U.S. President Barack Obama said last week that the Al-Qaeda was “on a path to defeat,” but Seth Jones, a former U.S. Special Operations Command senior adviser, says the evidence he has collected points to the contrary.
Jones recently wrote a book called “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa'ida Since 9/11”, in which he draws upon his expertise and thousands of pages of court transcripts, including wiretapped conversations and communications intelligence intercepts, to paint a picture of a terrorist organization that has been transformed, but not defeated.
Jones spoke with the U.S. News website last week about his theory of “waves” of violence from Al-Qaeda and what needs to be done to prevent the next cycle.
“When you look at fatality data, what you see is three major waves of activity,” he said. “The first wave really begins around the time of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and crests around September 11 . And then it comes way down after that. By the invasion of Iraq [in 2003], we begin to see a major increase in Al-Qaeda attacks. And it first starts in Iraq itself, where Al-Qaeda in Iraq is established after the invasion. And then it starts to get reinvigorated overseas—Bali, Casablanca, Madrid, and a very successful attack in London. The third wave starts around 2008 and into 2009, in particular with Al-Qaeda's successful establishment of a sanctuary in Yemen.”
He noted that “Those waves tended to rise when the United States and its allies have deployed large numbers of conventional forces to Muslim countries, Al-Qaeda has adopted a selective engagement strategy, and governments collapse in countries where Al-Qaeda has a support base. And these waves have tended to ebb when the United States and foreign powers have utilized a light-footprint, clandestine strategy, Al-Qaeda has embraced a punishment strategy that kills a large number of civilians and undermines its support, and local governments have developed competent security forces.”
Jones noted that he believes that a “fourth wave” of attacks will probably begin to happen now.
“The biggest variable is the weakness of multiple governments coming from Arab Spring,” he said. “Al-Qaeda activities, the number of attacks now, have actually increased, even around the time of [the killing of] bin Laden.”
He added that Osama bin Laden's death had “a little bit” of an impact on Al-Qaeda, mainly in the core element in Pakistan. He noted however, that, “at the same time, and this is part of a conscious decision by Al-Qaeda, is they have established what you might call a mergers and acquisitions strategy, where they have reached out and cut deals with a range of affiliated groups.”
These groups, Jones said, include Al-Qaeda in Iraq, al Shabaab in Somaila, as well as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based out of Yemen and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.
He said these groups “clearly, especially with the Yemen group, have continued to plot attacks against the U.S. homeland and its interests, including U.S. embassies in Africa. If you take the formal affiliates and the less formal allies, what Al-Qaeda's done is become a little more decentralized. The central part in Pakistan after bin Laden's death is less important than it was.”
Asked what advice he would give to President Obama today, Jones said, “One, [I would emphasize] that Al-Qaeda is regenerating. And two, that we have got to focus our intelligence and special operations and FBI presence on probably about eight or nine countries, to work with their governments, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. We cannot leave in 2014 based on the trends right now in this area.”
He concluded by saying that the U.S. should “have a very robust special operations presence” in Afghanistan.
Obama said last week his goal of defeating Al-Qaeda is within reach and that it's time to turn the country's attention to domestic concerns.
“After more than a decade of war, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” he said in his weekly radio and Internet address last Saturday, taking note of the agreement he signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which shifts security to the Afghan people.
Obama said the nation now should concentrate on economic issues such as tax disparities and government spending.
“That's why I've called on Congress to take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt and use the other half to rebuild America,” he said.