By Taylor Marvin
Stephen Walt raises an interesting, if uncontroversial, point about international terrorism:
If copycat jihadi organizations dropped the phrase “Al Qaeda” from their names, our perception of terrorist threat would decline sharply.
— Stephen Walt (@StephenWalt) February 6, 2013
Uncontroversial, because this is a widely-appreciated and mourned fact of US foreign policy decisionmaking. The American public rightly associates the name “al Qaeda” with the specter of 9/11, and an inherent threat of devastating violence. This is, of course, understandable. There are at any moment dozens of violent organizations that oppose the United States, and it’s unreasonable to expect the non-professional electorate to keep the goals and relative capabilities of these various groups straight. Al Qaeda, a instantly recognizable name, will always stand out among alien-named jihadi organizations — while a only small percentage of American know how to pronounce “the base” in Arabic, I’d wager more do than any other Arabic phrase.
But just because this association is understandable doesn’t mean mean it isn’t an overreaction. As is frequently noted, modern al Qaeda represents a loose ideological association of regional affiliates rather than an single operationally-unified organization. “If you’re focusing just on North Africa, al Qaeda is a brand name as much as an organization,” then-Secretary Clinton said in testimony last month regarding the September 2012 Benghazi attack. This is certainly true — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the rebranded Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, does not share the al Qaeda of 2001’s global reach, demonstrated operational capabilities, and ideological determination to strike US targets. While it is unclear if AQIM possesses the operational requirements to mount attacks inside the US, it is certainly less motivated to do so than bin Laden’s al Qaeda, which was ideologically driven by bin Laden’s opposition to US military basing in Saudi Arabia. In a late January press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated he was “unaware of any specific or credible information at this time that points to an AQIM threat against the homeland,” but made certain to reemphasize that the US considers this admittedly unlikely threat significant, noting “we take al Qaeda wherever they are very seriously.” This is an implicit admission that AQIM is viewed as a serious terrorist threat because of its al Qaeda moniker, rather than any operational aspect of the organization itself.
Jihadi groups that share a broad ideological link with bin Laden’s organization adopt the al Qaeda moniker because it is respected and legitimizing. Around the world the al Qaeda name is associated with both demonstrated lethality and ideological devotion, and, despite the last decade’s damage to the al Qaeda brand among Muslims, Islamist groups that co-opt the name gain a veneer of dangerous efficacy. To recruitment-minded jihadi groups this legitimizing veneer is operationally valuable.
But the legitimizing power of the al Qaeda brand is partially due to the US’ determination to eliminate it. Among groups that oppose the US — even tangentially, like AQIM — strong opposition from the US is an important signaling device. “See,” it says, “we’re so real the US really wants us dead.” Among Islamist or Islamist-aligned violent groups, the legitimizing effect of determined, public US opposition is an important marker of ideological and operational seriousness.
But it’s important to understand these two effects — jihadis adopt the al Qaeda name because the US fears it, Americans see al Qaeda everywhere and thus fear it more — feed off each other. The name al Qaeda will be a legitimizing force co-opted by violent Islamist groups as long as Americans perceive the term in any context as a grave threat. As long as Americans perceive the spread of the al Qaeda name as evidence the organization is growing more lethal, rather than simply geographically and ideologically disseminated, they will continue to fear it.
Copycat jihadi organizations won’t drop the name al Qaeda precisely because “our perception of the terrorist threat” is tied to its prevalence. As long as US policymakers are unable to publicly distinguish between different brands of al Qaeda in a way digestible by the American electorate the cycle will continue.