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Seeing al Qaeda Everywhere and in Everything Hurts Counterterrorism

Today's International Herald Tribunequotes Department of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoffon the recent arrests of jihadists in Europe:

"Arrests in Denmark and Germany indicate that Al Qaeda continues to carry out acts of war against the West," Chertoff told the House Homeland Security Committee. "They continue to seek fellow travelers and allies and adherents in the West who can be used to carry out attacks, whether they be in Western Europe or here in the homeland."

The intriguing thing about Chertoff's quote is how quickly he asserts these plots in Europe came from marching orders from Osama Bin Laden. While it seems Chertoff ison the mark in regards to the Danish plot, as far as media reports are concerned, there has been no direct operational ties found between the three alleged jihadists in Germany and the organization al Qaeda, despite knowledge of the two German converts training in terrorist camps in Pakistan. Yet, Chertoff's comment suggests otherwise.

He is not alone according to The New York Times:

[Head of the German Federal Crime Office Jörg] Ziercke said the men belonged to a terrorist group that the police suspected of having close ties to Al Qaeda , though he did not offer evidence of those links. Counterterrorism experts here expressed wariness, noting that in almost every major attack or suspected plot since 9/11, the role of Al Qaeda has been raised but rarely substantiated.

This continuing conflation is folly.

By exaggerating the reach of al Qaeda the organization—that which attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9-11—with those "self-starters"—to borrow a term from terrorism expert Douglas Farah—who independently plan and carry-out atrocities in their native or adopted countries spurred on by al Qaeda's ideology creates problems.

Farah explains why the two German converts pose problems different from al Qaeda:

This points to the growing trend before toward self-starting individuals who feel they must act on behalf of al Qaeda, without necessarily ever coming into contact with the mother ship of the organization.

These self-starting groups that come from within their own population are far harder to detect that foreigners who may stand out.

Being converts, they are often more radical than the local population, either because they were recruited in a radical environment, they feel the need to prove they are worthy of their new religion, or any number of reasons.

Fighting al Qaeda the organization is thus different tactically than uncovering and arresting radicalized individuals who have decided on terrorism to express their grievances and outrage.

For instance, by destroying the core al Qaeda organization, thought to be hunkered down on the Afghan-Pakistan border, how does this stop homegrown jihadist terrorism from developing, which may be inspired by al Qaeda and its ideology, but has no operational or communicative ties to the organization?

This can lead to the conclusion that the jihadist phenomenon can be defeated primarily by military means. We know this to be untrue, especially in the domestic context. Let's just say Special Forces or aerial bombing campaigns won't be coming to a street near you anytime soon.

Besides, ideology and inspiration outlive physical life: think Che Guevara and his version of revolutionary communism.

Even if the United States or an ally destroyed al Qaeda the organization, it would do nothing to stop jihadism. Jihadism was here before al Qaeda and it will be here after it. And potential jihadists are not radicalized by al Qaeda, but through the Internet and like-minded friends and collegues in a positive, mutual reinforcing feedback cycle.

By tying together homegrown jihadists with the likes of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the rest of al Qaeda hiding somewhere in the Afgan-Pakistan mountains, officials like Chertoff give the impression that the battle against jihadism will end when al Qaeda's destroyed, when it's really only the beginning.