Washington’s erring in al-Qaeda’s jihadist jungle

Walid Phares
Walid Phares
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The recent closures of more than 22 U.S. embassies and diplomatic sites across the Middle East and North Africa, as a result of an al-Qaeda communications intercept, is the subject of a growing debate in Washington and the West.

Is this preemptive measure a success for U.S. counterterrorism efforts after the debacle of Benghazi or is it an admission that al-Qaeda is healthy and expanding? Let us review the arguments.

In the past two years, the Obama Administration was quoted several times, particularly during the 2012 Presidential campaign, asserting that al-Qaeda has been weakened while arguing that the elimination of top leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Abu Yahya al-Libi, by drones or by Special Forces raids has pushed the organization toward a “path of decline.”

Al-Qaeda today has been described as a small remnant of its former self at the time of the September 11 attacks. Significant research provided by prominent think-tanks close to the Administration endorsed this assertion, listing the many successes of anti-terrorism measures applied by the United States over the past few years. But time and time again, the terror organization has proved its resilience and come back to shatter the “Washingtonian” talking points.

After the Osama Bin Laden raid in Abbotabad, Pakistan, and the subsequent claim that the “headless network” was ailing as of 2011, al-Qaeda undertook its widest deployment ever in the modern history of Jihadi movements.

While still fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan despite the U.S. military surge, a chapter of the group in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was seizing villages in Yemen and establishing an international base of operations with targets as far as the United States and Britain. Across the Red Sea, the Shabab al-Jihad of Somalia has been engaging in a back and forth conflict with the internationally backed government in Mogadishu. Catastrophically, the Ansar el Dine of Mali established a Taliban like Emirate in the North, triggering a French-led, African supported counter campaign, but the jihadists have already spread in the Sahel, including in Niger, Mauritania, Chad and more importantly in the continental giant, Nigeria. The Boku Haram has been moving their operations south to the center of the oil-producing country.

Al-Qaeda believes that that they are winning and that the West is quitting the battle.

Walid Phares

To the north, Ansar al-Sharia bloodily asserted al-Qaeda’s presence in Benghazi during the raid against the U.S. Consulate. More worrisome of all were the advances of al-Qaeda in Syria via Jabhat al-Nusra, penetrating the Syrian opposition, and in Iraq where the return of al-Qaeda has almost matched the operations of the organization at the peak of U.S. presence. Furthermore, terror massacres at Fort Hood, Arkansas, Boston and in London’s neighborhoods, all inspired by the Jihadi ideology and symbols, have added support to the conclusion that the “worldwide web of terror” has indeed reached planetary dimensions.

In an attempt to downplay this reality, counter arguments coming from Western corners and from within the beltway in particular claimed that al-Qaeda central was gone after it transferred its legacy to its offshoots in various regions and countries.

The latest terror alert, however, proves otherwise. The intercepted chatter, according to information available, was between the international command of AQ, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the regional command in Yemen, al-Wuhaish.

The request coming from Pakistan most likely instructed Yemen’s network to mobilize a campaign throughout the “Arab and Muslim region.” Also, according to public comments, jihadists were planning to blow up themselves after explosives were surgically inserted in their bodies. This innovation demonstrates that the level of sophistication has reached higher levels and advanced technology is being applied to terror attempts, rather than a decline in sophistication and organization, as the expansion of the network continues worldwide.

The reaction in the U.S.

The measures taken by U.S. authorities, namely shutting down the diplomatic apparatus on two continents to avoid surprise attacks and evacuating staff and citizens from some countries, particularly Yemen, reveal two realities.

One is the determination of the Obama Administration to avoid being taken by surprise and to avoid another Benghazi-drama and debate. This move even was praised by the Administration’s Republican opposition in Congress. But these measures also reveal that Washington is struggling to determine the best strategies for countering the ever-expanding al-Qaeda and its international reach.

Note the change in narrative from the first days of the measures, when it was asserted that the information was “precise and clear,” to the later days when statements explained that targets could be in different countries and possibly in the West as well. This shows that the United States and the West are somewhat disoriented regarding the real nature of al-Qaeda, the measure of its weakening or strengthening and, more importantly, its mutating tactics.

One aspect of the U.S. fluctuation has been the immediate decision to avoid any risk, political ones included, by denying the enemy any opportunities to strike targets. This has been done by eliminating the targets. However, by shutting down the functioning U.S. presence in so many countries, al-Qaeda may claim a large victory in its own narrative. Even if it does not strike, the jihadist network will chant its deterrence power.

But was there an alternative to the withdrawal measures? A hybrid strategy could have employed real security measures by canceling all visitations to U.S. sites for a time while requesting a dramatic increase of allied countries’ deployments on the ground as a pressure on the jihadists. This would have allowed the embassies to remain open officially.

Perhaps the immediate concern of the decision makers in Washington was to win the day against al-Qaeda, to escape a bloody terror attack. But a long term necessity, to avoid granting the Jihadists a political victory to use in propaganda and recruitment, should have been included in plans. Al-Qaeda believes that that they are winning and that the West is quitting the battle. However, the general opinion in the region, as we saw in Egypt and in Tunisia, is that the jihadists must be defeated. Washington must choose which of the two moods it wants to support.


Dr Walid Phares is an advisor to members of the US Congress on Terrorism and the Middle East. He is the author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East. He serves as a Co-Secretary General of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group on Counter Terrorism.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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