In a recent Congressional Hearing before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Armed Services, Dr Christopher Swift, an academic at Georgetown University and fellow at the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, called to mind that more than a decade after 9/11 the American policy sphere still has not developed a proper understanding of how to the various groups that share the al Qaeda denominator, or more generally a jihadist worldview, interact and fit together. Are those groups the various parts of something bigger or local manifestations of political grievances articulated through Islamism as a political ideology? He argued that “[r]rather than fighting a global war across local theatres, America and its allies […] face a series of regional crisis, each with their own unique causes, characteristics, and consequences”.
One might argue that those are distinctions that bear little relevance in the ‘real’ world and are for academics to discuss. One might get this implicit understanding when Senator Dianne Feinstein proclaims that terrorism is at an all-time high, citing figures by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism at the University of Maryland. Feinstein, however, includes in her numbers attacks of the Taliban on allied forces in Afghanistan, therefore conflating attacks on legitimate targets under international law with attacks on civilians. Furthermore it is unclear why and how the Taliban would launch terrorist attacks in the US mainland.
Such arguments come at a time when debate about the future of both the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which permits the US to use force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and is seen as the authorization for the drone programme, as well as the Authorization of the Use of Military Force in Iraq (AUMFI), intensifies. The AUMF gives the President the authority to strike against “those nations, organizations, or persons [who] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”. It is generally understood that the responsibility for 9/11 lies with al Qaeda and the US consequently treats everyone with an affiliation to it as covered by the AUMF. But as Swift’s testimony has made clear the administration has no framework whatsoever to differentiate between the various actors that have sprung up over the past decade and the term associated forces, or affiliates, “has no legal or strategic meaning”. This is mirrored in 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which defines al Qaeda and its affiliates as the “preeminent security threat” for the United States but acknowledges that the AUMF may not permit the US to use force against affiliates, but against “associated forces” which are seen as co-belligerents. Nevertheless, both the central leadership as well as the affiliates are being treated as a unitary threat and the Strategy gives no guidance on how to differentiate between them. Hence, Swift argues, the US definition is over-inclusive and understands as a global war what more accurately should be seen as local or regional crisis with varying causes and actors.
An issue that is sometimes raised is the question of how to define victory in this seemingly open-ended conflict against an ambiguous network of transnational actors. In Iraq, for example, the resurgence of jihadist groups in Anbar province prompted US Secretary of State John Kerry to say that this is indeed part of a bigger fight in the region which must be resisted. Although it is unlikely that the US will again put boots on the ground, the instability across much of the Arab world may again draw the West into protracted campaigns or other sorts of engagements. Victory, in these perpetual local insurgencies, is difficult to define and even more difficult to achieve.
Yet, while the importance of defining victory cannot be overstated, a more fundamental question is often missed. Who is the enemy and are local struggles, such as in Syria where the local al Qaeda affiliate is heavily involved in the fighting, likely to become a direct rather than an indirect threat to the national security of the United States and other western states? Answers to these questions should more clearly guide any decision on where to intervene and which fight should be left to local or regional actors.
This brings us back to Swift’s testimony. Swift broke the current landscape down into three kinds of categories to differentiate between the various groups: First, a fundamental distinction must be made between groups with global and those with local ambitions. Not every actor subscribing to a radical Islamist ideology automatically wants to wage war on the West. Second, we must distinguish between those who see Islamism as a political ideology and are fighting for a political order based on its values, and those who use this ideology to pursue jihad as an end in itself. Third, a line should be drawn between groups that merely emulate al Qaeda and its tactics, and those who seek operational and organisational ties because they pursue similar aims. Swift argues that some groups will from ad hoc alliances with al Qaeda because it suits their short-term aims, while neither accepting its authority nor agreeing with its strategic aims. Such a nuanced understanding would certainly be more helpful than a simple one-size-fits-all characterisation for the design of foreign policy. It would enable the US to articulate more clearly why it sees itself in an armed conflict with particular actors, which would in turn likely increase the perceived legitimacy of its actions under international law.
Dominik Steinmeir is a 1st year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and international law, especially international humanitarian law.