every attack into a global conspiracy. The “al Qaeda Only” lens gives too much credit to al Qaeda and needlessly frightens a confused American public.
For those that perpetrated the attacks in Libya, capture them if you can, try them if possible and if this can’t be done feasibly then kill them without creating civilian casualties. Our interests in these countries is quite limited so go directly after the threat without falling into the trap of trying to do nation-building.
Counterterrorism analysts now face a similar challenge to those studying the Soviet Union in 1991—what do we do now? Analysts of al-Qaeda and its affiliates still have plenty to do. Instead of approaching al-Qaeda as central to global terrorism, counterterrorism analysts will be best served by opening the aperture to see al-Qaeda as one of many potential forms of future terrorism. Rather than seeking linkages between Zawahiri and every terrorist group, analyses should explore several questions, some old and some new, that break from al-Qaeda constructs seen in 2001 rather than 2012. Here are several areas of future terrorism analysis needing exploration:
- Competition versus Cooperation: Absent an al-Qaeda governing body, will al-Qaeda affiliates, al-Qaeda upstart groups, and other militant Islamist groups in the Arab Spring compete or cooperate? Today, in comparison to ten years ago, more extremist groups occupy the global landscape. Effective counterterrorism analysis should identify when these terror groups compete and when they cooperate. Knowing when terror groups compete will help the West construct an environment around threat groups replicating the conditions most prone for destructive interference. In contrast, understanding when disparate terror groups cooperate will help analysts detect the emergence of larger groups able to execute global terror attacks on a routine basis.
- Focus on national and regional forces rather than al-Qaeda’s global strategy: Al-Qaeda analysts in recent years have invested great effort attempting to forecast the group’s global strategy. Absent some form of centralized or decentralized governing body, sufficient financing and new crops of operatives, an al-Qaeda grand strategy appears nothing more than misplaced optimism for the terror group. For the few remaining core al-Qaeda leaders, survival and reconstitution likely weigh heavy on their minds. Despite global al-Qaeda’s decline, those with language skills and regional experience should concentrate their analysis on national and regional militant groups emerging throughout Africa, the Levant and South Asia examining the linkages between al-Qaeda and these new upstarts as a peripheral rather than primary factor of their emergence. In short, counterterrorism analysts’ regional expertise, cultural knowledge, and language skills will trump knowledge of al-Qaeda’s 2001 organizational chart and Bin Laden’s fatwas.
- Follow the money; track the pace of attacks: Future extremist group growth will depend heavily on financing. Bin Laden ran the most popular terrorism operation on the planet and personally provided the seed capital to get his group going. Emerging groups in North Africa will depend on wealthy benefactors and illicit operations. Emerging groups seeking funding will generate attacks to raise their credibility, and as they grow in size, they’ll produce attacks at a quicker pace. Analysts of terrorism finance and attack trends may prove particularly valuable in detecting the next generation of global terrorism.
- Syria – al-Qaeda’s last great hope: While most eyes have shifted to study AQAP in Yemen, Syria’s protracted civil war may breathe some life into al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda cites lessons learned from the failure of past fighting against the Syrian regime.12 Al-Qaeda has an established operational safe haven in Western Iraq through which to funnel fighters and ally with Sunni tribesmen in sectarian battles against the Shia majority government in Baghdad. Additionally, Syria’s proximate location to Israel provides a parallel jihadi cause for which al-Qaeda can pursue an enduring agenda beyond the Assad regime. However, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed parallel resistance force might likely outpace a Syrian Al-Qaeda front. Only time and good analysis will provide clarity on a poorly understood Syrian rebel landscape.
- The Iran wild card: For many years, rumors of Iranian involvement and maybe conflict with al-Qaeda have persisted.8 Some senior al-Qaeda leaders, most notably Saif al-Adel, have allegedly been in a strange state of house arrest or operational support in Iran. Iran has always been a sly state sponsor of terrorist groups, both Sunni and Shia. If tensions were to arise between Iran and Israel or the U.S., would Iran seek to sustain al-Qaeda as a proxy? Analysts deliberating this issue may provide invaluable insights in the near future.
- Where are the most talented al-Qaeda veterans going? Today, analysts should seek to identify what path al-Qaeda’s most talented veterans are choosing to pursue. Al-Qaeda’s limited centralized control has likely encouraged some talented terrorists to move on to new groups. Knowing where these veterans go will be essential for anticipating future threats.
- In between conflicts, the U.S. is prone to prepare for, train for, and want to refight the last battle (al-Qaeda 2001) rather than the next battle (al-Qaeda and other terror groups in 2012). While the battle with al-Qaeda is not entirely over, the U.S. and its allies should begin imagining how the remnants of the old al-Qaeda threat will re-emerge as a new manifestation among regional and transnational extremist upstarts. The West should work vigorously to identify what this new frontier in terrorism will look like.
The results of the “Who should we call al Qaeda?” poll: