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.
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
Al Qaeda “prime,” al Qaeda “core” and al Qaeda “central” are terms intelligence officials and analysts use to describe the group founded by bin Laden during the late-1980s with the goals of killing Westerners and establishing hard-line Islamic rule over various regions.
Organizations that publicly declare allegiance to al Qaeda “central,” which intelligence officials say is headed by former bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, are known as the “affiliates.”
Those that have not declared allegiance but share goals and, at times, resources with the affiliates are generally referred to as al Qaeda “linked” or “associated.”
The term al Qaeda “inspired” is used for those that have no known material connection to the affiliates but pursue attacks such as the Boston Marathon bombings last year. Authorities blame those bombings on two Chechen brothers who drew from al Qaeda propaganda on the Internet.
Among the groups that have sworn allegiance to either bin Laden or al-Zawahri are al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabab, in Somalia. Another, al Qaeda in Iraq, swore allegiance in the mid-2000s but has morphed into the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Amid intense infighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front in Syria, al-Zawahri declared in a statement on jihadist websites this month that al Qaeda central was cutting ties with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The development — the first public disavowal of an affiliate by al Qaeda central — seemed to bolster Mr. Hayden’s view of al Qaeda as a movement in which hierarchical structures evaporate or take on new forms as it evolves.
The “life arc” of al Qaeda as a movement is likely 50 to 60 years, Mr. Hayden told The Times, adding that the movement is probably halfway through that point.
Seth Jones, a terrorism analyst with the Rand Corp., noted 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.”
Mr. Jones told a House panel this month that there is a growing “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.”
With regard to the threat to the U.S. homeland, Mr. Hayden said the al Qaeda movement, despite “having more adherents and more territory today than, say, 10 years ago, they are actually less capable now.”
“To pull off another 9/11, that’s actually far less likely now,” he said. “They’re not going to be conducting these big, multi-threaded, long preparation attacks, which frankly, we’d pick up on fine. Conversely, what you now get as the threat is the smaller, more isolated, maybe self-radicalized, one-off, attack. So the attacks are getting more granular and less big. But that also means they’re harder to detect.”
Some accuse the Obama administration of resisting the characterization of al Qaeda as a movement and intentionally muddling the overall narrative for political reasons.
President Obama told audiences during his 2012 re-election run that al Qaeda’s core had been “decimated” and that the organization as a whole was “on the run.”
“The looseness with which al Qaeda has come to be described is intentional on the part of the Obama administration because what they’re trying portray is that there’s al Qaeda core, and then there’s all these affiliates and the affiliates don’t matter,” said Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal and a scholar focused on al Qaeda at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Administration officials, he said, consistently emphasize distinctions between the original al Qaeda founded by bin Laden and the myriad Salafist groups in North Africa and the Middle East, and often downplay the operational capability of affiliates that have pledged allegiance to the original group.
The goal, Mr. Roggio said, has been to justify Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign claims of victory over al Qaeda, as well as to put rhetorical heft behind the president’s policies of scaling back the global war on terrorism conceived by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Others say Republicans, eager to tar the Democratic president, are equally to blame for the looseness of al Qaeda references, particularly in light of repeated accusations that the White House engaged in a cover-up by denying al Qaeda’s involvement in the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
“What we have,” said the U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “are politicians trying to lay seeds now for 2016, and it muddles these strange things called facts.”
Both parties are guilty, the official added, of using the concept of al Qaeda as a rhetorical weapon for political gain. In doing so, both have promoted generalizations that undermine the U.S. intelligence community’s actual and nuanced view of al Qaeda.
Ties that bind
Another intelligence community source who spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity said U.S. officials examining the global al Qaeda movement see close ties among associated groups, both between each other and with what is left of the original core.
“The linkages between what’s happening in North Africa, for instance, and al Qaeda core in Pakistan, are actually a little bit stronger than is often portrayed in the media,” the source said, adding that officials who “are privy to intelligence, and have penetrations that show what’s going on,” are “not so enamored by the narrative that al Qaeda has spontaneously combusted into all these different groups in recent years.”
The notion of flexible cohesion among groups appears to align with bin Laden’s vision of the movement. “We need to look at what al Qaeda actually is, and the best way to do that may be to examine bin Laden’s own statements on the matter,” said Mr. Roggio, who pointed to a 2010 letter in which bin Laden suggested that the whole concept of al Qaeda “central” was a construct of the Western media.
“This term was coined in the media to distinguish between al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and al Qaeda in the other territories,” bin Laden wrote in the letter, which was among documents seized by U.S. special operations forces who killed him.
The al Qaeda founder also appeared to say that the original group should have heavy influence over its affiliates but that the affiliates could have significant independence.
Less clear is what bin Laden believed should happen after his own death.
Although the original group may have deteriorated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, concerns are mounting among some in Washington that the U.S. has failed to prepare for what comes next.
“Al Qaeda today bears little resemblance to the network in 2001,” said Katherine Zimmerman, who heads a team focused on al Qaeda at the American Enterprise Institute.
“The strategy to disrupt the al Qaeda network by killing senior leadership in a ‘core group’ is based on a faulty understanding that overemphasizes that group’s importance and the current intentions of affiliates to attack the United States,” Ms. Zimmerman told a House panel in September.
Mr. Obama recently has appeared more open to such thinking. “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,” he said during his State of the Union address last month.
The rhetoric dovetailed with an analysis given to Congress last week by Bill Braniff, a terrorism analyst at the University of Maryland, who 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.”
“What should we take from these seemingly contradictory developments?” he said. “Did al Qaeda succeed by inspiring widespread jihadism, or has it lost to a variety of more parochial, albeit popular, actors?”