November 13, 2014 | Quote

Reasons for a New Counterterrorism Framework

One of the key criticisms of the Obama approach in combating terrorism, especially al Qaeda, is that the administration does not fully understand the organization, which hinders or blinds efforts to thwart them. Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, referenced at a House subcommittee hearing last spring the administration's approach to what is referred to as leadership decapitation. “I think the administration has had success in taking out certain key senior al Qaeda leaders. … I think the problem, again, is I think both [the Obama and Bush] administrations early on made the same mistake, which is, they define al Qaeda as this sort of this top-down pyramid with a hierarchical structure, that if you sort of lop off the top of the pyramid, the whole thing crumbles,” stated Joscelyn, who added that al Qaeda does not organize this way. This strategy has been the core of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policy, which, through the use of drones, high-value targets of al Qaeda are targeted to 1) wipe them off the battlefield, nullifying their threat; and 2) attempt to disrupt al Qaeda's leadership. As has been demonstrated throughout the 13-year War on Terror, such a strategy has only yielded tactical gains. Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain resilient, as they are able to replace fallen leaders relatively quickly.

Back to Joscelyn's point of mischaracterizing terrorist organizations. U.S. Central Command seems to be either inadvertently or blatantly mischaracterizing certain terrorist cells in Syria for various reasons. Reports last week stated that the United States hit the Khorasan Group for the first time since it first approved air strikes inside Syria in September. The Khorasan Group is believed to be a small cell of senior al Qaeda members tucked within Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official Syrian branch, who are exploiting the security vacuum and focusing on external operations — or operations aimed at harming the West. However, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, flat-out denied that the strikes hit the Nusra Front when asked point blank by CNN's Jake Tapper at the Atlantic Council last week, although he did acknowledge that U.S. strikes hit the Khorasan Group. In addition to targeting the Khorasan Group, the U.S. also hit a group called Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian rebel faction thought to have very close ties to the Nusra Front and thought to be one of the more extreme rebel groups. Ahrar al-Sham is not designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government and it has not overtly pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, meaning the strikes might run the risk of escalating the Syrian offensive beyond domestic legal authority (unless the U.S. government was targeting specific members known to be affiliated with al Qaeda) as well as alienating other key rebel groups. Such ambiguity is reason enough to define and clarify the conflict. The administration's confusing determination that ISIS — despite its public split from al Qaeda — is the inheritor of Osama bin Laden's group and message must also be reevaluated.

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Al Qaeda