Since I’ve given the New York Times grief in the past about using the name “Al Qaeda” to refer to non-Al Qaeda radical Islamist groups, I wanted to give them due credit for yesterday’s piece describing the takeover of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as having been accomplished by Sunni militants. The Times piece even includes a helpful pull-out explainer box describing the origin and evolution of ISIS and its now broken relationship with Al Qaeda central.
Would that everyone had made such strides. The Washington Post’s piece on the same set of events appropriately headlines its article, attributing the attacks to generic “insurgents,” but in paragraph two of the text describes the group as “an al-Qaeda offshoot.” More paragraphs down it explains: “ISIS is an expanded and rebranded version of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization that the U.S. military claimed it had tamed, though not defeated, ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011.” It’s not until the very final graf of the lengthy piece one gets this: “Earlier this year, the leader of ISIS, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, publicly fell out with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was harshly critical of some of the group’s extreme methods. Though no longer directly affiliated with al-Qaeda, however, the group shares essentially the same goal of establishing a global Islamic state.”
The Post piece is misleading. As I’ve described, Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda (i.e. bin Laden’s Al Qaeda) didn’t just “fall out” with ISIS, it publicly and officially broke off all ties and condemned the group after ISIS refused repeatedly to comply with Zawahiri’s orders. If one is going to describe the group as an Al Qaeda offshoot in para two, this critical fact belongs in the same paragraph, not buried at the end.
This might seem more like nit-picking the Post if it were not for what seems to be its emblematic character – emblematic of a broader kind of category error in policy thinking about the post-bin Laden world. So forgive the diversion from legal analysis for a moment and take David Rothkopf’s piece today in Foreign Policy, anachronistically (and ominously) titled, “We Are Losing the War on Terror.” Set aside the fact that neither the President nor the courts has used the catch-phrase “war on terror” since circa 2008 (indeed, both have rejected it on the grounds that it is legally useless and politically obscures the actual and identifiable groups with which we have been at war). One might also set aside the misleading suggestion early in the Rothkopf piece that the growth in terrorist attacks worldwide is directed at (or indeed, has much to do with) Americans; I explained in an earlier post how that is not the case, and Rothkopf grudgingly acknowledges as much toward the end.
The larger problem of Rothkopf’s piece is that he ties the current proliferation of radical Islamist groups in the Middle East with “the war [Bowe Bergdahl] went to Afghanistan to fight.” A world of geopolitical water has gone under the bridge since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. And we will be doing ourselves a huge geopolitical and strategic disservice if we pretend we now face the same – or any – kind of war.
We went into Afghanistan in 2001 because Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda had launched a series of terrorist attacks against the United States, culminating in the unprecedented carnage of September 11; we went in to destroy bin Laden’s ability to do such damage to our country again and to root out the Taliban government that had provided bin Laden’s group a safe base from which to operate. In 2001, bin Laden’s Al Qaeda had no claims to (or plausible hope of claims to) governing a state or territory of a state; the Middle East was governed by a set of seemingly intractably stable state dictatorships. Since the Arab Spring, the situation in that part of the world is radically different, and many groups now have claims to (and some even hope of) taking over the task of governance. In 2001, bin Laden’s Al Qaeda had named the United States as the enemy, had directed its terrorist operations toward us, and had killed our citizens. How many of the 49 Salafi-jihadist groups whose existence Rothkopf laments can say the same? No doubt some of them. But equally as little doubt that many of them hold greater interests that are primarily regional and nationalistic in nature.
Ultimately, I think Rothkopf sees this as well. And none of the foregoing is to suggest that the current turmoil in the Middle East, the sectarian radicalism, even the threats that are directed against the United States (such as by AQAP) are untroubling or may be safely ignored. Far from it. But if we think simply about the changing dynamics in the Middle East as an extension of the “war we went to fight” in 2001 – even in the interest of rhetorical connection – we empower those who would simply extend existing war authorities, and will be missing the opportunity, and the imperative, of describing the world’s current problems for what they are.