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

How It Works
Jan. 17 2014 11:35 AM

Who Are You Calling “al-Qaida”?

54105893-in-this-video-grab-taken-from-a-broadcast-by-arab
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?

Advertisement

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. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?