Al Qaeda on the Warpath

Terrorist affiliates spread after decapitation of central organization

Somali government soldiers / AP
February 28, 2013

Al Qaeda affiliates have spread throughout the Middle East and Africa, transforming al Qaeda into an increasingly dangerous global network, research analysts at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) said during a panel Wednesday.

"Al Qaeda is stronger at an operational level than it has been for many years" and the prospects of al Qaeda strengthening are more likely, AEI senior research analyst Katherine Zimmerman said.

Even though the United States successfully found and killed Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda movement has spread to Yemen, North Africa, Syria, Somalia, and other areas in the Middle East.

Al Qaeda is "not defeated or on the verge of defeat," Zimmerman said.

With the outbreak of the Arab Spring, local affiliated al Qaeda groups have infiltrated unstable locations in the Middle East.

Zimmerman pointed to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Al Shabaab in Somalia, and splinter groups infiltrating Yemen.

Zimmerman also pointed to al Qaeda prisoners held over from former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime being released or escaping, which likely will be a problem in future situations.

Al Qaeda has strengthened from the uncertainty in the Middle East to the point where their affiliates and splinter networks can survive without the Pakistani center of command, even though the affiliates are still influenced and controlled by the main cell in Pakistan.

"This is a group that thrives on ungoverned spaces by war," AEI scholar Frederick Kagan said.

These affiliates have "grown into their own—they’ve grown up," Zimmerman said.

While Zimmerman pointed to the United States successfully eliminating the "top of al Qaeda," she and Kagan agree that the results cannot realistically be extended globally. The resources, tools, and techniques used in Afghanistan—like enhanced interrogation techniques and the CIA spending a decade gathering intelligence—are no longer an option.

Kagan also criticized the administration’s handling of al Qaeda.

"The U.S. does not have a strategy for dealing with al Qaeda," Kagan said. "We have a strategy of thwacking bad guys."

"Although it’s a good idea, thwacking bad guys, that itself is not a strategy."