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.

Osama bin Laden. Click image to expand.
It can be hard to tell if a terror group has ties to Osama Bin Laden

Those of us who write about terrorism learn to exercise caution in the face of breaking news. So, even though Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, reportedly implicated himself in the failed Times Square car bombing, it is too soon to rush to judgment on vital questions such as his motives, the role of al-Qaida, and the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism measures.

Yet even with this caution, one thing seems clear: There is a growing danger of attacks on U.S. soil by groups affiliated with, but not formally part of, al-Qaida. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, usually known as TTP, claimed it was behind the Times Square attempt, though for now this is impossible to verify. But we do know that al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, was behind the failed Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S. airline.

Advertisement

It's always difficult to know how to categorize these affiliate groups. On one hand, drawing the circle too big risks lumping groups that are not trying to kill us in with those that are. At times, this can reach absurd levels, such as when a group like Hamas, which has a distinct agenda that is often hostile to al-Qaida's, is conflated with Osama Bin Laden's organization. But the lines are murkier in many other cases. Jamaat al-Islamiyya in Egypt, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and other salafist-jihadist groups shared elements of al-Qaida's ideology, but they had a local focus—they sought to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and so on. They didn't like the United States, and they probably cheered on 9/11, but most of their people, money, and guns were not pointed at us.

But what makes al-Qaida so distinct and so dangerous is that it tries to knit these different strands together. It backs local causes and, as it does so, it urges the groups to expand their horizons to embrace al-Qaida's global agenda. At times, some of these local groups, such as al-Qaida of Iraq or al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, have formally joined al-Qaida; at times cells or individuals tied to groups with a local focus have switched allegiance to the al-Qaida core or provided logistical support or manpower for an al-Qaida attack. And some shift over time: Egypt's Islamic Jihad at first focused on the Mubarak regime, but eventually part of the organization split and became the core of al-Qaida. Making this even more complex, after area regimes crushed Egypt's Jamaat al-Islamiyya and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, some individuals from these organizations simply switched allegiances to al-Qaida and adopted its global orientation.

This leads to a blunt policy question: Should the United States go after affiliate members, working with allied intelligence services and, in places like Pakistan, using drone strikes to kill them? Failing to do so often means missing opportunities to strike enemies before they strike you. Yet there is a danger: Hitting these groups weakens them, but it also makes them more likely to strike back against the United States on their own and in combination with al-Qaida. So, al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula—in part in response to U.S. pressure in Yemen—tried to hit back in the United States by blowing up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, not just attacking U.S. and regime targets in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

If Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan was behind the Times Square bombing, the logic may be similar. TTP has long focused on targets in Pakistan and against NATO troops in Afghanistan, but it had no global agenda. Because Washington seeks to defeat TTP and like-minded groups in the region, U.S. forces have killed some of its leaders and have targeted others (leader Hakimullah Mehsud is alive, despite a U.S. claim that he died in a drone strike in January, though the United States did kill his predecessor). Now TTP is striking the homelands of countries with troops in Afghanistan. Spanish authorities blame the group for a 2008 plot against the Barcelona subway system.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Use Facebook to Reconnect With Old Friends, Share Photos, and Serve People With Legal Papers

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?