Put the words “Al Qaeda” in a news headline, and you inevitably conjure a very particular idea in the mind of the American reader. “Al Qaeda” is the group that attacked the United States on 9/11. The group led by Osama bin Laden (now led, some might recall, by his successor, Ayman Zawahiri). The group we’ve been at war with for the past decade-plus, and that would gladly attack us again when it has the chance. It’s the group (legal-minded readers would add) whose members the President is authorized by the AUMF statute to detain indefinitely or target lethally. It’s a term, in other words, that has specific and powerful meaning in our political and legal life.
But the recent reporting on the takeover of Falluja in Iraq by an “Al-Qaeda-linked” group obscures a much more complicated reality than the one conjured by the brand name “Al Qaeda.” (Among the recent headlines: “Qaeda-Linked Militants in Iraq Secure Nearly Full Control of Falluja” in the New York Times; “U.S. Won’t Ship Iraq The Weapons It Needs to Fight Al Qaeda” (describing “Fallujah’s fall to al Qaeda”) in Foreign Policy.)
Read even a little bit past some of the headlines (ok, typically about ten paragraphs past, more often in a different story altogether) and one learns that the group that took over Fallujah is a radical Islamist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). True, the same group (more or less) was once known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) (one of about a half-dozen changing names in the mix over the past decade), but the name changed again about a year ago to reflect the group’s growing aspirations and involvement in Syria as well.
Ok, but just because the group is now called ISIS rather than AQI doesn’t mean reports are wrong to call it Al-Qaeda-linked, right? Fair enough, a rose by any other name, etc. So how can one tell whether a group is actually Al Qaeda affiliated or not?
As Harold Koh reminded us at the AALS conference last week (great panel put together by the Section on National Security Law), what matters in the domestic legal sense (in the sense Congress and the Administration and courts have used it in interpreting the 2001 AUMF) is whether these groups are “co-belligerents.” While the term lacks anything like the certainty in international law that many administration lawyers seem to think it has, the Administration at least has adopted a multifactor test for what it thinks co-belligerency means: (1) an organizational affiliation such that Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda is capable of exercising a degree of command and control over the associated group; (2) evidence that the associated group has in fact “joined the fight”; (3) “the fight” that the associated group has joined is against the United States. If the group doesn’t meet those criteria, it doesn’t fit within the definition of the law.
Let’s start with organizational control. As best I can tell from published reports, one of the main sources of in-fighting amongst Islamist rebel group in Syria stems precisely from the fact that ISIS is not following orders from Zawahiri. Here’s Sarah Birke’s recent article (once again headlined, “How al-Qaeda Changed the Syrian War”) from the New York Review of Books describing the evolution:
[ISIS founder] al-Baghdadi decided it was time to merge [another radical Islamist group, Jabhat al-] Nusra, with Al Qaeda in Iraq, expanding the geographical spread of the organization, which doesn’t recognize national borders but seeks to unite the entire umma, or Muslim community of believers, under one rule. He declared the two branches would be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to Greater Syria, the whole expanse of the Levant that holds a special place in jihadist thought for being the heart of the region and close to Jerusalem. But Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Mohammed al-Jolani, who is Syrian, refused the merger, possibly because it had not been sanctioned by al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman Zawahiri, who later ruled that the two groups should remain separate (a ruling ignored by the ambitious Baghdadi, leading some to consider ISIS outside al-Qaeda). In fact, while ISIS and Nusra share many aims, and both are well funded and trained, there are significant differences between the two groups. Jabhat al-Nusra stresses the fight against Assad, while ISIS tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule on conquered territory. Nusra has pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, while ISIS is far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately. And while Nusra, despite its large contingent of foreign fighters, is seen as a home-grown problem, Syrians at the border frequently described Da’ash as foreign “occupiers” in their country.
Indeed, while Zawahiri has been trying to assert Al Qaeda’s authority over both ISIS and its rival Islamist group Al Nusra, neither group has been a model of compliance. In a videotaped aired by Al Jazeera two months ago, Zawahiri blamed the leaders of both groups for acting without the knowledge of the central al-Qaeda leadership, and ordered the re-organization of jihadist efforts in Syria and Iraq by abolishing ISIS and giving Al Nusra sole responsibility for Syria. ISIS, however, has shown no sign of curtailing its Syrian operations. Indeed, Foreign Policy separately reports that ISIS arrested, and has probably killed, a Jabhat al-Nusra commander in the city of Raqqa. Despite all this, the Times in particular is fond of citing the “black banners of Al Qaeda” as evidence that ISIS, et al. remain tied to the same mast, as it were. But terrorist experts have regularly pointed out the popularity of the black flag with the white lettering among a range of Islamist groups across the region. As Aaron Zelin, co-author of a recent West Point Counterterrorism Center report, put it: “Just because they have a flag does not necessarily mean they are al Qaeda. Anybody could use a flag like that.”
Beyond all this, there’s no evidence I’ve been able to unearth that ISIS has in fact “joined the fight” against the United States. On the contrary, as Dan Byman recently reminded us: “AQI’s focus on Iraq’s Shi’a government and population was never in harmony with the Al Qaeda’s core’s focus on the United States and the West.” While ISIS’s radical Islamism, and of course regional sectarianism more broadly, may well have a host of troubling implications, it is far from the same kind of danger to the United States posed by a group – the Al Qaeda of 2001 the name still evokes – with both the means and the motive to attack the United States directly.
Which brings me back to the original point. Whether or not ISIS is lawfully subject to the use of force authorized by the 2001 AUMF – and I am so far unpersuaded that it is – use of the name “Al Qaeda” in headlines has political consequences in our public debate. If it’s really that Al Qaeda, political pressure to use force in Iraq (and everywhere else) will build. If it’s something else – a group with different aims, a different focus – then our strategy may well and wisely be quite different.
Journalists trying to report from the nightmare of Syria and Iraq are doing a brave and important service; more than one has died trying to do it. But the headlines are misleading. We should all read more about what’s going on in Syria and Iraq. And if we don’t know what or who, we should be able to read that, too.