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.