In an interview conducted yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations, CIA Director John Brennan had an interesting exchange with Audrey Kurth Cronin on the subject of al Qaeda’s organizational scope. Kronin asked:
So my question is, we tend to use a shorthand with respect to al-Qaida, calling every group that has a Salafist agenda -- a violent Salafist agenda al-Qaida. Doesn’t that undercut our own interests? What exactly is al-Qaida? And aren’t there violent Salafist groups, many of whom go back hundreds of years, that are not al-Qaida?
Brennan responded [note: I've removed pauses and other non-substantive parts from the raw transcript]:
You’re absolutely right. You know, there’s al- Qaida core ... There are those groups, like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that are clearly affiliated. The head of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Wuhayshi, is the number two in al-Qaida core.... There are other elements, like Jabhat al-Nusra ... in Syria that is taking...their orders, directions from al-Qaida core.
There are a lot of other ...groups ... throughout the region that may have an ideological affinity with, sort of, al- Qaida, but have not sworn bayat, do not follow their direction and guidance, [though they] pursue a Salafist, even Takfiri sort of agenda. It’s a loose confederation of groups, and as you point out...al- Qaida has metastisized ... -- which makes it all the more challenging, because a lot of these groups have local agendas, but also are being exploited by al-Qaida core for more sort of violent global jihadist purposes. ...
This distinction--between those entities that are linked to al Qaeda's central leadership in the sense of being subject to its direction and control, and those entities that may be like-minded in some respects but ultimately are independent--is a critical one, though all too often it is missed in media coverage of terrorist events around the globe. Of course, it is a high-altitude point, and there are some very interesting questions that arise once one digs a bit further.
First, what actions are sufficient to evidence direction-and-control? I note that the Director referred explicitly to Jabhat al-Nusrah, which recently received Zawahiri's backing in a contest for leadership involving the entity formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq. Is the formality of a group leader pledging bayat to Zawahiri a sufficient condition to bring that leader's organization within the realm of al Qaeda's associated forces?
And second, is there a further distinction to be drawn within the set of "associated forces"---separating those which target the United States and those which do not--for purposes of determining whether a given group is within the scope of the AUMF? My impression is that the answer to the latter question is yes, so far as the government is concerned, and hence one should not be too quick to assume that Director Brennan's reference to al-Nusrah as an associated force means also that al-Nusrah is in the cross-hairs of CIA or JSOC for purposes of kinetic action rooted in the AUMF.