Al Qaeda diminished, say panelists

Al Qaeda no longer occupies the position of strength it did even a few years ago, said members of a panel that spoke May 1 in Washington, D.C.

"Does it command the same level of fear in this country, is it shaping events in the Middle East as it once did?" asked William McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Naval Analyses. "I don't believe it does, outside of, say, the southern part of Yemen," he added. He spoke at an event put on by the Center for National policy timed to occur around the one year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death during a Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan in 2011.

One of the major contributing factors to its diminishment--greater even than the death of bin Laden, McCants said--is the Arab Spring.

The outcome has been that many very conservative Muslims--known as Salafis--have begun to participate in party politics whereas previously they eschewed participation as corrupt, McCants said. That's significant because that audience of fellow travelers has been the one to which al Qaeda focused resources on justifying it legitimacy, McCants said--and that audience now has "real doubts about staying completely out of politics or using violence to overthrow the government."

Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University said jihadist movements worldwide are undergoing a period of re-localization in their focus and drivers for action. The fact of affiliation with the central core of al Qaeda by groups in Algeria and elsewhere aren't necessarily signs of strength, he said.

The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat became al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb "from a position of weakness," Tankel said. "Joining al Qaeda was a way to try to regenerate," he said.

Somalia-based group al Shabaab may have also sworn affiliation with al Qaeda "after it has perhaps peaked," Tankel said, noting also that the divisions with the group may have varying degrees of fealty to al Qaeda.

Affiliate movements do have ideological overlap and there is connectivity between them and core al Qaeda, he said, but a sensible path for defeating them lies in a regional approach. AQIM, for example, should be treated as just one of many potentially destabilizing forces in the region.

Mary Habeck, an associate professor in Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, took a different line than McCants and Tankel, stating that there is no division between core al Qaeda and affiliates. "This is actually a false dichotomy. The two have to been seen as a part of a single organization--not a movement, not a network, but an organization," she said.

That level of organization has allowed al Qaeda to be resilient in the face of bin Laden's death, Habeck said. It reacts "to attrition simply with more recruiting, and greater ability in fact to show that they are more flexible, more resilient than the United States gives them credit for."  

For more:
- go to the Center for National Policy event webpage (webcast available)

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