Al Qaeda’s devastating 2001 attacks on the United States undoubtedly made Osama bin Laden the most wanted terrorist on the planet. His recent death—and the well-conceived plan that enabled it—is a tremendous victory for the Obama administration that should be heralded. But as spontaneous displays of elation erupt around the world, we must acknowledge that the terrorist threats to our national security do not die with bin Laden.
Since 9/11 we have seen some important successes in the fight against terrorism, including the disruption of terrorist financing networks, the interruption and prevention of attacks both at home and abroad, and a significantly narrower global operating space for terrorists. But the growth and strengthening of multiple local Al Qaeda franchises indicates the need to further shift our policy approach to ensure our long-term security.
The State Department’s 2009 “Country Reports on Terrorism” rightly notes that the Al Qaeda threat has become more dispersed and more geographically diversified in recent years. The Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has undertaken multiple attacks against the United States and its allies since its founding in January 2009. Some of these attacks were more successful than others but there’s little doubt they will continue.
A lesser-known affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which is based in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region, has dramatically upped its kidnapping and killing of westerners in recent months. Many believe they were responsible for last week’s attack in Morocco.
Even the Somali-based al-Shabab, which maintains loose ties with Al Qaeda, recently undertook its first international operation in Uganda during the 2010 World Cup. Unfortunately, the attack succeeded and more than 70 people were killed, including Americans. Al-Shabab spokesmen have already communicated that they plan to take revenge for bin Laden’s death with "destructive explosions."
The 2009 “Country Reports” goes on to note that “[a]lthough the al Qaeda core in Pakistan remains the most significant threat to the United States, efforts to expand its operational capabilities by partnering with other terrorist groups remained a top priority for the organization.” Clearly Al Qaeda achieved this goal.
Bin Laden’s death may render Al Qaeda central’s fate uncertain for the time being. But we should be under no illusions that the global network of affiliates—no matter how loosely connected—is about to crumble.
Just last week, at a conference in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Dan Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for the Office of Global Terrorism, once again reminded us that “[w]hile the AQ core has weakened operationally, the affiliates have become stronger … [and that] this shift in activity towards the affiliates has been underway for some time.” The death of Osama bin Laden has great potential to reinforce that shift.
The Obama administration has an important opportunity to shift its counterterrorism policy toward a comprehensive approach that boldly recalibrates and adapts to a dramatically changed landscape. This opportunity is only reinforced by the uprisings across the Arab world, which are an unequivocal rejection of Al Qaeda’s fundamental principles.
The administration should consider these suggestions:
Lose the country-by-country approach
The Obama administration should craft a more comprehensive approach that focuses on the transnational, interconnected nature of global terrorism instead of focusing on a country-by-country approach to fight terrorism. The increasing ability for the local Al Qaeda affiliates to act quasi-independently while still maintaining critical links to Al Qaeda central means we need to be smart about engagement. Anticipating and preventing attacks requires a strategic focus that doesn’t get stuck in one part of the world indefinitely. Given the finite resources available, being smart means being strategic in our deployment of resources—both financial and materiel. Getting caught off guard or underestimating a potential safe haven because we’re too narrowly focused on one country or one region could result in an ad hoc response that jeopardizes our security instead of enhancing it.
Reflect on local conditions
We also need to consider the impact of local conditions on our ability to partner with local actors. A more global approach means factoring local elements into the overarching strategy in order to facilitate better decision making.
Consider these questions: How willing and able are local governments to work together to combat cross-border threats, such as in the case of Mali and Algeria? How do development concerns—such as water scarcity or rampant corruption in a pre-revolutionary Yemen—impact commitment to focus on the threats that are our top priorities? How can we help build a functional central government in Somalia in order to decrease opportunities for terrorists to operate there? How can our foreign assistance contribute to economic growth and support the many unemployed youth throughout North Africa and the Middle East, who might be otherwise open to recruitment by terrorist groups?
Crafting a meaningful, sustainable strategy to fight terrorism requires finding the right balance between understanding critical local conditions and being able to respond to legitimate threats from around the world.
Centralize human rights and governance
Al Qaeda affiliates—from Algeria to Yemen—thrive on political instability as well as by associating America with autocratic regimes such as those that have recently been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia. The United States can no longer be seen as complicit in the denial of freedom and human dignity if it actively and openly supports human rights, accountability, and the rule of law.
Engaging beyond government officials—as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has increasingly sought to do—can help bolster genuine efforts at democratic reform. Employing a two-pronged approach that works closely with governments and civil society can help readjust our foreign policy goals to embrace these core values at the same time that it further undermines Al Qaeda’s objectives.
Get our diplomats out and about
Our diplomats work in tough environments but they still should be encouraged to get out of embassy compounds for regular meetings with representatives from the local community. These meetings help diplomats gain better access to open-source information and understand local dynamics, and they can also help reshape the face of America by encouraging the growth of individual relationships and networks.
The death of bin Laden and the uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa present an essential window for the Obama administration to shift toward a more globalized, wide-ranging counterterrorism policy. Some of the measures outlined above are already underway but a more pronounced effort is needed. We can better address our security concerns while helping to build legitimate democratic partners around the world by implementing a global approach that focuses on the decentralization of Al Qaeda, incorporates local dynamics, prioritizes human rights and the rule of law, and bolsters the work of our diplomats.
Sarah Margon is the Associate Director for the Sustainable Security program at American Progress.