January 16, 2014 | War on the Rocks

Interpreting al-Qaeda: Milbank Gets it Wrong

Earlier this month, I argued at Foreign Policy that U.S. commentary on al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring has largely misinterpreted what the revolutionary events meant for the jihadist group. I contended that the clandestine nature of the al-Qaeda network poses a major problem for analysts: its components attempt to keep their organizational structure, inner workings, and relationships hidden from view, and thus we have to be very modest about the limitations of our knowledge when writing about them. There is perhaps no better exemplar of the dangers of a hubristic approach to defining and analyzing the jihadist group than Dana Milbank’s most recent Washington Post column.

Milbank’s piece questions what the expansion of al-Qaeda’s franchises actually means for U.S. security. He concludes that al-Qaeda is now essentially an empty label, a name that lacks organizational meaning. However, Milbank’s method for reaching this conclusion is bound to confuse rather than enlighten.

Read the full article here.


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