Former Special Ops Adviser: Al Qaeda Is Coming Back

'Hunting in the Shadows' author Seth Jones explains how the terrorist organization has evolved.

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Triumphant from the successful pursuit of Osama bin Laden last year, President Obama proclaimed that 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. In Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa'ida Since 9/11, Jones 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 recently spoke with U.S. News about his theory of "waves" of violence from the world's most notorious terrorist organization and what needs to be done to prevent the next cycle. Excerpts:

What are the three waves of al Qaeda terrorism?

When you look at fatality data, what you see is three major waves of activity. 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 [2001]. 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.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is America Safer Under Barack Obama?]

Is there a pattern or a cause for the cycles?

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.

What else does your analysis show?

The struggle against al Qaeda really depends on the precise use of violence. It is a war in which the side that kills the most civilians loses.

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Is there currently a threat of a fourth wave?

I would say the fourth wave is probably beginning to happen now. The biggest variable is the weakness of multiple governments coming from Arab Spring. Al Qaeda activities, the number of attacks now, have actually increased, even around the time of [the killing of] bin Laden.

Did bin Laden's death impact al Qaeda?

A little bit. What it appears to have done is probably weaken the core element in Pakistan, that central leadership lost its most important actor. But 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 are groups whose leaders have sworn loyalty to [al Qaeda's new leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri.

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Who are these groups?

There are several. There's al Qaeda in Iraq, which still exists. The most recent one is al Shabaab, which in February formally announced that they were a part of al Qaeda. There's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based out of Yemen, and there's al Qaeda in the Maghreb. They are directly connected to al Qaeda central.

Do the new groups expand the threat?

They 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.