The landscape of Islamist terrorist groups is expanding in complex ways around the world, according to terrorism analysts who told Congress on Tuesday that while many groups have not formally aligned with al Qaeda, they share the original network’s goals of killing Americans and establishing hard-line Islamic rule over various regions.
“I think there’s been a tendency among some journalists and pundits to lump all Sunni Islamic groups under the title al Qaeda, which I think has clouded a proper assessment of the movement,” testified Seth Jones, a national security analyst with the Rand Corp.
Mr. Jones, who appeared with other analysts before the House Committee on Armed Services, said that while roughly a half-dozen groups have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda’s so-called “core,” led by Ayman al-Zawahri — who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan — there now exists a new “panoply of Salafi jihadist groups that have not sworn allegiance formally.”
“But they are committed to establishing an Islamic emirate, and several of them have plotted attacks against the U.S., against U.S. embassies, against U.S. diplomats, against U.S. targets overseas,” Mr. Jones said.
Furthermore, “there’s been an increase in the number of Salafi jihadist groups globally, particularly in North Africa and the Levant,” he said.
“Examples include groups operating in Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Libya, Egypt, including the Sinai [Peninsula], Lebanon and Syria,” Mr. Jones added. “There’s also been an increase in the number of fighters within these groups.”
His comments injected fresh context into the heated and ongoing debate within the American national security and intelligence communities over the evolving nature of the al Qaeda terrorist threat more than 12 years after members of the original group flew hijacked airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Several Republicans, including Reps. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Michael McCaul of Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, have accused the Obama administration of downplaying threats from al Qaeda-inspired groups.
Mr. McCaul specifically has accused President Obama of having attempted to paint a rosy picture of America’s successes against al Qaeda in re-election campaign speeches in 2012.
At the time, Mr. Obama told audiences across the nation that al Qaeda’s core had been “decimated” and that the organization as a whole was “on the run” — slogan-like phrases that, according to Mr. McCaul, amounted to “a false narrative.”
Lawmakers and U.S. intelligence officials have since credited the president with correcting the narrative in recent speeches. During his State of the Union address last week, Mr. Obama said: “While we have put al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world.”
And last week, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told a Senate hearing there are at least five al Qaeda franchises in 12 countries that “this movement has morphed into, and we see sort of chapters of it, of course, in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, in Syria, etc.”
Those assessments dovetail with the analysis given to Congress on Tuesday.
Bill Braniff, a terrorism analyst at the University of Maryland, told lawmakers that 2012 was “the most active year of terrorism on record,” with more than 6,800 attacks killing more than 11,000 people worldwide.
“Strikingly,” said Mr. Braniff, “the six most lethal groups in 2012 — the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Shabab — are generally considered fellow travelers of al Qaeda, and yet al Qaeda itself was not responsible for a single attack in 2012.”