Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism

Taking out al Qaeda one by one? It sounds absurd…because it is.

u.s. soldier by a suspected al qaeda prison camp

Two US raids over the weekend – one in Libya and the other in Somalia – suggest a continued emphasis on killing or capturing top al Qaeda operatives in US counterterrorism strategy. But we could kill or capture every senior al Qaeda operative and al Qaeda would still be much stronger today than it was 12 years ago, when the US first invaded Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has evolved, and scoping a strategy to target only those individuals active on 9/11 or directly involved today in plots against American targets will not lessen al Qaeda’s threat to the US.

Abu Anas al Libi is the al Qaeda operative that a US Delta force team captured Saturday outside of Tripoli, Libya. He has been indicted in the US for his role in the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings. Last year, he reportedly went to Libya in 2012 to build an al Qaeda network at the behest of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. Yes, he’s an important figure in al Qaeda. But there are much more lethal leaders without a target on their back – the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, for example. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi renamed his organization as “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” and is conducting operations in both countries to achieve such a state.

The US Navy SEAL team raid in Somalia ended without capturing the target, and whether he was killed is unknown. The target, an al Shabaab operative by the name of Ikrima, is a commander of al Shabaab’s foreign fighters. A Kenyan intelligence report puts Ikrima at the center of multiple al Shabaab plots in Kenya, at least one of which was purported to be sanctioned by al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan. But the SEALS aborted the mission when they encountered fierce resistance. Even a successful mission would only have set al Shabaab back until Ikrima could be replaced. Not to mention the fallout from al Shabaab repelling SEAL team six.

The al Qaeda network today – in which al Shabaab is just one of many branches – will not be defeated by this pinprick strategy. Al Qaeda is active in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel, and is growing in Libya and the Sinai. In all of these places, the US relies on local forces to fight al Qaeda on the ground, which has not prevented its expansion, and airstrikes or raids to kill or capture leaders are only effective until a new leader replaces the old.

Al Qaeda is a large and networked enemy. It represents a potent threat to the American homeland. Knocking the enemy off one at a time sounds absurd on its face…because it is.

4 thoughts on “Taking out al Qaeda one by one? It sounds absurd…because it is.

  1. We are on a Fool’s Errand in more ways than just this in our ‘War on Terror.’ Defending against acts of terror in a free society is extraordinarily difficult. Not antagonizing these people in the first place is a much better strategy. And we antagonize them by our mere presence in so many regions we have no business being in the first place. Our military bases and presence in dozens of countries around the world is totally unnecesary and is counter productive. Instead of making us safer it makes us less safe.

  2. You’ve laid out the problems fairly well; so now, what is the solution?

    If even our ground efforts are failing, what’s left for us to do?

    The United States used to be a citadel attracting people from all over the world to emigrate here for freedom and financial opportunities.

    But neither of those ideals seem attractive to the new”al shabaab” (ie “the youth”) of the Middle East and Africa. Instead, they seem discontent and act like rabid dogs, panting after the jugular vein of Israel and America.

    Why are they hellbent on the West’s destruction?

    The book of Revelation comes to mind: Rev. 3:17 “They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will prevail.” (paraphrased)

  3. I agree with Katherine that targeting the leadership alone will not defeat Al Qaeda (AQ). However, that is not to say that it is never useful or even that these raids were not well conceived. When you look at the targets, one was a planner of the mall attack in Kenya that officials are afraid could be replicated in the west by Somali immigrants there, the other was a senior AQ official that reports directly to Al Zawahiri and has recently been reported to be the chief agent implementing his plans there. These were not poorly conceived targets at all.
    What the U.S. intelligence community needs to foster is the ability to determine when to use such operations and when to use more of a counter-insurgency strategy. Neither are always the answer and both have their weaknesses and advantages.

  4. We have spent or incurred liabilities of $6 trillion in Iraqistan, and Al Qaeda is stronger than ever? Not to mention $1 trillion a year in Defense, Homeland Security and VA outlays…how is this possible?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>