Why Describing Terrorist Groups as "Al-Qaida-Linked" Can Be Misleading

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Jan. 17 2014 11:35 AM

Who Are You Calling “al-Qaida”?

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Ayman al-Zawahiri: Still in control?

Photo by Getty Images

A few days ago, I wrote a post on the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the Islamist militant group that now controls territory in both countries, describing it as a “new al-Qaida offshoot.” But is that really an accurate description?

Yes, ISIS is the successor organization to al-Qaida in Iraq, but the group has reportedly directly disobeyed the wishes of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and has violently clashed with another group routinely described as “al-Qaida-affiliated,” Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra. If ISIS is an “al-Qaida-linked group,” is that description really useful anymore?

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As Deborah Pearlstein writes, the label “obscures a much more complicated reality than the one conjured by the brand name ‘Al Qaeda.’ ” Beyond whether it’s a bit journalistically misleading, there are political consequences to how the group is labeled. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which is still being used to justify U.S. counterterrorist operations in places like Somalia, pertains to the groups that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

Dangerous as ISIS may be for its region, it seems like a bit of a stretch to describe its goals as in concert with those of al-Qaida central, circa 2001. As Osama Bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri, appears less and less in control of the actions of groups like ISIS, al-Shabaab, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and others that routinely fall under the “al-Qaida” umbrella in media accounts, it seems like it may be time to narrow our definitions a bit.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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