The failure to identify the true scope of the al Qaeda network is threatening America’s interests abroad and at home, according to a report released Tuesday that concludes the United States cannot win a war against an enemy it doesn’t understand.
Throughout the war on terror, both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought core-focused campaigns against terrorist leaders, operating on theories that removing prominent figures would cause the network’s infrastructure to collapse.
However, after the deaths of thousands of al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, the terrorist network continues to gain traction throughout the Middle East.
"Our strategy has been very focused on certain groups and certain individuals, and the rest of the network has been permitted, to some degree, to prosper," Katherine Zimmerman, author of "The al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy," said in an interview.
The American Enterprise Institute report found that local elements have largely been ignored, allowing them to grow and gain influence. Vacuums of power in the wake of the Arab Spring has given an opening for groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to expand their reach.
Without a reassessment of how al Qaeda actually operates, America has "no real prospect of winning" a war that has lasted for more than a decade.
"America’s strategy to fight al Qaeda is failing because we’re not basing it on a current understanding of how that network is operating," she said.
Zimmerman, a senior analyst at AEI, describes al Qaeda as having a "latticed structure," a network of local groups connected through informal relationships with core radical jihadist leaders, who provide al Qaeda’s overall direction.
"That’s what gives it its resiliency and its strength," she said.
Zimmerman argues there has been a bipartisan failing in identifying al Qaeda’s intricacies. The Bush administration believed the network had a "hierarchical nature," with a team of senior leaders running the operation from the top down.
"This framework’s limitations became apparent quickly, however," the report states. "The U.S. military killed or detained thousands of AQI leaders between 2003 and 2006, and even the death of AQI’s founder, Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi, did little to affect the group’s strength."
The Obama administration holds a similar view that destroying the core network will lead to al Qaeda’s downfall.
While the successful operation to take out Osama bin Laden in May 2011 was important, it was not the "crippling blow" to al Qaeda that administration officials described.
"What we’ve seen with the rise of Ayman al Zawahiri (bin Laden’s replacement) is that there is a recognition in the hierarchy and that the emir of al Qaeda will be respected regardless of who he is … and global jihad will continue beyond his death," she said.
The year of Osama bin Laden’s death "is the year that the overall al Qaeda network became stronger," according to the report.
Unrest in the Middle East due to the Arab Spring uprisings was the perfect environment for the terrorist network, which "thrives in areas with low or poor governance."
"The Arab Spring effectively catalyzed al Qaeda’s growth across the Middle East and North Africa. … Gains made during and after the Arab Spring have offset any loss sustained by the death of bin Laden," Zimmerman wrote.
President Barack Obama based a major part of his 2012 reelection campaign on the killing of bin Laden, declaring that al Qaeda had been "decimated."
"Knowing what I know, what I hear from the administration is that the group of leadership in Pakistan is on the run, and that is very true," Zimmerman said. "The U.S. has been successful in pummeling al Qaeda in Pakistan."
"It is not on the run in Yemen, Somalia, in West Africa, in Iraq—in particular—and also in Syria, where there actually is no real policy to counter al Qaeda," she said.
"The threat posed by many of these local groups to American interests abroad is very clear," she said, pointing to the closings of over 20 U.S. embassies and outposts in the region last month, due to an intercepted message from al Qaeda operatives.
"The continued existence of groups affiliated with al Qaeda abroad puts American lives at risk," Zimmerman said.
Though fewer groups have prioritized the "far war," or attacks on U.S. soil, Zimmerman is still concerned the homeland is vulnerable to an attack.
"The issue is that some of them are very capable," she said, citing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Sunni militant Islamist group in Yemen.
An AQAP plot was foiled in May 2012, in which the group was working on an upgraded version of an underwear bomb to take down an American flight. The Yemeni government also reportedly thwarted AQAP’s plan to seize important ports in the country last month.
Zimmerman says the group is adaptive and dangerous.
"They’re trying to hit us where we’re not looking, and no matter how great of a safety net we build, there will always be a hole that can be exploited," she said.
"The hope is that they don’t find that hole."