We now know that the closure of the embassies and consulates and the issuance of a State Department travel alert last weekend was spawned by the so-called "Legion of Doom" conference call – that wasn't really an actual conference call. Al-Qaeda members involved in this communication:
…included representatives or leaders from Nigeria's Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official….
This intercepted meeting pointed to active plots against U.S. and Western targets in Yemen and other locations. Some (here and here) have speculated that such communications might have been a ruse to manipulate intelligence agencies. Yemen, for its part, claimed that it had disrupted a plot against key targets before backing away from those claims.
What does this all mean about the future of al-Qaida?
Most of al Qaeda's energy and Zawahiri's effort is focused on the crisis inside the Arab and Islamic worlds for now. The new generation of al Qaeda—AQ 3.0, if you like—is more focused on the nearby enemy close to home than the faraway enemy in America and Europe. For now at least. But easy targets like the natural-gas plant in Algeria attacked last winter by an Qaeda cell based in Libya and Mali allow local groups to kill dozens of foreign "crusaders." And embassies are always favorite targets. After all, that is how al Qaeda started 15 years ago this month when it blew up our missions in Kenya and Tanzania.
My colleague Clint Watts offers an interesting alternative position. He wonders if the "Legion of Doom" meeting was really an attempt by al-Qaida Central to reassert itself at a time when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham grow increasingly assertive in Syria. He calls this the "two al-Qaidas hypothesis." He offers four possibilities for why the conference call took place.
Former FBI supervisory special agent Ali Soufan, writing over at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), for his part, argues that al-Qaida is resurgent because the U.S. is losing the war of ideas and that our failure to deal with the regional affiliates is a large reason for this. His argument:
"The reasons why this period is auspicious for al Qaeda are clear. What should be questioned is why, more than a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda is still deemed to have high enough capability to force the U.S. to close its embassies and consulates. This seems to be at odds with America's military and counterterrorism successes, and with the declarations of U.S. officials, including President Obama, that al Qaeda has been nearly destroyed.
The disconnect lies in our failure to appreciate that while al Qaeda central has been badly weakened by U.S. counterterrorism efforts, the group was never close to being extinguished. It adapted. It gave greater power to semi-independent affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and to more loosely connected groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The West made the mistake of failing to effectively tackle these affiliates and their propaganda, dismissing them as local problems irrelevant to the war against al Qaeda. While groups like AQAP and Boko Haram initially did focus their violence locally, terrorists who endorse Osama bin Laden's jihadist message inevitably move on to the global war against the West. That's a key lesson that I and my colleagues in law-enforcement and intelligence learned by tracking al Qaeda in the 1990s.
He also notes that the recent prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan are troubling and that the leadership of AQAP is composed of a few people who have been escapees, including al-Qaida's new "general manager" Nasser al Wahishi, who escaped from a maximum security prison in Yemen back in 2006.
Each of these arguments is compelling, but what do they mean for U.S. policy?
While President Obama has called for the necessity of ending the war on al-Qaida, he appears to be stuck. Al-Qaida seemingly controls the tempo of threats and this, in turn, drives our responses. And events such as the Benghazi consulate attack have put the administration on its heels – particularly in relation to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
No one wants to be held responsible for another large-scale or attention-grabbing attack. Furthermore, the administration's policies of trying to target and eliminate the al-Qaida leadership through drone strikes certainly seems to be assertive, but it denies in many cases the crucial intelligence that prisoners could provide to disassemble or lessen the appeal of the al-Qaida narratives. But taking new prisoners seems to be verboten for the administration because it doesn't want to deal with them and feels constrained because of the legacy of George W. Bush's administration and by progressive voices in the Democratic Party.
So what is to be done? That is the $64,000 question. Obviously, there are no simple or easy solutions. But as al-Qaida seems to be clearly focused on regional issues, the first place to start is working with and through local governments to increase their capabilities to deal with threats on the ground.
This sounds self-evident and simple; it is anything but. Local actors will have their own interests that they will try to use our money, training and equipment to achieve. We must therefore make this assistance extremely conditional and look at ways to leverage it in critical spots, rather than across-the-board, in order to maximize control over such assistance and the results on the ground.
Drone strikes should also be recalibrated and used only when necessary. Critical individuals that serve as key communication nodes should be targeted for capture when feasible and rules for handling such prisoners must be clarified so that we may keep them detained. The recent spate of prison breaks in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya argue against farming out detention to host nation governments.
Finally, this can't just be handled militarily. The U.S. military will be a player in all of this, but it should really be supporting the other interagency actors involved in assisting the regional governments under threat.
Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.