The tangled web of words that ‘al Qaeda’ has become

Even intel community finds it hard to define

Was it al Qaeda “core,” al Qaeda “prime” or al Qaeda “central,” or was it an al Qaeda “affiliate” an al Qaeda “linked” or an al Qaeda “inspired” group? Or was it just al Qaeda?

In the years immediately after 9/11, the term al Qaeda, which means “the base” in Arabic, became synonymous with a secretive global network that supported 19 terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 people by slamming hijacked airplanes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

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Today, the distinction is not so black and white.

With the original notion of al Qaeda being eclipsed by a generation of extremist activity from North Africa to the Middle East, debate is raging over the correct terminology to describe the terrorist threat that has shaped so much of American foreign policy over the past 13 years.

U.S. intelligence officials blame politicians on both sides of the aisle, including the Democratic White House, which seeks credit for defeating al Qaeda, and the Republican-led House, which blames the president for claiming victory prematurely.

But even within the intelligence community, where few mantras are more sacred than that of flying above politics, the definition of bona fide al Qaeda activity around the world has become blurred, a U.S. official recently told The Washington Times.

“No one has yet done justice to the complicated narrative that has become of al Qaeda and how it has become such a sticking point politically in Washington,” said the official. “We, as Americans, are too loose with the term al Qaeda,” and “loose narratives aren’t helpful.”

Al Qaeda as a movement

The situation frustrates some longtime leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, who say al Qaeda is as much a movement as it is any single group — or a patchwork of groups with varying immediate goals and degrees of connectivity.

When examining terrorist attacks, whether they target Americans or not, the question of “whether it’s al Qaeda or not depends on how you want to define al Qaeda,” said Michael V. Hayden, who served as CIA director from 2006 through early 2009.

“It’s one of those things where if you study it too hard, you destroy the specimen,” Mr. Hayden told The Times in an interview. Confusion over what al Qaeda has morphed into stems from analysts, pundits and politicians “trying to make crisp intellectual distinctions about a structure in which there are not crisp intellectual distinctions.”

“It was never a hierarchy and to the degree that it was an organization, it is now a movement,” he said, stressing that the movement has become “far more amorphous” than it was a decade ago.

Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, and many other members of bin Laden’s original core group have been neutralized by American drone strikes in the Afghan-Pakistani border region.

But the overall movement has “shown resiliency” in other parts of the world, said Mr. Hayden, who added that when it is defined as a movement, “al Qaeda today controls more territory and has more adherents around the world than at any time in its history.”

The 60-year life arc

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About the Author
Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

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