What exactly is al-Qaeda?
Is it a group of committed jihadists previously led by Osama bin Laden? Or it is a “brand?”
Is the enemy just the so-called “core” al-Qaeda, or it is now an amorphous conglomerate of affiliates, franchisees and enthusiasts?
If “core al-Qaeda” is, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper just said in his most recent congressional testimony, those “remnants” of the original ideological core still in Pakistan and Afghanistan, by what criteria are other groups not self-identifying as “al-Qaeda” then deemed as “designated al-Qaeda.”
Considering the President’s State of the Union anti-terrorist to-do list of Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali, is al-Qaeda really “on the path to defeat?” Is it “resurgent?” Or is the to-do list just a broad wish list of militants and insurgents not really associated with “core” al-Qaeda?
And now that Osama bin Laden is long-since dead, is Ayman al-Zawahri truly running a massive network of evildoers? Or is he, as CNN’s Peter Bergen wrote in 2012, “a black hole of charisma” who will never fill the void left behind by Osama bin Laden?
Questions are manifold. Answers are, as ever, scarce.
The confusion about al-Qaeda’s role in Syria and Iraq supposed fronts in the nearly thirteen year war on those responsible for 9/11 illustrates the extent to which an ill-defined al-Qaeda is the crucial element sustaining the War On Terror.
It has been both officially asserted and widely accepted that al-Qaeda is actively fighting to take control of both Syria and Iraq. Both print and television news media used alarming headlines to emphasize the persistent specter of al-Qaeda in Syria and to bemoan its takeover of two Iraqi cities Fallujah and Ramadi.
But then came a poser. Zawahri seems to have distanced himself and his “core” version of al-Qaeda from the proceedings in Syria. The way two major news agencies handled the story tells as much about the problem of defining al-Qaeda as it does about al-Qaeda itself.
Here’s how the Associated Press headlined the story: “Al-Qaeda breaks with Syria group in mounting feud.”
However, that was not the first version to appear on AP’s website. The original headline from AP was: “Al-Qaeda breaks ties with group in Syria.” And that was the headline run by Yahoo!News, US News & World Report, the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of outlets that use AP’s wire service. FOX News altered AP’s headline a bit: “Al Qaeda announces it’s breaking ties with militant group fighting in Syria,” and the Times of Israel followed suit by also adding a qualifier: “Al-Qaeda breaks ties with rebel group in Syria.”
This isn’t a simple difference in style. In this second headline, al-Qaeda “denies” a connection to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a group consistently identified as “al-Qaeda” by the U.S. news media. Other European outlets used both “denies” and “ISIL” in their versions, and Haaretz used the Reuters wire story and an even more precise headline: “Al-Qaeda denies link to Syrian militant group ISIL.”
“Syrian militant group” is a far cry from al-Qaeda, which is how the ISIL is consistently referred to by the US government, members of Congress and much of the U.S. media. Make no mistake, it matters how these groups are characterized. Although decision-makers like to raise the all-inclusive threat posed by “The Terrorists,” there is a black and white distinction at the very center of who’s who in the wide world of terrorism.
That’s because the War On Terror depends upon the Authorization For Use Of Military Force (AUMF). Passed on Sept. 14, 2001 and signed by President Bush four days later, the AUMF authorized the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”
This is the authorization President Obama uses every time a drone kills “suspected militants” in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. Although 9/11 was officially the alpha and the omega of the AUMF, the expansive language of “designated al-Qaeda,” its affiliates and various linked groups provides an evergreen public relations cover story for the mostly-secret program of targeted killings. Mostly secret.
While relentless gumshoes at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism piece together the details of the killer drone program from numerous sources and tabulate the mounting death toll in spite of official silence, Team Obama happily leaks information when it suits their purposes. An unnamed official told the Washington Post that the killer drone program was being curtailed in Pakistan as a concession to the Pakistani government’s peace talks with the Taliban. The official did note that the U.S. reserves the right to kill “…senior al-Qaeda targets, if they become available, and move to thwart any direct, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”
But aren’t senior al-Qaeda targets who directly and imminently threaten U.S. persons the whole point of AUMF? Aren’t these the “core al-Qaeda” DNI Clapper defined in his testimony? Also, has the killer drone program been assassinating people who are not “core” evildoers? The anonymously-confirmed pseudo-hiatus implies that the U.S. has been killing insurgents engaged in a political battle with their government. In fact, former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf stated exactly that after he returned to home to run for office, but then ended up on trial for treason.
This is the ultimate danger of this program that the ever-expanding AUMF transforms the killer drone program into a de facto assassination tool used in quid pro quo agreements with governments, to shore up factional allies or to tip the balance of power in sovereign nations. It’s something that got the CIA into trouble back in the 1970s.
And it’s something made so much easier by the advent of drones and the secrecy surrounding the program. Ever since Dick Cheney hailed a taxi to the dark side, it’s been harder and harder to trust executive power operating under the cover of national security. Perjury by DNI Clapper about the NSA’s spying program makes it difficult to trust him on anything including about the parameters and capabilities of al-Qaeda.
So, what is al-Qaeda? And what happened in Syria?
The AP characterized Zawahri’s statement as an “apparent” move “to reassert the terror network’s prominence in the jihad movement across the Middle East amid the mushrooming of extremist groups during the upheaval of the past three years.”
The Reuters story stated, “Al-Qaeda‘s general command has said it has no links with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in an apparent attempt to assert authority over the Islamist militant groups involved in Syria‘s civil war.”
Apparent? To whom?
Reassert prominence? Or assert authority?
Are extremist groups really “mushrooming,” and do they, like “core al-Qaeda,” now fall under the AUMF?
What is the truth? How can we verify it? And without it, will the war ever really end?
JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. His weekly show, Inside the Headlines w/ The Newsvandal, co-hosted by James Moore, airs every Friday on KRUU-FM in Fairfield, Iowa and is available online. Visit his website.