Who counts as al-Qaeda?

October 16, 2012

Members of the Libyan militant group Ansar al-Shariah Brigades stand guard in Benghazi. (Mohammad Hannon -- Associated Press)

There's an implicit, and sometimes explicit, question in the domestic U.S. political discussion of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya: Were the attackers part of al-Qaeda? After all, the young Islamist militants committed an act of anti-American terrorism. But that doesn't necessarily make them members of al-Qaeda. So how can we tell?

There's a foreign policy aspect to this question and a domestic political aspect. The politics are straightforward: The group looms large in the American consciousness, and another attack on the anniversary of 9/11 doesn't look good for President Barack Obama. The foreign policy of it is a bit more complicated, with implications for the Afghanistan- and Pakistan-based group's ability to continue inspiring or even commanding followers, for example, and for the nature of extremist ideology in post-Qaddafi Libya.

Those are two distinct issues, but they can be tough to separate, as The New York Times hints with its headline, "Election-Year Stakes Overshadow Nuances of Libya Investigation."  What we know about the attackers is of course still developing, but the story suggests that domestic politics may be inflating the al-Qaeda connection. Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation gets a little impatient with the "promiscuous use" of the terrorist group's name:

United States intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said they intercepted boastful phone calls after the fact from attackers at the mission to individuals affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But they have also said that so far they had found no evidence of planning or instigation by the group. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, described the participation of individuals “linked to groups affiliated with or sympathetic with Al Qaeda” — acknowledging, at best, a tenuous or indirect link.  

“It is a promiscuous use of ‘Al Qaeda,’ ” Michael Hanna, a researcher at the Century Foundation, said of those charging that Al Qaeda was behind this attack. “It can mean anything or nothing at all.”

Few people are more promiscuous with the al-Qaeda name than militants themselves. The al-Qaeda offshoot in North Africa that these Libyans are allegedly linked to, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is itself an interesting story in terrorist branding. They began in 1991 as a domestic Algerian insurgency, the Armed Islamic Group, dedicated to fighting the country's military dictatorship and little else. Bad, but not al-Qaeda. They later changed names to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Comfort but, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the militant recruits and donations that SGPC relied on started flooding to Iraq. Then, in 2006, though the Algerian group had shown little interest in al-Qaeda's globally oriented mission or more extreme ideology, they changed their name again, this time adopting the attention-grabbing al-Qaeda brand as their own.

It's possible that this decision also coincided with a legitimate change in ideology -- the Iraq war upset a lot of people in the region, after all -- but it's hard to demonstrate that they had formally come under the control of Pakistan-based al-Qaeda leaders. It's also hard to ignore the possibility that it was at least in part about superficial branding. 

None of this proves that the Libyan militants do not have some connection to al-Qaeda, whether they are under the control of the world's most famous terrorist group or are adherents of its ideology. But, as the Times points out, neither does there seem to yet be any proof of a connection. The question of whether these Libyans are part of al-Qaeda is a remarkably sticky one, in part because we don't seem to yet have a rigorous definition for who counts as al-Qaeda in the first place. Do the fighters have to take orders from al-Qaeda central command, or just follow its ideology? What if they proclaim allegiance to that ideology but in practice don't adhere to it? What if they adhere to it in practice but publicly split with the leadership?

With domestic political actors on both sides so interested in pushing the al-Qaeda definition one way or another, it's probably not a question we'll answer definitively anytime soon.

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Olga Khazan | October 16, 2012