This is the second in a series of interviews I am doing with scholars around town who have non-legal expertise that bears on the national security law issues Lawfare readers care about. As I did in my first piece with Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, I am posting the full interview as an episode of the Lawfare Podcast and writing up a summary of our conversation as well.
My subject this time is Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, and a professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. Byman is one of the country’s foremost experts on counterterrorism and the Middle East. He served as a staff member on the 9/11 Commission, and has worked for the U.S. government and at the RAND Corporation. He recently published a paper entitled Breaking the Bonds between Al Qaeda and its Affiliate Organizations that I describe in more detail here. We sat down for a discussion of the major themes that make up his paper—themes that dovetail with those I discussed with Riedel in my first interview.
Byman begins with a short description of his paper, which, he says, looks at the affiliates of Al Qaeda as well as other jihadist groups: why some groups join, the problems they have with Al Qaeda core, and why a number of these organizations choose not to join. He uses all these factors to draw lessons for what the United States should do differently in its confrontation with jihadist groups.
I ask Byman to describe the degree of command-and-control the core exerts over its affiliate groups. He says that for an affiliate to join Al Qaeda, it has to pay at least some lip service to Al Qaeda’s goals. Byman believes that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) is probably the least under the sway of Al Qaeda core in terms of its day-to-day activities, although it has put greater emphasis on attacking Western targets in its region than it had before formally joining. Conversely, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken the core’s injunction to attack Western targets worldwide quite seriously, and it has attempted several attacks on civil aviation. Byman concludes by saying that fealty to the core group varies quite a bit in practice—affiliate groups will follow or ignore the core’s directions to different degrees.
Byman then details the reasons it is in Al Qaeda core’s interests to seek the allegiance of affiliate groups. For one, when franchises sign up, it validates the core’s image as the leader of the jihadist faction of the Muslim community. The core feels as though it is winning when other organizations are following its lead, says Byman. In addition, he argues that affiliate groups provide a way to influence the nature of the overall struggle. The core feels that too much of the struggle has been against local regimes and against the wrong targets—but when groups join up with Al Qaeda, the core can direct them to act against the United States and against those targets the core regards as the most appropriate. Also, the affiliates give the core a sense of relevance. The core has been hit hard recently, Byman argues, and it hasn’t been able to carry out the attacks it has wanted to. By contrast, some of the affiliate groups, like Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) for example, have been active in the most important theaters of the jihadist movement. And when active affiliates link themselves to the core, it allows the Al Qaeda brand to conduct operations in more important countries than it would otherwise be able to.
Doesn’t this then become a Catch-22 for Al Qaeda core? That is, I ask, even though more affiliates are joining and Al Qaeda is able to operate in more important theaters, doesn’t this mean that the core group is simultaneously seeing its influence diminish and its control undermined? Byman agrees, saying that the greater the number of affiliates that join and go in different directions, the more diluted the Al Qaeda “brand” becomes. An additional consideration, he says, is that Al Qaeda has finite resources. As it takes on new affiliates, the question arises of whether it has the resources to influence them in a serious way. If more and more groups join up, there will inevitably be less money, bomb-makers, and other such goodies to go around.
How do you see the role of Al Qaeda core evolving? Because the core has been hit hard, says Byman, its ability to lead, communicate, and fund these groups has also taken a big hit—which alone changes nature of the core and its relations with the affiliates. However, if the affiliates continue to grow in number and size, Byman argues, the ability of the core to direct the activities of the affiliates will diminish, and some affiliates may become as powerful or as important as the core itself.
Just as the core has a number of reasons for seeking affiliates, Byman argues that the affiliate groups have a number of reasons for joining Al Qaeda core. He outlines two of the most important. First, Al Qaeda offers money, access to training camps, and for much of its history, it offered a haven to plan and train. Second, a number of these affiliate groups thought they could succeed locally but were soundly defeated by local governments (in Algeria and Egypt, for example). As a result, the groups found themselves losing, out of money, with no place to hide, and under tremendous pressure—all attractive reasons to join up with Al Qaeda. Thus, says Byman, affiliate groups join both out of a sense of opportunity and out of desperation.
I asked Byman to put the Al Qaeda affiliates in a larger historical context: Has Al Qaeda only had formal affiliates in the last decade, or has it always been a part of Al Qaeda’s mission to recruit? Byman says that before 9/11, Al Qaeda core only supported other movements. It helped to fund, train, back, and assist a wide range of groups, but was quite content if they went and fought their local battles. Even though Al Qaeda core would encourage groups to join up with their broader mission, it wasn’t trying to take over these groups. (One exception was, of course, the takeover of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an organization that was hit so hard that its cadre outside of Egypt merged with Al Qaeda and became the group we know today.) Since 9/11, however, Byman believes that we have seen a more formal affiliation strategy. Al Qaeda has been trying to control the direction of the broader jihadist movement; it is still supporting other groups the way it used to, but it has become much more interested in pushing the Al Qaeda brand.
What about the jihadist groups that choose not to affiliate with Al Qaeda? Byman believes that there is a tendency to look at jihadist groups and say they are all a part of Al Qaeda, when, in fact, a fair number of these organizations have not joined Al Qaeda for fairly straightforward reasons. First, some of these groups don’t want to take on new enemies. When a group joins with Al Qaeda, it takes on the United States, as well as a host of other governments. Second, some of the groups fear the mission distraction; they may be focused on a particular government or regime and they don’t want to divert from that and focus on Al Qaeda’s more global agenda. Third, a number of them have serious differences from Al Qaeda about collateral damage (Is it kosher to target other Muslims? How about civilians?) These are questions for which Al Qaeda has one answer, and for which some affiliate groups take more extreme views than the core, while others take far less aggressive views.
Byman argues that it is a mistake to lump non-Al Qaeda jihadist groups in with formal Al Qaeda affiliates, because grouping affiliates that haven’t joined or don’t want to join with Al Qaeda creates enemies out of those that never wanted America as an enemy. On the other hand, a group like AQAP did not receive the attention it deserved until it began to attack the United States directly as a formal Al Qaeda affiliate—attacks which initially caught many people by surprise. The lack of a formal affiliation induced complacency in the West, and the group was undervalued for too long. As a result, we avoided a disaster in the Christmas Day 2009 attempt, says Byman, only by chance.
One important question is whether these affiliate groups are competent or whether they are largely buffoons draping themselves in the Al Qaeda flag. Byman believes that for the most part, these organizations are not especially competent at international terrorism. Most of them are local fighters, who might be at home in the slums of Mogadishu or Yemen, but are much less able to go overseas, spend time abroad, and conduct surveillance, or infiltrate a target. That said, some of theserganizations have grown considerably. When thousands of people join the Al Qaeda roster, if even a small percentage of them become competent at international terrorist acts, that is quite a large number. A very good bomb maker, Byman notes, is still out there in Yemen, and that individual offers tremendous value to AQAP, even if the organization as a whole does not represent the biggest terrorist threat.
I ask Byman specifically about AQIM, which, by most accounts, the Algerian government has largely neutralized. Byman agrees that the group is on the ropes; one of the reasons it joined Al Qaeda in the first place was because the Algerian government had devastated its predecessor organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. A remaining concern, however, is that Mahgrebi jihadists—not specifically AQIM—have rebounded in Mali lately. They are working with groups that have taken advantage of looted arsenal from the civil war in Libya. According to Byman, they have been able to establish, in a geographic sense at least, quite a large haven, and have been carrying out policies there that are reminiscent of the Taliban. While he regards it as a bit of stretch to describe them as Al Qaeda, they certainly have a similar ideology and could become meaningfully affiliated with Al Qaeda in the near future. Of particular concern is the fact that they have expressed a vehement anti-Western sentiment recently.
Byman agrees that AQAP and Al Shabab are the two most robust affiliates of Al Qaeda. AQI remains of great concern—the U.S. had devastated this group by 2008-2009, but it has steadily come back since then. It has launched a series of attacks recently, and is trying to take over territory in Iraq. Moreover, Iraq is such a strategically important country that the fact that AQI is doing better should sound greater alarm bells.
Another critical factor that Byman sheds light on is how the affiliate groups, in turn, influence Al Qaeda core. When these groups carry out attacks, they are seen as Al Qaeda attacks—so when the affiliates kill innocents, or when they go after minorities within Islam, those tactics reflect the greater Al Qaeda message. In addition, the affiliates are transmitting tactics and methods in between each other and to and from the core group itself. We see that when a group joins with Al Qaeda, it often embraces suicide bombing, but we also see tactics like the use of IEDs going from Iraq to Afghanistan, and from there, to other countries in the world where Al Qaeda has a presence. When the affiliates learn lessons, they often transmit them up and down the chain and through the other affiliates.
There is also the question of how deep the ties are between the affiliate groups themselves. Do affiliate groups work directly with one another? How do they aid each other, if at all? Byman stresses the importance of affiliate-to-affiliate relationships, arguing that they can often be more important than the affiliate-core relationship. At times, an affiliate may be flush with cash. Byman says this was the case with AQI, when Iraq was the center of the jihadist universe, and AQI was able to dispense cash elsewhere. In addition, personal ties play important roles. Individuals may go to fight in Iraq from Algeria, but when they return, they have connections to Al Qaeda in Iraq. And when these individuals then go on to the next fight, they bring their contacts with them. These contacts are the ones that form affiliate-to-affiliate relationships, not affiliate-to-core relationships. Geographic proximity also matters, Byman emphasizes. Al Shabab has close ties to AQAP in large measure because Somalia and Yemen are next door to one another.
Finally, Byman describes the cooperation between Al Qaeda and the large number of Salafi-jihadist groups that operate in Pakistan. He says that Al Qaeda core’s cooperation with a range of groups in Pakistan presents it with both opportunities and risks. On the one hand, more groups with a similar mission to its own is a good thing. On the other hand, the core does not want to favor one group over another because taking sides would alienate some groups. The good news, he says, is that because there is such a multiplicity of groups, none of them has been able to successfully take over the jihadist space.
It is important to realize, argues Byman, that a number of terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba actually have a very different ideological foundation than Al Qaeda. In practice, however, it doesn’t matter too much—the ideologues will care quite a bit about it, but the operators are much more focused on the logistical questions of what they are going to do next and who they are going to go after tomorrow. There is undoubtedly a lot of commonality between these jihadist groups and Al Qaeda; the whole logistics network of training camps, fundraising, proselytizing etc. is very similar. However, a lot of these groups are more fractured than appears at first glance, and often revolve only around charismatic figures. Ties within these groups may wax and wane as these particular individuals rise and fall, and are probably more meaningful in holding these groups together than formal group-to-group relations. Knowledge of these ties is important, concludes Byman, because it provides the United States with opportunities for exploiting and deepening the existing cleavages between these groups—and thereby weakening them.