Coming to America: The Rise of Al Qaeda Affiliate Groups

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

May 5, 2010

Those of us who write about terrorism learn to exercise caution in the face of breaking news. So, even though Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, reportedly implicated himself in the failed Times Square car bombing, it is too soon to rush to judgment on vital questions such as his motives, the role of al-Qaida, and the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism measures.

Yet even with this caution, one thing seems clear: There is a growing danger of attacks on U.S. soil by groups affiliated with, but not formally part of, al-Qaida. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, usually known as TTP, claimed it was behind the Times Square attempt, though for now this is impossible to verify. But we do know that al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, was behind the failed Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S. airline.

It’s always difficult to know how to categorize these affiliate groups. On one hand, drawing the circle too big risks lumping groups that are not trying to kill us in with those that are. At times, this can reach absurd levels, such as when a group like Hamas, which has a distinct agenda that is often hostile to al-Qaida’s, is conflated with Osama Bin Laden’s organization. But the lines are murkier in many other cases. Jamaat al-Islamiyya in Egypt, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and other salafist-jihadist groups shared elements of al-Qaida’s ideology, but they had a local focus—they sought to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and so on. They didn’t like the United States, and they probably cheered on 9/11, but most of their people, money, and guns were not pointed at us.

But what makes al-Qaida so distinct and so dangerous is that it tries to knit these different strands together. It backs local causes and, as it does so, it urges the groups to expand their horizons to embrace al-Qaida’s global agenda. At times, some of these local groups, such as al-Qaida of Iraq or al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, have formally joined al-Qaida; at times cells or individuals tied to groups with a local focus have switched allegiance to the al-Qaida core or provided logistical support or manpower for an al-Qaida attack. And some shift over time: Egypt’s Islamic Jihad at first focused on the Mubarak regime, but eventually part of the organization split and became the core of al-Qaida. Making this even more complex, after area regimes crushed Egypt’s Jamaat al-Islamiyya and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, some individuals from these organizations simply switched allegiances to al-Qaida and adopted its global orientation.

This leads to a blunt policy question: Should the United States go after affiliate members, working with allied intelligence services and, in places like Pakistan, using drone strikes to kill them? Failing to do so often means missing opportunities to strike enemies before they strike you. Yet there is a danger: Hitting these groups weakens them, but it also makes them more likely to strike back against the United States on their own and in combination with al-Qaida. So, al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula—in part in response to U.S. pressure in Yemen—tried to hit back in the United States by blowing up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, not just attacking U.S. and regime targets in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

If Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan was behind the Times Square bombing, the logic may be similar. TTP has long focused on targets in Pakistan and against NATO troops in Afghanistan, but it had no global agenda. Because Washington seeks to defeat TTP and like-minded groups in the region, U.S. forces have killed some of its leaders and have targeted others (leader Hakimullah Mehsud is alive, despite a U.S. claim that he died in a drone strike in January, though the United States did kill his predecessor). Now TTP is striking the homelands of countries with troops in Afghanistan. Spanish authorities blame the group for a 2008 plot against the Barcelona subway system.

If we back U.S. allies more aggressively, some American citizens may be radicalized. Several Americans of Somali origin went back to Somalia to join the jihadist al-Shabab group after the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. The United States not only gave tacit support for the Ethiopian incursion but also used the occasion to target local al-Qaida leaders. There was little consideration of how this would look to nationalistic Somali-Americans living in the United States.

When possible, the United States should try to divide these groups from one another and from the al-Qaida core. In part, this means relying on local allies to carry the flag, since they are best positioned and have the most interest in suppressing the groups. Unfortunately, in Yemen and Pakistan, the local ally is too weak—or perhaps simply unwilling—to destroy the jihadist presence, leaving the United States damned either way.

If al-Qaida affiliates are making the American homeland a top target, this is a huge shift. This concern is most acute regarding Pakistan. In April, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay—two Afghan-Americans who went to Pakistan in 2008 to join the Taliban but were redirected by al-Qaida to the U.S. homeland—pleaded guilty of plotting to blow themselves up on New York subway trains at rush hour on the anniversary of 9/11. In Pakistan, a medley of groups, including TTP but also others such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, have a range of links to al-Qaida but also pursue their own agendas. Because the al-Qaida core is centered in Pakistan, and because it is actively trying to woo and convert these groups to its global focus, Pakistan must remain a priority for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Particularly important is understanding the links among groups and knowing which individuals share al-Qaida’s global agenda and which are more local in focus.

The United States also needs to recognize the linkage between U.S. foreign policy and domestic threats. Killing al-Qaida affiliate leaders in places like Yemen and Somalia is a blow to the organization, but it can also anger Americans from these communities at home, particularly if done—as in the case of Somalia regarding Ethiopia—in apparent cooperation with another enemy.

At home, the FBI and local police must have strong ties to local ethnic communities. If al-Qaida is relying more on affiliates, then knowing leaders of these communities—Yemenis, Pakistanis, and so on—and helping them police themselves is essential. None of these steps will solve the problem, but together they can help the United States manage the danger more effectively.