Al Qaeda 2.0

While the recent American and Iraqi victories against Al Qaeda in Iraq represent welcome progress, it’s important to place these developments in the context of regional developments, and in the context of President Bush’s misguided ‘war on terror’ policies.

Various Bush administration courtiers have tried to spin the containment of Al Qaeda in Iraq as a vindication of the invasion of Iraq, carefully eliding the fact that Al Qaeda in Iraq was a consequence of America in Iraq. Further, by presenting Al Qaeda in Iraq as a unit under the command and control of Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda itself as a distinct militant faction, Bush supporters can point to body counts as indicators of success, ignoring the ideological and propaganda components of Al Qaeda’s continuing operations in the region, and the way that the Iraq war has benefited both.

Rather than simply a discrete faction, Al Qaeda is more accurately understood as a collection of factions under a shared ideology. And this ideology, unfortunately, is alive in the Middle East.

This New York Times article describes a process by which an Algerian militant faction has been transformed into an Al Qaeda franchise:

The transformation of the group from a nationalist insurgency to a force in the global jihad is a page out of Mr. bin Laden’s playbook: expanding his reach by bringing local militants under the Qaeda brand. The Algerian group offers Al Qaeda hundreds of experienced fighters and a potential connection to militants living in Europe.[…]

Just as the Qaeda leadership has been able to reconstitute itself in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas, Al Qaeda’s North Africa offshoot is now running small training camps for militants from Morocco, Tunisia and as far away as Nigeria…The State Department in April categorized the tribal areas and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as the two top hot spots in its annual report on global terrorism.

In his February testimony (pdf) on the National Threat Assessment, Director of National Intelligence McConnell identified Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as a “significant threat to US and European interests in the region.” McConnell also noted that “AQI terrorists have moved from Iraq to establish cells in other countries,” in the Middle East and North Africa, bringing tactics developed in Iraq to bear elsewhere in the region, a development which Andrew Exum details here.

While the high leadership of Al Qaeda continues to exert important influence over new franchisees — making the Bush administration’s failure to capture them all the more egregious — disparate groups continue to gather underneath Al Qaeda’s banner and appropriate its ideology of violence against the United States and Middle East governments it deems “un-Islamic.”

Because of President Bush’s insistence on a militaristic “war on terror” strategy, the U.S. has not seriously addressed the conditions that facilitate the rise of an ideology like Al Qaeda’s. John McCain’s promise to continue Bush’s policies in this respect indicates that, under a McCain presidency, we’ll still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars to play whack-a-mole.