What Would al Qaeda's PowerPoints Say?


Aug 23, 2013

Afghan al Qaeda members captured in Decemeber 2001

photo by Reuters/Erik de Castro

This commentary originally appeared on The RAND Blog and GlobalSecurity.org on August 23, 2013.

It seems unlikely that al Qaeda holds conference calls to do business, and they probably don't use PowerPoints. But for the sake of discussion, what if they did? And if they held one today, what would their presentation look like?

To al Qaeda, there would be much about which to gloat:

  • Slide one: “We have survived the infidel's mightiest blows.” The terrorist group's primary objective is to keep its jihad alive. Al Qaeda cannot control its own destiny, but it can try to exploit circumstances by insinuating itself into local conflicts. And it's very good at doing just that. Overall, al Qaeda's situation has improved since the Arab uprisings began. Jihadist activity has spread across North Africa and the Middle East, and the number of al Qaeda affiliates has increased. Although these new fronts are focused on local struggles, and not al Qaeda's global jihad, the fact that they have been willing to raise the al Qaeda banner — and in some cases reach out to al Qaeda itself — indicates that al Qaeda's brand is still attractive.

  • Slide two: “We're winning in Afghanistan. Despite public pleas from its own military commanders that they need more time, the United States is withdrawing.” Al Qaeda spins the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a failure of the infidel's ability to defeat al Qaeda there. It is a replay of the Soviet retreat and ultimate collapse. The fact is the departure of allied forces will enable the Taliban to expand its control, thereby guaranteeing al Qaeda's survival in that part of the world.

  • Slide three: “We're expanding.” During the past two years we have seen al Qaeda affiliates in the Magreb, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq become more active, while new al Qaeda fronts have opened in Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, foreign fighters are joining local jihadists at unprecedented levels, and the terrorist group boasts that homegrown terrorists successfully carried out an attack on enemy soil (the Boston Marathon bombing). The unrest in Syria, Egypt, Mali and other areas provide new propaganda activities and new sources of fresh recruits. Above all, each new confrontation creates a new generation of jihadists and guarantees al Qaeda's struggle will continue.

  • Slide four: “America trembles in fear!” In al Qaeda's eyes, even the threat of developing new terrorist attacks rattles Western capitals, causing them to draw back, as demonstrated by the temporary closing of a number diplomatic facilities earlier this month. To al Qaeda, such responses are a sign of weakness, which in turn excites followers and strengthens al Qaeda and its affiliates.

  • Slide five: “Clearly, we are on the right path!”

The fact is, since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, al Qaeda is not the same. Its founder and most charismatic leader is dead, and its central command is decimated. Al Qaeda's ability to carry out major attacks in the West has been heavily disrupted. But its determination has not been dented.

Over the last 12 years, the campaign against al Qaeda has dominated U.S. policy. From this perspective, al Qaeda has been a beneficiary of the Arab uprisings in general and of recent events in Egypt and Syria in particular. The longer the turmoil continues, the greater al Qaeda's possible gains.

Doing nothing (or very little) does not seem to be good policy, especially to action-prone Americans, but right now there are no good options. Instead, there is tremendous uncertainty, and the potential for significant adverse consequences argues for extreme caution. And at the moment, the United States is focused on resolving crises and ending wars.

From al Qaeda's perspective, this uncertainty and lack of options makes the United States look indecisive. At the same time, it gives al Qaeda plenty of room to execute its global propaganda strategy.

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the RAND president and the author of “Al Qaeda in Its Third Decade: Irreversible Decline or Imminent Victory?” and the commentary “Generations of Terrorism.” This commentary was taken from a media conference call with reporters on August 20, 2013.

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