Is Al Qaeda winning? That was the provocative title of a House hearing this week to delve into the status of the terrorist group. Rep. Ted Poe (R) of Texas made his views on the matter clear early in his opening remarks.
“Al Qaeda is not on the verge of defeat,” said Representative Poe, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. “Al Qaeda has not been reduced to a few old men hiding somewhere in Pakistan.”
The core of Al Qaeda in the tribal region of Pakistan has been reduced “thanks to US pressure in recent years,” said former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, who is now co-chair of the American Internationalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. But, he added, territory where Al Qaeda affiliates can find sanctuary “has grown dramatically” during this same period, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.
The prospect of growing Al Qaeda sanctuaries in three countries – Iraq, Libya, and Syria – is “especially dangerous,” Mr. Lieberman told lawmakers Tuesday. But of the three, “the situation in Syria is I believe by far the most alarming.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently described Syria as an “apocalyptic disaster,” Lieberman pointed out. “Syria has become the most dangerous terrorist sanctuary in the world today,” the former senator said.
Former Rep. Jane Harman, now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, voiced similar concerns about Syria. In “a perverse twist,” more than a dozen years after the United States overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan, which served as a haven for Al Qaeda, “we may be seeing its sequel in Syria,” she said.
There are currently an estimated 10,000 foreign fighters in Syria, Mr. Lieberman said.
But more than at any other time since 9/11, Ms. Harman said, it is “extremely hard” to differentiate those fighters – in other words, telling the difference between “your average band of militants, or to understand their various strategies.”
“No longer is it just good guys and bad guys,” she said. “It’s also terrorist on terrorist. It’s bad guy versus bad guy.”
It was Al Qaeda, after all, that objected to transfers of weapons and money to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). “Al Qaeda is now fighting with groups like ISIS, which it considers too radical,” Harman added. “I find that quite amazing to get your head around.”
She urged lawmakers not to give “too much credit” to Al Qaeda. “Let’s remember that it helps the Al Qaeda narrative to call every terror group ‘Al Qaeda,’ ” she said. “But they’re not.”
“Perhaps the most important” key to countering the Al Qaeda narrative, she argued, is the US coming up with a better narrative.
“We need to win the argument with the next kid who is trying to decide whether or not to plant a pressure cooker bomb or strap on a suicide vest,” she said. “Many think out in the world that the US stands for drones, Gitmo, gun violence, and spying.”