A Summer of Shifting Alliances?

A Summer of Shifting Alliances?

Just keeping up with the news on international terrorism/counterterrorism this summer could be a full time job. Among many other potentially significant reports, I wanted to highlight this statement recently released by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), often described by U.S. officials as the branch of Al Qaeda that currently poses the greatest threat to the United States. The AQAP statement announces the group’s support for the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL).

“We announce solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the crusade. Their blood and injuries are ours and we will surely support them…. We assert to the Islamic Nation [all Muslims worldwide] that we stand by the side of our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the American and Iranian conspiracy and their agents of the apostate Gulf rulers.”

The statement goes on to offer various bits of non-rocket-science tactical advice to the Islamic State – watch out for spies, don’t assume electronic communications are unmonitored, digging trenches can help protect against the impact of shelling (thanks General Pershing). While I can’t generally vouch for the journalistic practices of the Yemen Times (on which I’m relying for the AQAP statement), this seems a simple direct quotation.

Why does this matter? A few reasons potentially. First, core Al Qaeda (led by Al Zawahiri) has condemned ISIL/the Islamic State and dissociated itself with the group. It is unclear how core Al Qaeda will take this move by one of its branches to voice its support for ISIL, but if AQAP intends to signal a real move away from core Al Qaeda, it would be another significant weakening of Al Qaeda’s regional and international capabilities (and a significant boost to ISIL). Second, AQAP has long been understood by the United States as a force “associated with” Al Qaeda for purposes of coverage by the statutory AUMF (authorizing the President to use force – targeting, detention, etc. – against those groups that attacked us on 9/11). If AQAP is moving to break its association with core Al Qaeda, the statutory argument that AQAP remains one of groups Congress meant to authorize force against in 2001 becomes much weaker. Given that the United States has reportedly continued to conduct targeting operations against AQAP forces in Yemen, this poses a potentially significant legal wrinkle in administration arguments that it enjoys statutory authorization for those operations. On the other hand, it would strengthen any case the administration might make to Congress for new authority to use force against ISIL and its associates. Will the administration seek such new congressional authority, particularly when the War Powers Act 60-90 day clock runs on current U.S. operations in Iraq (after which the President is required to seek congressional authorization)? Stay tuned.

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John C. Dehn

Hi Deborah,

Thanks for flagging this interesting turn of events. My view is that AQAP’s mere endorsement of ISIL does not necessarily weaken the government’s case for targeting AQAP as an associated force. That AQAP disagrees with “AQ central” regarding whether to endorse ISIL and/or its activities does not mean that it less committed to the AQ cause. It merely shows disagreement about ISIL or the role ISIL should play. In fact, I wonder whether AQAP would have said anything if the U.S. had not become involved. As the old saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That’s all AQAP seems to be saying when they purport to stand by the side of ISIL (like AQAP, also Sunni) against an alleged American and Iranian (Shi’a) conspiracy. Indeed,it could be read only to indicate broad strategic agreement (or broad ideological alignment) among like-minded Muslims rather than the strategic, operational and/or tactical partnership that AQAP apparently has with AQ.

Perhaps we could ask whether AQAP’s endorsement brings ISIL under the umbrella of the AUMF rather than whether it removes AQAP from it.


If the Obama Admin. is relying on Iraqi consent for the U.S. to engage in collective self-defense against ISIS (the best claim), what will the claim be with respect to predicted use of armed force in Syria? Certainly not consent from the Assad regime to engage in collective self-defense. Certainly not self-defense in view of the beheading of one U.S. citizen. Consent from what is left of the rebel organization in Syria that some time ago had been declared to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people?
If the U.S. does not have a viable claim to use force in Syria under international law, the recognized presidential authority under Article II of the Const. to faithfully execute the Laws (including int’l law authorizing the use of force, e.g., in self-defense) will not be applicable.