Editor's Note: The United States has been at war since 9/11, but the nature of the enemy remains unclear. Some would say the war is against terrorists of all stripes, while others focus more narrowly on Al Qaeda, the group that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. Yet even this narrow focus masks definitional confusion, for the name “Al Qaeda” is used to describe not only the band of followers who surround Ayman al-Zawahiri, but also a range of like-minded groups and individuals around the world. Jeremy Shapiro, my colleague at Brookings who previously worked at the U.S. Department of State, laments this fuzzy use of the term Al Qaeda, arguing that it creates analytic confusion and self-defeating—and perhaps even dangerous—policies.
You cannot be victorious if you cannot properly name your enemy. Before 9/11, the name “Al Qaeda” belonged to a group that we could, at least potentially, see, touch, and kill. But today the name is used to describe so much more—and so much less—than that. It is an amorphous plan to disrupt civilization, a vast network of groups united by little more than a harsh interpretation of Islam and a tendency toward insurgency, and the label for all that America fears about the Islamic world. It lurks in the jungles of Africa, the civil wars of the Middle East, and the Internet cafes of Europe, exploiting any form of disorder or weakness anywhere to further its plan to attack America and its allies.
The United States has been here before. Perhaps the greatest mistake of the Cold War was the failure to properly identify the enemy. As with the war on terror, that war began against an obvious enemy: the Soviet Union, an identifiable nation-state with an army and known leaders. But that enemy also had an ideology. The Soviets claimed a universal appeal for communism and explicitly made the spread of that ideology a weapon in their struggle against the United States. And so, communism and its many socialist variants became the enemy as well. But just because the Soviets wished it so did not mean that every manifestation of communism everywhere was an ally of the Soviet Union or an enemy of the United States.
In retrospect, the U.S. tendency to see every shade of pink as deep red often blinded it to the divisions within communism, created unnecessary enemies, and wasted vast treasure and many lives. Communists fought among themselves as much if not more than they fought against Western capitalism. Nonetheless, fear of communism often became a self-fulfilling prophesy in places like Cuba and Vietnam. Unnecessary wars against misidentified enemies throughout the Third World resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, hurt the image of the United States, and sapped American strength.
Unfortunately, that historical experience did not prevent the idea of a global Al Qaeda from taking root. Even as the original Al Qaeda “core” has been weakened by American attacks, the multitude of disorders across the Islamic world have spawned literally thousands of groups that share elements of the ideology espoused by the Al Qaeda core. In the words of President Obama, the main fight is now against “Al Qaeda affiliates,” implying that Al Qaeda has evolved into a franchise system, akin to the communist Internationale organized by the Soviets.
Clearly, part of the reason why this understanding of Al Qaeda has taken hold is that a few of these supposedly affiliated groups have found it convenient—for reasons of branding, fundraising, and recruiting—to take on the Al Qaeda name. For example, the Algerian terrorist group once known as the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” (GSPC) changed its name to “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) when it was on the verge of annihilation by the Algerian state, thus enabling the group to branch out beyond the inhospitable environment of Algeria and revive its fortunes.
But beyond the labels, almost all of these “affiliates” differ in important ways from core Al Qaeda, and only a select few actually take direct orders or coordinate in any meaningful way with the core. Some of these groups loathe each other and, as we have seen in Syria, even fight each other to the death. Most importantly, the vast majority of these groups have a very different policy toward the United States than the group that attacked New York and Washington on 9/11. That group was quite unusual in its decision to prioritize the fight against the “far enemy” (the United States). Osama Bin Laden believed that it made little sense to wage jihad against “apostate” regimes in the Arab or Islamic world (the “near enemy”) when they were supported behind the scenes by the enormous and distant power of the United States. He decided to bring the fight directly to the real enemy as a necessary prelude to bringing down governments in the Islamic heartland.
In contrast, most Islamist extremist groups explicitly reject the far enemy strategy and are more interested in waging insurgencies against their local oppressive regimes or other Muslims whom they deem as apostates. Even if they share some of the trappings of Al Qaeda’s Islamist ideology, these differences matter, particularly to the United States. In many cases, these groups are not focused in any way on the United States unless and until the United States becomes directly involved in their local struggles.
Alas, far from taking advantage of these splits, U.S. discussion seems determined to elide the distinction in threat to the United States among Al Qaeda affiliates. For example, General David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. African Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee:
I consider the threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates to be the highest counterterrorism priority. The three in the AFRICOM area of responsibility—al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram—each present a threat to western interests in Africa. While each has not specifically targeted the United States, they have successfully carried out attacks on western interests and engaged in kidnapping. If they deepen their collaboration, they have the potential to be an even larger threat.
To be sure, AQIM, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram are not nice guys. They are violent Islamist extremists who commit crimes and kill innocent people. But that doesn’t mean they are a threat to the United States.
This blanket application of the Al Qaeda label extends even to those violent extremist groups that openly deny affiliation with Al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is blithely labeled as “Al Qaeda” by U.S. commentators and even counterterrorism experts such as Richard Clarke, even though it has explicitly rejected the leadership of Al Qaeda and fought pitched battles against groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra that claim a closer connection to Al Qaeda. Similarly, it is simply assumed that ISIS represents a danger to the U.S. homeland, even though the group has never even attempted to operate outside its immediate neighborhood. Thus, according to Senator John McCain, ISIS advances in northwestern Iraq represent “an existential threat to the security of the United States of America.” But ISIS doesn’t actually represent any sort of threat to the security of the United States—at least, not yet.
With such an expansive definition of Al Qaeda within U.S. political culture, it has become impossible for the government to convince Americans that the 2012 attack against the U.S. mission in Benghazi was not an Al Qaeda operation—despite a complete lack of evidence of any coordination, an exhaustive report by The New York Times detailing the lack of Al Qaeda involvement, and the assertions of the captured ringleader of the attack.
Even worse, the U.S. government doesn’t seem to be able to convince itself that some of these so-called affiliates are not a threat to the United States. Thus, we find ourselves spending our limited resources fighting groups that at times may have adopted the Al Qaeda name or espoused views that share similarities with Al Qaeda’s ideology but that have neither the desire nor the capabilities to threaten the United States. But the more we label these groups “the enemy” (which is what the Al Qaeda label really means) and get involved in their local conflicts, the more likely it is that they will eventually start to see the United States as an attractive target and become real enemies. We should therefore not be surprised that ISIS increases its anti-American rhetoric and threatens attacks when the United States labels it a foreign terrorist organization, sends weapons and soldiers to support its enemies, and calls it a threat to the U.S. homeland.
In the end, a broad ideological movement like communism or Islamic extremism is not a concrete entity and thus cannot really be one’s enemy. It is inevitably too diffuse to act coherently and too riven by internal struggles that offer opportunities to divide and conquer. During the Cold War, this effort to fight an ideology did not ultimately doom the United States in large part because it had an enormous reservoir of strength and good will. But part of it was also that at key moments, particularly in Nixon’s opening to China, the United States recognized and exploited the divisions in the communist world.
It is not clear that the United States is still so well placed to withstand a similar mistake these days. Bringing order to the turbulent Islamic world—from the hardened fighters of the Hindu Kush to the sectarian militias of the Euphrates valley to the teeming multitudes of Nigeria—is a tall order and beyond the power of the United States. And there is an enemy that needs to be fought. Just as there indeed was a Soviet Union during the Cold War, there is an actual Al Qaeda out there plotting against the United States. That core Al Qaeda and its few real allies can be defeated. But with the current semantic confusion, the United States risks wasting vast resources that it no longer has in a vain and unnecessarily expansive struggle and creating new enemies where there were none before.
Jeremy Shapiro is a fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy and the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Prior to re-joining Brookings, he was a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff.