The Lawfare Podcast

Lawfare Podcast Episode #17: Bruce Riedel on Al Qaeda's Many Faces

By Ritika Singh
Sunday, August 5, 2012, 5:03 PM

This is the first in a series of posts I will be doing over the comings weeks based on a set of interviews I am conducting with people who have expertise of interest to Lawfare readers--but from whom we don’t normally hear on the site. The idea is to talk to people whose knowledge bears on the national security legal questions that many of our readers think about and work on. I have specifically chosen people whose background is non-legal, but whose work will shed light on the topics we debate on this blog: the legal authority to wage war, and to detain and target the enemy, particularly as American troops prepare to leave Afghanistan. In each case, we will run the full interview on the Lawfare Podcast and, in addition, I will write up a digest of the conversation for those without the time or inclination to listen to the full interview.

Because I happen to be at the Brookings Institution, I am going to start with scholars in the Brookings Foreign Policy program—several of whose work is of immediate relevance to Lawfare. Over time, I will branch out beyond Brookings, but for now, my home institution offers a rich group of subjects.

My first subject is Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, one of the country’s leading experts on Al Qaeda. Riedel’s long and impressive career speaks for itself. A 30-year veteran of the CIA, a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council, and an expert advisor to the prosecution of underwear bomber Omar Farooq Abdulmutallab, he is also the author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future, among much else.

My discussion with Riedel ranged from the state of Al Qaeda today, to the posture of the Taliban and other regional terrorist groups that the United States engages by both military and diplomatic means, to targeted killing and the way forward for U.S. counterterrorism policy. We don’t discuss the law—but any lawyer interested in the power to confront the enemy will find Riedel’s discussion of the enemy itself particularly valuable:

Al Qaeda Core and the Al Qaeda Affiliates The interview begins with the state of Al Qaeda core—or as Riedel prefers to call the organization, Al Qaeda al Umm (Mother Al Qaeda). The core group, he explains, was created in the 1990s and its main objective is the creation of a new caliphate uniting the Islamic world--a goal it can only accomplish by driving the West out of the region. It is hard, Riedel says, to judge the size of Al Qaeda al Umm, because while the number of actual card-carrying members probably numbers only in the hundreds or low thousands, the number of like-minded jihadists number in the hundreds of thousands. Because the interaction between Al Qaeda and the syndicate is as extensive as it is, judging the strength and viability of the core group is difficult. That said, he argues that the U.S. has put enormous pressure on Mother Al Qaeda, which is now on the defensive. By contrast, he says, the syndicate, where U.S. efforts have been less successful, is thriving. The training apparatus and infantry of Al Qaeda operate out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and other rural areas of Pakistan, Riedel contends, whereas senior Al Qaeda operatives hide out in urban areas. Riedel points out that there is no evidence that Osama bin Laden was ever in the FATA for any prolonged period of time, and both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah were captured in urban areas as well. Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lakshar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the brass of the Haqqani network, too, are in cities—and they are barely in hiding at all. Because the authority to wage the current conflict hinges on the AUMF, the interaction between Al Qaeda al Umm and its affiliate groups is a particularly important one in determining against whom Congress has authorized the use of force. Riedel’s comments on this relationship are thus particularly interesting. In general, he describes the leadership between Al Qaeda core and the affiliate groups as one of “strategic command and control.” He says the materials found in Osama bin Laden’s safehouse demonstrate that the late Al Qaeda chieftain was in touch with senior operatives in the syndicate. An important distinction he draws, however, is that the degree of command and control differs between the groups which are geographically closer to the core and those which are located further away. Because Mother Al Qaeda can’t exactly send out a mass email to the leaders of the affiliate groups with instructions, the groups based further away (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example), tend to receive less specific orders from the top. Furthermore, although the transition from Osama bin Laden to Ayman Zawahiri was seamless, Riedel argues that the tepid response to Zawahiri within the organization demonstrates that the group is weakening. And, Riedel notes, Zawahiri can’t think that another decade is likely to pass before he, too, is captured or killed. Among the affiliates, Riedel argues that AQAP is probably the most closely-linked to the central group. In support of this claim, Riedel cites the fact that it has attempted to attack Americans more times in the last several years than any other affiliate. He also argues that the relationship between Mother Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq is relatively well established. But after that, the closeness falls off pretty quickly. According to Riedel, North Africa has always been a region about which Al Qaeda core had mixed feelings. In fact, he believes there is good evidence that Osama bin Laden thought AQIM was too violent. The connection between the core and some of the other affiliates--like the Nigerian Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in Mali, and the Somali group Al Shabab--is relatively fragile. The affiliates that recruit actively from abroad include jihadist groups in Pakistan, who have an extensive network of training camps through which Arab recruits and other like-minded jihadis go. AQAP, too, recruits widely from outside its base in Yemen, and many of these attendees are foreign nationals. Groups like Al Shabab that draw on a large diaspora population in the United States have also grown in the last few years, he says. Riedel cautions that much of our understanding of the relationship between Mother Al Qaeda and the affiliate groups is based on speculation, because the government hasn’t published more of the documents seized in Abbottabad at the time of the Bin Laden raid. How close are we to defeating the Al Qaeda core? Riedel is optimistic but cautionary, saying that although the drones have done their job in eliminating a lot of Al Qaeda’s leadership and putting enormous pressure on the group, they have also encouraged the expansion of the syndicate. The affiliates have not been impacted by strikes, for the most part. And the strikes have also alienated large swaths of people, who become ripe for recruiting as a result. The Taliban and Other Regional Groups Although the Taliban and the regional organizations that operate in Pakistan and Afghanistan have gotten a lot of attention in recent months--particularly from U.S. lawmakers--Riedel discusses them separately from the directly-affiliated groups. These jihadist groups are similar to Al Qaeda in their motivations and tactics, and some have pledged allegiance to the group or cooperated with Al Qaeda to one degree or another. Yet at the same time, they retain their own identities. Riedel talked about two particularly important ones: the Haqqani network and LeT. The Haqqani network, Riedel notes, is not hiding from Pakistan’s intelligence agency. He argues that its leaders are in a similar position to the one Mullah Omar is in, because they are being actively sheltered and protected by Pakistan. As to congressional demands that the administration officially designate the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization, Riedel says he believes that the administration is still hopeful that the Afghan Taliban can be brought into the political process. Putting the Haqqani network on the terrorism list will make that harder, not easier, because doing so would make Pakistan an official state sponsor of terrorism--and that would make Pakistan less eager for the Taliban to play ball. Riedel acknowledges the silliness of this conundrum, since the administration has already carved out an exception to its refusal to negotiate with terrorists to negotiate for Mullah Omar. But it remains a constraint nonetheless. In this piece Riedel wrote for the The Daily Beast, he posits that LeT is now more dangerous than Al Qaeda. In our conversation, Riedel argued that it is because LeT is under zero pressure from Pakistan and very little pressure from the international community. What’s more, the sheer size of the group makes it extremely dangerous. The Mumbai attacks demonstrated the group's capabilities and its aspirations to attack foreigners as well as Indians. Riedel said that the recent arrest and deportation of LeT honcho Abu Jindal is evidence of progress. But Pakistan, the group’s safe haven, faces no pressure over LeT, which gives the group what every terrorist organization most needs: a safe haven. Why then has the U.S. not spent more time and energy on LeT? Riedel says the Obama administration is catching up to the seriousness of the LeT problem. But it has not yet figured out what to do about the Pakistani government’s sheltering of LeT--the core of the problem. Then there’s the Taliban itself, and its on-again, off-again peace talks with the U.S. Riedel says that the Taliban suspended the talks because it feels the U.S. has failed to live up to its commitment to move forward with a prisoner swap of one American soldier for five Taliban members who are being held at Guantanamo Bay. The Taliban also suspended the talks because, to some extent, the Taliban and the ISI think that the United States is giving up in Afghanistan, and all they have to do is wait for American troops to leave. There is no need for the Taliban to talk when all it has to do is be patient, he says. Despite the dim prospects, Riedel believes that the peace process is worth trying because if it succeeds and achieves a ceasefire and a level of political reconciliation, it will be easier for U.S. forces to leave the region--and it will benefit Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, if peace talks don’t succeed, it is better that the onus for failure rest with the Taliban instead of with us, he argues. Although the odds do not favor the Afghan Taliban’s coming back to the political process in the near future, he says, the U.S. should keep the door open at all times. Drones and Pakistan The law of targeted killing is one of the hottest topics on Lawfare, so it only seemed fitting to discuss a question we don’t talk about much on the site: How well do drones really work as a counterterrorism instrument? Riedel believes that the drone program in the FATA has been extremely effective but that it will not work nearly as well once the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is reduced to a small number of special operations forces. Drones don’t work, he says, because they are a technological marvel--even though they are. They work because somebody tells the CIA where to look. That is, they work because of human intelligence collection, which requires an extensive network of agents and agent handlers in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. These agents need to be protected, which is why the large American troop footprint makes the small drone program possible. It is inevitable, he believes, that the troop drawdown in Afghanistan will make human collection less effective and more difficult--and this will have serious consequences for our drone operations. To what extent do drone strikes contribute to anti-American militancy and even help mobilize terrorists? Riedel thinks the media overstates this claim and that Pakistani public opinion of America was never high—though he acknowledges that the drone program has pushed opinion further in a negative direction. The larger problem, he says, is the history of U.S.-Pakistani relations; the animosity is a product of sixty years of perceived broken promises  and humiliations--with which Pakistanis are familiar in exquisite detail, and of which most Americans have no historical memory. It also, of course, has to do with India. “Pakistanis know that we really want to go out with the much prettier, nicer, richer girl next door than with them,” he observes.  Pakistanis also know that they are the second or third choice at best, which is humiliating and aggravating. And it’s not just the Americans; everybody wants to date India--even Pakistan’s historical allies, China and Saudi Arabia. If American forces find Ayman al-Zawahiri, Riedel notes, if there is another Mumbai, or if there is another successful terrorist attack in the United States that has Pakistan’s fingerprints on it, the relationship will get even worse. What could make the relationship improve? If the Pakistani military pushed the Afghan Taliban to reengage in the peace process with the Karzai government--but Riedel doesn’t see this as a likely scenario.