Opinion: Al-Qaida threat morphs, expands

February 1, 2013


— The Obama administration is working with its allies to frame a strategy to combat what might be called “al-Qaida 2.0” — an evolving, morphing terrorist threat that lacks a coherent center but is causing growing trouble in chaotic, poorly governed areas such as Libya, Yemen, Syria and Mali.

U.S. officials liken this new problem to the spread of cancer cells: al-Qaida nodes emerge in diffuse places, feeding off local issues and grievances. These cells have only a loose, ideological connection with what remains of the core leadership in Pakistan, but they are stubborn and toxic.

Striking at these local nodes — as the French are doing now in Mali — can disrupt the new terrorist cells. But analysts stress that there will be consequences: The cells may metastasize further, drawing new jihadists into the fight and potentially threatening targets in Europe and the U.S.

The basic U.S. counterterrorism strategy is similar to the one adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: The CIA seeks to build up the security services of regional allies that can help penetrate and disrupt the terrorists in ways that would be impossible for the U.S. acting alone. But the 2.0 version of the counterterrorism coalition is more complicated than the earlier effort launched by then-CIA Director George Tenet, for several reasons:

Some key liaison partners, such as Libya, Egypt and Yemen, are no longer as helpful because of the changes brought by the Arab Spring. This revolution has swept away authoritarian regimes and the intelligence services, known as moukhabarats, that helped sustain them. That’s a gain for democracy and human rights but a setback for counterterrorism efforts.

Libya under Col. Moammar Gaddafi was a repressive dictatorship. But his intelligence service stopped al-Qaida terrorists from operating in or transiting Libya. The new Libyan government wants to be helpful. But in the chaotic current conditions, especially in eastern Libya, it’s unable to offer any real counterterrorism, or CT, assistance.

The Egyptian spy agency retains much of its old tradecraft and competence. But under the government of President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptians are a less aggressive CT partner. That’s understandable, given that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies were once targets of the moukhabarat. But it means the Egyptian service, now headed by Gen. Mohamed Raafat Shehata, is reluctant to move without political cover from Morsi.

The U.S. had planned to use this regional coalition strategy for dealing with the spread into Mali of al-Qaida in the Mahgreb, as the North African affiliate is known. The idea was to build up intelligence services in Mali and neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria. But this strategy was complicated by AQIM’s rapid move south in Mali. When the group moved toward the capital of Bamako, the French feared it could have a safe haven for attacking France.

The French military mission may prove costly. U.S. officials believe the effort will require two to three years and will inevitably bring retaliatory attacks in the region and also, perhaps, against France and its Western allies. Mali may also become a magnet for jihadists, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The most dangerous new al-Qaida threat may be the Al-Nusra Front in Syria. Though it emerged as an affiliate of al-Qaida in Iraq, it’s now seen by U.S. analysts as independent, in terms of funding and personnel, and increasingly able to consider attacks on targets in Europe. If the Syrian war continues on its current path, analysts expect to see a fragmentation of the country, a serious counterterrorism problem, and a very serious chemical weapons problem. Yet, astonishingly, the U.S. still lacks a coherent response.

The mainstays of the U.S. counterterrorism coalition remain reliable European allies, such as Britain and France, plus increasingly sophisticated Arab partners in the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. They can help the U.S. bolster regional security services with modern capabilities, training and leadership.

The Obama administration also wants to avoid the rhetoric and entanglements of a global “war on terror” this time around. “Our CT approach is to do things where possible through our partners, and not necessarily by ourselves,” says one senior administration official.

So long as the cancerous nodes of al-Qaida don’t threaten the American homeland, U.S. officials want to avoid using drone attacks or other kinetic strikes. But as the local cells adapt and spread, al-Qaida 2.0 will almost certainly move through the global bloodstream toward targets in the U.S.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Nubrick 5 years, 4 months ago

Bin Laden is dead 2.0!!! Egypt is Brotherhood Arab Spring !! Libya is Brotherhood!!!! Long live Barack H.0!

Nubrick 5 years, 4 months ago

This opinion writer does not realize that this is Obama's intentions for the Muslim organizations. Hagel would be a nice addition for his operation Brotherhood Arab Spring.

Liberty275 5 years, 4 months ago

He was embarrassing in his testimony. He should be a man of iron, Vietnam vet, 2 purple hearts. That he was so easily rattled by a few senators shows real weakness. I imagine 20 years ago he could have done a better job.

Obama should look around some more.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 4 months ago

The reason we have problems with terrorists is so simple I can't believe we haven't talked about it. Our support for Israeli expansion in the West Bank is part of the problem. We need to take a stand and say "no more". But we don't because the Israeli lobbies in the US are so strong, congresspeople are afraid to offend them and lose the millions of dollars of campaign funds they give. Our Congress' first concern is not American problems or solving them, but Israel. Chuck Hagel, a good man for "Defence" is being harrassed because he looks at Israel in a different light and that makes him suspect.

Let the American people, who are the most magnanamous people on earth, live their lives without constant reminder of the problems Israel faces because of her existence. I don't have a problem with her existence, but I do with her ideas of expansion to the West Bank, then to Lebanon and then to Syria (they just bombed Syria because Syria is "an existential threat to Israel": Really? They are wrapped up in a civil war and then they are going to attack the great powerful Israel with American backing? I don't think so!

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Yes, yes, wounded. You're now all too familiar theme. Everything in the Middle East is Israel's fault, as if it was the land of wine and roses prior to 1948. As if the troubles in the hills of Afghanistan began with Israel. As the disputes between Sunnis and Shiites began with Israel.

Then the problems here are because we support Israel. That pothole on Mass. St. is Israel's fault. Thank you for once again bringing this to our attention. Again. Again.

jack22 5 years, 4 months ago

The creation of Israel did not cause the political instability in the Middle East, but it certainly adds to it. It's disingenuous to think that by adding more than 3.5 million new religious fanatics and racists from all over the world to an already volatile region hasn't helped exasperate the problems that have traditionally existed there. Just as slavery and racism have existed since the beginning of our own countries founding, if after our own Civil War we allowed a few million white supremacists to arm themselves and take over a country like Jamaica or Haiti we would have added significantly to the problems that exist there. Although I agree that Israel did not create the potholes on Mass. St., I do think it would add to the pothole problem if we allowed hundreds of thousands of new vehicles from all over the world to take over our roads every year.

Liberty275 5 years, 4 months ago

That's exactly why we have to support Israel. If we don't, Israel is going to panic and wipe out half the mideast. As long as we support them, they listen to us and don't bomb Tehran or Cairo. Obama has been weak in support of Israel and the attacks on Syria are starting already with impunity. We could have stopped that attack, but we are making Israel choose to defend with sabre rattling air strikes itself instead of counting on America to just act like their big bully so people will leave them alone.

You said it yourself. The Arab world is in turmoil and would fare badly against Israel.

Frankly, Israel has shown great restraint. A decade ago there were hit daily by terrorist attacks and so they bulldozed a few cities and blew up some buildings. We get hit once and pretty soon we are own Afghanistan.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 4 months ago

Hillary has done a fine job. She and Obama might as well fly over there sit cross legged and sing Kum-by-yah. We are in deep do do at this point. Not only has our President blessed our children with additional debt, but he is assuring them that many will get issued desert cammies, a boom stick and a power of attorney.

Liberty275 5 years, 4 months ago

It looks like we can't blame alquiada for the Turkey bomb. That is looking like some left-wing extremist group.

I like Obama's idea of just using drones to pound known terrorists involved with organizations that attack America.

What is the most dangerous job in the world? Alquaida's second in command. If they decentralize, we'll just have to build more drones.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

He's part of the conspiracy. As was Bush and Clinton before him when he sent cruise missiles in to kill Bin Laden. Bush the elder was in on it too. So was Reagan. Congress is in on the conspiracy as is the Supreme Court, I mean good God have you seen the rulings they've been making. Yes, our entire government has been set up for the benefit of the military industrial complex. The CIA brought down the twin towers and they killed JFK too. Thank you KansasLiberal for your astute insight.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Any comment that includes AL-CIAda is worthy of mockery. Sorry if you don't see that.

If the entire government had been set up to benefit the military industrial complex, as you suggest, I wonder what the war on poverty is all about. Or Social Security, or Medicare, or Medicaid, etc. Yes, the military industrial complex is part of it. But nowhere near the entire government as you say.

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