On December 1, 2004, Jonathan Schanzer and Daniel Benjamin addressed The Washington Institute's Special Policy Forum. The following is a rapporteur's summary of Mr. Schanzer's remarks.
Groups affiliated with al-Qaeda are a threat not only in the countries in which they operate, but also at the global level. Al-Qaeda's presence throughout the Muslim world comes largely in the form of these groups; attacks in Bali, Yemen, Casablanca, Iraq, and elsewhere have been linked to such affiliates.
Al-Qaeda affiliates have several characteristics in common. First, they are all independent local groups with local aims. Second, they consist of fighters who fought for al-Qaeda in foreign locales. Many were trained in Afghan camps, though Iraq is the current training ground for some. Third, affiliate groups prosper in places where there is weak central authority.
Until recently, the U.S. focus has not been on these affiliate groups. In order to counter the global terrorist threat, it is imperative that more resources be devoted to these groups. To be sure, they are, individually, smaller than the main body of al-Qaeda, but when considered together, they pose a formidable threat. Currently, there are approximately twenty-four active groups with a total of 300-500 fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda. Victories against any of these affiliates weaken the broader al-Qaeda network.
Such victories can also provide a much-needed boost to public morale. The war on terror is fought in the shadows, and much of the public hears little about it save coverage of large-scale attacks and fatalities. Counterterrorist victories are underreported, especially in Arab media. Unlike many intelligence operations aimed at foiling terrorist actions, the battle against affiliate groups can be publicized, serving as a visible evidence that progress is being made against terrorism. Such efforts also give the United States an opportunity to work with local governments in developing their terrorism and security policies.
Perhaps the most important reason to target affiliate groups is that it will help the United States win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. Affiliate groups are the low-hanging fruit of the war on terror, and the populations of the countries in which they operate will support action against them. Muslims around the world need to see that the United States is working for them, not against them.
The argument that these groups are only acting locally and hence are already contained is not valid. As evidenced by the increasing amount of affiliate activity related to some of al-Qaeda's recent large-scale attacks as well as to insurgent violence in Iraq (e.g., via cells led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), members of these groups are becoming more savvy through experience. This fact increases the potency of their local activities and makes them a potentially global problem. The appropriate response, then, is to eliminate them entirely; merely weakening them will not stem the rising tide of local and international terrorist violence.
In developing counterterrorism tactics, the United States must adopt different strategies that fit each individual group. The initiative against Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, for example, would have been much more successful if it had been a surprise attack. Because the group was given advance notice via the media, most of its members escaped before the campaign against them had officially begun. In other situations, however, a light footprint is needed. Working with local and neighboring governments is often necessary, especially in cases where borders need to be sealed or monitored more closely. Indeed, counterterrorism planning requires a detailed understanding of each affiliate organization's unique context if it is to be effective.
This Special Policy Forum Report was prepared by Deanna Befus.