We're likely to see more attacks on U.S. soil by al-Qaida affiliates.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 5 2010 5:43 PM

Coming to America

We're likely to see more attacks on U.S. soil by al-Qaida affiliates.

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If we back U.S. allies more aggressively, some American citizens may be radicalized. Several Americans of Somali origin went back to Somalia to join the jihadist al-Shabab group after the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. The United States not only gave tacit support for the Ethiopian incursion but also used the occasion to target local al-Qaida leaders. There was little consideration of how this would look to nationalistic Somali-Americans living in the United States.

When possible, the United States should try to divide these groups from one another and from the al-Qaida core. In part, this means relying on local allies to carry the flag, since they are best positioned and have the most interest in suppressing the groups. Unfortunately, in Yemen and Pakistan, the local ally is too weak—or perhaps simply unwilling—to destroy the jihadist presence, leaving the United States damned either way.

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If al-Qaida affiliates are making the American homeland a top target, this is a huge shift. This concern is most acute regarding Pakistan. In April, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay—two Afghan-Americans who went to Pakistan in 2008 to join the Taliban but were redirected by al-Qaida to the U.S. homeland—pleaded guilty of plotting to blow themselves up on New York subway trains at rush hour on the anniversary of 9/11. In Pakistan, a medley of groups, including TTP but also others such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, have a range of links to al-Qaida but also pursue their own agendas. Because the al-Qaida core is centered in Pakistan, and because it is actively trying to woo and convert these groups to its global focus, Pakistan must remain a priority for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Particularly important is understanding the links among groups and knowing which individuals share al-Qaida's global agenda and which are more local in focus.

The United States also needs to recognize the linkage between U.S. foreign policy and domestic threats. Killing al-Qaida affiliate leaders in places like Yemen and Somalia is a blow to the organization, but it can also anger Americans from these communities at home, particularly if done—as in the case of Somalia regarding Ethiopia—in apparent cooperation with another enemy.

At home, the FBI and local police must have strong ties to local ethnic communities. If al-Qaida is relying more on affiliates, then knowing leaders of these communities—Yemenis, Pakistanis, and so on—and helping them police themselves is essential. None of these steps will solve the problem, but together they can help the United States manage the danger more effectively.

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Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.